Board game design, Personal, This blog

My goal is to enjoy the sunset. From a mountain. While designing board games.
I’ve given a number of prototypes for Los Buenos to people with the request to test it without me being there to explain (or influence). While this is happening I don’t want to do any further work on the game as I don’t want to have superseded the feedback I’m going to get. Which leaves me with time and energy to work on a new project.

There is one idea that has been buzzing around in the back of my head for a long time and it was the first thing I felt like picking up. I however also realize that it’s going to be a monster of a game to design, requiring a ton of content and a bunch of new mechanics that I only have some vague ideas about. And my fears are that if I pick this up I’ll sink my teeth into it and not let go until I have something, which may well take many years.

An alternative is to start working on something smaller and simpler. I don’t have any particular ideas for this yet, but coming up with ideas is not that hard.

Still, it’s a conundrum. And so I asked online for ideas and suggestions.

Suggestions were split about halfway for the two options. But I got one really good question:

”What are your goals as a designer?”

Interestingly enough, I had never really thought about that! But now I am thinking. And perhaps this is something useful for other people as well?

How I got into designing

I used to work in financial services as a freelancer. The pay was good, it was intellectually stimulating and it lacked any form of creativity whatsoever. I was able to convince myself that things were ok for a long time. But then it started to seep in that I wasn’t that happy with the line of work.

Having saved up a decent amount (and having a loving girlfriend who was willing to pay a bit more of the rent – Thanks love!) I decided to take a few months of sabbatical. I didn’t want to go travel and not see my girlfriend, so I had to come up with something else to fill my time.

I loved playing board games and was very interested to do something with that. I started a small company with some friends to do something on the overlap between board games and digital technology. As a sortof “aside” to the company we thought it would be good to actually create a board game to get a feel for the industry.

The company fairly quickly collapsed as there was no real clear goal and everybody else was doing things on the side. But “creating the game” had firmly taken hold and I loved continuing with it.

It was also at this time that I started to write this blog. I had once read somewhere that the best way to learn is by teaching. Through my writing here I can say I now fully agree!

A few months passed and the game got better, but it was still far from great. And my savings were running out. So, back to what I knew would make money: Financial services. Different company, different type of work. But still the same problem of not being creative…

So when after a year I got a message that a company was looking for someone to help them create a bespoke board game, I was very enthusiastic! And very scared!

Still, I’m very happy that I accepted the offer and that I now really am earning my bread through board game design.

Seeing your own game in store

Look for me here. At some point…
When I first started designing a board game my idea was that hopefully it would help me somehow get established in the board game world. Then I had to go back to financial services and it became a cool hobby to pour my excess creativity into. At that point I didn’t really need to make any money off of it, so my goal was to see something that I made for sale in my local board game store.

That is still my goal, because it would totally amazing to see something I’ve created really “out there” in the world!

But it’s come full circle: I’m again hoping to establish myself into the board game world. And as such having a game published is a goal, but also a means to an end. It means gaining the experience of designing something that people actually want to buy! It means getting my name out there so that hopefully it will become easier to take the next steps. Because the more you’ve done, the easier it becomes to do more (I imagine that if Uwe Rosenberg walked into a publisher’s office saying he had a game he wanted published, they would sign him there and then without even looking at the game).

A designer for how long?

This brings me to an even more fundamental question: How long do I want to be a board game designer, in the sense that that is the way I make my money?

There are three parts to answering this question.

First, I know myself well enough that eventually everything gets to be boring. On the other hand, I stayed in financial services for ten years while never really loving what I did. Still, do I want to “commit” to this for a long time? What if I really hate it after 2 more years? Of course that can happen, but I don’t really expect it will. And even saying something now doesn’t mean I’m oath-bound to actually see it through.

Second, I’m dead scared that this won’t last. Yes, I have an assignment now. But that game is going to get finished at some point. And it feels like I got extremely lucky this time. Realistically, how many other companies are there going to be that want to have a bespoke game developed?! So it almost feels like hubris to make a goal out of continuing doing this. Then again, if you don’t set that goal the chances of it actually happening go down even further!

Third, I do not want to go back to the other thing I know I can do well, which is finance. If I have to I will and I won’t hate it, but I won’t love it like I love game design. I could try to pick up a different (third!) career, but there I’d have to start even more from scratch than in game design.

So…

I believe that I’ll enjoy doing game design for at least another five years and I can fully imagine doing it for the next ten. It sure beats the obvious alternative. After ten years it becomes too hard to make anything like realistic predictions for the future. Aiming for “over 5 years” then seems quite reasonable. In other words, enough to really learn things and to make a career out of this.

To be continued…

Let’s keep on keeping on
My goal as a game designer then becomes first and foremost: Continue being a game designer. Or perhaps better, continue getting paid to design games!

That means a number of things.

It means I want to spend time on designing games. Which is easy enough: Lock myself in a room, do some prototyping, test for a bit: I’m a game designer!

That is a good start, but it’s not enough. As “designing” isn’t what people pay for, it’s the end results. Which means getting games out there!

These can be mass-market games, or bespoke games for companies. The first are probably more fun to make as I have full creative freedom. The second however are easier to pay the bills with. So a combination of the two would be best? Probably with a skew towards the second.

It also means getting my name out there. Having games in the hands of players certainly would help with this, so this is a self-re-enforcing step. (Good! :- ) )

But just that will not be enough, I’ll also have to spread my name in other ways. This blog certainly is a good step (it got me my first assignment!) so I’ll definitely continue doing that.

I’m also somewhat active on social media, though that can definitely be picked up. It’s a balance though, because it’s very hard to see what the direct benefits of it are. How much time is the right amount to invest? I guess this is something that would be good to think about further (perhaps in another blog post?).

What to make next?

Luckily there are always choices
All of this was brought on by a simple question: What kind of game should I start working on for my next project? Should I make the game that I would love to make, knowing I might be biting off more than I could possibly chew? Or would it be better to go for something simpler?

I have dreams. I hope to someday to make something as awesome as Gloomhaven or Pandemic Legacy. And this big idea might be it!

But it probably isn’t.

Because for every mega success, there are hundreds if not thousands of games that fall somewhere between outright failures to “decent”. And so pure statistics are against me in this. (Did I mention I used to work in risk management?)

And while I’d love to work on something that has the potential to be overwhelmingly awesome, it can wait. That idea will still be there in one year. It’ll still be there in 10 if need be.

For the shorter run I believe that getting a bit of volume in production is more important, pays off more, than taking a chance on hitting it big.

And so, based on what my goals are as a designer, my choice is to work on something other than my big idea.

Watch this space for further updates!

Closing thoughts

It’s been very good to articulate my thoughts (and fears!) for what I want to do with this “newfound career”. It made me realize some things that weren’t clear when they were happening, like how much I missed being creative in my previous jobs.

One thing that is still unclear is how much of this is based on luck? I know I got the design job I’m currently holding because I’ve been prolific in writing and doing my best in getting my name out there. But is that all it takes? How many other companies are walking around with an idea for a game? Is this a one-off or can it really be a steady source of income?

“Luckily” I’ve been in this situation before. I worked for 5 years in a permanent role in financial services before I started as a freelancer. My first assignment felt like dumb luck. The second already gave a bit more security and after the third I felt confident that there really was a decent demand for my skills.

For board game design I’m not at that point at all, but just knowing it can be reached makes things easier!

What are your goals as a board game designer?

So all of this has been about me. But what about you? What are your goals and dreams as a designer? What are you doing to achieve them?

Perhaps more interesting, what are your fears? Or what were your fears which you have now conquered?

I’d love to hear your story!

Further reading

Want to know a bit more about how all of this started? Here is the first post for this blog.

And I mentioned that I am now working as a freelance game designer. You can read more about that here.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

The pile of games after a few people had arrived…
Last weekend we had games weekend: 30 people coming together in a secluded place to play board games!

This is of course the best chance to play both familiar and new games. And to pay a bit of attention to what all these games bring to the table (pun intended).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was really surprised in how all of these games had something special. And how this specialness could be in so many different “directions”.

So today’s post I’m going to go through a number of the games I played last weekend and pick out one (or a few) thing(s) that stood out for me from a design perspective.

Azul

One-sentence synopsis: Draft tiles, lay them on your board in such a way that they can move to the other side of your board in such a way as to optimize your score.

We’re used to have a single score track (usually going around the board!) and everybody shows their progress on that. Azul instead uses separate scoring tracks for each player (that they have on their personal boards).

This is probably just from an efficiency perspective as there is no central board (though there could’ve been a scoring track which probably would’ve taken up less “real estate” than adding a track to every player board).

The result was that it was harder to compare who was ahead! You’d have to scan back and forth between players to figure that out. Not hard, but it was an extra action. This ensures that starting players generally won’t do it and thus save a bit of mental space. For a game that is so nicely simple I really like that this adds just that tiny bit more simplicity.

On the other hand it does also mean that there is a tiny bit less player interaction. For this game a worthwhile tradeoff though.

How does your game use lay-out to drive player attention? Are there things they should pay more attention to? Or things they should just not focus on? What other ways can lay-out be used to shape the way a game is experiences?

Energy Empire & Viticulture

It’s wine makin’ time!
One-sentence synopsis: Worker placement games in which you respectively build an industrial empire while minimizing pollution and where you are planting and harvesting grapes to turn them into valuable wine.

Two quite different games, but they both “solved” the same problem: What to do when someone takes a space on the board that you really wanted? Both games are worker placement games and so here it mostly relates to spaces for workers.

Energy Empire allows players to add workers to occupied spaces if they make a higher “pile” than the next highest pile, where a pile consists of a worker on top and “energy” below (it’s called “Energy Empire” after all!).

Viticulture on the other hand has 3 spaces for any action and even if those are taken you have a bigger worker which can always be used. The first space however gives a bonus (which can range from minor to making the space twice as good).

The result is that these games are much less cut-throat in having to plan ahead where you can place your workers (something for example Agricola can really punish you in). Players need less mental space in trying to think things through in advance and thus these games become significantly “lighter” on the mind, reducing analysis paralysis (see this post for 14 ways of reducing analysis paralysis in your board game).

The “downside” is that there is also less player interaction. It still matters somewhat when you place, but it’s more from an efficiency perspective than in a “I have to do this!” sense. This in turn reduces the tension of hoping that a space will stay available for you to use.

I feel that these choices make these games much more accessible and easier for first-time players. You will hardly ever be “stuck”, you’ll just be less efficient. At the same time they still allow for a lot of depth, because you do want to place your workers as efficiently as possible.

Are there more or less efficient ways of doing things in your game? Are there ways of “shutting other players down” (temporarily)? What does that do to the game?

Spirit Island

Those poor invaders never stood a chance!
One-sentence synopsis: A cooperative game where you play a spirit trying to gain power to kick colonizing invaders off of your island.

This was by far my favorite game of the weekend (and the only one I played twice!). I could easily write an entire post on this, but let’s just take a few highlights.

First the game solves the “quarterbacking” problem (one player telling others how they should play, which is common in cooperative games) through high levels of asymmetry and just really a lot of things going on: I was barely able to focus on my own bit of the game and would’ve been completely overwhelmed if I had to “play” for the others as well.

At the same time the game “compartmentalizes” very well: “I’ll take care of this, can you handle that?”. Through this it really creates a sense of “cooperation”.

If you’re creating a coop, how do you prevent quarterbacking? Could other games benefit from “overwhelming as a whole while manageable when compartmentalized”? Is it possible to have player vs. player game that forces you to focus on your bit, while there is stuff happening in other places that is actually relevant to you as well? And how much of a recipe for analysis paralysis would this be?!

The game also does very well at forcing players to look ahead. There are two parts to this. The first is that some of the actions you take happen before the “game takes its actions” and some of them happen afterwards. Thus, a number of your actions will be useless for your current problems but they will help with future problems.

The second part of this is the ingenious system that shows which bad stuff is going to happen to which type of land. Every turn a card is drawn showing a land type. On that land type the invaders (the “bad guys”, the ones you’re trying to defeat) will “explore” this turn (moving into that land type from other lands). The next turn they will “build” on that land type (while exploring on another), which increases the damage they can do. Then on the third turn they “ravage”, meaning actually doing damage. This creates for a buildup, which you can (have to!) anticipate.

Does it benefit your players to look ahead or is it possible to take your game one turn at a time? Can you add something that would allow players to “look ahead” at what will be coming? This could be an “event deck”, but perhaps also “programmed actions” from other players?”

The final bit that stood out was the emotions the game engenders. In the beginning we really had a feeling of feeling overwhelmed! Later in the game this turned to weary optimism and finally to a real sense of victory. Compare this to Pandemic which starts relatively slow and then ramps up the threats. Here you’re starting basically waist-deep in smelly stuff already.

Most games start out fairly slowly and then ramp up. Can you turn that around? And how are your players feeling when they play your game? Is that what you want them to feel? How do you make them feel what you want?

Kodama

This. But with more fireflies, mushrooms, clouds and caterpillars!
One-sentence synopsis: Place branches with lovely features such as fireflies and mushrooms on your ever-growing tree to score the features.

Location is important in any board game: Having a card in my hand is much better than having one in the deck! But other than in which “region” a card is it doesn’t matter exactly where it is.

I love how in Kodama you have to optimize the exact location of where you place a card. It has to fit, but you also want to keep space available for future growth.

It is also an exceedingly beautiful game, which really helps to give you the feeling you’re growing a tree.

How else can you use the exact position of resources on the board / table to make a game?

How do the visuals of your game add to the game experience? How can you improve upon that?

Number 9

Place shapes (numbers) so that they fit on top of each other; the higher you get the more points you gain.

Board games are generally played in 2 dimensions: Where on the board something is placed matters, but we hardly ever go up.

I also love the simplicity of this game; it was explained to me by an 8-year old.

A while back I wrote a post that explicitly went into the use of space in board games.

How can you use “space” in different ways for board game design? Can you have a game where pieces have to stay off of the board (above it?)? How does movement through 3 dimensions change a game? Is it possible to more explicitly add “time” to a game?

What difficulty level is your game? Can you make it a lower level (while keeping your depth of course! 😉 )?

Robinson Crusoe

At the end of the game we actually had quite a fancy hut!
One-sentence synopsis: A cooperative worker placement game of surviving on an deserted island while (depending on the scenario) trying to overcome the weather, cannibals, a volcano or even King Kong.

Robinson Crusoe has a great mechanic where you can use two workers and ensure that an action works, or you can use a single one but you’re going to have to roll some dice which might (will!) give you some bad stuff. Either you spread your workers and risk bad stuff, or you keep them together and run the risk of not being able to do enough to stave off bad stuff in the future. The game gives you control, while at the same time it forces you to gamble. The result is extremely tense, having players constantly at the edge of their seat because they are always at the edge of not making it.

The game is also one of the most thematic games I’ve ever played. Everything “makes sense”, in that you are taking the actions that you would be taking when really on a deserted island. More than that, the “forced gambling” (with the live of your character!) gives exactly the appropriate emotions of swinging between hope and despair.

In this post I talk more about how immersive Robinson Crusoe (and other games) are.

Where is the tension in your game? How do you give players a sense of control, while they still are required to “gamble”? What feelings do you want your players to have and what are the right mechanics to bring out those feelings?

Closing thoughts

Next time you play a game, try to pick out something that makes the game stand out. Maybe it’s a mechanic, maybe it’s the feeling it engenders, maybe it’s the way the theme is brought to live. Then think about why this is the case and what you can learn from it?

And if you find some interesting things, I would love for you to let me know!

Further reading

A while back I went in-depth on the Evolution board game and picked it apart for its lessons.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, In-game economics

Clear value right there!
When we want something in real life we go to the appropriate shop, give them some of our money and take whatever it was we desired (of course there are things that money can’t buy, but for this post I want to focus on things that are definitely in the sphere of standard economics).

If I desire a particular teacup you own, while you desire it less, it makes sense for me to give some of my money to you and take your teacup. This way I get something I desire and you get the ability to buy something else you desire.

Of course goods don’t just spring into existence – teacups need to be made. And to make things you need to give up things of value: You need to buy materials and pay workers. Perhaps you also need to buy tools and machines. You pay for marketing your product. And having it shipped to shops. Etc.

We’ve built up a whole economy designed to produce things that other people value more than the value that needs to be given up in producing the thing (and getting it to the buyer).

This means that in a production process the amount of value has to increase. The amount of value output has to be higher than the amount of value input.

What does all of this have to do with board games you might ask?

Value in board games

Board games have an in-game economy. We spend some resources (wood-tokens, turns, cards, actions, etc. – see this post for more on in-game resources) to get other resources (stone-tokens, new cards, different actions). In this sense a board game resembles a modern economy quite closely.

In the real economy we do things because they produce value, where value is measured as “something that people desire” (I’m sure if you dig into it you can go to an even deeper level. Something having to do with survival-of-the-fittest or something. I’m perfectly happy to leave it at this though.).

To understand the in-game economy it helps to understand what “value” means within the game.

As a first approximation we can use the same notion as we use for the real economy: “Things that players desire”.

But because this is a game, it’s quite easy to go one step further. Because while in real life people’s desires a decidedly murky, in a game it’s very clear what the goal is: To win! And so players “desire” whatever brings them closer to winning.

“Value” in a board game therefore is equivalent to getting closer to winning.

Some examples

I value you this much higher than your sheep!
The previous paragraph was quite abstract, so let’s make this more concrete.

In Catan I win when I have 10 victory points. And thus I will greatly value a victory point, because it most directly gets me closer to winning.

But I will also value anything that helps me get victory points; I love getting a village because it’s 1 VP closer to the finish. But that village is also going to produce resources. And those resources are going to help me get more victory points!

To build a village I need to gather resources: Wood, sheep, grain and stone. So I value those resources, because each one is one step towards building something that gets me 1 step closer to victory! If you think that’s convoluted, it can much worse… But let’s not get into that right now (I’ll spare your and my own brains!).

I also value anything that stops my opponents from getting closer to winning. Placing the robber helps me only marginally, but it can be quite a big issue for the other players. And as long as they are not winning, I have more time to get my own victory. Clear value creation!

Comparability

The idea of value makes it possible to compare different options. If I can either get an additional village or I get a “1 victory point” card in Catan, which do I prefer? I would say it’s the village, as it will produce further resources and thus has a higher value than the single victory point card.

In this example it is possible to make a direct comparison between two options and declare one of them better.

Of course such comparisons are hardly ever so easy. Because the 1 victory point card costs less to buy than a village. But there is also a randomness to buying a card, so I might not actually get that 1 point. And I can even imagine edge cases where I would prefer the 1 victory point card (something with knowing that my opponent holds a “monopoly” card). So even in such a simple and clear-cut example there is uncertainty.

And this is good! You want players to be able to more-or-less compare options, but not entirely. Because this is where interesting decisions are born! If there is ambiguity on which option actually holds the most value players will have to make a choice and live with the consequences.

Because if the value of each option was perfectly known, there wouldn’t be any choice to make: Simply take the one with the highest value!

The value economy

Got to keep the economy running!
In the beginning of this article I wrote how our economy is geared towards increasing value with each (production) step. The same should hold true for your board game economy.

Many games take multiple steps to get to a “final product”. In Catan I need resources to build first roads, then a village and finally a city. In each of these steps I’m increasing the value of what I have. This creates a sense of progression for your players as well a clear incentive to make certain choices (see this post on incentives in board games). Increases in value thus are a clear way of “steering” your players, without forcing them to do anything (they are free to not take the value increasing option…).

Of course it can be very interesting as well to make it much less clear that something actually has a positive value. Imagine a city in Catan being worth 0 points. Then there is a benefit (increased production) but also a downside (losing a victory point!). Given the target audience of Catan I fully understand that they decided not to go with this, but maybe your own game could use such a value trade-off?

Value is relative

I love going on vacation, while you might want a big car. We value different things.

In most board games players start out similarly (there are exceptions of course) and so in the beginning players will value the same thing the same way.

But once the game gets going players will have made choices that change the value of things for them. If you have a grain harbor you value grain more than if you don’t. If you’re one ore away from building a city then that ore is much more desirable than if you already have a hand full of the stuff.

When players are doing just-about the same you get a boring game. You want players to take different avenues. And for this you want them to value things differently. You want to vary how much additional benefit players get based on what they already have.

This can relate to strategic but also to tactical choices: What gives the most value in the long run versus what gives the most value right now.

Of course you also don’t want players to have completely different valuations, as that would mean they would have nothing to compete over!

Closing thoughts

This is closed now…
Thinking about the value of things in your board game can help you take a step away from the gritty details of the design and take a more holistic approach: What are ways of creating value? How can value be lost? Are there very efficient ways of creating value? What would happen if it was easier to create value? Or if you made it more difficult?

Under what circumstances would players value options differently? How big are those differences in value? And are they likely to occur? Can you increase those differences? should you?

I hope you found this post valuable!

Further reading

A while back I wrote a number of other posts about in-game economics. Here is a small selection:

Most fundamentally is the idea of resources in board games.

This current post also closely links to this post about cost and value in board games.

And finally an interesting way of creating value is through the use of (positive) feedback loops.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, Play-testing, Prototyping, Story telling

Grab your tools, we’re making a board game!
So you’ve got an idea for a board game. How do you turn it into something that can actually be played (and that people will enjoy)?

In this post I’ll give my take on how to go about this.

What this is -not- about

I’m not going to write how to get your ideas. I’ve found that people have many more ideas than time to work on them, so I’m going to assume that the bottleneck is not at the idea stage.

This is also not about how to make your game a commercial success. It will contain nothing getting published, kickstarter, social media, etc. There are other people that write about that, so if that’s what you’re looking for, there is a whole internet out there!

Too big an idea

Ideas are cheap. I can have 10 ideas before breakfast. Or I can have one really big idea idea before breakfast. With full game-play, hundreds of cards (each having 10 different pieces of information of course!).

However… When I try to turn that into a game, I always find that it doesn’t work quite the way I wanted it to. What seems brilliant in my mind is boring or even impossible when put into cardboard.

Thus: Don’t spend too much time on creating ideas.

The essence of the game

The essence of this game is nuts!
My feeling is that it’s much better to start small. What you need is the essence of your game. What is the summary of the game in 3 sentences?

During development you’ll be taking lots and lots of decisions, from minor thematic ones (“Should I use clowns or mimes as the bad guys?” to major mechanic ones (“Deckbuilding or worker placement? Why not both?!”). And what you need is a guide to help you make a choice. Without such a guide decisions become arbitrary. With such a guide you can test whether a decision is the right one or not: “Does it strengthen the essence of the game?”

To get to the essence of your game, it can help to answer the following questions:

  • Who will the players be? (Ogres! CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies! Mice!)
  • What do those characters want (and perhaps why do they want it?)? (Smash stuff! Beat the competition! Steal cheese!)
  • Why is that difficult? (There are human soldiers protecting the stuff to smash! The other CEOs are working hard not to be beaten! Cats, traps and other mice!)
  • What would you like your players to feel? (Glee (from all the destruction they cause)! Anxiety (for what the other CEOs will do)! Boldness (for going against the odds)!
  • What makes this awesome? (You get to smash stuff! You’ll feel so powerful when your plans work out! It’s great for a small mouse to beat big odds!)

These questions do not need to be answered in order and not all need to be answered: Can you describe what makes your game awesome? Start at the bottom. You have a clear idea of who you want your players to be? Start at the top. You don’t know yet what you want your players to feel? Skip that question.

Note that in the above there is only a hint of what kind of mechanics you might employ to create your game. Instead these questions relate more to the “theme” of the game. This is because I believe that themes are much easier for humans to grasp than the individual elements that make up a game. A theme is a stub for a story and having a “story” makes for a much more compact essence than mechanics do. Having a story allows you to ask “What happens next?”

In the mice game, you start your mice in their nest. What happens next? They go out into the house. What happens next? They encounter all sorts of obstacles such as cats and traps. What happens next…?

This then creates a framework around which you can build your game: I’ll need a nest, something outside the nest and obstacles. However, don’t go too far into this (see the remarks above about big ideas).

Is starting with a story the only way? Of course not! But I believe it’s a very powerful way, that will help you with all subsequent steps. But feel free to experiment!

First prototype

Maybe not the right type of enactment?
You have the “story” for your game. Now it’s time to add some way of enacting the first chapter of that story.

Here my suggestion is to keep it as simple as possible. You’re not going to be building your game in one go. Instead it’s going to be iterative and incremental. Because something can look absolutely amazing in your head, but only by playing will you know whether it actually works.

When you try to create a “full game” from scratch, you’ll implement things that won’t work (I guarantee it!). Which means you’ll have to re-do that part or (quite likely as well) scrap it entirely. Meaning a lot of work done for very little gain.

So, make the minimum that will allow you to play. Once that is more-or-less working, you can add to it easily enough.

How much do you need to create though? Enough for an entire game? Certainly not!

Create enough to play a round. A turn. A single action!

Your first prototype is to get going. It’s not going to be a fun game yet, it’s for learning purposes only.

For our mice game we’re going to need our mice to get to the cheese. Which means they need to be able to move around. And perhaps it’s nice if there actually is some cheese to go for as well. So as a bare minimum let’s select a pawn (from another game) to represent a mouse, we’ll have a board consisting of a grid (or even just a blank sheet of paper) and we’ll use a token (also from another game) to be the cheese. Place the mouse on one end of your “board” and the cheese at the other end.

And we’ll have a few rules.

A mouse token can be moved. By how much? Doesn’t really matter at this point, so choose an arbitrary number: 5 squares on your grid paper.

When a mouse gets to the cheese they can pick it up.

When the mouse with the cheese gets back to the starting square, you win the game.

That’s it. That’s your prototype!

Now, I hear you thinking: “But, but… There’s nothing there!”

And you’re right. There is nothing to this. But it’s a game. It can be played, it can be won. Time to play!

Your first game

You’ve built your very first prototype and you’ve set out the first rules. Now you go play your game.

So you take your mouse and move it 5 squares. And then you move it 5 squares again. And again. Until you get 2 squares away from the cheese. And then… If you strictly follow the rules of your game you’ll have to end the game or try to see if with a lot of maneuvering you can close that final gap.

But let’s say you quit your game then and there. Because you’ve done the most important thing in testing: You’ve found a problem!

Now this is a really simple problem so it’s easy enough to solve: You change the rules to say a mouse can move up to 5 squares.

And you start over.

Finding problems

Start your game again. This time you’re fairly easily able to get to the cheese and bring it back. Congratulations, you just finished (and won!) the very first time!

But by observing your play you find another problem: This is boring as hell!

Which is obviously not what you want your game to be. It should be fun and engaging and awesome.

Se let’s go solve this problem.

I found this light-bulb. Not sure how it’s going to help with my problem though…
When you find a problem in your game it’s generally a good idea to try to resolve it. For many problems the solution is obvious (like the previous one where it was difficult to actually reach the cheese).

Other problems might not have an immediate or perfect solution available.

It also makes sense to see what the problem behind the problem is. The problem with our game is that it’s boring. Which is a very general problem and not easy to solve as a whole. So what’s the cause of it being boring? A large part of it is that it’s just too easy. And thus a first step to making it more interesting would be to make the game more difficult. Specifically, there should be some opposition to reaching the goal (of bringing back the cheese). Now, this won’t suddenly make your game super. But it’s a step in the right direction. And with enough steps in the right direction, you reach your end goal: An amazing game.

Now it makes sense to do a small brainstorm session: Write down the gist of a number of possible solutions. Perhaps adding another player will solve things (direct competition for that cheese!). Or maybe it’s time to add the cat to the game, which will kill the player if they are not careful. Finally we could introduce traps to make life more difficult. With some time I’m sure you can come up with hundreds more options.

Actually… There are gazilions of possibilities: Space vortices that move the cheese, zombies that infect the mice, Mediterranean traders that require gold to buy the cheese.

“Wait, what?!?

This is one of the reasons I suggested starting with a “story”. Within that story there are a number of elements that “make sense”. And there are many many elements that do not. Because of the chosen story we do not actually need to consider space zombies, cheese pirates or robot dinosaurs. And while this is s a silly example, it does show that having a story makes the amount of options you need to consider much smaller. Which in the end allows you to move forward much faster. Of course there is a small risk: Perhaps undead robot dinosaurs from outer space really would make your game much much better. But you’ll probably never know…

When you have a set of (sensible!) solutions, pick the one that seems most likely to add to the game and implement it.

Implementing a solution

When you picked a solution to implement, you need to design it.

Let’s say we went for adding a cat. How can we add the cat in such a way that it’ll make the game more challenging but not impossibly so? Here again we have a number of options that we could go with. Perhaps the cat is mostly asleep but it wakes up at random moments. Or perhaps the mouse can go to places where the cat can’t, scurrying from a hole in the wall to underneath the sofa.

Each of these choices will bring about a different type of game. If the cat is awake at random moments we’re heading more towards a gambling game. If the mouse stays alive by moving from protected place to protected place it becomes a much more tactical movement game.

So which option to choose?

Once again we go back to our story and the questions to the answers we gave. We wanted mice to be “bold”, which seems to imply a good chance of getting caught out, with a reward for taking calculated risks.

At first sight the randomly sleeping cat fits that bill, but at second thought it would take away a lot of player agency: Randomly getting killed doesn’t have a lot to do with boldness.

But if we instead set out the “house” in such a way that you can take the safer but longer route, or the shorter but more risky route…

Which of course again gives the question how to do that exactly

Prototype 2.0

Back to the drawing board!
At this point (yes, before answering the previous question!) it’s time to update your prototype. If you try to “make” something in your head you’ll pass by a lot of problems that become glaringly obvious when you actually play.

We need stuff mice can hide under, so let’s place some random spaces on the board that are “safe”. Draw them or use something you can move around.

Because we’ll be changing things, let’s opt to cut out some random pieces of paper and place them over the board. We’ll pretend they are weirdly shaped couches or something (we’ll come up with justifications later!)

We’ll also add a rule: For every square that a mouse moves outside of a hidden area, the cat moves 3 squares directly towards the mouse (cats are much faster than mice of course).

Playtest 2.0

We reset the board and we play another game.

And we observe what happens.

Perhaps we find that it was very easy for the mouse to get the cheese. If so, make it more difficult, by making the cat faster or removing some furniture.

Or maybe the cat caught the mouse immediately: Make it easier by slowing down the cat or adding furniture.

But how much furniture do you need to add or remove?

Zooming in

When you first try a solution it’s unlikely that it’ll work perfectly in one go. As mentioned above, you’ll probably need to move the furniture or change the speed of the cat. And perhaps after that you’ll need to move it again.

Generally it takes a few iterations to get it right.

A good tip for this: When you make the first change to the game, make it bold. Remove all furniture except for 1 piece. Or quadruple the speed of the cat.

What you want is to end up on the “other side”: If the game was too easy, make it too hard and the other way around.

Then in the next iteration choose something in between the two extremes. And when you change it again move more toward one of the extremes again. This way you’re continuously “zooming in” on the right difficulty.

But where do you stop?

In the beginning of the game you’ll be painting with a very broad brush. Everything can change, so no need to put a lot of effort into getting any one element perfect. Use gut feeling to get to a “decent” level and leave it there. If it starts to bother you, you can come back and fine-tune further.

Later in development you’ll have solved the biggest issues, meaning that if you leave a change “too loose” it’ll become the next biggest issue. Spend a bit more time at getting it right so that you can move on to the next “real problem”.

How much is “a bit more”? You’ll develop the intuition to answer that!

Iterate to fun

In the previous paragraphs I described how you find problems and then you solve them. In all of this you keep the essence of your game in the forefront of your mind: Does it make sense? Does it add to the idea of the game?

But there is an even more important measure: Is it fun?!

In the end people play games for entertainment. Meaning they want to have a good time playing your game. So you need to iterate your game to make it fun.

That sounds obvious and it should be. But it’s also extremely difficult to actually do! But… There are ways!

There are many articles written about what constitutes a good board game (some even written by myself!). And I strongly suggest you read some of them to improve your skills. But in the end there is one thing that matters most when going for the fun…

Designing for fun: Play testing with others

Look at all those potential play-testers!
The core of finding the fun is testing with other people.

When you start designing your game you’ll be doing a lot of the testing yourself. The problems are big and obvious and easy to spot, so you don’t need to invest the time to get others involved.

At some point however the blatant problems are gone and you’ll have played your game so many times it’s completely impossible for you to tell whether you still enjoy it or not (yes, that really happens. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, you need to do more testing!)

This is where you bring in play testers from outside.

There are three groups of play testers that you’ll need in the course of your development:

  • Friends & Family
  • Other designers
  • Complete strangers

If you have a group of designers nearby I would strongly suggest starting your testing there. Fellow designers are generally more patient with things that don’t “quite work” yet. They are also better able to pinpoint where there are problems with your game.

I’ve found though that fellow designers are less useful to figuring out whether a game is fun or not. They tend to be so deep into designing that it’s hard to take a step back and simply “enjoy” a game. Still, they will give their opinion and you should be happy to make use of it.

Next to fellow designers it’s great to play your game with friends and family. They will have a much less in-depth look into your game, meaning they won’t be as good at spotting specific problems (and coming up with solutions). They are however a much better audience to test the “fun” with. Having said that, they might not be completely honest with you: It’s so much easier to say they enjoyed themselves and not hurt your feelings, than to honestly tell you they’d rather go swim with piranha’s than play another round of your game…

Finally, when you are getting to be very happy with your game (this is generally after tens if not hundreds of play tests!), you need to test with strangers. These people are far less invested in your personal well-being and thus will be more honest. Still, they have a tendency to be “polite”, which can mean they will make things appear nicer than they actually find them.

How to play test

So you’ve got a bunch of people together to test your game. What do you do now?

Many articles have been written about how to do play testing well (because it’s such an important subject!), so I’m not going to go in-depth into the subject (this article is long enough as it is!). But I want to give at least a few pointers.

As mentioned, in play testing you’re trying to find out if the game is fun and what is stopping it from being even more fun. For this you’re looking for “signs of trouble”.

A “sign of trouble” is any indication that a player is not having a good time, not having fun.

A great way to find out what players feel during your game is to ask them. You can do this during the game, but I’ve found it’s generally better to wait until the end, so as not to interrupt their experience. Try to ask the same question in multiple ways. Directly: “Did you enjoy the game” to subtly: “What would you change?”

A word of warning when asking players: You’re trying to find out the problems with your game. It’s then for you to find solutions, not for your play testers! They don’t know your game as well as you do. That doesn’t mean they won’t come up with suggestions though (people love being creative!). However, take these suggestions as pointing towards the problem, not as actual solutions to it: “What would be really cool is if I could trade cheese with other mice!” This can mean that the player feels there is too little player interaction. Ask further questions to get to the bottom of why they are suggesting something.

Whatever feedback your play testers give, thank them for it and write it down. You will forget exactly what people said in a day or two, meaning you wasted a perfectly good play test.

Finally: Do not defend your game! If they feel something, they are correct. Which is not to say you need to do something about it. In the end it’s your game. But time with play testers is valuable. Use it to get as much information as possible, not arguing.

Just as important as asking players is observing them while playing. Are they engaged or are they looking at their phone? Is there laughter or yawns?

The combination of asking and observation should allow you to hone in on the problems you find (allowing you to go into problem solving mode, as explained above).

The above is a cycle. And you’ll go through it many times. As mentioned above, what you’re trying to do is take steps towards a better game.

This will not be a direct path. You will need to back-track. Sometimes to a previous version, sometimes to 10 versions ago (yes, I’ve had that happen to me multiple times!). This sucks, but it’s part of the game. So learn to love it, or try a different hobby…

Some final tips

This is what you get when you look for tips on the internet…
Make your game short! This is simpler to design and test and it will be much easier to get people to play it. Half an hour is perfect, an hour is acceptable. If you need more time than that consider shelving the design and work on it as your fifth game.

Regularly check your game for things that can be taken out. Putting things in is easy and happens naturally. Elements however never disappear on their own, even if they are no longer needed. What purpose does everything in your game serve? If you can’t answer, experiment with the game without it.

Prototype early, prototype often! Test early, test often! Don’t design in your head, design in cardboard!

Summary

The above is a lot to take in I realize, so let me try to give the quick summary:

  • Create the story of your game
  • Create a prototype as quickly as possible
  • Find a problem and solve it
  • Do the previous step until you have a half-way decent game
  • Play test with others to find more problems and solve those
  • Do the previous step until you have a full-way decent game!

Closing thoughts

Creating a board game is a lot of fun! You get to be creative, you get to really own the process and the outcome and you get to be social while doing it. There is nothing like having a really difficult design problem and after chipping away at it you finally find the perfect solution! We play games because we like challenges. We make games because we like challenges!

But… Making a board game also takes a lot of free time and the chances of making any money out of it are very slim. If you don’t enjoy the process, don’t start on it. If you want to be rich invent a time machine and buy BitCoin.

However, if you want to do something creative, design a board game!

I hope that this “guide” has been helpful to whomever is starting on the journey of creating a game (and perhaps also to people who are much further along on that path?).

I’ve expressed my own opinions and ideas on how to do things. And being human, I tend to be wrong a lot. So if you disagree, I would love for you to let me know so we can learn together!

Further reading

Two elements that I believe are very important to any board game are tension and interesting decisions.

And one of the strongest ways of creating both is through player interaction.

Prototyping takes a lot of time and in the beginning you’ll be throwing away a lot of what you create. To do really rapid first “prototypes” I use what I call the “blank play-test”.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, Los Buenos

Somehow these are meant to change how I play this game?!?
I’ve been able to get in a reasonable number of play tests for Los Buenos recently. The core of the game is pretty solid, but there are quite a few things “at the edges” that can be better. Changes thus have been relatively small, making comparisons between different versions easier to make.

What I’ve found interesting to see is that relatively small changes can result in significant differences in player behavior. On the one hand this is great, because it means I can incentivize different actions with minor adjustments. On the other, it also means that a small change could remove quite a bit of what is actually working. As always, it’s a balancing act…

In this post I want to go into a few things I’ve run into and hopefully gain some general ideas about incentives and player behavior.

Incentives – or: How much do I get?

One of the fundamental mechanics of Los Buenos is that a major way of gaining Karma Points (victory points) is by “helping” other players. Each player can start building projects and other players can place workers (technically they are work tokens but for this post the difference doesn’t matter) to help finish a building. Every player who places at least one worker gets 1 karma point. The player who places the most workers get additional karma points. In case of a tie these additional points don’t get given out. Thus, there is an incentive to “help the most”.

For most of the play tests the “bonus” for helping the most was 2 karma points, for a total of 3 (1 for helping at all, 2 for helping the most). The buildings available in the beginning of the game give the “owner” 3 or 4 karma points and require them to use some workers as well (mostly to gather the resources (wood and gold) required to be able to start building.) Thus, initiating a building and “helping the most” give about the same benefits.

The observed behavior was that players would work towards being “most helpful” and would be ok with others “helping the most” if it came up as well.

Then I changed the amount players got for “helping the most” to 3 karma points (for a total of 4). Behavior suddenly changed significantly: Players would think hard and actively collude to prevent others from getting these points.

In previous games I had regularly seen players take an action to “block” someone from gaining the points, but it was far from a sure thing. Now suddenly it was the one thing driving the game.

What behavior do I want?

It would be cool if my board game got people to do this!
So the question then becomes: What kind of behavior do I want? Well, maybe I should’ve asked this question before doing my tests, but hey, you use what you’ve got, right? 🙂

Having players actively work against each other makes for interesting player interaction. I like the fact that they were discussing on how they could block someone. It also creates more tension, as it means that players that have a chance to get the 4 points are eager for that to happen.

On the other side, it takes away player agency: During your turn you’re almost “obliged” to prevent another player from getting their points. And this reduces the amount of interesting choices players have to make. It’s not that they’re gone, but there are less of them!

It also makes it frustrating for players that it’s very hard for them to actually get the 4 points as this entirely depends on other players’ actions. Having said that, there are possibilities to “set up” the board in such a way that other players have to make a choice on who they prevent getting the 4 points.

Finally, the game with the higher points felt “harsher”: Players are much more working against each other. I want this to happen somewhat, but perhaps not all the time.

Based on the above I’m edging towards going back to giving 2 points for helping the most. I’m however not entirely sure, so I’ll run at least one other play test with the 3-point rule.

Incentive: The right place at the right time

The game includes “experts” and “expert spaces”. These expert spaces can only be occupied by expert workers, while expert workers can occupy both expert spaces and normal spaces. The twist is that when you place an expert on an expert space you get 1 karma (the rationale being that experts like doing difficult work).

The result of this is that as soon as an expert space becomes available, players are eager to place their expert, as it gives them a “free” karma. And players almost always do.

The upsides and downsides

We can all use a little nudge to start investing
The upside of this mechanic is that it gets players “invested” in building projects: You’ve already placed a worker, so why not go for the full bonus of “helping the most” as well?

This was something that was very useful in previous versions of the game, where there were buildings that required a lot of workers and players otherwise were inclined not to start on them – too much risk of someone else grabbing the “most helpful” bonus.

In the current version however the number of workers required is mostly 2 or 3, with a few “big” buildings needing 4 workers. Thus the incentive to “start” isn’t needed as much anymore.

Also, it’s an additional rule to game. Part of my vision is to make the game as “light” as possible – I’d like for people to feel it’s at about the same level as Catan. And thus I have to think about whether this (and every other) rule is “pulling its weight”.

Finally, there is some thematic explanation for getting a karma when placing an expert on an expert space, but it’s somewhat “thin”.

Thus, I’m going to make a version that doesn’t use experts at all to see if behavior changes significantly.

One thing I’m curious to see if it makes the game longer. I can imagine that having an obviously “good” action available makes it easier to make a choice. On the other hand, does that also mean that there are fewer interesting choices?

Lessons learned

Above I explained two sets of incentives within the game and the kind of behavior that they result in. For both I’m not sure whether I actively want to change anything, but thinking about it does make it much clearer what the pros and cons are.

It also made me realize that it’s a very good idea to start thinking about what kind of behavior I want and then to design towards that (instead of throwing things in and seeing what happens – what I’ve mostly been doing so far).

It also allows me to pro-actively create “experiments”: I’m going to experiment with removing the experts. The experiment will be a success if behavior does not change significantly (and people are not complaining that they are missing the expert).

I’ll also experiment further with the increased karma points for “helping the most”. There the “success” is less clear though: Both options have advantage and disadvantages. It would however be very useful to see whether the observed behavior works for other groups besides the one I tested with most recently. And if that’s the case I’ll see if I can somehow get the best of both worlds, with the increased tension of the higher points, while keeping the set of interesting choices from the lower points.

Finally, it’s good to get insight in behavior of people around the game. I might change something in the future which means it would be very beneficial to increase competition. I now know that one way of doing that is increasing the amount of point players get from helping the most.

Closing thoughts

Let’s paint us some incentives!
When you start designing a game you’re painting with a very broad brush. There is a big idea, some clues about which mechanics might work. And during early play tests those can change wholesale. Elements get cut, mechanics change irrecognizably, the theme goes from one end to the other. If you don’t like something a player is doing, just remove the entire thing!

Then when you get further into the design the game solidifies. Changes get smaller and more subtle. You might still swap something out if it’s not working but it gets more rare. Influencing what players do is more by setting up how elements interact than by wholesale addition and removal.

And then finally when you have a “working game” you want to perfect it. The tiniest brush the allows you to push your players to do a little bit more of something. To get them to take an action 10% less often.

I believe that it’s at this last part where you need to think deeply about your incentives. Why do players do what they do? Is that what you want them to do? How do you change it? How do you change it the right amount?

What are the incentives you’ve employed in your game?
Did you ever had “troublesome” player behavior? What did you do about it?
Do you actively think about how to get players to do what you want them to?

Further reading

A while back I also wrote a (more general) post on incentives in board games.

And In the above I talk about the expert spaces. This was the subject of another post as well, where I looked at how the scarcity of these spaces impacted the game.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below: