Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

Facebooktwitterreddit

Introduction

Recently I had the joy of a weekend away with friends. In between sleeping late, hiking, great food and a beer or two, there was ample time to play games. And by far the biggest hit was “Evolution” (or specifically “Evolution – Climate”, which is the game with an expansion built in, though in this post I’m going to focus on the Evolution game, without the Climate expansion).

In this post I’ll do my best to dissect the game, trying to glean some insights as to why it’s such a good game (so that you can make yours equally great!).

Evolution in a nutshell

In Evolution you get a bunch of cards, with which you can create awesome animals with which you will compete in an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Cards can be discarded to start a new (“blank”) species, to increase population of a species or to increase body size. These cards can also be played to give your animals up to four “traits”: A long neck to get additional (plant) food, a hard shell or horns to protect against carnivores, or your species can become a carnivore itself so it can eat other animals. Finally, you have to discard a card to add (plant) food to the central food stockpile (called the watering hole).

Then it’s time to feed your animals. Herbivores eat from the watering hole and carnivores eat other animals. You decrease the population of your animal(s) if you can’t feed them (there are no more plants for your herbivores or all animals are protected against your carnivore) or when they get eaten by a carnivore. If the last animal of a species dies it goes extinct. But not to worry, you can start a new species!

Final scoring is for the amount of food your animals ate during the game, how much population you have left at the end of the game and how many traits your surviving species have.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the game, let’s delve into its brilliance!

The periphery

There are a few reasons that, though they aren’t central to the game, certainly help:

  • The game is relatively simple: There are only a handful of rules to remember and they’re all reasonably intuitive
  • The only real resource the game uses is cards, which are used in many capacities, lending the game a beautiful elegance
  • The cards are just beautiful to look at

The core

There are a number of elements that I believe are at the core of what makes Evolution such an enjoyable experience. The following paragraphs try to show these off.

Immersion

Evolution is very strong at immersing you in the game, making you care.

During the game you’re building a species: A pack-hunting, climbing, horned, carnivore or a burrowing, hibernating, migrating, long-necked herbivore? You take your pick! creating something gives a sense of “ownership”, which makes it much more likely that you’ll care about it.

This is enhanced by the fact that you’re creating a creature. We’ve all had a pet rabbit or gazed lovingly at an elephant in the zoo. There is something about animals that makes our human hearts skip a beat. Something that a city, civilization or farm just won’t do. The graphics on the cards help with this, turning any “mud-wallowing” (yes that’s a trait!) animal into a cute wart-hog and a “furry” animal into a great big ox.

These animals even act like (very stylized) versions of the real thing: They need to eat and they can breed, making them seem even more “real” to the mind’s eye.

And when the game has done everything it can to make you care about your make-belief animals, it does something wonderfully horrible: It kills them! Either because there just isn’t enough food, or because they become a tasty snack to another player’s carnivore. This creates a roller coaster of emotion from happy conception to tear-jerking death, helps to pull you even further into the game.

See this post for more on immersion through story telling.

Player interaction

Hey buddy, pall, friend… Wouldn’t you rather interact with someone else?
I love modern (Euro)games. But too often it feels like I’m playing on my own with people sitting nearby who only happen to be playing the same game.

Evolution has a healthy dose of player interaction: Which carnivore is preying on my cute bunny-like animal? What would be a good snack for my tiger-equivalent? Can my turtle get some food or is that lizard on the opposite side of the table going to grab the last vegetation?

Through this you’re constantly looking out for what your opponents are doing. It’s very figuratively a matter of eat-or-be-eaten.

And even if there is currently nothing that can touch my almost-dinosaur, I have to be acutely aware of what some player might evolve next turn: Can any carnivore grow large enough to eat it?

Obviously, getting your animals eaten by someone else isn’t good for your point total. Luckily it’s generally fairly doable to protect your animals, or at least make it costly for someone else to go after them. You might very well lose a bit of population, but getting an entire species eaten is generally more due to your own inattentiveness than what exactly your opponent does.

And of course, turn-around is fair game! Nothing is more fun than turning that cuddly prey-animal into a ferocious hunter itself!

The circle of life

Many games have a sense of buildup: Get resources to build something up so you can get more resources (rinse, wash, repeat). Mostly however this progression is either (almost) straight up (e.g. Agricola) or it’s a back-and-forth where my progress is your downfall (e.g. Risk).

In Evolution you’re definitely building things up (cool species, to be exact!). There is something very satisfying with creating the perfect killing machine or an animal that eats all available food before anybody else has the chance.

But there is a very real possibility of loss as well: Your apex predator can suddenly find itself going hungry as all prey has suddenly “evolved” powerful defenses against it. And one of your animals might go extinct, but it’s easy enough to create something new (and even more awesome!).

The result of this is that it’s never a case of “the winner keeps on winning”. No species is invulnerable for very long, the high will be brought low and the low will rise up. Possibly even multiple times in the same game.

Tension

Tense as a steel cable!
Is that carnivore coming after my cute little pig, or is my neighbor’s gecko a better bite? Will there be enough food to keep my species from losing half its population? Is that last prey animal my species can eat going to evolve the ability to climb so I can’t get at it?

Through a combination of never knowing what your opponents are going to do and some hidden information, there is a lot of tension in the game (see this post for more on tension in board games).

This partly overlaps with the paragraph about “immersion” about. Because you get so into the game, any threat is felt even more acutely. It’s not some abstract bits of wood and cardboard, it’s a magnificent species that might get wiped off the face of the earth (well, tabletop)!

Meaningful decisions

The amount of resources (see this post for more on resources in board games) you have available is very limited: You only get a few cards per turn. This means that you have to make those cards count! Increase population for additional points when feeding, but running the risk there might not be enough food? Increase body size to protect against predators? Start a new animal in the hopes that nobody will eat it straight away? Add further protective traits to your strongest animal? But which traits to give up?

And what’s nicest is that these choices are not made once, but every round again. A species is never “finished”; that great defense last turn might be a liability this turn. And where food was the limiting factor in the beginning of the game, maybe it’s all those pesky carnivores at the end. You’re constantly reacting and trying to foresee what the game (other players) are throwing at you.

An unfortunate choice might mean a wasted card, a significant loss of population or even the extinction of your species, so these choices matter!

And there are generally multiple ways of “solving” a problem. Predators roaming? Protect your species with traits, grow it too large to be eaten, breed it faster than it can be consumed, or have your own carnivore eat the other’s!

Lots of meaningful decisions to be made (see this post for more on meaningful decisions)!

Closing thoughts

Evolve, or you might end up as these guys
Evolution” certainly isn’t perfect. There is a bit of a learning curve for all of the different cards, it can be hard to keep track of exactly what all the other animals are capable of (especially with many players) and having a hand full of cards can lead to serious analysis-paralysis (see this post about how to reduce analysis-paralysis in your own game).

All of that doesn’t stop Evolution from being a great game! And it certainly doesn’t stop it from being a good example of how you can improve your own game.

Are you immersing the players in your game? Do they care about what it is they’re doing?

How do your players interact? Is your choice for multiplayer solitaire (or all-out war!) a deliberate one or just the easiest option? What do your players feel about their opponents at the end of the game?

What are the sources of tension in your game? Are they at the edge of their seats or looking at their phone most of the time?

Do players have meaningful decisions? Are there multiple choices that give distinctly different outcomes? Is there an always-best choice?

Good luck with your design endeavors!

Feedback please!

Wisdom evolves through discussion: I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
Board game design, Story telling

Facebooktwitterreddit

Introduction

I strongly believe that (good) board-games are a form of storytelling. And that means we can use the lessons from storytelling to better our games.

One of the most important elements of any story is tension: Is she going to get the girl? Will he fall off the cliff? What’s going to happen?!?

In this article I want to look at what tension is and (more importantly) how to introduce it in your board-game.

Now that’s what I’m looking for!

What is tension?

In a good story the heroine is dodging bullets, almost getting blown up and getting stabbed in the back. She will dangle from cliffs, get captured by the bad guy or have a gun pressed to her head. And we’re left to wonder: “How is she going to get herself out of this one?”

Tension then is the uncertainty about whether a desired outcome is actually going happen.

There are two essential elements to this: Uncertainty and desired outcome. So how to create these?

Creating uncertainty

Uncertainty comes naturally in board-games. I’m never quite sure what my opponent is going to do. And though I might know the odds of a die-roll, I don’t know what number is going to come up until I actually roll. And is my opponent holding a harmless 2 or a high king? The human factor, randomness and hidden information are ways of introducing uncertainty.

It has to be the right kind of uncertainty though to produce tension. If it doesn’t matter whether my opponent holds a 2 or a king then I might be uncertain, but I don’t actually care and there won’t be any tension. Likewise, if I need to draw a card and only 1 card out of 50 is going be bad then there is very little tension as well: The chance of getting something I don’t like is simply too low.

Thus, the uncertainty needs to be on something that has a reasonable chance of changing the state of the game in the advantage or disadvantage of the player. What’s a reasonable chance? My feeling is that having a chance of succeeding of about 25 to 33% creates the most tension (note that here I don’t only mean chance in the form of a dice roll, but also a “chance” based on what hidden game pieces there might be or how my opponent might behave). This is a decent chance, but the odds are still stacked against you. You’re fervently hoping for the desired outcome, but you also know that things probably won’t go your way. But you can hope. And the more you hope, the more you care!

Because it’s just not doable to add these to every game…

Creating desired outcomes

The second part of the equation is that for something to be tense, the players have to desire one outcome over the other.

The more there is at stake, the more players will care. The ultimate thing players care about is winning or losing the game, so a move on which the game hinges will be filled with tension.

But even before the game is about to end, there will be things at stake. Will I be able to grab that pile of wood before Mary does? Will the next die roll see my army triumph or defeated?

One way of increasing tension is by putting more at stake. The bigger the pile of goodies you can “win”, the more interesting it becomes. The downside of this however is that too big a win can mean that it’s impossible for the opponent to catch up. And nothing drains the fun (tension!) out of a game quite as much as being forced to play while you know you’ve all but lost.

Upping the ante

One way around this is by increasing the stakes throughout the game. Even if you lost some in the beginning, the next time round you can win back a bit more and you’re back on track.

This is also the way in which many stories are structured, where the hero has to overcome bigger and bigger obstacles, leading to the final climatic battle against the evil scientist hell-bent on taking over the world.

Flowers, faith, what’s the difference?

Taking your faith in your own hands

Imagine a game where I flip a coin: Heads I win, tails you win. According to the ideas above this should create a fair amount of tension: There is a lot of uncertainty and the stakes are high (it’s winning or losing the entire game!). For most people however this wouldn’t be interesting and most certainly not tense.

What is missing here is the final ingredient to creating tension: Influence over the outcomes.

When you get a new apartment it’s strange, alien. But when you paint it, put your own furniture in, live in it, it becomes your own. When you (try to) influence the outcome of something in a game, you have to give it your attention. You might have to give up resources to gain the influence. You’re investing in it, and in the process you are working towards the outcome you want. Making it all the more painful if that outcome doesn’t come to be…

One of the best examples of this is in the final stages of the game Kuhhandel, where you’re bidding blind against your opponent for some cute farm animals. There is uncertainty (through the hidden bids), there are stakes (through the animal that you can gain), but because you have so much direct control over your part it’s an incredibly tense moment (I’ve seen people literally break out in sweat!).

Closing thoughts

Board-games tell stories and stories thrive on tension. I strongly believe that increasing tension in a game makes it better. In this article I tried to dissect what tension in board-games entails and to paint in broad strokes how to include (and increase) it in your board-game. I hope you’re able to make use of it!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
Fun

Facebooktwitterreddit

If life were a board-game, would people play it? Would it get published? Let’s take a look!

What type of game is life

Let’s first look into what kind of game life is.

Player interaction

Life is best described as a semi-cooperative game, in that there is ample room for both fruitful cooperation, but there can be quite a bit of in-play adversity as well. In-play adversity can be very intense, even leading to sudden player elimination.

Each player gets a pawn more-or-less like this
Major mechanics

Worker placement is probably the most important “major” mechanic. It’s got a slight twist compared to other games in that you only get to have a single worker, and you get to allocate time for that worker to accomplish actions. In the later game it is possible to obtain multiple workers, but you still need to allocate time from your original worker for them to take actions. An interesting part of this is figuring out whether this trade is worth it or not.

The other major mechanic is resource gathering and allocation. There are a great deal of resources in the game, with accompanying advantages and disadvantages; food is a requirement, but diamonds really are just a nice-to-have There is a rich in-game economy which lets you get from one resource to another. What I do dislike is that there is this one resource “money” which can be traded for almost all of the other ones.

Minor mechanics

Next to worker placement, there are numerous minor mechanics. At different points in the game there will be pick-up-and-delivery, bluffing, social deduction, area control and many others.

It’s quite interesting that you can chose which of these mechanics you are most interested in and use those more frequently.

The good

So what are some of the good features of the game?

Depth of play

Life offers incredible depth of play, with huge amounts of possibilities open to players and a nearly infinite strategies possible. This is better than any other game I’ve ever seen and is probably it’s most important selling point.

One downside of this depth is that it brings the difficulty of making a choice between all the different options. The result is that players tend to copy what the other players nearby are doing, which sometimes makes for a bit boring (local) game play. “Mary, John, Alice and Bob think it’s a good idea to have a kid, so I should probably get one too.”

Player interaction

The player interaction is truly superb. You can form alliances or make enemies, stand together or try to eliminate another player altogether. The mechanics for this are subtle and well thought-through. This is done by giving bonuses to players who work together (greater productivity, increased defense, etc.) but also by having feedback loops which mean that going without interacting with other players can be quite costly in “mental resources”: Getting too high on the “loneliness track” can be a real killer!

Much of the depth of the game is driven by this player interaction.

There is some really beautiful artwork in life!
The artwork

A lot of attention was put into the board and the looks of the player representations. And while not all of it is exceptional, there most certainly are parts which are better than any other game I’ve ever laid eyes one!

The neutral

Some elements aren’t good or bad but neutral or good and bad in equal dosages.

Length of play

A game of life can differ significantly for different players, some playing for decades while others don’t even get minutes.

For most players however life is much longer than any other game one would generally play. This is good as it makes it possible to explore the fast depths that the game has to offer.

The fact that play length is very random does detract significantly from the game.

The bad

Like any board-game there are pieces that could’ve done with a bit more testing before they were put in the final version.

Too damned easy…
Player elimination

As already mentioned the game incorporates player elimination. In fact, player elimination is very simple in general, though there are also strong in-game consequences for doing this, making it a risky strategy to pursue.

That however does not help any players that actually get eliminated…

The rule book

There is none.

Instead there is a sort of awkward tutorial phase in which new abilities and options slowly become available. This takes a long time and is not particularly interesting.

The one redeeming quality is that it blends perfectly into the actual game play so that you’re never quite sure whether you’re still in tutorial mode or playing already.

Still, having the rules written out would’ve been a really big boon!

Unclear winning conditions

As there are no written rules, the winning conditions are unclear.

This can make for interesting game play as it allows players to choose their own goal, but in general it is found to be quite irritating; I would call this one of the major design flaws of the game.

Unbalanced starting positions

Starting positions for players are random, but these have a tremendous impact on the game. They determine early access to resources, which have huge cumulative effects throughout the game; when you start in the “Europe” region you can expect to have more starting resources than players at the very end of the game if they start in “Africa”. Could do with some proper balancing!

Churning

Large parts of the game tend to be quite repetitive and boring.

This is in part because of the unclear winning conditions, which makes it difficult to make a choice of which option is better than the others. The result is that many players start to hedge and go for resources that are very “general” in nature (i.e. “coins” and “social status”) so that if they somehow figure out what their winning conditions are, they can change their resources relatively easy.

Runaway leaders

Even though there are no clear winning conditions, having more resources is obviously useful.

When resources are relatively scarce, getting enough resources to pay the many different “taxes” (e.g. “food” which gets consumed every turn, the requirement for “shelter”, etc.) can be quite demanding. Moving towards getting a bit more resources can be very challenging.

However when you do get to a decent surplus of resources, it is incredibly easy to increase these further, to ridiculous amounts even (I’ve heard stories of players who literally had a million times more resources than other players!).

This is further exacerbated by the unbalanced starting positions, making a random element that is determined before starting the most important part of whether you can get to a surplus at all.

The interesting

So what are some of the more interesting bits of the game, what makes it stand out from all the other board-games that are out there?

You know what this game needs? Another player!
Player generation

One truly unique mechanic is that it is possible for players to generate new players! This is something I’ve never seen implemented in anything else.

Generating a new player costs quite something in resources (also because this includes resources required for the tutorial), but for most players this is attainable.

It’s also interesting that not one but two players are required to generate a new player. The result of this is an increase in overall cooperation in the game and further deepens the player interaction.

The artwork interacts with the game

The artwork can have a direct impact on the game!

The first way this is done is through pieces of the board that can enhance (or detract from) your mental resources (e.g. “sunset” can increase your “mood”).

Even more amazing is that the artwork of the player representations have an impact on how they influence other players: Players that have been rendered more beautifully generally interact more easily with other players!

This is one example of an unbalanced starting resources; the artwork for different players differs significantly and while it can be changed, this is difficult. For game play it is a negative, but the idea is very elegant and interesting!

Play only once

Life can be played once and that’s it. There are some discussions on different forums that it’s possible to start anew, but how that would be done and whether it actually works is murky and highly debated.

This means that it is not possible to implement what you learned in one game to the next. Due to potential game length however it is possible to pick up a lot of the game whilst playing it. And one could argue that playing a second game with knowledge of the first would give an incredible advantage compared to other players.

There are some other games that aren’t fun to play more than once, but they still can be. For life however this is strictly not possible.

The final verdict

Though the game has some serious balance problems, this can be forgiven because of the incredible depth that the game offers and some very interesting new mechanics.

If the imbalances get improved I would rate it higher, but as it stands, it gets 3 stars out of 5.


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
Board game design, Components

Facebooktwitterreddit

Introduction

To boldly go where no board-game has gone before!
To boldly go where no board-game has gone before!
“One card in your hand is worth ten in the deck!” (Free after a well-known saying).

In board-games the location of where components are makes a very big impact on the game. The same token can be invaluable when it’s in your pile, a source of worry when the opponent has it, a consideration when on the board and near meaningless in the general stock.

In this post I want to delve into the spatial element of board-games.

The state of the game

You walk up to a game in progress and you look at the board: Ah, Mary has ten cards in hand and a lot of resources in front of her, while Mike is holding on to a single card and has a minute pile of cubes. It’s pretty obvious that Mary is doing better!

You got this information just by taking a look of what is where.

The location of all the different playing pieces shows the state of the game. It is a snapshot of all the information that is relevant right now.

Location, location, location

As in real-estate, location is king!
As in real-estate, location is king!
Board-game components generally have a location. This cube is on the “grain” field. That card is in my hand.

In general the location of a piece is important: Having your Catan village on the intersection between a 6, 5 and 10 is very different from having it between the desert, a 2 and an 11.

Location also carries a lot of information regarding playing pieces. A yellow cube on the grain field represents grain that can be harvested by any player, while a yellow cube in front of me is my grain, which nobody can touch!

In some cases the location can even change the what the game piece represents (what it is a metaphor for; see this post for more on metaphors in board-game design). In San Juan face up cards on the table are built buildings, while face down cards on top of (certain) buildings represent goods stored in that building.

Move. Your. Sheep!

It's awesome to move to (a new) space!
It’s awesome to move to (a new) space!
Where the location of playing pieces represents the state of the game, movement is the actual playing of it.

During our turn we make changes to the game by moving stuff around: I move this worker from my house to the field and I get two grain cubes, which I move from the general stock to my playing area. Or: I put this wood piece back in the general pile and move this building tile to an empty space of the board and put a marker of my color on top of it.

We’ll sink deep in thought trying to come up with the –literally- best move. The change in the position of the board pieces that will give us the largest advantage.

What’s your orientation?

Strictly speaking all board-game pieces are 3-dimensional. Meaning that they have an orientation.

This orientation can also be used to convey information. A face-up card has a different meaning than a face-down card. In Carcasonne laying down a meeple means something different than one standing up.

Randomization

I fall for the one...
I fall for the one…
Board-games use random effect. The two most common methods of generating randomness are by rolling dice (where we care about the orientation) and by shuffling a deck of cards (where we care about the location (in the deck)).

In both cases vigorous motion is responsible for creating the randomness.

Hidden in plain sight

In general the location and orientation of something is common knowledge: It’s easy to see where something is and what way it is facing.

Many games however make use of hidden information.

This can either be done by putting something in a hidden location (behind a screen or in a bag) or by orienting it in such a way as to hide the important part of the component (e.g. by putting a card face down, or holding it in your hand)

Stuff that is not space-bound

So is there nothing but location, orientation and movement? Not exactly.

One very important part of board-games is what goes on in players’ minds and between players. We try to think of the best move and we work on outsmarting our opponents. Or we want to manipulate someone into doing our bidding.

In some games the mental / social is the most important part of the game. Social deduction games care very little for location and orientation (though keeping your role-card face down is important!)

Closing thoughts

May the northern light lead the way to board-game insights!
May the northern light lead the way to board-game insights!
Location, orientation and movement are what make most board-games. Can you use these in different ways?

Are there locations for playing pieces that are not generally used? Underneath the board? In between other playing pieces?

Can you use the same component differently in different locations? Cubes in hand versus on the board? Cards that are building components, currency, and part of the board in different spaces?

Can you do something with the orientation? Standing and lying meeples? Cards that stand up?

Is there an interesting way to randomize? Pour out a hand full of cubes over the board? Roll a cylinder down a track?

How can you hide information? Hide resources underneath other ones?

Good luck with your designing!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I need to re-orient myself?!


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
Board game design

Facebooktwitterreddit

Introduction

Life is like a metaphor for a box of chocolates
Life is like a metaphor for a box of chocolates
This tile represents a house. That wooden cube stands for a real piece of construction wood. The deck of cards is the set of magic spells that you could cast. A turn is meant to convey a year. Placing a worker gives the idea of doing a certain amount labor.

Board-games exist by the grace of representations or metaphors. Anything in a game is a stand-in for something else (it probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun if you actually had to harvest a field if you placed your worker on a grain tile).

In this post I want to explore what this means from a design perspective..

Theme: The first metaphor

This park has a theme!
This park has a theme!
Puerto Rico would play exactly the same if you removed all references to production, shipping and taking the role of a certain person. What you’re actually doing is moving components from one location on the table to another. At the end of the game you count a certain kind of component and declare the player with the most as the winner. It is only in your mind are you growing coffee and loading it into a ship.

So why not be satisfied with moving bits of cardboard and wood around, why do we tack on this bit about building plantations in a Latin American country?

To answer that, let’s take a look at games without a theme first.

Games without theme

There are games that don’t have a theme, so called “abstracts”.

4 in a row is a nice example of this: As far as I know the discs you slide down the holder don’t represent anything. Victory doesn’t imply that some evil was defeated or that you built the best civilization. No: Get four meaningless discs in a meaningless row of and you win!

The freedom of the abstract

Chess is almost without theme
Chess is almost without theme
Abstracts are the “cleanest” of games: There is no meaning to convey and thus there are no restrictions on what pieces you can introduce or what you can design with those pieces.

This can certainly be an advantage: Full freedom in theory would allow for the most interesting games to be built.

In practice however I feel that this is generally not the case. A theme helps to limit the design space significantly (see this post on design spaces) and through that makes it simpler to make design choices. Limiting the design space makes it easier to explore what is left and thus come up with great choices within those limits.

Advantages of metaphors

Most modern games are not abstracts. Above I already give a reason why a theme can help in designing a game. There are however other reasons to include a theme (and other metaphors) in your board-game.

Theme and metaphors to make sense of the game

A song with a theme makes much more sense too!
A song with a theme makes much more sense too!
Metaphors help players to make sense of what is going on this game.

Compare: “So I need to hand in two of my yellow cubes for each blue cylinder at the end of round 4?”

To: “Ah, at the end of round 4 there is a harvest and I need to feed my family so they don’t go hungry!”

With metaphors we can much more easily make sense out of rules. Of course you need to feed your family. Of course it makes sense to pay wood and stone to build a building.

And rules that make sense are much easier to remember.

When there is no rule

We try to write rule-books that cover all possibilities. Unfortunately we are few and our players (hopefully!) are many. This means that there will be situations that are not covered by the rules.

If your game is thematic then it is in general much easier to figure out what to do when something crops up that is not covered in the rule-book: Do what would also make sense in real life.

Telling a story

Once upon a time there was a beautiful board-game....
Once upon a time there was a beautiful board-game….
Board-games convey a story: “Four civilizations came to this island trying to achieve economic dominance over the others. In the end the white civilization prevailed!” (Yes, that’s Catan).

People like stories, they like to be able to feel what is happening. To see the rise and fall of great nations, to enjoy a poor farmer’s family build out their farm to become an economic powerhouse. This creates a sense of meaning and empathy.

Without a theme it is very hard to generate a story: “This bunch of discs fell through a grid until one color victoriously got four discs in a row. And they lived happily ever after!” It just doesn’t have much of a ring to it…

A thoroughly ingrained theme makes a game feel more like a story. It helps to suspend disbelief and to keep players in the make-belief world that they together are creating. It helps players to “get into” the game.

See this post for more on board-games and story-telling.

A theme is conveyed through metaphors

As mentioned, the theme says “what the game is about”: This is a game about space combat, that is a game about intrigue in the roman era, here we’re dueling zombies in a hospital.

Board games make use of components. This red cube of wood represents a space ship in the first game, an influence point in the second and a wound in the third. The component is exactly the same but the way we use it and see it is completely different.

The meaning we give to that one component is a metaphor.

Likewise, any actions we take are metaphorical. We move that red cube from one space to another and we’ve flown our spaceship, influenced a senator or healed a wound.

The story gets told by having our metaphor-actions work on our metaphor-components.

The perfect metaphor

I feel I should make a game about plumbing now...
I feel I should make a game about plumbing now…
A real house requires wood, bricks, roof-tiles, plumbing, wiring. It’s built by a plethora of experts, of which each would be hard-pressed to do another’s work.

In games however it just requires a wood and a stone (or whatever the game proscribes).

Metaphors in games need not be perfect. In fact, they absolutely should not be perfect! Board-games work because we make abstraction, mostly simplifications. Real life is messy and chaotic, while in a board-game things work exactly according to the rules.

There is a lot of freedom to be found in this: Chose the metaphors you want to use, at the level of abstraction you want. Do you want to build plumbing, buildings or cities? Each is possible, each can work for the right game.

The winning metaphor

Many modern games do very well with their metaphors, except for at one point: Determining the winner.

Victory points are left, right and center in modern board-games. And though they work well, it’s sometimes very hard to see what they are a metaphor for.

In Puerto Rico you get points for delivering goods and building buildings. Why do these things specifically make you the “best” (from an in-game perspective)? Why not the number of colonists (having the “largest empire”) or money (being “richest”)?

One reason is that in real life there is no “communal end”. People move on or die, but the world (the story!) goes on without them. A game however does need an end and creating one that “makes sense” is hard.

In real life nobody truly wins or loses either. Sure, some people have an easy life and others a harsh one. But in the end we all die, without there being a podium or a gold cup handed out.

There are however games that make perfect sense regarding their ending and the winner. Racing games stop when someone gets to the end (and is declared the winner). Chess ends when the king is certain to be captured.

So come up with a plausible ending end winner!

That doesn’t make sense!

It doesn't matter if you look silly, as long as you're consistent!
It doesn’t matter if you look silly, as long as you’re consistent!
There are of course downsides to theme and metaphors. Mostly, they have to be consistent.

Let’s say you have a building themed game. You’ve been testing and it works really well to remove a worker every time you build a building. From a real-world perspective that is really hard to explain though; buildings don’t eat humans.

In this case you either have to accept that your theme and mechanics clash, change the mechanic or change the theme (perhaps in a distant future buildings are grown from humans?!).

This also shows that even though consistency can be a difficult, there are options when you run into this restriction.

Closing thoughts

Abstract games don’t require any “fluff” that makes thematic sense but doesn’t really add much to the game. Because of this it’s easier to get a deep game with simple rules (Go being a prime example).

However, without a theme and metaphors you’re missing out on story building and making sense of the “why” of certain rules. Do your metaphors help to create a story and to make sense of the rules?

The flip side of this is that for a thematic game it becomes more difficult to add a rule that the game needs but that doesn’t make sense within the theme. How much of a limitation should this be?

When designing your game, what kind of metaphors do you use? Could you use different ones? Or could you use a different component with the same metaphor? This becomes especially relevant when you are using a theme that has been used again and again (another zombie game anyone?). Dice as space-ships? Cards as health? Tokens as building plans? With some imagination I’m sure you can come up with some interesting ideas!

Next steps

For any game you have to make a choice as on what metaphors you do and don’t include. This relates to the level of abstraction you use in your game. It would be interesting to look further into these levels of abstraction and what they mean for game design.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit