Board game design

Introduction

That’s quite a vision!
What kind of game are you creating?

”A game about zombies where…”
“Not what I meant.”
“A deck builder with…”
“No, also not it.”
“Well, what DO you mean then?”

When people ask about a game the two simplest answers are to talk about the theme and the mechanic. And while these are very important to a game, they’re not the core of the game.

From board to mind

When you play a board game, you’re pushing bits of cardboard, plastic and wood around. You move a card from a deck to your hand or you’re scattering dice over the table (in this post I write about the intricacies of moving playing pieces). And physically, this really is all you’re doing…

When written down like that it doesn’t feel particularly appealing, does it? Luckily there is a bit more to board games than just moving things around.

When we play a game, we send workers to a quarry (move our pawn to a space on the board) to carve out pieces of stone (little wooden cubes) to later use in constructing a majestuous monument (to play a card). The playing pieces and our actions are metaphors for something that could happen in real life (see this post for more on metaphors in board game design).

This then allows us to experience something we wouldn’t be able to in real life; I’ve never built a trading empire, conquered the world, raised monuments to the gods or utterly crushed my sworn enemies. But playing board games has allowed me to come awfully close!

It’s all about the experience

Such an amazing experience!
Board games allow the players to have experiences they wouldn’t be able to in real life. So what kind of experiences do you, as a designer, want them to have?

This is a personal question, one that every game designer should answer for themselves.

Still, I think that at a high level there are a number of experiences that board games are very good at conveying:

  • Power: In real life we tend to be relatively powerless (the boss says write that report and you write the report). In board games however we can vanquish our enemies, built world spanning civilizations and challenge the gods themselves. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon!
  • Wonder: Never have I lived on an uninhabited island, except through a board game. Traveling through time only works in books, movies and games. Board games don’t need to conform to human (or even natural) laws and so they can be used to create truly unique experiences.
  • Safety: A real-life adventure actually sucks. Being chased by a dragon is terrifying – and with good reason: You probably won’t survive. A board game however lets you experience the thrill without actually risking your life.
  • Victory: Board games end, and when they do there is a clear winner. Real life ends, but when it does you’ve neither won nor lost. The clarity and simplicity, it’s either black or white, can be highly refreshing.
  • Tension: Humans are monkeys at heart and as such we’re curious beyond belief: What will happen next? A well designed game can dish out surprise after surprise, keeping us at the edge of our seat with anticipation. (See this post for more on tension in board games).
  • Cooperation: Most games are played with others. And through this we can socialize, but more importantly, we can work together on something greater than what we could achieve on our own. This works best for cooperative games of course, but many player-versus-player games actually allow for quite some cooperation (trading in Catan, ganging up together in Risk).

I’m sure that if you give it a bit of time, you can think of many more experiences that your board game can bring your players.

A vision of your experience

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
The previous paragraph gave a number of high-level experiences that board games can bring. So how do you go about selecting what it is you want your board-game to bring? There are three questions you can ask about your game-to-be.

What do you want your players to do. “I want a game where players can build structures that reach into space”, or “I want players to want to give away their resources to other players” (the last was actually my thought for “Voluntarios”, the game I’m designing). Note that this may be closely linked to mechanics, but it certainly doesn’t need to be.

Or you can answer what, when and where they will be. “I want a game set on one of the moons of Jupiter” or “players should be primordial life-forms”. This is strongly related to the theme of the game.

Finally, you can start with what players will feel. “I want players to be amazed” or “The main emotion should be fear”.

Of the above I believe that the “what, when and where” is the easiest to start with, but also the weakest. It creates a back-drop, but alone it is not enough for a strong experience. For that you need players to do and feel. However, a setting can be great for creating inspiration for answering these questions.

What you want your players to “do” can be a strong start. It usually gives good inspiration for a setting and most actions at least have a hint of emotion to them. It also touches upon the core of the board game, as your players will be “doing” a lot of things whilst playing. And with this question answered, you’ll probably already have a few mechanics that would work well with it.

Starting with the feeling you want to engender is very abstract and as such needs further work to form the basis of a game. If you have a clear vision of this however it makes it much easier to answer any future questions about your game: “Does this help the player feel what I want her to feel?”. There is however generally not an obvious answer as to what actions could espouse your selected emotion(s).

In the end you’ll need to answer all three questions (don’t get stuck answering only the first two!) and the order matters less than actually answering them all in due time.

Closing thoughts

A good board game creates an unforgettable experience. It takes you away from everyday life and puts you back in a different time and place. It lets you see (in your mind’s eye) sights you never thought you’d see and it lets you do things you could never do in real life.

In order to do this you need to create a clear vision of what your game is trying to do. Do you have that vision for your current game? I’m sure you have a theme and probably some mechanics, but can you articulate what it is your players are doing? And perhaps more importantly, do you know what it is you want them to feel?

Next steps

In this post I went into the experience of board games. I gave ideas what this consists of and how to get to a vision of it, but not how to create the experience once you know what it’s to be. I’m sure I can fill another blog post with just that.

The experience also closely links to story-telling (another favorite subject), so maybe there will be a post combining the two.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to hear how you experienced this post, 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 or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Guest post, Prototyping

I’ve signed up to quite a few gyms over time. Some of them I went to very regularly and others I showed up twice and never looked back. What was the difference between them? One simple thing: Distance! When it comes to gyms, I’ve found that the amount of friction of going needs to be as small as possible. The same holds true for prototyping.

I’ve had hundreds of ideas for amazing games that never went further than a light bulb over my head. Because usually I’d be doing something else, not having access to a computer or my other design stuff, and the idea would die a quiet death. Or even worse, I just couldn’t be bothered to actually take the time to create the components; it was just too much work to fire up the computer, create a bunch of cards (in whatever editor), print them out, cut them to size, put them in sleeves (with a playing card for strength) and only then be able to test out my idea.

The above is the first two paragraphs of the guest post I wrote for GameGoodness. Want to read the rest? Go visit them!

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Board game design

A random but great idea!
Many board games incorporate randomness, and for good reason! Randomness can add a lot to a game, as we’ll see. But, everything should be done in moderation and that certainly holds true for randomness.

Let’s roll the dice!

What is randomness?

Randomness (in a board game) is an event that cannot be predicted exactly, but where each possible outcome follows strict (mathematical) rules.

The quintessential example is the dice roll: You will not know how many pips will come up, but you know it’ll be a number from 1 to 6 and each side has an equal chance.

The other common method for introducing randomness is through (shuffled) cards; you don’t know which cards you’ll get, but you can only get the ones that are in the deck to start with.

We can also say that an opponent plays “randomly”, usually when what she’s doing doesn’t seem to make sense. This is not the type of randomness I’m referring to; the outcome might be unpredictable but there is no (mathematical) rule behind it. For example an opponent might throw their meeples through the room, while a card cannot do that.

The uses of randomness

Randomness has several uses in board games:

Driving interesting decisions

Randomness creates uncertainty (see this post for more on uncertainty in board games) and as such it is a driver for interesting decisions. “If I attack I need a five or six to win. If I win I’ll be well set for my next goal, but if I lose then I’ll have to struggle to get back on top. Should I take that chance…?”

Randomness allows for a great many potential events, each of which will have a different impact on the game. Which ones do I take into account and how? Can I safely ignore something with a small probability or do I hedge my bets even there? Is a 75% chance “as good as certain”? Do I expend resources to influence what card comes up or am I secure in my position no matter what I draw?

Reducing analysis paralysis

I might know the cards in the deck, but I don’t know which one will be drawn next turn. Especially if there is a wide variety of possible outcomes I can’t analyze them all. And even if I could, I can’t prepare for them all. And thus most players won’t even try, leaving this bit of (potential) information out of the process of deciding what the best move is. And every bit of information not taken into account is a save in brain power and thus a quicker decision.

In chess you can think through what are the optimal moves for you and your opponent, several turns into the future. Add some randomness in there and that ability goes out of the window: We’re able to predict our opponent because she’s logical and tries to play optimally; neither of which is the case for a random process.

For more on reducing analysis paralysis in board games, see this post.

A source of tension

”You’ve decided, you’re taking the plunge, you’re going to take one more card! Slowly you draw the card towards you and with a slam you open it up for everyone to see. You groan as the one card that would stop you is staring you in the face!

Randomness can be a source of tension. You don’t know what is going to come up, but you’re certainly hoping for something. This creates an “is this going to work”-moment, which will get players to the edge of their seats.

See this post for more on tension in board games.

The equalizer

Experience, a more logical mind, intuition, all of these can help with winning a game. But it’s no fun if the same person always wins…

Randomness can help to equalize winning probabilities. A great player can draw a bad hand, a mediocre player can roll perfectly. And thus there is more than pure “skill” in determining who will win in the end. Of course some players get put off by this and playing well but losing due to a single die role is frustrating at best. Thus, this should be used with caution. Still some randomness can make a game more enjoyable for a wider variety of players.

Adding depth

As mentioned, randomness can create a great many possible events, especially when randomness follows randomness. This means that there will be more of the game to “explore”; it will take a while before all combinations have been observed.

This also relates to the previous point: If there is a reasonable amount of randomness, you can never be sure whether your strategy won because it’s awesome, or because you got lucky. This then means that players can play the same strategy multiple times before they figure out which of the two is the case.

Randomness can increase the depth and replayability of your game.

Simulating life

Many games have a “theme”: The real-life thing it is trying to simulate with all those cards, chits and meeples. It can be the colonization of an island (Catan) or saving the world from horrible diseases (Pandemic). In a game you’re trying to do something that (a group of) humans (or animals, or computers or whatever) might try to do in real life.

Life is unpredictable. There are other people who do strange things, diseases that suddenly crop up or unplanned for robbers. All of these might have a completely rational and understandable explanation, but they certainly seem to be random.

Randomness in a game then can be used to make a more believable gaming experience, to add to the theme and immerse players further into the story they are building in their head.

Luck

Randomness is awesome. Until it is not!

The flip side of randomness is (excessive) luck: Playing perfectly but losing due a bad draw. Or playing like a wet rag but winning because the dice love you.

Randomness will always imply some form of luck, it is what drives some of the good things mentioned above. But a game can contain randomness while still keeping the game interesting for anybody who wasn’t born under a lucky star.

Limit the impact

To limit luck, limit the impact that a single brush with fate has. This means that the game won’t hinge one die or one card draw.

Having said that, the impact of something should still be meaningful. If you roll a die and it doesn’t matter at all whether you get a 1 or a 6, you might as well not have rolled at all. Use luck to see if something goes a little bad or quite bad, instead of going perfectly or horribly.

Increase the randomness

This might seem counter-intuitive, but increasing the number of random elements in your game will actually reduce luck. This is because it is much more likely to get both good and bad results in equal amounts than to consistently do well or poorly.

Watch out though, because players are biased in what they see: Even though the randomness was completely evenhanded, they might still feel like they got screwed over (I can remember games of Catan where the 8 was never thrown!).

A nice example of this is Dominion. You’re drawing so many hands, that inevitably some of them will be great (turn on that engine!) while some of them will have you seeing nothing but green. In the end it evens out and the draw is part of the excitement of the game.

Allow for reactions

In monopoly you roll your dice and that’s it, that’s where you’re moving. There is no way to mitigate or anticipate the randomness of that roll.

In Catan on the other hand you’re also rolling dice, but you can work with them. You know that the sixes and eights are going to come up more often (even though you won’t know when exactly!), so you’ll be vying to build your villages and cities next to these numbers. You can’t control the randomness, but it’s perfectly possible to anticipate the probabilities.

Another good way is for players to choose whether they want to take on more randomness: “I’ve got three sixes and three dice left, I’ll gamble and hope that my next roll will give me at least one additional six!”

Closing thoughts

Randomness can be a real boon to board games, but like anything in excess it becomes a burden.

In the previous parts I’ve given suggestions about what randomness can do. I’m sure that if you give it some thought you can come up with even better uses for it. You can probably also come up with even more ways in which it can screw up your game… 🙂

Even though randomness can add to a game, that doesn’t mean it should always be used. There are awesome games that use minimal to no randomness. Like everything, it should be one of the many tools in your belt, to be taken out when useful, to be left alone when there are better choices.

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 (or randomly have a chat)? 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

Build a hotel, or attack Australia?
”What move should I make?”

This is the essential question in any board game. Given the current state of the board, whatever information I gleaned from my opponents, the strategy I thought would be good at the beginning of the game, what right now is the optimal choice?

And it’s that uncertainty that plays a big part in the enjoyment of games.

Uncertainty as driver of interesting decisions

You don’t need to ask a question if you know what the answer is (unless you’re one of those people…). Likewise, if it’s clear what to do, you don’t need to ponder what your next step should be. If you have no options or if there is one clearly superior choice, there is no real need for a decision.

And if there is no need for a decision, there certainly can’t be an interesting decision.

Thus, there needs to be uncertainty: What option is best? What will get me most in the long run? And in the short run? What is most important right now? And how will my opponents respond?

Not knowing the right answer is what makes a choice interesting.

(See here for more on interesting choices in board games)

Uncertainty as driver of tension

You see the side-kick walking to the edge of the cliff and as the camera pans down we see the hero hanging by her fingernails. The side-kick reaches down and pulls the hero up…

Not particularly interesting, is it? At no point do you feel that there is actual trouble. Sure, hanging from your fingernails isn’t nice, but help is right there!

To be at the edge of our seats we need to worry, to hope for a miraculous safe. We need to be uncertain of what is going to happen.

This also holds in games. If you roll a die but it doesn’t matter whether it comes up one or six you’re not going to care about that roll. But if a one means total annihilation and a six is complete victory then you’ll be eyeing what pips come up like a hawk!

It is uncertainty about the outcomes (of a roll, an action, the entire game) that pulls in your players and creates the most important feeling in board games: Wanting to know what happens next.

(See here for more on tension in board games)

Food for thought

Where is the uncertainty in your game?

Does it engender interesting decisions and / or tension?

How often are your players uncertain?

How large is the impact of what they are uncertain about?

Feedback please!

I’m uncertain about how this post is received, so let me know in the comments below or 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? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) 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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