“Good artists copy, great artists steal”.
Those are the iconic words of Pablo Picasso, an artist whose work is regarded as some of the most innovative and groundbreaking visual art of the 20th century. Picasso’s work changed the direction of early modern art, and created entirely new approaches within European art that changes the way we regard art of all forms. Picasso was unarguably a unique artist with unique work, but he was also one that was not ashamed to admit that his creations were not entirely borne out of his own singular genius.
Picasso, unlike many painters of the time, was open about the influence other artists had on his own work. As a young artist he overtly copied the styles of European masters like Goya and Velazquez. Later in his life he borrowed ideas from contemporary European painters whose work influenced his approach, as later also from traditional African artists whose styles he appropriated into the fledgling philosophy that later developed into cubism. As one of the most important artists ever Picasso’s success did not come from his pure talent alone, but from his ability to turn the work and styles of others around him into something fresh, exciting and unique.
The idea of copying from others is well-known within the creative arts. In art schools students learn by emulating the styles of great masters before experimenting with their own. In music we often learn chords and scales through embarrassing covers of songs we love. Creators and designers will often begin their careers as fans, replicating the work of others, before moving onto something more original. The best of these creators however, are never afraid to continue to learn from these influences even long after they’re own work is established and accepted.
And board games, of course, are no exception to this rule.
Even the most innovative games from incredible designers are filled with mechanics or themes that have been done a hundred times before by other games. The hugely exciting Charterstone by Stonemeier Games for example, is set to be a unique game with fresh elements, but the designer behind it (Jamie Stegmeier) is not shy in admitting the influence games like Lords Of Waterdeep, Caylus and Ora Et Labora have had on its design. (He even puts it right there on the website!) Often when we talk about new games we describe them along the lines of “like X but with bits of Y and Z included”.
Board games more so than any other form of art or media thrive on the collaborative evolution of the form led by a vast group of designers and creators. Unlike music, painting or literature, board game design is not necessarily driven by singular independent innovations. Rarely, if ever, does a board game attempt to challenge what we consider the form to be. And even when we do think of games that contain entirely unique elements and approaches we often think of games like Kerplunk or Mousetrap that have gimmicky plastic elements that are more like children’s toys than meaningfully engaging tabletop games.
This building upon ideas that have built upon ideas that have built upon ideas is what drives board games, slowly but surely, towards more interesting and meaningful designs and experiences. It’s easy to see this constant borrowing of ideas as a deficiency of imagination but the actual result is something that changes with the tastes and desires of the hobby. Sometimes it leads to boring and derivative games that disappoint many, but when we look as board game design as an entire field (or indeed as an art form) we can see how the hobby as a whole is moving gradually towards better and more engaging designs through a sort-of evolution of design.
Board game designers, unlike many other kinds of artists, aren’t always looking forward to completely new ideas, desperate to break entirely new boundaries. Instead they are comfortably reigned in by the need to focus first and foremost on fun. This ‘fun factor’ limits the need to take huge risks and helps create a system in which new designs and mechanics don’t just benefit individual designers or games, but add to a collection pot of tabletop wisdom that grows, shapes and readapts over time.
Understanding the way in which established designers borrow and learn from those before them can help us become better designers ourselves. But how exactly do we ‘steal’ in the best way? This blog so far might have implied that it’s as simple as taking something and doing it yourself (and in some ways it can be!) But if you’re looking to use that inspiration in an effective and meaningful way to create something truly unique there’s more to it than that.
In his 2012 book ‘Steal Like An Artist’ writer and artist Austin Kleon laid out his manifesto for a better, more engaged, way of ‘stealing’. His philosophy looked at techniques used by artists, designer and all forms of creatives and collected them (through just a little bit of creative theft) into a new approach for the 21st century. Although these techniques are largely designed for a different style of creator, board game designers can also borrow (perhaps steal) them for their own approaches.
A simple, yet often overlooked, way of finding inspiration is to make notes. When you play a game, make notes. When you watch television, make notes. When you ride the bus, make notes. It’s hard to say when inspiration will strike you, or in exactly what form it will take, so it’s best to have a notebook always at the ready.
The ability to make notes easily and at any time will help you solve design problems and create interesting solutions around the clock. At the same time learning from designs around you, whether they’re board games or something else, and collecting these inspirations in a single place will help create a valuable resource that you can dip into again at a later date.
Notes don’t have to be specific to the individual project you’re working on, as an idea you have one day might not be suitable, but may later turn out to be invaluable for another project you find yourself on. Having pages and pages of notes may seem unfocused and chaotic, but can actually be a hugely valuable way of turning inspiration into actual design at a later time.
Find what inspired your inspirations
If you have a designer or game that you particularly love you’ll likely have considered again and again the ways in which the elements and mechanics that you enjoy might be retooled and readapted. But another approach that can be incredibly powerful is discovering how those elements were first created themselves.
Look into the designers that you love – read interviews, designer notes, etc. – and find out the things that inspired them. Often you’ll find that your favourite designers themselves had favourite designers that you might never have heard of, but who have approaches that can inspire your own work. Finding the connection between your work and another’s through a chain of creative inspiration might inspire a new perspective on your own ideas, highlight flaws you may want to avoid, or lead to entirely new ideas.
In finding these new connections, as in all ways of ‘creative theft’ having a broad and diverse range of inspirations to learn from is the best and most effective approach.
Consume, engage, discuss.
Experiencing good game design and recording your ideas is only half the battle. So you’ve played some games, you’ve got inside the head of a designer and you’ve jotted a few notes down. What next?
Ideas for design are completely useless if they aren’t brought alive. A handful of designs in your notebook might as well be written on the dark side of the moon if you don’t do anything with them. Some prefer to jump straight into an idea with their first prototype, but this approach can be a lot of work and requires you to be fully confident in your idea before you put the fiddly work of prototyping in. Another effective approach is to work through your ideas with discussion first. Talking to friends, fellow players and enthusiasts about ideas can highlight problems in your design or theme, and can help you understand them better than you would with just prototyping and abstract thought alone.
Discussing other people’s ideas around design is also an incredible way of inspiring your own work, and of creating creative connections that often evolve into fully fledged concepts. Whenever possible talk about games and their design; what you love, what you hate, what you would do differently, or simply how they made you feel. This understanding of game design on a deeper level is key to ensuring that your own designs are strong and engaging.
Try new things. Throw out ideas.
The point will come somewhere in your design process where nothing seems to work. You’ll spend hours, maybe ever days trying and failing to make some mechanic fit in, to make some part of the game work smoother or to make some fiddly element more functional. And the reality is that sometimes your ideas won’t work. More often than not you won’t have that sudden lightbulb-above-the-head moment of inspiration that puts everything into perspective, and some of your ideas will fail.
But that’s not to say you’ve failed.
Failure, or more accurately less-successful ideas, are inevitable and happen to the best of designers. The difference, however, between a good designer and a great designer is knowing when to give up on these ideas – as well as when to return to them. At ITB we keep a record of ever design iteration our games have gone through. Some of them show improvements on old versions. Some of them were a step backwards. Some versions if we’re honest were borderline unplayable. But having that record helps us come back to older versions if we need to, and gives us the freedom to abandon some of the work we’ve done if we feel it doesn’t work.
Trying radically new ideas rather than tweaking what feels set in stone prevents you from sinking hours and hours into something that in the end doesn’t work how you hope. There’s nothing worse than making change after changed trying to make a game feel right when the best approach sometimes is just to admit that some part of it doesn’t need to be there.
Do you have any of your own unique approaches? Share them with us on Twitter!