Good Day Internet!
Today we’re going to discuss our experiences as tabletop co-designers and what to look for when choosing a co-designer/partner.
Allysha and I have been working on games together for over a year now and we’ve learnt a lot from each other. We balance out each other very well, which has allowed us both to grow as designers. Where I falter, Allysha excels and vice-versa. Considering that we started working together kind of on a whim we’ve been very fortunate that everything has worked out so well. However, we’ve also worked with other designers where the outcome was less than ideal. Putting these experiences together has led to a short list of things you should be looking for/asking about when searching for a co-designer/partner.
1) Determine the Length of the Partnership and Your Role
Before you can start discussing the minor details, you need to be upfront with each other about the size of the project you’re undertaking together; is it just for this one game? For a series of games? To start a new company? Each of these requires a different type of commitment, vision, and structure of partnership. Are you comfortable with those commitments, visions, and roles? If the two of you have completely different ideas of what the partnership agreement will look like, then it’s time to reconsider before you even begin.
For longer, more ambitious projects, be clear and know beforehand who will take on what role(s) (for instance: design lead, creative lead, lead developer) and who (if anybody) will be taking the lead. If your partner basically wants you to be their employee, or take the back seat, you have to consider if that’s a role you can take on happily. Last year we joined a project where we were told upfront that we would be partners. However, as the projects progressed we ended up being employees - which was not what we wanted. Needless to say, we eventually parted way and are much happier now working together under Dancing Giant Games.
2) Determine Division of Work and Expectations
Determining roles is one thing, but sometimes what is expected from those roles can be entirely different for each partner. Be clear with each other before diving into any project what the timeline will be and how the work will be done. Furthermore, discuss what each of you believe should be covered by your roles in the partnership (you may be surprised by what additional work you are asked to do). Understand also that just because there are multiple of you working on the same project doesn’t mean doing half as much work as normal. Much of the work will involve keeping in touch, updating each other, and bouncing ideas off one another (expectations of how frequently this will be done should also be discussed). How difficult that is will most likely increase if you are unable to physically meet in person. In those cases it may be a good idea to set up additional channels of communication like Slack.
During and after this discussion, reflect on the timeline and work expectations, and be truthful with yourself on whether you’ll be able to (or if you think your partner will be able to) meet them without stressing yourself or your partner out. Regardless of how good the partnership may be, if one of you can’t keep up with the timeline then there’s no point working together at that time. Until moving to the Toronto area, the expectations of being able to consistently playtest kept us from collaborating. It was simply too costly and too much of a time commitment to always be heading down to the city for playtesting. Now that we’re in the city, we are able to playtest a lot more which in turn means more time playing and assisting with other designers’ games.
3) Know Each Other's Strengths
Knowing and evaluating each of your strengths is one of the final things to consider before saying “YES!” to a co-designer/partnership. In our own opinion, what you should be looking for is not a co-designer/partner who is like-minded, but rather somebody who excels at the skills you lack and who will challenge you to be better. Your goal going into a partnership should be to learn and grow from the experience. If you only look for like-minded people, you won’t learn nearly as much and you may be forced to go contract out the work you’re not very good at (which is not ideal if you’re low on funds to begin with).
In our case, I knew I needed Allysha to help me with my games because she basically knew how to do all the things I sucked at. In the beginning of our partnership, Allysha always did the theme work for our games because I basically thought theme, in general, was irrelevant (I never used to pay attention to theme when playing games so I barely paid attention to it when designing). Eventually, having her constantly challenge me to create some sort of theme for our games (instead constantly relying on her to add the theme to a purely mechanical game) got to me. Now before I start any new design (unless I have an off day) I have a theme in mind; which has led to a huge improvement in the quality and joy our games bring. As for what Allysha has learnt from me, she has a deeper appreciation for the mechanics of a game (basically we don’t just design from either theme or mechanics anymore). Challenging one another to improve our skills (and keeping each other accountable) has made us much better designers and strengthened our partnership.
4) Work with Your Partner, not Against Them
Working with your partner and not against them sounds pretty simple, but remember, we’re suggesting you partner up with someone who is not of the same mind as you: heated discussions and arguments may arise (we’ve had a few of our own). Realize that where you differ on these subjects is where one (or both) of you need to grow. Take the time to have those long discussions and try to truly understand the upside to your partner’s point of view instead of shutting down. If Allysha and I never opened up to the other’s view then we’d both probably still be pretty bad designers. But by taking the time to eventually put the frustration aside and trying something new you’ll probably end up learning something, which is how you grow and get the best experience out of co-designing.
We hope you enjoyed our tips on co-designing and partnerships. We’d definitely would love to hear about your experiences (good or bad) involving co-designing and partnerships and what you find works (or doesn’t) for you below.
Also, just to be clear, despite bad experiences in the past we are still open to collaborations under the right circumstances.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.