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Design principles of your own miniature game?


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I am currently working on two custom miniature games, very early days, just for pleasure.

While I don't want to divulge too much I would describe the first as a post-Ragnarok steampunk fantasy, and the other as a Cyberpunk Red Planet Noir Sci-fi.

While I have had fun doing research for the fluff and sparing a thought or two for the aesthetics, most of my current time has been spent trying to create an original game (or two I suppose). While I have a list of design principles, faction breakdowns and an idea in my mind of how it would look to play, I have yet to decide mechanics - dice, cards, or something else - etc.

I'll likely share more in time, but for now I'd like to see the different perspectives and priorities people have.

So how would you design a game? Would it's very foundation be tied to strong roleplay or does simplicity and strategy have a greater priority? What scale would it be, 54mm skirmish or heroic scale warfare? How would you market it?

Give as much or as little info as you want, criticise games that do exist and what factors would benefit, challenge or limit different game designs.

There's only one rule - Design like you got a pair :D

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Rather a lot I could say, here, but I will keep it brief.

My starting point has to be theme, which is closely related to setting and a narrative element. I feel that if I have a solid, strong theme in mind and ensure that everything I build is built around that, I have the best chance of producing something worthwhile. The player should see and feel the theme expressed in every element of the game he interacts with, from first being told about it by a friend, to seeing the pieces laid out, to playing it and ultimately winning it.

Where my starting point is a cool mechanic, the project usually doesn't get very far. Witness my combo-based miniatures game that has been sitting idle for over a year. Interesting mechanic, but no fire in its belly. No story to tell (yet).

One game I am working on at the moment had a mechanic worked out for ages, but it kept going nowhere. Then I had an epiphany, watching a very old episode of Dr Who (Troughton), and the theme and setting started to fall into place. Then the name for the game popped into my head and it all settled aound that. It is going great guns at the moment :)

But that is me - I like games that tell stories, while still being fun games to play. YMMV.

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I think one of the first thing to work out, is how the game pieces look. After all,.. you may have the greatest gameplay ever. But it won't matter if I'm not drawn to the figs first and foremost. Long story short, if the minis don't catch my eye when standing on the shelf,.. I'll probably never pick the game up to even look at it in the first place.

Second is the theme and the fluff. Once you've caught my eye with the figs,.. the very next thing I want to know is "what is this world all about"

Third should be game mechanics. Once I have my figs and they are painted,.. now I need some rules to play by. Dice have been done to death. Cards was one of the things that attracted me to Malifaux. It's the only mini game I know of that uses this format. If you can find something thats neither card nor dice,.. that might be cool.

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So how would you design a game? Would it's very foundation be tied to strong roleplay or does simplicity and strategy have a greater priority? What scale would it be, 54mm skirmish or heroic scale warfare? How would you market it?

Give as much or as little info as you want, criticise games that do exist and what factors would benefit, challenge or limit different game designs.

To answer your questions first I'll have to name a couple of games that appeal to me very much and to explain why. First it is Inquisitor, then Mordheim and LOTR SBG and finally Malifaux.

Inquisitor - (almost) roleplaying game with minis. you have only one or possibly a couple of models and you play against someone or the Game Master. the possibilities a player has are huge but as in D&D it can greatly depend on how good the GM is. That is also it's major drawback. you have to have a GM - a person who doesn't play. In my experience that is hard to find because whoever is in this hobby will paint his minis (if he has to) but will always want to play with those minis. To put it ina another way, gamers (by that I mean people who are in this whose main goal is to play and not the hobby part) will paint their minis if they are obliged to (by some tournament rules etc.). Hobbyists - so the people who are into the artistic part of this - who mainly paint and convert etc, will want to play with those minis they did. so you're left with no GM... Also, being the only (or very rare) game in 54mm scale, you'll never be playing on suitable terrain - or you'll be proxiing with 28mm figs :)

Mordheim - great game (for me the greatest GW game, and I'm not counting BB as it is more of a board game than a tabletop one). Small crews battling it out in a ruined city. the game has a great story behind it that people can relate to. Also a MAJOR plus is the fact (which Malifaux doesn't have) that your crews can evolve through the campaign. That is the best part of the game and what I like the most. In a campaign it is almost more important what you do after the game itself than how you did in the game itself. Buying equipment, your upgrades, finding rare stuff etc. That is what made me stick to the game for so long... Someone somewhere said that WD is a great toillet read, I use the Mordheim rulebook and plan my upgrades and equipment :D

but unfortunately although it does give you some creativity during the game it has some rules that are not so easily explained so the creators decided nto to go into any detail but just say that the magic is fickle in the Old world and you can't do so and so... that sucks.

LOTR SBG - more models (larger game - but not aas large as WHFB and 40k). Like it because of the great fluff (thanks to JRR not GW :) ). also, in my oppinion it is more tactical and strategical than WHFB and 40k. It has all the advantages of the small skirmish games and none of the drawbacks of the larger ones.

Malifaux - currently my favourite game. great fluff and great mechanics. again, the game gives you latitude in your gamestyle. If it only had that campaign part that Mordheim has....

so that are my favourite games and to sum up: they have to have a great fluff, possibly a lot of female characters that are up to par with the male ones, has to allow the player to be creative, mustn't last long and if possible to have a campaign part in it so your models can develop other skills, learn to use new weapons and become Rocky/Rambo/Terminator all in one. :D

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Setting, system, and simplicity.

I think this can apply to all games, not just miniatures, but so many games are multi-modal now, with rpgs to back up minis games, card games to play on the side, etc.

I want people to be drawn into my setting, for its themes, moods, characters, flavor, etc. The look of my minis will be a direct reflection of that, as they will be the spokesmen and -women of my game while they're sitting on the shelf. I'm sure we've all picked up assorted miniatures over the years, merely for their look, maybe coming up with a story for them for a game in progress or making a character whole cloth from them.

The system has to be accessible. Cards are a novel approach, but I'd want to find another novel approach without being to bizarre. Stat lines for characters that at least seem universal is a good place to start. Having those stats seem relevant is also important. OMG, this guy has a killamothafukka stat of 20! He has to be BA.

Simplicity is important for both the setting and the system. Sure, we can plan out layers of depth for our fictional world, but leave those for the supplements and novels. We want to make our game accessible for the beginner (of this game or even games in general) and / or casual player, but, sure, we can still leave some fun layers for our more dedicated players or for the folks who never play our game, but love to read our stories.

The system needs to be, like Chess, Malifaux, and so much more, easy to learn, difficult to master. Whether that's through crew selection, resource management (ss & control hand), clever tactical placement, or sheer dumb luck, it has to allow for a common gaming experience, even when every encounter can, and most likely should, be different than the last.

Good luck in your endeavor. So far, my forays into this territory have been to either streamline existing games, or to port their better storylines over to their newer rules sets. Even then, they have their own unique challenges that making a game from scratch might have been able to avoid.

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Dammit, frequent posts making my post longer..


Who told you?! :o

@Demonn Agram: You pretty much listed my favourite games :D I didn't play Inquisitor much, mainly due to a lack of players and the GM problem, but I do still love it and plan on giving that Inquisimundo (or whatever it's called) a try. Mordheim seemed to get the principles right, but the execution was ok considering the lack of support it got. LoTR is one of my favourites for some reason, was awhile ago, but I have very fond memories of a Mordheim style campaign (there were rules in a WD). My big problem with Malifaux is that as fluffy as each and every model is, I have no impact on that, no Master to call my own. At times it makes me feel like those LotR players who only recreated scenes from the film with their favourite character - usually Aragon - in other words uncreative fanboys.

Ironically it seems like everyone holds narrative in high regard, and it seems to be what draws most people in. However, there is a large crowd of people who aren't good at painting, who don't like modelling and play games in a more competetive light. It's usually this crowd that complains about gameplay, specifically narrative central games. We've all seen the discussions - Malifaux is unbalanced because it tries to be fluffy, etc. But then is Malifaux's core mechanic - the fate deck - strong enough to allow for the models to be a bit more fun?

While I would argue that fluff is quite easy to get right with decent enough work, mostly coming down to what do you like more, pirate ninjas or robot samurai? Gameplay however, is a harder deal to break, and I can admit that despite always putting models and fluff first, if a game doesn't have strong gameplay, I am far less likely to pick up the models because I'm not a serious painter. Plus remember while newcomers are always hooked by the aesthetics, it's only after you try and explain the game that they make their choice.

I agree with Sholto in that with everything I do - writing, film, games - the first thing I do is think of a theme. I like to create an overall feeling in my mind that I can build on, combining narrative, aesthetics and mechanics, to create an animated image of the game in my mind - like it were a film. I then decide what I need to do to capture that on the board, make it enjoyable for gamers, hobbyists and newcomers. I would actually work on the rules first, miniatures second, because I want to make sure that the miniatures embody the game completely, while the game embodies the narrative. You may disagree but if I design a game that goes from Space Hulk to Necromunda, I don't want to be tied down by prematurely designed miniatures.

So lets narrow down some thoughts when concerning gameplay:

Goals - What you want the game to accomplish, from the mood of the game to things like pace, complexity, etc. E.g. I want a game where my troops (possibly puppets) that die can make my remaining troops stronger.

Narrrative - What world is the game set in, what is the context and driving force behind the conflict within the game.

Factions - What are the different factions/armies to choose from, what makes each unique.

The Board - what kind of board will you use, will terrain be vital or will it offer specific options?

Mechanics - Cheat Fate? Done. How will you achieve your goals

Expansion - From advanced rules to possible expansions.

Currently I've looked at all but mechanics, like I said, I'm trying to think of ways to minimise randomisation in a way that doesn't just use dice or nick Wyrd's card mechanic (they'll be plenty others to do that in the future).

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On randomisation - this is a tricky one, because gamers are a broad church, and some like chance while others hate the fickle hand of fate.

One of the problems with randomisation is this - the failure factor. People like the choices games give them, and failure (eg. in a dice roll) means their available choices are severely limited or completely gone. Many players like crafting strategies, and don't like it when something beyond their control buggers it up.

So how about a game where every result on the dice counts for something? Where a 1 is not a failure, but a resource that lets you do something that a 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 would not? You roll, then plan your strategy around the results, not vice versa.

Eg. Your Captain model needs 3s and 4s to power his attacks (an attack on a 3 is different to an attack on a 4). Your other models have attacks as well, some on the same numbers, some on different ones. You roll your crew dice pool - say 10 dice this Turn. You get 2 3s and 2 4s. Do you allocate them to your Captain and let him go attack-crazy, or do you give some of them to your other models, who might have cool abilities that need a 3 or 4 to power them?

Anyway, just something that came to me while reading your post - it might not wash out (although I quite like the sound of it!)

Edited by Sholto
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That's bloody brilliant! :D

It actually fits into one of the ideas I had, fits perfectly with the theme and everything.

The thing I have with randomisation is when it comes to moments of chance in real life. I would argue that while the better the marksman the better the shot, there's always that chance that they will miss if firing long distance. While on the other hand if I walk right up to you, point my gun at your face and fire, you're dead sucker, but then what's the chance you'll give me that chance?

Failure factor can be entertaining at times, game changing at others, but making sure that, while every result may not be desirable, they are all redeemable in their own way.

I am doing precisely this with the way objectives work in my game. The end result should never be a simple win/lose, but rather what you did and did not achieve as part of your wider goals. It's personal, it's progressive and it beats the Hell out of sore losers =]

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Narrrative - What world is the game set in, what is the context and driving force behind the conflict within the game.

personally I'd like a game set in this world. no orcs, goblins, gremlins, pesky elves etc.. what I think could be cool is if the game was set in the twenties or thirties of the 20th centry. something like a film noir, Humphrey Bogart style, private dicks, smuggling, set on docks, rich dames in distress, throw in a Union or two... I'd like a tabletop game without magic if at all possible... throw in some steampunk as well.. nazis...

but that's just me...

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This may well sound off topic, but it does have relevance to designing a game, especially allowing for character growth.

Regarding personalized masters in Malifaux, it is my sincere hope that the roleplaying game that they may or may not be working on will use the same kinds of stats we're used to seeing on existing models. [I've seen enough veiled references on these threads that it's more a when than an if at this point.] Stats ranging roughly 3 - 8, 3 being I hope you never have to use that, to 8 being there is none better at this.

I want to see the possibility of going back and forth between tabletop skirmishes and roleplaying out scenarios seamlessly. This would allow us to play in Malifaux and let our characters, who might someday become masters or at least henchmen, be dropped directly into play as fair, balanced characters.

I'd also like to see the fate deck remain the mechanic for such. I mean, why not? It works fine for both Malifaux proper and Puppet Wars. For the GM to ask for a duel, adding in any positive or negative flips as needed would be just as fast as playing in tabletop, and would still be as fast as, if not faster than, rolling dice for other rpgs.


I'm liking the idea of resource management for numbers rolled. At first it sounded like Axis & Allies, how certain units have better to hit numbers than others.

Have any of you played the Shadowrun Duels game? The resource in it was the dice themselves. Each character had certain dice allocated to it, based on race, class, and equipment carried. Equipment did have an associated point value, too. Each color of dice represented something different. White dice for movement, yellow for melee, blue and green were different ranged weapons, and red was magic. Before each turn, you had to allocate the dice you intended to use that turn.

Strategy involved spreading damage taken between your character's three click dials, which were your character's movement, accuracy, and defense. Run out of any of them, and your character dies. Run out of movement on a turn in which the enemy attacked you and moved out of range while you didn't select any movement dice, and your turn was wasted.


Anyways, your method reminded me of it, and I thought I'd present it as yet another novel approach to resource management.

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personally I'd like a game set in this world. no orcs, goblins, gremlins, pesky elves etc.. what I think could be cool is if the game was set in the twenties or thirties of the 20th centry. something like a film noir, Humphrey Bogart style, private dicks, smuggling, set on docks, rich dames in distress, throw in a Union or two... I'd like a tabletop game without magic if at all possible... throw in some steampunk as well.. nazis...

but that's just me...

Malifaux's timeline is getting dangerously close to those events. [Why they didn't set it a bit further back, to really account for the Wild West / Victorian Era, I don't quite know. I'd love to see how 'Faux plays out through the eras. I've wanted to see the Breach closed, possibly triggering the Great Depression, leading up to the rest of the real world events, and then having the Nazis attempt to reopen a breach as just another resource in their arsenal.

I've also had a film noir scene of a private eye sitting in his office when in walks a dame who tells him a story too big to believe, then shows him a soulstone to match. Where. did. you. get. that?

Other things I've considered about that would include what happens to the folk in Malifaux when the Breach closes. Maybe this time they're not slaughtered like last time. [Maybe the aforementioned dame actually made it through a smaller breach to get someone to take her case...]

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Demonn Agran gave me an idea with the whole film noir thing... I'm still not doing a historical game or one set on Earth at all, but thanks for the spark anyway.

I share your dream i was like you, I too hope to be able to make my own characters and use them in Malifaux.

I'll have to have a look at those rules, cheers.

I've been getting a lot of my inspiration for the fluff from history and film while the rules are influenced by miniature and computer games.

The sci-fi game is I suppose a bit like Infinity, skirmish level with a good bit of detail, style-wise I suppose it's Moon meets Bladerunner meets Ghost in the Shell meets Cowboy Bebop..noir.

The steampunk one is fought with actual armies, but still similar to LotR SBG (so not huge scale) and is quite a bit different from other games in that I'm implementing core features linked to the whole randomisation issue.

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...I'd love to see how 'Faux plays out through the eras. I've wanted to see the Breach closed, possibly triggering the Great Depression, leading up to the rest of the real world events, and then having the Nazis attempt to reopen a breach as just another resource in their arsenal...

This is an excellent idea, though I think it would lose its magic (no pun intended) once we got into the Cold War era.

I'd like to see it go in the opposite direction- deal with the first wave of settlers, the creation of Jack Daw, and events just prior to everyone being wiped out.

Sholto's approach sounds like using Dragon Dice with other models- in that game, sometimes you wanted the die's character faces, other times you wanted footprints (maneuvers), bolts/arrows (shooting), lightning bolts (casting spells), etc. All of the die faces were useful at some point.

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Reading this thread it occurred to me that all of these really good answers are being given by gamers. I think an important factor to consider is your target audience. Now, I've been drawing and painting and creating stuff for over forty years now, so I have by this point have all my characters exist in a detailed timeline from sword wielding barbarians and magic using dinosaurs to the weird west and various wars to multiple apocalyptic disasters and a star spanning empire complete with a myriad of alien opponents. When I was working on a war engine version of Necromunda (Shocromunda) I set it in this background. As a longtime hobbyist I agree that setting is a key part of any gaming system.

However the two games that I did design had minimal to no background whatsoever. Flashback to the early 1980's. I had been painting a lot of Grenadier models and happened to come across Citadels 15mm Traveller line. They were oop at the time even, but a friend and I bought out a distributor in Canada and ended up with around 700 apiece. (I still have well over 500 to this day, mostly unpainted.) Now, this was before GW in the US, and the only rules around I could find were the Striker! rules. And my friends, who all thought the models were cool and would like to try a game would never invest the time to learn those rules.

So was born Bodies and Blasters. An old pool table and a box of odds and ends pieces of varying length molding produced a nice labyrinthine board for 15mm scaled models. Squad based, about a dozen models per player. Scenario based so the players would play against the game as opposed to devoting themselves to killing each other. Typically along the lines of "you have to find and deactivate the bomb because you can't get far enough away before it goes off." For this game my basic design principle was simplicity. It introduced my "Rule of Three" in that everything was three tiered, a multiple of three, and no stat aside from distance was higher than three. On your turn you could move, combat or try an action. All rolls were succeed/fail on two 6 sided die (as these were the die most people are familiar with.) as you were playing against the game after each players turn the rolled a random event roll, rolling doubles meant you were attacked (by A, B or C-Bots!) Very beer and pretzels, but I had constant requests to set up games by guys that probably never played a game before in their lives.

The second was somewhat similar. Got the Heroquest game one Christmas. One of the guys I worked and partied with got into playing it. He also then discovered the Battlemasters (think that name is right) game by MB and wanted to try that. He eventually ended up buying four sets in a desre to escalate the size if the battles. Unfortunately, the original mechanics of the board game were not overly horrible, but in no way supported this.

Once again enter the rule of Three. Light, Medium and Heavy. Mounted, Infantry Melee and Infantry Ranged. Fast, Average or Slow. And so on. A Light Infantry would move three spaces and make three attacks but had only one wound. Alternating turns to keep both player constantly involved in the gameplay. Again, based on simplicity.

Anyway, longer post than I intended but just wanted to touch on an aspect that hadn't been mentioned yet. If I get a chance I'll get into the game I was working on for gamers.

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