Games are designed in a variety of ways, and each designer is likely to approach it differently. There are, however, some general steps that seem to work well for most, in a process known as iterative design:
- Inspiration: Inspiration for a design can come from nearly anywhere, and commonly sparks a theme or a game mechanic, sometimes both. Perhaps you saw a documentary on Africa's Skeleton Coast, or people waiting in line at the bank, or a pattern in the tiles on the floor... or perhaps you even dreamed about a game idea. Whatever the case, inspiration of some kind is key.
- Elaboration: Once the germ of the idea exists, it requires elaboration. If you have a great themes but no mechanics, then it's time to figure out how to make that theme into a game. If you have a mechanic but no theme, it often helps to come up with one in order to help create a larger structure to surround the mechanic (a notable exception is the abstract game?, which has no theme). This step is where the "meat" of the game comes together, forming something you can at least try to play.
- Iteration: These next steps are repeated again and again, until the game seems complete. For some designers and some games, these steps may only be repeated a few times; for others they can be repeated dozens, even hundreds of times.
- Internal Examination: With the game in a theoretically functional form, it's time to test it. Playtesting involves first creating a prototype, and then attempting to play the game. Many times designers will perform a solo playtest first, in order to get a sense of whether the game is functional or not, to at least catch the more glaring problems. Playtesting during this stage often also involves friends or family members, those with patience who will see you through some of the game's rougher stages.
- Evaluation: During and after a playtest designers take note of what works well and what does not. Questions to consider include, "Is the game fun" and "Is the game fair?" This part of the process can be the trickiest, as it can be very challenging to pinpoint what precisely is and isn't working. If the game seems to be working extremely well at this point, with no noticeable flaws, skip to External Examination.
- Modification: Now that you have some idea of what is and is not working with the game, it's time to modify it, to attempt to make it work better. Sometimes these changes can be very minor tweaks, like changing a value on a card from a "3" to a "4." Sometimes these changes are much larger, like throwing out whole sections of the game, or ever starting over with the design, perhaps with some new inspiration.
- External Examination: Now that the game seems to work perfectly, it's time to get some objective perspective on it. Blind playtesting allows the game to be examined by people who
- aren't going to be swayed by your presence, and any desire to not offend you,
- aren't going to automatically fall into any habitual paths you may be unconsciously forcing the game into (e.g. you always buy company x first because you know it's such a good bargain, but objective players are likely to take more unexamined paths), and
- won't be playing by any old rules from previous versions of the game, since they'll be relying entirely on the new set of rules you send them.
These objective examiners will be evaluating the game, too, and providing you with feedback. If the playtests uncover any problems (which is likely), then it's time to return to Modification. Once the game tests perfectly, proceed to Realization.
- Realization: Now it's time to do something with that game. You may want to only play it with friends and family. You may want to send inquiries to publishers, in the hopes of having them publish it. You may want to publish it yourself. Whatever the path you choose, you now finally have a working game.
Note that though these steps offer a basic outline of the game design process, there are a large number of variables in play. For example, it's possible — even likely — that if a publisher requests a copy of the game, the company will want to make changes to it. This may involve more examination, evaluation, and modification on your part, alone or working together with the publisher.
Still, most games proceed through something resembling these steps, a tried-and-true process worth following.