Review: Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber

Book: Challenges for Game Designers
Author: Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber, game designers and academics
Year: 2009

Summary: Excellent introduction to game design fundamentals, focusing on board games, but the real value lies in doing the challenges packed throughout the book.

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Challenges for Game Designers is a very solid fundamentals book that covers key design concepts without relying too much on technology. The authors both have a really solid, practical background in game design as well as experience in academia and as a book on teaching game design I think it holds its own nicely next to similar books like The Art of Game Design. It is, though, an introductory book and as such it touches on many familiar aspects of game design without going into any with too much depth.

The book appears to be written with one goal in mind: teach game design through board game practices (“challenges”) in a way that is practical for students, educators, and existing designers all at once. While the first chapter exists to just get readers feet wet in figuring out what game design is and isn’t, all the following chapters cover discrete subjects like puzzle design, chance, strategic skill, multiplayer, sequels, art games, and so on. Though the content of the book often overlaps other introductory game design books, the topics the authors picked for their chapters differ a lot. For example, there’s an entire chapter called “Converting Digital to Physical” and another called “But Make It Multiplayer”. These chapters are obviously written specifically with the challenges in mind, but the side effect was some different content organization and shifting emphasis onto certain topics compared to other books.

At the end of each chapter are five challenges with a range of difficulty and time commitment. These challenges are not just simple statements but also walk readers through them, starting with research and usually ending in either a board game prototype or an in depth design document. Examples of challenges would be to design a sequel to Monopoly, redesign Monopoly for a different IP, modify a game of solitaire to be multiplayer, as well as more open designs such as create a race-to-the-finish style card game. All of these challenges are non-digital, which makes them both very accessible to readers without requiring technical skills and keeps the focus of the challenges on game design, not the art or code required to get the game working. These are also not just game design documents but working prototypes, which avoids the issue of “good on paper” design that can distract a lot of students from exploring the dynamics that arise from actual play.

Personally, I found about one challenge per chapter interesting enough that I plan to set time aside to do them – and I gained a lot of value from the two I did complete on my own before writing this review. The rest of the challenges either didn’t really pull me, or the scope was too large for me to fit it into a reasonable evening. I think the challenges, though, are diverse enough that most designers will find one worth exploring on each topic. Keep in mind that the challenges are obviously written mainly for the classroom, which means a lot of suggestions for organizing or competing teams or different ‘deliverables’ that are more like school assignments. While other books, like A Game Design Vocabulary, also have design exercises at the end of each chapter, I think Challenges for Game Designers comes across much stronger in this area due to the emphasis on those exercises and the way it leads readers through them step by step.

The book is easy to read, fairly short (as far as textbooks go, I read this one over the course of four days) even though it clocks in at a full 300 pages. It has a personable style – but not quite as anecdote heavy as The Art of Game Design. The content favors breadth rather than depth, introducing many key design elements but not really going into them in enough detail. However, I feel that the challenges make up for this since many (perhaps all) of them include a research phase and that is where I feel readers can fill in the missing parts of their knowledge. I think it’s is starting to show its age a bit with lots of references to Facebook games but little on mobile, and it would benefit from a chapter and challenges on free-to-play/monetization design by now. There’s also a chapter on “art games” that, while well written, also feels a bit outdated compared to recent trends in art games, alt-games, experimental games, and the wider indie scene. (It is surprising how much can change in six years).

As someone who has been looking for examples of “deliberate practice” – activities I can engage in as a game designer to improve my skills – Challenges for Game Designers is very useful and I know I will continue to refer back to it for the occasional board game design activity. All the strength of the book lies in its challenges, and if you read it without doing the practices then you are probably wasting your time. If you don’t have time to commit to board game design exercises, then skip it. I am even tempted to describe it as a “workbook” instead of a “textbook” to drive home that this is not really a book you read so much as a book you work through.

I think Challenges for Game Designers would be an excellent choice by aspiring designers as a self-taught course, or used by educators to help develop a game design curriculum. The content outside of the challenges is too rudimentary for me to recommend much to experienced designers as reading material – you will get much better mileage out of a more dense, more advanced book on game design. Personally, while I love the challenges, I was disappointed in the lack of depth, though part of that is driven by the number of intro-to-game-design books I have read already.

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