Form Fits Function

I was in the process of designing some cards yesterday when I realized that they were unplayable. They weren’t unplayable because they weren’t balanced, or they weren’t of sufficient quality. No, they were unplayable because they just sucked to use.
With my most recent iteration of cards, I wanted to make the card text larger and make stacking more streamlined. Unfortunately, my “brilliant” solution for this ended up being garbage; the horizontal layout I had hoped to use just didn’t make sense when you held and played the cards. I kept craning my neck to see what the text/symbols were, and half the time my iconography was covered up. Nobody is going to hold cards in their hand horizontally, and we’re so comfortable with placing vertically-oriented sets from our hands that it’s weird to ask people to hold the cards one way and play them another. A game should be fun – not an imposition. I needed to redesign their layout based on how they’d actually be used.
For my particular situation, I thankfully had read Joseph Z Chen’s great article on card design and remembered it during my self-playtest. I won’t rehash it here because it’s excellent and you should go read it. But I will say that it saved me a ton of time and I now have some ideas on how to move forward.
The further point I want to make, however, is how important it is to keep the overall experience in mind when designing a game (or anything for that matter). The title of this article comes from a commonly cited (and frequently unimplemented, based on my experience as a structural engineer) phrase in the architecture community. The form of your game, its mechanics, its components, etc. should fit their intended use. You wouldn’t design a 12-person party game that takes 2 hours to complete, right? Keeping the notion of form fitting function on the top of your mind as you design and test can, as I found out, help save a ton of time and heartache.
More importantly, it can also help save you from a slow, drawn-out project failure.
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