Board game design, Components


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.


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.

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Board game design


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: