Board game design


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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Board game design, Strategy, Tactics


A recent version of Voluntarios
A recent version of Voluntarios
The other day I was at the London Playtest Meetup, having just finished a test-game of Voluntarios. One of the players was pretty positive, but the other had this pensive look on his face: “It’s really hard to put my finger on it, but something is missing…”

This echoed my own feelings, so we discussed further, trying to find out what that “it” was. And after a few minutes we got it:

There were no interesting decisions that needed to be made!

In the game you pick a project and though they are cosmetically all different, they’re all fundamentally the same. And you’d have to gather resources, but one way or another, you’d get what you need. Sure, you could do things more or less efficient, but that was about it…

This of course is a very serious design flaw and so it needs to be fixed. But how?!?

Time to think deeply about what “interesting choices” in board-games are.

What is not interesting

To start out, let’s look at what are choices that are not interesting to make.

The obvious choice

You could have a hundred choices, but if one of them is so obviously the best one, then the other 99 might as well not exist.

In Voluntarios you lose points for having resources left at the end of a round. This means that spending any leftover resources becomes very obvious, even if it doesn’t gain you anything. You could not spend them, but that would just be silly.

The non-choice

Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here...
Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here…
“I can take that wood now, or I can take it later.”

Technically this is a choice, but the result of the two options is exactly the same and thus it is not an interesting choice.

Stated as above it’s pretty clear that this is not an interesting choice, but what I’ve found in Voluntarios that such a non-choice can be hidden somewhat: “I can take the wood now, but then Sarah will take the coins so I’ll have to pay in reputation to get my coin. Or I could take the coin now, but most likely Max will have grabbed the last wood, so I’m down some reputation to get that…” Again the result is exactly the same, but you’ve done quite some mental work to figure that out. Brainpower wasted (analysis paralysis!), without any real gain.

Another example of this is the Voluntarios projects mentioned, which do not fundamentally differ from each other.

The scripted choice

One choice can lead to others that you have to make.

In Voluntarios you pick a project and then you have to gather the resources to finish that project. Get that wood, or you’re simply not progressing (or worse, moving backwards). The one choice (of project) very much dictates which further choices you will be making.

Interesting choices

In the above there are some examples of what are not interesting choices.

What do all of these have in common?

They are all easy choices to make!

That is not to say there is not a lot of thinking done before: You need to analyze what the impact of each choice is. But once that impact is done, it’s clear which choice you should make. It’s the obvious one. Or the scripted one. Or it doesn’t matter because all options give the same result.

This should make it clear what makes for an interesting choice: One that is hard!

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Board game design


Just give me a few more seconds, I almost know what move to make...
Just give me a few more seconds, I almost know what move to make…
Analysis paralysis: Your opponent just sits there, staring intently at the board, while you’re left thrumming your fingers and looking at your phone. It’s not a lot of fun, now is it?

In this article I want to look at where analysis paralysis comes from and, more importantly, ways of reducing it in your own game.

Thanks to the people who contributed

Prior to writing this post I asked my network on Twitter and Facebook whether they had tips to combat analysis paralysis. Some very good ones came up and I’ve added the name (and link to Twitter accounts) where appropriate.

Thanks for your contributions!

Where analysis paralysis comes from

In a typical board game you get to take one action at a time. You want that action to be “as good as can be”, meaning that it increases your chances of winning by as much as possible.

There will be many potential actions that you can take, each of which needs to be considered to assess which is the best one.

What makes this worse is that it’s not just the immediate effect of an action that is to be considered, it’s all the possible consequences from that action as well: Does it open up new avenues or does it close off options? Maybe this gives great results now, but screws me over in the longer run…

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