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Make it So Lessons #1: Advice for Aspiring Designers

by Charlie Plaine, Make it So Host

8th November 2013

Today marks the official start of Make it So: The Search for the Next First Edition Assistant Designer. There are a lot of written "rules" to card design, and quite a bit more that are unwritten. This article serves as a reference point for our contestants, and for anyone else in the community that is looking to improve their card design skills. These are good guidelines and principles that even established designers can benefit from re-reading.

One great article series that I can't recommend enough for anyone interested in game design is the Making Magic series. This article series, written by Magic's Head Designer Mark Rosewater, has over six hundred (600) columns about game design and game theory that have been invaluable to my personal growth as a designer. While many are specific to Magic, there are many others that might help out the contestants and observers alike.

The "Rules" of Design
Allow me to speak directly to our Make it So contestants, but this advice will apply to any that wish to make cards for our beloved games. Over the course of the next few months, you're going to make a lot of cards and a lot of different kinds of cards. You're going to want to push the boundaries of things and show off your creativity and your insight into the game. We want you to be creative, but it’s important that you try and learn the lessons that we're attempting to teach. It’s natural to want to break the rules, but you first have to learn what the rules are before you can break them, and you should always thoroughly look inside the box before you look outside of it.

Here are some "rules" for you to keep in mind. Be aware that these aren't rules in the strict sense, and that you can break them. But make sure that you understand why you are breaking any of these rules before you do, because we don’t tell you these things idly.

Harry Kim

1. Do your research.
The first step in the design of any card is to come up with an idea. But once you have the idea, one of the riskiest things you can do is jump straight to writing the card. Research is probably more than half of what we do as designers, from looking up character ideas to determining precedent (more on that later.) Are you giving your personnel appropriate skills? Is there a dilemma that has the exact same skill requirements? Having quick access to reference material (Memory Alpha is a personal favorite) and the database of cards is going to save you a lot of time, agony, and rewrites later. Do your research. Writing the actual card should be the least time-intensive part of the process.

2. Use your space efficiently.
I’m willing to bet at least once during this competition you are going to be pulling your hair out cursing the card templates. Join the club, because that won’t change even if you join the actual design team. You are going to want to break the templates and ask art to scrunch the text to fit, but that’s the wrong approach. You need to make sure you are doing what you need to do with your cards and nothing more; that you are using your space wisely.

If you’re running into space issues (or even if you aren't), ask yourself the following questions: am I using the correct card type? Is every word on this card necessary? Can I get a similar effect in a different way? Challenge every word on the card - does it need to be there? Challenge your assumptions - is this card trying to do too much? Before you look to break the template or ask for Art to do extra work, you must be sure you are making the best decision you can for the card you’re trying to create.

3. Respect the card types.
On the applications, there were quite a few people that were trying to make card types act differently than expected. This is a natural thing that new designers try to do, and it comes from looking for unexplored design space. But more often than not there is a reason for that design space being unexplored. There are expectations about how cards are going to function, and you should be embracing those expectations and not fighting against them. And remember, you should not be starting outside of the box; there is a lot of room inside of the box!

Let me give you an example: you want to design a ship that isn't able to move. You could make it a ship that has a restriction box of “Does not move” and get the effect you want. But you are playing against expectations: people expect ships to be able to move! Instead, you could give the ship a RANGE 0. That better embraces the ship card type, but allows for players to boost its RANGE and thus move the ship, which violates one of your goals. Ultimately, you'll probably find that a ship isn't the right card type for the card you’re trying to create. Odds are the effect you're looking for would be better on an event, incident, or objective - card types which have much less rigid assumptions about how they work. Choosing the right card type is vital to successful card design.

4. Understand precedent and its purpose.
Precedent is the idea that conventions of wording, form, and function are established through use. Essentially, it's a convention that becomes a "rule" over time. For example, there are certain wording conventions that are used over and over again. If you want to make a personnel that is excluded from random selections, you can word that several ways. But given that we have a few personnel that already do similar things, you'd be following precedent if you word it in a way that matches those existing personnel.

But this can get complicated because over time these precedents have evolved and changed. The card search tool is probably what we use most often while designing cards, especially if we're not sure if a precedent exists. When you are first figuring out what a new design will do, the exact wording doesn't matter; "this guy can't be randomly selected" is perfectly acceptable for early design work. However, when you are ready to actually write the card, you want it to be understandable. Much like above (in not wanting to have card types act against their nature), you want the wording to be as clear and easily understood as possible. Using established wording is a great tool for establishing clarity.

But you have to be careful, because precedent can be a double-edged sword. You have to be careful when searching existing cards for a precedent, because the wording has evolved over time. Sometimes you will find a card that is worded the way you want it to be worded, and miss the fact that ten (10) other cards use a different wording. Again, this is a big reason of why research is so important.

In the end, Make it So is a competition, but one of the greatest assets you have is each other. Use your fellow contestants as sounding boards and proofreaders, and take advantage of the kindness and camaraderie of this community. Help each other find established wordings and make your cards as good as they can be. But the ultimate decisions about your cards will fall to you. Any of these “rules” above can be broken, but make sure that what you are doing is worth it. You should really ask yourself if the "rule" you're breaking needs to be broken, or if you can do what you want another way. You are making cards for a game, and at the core of that is the fact that you must enable your players to have fun. That’s the only rule that is unbreakable. Otherwise, there’s no point at all to what we’re doing.

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