Board game design

A vision for your game

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.

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