Board game design, Story telling

Creating tension in board-games


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.

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  1. I think there is another aspect to tension, too — it is more effective if it can be experienced publically. Here are two contrasting examples:
    * In “Splendour”, I can very often feel tension myself, secretly, because I know that if I can pick up a specific card on my next turn without anyone else taking it, then I will have a very good chance of winning the game. However, I can’t express this feeling to anyone, otherwise they will block me.
    * In “Knights of Charlemagne”, a simple numbers-and-colours allocation game, as the end of the game nears you have saved your best cards, which you must now allocate to either the numbers or colours competitions one at a time — but because both you and your opponent are caught in this period where every choice is hard, you can both be expressive about the tension so generated.

    I find the latter tension to be experienced more strongly. See also “The Resistance” where there can be tense, dramatic moments shared by the entire table after a long fit of arguing over who to send on the mission — the structure promotes a *shared* tension because all players experience it at the same time and can acknowledge it together.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Very good point! Tension shared is tension doubled?

      The “point” of tension is also to release it. And if I’ve been eyeing that perfect Splendor card for the last round and I -do- get to take it (or someone else grabs it away before I can) you can let go of that tension as well and be “vocal” about it.

      1. Yes. It’s important for tension to have a satisfying conclusion.

        I don’t really like points-race games because they usually have a disappointing conclusion phase where one person simply reveals enough points to take it over the threshold, and then that’s the end. Catan is like this. Tension evaporates rather than being consummated.

        Splendour does it better by having a game conclusion condition separate from the victory condition — once one player gets at least 15 points, the other players may get one more turn to beat that total. However, this leads to some pointless time at the end of the game if one player has shot ahead. In Splendour it’s sufficiently limited, but any games emulating this method of one-more-turn-after-end-is-triggered mechanism should make sure that that last turn is either quick or skippable in that case.

        Of course in Splendour, the entire game state is in principle known by all players (any reserved cards were on the table so it’s a trivial memory game), which in itself limits tension.

        Another valid method of “disposing” tension is to reinvest it into a bigger challenge.

        It might be interesting if there was a game like Splendour where, once the score tips over a certain threshold it moves into a “sudden death” scenario where players only stay in the game if they can make a move that gives them the new highest score, and then get a further turn.

        That would have the effect of ratcheting up the tension at the end of the game instead of letting it fizzle out.


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