Sooner or later every designer gets blocked. His (or her) game reaches a point where the design problems have no visible solutions or the play produced by the game isn’t hitting the goals he set for it. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. So what can a person do? I’ve got six ideas that I’ve used in the past to help me get past design difficulties. Hopefully some of them will resonate with you as well.
The first thing I suggest you do is to let your game sit for a while. Take three to seven days off from working on it. Then come back to it with fresher eyes and see if a solution reveals itself. Sometimes you may need to let a game sit three to seven weeks or three to seven months. Or even longer! That’s okay. In fact, it’s great. Letting a game incubate in your mind is much more preferable to forcing it out under some arbitrary or non-existent deadline. There’s no rule that a game should take only one year or two years or however long to finish. If a game you're working on needs more time to get right, then take the time to get it right.
One thing I’ve found very helpful over the years is asking for help in an online forum. The Forge and RPGnet and even Story Games all have forums dedicated to designers and have offered me direct help in the past. I wouldn’t start a thread on each of them all at the same time. Each site will give you a totally different flavor of help. I have found that doing them in succession really helps you develop a better train of thought and a more complete idea of how outsiders view your game. Taking the time to digest what one site says regarding your design prepares you better for the questions and suggestions that the next site will give. The insight of veteran designers is invaluable IMO. I have found it most helpful in overcoming my own design blocks.
Sometimes, if you get stuck, the “stuckness” may be a sign that the game is ready for playtesting. If the game is already in closed playtesting, it may mean that your design is ready for outside and independent testing. All your best guesses, intuitions, and mat calculations must come to an end at some point. There is only so much you can design through your own imagination and experience. There really is no substitute for playtesting. If you get to a point in your design work where you feel this is the case, put together an organized and readable prototype of your design. Then, turn it over to other people and start playing. You’ll be surprised how much you learn after the first session of playtesting. I guarantee it will be an eye-opener if this is your first time writing a game.
Sometimes, even if you have had some playtesting done on your game, you may still have several design problems that need fixing. If the game is in a playable format, you might consider publishing it in PDF form for free. There are several free PDF makers online if you don’t have that capability at home. My favorite for simple PDFs is PDFonline.com. And there are several hosting sites like 1km1kt.net that will put your game up for free. If you have a Myspace page, you could use that too. Make sure, if you do this, to put the URL of any Actual Play or Playtesting forums in the text of your PDF. You want those who download and play your game to have an avenue to talk about their experiences in public. That way you can benefit from their play and have illustrations for how the game works in actual use.
It is still possible that after a good amount of playtesting and putting your game up on the net for free that you could still have some mechanical issues with your design. If you have done several playtests and received feedback from outsiders on how your game plays, you may be ready to pursue an Ashcan publication. This is usually the final step one takes to solve all the last few design problems a game has before its full on publication. Matt Snyder and Paul Czege have lead the way in recent years when it comes to Ashcans. You can check out their Ashcan Front site here. In essence, an Ashcan is a beta publication that explicitly highlights the design goals and problems with the game in the text in the text of the game itself. It is sold relatively cheap (say $5-$10) and often comes with some sort of promise that anyone who buys, plays, and reports their results in a public forum will receive some kind of payoff in return once the game is published professionally. Typically, that is some sort of discount on a published copy but not always. An Ashcan is a great way to get that last 5-10% of your design polished up before a full public release.
There is one final suggestion I have, though I hesitate a bit to make it. If everything else I have suggested here fails you, then you may want to consider abandoning the game altogether. If playtests, ashcan publications, letting the game sit for weeks, months, or years, and receiving help in online design forums all fail to give you the result you want for your game, then perhaps there is a problem with it that can never be solved. It’s possible that the type of play you are wanting to create with the game can never be achieved with your rules in that form. Sometimes this happens. It is NOT a failure. It is an experience that your learn from and take with you to the next design. Getting a game to that point takes a lot of serious effort and a lot of problem solving. Those experiences will help you in any future project you choose to undertake. Abandoning a game when all options have been exhausted is not a black mark on your record. It is a badge of honor that shows you’ve been through the war and come out a more experienced designer on the other side. It is not a defeat, but a foundation for future success.