Board game design

Design space for board-games

“How do you sculpt a lion?”

“Simple, take a piece of marble and remove all the bits that don’t look like a big cat!”

Our creative enterprise

Maybe a bit too big to use as a pawn?
Maybe a bit too big to use as a pawn?
Board-game design means being creative! At one point there is no game and then some time later there is.

Most people would use the metaphor of the painter: You start with a white canvas and you add the bits (colors / mechanics) that you want.

And while this is a valid way of looking, I think there is an opposite but equally insightful way. The metaphor of the sculptor.

Creative destruction

Maybe you wake up one morning with an idea for a board-game: I want to make something that combines deck-building and pick-up & delivery!

Or you sit down to think about the perfect theme: Zombies! But in a hospital!

And because your idea is brilliant, you spend time on it, working it out further. “In the hospital you can find stuff that will heal you. Or can attack the opponent! Like… scalpels! Which will be represented by… tiles!”

It feels as though you’re adding stuff to your game all the time.

But in a very real sense you’re chipping away as well.

The size of your design space

That's an awesome design space you got there!
That’s an awesome design space you got there!
Every time you add something to you’re game, there are really a lot of things you’re not adding. And because of your new element you are probably excluding a lot of options for future consideration as well.

Zombies in a hospital means there probably won’t be knights in shining armor or airplanes. It probably won’t play in ancient Egypt or on the moon. It seems unlikely that an auction mechanism would work well.

So this one choice closed off a great many other choices that you could have made. You just chipped off a piece of your design space, reducing options for the future.

And that’s a good thing!

Reduce. And then reduce some more!

When you start out with a board-game, all options are open to you. There is nothing that you can’t add, nothing that is impossible.

Then when you work on your game, you make choices. And every choice reduces the possibility for future choices. Every choice reduces the design-space you’re working in.

Until at some point there are no further choices to be made. And your game is done!

Does it look like a lion yet?

You want a flying lion? Just add wings!
You want a flying lion? Just add wings!
To be efficient in designing a game it’s important to regularly take a look at how far you are from what you are trying to achieve, how far you are from the game you want to make.

In the beginning it’s easy to make broad choices: The head will be there and the tail goes on the other end. That means that everything here at the top can be chopped off. These are your high level choices: Theme, major mechanics.

Then as you progress you have to start being more refined. Manes blowing in the wind or lying flat? Head held high or looking down? You get into the details of the theme (is it a big hospital or a small one?) and the minor mechanics (dice or cards for randomness?).

Until you get to the gritty details, the look in the lion’s eyes, the exact position of the claws. Should a scalpel do 3 or 4 damage?

Gluing pieces back

A sculptor, having chipped a piece off, is stuck with that choice. As game-designers however we can go back, glue some pieces back to our slab of marble.

Changes are easiest to make at the level you’re working on: I just put the tail to the left, but it’s nicer to put it to the right; I thought I wanted dice, but with some extra thought believe that cards are actually better.

Once you get to a deeper level and you make changes at a higher level, then the details you worked on at the deeper level will be lost: If you worked out that the scalpel needed to do 3 damage but you decide to go with chainsaws after all then you’ll need to redo the work of figuring out how much damage things do.

A lion, or a tiger? Or maybe a motorcycle?

Majestuous AF
Majestuous AF
The first choice that a sculptor makes is what she is going to sculpt. As this is the first choice it makes the biggest impact on the design-space and thus is the most fundamental.

Or is it?

Like any art, a sculpture is meant to convey meaning or feeling. There is a big difference between a majestuous lion and a mean lion. But you could argue that there is more of a difference between these than between a majestuous lion and a majestuous motorcycle. Majestuousity being the defining quality and the subject (lion or motorcycle) only the “carrier”.

Likewise, a game is meant to convey something, it should make us feel. Very generally we can say that a game should be “fun”, but that doesn’t really help us all that much; what is fun exactly? Is the excitement of winning at roulette the same as the joy of getting the perfect piece to fill up the hole in your Carcassonne tablue?

The fundamental choice then becomes: What is the experience you want your players to have? Once you know that, you can tailor the rest of your choices (theme, mechanics) to bring out that experience in the best possible way.

Next steps

Board-games bring out emotions and I already mention that these can be very different for different games. It would be very interesting to delve further into this, to have some more examples of what emotions our games engender.

This is closely linked to the experience a game brings but not exactly the same, so perhaps will be worth a separate post.

Feedback please!

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

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?



  1. Great article again Bastiaan. It really resonates with me that in a game, like a sculpture, the form is important but the emotion it is intended to convey is crucial. I’m currently working on a game set during the last few hundred years of the Roman Empire. It’s easy and enjoyable to get lost in the setting; drawing inspiration from the form. But it’s been so important to step back periodically and asses whether the thematic decisions are helping me towards the experience I wish to create. Will this mechanic, or that flavour, help convey a sense of urgency and mounting pressure within which players must decide just how much they should try to improve their own position and score without fatally compromising the cooperative enterprise that they are involved in. Just thinking about within the sculpture metaphor is enthusing me!

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Thomas,

      That sounds very interesting what you’re working on! What you describe finding that balance between furthering your own goals while also working together certainly would create interesting choices and a sense of urgency. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it!


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