A few days ago @AlexandreUboldi asked if I had ever written an article about writing short descriptions for games. I haven’t, as far as I can recall. But it seemed like a great topic since one requirement for the upcoming The Board Game Workshop Design Contest is a short description of your game.
It is also a great opportunity to reflect on how I write short descriptions. So much of what I create is done in a last minute rush. It’s nice to take a moment and look back at something you did and critically ask yourself why you made the choices you did, and how would you do it now with the new knowledge you have gained.
For examples in this article I’ll use the 3 game descriptions I wrote for my prototypes at Metatopia last year. For those that don’t know, Metatopia is a board game design convention that has a tightly scheduled list of play tests.
You sign up as a designer and get several play test spots. The convention organizers do a wonderful job of getting you the players you need, but the first step of that is players selecting what games they would like to play. This selection is based on a short text description that includes the name of the game, the designer, player count, play time, and a one paragraph description. Most of those are pretty simple and the effect they have on a player selecting or avoiding your game is mostly out of your control.
If people know your name and like your designs, they are more likely to try your game. It could be because you are a world famous designer, their friend, or someone they heard about on Twitter. They could also avoid your game because they don’t like your design style, or they had a bad experience with you in the past. This part is pretty separate from the game itself. My only advice here is be a good person and people are more likely to associate your name with good things. If a player doesn’t like your design style, that isn’t a bad thing, they should play games that appeal to them.
Some people dislike high player counts, some dislike small player counts, some are really excited to play a game that only works at 5 players. Just be accurate about this, don’t stretch your game to 6 players if it can’t support it, and don’t say it can play 2 players if it loses some aspect of the game.
Again, be accurate. If a player can’t sit through a 90 minute game, they are not the right audience for your 90 minute game.
Those three things are pretty basic facts, don’t lie about them and anyone who doesn’t play your game for those reasons is most likely making the right choice for themselves.
The final two things, game name and description, are where you have a lot of creative power to bring in players. You can also mess it up and scare away players that would have enjoyed your game.
The three games I brought to Metatopia were Plutocracy, Pod People, and Vanilla. Since then these games have all changed, so these descriptions aren’t as accurate anymore.
In my document with these descriptions I have a note at the top that says “1 paragraph descriptions of Plutocracy, Pod People, and Vanilla with plenty of keywords so players can select what they want to play.”
I’m not sure if that was part of the requirement or something I came up with. Regardless, keywords are a great resource in a short description. Especially in the case of Metatopia where people could do a search for words like “Worker Placement” or “Farming” in the list of game descriptions.
Even in a standalone description, keywords allow you to get across a lot more information in a short space. It’s important to be aware of your audience when using keywords. If I talked to seasoned gamers about euros, worker placement, area control, and 4X, they get a lot of information from those few words. A person without that prior experience would be very confused.
Here are the descriptions I sent in.
Six empires battle for dominance of the galaxy. But you don’t control any of them. You are an influencer using your connections to manipulate all of the empires to your own benefit. Build up economies, start wars, expand control and, when it suits you, change sides and bring the empire you helped build crashing back down for a tidy profit. Plutocracy is a 4X game with a focus on manipulating economies. 2-6 players 90 minutes.
Some strange things have been going on in town lately. Some people aren’t acting like themselves. It’s almost as if they have been changed into Pod People! Pod People is a social deduction game where all players start human, but soon some will be secretly changed to Pod People. You must work with your fellow players to go around town and collect items to complete missions before the Pod People take over. But who can you trust? Anyone can be the enemy. Players can switch sides from human to pod person and back during the game. Rounds are played out in realtime so you can use the confusion to sneak things past your opponents. Occasionally you might even remove a player from the game to protect the town. 5-10 players 30 minutes.
The production of vanilla is a very delicate process. The plants must be pollinated by hand, carefully harvested, and cured. At any point in the process mistakes can lower the quality of your harvest. Vanilla is an economic, farming euro. Each player starts with a small vanilla plantation. Use the profits from your harvest to expand your plantation and upgrade your equipment. Should you take it slow and make the highest quality vanilla? Or rush to produce a large harvest of lower quality? Every round you will bid to hire workers, purchase land, and upgrade equipment. Be careful not to spend too much on production though, the vanilla buyers want quality, but they also don’t want to pay too much for it. Manage your delicate crop through multiple years with a dynamic market and costly events. 2-6 players 90 minutes.
First off, picking the right name for your game is nearly impossible. You want it to be short enough to remember but also instantly convey the entire game experience and be the first hit on a web search and not already be taken by another game. I don’t have any advice on that, good luck.
For the descriptions I notice I used a similar structure for each. Even with a short description if you start waisting the readers time in sentence one, they won’t read sentence two. So all of these start with the hook for that game.
For Plutocracy the games unique feature is that no one controls their own faction. So I establish the setting, big space battle, which is going to grab people that like big space battle games. Then, I give them the hook. Basically, here is what you know you’ll like about this game and here is why it’s unique.
With Pod People I gave a bit more space to setting up the feel of the game because that feeling of tension is very important. Then I go into the unique factor that players can change sides during the game.
The Vanilla description starts with the interesting thing that made me design the game in the first place. Real world vanilla production is a delicate job. The fact that it is pollinated by hand was fascinating to me. It’s not a dexterity game so that fact isn’t really important to the game play, but it establishes the feeling of the game. A very tense production process where the best you can hope for is things only getting a little worse at each step.
So start with the most important thing about your game. If a player only had time to read the first 2 sentences are they going to be excited about the exciting part of your game?
For the middle of the description you can give more detailed information about game play. What will players do? What kind of mechanics are used? If they have read past the opening, they are already interested and want to know a bit more. But it’s only a short description, don’t bog them down with minutia.
With all of these I also had a bit of a reminder in the middle for that opening information that got them hooked.
For Plutocracy I remind them that they aren’t tied to any empire, “when it suits you, change sides and bring the empire you helped build crashing back down for a tidy profit”.
For Pod People I remind them of the tension, “But who can you trust? Anyone can be the enemy.”
And for Vanilla I remind them that the process is a delicate balance, “Should you take it slow and make the highest quality vanilla? Or rush to produce a large harvest of lower quality?”
For the end you want a nice distillation of the whole thing. Similar to the opening but with less of an emphasis on excitement. My Pod People description is missing a clean ending like the others. Probably because at the time it was a more nebulous design.
I had the player count and time at the end but that depends more on the format you are making it for.
So the basic idea I use for short descriptions is as follows.
Perfectly Chosen Unique and Evocative Name
This is an exciting game with this unique aspect. Since you’re still interested, here are a few of the major parts of the game you will enjoy. Remember that exciting thing from the beginning? It’s in the game too. Overall you will have this wonderful experience.
Writing short descriptions is not an easy thing. If you find yourself writing too much, don’t stop. Write as much as you need to describe your game. Then get to work on some very aggressive editing. If you mention 4 cool aspects of your game, cut out the 2 less exciting ones. If you find yourself repeating parts of sentences, restructure them to take up less space. If it’s still too long, cut out the least exciting sentences. Anything that the potential player reads that isn’t making them want to play is a waste of words.
If your description is still too long, maybe your game has more going on than it needs. If you cut those 2 less cool aspects from the description, maybe you can cut them from the game as well.