Here's the kind of really sad story you can hear sometimes from novice designers. At one of the game design/game publishing seminars at GenCon, right at the end, someone raised his hand and said he and a group of friends had been working on a game for seven years, and it was a great game, and they had spent over seven years and a million dollars developing it including paying Marvel comic artists to do the art; and how could he get to talk to Fantasy Flight Games about it? The three panelists were taken aback – if I wrote in contemporary style I would say they were "stunned" – and said nothing for a moment. Because there's really nothing to say. These “designers” were in cloud-cuckoo land to spend so much time and money, and their game very likely wasn't particularly good, either.
Finally James Ernest said "when you talk to Fantasy Flight I wouldn't mention the million dollars". (Because it would mark them as clueless noobs.) And it turned out that much of the million dollars was a calculation of how much the developers would have paid themselves if they had paid themselves anything. But those Marvel artists must've cost a lot of money. Yet anyone who knows anything about the tabletop publishing business knows that the manufacturer provides the art and the designer should use clipart for the prototypes, even if it's copyrighted (fair use), rather than spend money on art. And that virtually no game is so good as to earn a million dollars for the developers, so you shouldn't be spending a million dollars. Yet they had done so little research that they had no idea how to approach Fantasy Flight, and while that is very far from easy to achieve, the basic steps are well-known.
The session then ended and no more was said publicly. But this is the kind of sad story one hears occasionally from stars-in-their-eyes "game designers". They've done little or no research, they think their game's great because it's their game (and they probably designed it for themselves, not for other people), and they evidently think there's a lot of money in tabletop game design. One can only shake one's head. (And yes, I realize that it's just barely possible that they do have a great game but the odds are astronomically against it.)
So at that moment I started to write down "Most important cautions for novice game designers ". And after further thought, here they are.
You won't be very good to start with. Practice makes perfect. When someone begins a creative endeavor they are very rarely good at it to begin with. Nowadays so much that's involved in so many professions is hidden away or occurs in someone's mind that young people get the notion that it's easy simply because they don't see it happening. No, there is no Easy Button. So be prepared to throw way or give away much of your early work.
You need to design and complete games. Publishers don't want to buy ideas, they want to buy complete games. It is extraordinarily rare for someone to have an original idea, that is, one that no one else has had. An idea may be original to you but that doesn't mean a lot of other people have not also thought of it. And may well have used it in a game years ago. As a result, ideas are seen as worthless by publishers.
Don't spend much money on making a prototype. In particular, don't pay anybody for art, don't pay a lot for high-quality printing or fancy boxes, don't pay an "agent", don't pay an "evaluator". Many prototypes don't even have a box, they are in some kind of pouch or wallet (especially considering that it's pretty hard to reduce a large board to box size, the board is often separate). Really slick prototypes tend to put publishers off because they're afraid the designer has put so much time into the prettiness of the prototype that they've been reluctant to change it!
With modern computer software and printers you can produce a nice-looking prototype quite cheaply. I discuss software and other points about making prototypes in my "Game Design" book if you need more information. Ask you local library to get a copy.
The 4 P's. When you deal with publishers be professional, polite, punctual, and persistent. And be friendly. But remember that publishers are busy people who have hundreds of designers wanting to show them prototypes. If you stand out because you're a butthead you're not going to get anywhere.
Playtest, playtest, playtest. Be sure to playtest your game with a wide variety of players. Don't rely on your family to tell you whether it's a good game or not.
You will never be finished with a game. You'll just reach the point of diminishing marginal returns or the time it takes to make an improvement is just not worth the value of the improvement. Even if your game is published, there will be things you may want to do in a second edition should that ever occur.
Real designers work on many games at the same time. But there are cases where someone designed one game that proved to be so good that they are independently wealthy (for example Blokus). If you're working on just one game however. it probably won't be published; good luck.
Designing a game is a form of work. My favorite game is a game of designing games, but there are still times when I really wish I could just think of the prototype I wanted and it would appear before me, or when I get tired of tweaking rules the umpteenth time. Shoving cards in the card sleeves, painstakingly drawing boards or pieces, is rarely enjoyable but it is necessary.
It's even tougher in the video game industry because you almost never get to make the game you want to make, you have to make someone else's game or work with someone else's idea. On the other hand there are many more people making a living as game designers in the video game industry than in the tabletop game industry.
Design a game, not a story. Stories can be important in some kinds of games, but people play a game because of the gameplay, not because of the story.
Read. Read articles, read blog posts, read books, about game design. Quite apart from the many books on video game design, which admittedly often have little immediately practical advice for tabletop designers, there are books that cover tabletop game design specifically. One objective of a book is to convey the experience of the writer to the reader so that the reader doesn't have to go through the "school of hard knocks". And nowadays no one wants to take hard knocks.
Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish. L. Pulsipher.
This is my book, and because my publisher sells a lot of books to libraries you may be able to persuade your local library to buy it if you don't want to buy it (and if they don't have it already).
Tabletop Analog Game Design. This is a freely downloadable book of contributions that vary widely in their approach.
Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design. A quite small $10 book of contributions about game design. Contemporary Perspectives on Game Design and Design Elements of Contemporary Strategy Games
by George Phillies and Tom Vasel. There are other books that specifically discuss tabletop game and toy licensing and marketing, as opposed to game design:
The Game Inventor's Guidebook: How to Invent and Sell Board Games, Card Games, Role-Playing Games, & Everything in Between! by Brian Tinsman.
Paid to Play: The Business of Game Design by Keith Meyers.
See also my "Student Illusions About Being a Game Designer" May 7, 09 http://gamecareerguide.com/features/701/student_illusions_about_being_a_.php
Just realized I missed a big one:
Do not worry about someone “stealing” your game! Your “great idea” likely isn’t great at all, and game designers have their own ideas. Moreover it’s a small industry, the word gets around rapidly. And if you don’t want to tell anyone about your great idea for fear of theft, how can anyone (especially publishers) begin to evaluate it?
A sure sign of a clueless noob “designer” is one who has patented his game. At $3,000-$10,000 the patent costs more than the game is likely to make if it’s published! And patents cost much more in legal fees if you want to try to enforce one. Copyright is as much protection as you can expect, and copyright is free and immediate, though if you want to sue someone about copyright you’ll have had to register it, which does cost money ($35?).