A lesson in game design from a non-gamer

I’ve got a project in the backroom that’s not ready to tease just yet, which features card-based mechanics. This time around, I’m using standard playing cards. Sitting in the local coffee shop working on it yesterday, my friend dropped by, and I showed her the draft of what it looks like so far.

To provide context, this friend is part of my weekly board gaming group. She’s an enthusiastic participant, but by her own admission, she isn’t a gamer. She shows up for the socialization, and to play with tiny pieces (in her words). Strategy and the like are beyond her interest. When I let her look at the project, it was mainly for her more capable talents in providing visual feedback.

But she seized upon a mechanical element nonetheless, which was both surprising and illuminating: the setting and rules work to seamlessly integrate a particular sci-fi genre (or set of genera). As an experienced gamer, I’m used to just accepting resolution mechanics like using playing cards with little qualm. But my friend pointed out astutely that playing cards don’t actually bear any thematic weight in the game, and potentially draw the player out of the game. I think I’ve hit upon a compromise solution (custom cards), but the lesson here isn’t about that.

What I took away was this: as game designers, we’re supposed to consider our audience, but it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that our audience is a pre-disposed niche that will roll with our design decisions. If we really want to even have a chance of reaching outside of the bubble of gamers already hooked into the hobby, then those moments of incisive feedback from exposing your work to “outsiders” have to happen.