Trying New Flavors: Free Yourself From Vanilla

Is it okay if I adjust this thing from vanilla?

The goal of this post is to articulate my thinking around a common self-imposed constraint that I see frequently with newer hackers, and how you can and should expand your thinking when designing the gameplay of your hacks given the availability of new tech and learnings from previous works to help elevate your own.

This post is not to say “vanilla is bad! don’t design like vanilla!” but rather, depending on the goals you set out for yourself, restricting yourself to vanilla-like systems or behavior will limit your creativity and prevent you from making something as good (or at least as unique) as it could be.

My hope is that by reshaping thinking here, we will be better positioned to have more productive discussions and push the FEGBA engine (and associated fangame engines) to new heights and make memorable experiences for each other and the broader community.

I’ll be breaking down this post into sections:

My experience

When I started hacking and working on VQ in 2017/18, I was really focused on “fixing” some of the core issues present in vanilla GBA titles. A lot of the initial design choices I made were specifically with this mental framing – fix the things I felt were “bad” about FE8 vanilla gameplay while injecting some new tech like skills and conventions from other FE mainline titles.

Some of these items included:

  • Make archers worth using
  • Make armor knights worth using
  • Make cavaliers and fliers less insane
  • Make the game more player phase oriented
  • Make the game more difficult without introducing the frustration that typically follows

I ended up making videos about what I learned and some general tips on how you can do these things better, but it was always framed from the lens of “better than vanilla”.

While this wasn’t really the wrong way to think about it, in retrospect, this limited my own creativity in what I could do and pushed me towards making specific changes within a pre-established framework vs. coming up from my own.

While stuff like classes and items were easier to adjust and tweak, other systems I accepted as is, things like supports, affinities, the general tiering of weapons, the inclusion of S rank, WRank in general, and so forth - there are so many things that I never paid much mind to when designing, feeling obliged to keep as they were if I even thought critically as to why I needed them at all. It was easy to accept the game simply as it was, without thinking critically about why it needed to be there at all.

Part of this was driven by what was technically available at the time. When I started, FEBuilder and Buildfiles were new. I started drafting ideas less than 3 months after Void’s Blitzarre Adventure was released. Skillsystem was new and unlike anything we’d seen previously. You couldn’t adjust numbers manually in skillsystem with FEBuilder at the time, so you were stuck with defaults unless you knew what you were doing (spoilers: I did not)

The only hacks I could reference for inspiration were also very much rooted in vanilla design, in part because of their limitations. In 2017 the only major completed hacks in the west were The Last Promise, Elibean Nights, Requiem, Order of the Crimson Arm, and Road To Ruin. Much of the other popular in-progress stuff at the time was also fairly close to vanilla in design. Bloodlines is the only real exception, but outside of its unique classes, the gameplay was still rooted in a vanilla GBA paradigm like its peers. At the time, simply getting a [complete] hack over the finish line was a hard endeavor. Deviating from vanilla was not a chief concern, we simply wanted more hacks to play (and they’re all still worth playing)

Additionally, because so few hacks ever finished, simply achieving [complete] status was a goal worth pursuing on its own - further pushing me towards sticking with familiar systems and gameplay to help increase the velocity I could work at.

During development of my own work, a lot of new technical innovations were being made. New updates to the skillsystem. New C hacks and asm that added new QoL or mechanics from other games that previously did not exist or could only be achieved through event spaghetti (if at all).

In 2022, the community is a lot different. There are lots of completed hacks, many of which use new tech to great effect. For many newer hackers who want to make something cool and add to the fabric of work this community’s put out for over a decade, sticking closely to vanilla may not drum up interest. You don’t have to look far to see folks working on stuff just hoping someone will actually play it or give them feedback. There are so many things to play, standing out simply by existing doesn’t happen anymore - there is a need to do something more.

There are more and more hacks pursuing different types of gameplay concepts and ideas, using new tech, and shifting hacking from “vanilla edit” into “custom game w/ a GBAFE engine” territory. This is exciting and an important mental shift.

For me, when I started LoT in 2020, I aimed to look at the GBA engine as more of a blank slate for my own design ideas - the limitations were technical, not imposed on me by vanilla. I had the experience now to try something different and use some new tech. While I ultimately felt hamstrung by writing a sequel (and thus those self-imposed limitations) and was never fully satisfied with the gameplay, it showed me there was more we can do to experiment w/ the FE framework.

Standing out on the menu

Today, I still see a lot of folks ask questions and frame decisions within the lens of vanilla: “Is it okay to change this from vanilla from X to Y?” or q’s around feeling obliged to work around specific systems inherent to the vanilla formula that they don’t need to, whether it be how support points are calculated to the type of classes used, very often I still see this thinking of vanilla as the anchor point for design - which it doesn’t need to be.

While this does come down to goals, for folks wanting to make a unique, custom project with their own story, characters, gameplay, etc - vanilla is not a limitation, but a choice. You don’t need to do the thing vanilla does, especially if you don’t like it.

To stand out, don’t be afraid to deviate from how vanilla handles it, especially if you don’t want your work to feel like vanilla.

Some hacks set out to take vanilla and turn it into vanilla+, or like a luxurious vanilla bean ice cream. It’s familiar, but of a higher quality. However, if the entire frozen aisle at your local grocer is vanilla bean, how will yours stand out from the rest? Is this even the flavor you want to make?

Food for thought

If you are still reading, here’s a few ways you can experiment and work on something different from the ground up. I’ll share a few key things I’ve thought of. Some of these I reworked from scratch in my own work.

With any idea, it’s important you validate it through playtesting, feedback, and constantly revising.

Question the need for specific systems. Since we treat vanilla FE8 as a “baseline”, it can be easy to want to bake in what’s there. There is arguably a balance to be struck here, too.

Namely, how much do you want to deviate from what is standard in Fire Emblem. For example, it’s one thing to buff the weapon triangle or remove it, but changing the standard by reversing it (axes > swords) would probably cause more thrash and confusion for your players than is needed.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t critically question the need for each aspect of the game’s systems. Here are a few I’d recommend exploring and determining 1) how much you like them and 2) can I execute this in a different way to better achieve my design vision?

The below list includes many of the things we take for granted and that many hacks don’t change from FE8 or the core FE formula. These are mostly thought starters and not meant to be taken as recommendations. The goal is to point out some things that can be easy to overlook when thinking about how your game works.

- Weapon Triangle
Vanilla’s weapon triangle is +/-15 hit and +/- 1 DMG. The triangle, when it exists, hasn’t deviated too much from this. In some ways, this is among the more impactful WT implementations IS has made. However, given how easy FE8 gets, it starts to matter less once your units outstat others.

When it comes to WT, there are a few q’s you can ask: 1) Do I want a bigger or smaller triangle, and 2) Do I want a triangle at all? In general, the weapon triangle is all about match-ups – emphasizing or de-emphasizing them depending on the contextual bonus and penalty applied to units.

The core gameplay loop will differ pretty heavily pending what you choose, but if you are feeling dissatisfied with how your game plays, consider adjusting the strength of the triangle or its inclusion at all.

- Item stats and progression
This one I think most people will do, but you can adjust weapon stats and more importantly, weapon progression pretty easily. While it can be hard to justify deviating from iron/steel/silver as a tiered system, you can challenge the WRanks you get each at (ie should silvers be A rank?), their stats (ie do steels need to be so heavy?), and so forth.

Additionally, ask yourself: Are there other ways I can differentiate weapons within each type and add new tiers or types of weapons to diversify what’s present in the ROM.

- Weapon ranks, weapon types, and WRank thresholds
Similar to the above, a lot of hacks stick w/ conventions around WRank, weapon types, and thresholds. For example, many folks use E->S system instead of weapon level or scrapping it all together in favor of another system. What could that look like? IDK but I’m sure you could find a different way to handle it if you don’t like the way it’s done in vanilla.

For weapon types, we often think in the lens of the standard weapons available: bows, sword, lances, and axes – little deviation from these outside of the odd manakete stone or knives. Consider if these weapon types serve your needs and if you’d benefit from removing or adding.

Lastly, WRank thresholds are the amount of WEXP you need to get to go up a rank. In vanilla, this is typically 1 per hit and 2 per kill. For some folks, this can go up quickly. It’s not hard to adjust how much WEXP you need to shift from rank to rank as well as how much WEXP you get per combat. Consider slowing this down if you feel vanilla’s system gives an advantage to fast units or simply doesn’t make WRank matter much.

- Magic
Magic is one of those things that is rife for experimentation. For example, vanilla uses anima/light/dark, but all the mage classes tend to play similarly to each other. There’s a couple of things you could do to differentiate magic and change up how it works.

Creating diversified tomes for each type.
Collapsing into a single tome rank + using class locks
Beefing up the magic triangle (or removing it)
Reskinning magic to suit your story

A lot depends on how you view magic and how you want it to function. There are also systems like Gaiden that you’re able to use for unique spell lists vs. casting from tome items. Regardless, I think it’s important to ask if you need the anima/light/dark convention and if you think you can do something different that would make it better.

- Attack Speed thresholds
Vanilla GBA threshold to double is 4 AS. You should ask yourself if you need 4 or if you want doubling to happen more or less often. For example, some of the other games have a 5 AS threshold, while Gaiden has 1 AS.

- Combat formulae (hit, avoid, crit, etc.)
You can read more about vanilla’s formulae on the wiki, but it’s important to ask how you want the combat in your game to feel. For example, players often lament how bad luck is as a stat. Adjusting combat formula can be a way to make luck more powerful. Similarly, for formula like avoid, reducing the impact of speed can take some of its power away.

The formulae that inform how combat works can give your game unique flair and help rebalance some elements that traditionally are seen as out of whack.

- Class structure and promotion (split promo? single promo? item-based promos? etc)
This one I think most people will do, but it’s still worth mentioning. More critically is the need for having every class type that exists in vanilla and do they need to function as they do there?

- Unit stats (high/low growths, class base stats, etc.)
This is another one that I think a lot of people will do already, but again, consider the stat paradigm you want to follow and how that will impact the feel of the game.

The relationship of growths and bases will be key in giving your game a numeric aesthetic and feel. For example, some players like big, inflated numbers, while others tout their work as having small, deflated numbers. Recognizing the pros and cons of big and small numbers in your game will help you figure out what you prefer to design around and what creates the feel you want to go for.

- Gender specific AID formula / how rescue works broadly
FE8 does this thing where units w/ the female bit have a worse AID formula than men. Why? It is a mystery.

This is a pretty easy change to make, but you may also want to challenge the AID formula more broadly. Similarly, rescue is available out of the box in GBA, but do you want it to function as it does in vanilla? Should the AID formula be different? Should you have rescue at all? What are the penalties? Etc.

- S rank weapons
A lot of vanilla games make their S rank weapons the legendary holy dragon tier weapons of yore, but they can also just be really strong weapons that are buyable. Similarly, many games only allow for your unit to achieve a single S rank – do you want this for your game or do multiple S ranks make more sense? A lot depends on how much you want these traditionally late game weapons to matter and when you suspect units will get access to S ranks and how much they’ll get used.

- Supports & Affinity
We have a number of examples to go into for building supports (a lot of folks would say the GBA implementation is bad), so you can consider how else you can increment support points.

Bonuses are traditionally an aura - do you want to set up a different way for the bonuses to be calculated? Similarly, do you want affinity to determine bonuses, or something else entirely?

- Refreshers/Dancers
Refresher units are a staple of FE, so you may feel obliged to follow this trend (along w/ many others).

Consider: does refreshing need to be tied to a specific unit, or could I create a staff or tome than refreshes units instead? Is there something we can do more interesting than a single unit who exists to let another unit move again?

- Summoning
FE8 summons are free blue units you can get each turn. If you want to include summons, think about the skillset of the summoner and what sort of summons they should have. Phantoms w/ 1 HP are classic, but there are other ways you can implement these.

- Skills
You could make a much longer post about skill implementation, but I’ll leave this broad 1) do you need skills to enhance how combat works in your game? 2) do you want class skills, generic enemy skills, level up skills, personal skills, etc. and 3) how would the skills encourage the player to think critically about what they’re doing? For example, some skills are activated passively (typically EP oriented skills) while others are activated actively (like darting blow, movement skills, etc.).

Think about what skills will do for your work and if they’d enhance it. Alternatively, can you do what you’d want to do with skills in a more elegant way? Don’t be afraid to ask!

- Music
Don’t forget about the tunes!

- Permadeath
Designing around permadeath invites its own set of challenges and considerations. While FE’s inclination towards it has waned, you’ll need to ask if your game should commit to encouraging permadeath as a mode of play or leaning more into a casual mode experience. Think about how you want your story to be told and the type of gameplay experience you want. That should give you a sense of whether you want to lean into permadeath as a core mechanic or not.

- Counterattacks
FE is unique among SRPGs for having counterattacks. To change how FE works, do you think you need this? What sort of opportunities would this open up for the game flow if we removed counterattacks? This would be highly experimental in an FE context, but worth considering

- Turnflow
Similar to the above, the turnflow of FE is defined by a player and enemy phase. Each side gets to move all of their units at once. Stan made a hack for Lazberian turnflow to mimic what’s done in Berwick, while other SRPGs use an initiative or speed based system to determine unit order.

If you want to experiment, consider how this change in turnflow would impact how you design maps, enemies, and stats broadly.

With anything, your mileage may vary. My goal here is not to convince you to adopt any particular idea, but rather to challenge vanilla conventions and ask “am I doing this because it makes sense for the game I want to make, or am I doing this because vanilla does it this way?”.

I hope this list of thought starters is helpful as you consider ways to customize your work.

Fire Emblem has longevity and generates interest in part because of its diversity and the team’s willingness to experiment and recreate itself with each entry.

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shackled where Intelligent Systems (and especially Kaga) were not.

In short, to answer the question at the top of this post, yes, it is okay to change it. Happy hacking.

(Please add on if you have any thoughts on this topic).


I wrote a lot of this up a while ago and thought it was a bit pretentious. I tried to rework it (to make it less so) and add a few new things into the mix.

It’s hard to say “don’t do X and do Y” because so much depends on context.

However, I think it’s important to at least look at everything you can do and question it before doing it in your own work, or doing it simply because it’s how FE8 chose to do it.

With any change, test it yourself and validate if it works. Getting feedback and iterating is all part of the process.


A lot of this topic focuses on mechanics, and that’s entirely valid, but I would personally argue that this should also apply for story, characters, plot, etc. as well.

I’m an old fart when it comes to amount of time in the fandom, so suffice to say, seeing the same-old, same-old beats that the main series has done for years feels very grating to me when I see hacks. I don’t have mounds of free time, so I want to see something fresh and interesting when it comes to story, motivations, etc. Unless it’s got something interesting to say about it (i.e. something like Exalted Legacy’s premise), I would very much prefer to do without nobility leading an army to recapture lands, defeat a dictator, fell a dragon, etc. As the saying goes, “been there, done that”.

I feel like a lot of the time, fans and players get caught up in the trappings of a series that they enjoyed - that because a particular game or several in a series did something (and, if a series, possibly continued to do that), then everything must be that way. And, personally, I feel like that can only lead to stagnation on the whole. Yes, there may be interesting ideas or implementations of concepts sometimes, but they usually aren’t enough to nudge the whole thing off of the same track that it’s been on.

Fire Emblem’s conceptual architecture is so simple that it is surprisingly adaptable to do so many different things and still feature the gameplay elements that people praise it for: move units around on a battlefield, use a little bit of thinking in terms of what characters/units to use, what weapons to use, where to move, what order to move units in, etc. But, there are plenty of things that can be done to spice things up - different main character choices (for example: What if you’re a spy undercover in a foreign army like, say, Leila? What if you’re a veteran knight like Camus - how would you react to being given the orders that you’re given? How would others react to you following/disobeying those orders? What if you’re a missionary priest traveling the world to aid the sick and poor?), different plot goals to shoot for (adventurers on a treasure hunt vs many other adventurers/guilds trying to find relics before everyone else does, trying to cure a plague, maybe you’re actually a noble and you’re trying to govern a city/territory/kingdom and having to fend off incursions from other nations into your lands, etc.), and so on. The beauty is that all of these can work within Fire Emblem’s constraints of its typical combat systems/flow.

If there’s anything that modern FE (and a dash of TRS and Berwick) has taught me, it’s that even things that were once functional pillars of a traditional FE experience aren’t sacrosanct. With how much Reclassing has permeated the series, in my opinion, even Classes themselves have begun to lose importance, at least for player units. Instead of determining what a character is by their class, start picturing them as a character. Start giving them weapon proficiencies that suit them as a person (heck, even do what Berwick does with its expanded weapon types and something more like FE3’s Weapon Level stat) instead of being arbitrarily restricted to what a “class” can use. (My favorite example is Cherche - she has training in using staves from when she was younger, but is unable to use them unless in a class with access to them… why, exactly? Balance? In a series that has been historically unbalanced? Just give her the Staves and have a rocking Staff+Axe Wyvern and have fun.)

Give characters their own pool of learned skills over time. Give them their own Spell Lists. Let characters use said spells regardless of if they’re in a “mage” class or not. Give the player a large pool of interesting, usable characters to enjoy to encourage replay/swapping instead of designing things so laser-focused where the player might be required to use a specific unit or to do a specific thing in order to just complete a chapter. Design fun effects for weapons/magic, especially as more tech is made to enable such things.

I feel like I could ramble on and on about more things, but I think I’ve also rambled enough to get my point across?


One of the challenges I ran into while designing Saint’s Blood around a small playable cast with full deploy was that the need to make every unit feel valuable to the team required me to rethink the way I thought about base stats. I had been keeping level one bases around the values that would be expected for level one unpromoted units in vanilla because of not wanting to needlessly inflate stats. But by expanding the range of base stats to ten (or even slightly higher) I was better able to differentiate what each unit was good or poor at, while also reducing the need for units to consistently hit their high growth stats at level up to remain functional (during testing, one of the thieves with an 80% growth consistently does not gain speed when leveling up :roll_eyes:)

I would also add that Weapon Lock Array is very useful for reworking the weapon compatibility without having to get too complicated by actually adding additional weapon types to the game. I was able to add Knives and Daggers as thief weapons by just making them swords and restricting them to the Thief class line and all actual swords to classes that are meant to use swords. I also needed an additional magic type, so I compressed Light and Dark into a single weapon rank and used Weapon Lock Array to determine which classes actually use Light and Dark. I also put Fire/Thunder/Wind Mages in the game the same way.


Yeah that’s a good point – I focused on gameplay since I tend to see more questions in this realm and framed this way, while I think similarities to vanilla in writing happen more subconsciously or because people writing know that “it works”, for better or worse. (I am guilty of both)

I agree w/ you that there is lots of room to wriggle free of the vanilla framing, but I would argue it is more difficult pending the type of game you want to make.

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Does ENGAGE count as vanilla

I’m sorry to inform you, but yes.


Then vanilla is EPIC actually


Don’t forget about Con, weapons, and the result on attack speed. Should mounted units be able to always rescue unmounted units? Should capturing be a thing?

Should Con even be a thing? Could Strength offset a weapon’s weight instead, or should only speed? Should weapons weigh anything at all? Should a pursuit skill be needed to follow up, or a crit skill needed to crit? Should all weapons have a small crit chance, or should some be impossible to land a crit with? Should characters have FUCC?

How much durability should weapons have, or should they all be unbreakable? Should the Legendary weapons, if any exist, be unbreakable? FE1 balances this really interestingly, with them having decreasing durability in the order you obtain them, rather than all having similar values. On top of that, some can be further used like a vulnerary or pure water. Should weapons be able to be repaired for gold like FE4? Should you get a really bad broken version of a weapon upon it breaking, rather than auto switching to the next inventory slot?

Lastly, the setting. Is medieval fantasy right? Should it be modeled after an earlier or later part of history? What about imaginary settings, like steampunk or Fire Emblem in Space? If kept in medieval fantasy, should it be human-dominated, or have a variety of races like elves and dwarves? Should humans even be a thing? Should there be nothing fantastical at all, and should it be very realistic?


I think this topic serves as a good reminder that “deviating from vanilla” doesn’t necessarily mean “making your game completely unrecognizable as FE8”. It could just mean something as simple as “making archers good” or “adding funny new weapons” or “fixing the female AID formula”.

And the parts stressing how changes should be based on whether it’s systems the hacker personally likes, I think, are very important. Standing out is nice, but that should never be a hacker’s primary goal. Things don’t need to be changed simply for the sake of standing out; just so much that you, the hacker, personally enjoy what you’re making. If you just want to make FE8 but everyone is a skeleton, sure, go right ahead. If you want to make something that feels more like FE5 or FE12, two very different games from FE8, then feel free; thanks to modern hacking advancements you’re free to do just that. Otherwise, you’re not really making the game you want to play, and oftentimes a project whose developers enjoyed making it will turn out being more enjoyable for others to play.


Look for the verbs.
New games are spawned from new verbs.

For example, Splatoon is paint, Pokemon is collect and trade.
Other prominent games also have verbs that are representative of their games.
Please think of other verbs that describe other prominent games.

You can build around that and then modify the rest of the game to what you don’t like about the vanilla.

By the way, my Kaitou’s verb is steal.
For this reason, we made various adjustments so that players can steal smoothly anyway.
BulkSell, Kaitou socre, Submenu and GiveAll+ are some of the tricks to achieve this.
I think many issues will appear, but if we think of various ways to solve them, we can create a unique system.

For example, if growth is the theme, then 3-4 Promotions would be acceptable.
// I am talking about the game system, not the scenario.
It would be good to change various professions to gain abilities.
I think it would be good to change the classic FE damage calculation formula to achieve higher stats.


You say ‘talking about game system, not the scenario,’ but I do think tying those two things together can add a lot.

For instance, in a game built around growth, with 3-4 promotions, branching promotions, a more indepth skill system, etc, you could add something like a timeskip with the characters aging.

Three Houses did this, for instance. The game’s mechanics are about the characters learning and growing, and the game itself has a timeskip from a school phase to a war phase.

Of course, Three Houses’ implementation wasn’t perfect, but it’s a good reference point. When trying to add new mechanics or riff on the mechanical concepts, it’s also a good idea to try and tie those into the plot, even if you’re making a more gameplay-focused hack.

I only talking about the game system because it simply makes the story more complicated.
This is because saying only about growth is misleading as to whether it is the story of the main character’s growth or the game system.
If the game system also ties in with the scenario, you will get even better results.

Splatoon, in order to explain the paint system well, made the squid the main character and provided a scenario for it.
// Formally, it is not so much for the painting system as for the system that allows you to dive into the painted paint.
//They explained their system by having the squid swim in paint.

I think this order can be reversed.
There could be some scenario and then a unique system to make it happen.

Either way, a unique system is realized from the discovery of verbs.
Finding new verbs leads to new games.


Oh, absolutely, agree with everything you’re saying here. Just leapfrogging off you to talk a bit about narrative design too.

People should definitely try and focus in on one or two core ideas or themes, or as you put it, verbs. Even if you are making a very vanilla hack, you can use those ideas to help with things like map design.

No matter how often people say to free themselves from vanilla, it seems FE reddit’s first response to every proposed change or rebalance is “NOOO! NOOOOOO!!! No, please, no, awful idea, I don’t care if it’s optional and will only ever affect me if I want it to, no! If you change it, even a little, it’s not Fire Emblem any more! What’s wrong with you, personally? Why would you propose such a change? Do you even like this series? Can you even understand it?!”

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100% of fire emblem fans like fire emblem.
Less than 100% of fire emblem fans like random mechanics X.
Less than 50% of FE fans want a FE mechanics changed, since they are FE fans.
Your mechanics should make you happy, not the average FE fans, it’s statically impossible.


your math is wrong, and that’s because you assumed the following:

100% of fire emblem fans like fire emblem

when it would be more accurate to say:

0% of fire emblem fans like fire emblem


Nobody hates Fire Emblem more than Fire Emblem fans, and nobody hates Sonic more than Sonic fans.
You know you’ve found a fun creative fanbase when that’s the case, and people actually start trying to do something with their own ideas and their views on how things should or could be.
I just wish people would give new games a try and experience mechanics in their intended context along with other balance changes, characters, map designs, the story, etc before writing something off as “that makes enemies too annoying to fight against, I’d rather they be pushovers” or “oh wow that sounds way too strong in a vacuum”.

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I think these thoughts and the topic of making different things than vanilla is fascinating.

I might write more in here later when I have more time. But I think the most important thing is that if you have an idea, interact with the Community for help and try to implement things with the tools you can use is. To discover things your way especially during your first project. And to show that there are things you want to have and where you make an effort to implement them.

Using these new things to build a game around them or trying out to build a game with them and to discover how to adjust things so they are useful is a good test for you and to discover what you wanna do with it.