Board game design, Learning

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Introduction

You're never to old to learn!
You’re never to old to learn!
”Experience is the quality that lets you recognize a mistake when you make it again…”

In this post I wrote about feedback loops in board-games. I left out one very important feedback loop though: The one that happens in the head of the player.

When we play a game we get better. We try a strategy and see it work or fail. We find that this card is strong and that one is weak. We learn.

Now you might be going: ”Well, duh!”. But bear with me, because this has some interesting consequences for board-game design.

The joys of learning

Humans are learning machines. You can see this when you observe kids: Infinitely curious, happy to try anything. Which makes sense: Imagine a kid that wasn’t interested in learning to walk; they wouldn’t be particularly effective in later life… And so the desire to learn is hard-coded into our being.

As adults we’ve left the exploration phase behind. We know it’s a bad idea to grab a burning stove, how our hands work, that bees are to be avoided and that ice-cream is delicious.

That doesn’t mean we stop learning though. Or that the craving for new things to learn goes away. It just means that we have do a bit more work to get to something that gets our neurons firing.

Which is where board-games (and really any form of entertainment) comes in: A system all set up with juicy and intricate rules that we can figure out!

Three levels of learning

Learning the rules might not be the most fun part, but they are there for a reason...
Learning the rules might not be the most fun part, but they are there for a reason…
Board-games offer three levels of learning:

  • The rules
  • The system
  • Winning

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Learning the rules

The first part of learning a game is learning the rules. These are what is written in the rulebook or what is explained by someone who has played before.

For most people this is not a particularly enjoyable experience. This is because it mostly comes down to memory; can you remember the rules well enough to get to the next level? Because of this player-aids (and simple-to-remember rules!) are a big boon to games.

For some people (myself included) learning the rules is enjoyable as well. I think this is because simply by learning the rules you already get some insights into the system behind them, which is the next level of learning.

Learning the system

Learn to game the system and get rich quick!
Learn to game the system and get rich quick!
The second part of learning a game is understanding the system. This is how the rules and components interact to create something bigger than the sum of the parts.

In poker the rules say which hand beats which and that you can bet chips based on whether you think you will win the round. Just from reading that however you most likely wouldn’t realize that it’s possible to bluff.

The system is all the interactions that are possible. It’s the difference in Dominion between playing a Smithy and a Village, and then seeing what could happen if you play them both.

For many people there is real joy to be found in this phase of learning the game. That’s because true insight is created. By playing, you figure something out that you hadn’t known before. Eureka!

Learning to win

It's not whether you win but how you play. But it's about winning!
It’s not whether you win but how you play. But it’s about winning!
The final part of the journey is to learn to win. This means understanding the system well enough to know which option is better than another, to find new and more intricate combinations to get even more bang for your scarce resources (see this post for scarcity in board-games).

It is here that you are trying new tactics and strategies, optimizing a single turn or getting the best out of your entire play.

Better: To win, mastering the system isn’t enough; you also need to outsmart your opponent(s), taking the experience of learning to an even higher level!

This is what we mean when we say that a game takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master: Rules that are simple to memorize, but a system that is interesting to delve into and a game that keeps on bringing up new learning experiences.

Learning and replayability

Someone must not have been paying attention....
Someone must not have been paying attention….
One of the holy grails in board-game design is “replayability”, the possibility to play a game multiple times without it getting boring.

A very good bad example of this is tic-tac-toe. No one in their right mind would play this, right? Well, not true: Kids actually really enjoy this game. For them it is not obvious that you can always play to get a draw. They haven’t learned yet that this is the case. And so they’ll happily keep at it, throwing their full intellectual capacity at it. Until they get it. At which point they’ll be like you and me, not touching it ever again.

The lesson is that as long as there is something to be learned in a game, it’ll stay interesting. I think I’ve played 50+ games of Agricola in my life, but I’ll gladly play another round, because there really is more to be explored.

The way then to increase replayability is by allowing a lot of things to be learned within the game. There are two ways of doing this:

  • Adding depth
  • Adding ambiguity
Learning in the deep end

“Depth” is one of the other holy grails of board-game design (mostly because it gives replayability!) and it would take an entire blog post (and more!) to go into it (many others have done so, a bit of Googling should get you far).

Just scratching the surface, I would say that depth is “interesting complexity”. One way of incorporating this in your game is having multiple viable tactics and strategies. Each of these can be tried out and players can learn how well they work, which are the best and which combine well.

If it takes 3 tries to really work out a strategy then adding one more strategy just increased the replayability by 3 games…

Ambiguous learning

There is always more to learn
There is always more to learn
Once you know something, there is nothing left to learn. It’s gotten boring and thus not worth any further effort. Tic-tac-toe as explained above is a good example of this.

But what if you sortof know what’s going on, but not entirely? This is extremely tantalizing for the human brain: “I’ve figured it out so far, now I want to know the last bits as well!” As long as there is ambiguity, the brain will continue to work on it.

One way of introducing ambiguity is by creating situational dependence. This means that your strategy depends strongly on tactics and the state of the rest of the game.

Imagine you have a good strategy, which needs a combination of resources. In some games you can get these reasonably well, but in others they are scarce. You need to learn more (namely, how to ensure that you get those resources)!

But what if there is no sure-fire way of getting them? Then your strategy will mostly win, but not always. And you’ll continue to wonder what you can do better.

This ambiguity can be the result of randomness. As long as you don’t draw too poor cards or you’re not rolling only ones, your strategy does well. Figuring this out is more difficult than a strategy that does not involve any randomness. At some point however the player is going to catch on and accept that the strategy just can’t be improved, that in the end it’s lady Fortune that decides whether it succeeds or not. And they’ll stop playing the game (or latch on to a new strategy to try).

This is especially the case since randomness tends to be rather “heavy handed”. Sure, sometimes you’ll be exactly 1 resource short, but in many cased you’ll really have way too little (or you’re drowning in the good stuff). When the influence of randomness is so un-subtle, it’s easy to see that it’s the culprit.

A more interesting way of creating ambiguity is through player interaction. This is the way the typical “Euro” game works: ”I could execute my strategy perfectly, if it weren’t for the others players getting in my way!”

If you’re short wood this game, then next game you’ll pounce on it more aggressively. With as a result that another player has a chance to take the stone that you also need. Your priority shifts again next game, but once more you’re missing something. Is this because the strategy is flawed, or does it mean that you just have to be even better at foreseeing what your opponent will do?

Maybe one more game to see if it works this time?

Learning, hard choices and ambiguity

What's the optimal choice?
What’s the optimal choice?
In this post I looked at what makes for interesting choices in board-games. I concluded that an interesting choice has to be hard to make – it should not be obvious which of the options gives the best result.

The learning process in a board-game then is working through the hard choices and – through experience – finding out which option does give the best results.

This allows us to rephrase the part about ambiguity from above in different terms. If there truly is an optimal choice then we need to learn this once and then we (our brain) is done. If however the choice is only optimal part of the time (because of randomness or the actions of other players) then we’re not done learning (and enjoying!) yet.

A tip when playing

Winning is a big part of the enjoyment of playing a game. I hope though that the above has shown that learning the game is just as big a part of the pleasure.

Therefore: Optimize your learning pleasure – don’t look up tips and tricks online. Figure it out for yourself. Even if that means taking a beating.

Closing thoughts

Board-games give an opportunity to learn, something that isn’t present a lot otherwise in adult life. It is one of the joys of playing and as such should be in the forefront of a designer’s mind.

To allow players to continue to learn within the game, there should be a lot of game space to explore. This can be in broad strokes, in the form of different strategies to try out, but also at a micro level, when trying to get the best out of a chosen strategy.

Ambiguity in outcomes means that the brain hasn’t learned all it can, resulting in a drive to learn and thus to play more.

Next steps

I already mentioned that “depth” would take an entire blog post to delve into (see what I did there?), so I probably will take the plunge at some point (see what I did there? I’m on a role!).

Ambiguity in board-games is also something I feel that can be explored further. Above are some good opening thoughts, but this can definitely be expanded upon.

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.

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Board game design

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Introduction

The oldest incentive in the world?
The oldest incentive in the world?
When designing a board-game, you want players to have a certain experience: The thrill of besting a dragon as a group of adventurers is very different from going head to head to see who can build the largest civilization.

The way we create that experience is through the interaction of the rules and the game components; with the former telling you what you can do with the latter.

To experience the vision of the creator there are certain things that a player should do. Let’s say you want them to build a thriving civilization, then you can put in the rules that every turn they have to build a building and attack another player. But putting it in so explicitly feels forced and doesn’t add to making interesting choices (see this post for more on interesting choices in board-games) or being in control.

A better way is to create incentives for your players to do what you want them to do.

What is an incentive?

In its simplest form an incentive is a punishment or reward for doing (or not doing) something.

In real life we are incentivized to work: You earn a money with which you can do interesting stuff (reward) and you get bad reviews or even fired if you don’t do your job well (punishment).

Likewise, a kid can be rewarded for cleaning up their room with an ice-cream, or be punished by being grounded for leaving the mess untouched.

Incentives in board-games

But what will it buy me?
But what will it buy me?
In board-games players also get rewards and punishments for doing (or not doing) certain actions. This usually comes in the form getting or losing resources (see more on resources in board-games in this post).

For example in Catan you are rewarded for building a village as it gives you a victory point (as well as future resources). Likewise in Agricola not feeding your family is punished by costing you three victory points. This guides the players to take the actions that the designer had in mind, without forcing them: Probably villages will get built and the family will get fed, but maybe they won’t.

Taking our example from above, instead of saying that you have to build a building, we create incentives to construct: Buildings earn victory points, or generate resources. And instead of forcing a player to attack, there can be a penalty for not attacking. This way players continue to have choices, but they are guided towards what the developer wants them to do.

Levels of incentives

At what level are you guiding your players?
At what level are you guiding your players?
Incentives can happen at different “levels”.

At a highest level there is winning / losing the game: If there is anything that would immediately win the game then you would have a very strong reason to go for this. Alternatively, anything that would result in an instant loss is to be avoided at all cost. These are however very extreme and thus are generally not used. Instead incentives are structured in such a way that they get you closer to winning, instead of winning outright.

At the second level there is anything that is a “prerequisite” for winning. For many games you want to collect as many victory points as possible and thus anything that gives victory points will draw the attention of players. Likewise, anything that costs victory points is generally avoided.

There are of course games that don’t work with victory points but there will be something that you require to win. For example in racing games anything that gets you closer to the finish will have a strong incentive

Finally there is anything that gets you closer to the things that get you closer to winning. These are general resources (e.g. wood and sheep in Catan, a profession in Agricola). This is the stuff which “in itself” is not useful, except that it enables you to get the things that do matter. Compare this to money in the real world: There is very little it’s good for on its own; only because it can be traded for other stuff do we start to covet it.

In one way or another, incentives in board-games work by getting you closer to winning the game (reward) or bringing you further from it (punishment).

Costs and returns vs. punishments and rewards

Many games allow you to build / buy things.

There is generally a cost associated with this: In Catan a village costs you four resources.

The higher the cost of buying / building, the less incentive there is to hire builders; in this way a high cost works as a “punishment”, making it less likely that a player will go for it.

Of course you buy / build to get something. That village gives you a victory point, as well as future resources. These are the rewards for adding a game piece. If the reward is low, then there is little incentive to go for it, while if it’s high, players will be fighting for it.

There are thus two ways to adjust incentives: Change the cost or change the reward.

Incentives and interesting choices

You can only spend your resources once. Choose wisely!
You can only spend your resources once. Choose wisely!
In this post I wrote about creating interesting choices in board-games, which I believe have to be hard choices. One way of doing this is by finding a right balance between cost and returns of anything you can buy / build.

Looking at this from the punishment / reward perspective: If punishment (cost) and reward (returns) are balanced, then there are incentives both to build / buy and to not do that, making it hard (interesting!) to decide whether to build or not.

Guiding your players

Incentives are used to guide your players. This has two uses:

  • Play the game the designer envisioned
  • Know what is useful to do
Playing the designer’s game

As a designer you (should) have a vision for your game: “In this game you’ll be in charge of a mighty civilization trying to build yourself up whilst bringing others down”.

This means that the game should allow for building up (constructing buildings) and bringing low (attacking other civilizations). You create your first prototype and play. Only to find out that everybody is only ever attacking and never building up…

In this case you can use incentives to “guide” your players to do what you would like them to do: Attack, but also to build. To do this you can give bonuses for building, make buildings cheaper or make attacking less lucrative.

An essential part of guiding your players to play the game you envision is that you have to have have that vision of what it should all be about.

Do what’s useful

Guide your players away from the rocks and towards the harbour
Guide your players away from the rocks and towards the harbour
Incentives can be used to guide players to do what’s useful in the game.

Especially in a complex game with many options that you’ve never played, it can be very difficult to see what a good (or even reasonable) option is to take.

Here you can create incentives to guide the way: “For every village that I build I get 2 victory points at the end of this round, so how about I try to build as many villages as possible?“

This works best if the bonus / incentive is temporary (say until the end of the turn) as that makes it clear that that specific option is even better “right now”.

A good example of this is Terra Mystica, where ever turn there are bonus points to be earned for taking certain actions. None of these actions are bad by themselves, but with the added bonus, they become good enough that it is usually a good idea to go for them.

This makes it such that inexperienced players have something to guide them: Go for the easy points that are right in front of my nose, without ever thinking about a game-encompassing strategy (for some general board-game strategies, see this post)! Experienced players on the other hand can choose to forego the “easy” points and instead focus on executing their thought-out strategy.

The point-salad conundrum

How many points was a prawn again?
How many points was a prawn again?
Some board-games have many different ways of getting a few points – so called “point salads”.

On the one hand this is a great use of incentives: Everything gives some points, so there are very obvious incentives to do multiple things. Once you chose one of them, it can be a the start of an interesting strategy for the rest of the game.

On the other hand, it can also mean that players are incentivized to do everything. Meaning that there is actually no incentive for any one particular choice.

I also personally dislike point-salads, as I feel they take away some of the “immersion” in a game: I like my games to have a feeling of “achievement” outside of “winning because you have the most points”; points are a decent way to measure “progress”, but if you get points for everything then it’s unclear what your “progress” was towards. See this post on tips on immersion through story-telling for board-games.

Closing thoughts

As a designer you should have a vision of what experience you want the players of your game to have. For that vision to come true, they will need to play in certain ways. Incentives can be used to create guidance towards what you want them to do.

You want your players to do something? Give them stuff – resources or victory points. Don’t want them to do something? Withhold or take away what they need.

Incentives are much less heavy-handed than directly embedding something in the rules. This means that players have more control over what they do and it also results in more options to choose from. Of course some of those choices might be sub-optimal, but it might be interesting to explore what happens if you take it anyway; it’s an option not to feed your family in Agricola but it’s probably not a good one!

Next steps

In this post I mentioned the experience that players have when playing. Incentives are a way of getting to that experience, but you still need to think about what that experience should be. This is probably a good subject for another post.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, so I hope you’re incentivized to let me know in the comments or on Twitter whether you agree or if 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.

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Board game design, Strategy

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Introduction

Our strategy: Run as hard at the other guys as we possibly can!
Our strategy: Run as hard at the other guys as we possibly can!
“Upgrade my production and go for that huge end-game scoring, or ignore upgrading and take a few points every turn?

There are board-games that rely solely on tactics: Finding the best play for this turn and not really caring about the next. Most games however have at least some sense of strategy: A path you chose and that you follow for the rest (or part of) the game and where you make choices to maximize the outcome of that path.

Interesting games allow multiple strategies to victory.

In this post I want to look into “general” strategies, ones that can be found in a plethora of games.

The goal of this is to help you as a board-game designer incorporate (more) strategies that are relevant and interesting in your board-game. Hopefully it will even serve as inspiration to even more strategies that are not mentioned here (if you do find any, do let me know?!)

What is a strategy?

A strategy in the context of board-games is a high-level choice on how you will (could) play (a part of) the game. This choice is then “executed” through all of the moves you make whilst actually playing the game.

A strategy can be for the entire game (“I’ll do everything to maximize bonus scoring at the end of each round”), or only for part (“I’ll first increase my number of workers, then I’ll see what I can do”).

Strategies can be stand-alone or overlapping (“I’ll increase my workers so that I have lots of actions and I’ll also go for everything that gives a bonus for many workers”).

It’s possible to start a game with a strategy in mind, or to have it form during the game (“I seem to have gotten more workers than anybody else, how about I capitalize on that?”)

General strategies in board-games

In the following sub-sections I’ll describe a number of “general” strategies for board-games. These should be possible for many different (types of) games, but certainly not for all!

Resource optimization

My resources can beat up your resources!
My resources can beat up your resources!
If you have more stuff than the opponent then eventually you will kick their ass.

The core of this strategy is to increase the amount of resources available to you (whatever they might be in the game – see this post on resources in board-games for more). Resources give options and generally with more options you have more flexibility, either to thwart your opponent or to orchestrate your own victory.

Resource optimization works well with “synergy” strategies, discussed below.

“Control” strategies can be an effective counter to this strategy.

Action maximization

Action maximization is a specific form of resource optimization – specifically, you are optimization the number of actions you can take in a turn.

Worker placement games are the poster child for action-based games. In many worker placement games increasing the number of workers is a very effective strategy as each worker should pay for itself, with a bit to spare.

“Actions” are one of the most general resources that you can have, as they can generally be converted into anything.

In Agricola it’s generally a good idea to work towards increasing your family size as quickly as possible as those extra actions are game winners.

Synergy

In a synergy strategy you try to find combinations of resources (cards, board spaces, tiles, tokens, etc.) that when combined give an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Combos

The first version of “synergy” is the “combo”: Two or more effects that when combined produce something that is stronger than the two effects taken separately.

A combo can be very simple and obvious (“3 points for every worker” + “Get an additional worker” is a simple yet effective combo), or it can be deep and intricate.

Combos are generally associated with a certain level of randomness of “getting” the combo. For example in a deck-building game you can have the right cards in your deck but chance still needs to get them into your hand at the same time. When getting combinations is less random it usually becomes a case of engine-building (see below).

Dominion allows for many card combinations that give strong effects together; a deck built of Villages and Smithies will allow you to draw your entire deck almost every turn.

Engine building

That should win the game for sure!
That should win the game for sure!
An engine is a “consistent combo”, a combination of game elements that allow the player to increase (certain) resources with regularity.

Engines are usually based on a positive feedback mechanism (see this post for more on feedback in board-games), where a some resources are fed in, to be returned with interest.

In many so-called “Euro” games, the building of your engine is the most important aspect of the game.

Engines need time to start paying back sufficiently to “pay back” the resources they cost to set up initially. They are sometimes also susceptible to “disruption” in the form of another player taking control of a required resource (see the “control” strategies below).

Powergrid is an exercise in building an engine, where combining elements gives more money, which then can be used to buy more power plants, connections, etc.

Risk – reward

Many games have randomness incorporated, meaning that there are risks to be taken. This can be from hoping to draw the right card at the right moment, to full blown “gambling” games.

There is a skill in assessing possibilities, but taking risks in itself is not something you are skilled at or not. As such a game where the only difference in strategies is based on levels of risk taking will have a winner determined by luck, not ability.

High risk – high reward

Wherever there is randomness there is risk. And where there is risk, there should be a reward. One strategy then can be to take high risks, in the hopes for high rewards.

By its very nature this is a strategy that is far from certain to pay off; it can leave the player far behind without much chance of recovering.

On the other hand, taking extra risk can allow a player that is just a bit behind take the lead (but get even further behind as well of course).

Poker is a good example of a game that allows for both high and low risk strategies: Only play on a great hand, forgoing many plays, or bluff with a hand full of garbage.

Low risk – low reward

I'll see your village and raise you a city! Oh, wrong game...
I’ll see your village and raise you a city! Oh, wrong game…
The opposite of the high risk – high reward is the low risk – low reward strategy. Here you try to keep variance down to a minimum, instead opting to score a limited but certain number of points every turn, making sure nothing goes wrong, whilst hoping that the opponent makes a mistake or runs out of luck.

Control

A final broad strategy is by “taking control”. It is about denying your opponent(s) choices or forcing them go down a path they’re not particularly interested in going in.

Assassination

Player elimination is frowned upon in modern gaming, but it is still present in some games. “Killing” the opponent is the ultimate way of controlling them; out of the game means no options at all.

Even if it’s not possible (or desired) to completely eliminate a player, bringing them enough to their knees can mean that you don’t need to worry about them for the rest of the game.

Being the one brought low however is not a very satisfying experience – there is a reason many games nowadays shy away from player elimination. Be careful when this is a viable strategy in your board-game!

In Risk players can attack each other, to the point of extinction. Many missions however don’t call for the full elimination of a player, but bringing a neighbor down can certainly make your life easier.

Offensive action

By going on the offensive I can force my opponent to defend herself, even though she would much rather be building up her engine.

Taking offensive action means that your opponent is limited in choices – defense has has to come first. This can result in an interesting cat-and-mouse game, where the offensive player needs to try to keep the other on the defense (and thus is limited himself as well!) while the defensive player tries to break through and gain back the initiative.

Continuously checking the king in Chess forces the opponent to do something about it, severely limiting what moves they take.

The rush

No time to talk, got to win the game!
No time to talk, got to win the game!
Games end (see this post on some of the consequences of this). If there is a non-fixed ending condition you can work towards that end, before your opponent “gets going”.

This can be a particularly effective strategy against engines and combos, as they generally spend the early game setting up (and not working towards “victory”), leaving them with few points when that early end is triggered.

Citadels generally takes a fair number of turns. It’s however possible to build only cheap buildings, finishing the game well before anybody else is close to 8 buildings, winning on bonus points.

Monopolist

All board-games use multiple resources (see this post for more on resources in board-games) and generally they are all important for certain aspects.

If you are able to gain control over one or more of the essential resources (a monopoly) then the opponent is forced to deal with you to get what she needs, or find alternative (and probably expensive) means.

An example comes from the game of Monopoly, where it’s a viable strategy to build as many houses as possible and never upgrade to hotels, denying opponents the use of houses (and subsequent upgrades to hotels).

Closing thoughts

There are board-games without strategy. In Bohnanza or Carcasonne you are so dependent on what cards / tiles come up that it’s generally only possible to react tactically. Thus, it’s not necessary to have strategies in your game.

For longer games however allowing for multiple strategies significantly increases the space of things that players can explore and with that the replay value. In a good game each strategy is worth investigating and perfecting, meaning that many games need to be played before it is shelved.

In the sections above I’ve tried to give a number of possible high-level strategies. Not every game needs all of these, in fact I would strongly recommend against trying to incorporate them all. But the list can serve as inspiration for what you could try to incorporate.

It is also not the case that each high-level strategy can be implemented only once. There are multiple ways to creating synergy between your game elements. A monopoly can be acquired on any resource. And with multiple ways of ending the game, there are multiple possibilities to rush.

Feedback please!

The best strategy for learning is by asking for feedback, s, 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.

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Board game design, Play-testing, Prototyping

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Introduction

Creating something takes a lot of work!
Creating something takes a lot of work!
Designing a game takes a lot of time. Brainstorming ideas, settling on one, making a prototype, self-testing, adjusting, play-testing, further adjusting, etc.

And at any point in this process you can find out: “No, this isn’t going to work after all”. Meaning you can throw away your hard work and start from scratch.

So anything that can save some time anywhere in this cycle is worth it.

From idea to prototype

After lying awake for a night you get up with a brilliant idea for your next board-game. It’s going to be like Monopoly – but with zombies!

You’ve got the basics of the rules and you know more-or-less what kind of components you’re going to need.

So you start fleshing out a prototype. You grab the pieces from one of your existing zombie games, you draw a board on a piece of paper and you start sketching some cards you need.

Before you know it you’re lost in the minutiae of the work: What’s the equivalent of “Boardwalk” and “Go to jail” for zombies? What kind of rent should you ask for “Zombie-invested-high-school”?

But diligently you push through and after a few hours (days?) you have a prototype, ready for your first play-test. You turn on your schizophrenia and take on four different roles and play your first game.

And guess what? The it sucks! (Because seriously, Monopoly with zombies?!?).

Was there a way of figuring this out earlier?

Ideas are easy

Creating an idea is easy. But most initial ideas won’t stand the test of gameplay. Or perhaps there is something in there, but not enough to actually base your entire board-game on.

Which makes it highly unfortunate that creating a prototype takes a relatively large amount of time. Especially if you need to create 10 before you have one that you feel you actually want to continue with.

If only you could do your initial play-testing without creating a prototype?!

The blank play-test

A clean sheet, ready to be filled with great ideas!
A clean sheet, ready to be filled with great ideas!
Recently I’ve been doing “blank play-tests”.

Here you take your vague and un-formed idea and start playing it as soon as possible, without making any components.

There will be a board at some point? Use a piece of white paper.

You’ll be playing cards? Empty ones will do for now.

Need something to represent XYZ? Use tokens borrowed from another game.

With these “blank” components you can play the bare-bones of the game. Every turn you can play a card on a board-space that has some influence on that space? Go ahead and place some empty cards on an empty piece of paper. Imagine what these cards might say. Imagine what could be on the board. Imagine how they interact.

You can place workers on your spaces with cards? Get some cubes from an old game and place them. Take turns doing this for different (imaginary) players.

Of course this won’t tell you everything about your game. But it most certainly will tell you something. And with the minimal investment required it’s a very good way of quickly discarding ideas that don’t work and to preempt problems before making a real prototype.

Let’s take a further look with an example.

An example

Pawns of the Gods or Zombie Monopoly?!
Pawns of the Gods or Zombie Monopoly?!
I recently started work on a new game, working title: “Pawns of the Gods”. The idea is that you are a fledgling god trying to get people to believe in you so that you can rise in power

In a nutshell, the game has two parts: First there is an “automated” or “AI” part, which controls a number of different groups of people in conflict with each other. Then there is the player controlled part, where you play cards to “help” these groups in their conflicts with each other; help a group be victorious over their opponent and you’ll have gained a believer (or two).

I started out with toying with the AI part. I grabbed a bunch of cubes and had them represent lands, population, food, mercantile power and military might. Land grows food grows population grows mercantile power grows military might. Which would then be used to attack another group.

And just by pushing some cubes around I found that this was way too complicated and took forever (wise lessons: board-game AIs should be very very simple!). So I removed the need for lands and food, still too complicated. Remove population and merchants, but put the lands back in. Lands give military might. If you win a battle you get more lands, which give more military might. Simple and effective. This will definitely need more work in the future (how to stop one group from winning once they start?), but it was good enough to start with.

The second step was the player bit: Playing cards to “help” different sides of a conflict. I imagined generally two types of cards: One type to directly influence the conflict (“give +2 strength to one side of a conflict”) and deck manipulation (“look at the top 5 cards of the deck, put three on the bottom and the other two on top in any order”).

So I played, giving each “player” a hand of blank cards and at a whim deciding whether they would be of one type or another.

Results were quick to come in: Yes, this worked. Adding strength was much more interesting than manipulating the deck (though that might just be because it was a stack of white cards? 🙂 ). There wasn’t a lot of excitement because it was pretty obvious what was happening and who would “win”.

Prototype v0.01 of Pawns of the Gods
Prototype v0.01 of Pawns of the Gods
A next “iteration” allowed you to play a card face-down, hiding what you played from the other players (yes I was playing on my own, knowing full well what the other “I” just played, which was a “face down” card that was completely white on both sides. I’m glad nobody was there to observe me!). With this there seemed to be a decent amount of tension in the game.

In total I spent a few hours, working on several “virtual” iterations. After which I had sufficient feeling for the game to say that it wouldn’t be dead on arrival of the first (real) prototype.

Advantages of blank play-testing

I hope the previous paragraphs already made clear some of the advantages of blank play-testing, but let’s go into this a bit more.

The first advantage of blank play-testing is that you can start as soon as you have a game idea. You’re saving time on prototyping until you’re at least a bit sure that there is something worth pouring time into making.

I’ve also found that without anything written down, it’s much easier to make changes. “This blank card is now a face-down modifier to the battle, that will get turned face-up when we resolve the conflict”. You try that for three rounds and find that it indeed makes the game much more tense (or that it absolutely doesn’t work as intended, in which case you can easily try something else). No need to make actual changes, just a different mindset.

Because once I have a prototype there is an internal resistance to making changes: They take work, require new printouts (when you get to printed prototypes), etc. No such resistance when everything is empty anyway!

Finally there is the tactility of playing with “actual” pieces. I can play a game in my head reasonably well, but it’s far from really holding a card and playing it. Only then do you notice that this means you have a card less in your hand and that your deck will run out. Or that you need to figure out what happens when you play two cards at the same location.

Final thoughts

Hopefully blank play-testing will be another useful tool in your board-game developers belt
Hopefully blank play-testing will be another useful tool in your board-game developers belt
Blank play-testing will not be for everybody. You’ll need to be able to keep some stuff in your head and you need to be able to do solo play-tests (could you do this with a group?!).

Also blank play-tests are a single step and in no way the entire process. At some point you’re going to need a real prototype, to pin down exactly what your componentst do.

Having said that, I find blank play-tests useful and I hope you will as well! If you try this, let me know what your results are and if you have further suggestions?

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.

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Board game design

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Introduction

Roses don't actually make the best of bookmarks...
Roses don’t actually make the best of bookmarks…
“Once upon a time there was…”

And after that there will probably be something about evil princesses and beautiful dragons (right!?).

We read books, watch movies: Fairytales, thrillers, historical dramas. We crawl into the skin of the protagonist, hoping she will be ok after that horrible encounter with the bad guys. We turn page after page, are glued to our seats, with just one question on our minds: “What happens next?!”

Which is almost the same question we have when we play a board-game: “What happens after I do this?”

Going to the movies (or, why we like stories)

The heroine is hanging by the tip of one finger, struggling not to fall off of the cliff, blood streaming off her face. We are at the edge of our seat, hoping fervently that somehow she survives. Then when that finger (inevitably) starts to slip, a hand reaches down, pulling her up. We let out our breaths in a collective sigh of relief…

No text, no color, and still we feel for him!
No text, no color, and still we feel for him!
Hollywood is great it making us feel, building up tension until it becomes unbearable and then releasing it (only to do it again, but worse!)

As humans we crave emotions, the stronger the better! Any form of entertainment is meant to give the audience / participants that rush of feeling. Think about it: Horror movies engender fear, amusement parks bring excitement and thrill, historical dramas make you bored (sorry, I couldn’t resist… 🙂 ).

And board-games…? We want to feel our board-games as well!

The structure of a board-game

All board-games have a very simple structure: The player wants to achieve victory, with the rules of the game and the other players forming obstacles. And in the end she either won or did not. Time for a new game.
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