Board game design

Introduction

I love games that suck you in, that let you be there. Today I want explore one element of this that I believe isn’t thought about much and mostly happens by accident: Pacing.

Pacing means to determine the speed or intensity at which things happen. It’s used in story telling (whether verbally, in books or on the big screen) to indicate the changes in intensity of the story. There is the buildup, which reaches a climax, after which we have a relaxation (and then we do it all over again).

And while board games are not stories, they share enough similarities to allow for fertile cross-pollination (see this post about story telling in board games).

The macro pace of a board game

Different board games have different “feels” to them. Spanning a number of rounds, a pattern emerges. Let’s look at two examples.

A game of Catan starts of slow, with players scrambling for every resource. Then at some point everybody has a few villages and maybe a city and the pace picks up, with resources becoming more plentiful. Finally, players get close enough to the end point (winning) that they start a final spurt to be the first to reach the 10 points. This is where crazy trades are proposed (and sometimes made), where roads to nowhere are built (for that coveted longest trade route) and hands full of development cards are played out. Catan then has a “rising” pace, with something of a crescendo at the end.

Risk starts with players spread out over the map. Players build up their armies in continents they believe they could take, until they feel they are strong enough. One or two turns of conquest (with hopefully that continent secured) are followed by another phase of building up. When one player seems to be particularly strong (having a continent or two for themselves) it’s not uncommon for the other players to gang up to bring number one to a lower standing. This can go on for quite a while, until someone gains a large enough advantage, or everybody loses interest and quits playing. Risk thus has a much more back-and-forth pace, with periods of relative quiet and frantic activity.

These two patterns, the “climb” and the “back-and-forth” are very common in board games. And I believe that good games use both to their full extent.

First, you want to have a “climb” to ensure that there is a constant feeling of “progression”, of working towards something. This also helps the game to end within a reasonable time. Risk suffers because anything that is gained can just as easily be lost again; players can continue to drag the leader down indefinitely.

Second, a fair amount of “back-and-forth” makes for an interesting game, with different players taking the lead, tension being built up and released again. Here Catan suffers: There is very little to stop someone who is already winning to continue doing so.

For what I believe is a good example of a game that does both, take a look at my dissection of the “Evolution” board game.

The micro pace of a board game

It’s the high intensity moments we live for
Board games also have pacing within rounds or turns, with different parts giving a different feel.

Let’s look at Catan again. The first part of a turn is rolling the dice and gathering resources. Then there is some trading followed by building. Each of these elements has a different pace to them, with the rolling of the dice giving a micro-burst of excitement, followed by a relaxation as players take their resources. Trading can be heated or mellow and the final building then is a culmination of all that came before.

An especially nice and clean example is 6 Nimmt (also known as Take 5). The first part of a round is every player deliberating and placing a card face down. This is in itself is a low-intensity moment, but it’s an important decision (in fact, it’s the only decision players take during a turn – read more about interesting decisions in board games here). Then all cards are flipped over and they are placed in different lines based on simple rules. This is a high intensity moment, as players are shown whether their choice was “correct” or not, as the sixth card placed in a line needs to take the preceding 5 cards (which is a bad thing). After this players who need to take their line of cards, resulting in a reduction of tension again. In 6 Nimmt every round has a buildup, then a climax and finally a relaxation; perfectly in line with the “standard” pacing of just about every action movie out there.

There will very naturally be different “intensity” actions that are taken during a turn. The most interesting pattern is a buildup from low intensity to high intensity and then a relaxation of the built-up tension. This is what can happen without further thought, as most rounds will have a “preparation”, “doing” and then “cleanup” in one form or another. But as can be seen from Catan it’s not at all certain that you’ll end up with this pattern.

Can you change the order of the actions taken in a turn to create more of a buildup with a climax?

Different levels of intensity

Different board games have (require!) different levels of intensity. A party game should have everybody at the edge of their seat for the entire game, whilst a heavy Euro probably only has a few moments of high pace in between long periods of quietly setting up for the big kill.

There is a reason party games tend to be short: It’s very hard to keep a high level of intensity for a long period. And it’s why Euro games can be much longer: Most of the time is spent in low-intensity preparation.

Don’t make the mistake that everything in your game has to be high-strung; the periods of relative quiet can be very satisfying, as long as they do lead to an ultimate climax.

Selecting the pace

Do remember to relax (your players) once and awhile
So how do you create the pace that you want?

Low intensity happens when you’re preparing or building up. Gathering resources that you can’t (or won’t) use immediately works for this, as well as putting your playing pieces in the right position (for that big swoop). In general low intensity comes from actions that don’t show immediate results, but are the necessary preparation for that result.

High intensity is the moment where things come together. This can either be a one-off (rolling the dice in Catan) or a well-prepared plan that finally is set in motion (those 50 armies that are poised to take over South America in Risk) and the final count of all those victory points at the end of Agricola. It is the result of an action that gives an immediate result.

And then there are the no-intensity elements, the things that never show any (meaningful) result, but that are needed for the game to progress. Most forms of book-keeping, upkeep and replenishing fall under this. They need to be part of some games, but they don’t do anything for the pacing; avoid them if possible.

Closing thoughts

Pacing and intensity are subtle parts of game design and most certainly shouldn’t be at the forefront of the brain when designing. But once you are getting somewhere with a design it’s certainly not a bad idea to give them some thought.

Can you identify high and low intensity moments in the game and within a turn? Do they alternate in an interesting pattern? Would it be possible to improve this by changing the order of actions in a turn? Is there natural climax to your game or does it simply “end”?


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 in the sidebar or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Around the Web, Board game design

Introduction

This blog is about learning about game design. A very important part of that is reading about it (which is why I hope you visit this blog!). I’m however far from the only one who has something to share about the subject. Below are a number of articles that I found insightful, though-provoking or otherwise worth the read. I hope you do too!

Some lesser used mechanics

Both the roundel and deck management are not used in many games. Shannon Applecline from Mechanics & Meeples shows that there are intriguing similarities between the two (something I never would’ve thought). Examples and some theory might give you some inspiration to use these mechanics in your game?

Read all about it at: Deck management is the new roundel

Interesting question…

“Well begun is half done.” Nat Levan (twitter) from Oakleaf Games goes into the questions you should ask before you start working on a game. I especially like “What’s the player’s fantasy?”. One of the most important reasons (for me) to play board games is to be / do / feel something I can’t in real life.

I do however feel that sometimes it’s better to begin before you have something fleshed out entirely. Games evolve with creating and sometimes it’s as much a “discovery” what a game is about as it is a plan.

Check it out: Questions to ask before making a game

A strategic read, for tactical reasons

“Tactics are small, frequent decisions in which there is often one or several right answers (that are often determined through analytical reasoning), whereas strategic choices are large, infrequent decisions that are often chosen through experimentation and intuition.” In this older post Max Seidman (Twitter) from Most Dangerous Games gives examples insights in both tactics and strategy. Especially his ideas for adding either to a game when they are lacking are worthy of further thought!

Read it here: Designing for tactics and strategy

Favorite mechanics

This is getting a bit meta, but Pini Shekhter (Twitter) from Board Games Hate Pini rounds up his favorite mechanics. Now I really want to play Mombassa!

Don’t let the silly title distract you, here is the link: More elegant than a cat in a tux (Seriously?!?)

Food for thought

Another one from Max Seidman (Twitter), Most Dangerous Games. This one is about digital games, but it gives food for thought: How would the “instant gratification” translate into board games? You’d need something where you take an action, the result is not certain, but the potential pay-off is significant. Certainly it would be possible to create something like that through randomness, but is it possible through skill alone?

Get gratified: Instant gratification

When world building and games collide

As a designer, you have the world in your hands!
My favorite article of the bunch (always save the best for last!). Matt (I’m sure he has a last name and I feel sortof bad about not remembering because I’ve met this great guy… (Twitter)) from Creaking Shelves usually does board game reviews, but I’m very happy he’s also delving into the design aspect! He argues that what great new games do is that they build a “world” that extends beyond the game that is played. This is something near and dear to my own heart, as I love story driven games, which work so much better if they feel like they’re a part of something larger.

Absolute recommendation! Designers should build worlds

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below 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 (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design

A thousand ways for players to interact

So many people, so many interactions!
Board games are inherently social activities (the few solo games I’m happily going to ignore here). This is because it’s fun to do stuff with other people, but also because interaction makes board games better.

In a previous post I argued why interaction can be so beneficial to board games. In this game I want to build upon that by going into a number of ways in which interaction can actually happen in board games.

Attacking

The most obvious way of interacting with other players is by “attacking” them. An attack is any action that directly negatively influences a single opponent. The key words here are:

  • Direct: It’s clear that an attack is aimed, it’s not the consequence of doing something else, it’s going for the heart. An attack is different from for example taking resources from the board which could’ve been taken by anybody, which isn’t directed at anybody in particular.
  • Negative: Your opponent isn’t going to be happy with this and might well work to prevent an attack or retaliate after it happened.
  • Single opponent
  • : Attacks are generally made against a single opponent. It’s possible to make multiple attacks (against different opponents) but they are generally viewed as separate events.

Reasons to attack can either be sabotage – to reduce the resources of an opponent and thus stop her from winning, or stealing – to gain the resources of an opponent and help yourself in winning, whilst reducing the opponent’s chances. Note that resources can be a very broad category – see this post for more on resources in board-games.

As mentioned, opponents generally are not happy to be attacked and thus will try to prevent attacks. This can be through different forms of defense: In Risk you pile up armies to defend your lands, in Citadels you choose an unexpected character to reduce the chances of getting murdered.

Attacking (and defending) in general requires resources: Armies, a turn, etc. Thus, there are costs related to attacking, which need to be taken into account when choosing to attack or not. This can then be used to incentivize (or de-incentivize) players from attacking. See this post for more on incentives in board games.

Advantages and disadvantages of having attacks in your game

Attacking is one of the most direct and “simple” form of player interaction. It can create a lot of tension (“Will I be safe this turn?” “Will I survive?”) and lead to very interesting decisions (“Attack and leave myself open?” “Attack John or Melissa?”). Both can lead to a highly energetic atmosphere.

On the downside, attacks can lead to a player falling down so far they can’t get up again. It also allows “ganging up”, meaning anybody winning gets taken down and a game can drag on forever (Risk, I’m looking at you!). Finally, a lot of people are not comfortable with direct confrontation in their friendly game group.

Trading

Hey, wanna trade some bananas?
A second obvious way in which players can interact is through trading. In this case two (and sometimes more) players give resources away and get other resources back.

Players will trade if they feel that the value of what they are getting is higher than the value of what they are giving away. See this post for more on the value of resources in board games. This means that different resources have to have different values to different players.

Trading generally works best if there are at least 3 players; with only 2 if my opponent thinks that a trade is worthwhile, it must be a bad deal for me.

Advantages and disadvantages of using trading

Trading allows for very “friendly” player interaction as both parties gain something. It also makes balancing the value of resources easier: Simply let the players decide what something is worth by seeing what they’ll trade for it.

On the opposite side, trading can be somewhat time consuming, especially if there are multiple potential trade partners. This is further exacerbated if the to-be-traded goods are hidden, as then part of the trade has to be discovery of who has what. Because of the time consumption, trading needs to be a fairly large part of the game and can’t simply be “tacked on”.

Giving

An alternative to trading is giving, where one player gives something to another player, without a compensation from that player.

This can happen in a cooperative game, where all players have the same objective and another player can make better use of a given resource. It can also happen when there is a reward given by the game for giving resources away (this was one of the prime ideas for the game I’m currently designing myself). Finally a resource can be given away if it has negative value for the player; for example in Bohnanza cards in hand have to stay in the same order, meaning that some can “get in the way”. In this case it can be beneficial to give away a card so that it doesn’t need to be played.

Advantages and disadvantages to allowing giving

The advantage of giving is that it’s one of the most “friendly” ways of interacting with other players.

Giving can suffer from the same disadvantages as trading if the “value” of a resource can be negative to players and nobody is willing to take what you want to get rid of. This is usually less of a problem because there is no need to “discover” what is being given away.

Giving is not an easy mechanic to incorporate in an interesting way. Thus, the game would need to be built around it quite strongly for it to work.

Auctioning

Auctions are where the game or a player puts forth one or more resources and the other players can “bid” and the highest bidder gains the resources. If a player offered the resources then that player gains the highest bid.

Auctioning is similar to trading in that it requires players to have different valuations of resources. If these differences are too large however then no interesting auction will result, as the players with love valuations will have very little incentive to bid.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing auctions

Auctions allow players to “value” resources based on their own situation, making balancing easier. It can also give a very interesting and hectic atmosphere based on the tension of getting what you need for the right price.

Auctions tend to be time-consuming and thus need to be a big part of your game. Also, auctions can get very rowdy, meaning they’re not that good for a quiet and contemplative game.

Taking resources

I’ll take that…
The passive-aggressive little brother of the direct attack, many modern games allow players to take resources that might have been taken by other players as well. Again, this is for a very general sense of resources; resources might be a bunch of wood tokens or a coveted space on the board.

Taking resources is indirect, in that you’re not (negatively) influencing any single player, but instead are taking up resources that might have been beneficial for all players present. The result of this is a less “adversarial” feeling to a game; it hardly ever results in retaliation.

The result is a puzzle, where you’re trying to determine what would be the best resources for yourself, whilst at the same time reducing the value of what is left for the other players.

Resource taking it the bread-and-butter of all modern Euro games.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing resource taking

Resource taking allows for (adversarial) player interaction without directly targeting. As such it leads to a generally friendly atmosphere. Resource taking turns into an interesting puzzle where there are difficult choices to be made on what is most important right now. It can also lead to tension, as you’re hoping that other players will leave for you what you require.

As a disadvantage I see that the player interaction is fairly minimal and very indirect. This means that some of the stronger advantages of player interaction are not always used (this post gives the advantages of player interaction).

I also feel that resource taking has been somewhat overdone in modern games. But, I don’t see us getting rid of it any time soon either!

Changing the board / rules

It is possible for a player action to change the board, to which other players can then respond. In Carcasonne for example players are laying out tiles and creating the “board” together. Thus, every round there is a different board to take into account.

And for many games part of the rules is embedded in the playing pieces present. Fluxx is the quintessential example of this, where all the rules are printed on the cards that are played.

These two elements allow for some deep and fundamental changes to the way the game is played. This then allows for many ways to influence other players.

Most of these changes are similar to the “taking resources”, in that every player is affected. However, it is possible to have asymmetric effects, where you’re the only beneficiary (similar to an attack) or where some opponents suffer while others gain.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing board changes

Player interactions through board or rule changes can be very interesting because they’re not done that often or that strongly. They also allow for (very) complex interactions. At the same time such a change most likely wouldn’t feel like a direct “attack”, conserving a “friendly” vibe.

The biggest downside is that setting up interesting board or rule changes is far from trivial and thus requires quite some work from the developer. And there certainly will be individual changes that have a detrimental effect on the game being played: With great power comes great responsibility!

Social deduction

You can only hide for so long…
There is a whole genre of games where each player gets a role and has to keep that hidden from the other players, whilst trying to deduce what roles those other players have.

Here the interaction is in observing the actions other players take, whilst keeping your own actions as obscure as possible. This interaction is mostly not directly through in-game actions, but more on the higher “mental” level. This mental level is much larger and richer than any game can ever be and thus the interactions can be very rich as well.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing social deduction

Social deduction can allow for a very rich mental “game”. It can add incredible amounts of depth to a game, because there is always more to learn (about how your opponent thinks).

Social deduction tends to dominate other game aspects, in that it is hard to combine with more traditional elements (though for example Citadels does a marvelous job!)

Closing thoughts

In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched seven different types of player interaction, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. This is obviously a far from complete list. And neither is each of the different types of interaction fully explored. I do hope that you will be able to recognize which elements you have present in your game. Or perhaps you’ve seen something that you feel would be a benefit to the game you’re currently creating?

Next steps

As mentioned, the list presented here is not complete, so perhaps some time in the future I’ll write the expanded version?

It would also be interesting to dig deeper into one of the types of player interaction. Especially the “changing the board / rules” seems to hold a lot of promise for interesting and deep game play.

Feedback please!

I love reader interaction; 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:

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