Board game design

Impact in board games

Make the right impact and the results will ripple through the rest of the game
When playing a board game you’re trying to optimize your actions so as to increase your chances of winning. With each move you want to have an impact on the game, to swing it your way.

This means that as a designer you want your players to have the means to impact the game. That sounds obvious when written down like that, but what exactly does it mean to have an impact? And is more better?

Let’s try to shed some light…

What is impact?

During play, players make moves. The game is different before and after making that move: Suddenly a pawn is a few spaces further, there is a village token that wasn’t there before, or another player is suddenly down three armies. Each of these moves impacts the game.

Thus, one way of looking at impact is that it changes the current state of the game. There are different pieces on the board, players gained and lost resources and abilities.

There are however more ways in which the state of the game can change. Specifically, the game can change its own state: At the end of a round there is the cleanup, in which empty resource spaces get refilled, every player receives a coin or the deck of cards is shuffled. None of this is a choice made by the players (even though they are instrumental in carrying out the physical actions).

So perhaps it’s better to speak of player impact (after all, the rest is boring book-keeping).

But what if right before I open up my tenth victory point card in Catan, I give away all my wood, sheep and other resources in my hand. I’ve significantly altered the state of the game. But it’s meaningless, because nobody is getting a chance to actually use those resources as my next action is winning (and thus ending) the game (read this post on the temporariness of resources in board games). Thus, an action also has to be meaningful to have impact.

So, when speaking of making an impact, what I mean is a player action that changes the state of the game in a meaningful way.

Maximizing impact

An impact was made here…
As mentioned, players will try to maximize the impact of their moves (in such a way as to make their own chances of winning greater).

Making a high-impact move (or turn) is awesome! The turn where you build two village and a city in Catan, where you cycle through your entire deck to buy two provinces in Dominion, or you grab the last oven in front of the next player in Agricola, make profound changes to the game. They can be a big boon (as in, get you quite a bit closer to winning) when pulled off right.

This is also what players will talk about afterwards: The moment the game changed, that one turn where the underdog became a serious contender again. Such charged moments will make a game unforgettable and players will come back to recreate something equally amazing. Certainly something to include in your game!

Building up the impact

To allow for high-impact moves there has to be variation in the amount of impact different options can have; if everything is game-changing, then in the end nothing is!

One way is simply by randomly distributing elements that have a stronger or weaker impact on the game. Having a card that deals 10 damage will obviously have a bigger impact than a card that deals 1 damage. This can be frustrating though, as then the impact you can have on the game is determined purely by chance (see this post for more on luck and randomness in board games).

Much more satisfying is to be able to “build” towards your high-impact moment: Spending several turns in gathering the required resources before finally letting loose your big guns. This has several advantages, as discussed below.

First, it makes this a player choice: Go for that big splash or do something else entirely, retaining player agency.

Second, this creates opportunities for different strategies: Go for the small wins every turn, or forego all of those and hope that you can make a big splash some time further in the future. (See this post for more on general strategies in board games).

Third, this way the big boom can be made fair. A player has to sacrifice several turns / resources in getting to their final outcome. When the game is balanced well, this should be similar in power to other strategies.

Finally, there is much more anticipation and thus fun in steadily working towards something instead of having it delivered ready-to-go. The game is paced, having a calm buildup phase, before there is the sudden explosion (see this post for more on pacing in board games).

This is of course not to say that randomness cannot play a part of the buildup. But it should be exactly that: Part of it and not the main dish.

Making (an) impact

So how do you include high-impact events in your game? I see a number of options:

Engine building

I got more resources, let’s add another cylinder!
An engine is a combination of resources that produce more (of the same) resources. This allows for a continuous “scaling up” of production and thus an ever increasing impact.

Building an engine can be very satisfying as there is a good sense of progress. I do believe it misses something where it comes to the ”Wow-this-is-awesome!” feeling: There is never a moment when it is finished, when you reap the full rewards. An engine can always be built out further, made bigger and stronger. And thus there is never a single “this-is-it!” moment.

Combos

A combo is an engine where randomness determines whether you will have all the required elements. Dominion is a good example of this, where certain combinations of cards are very strong, but you have to get those cards in your hand at the same time to get started.

Combos do have the “Wow!” factor as they are never fully expected and every time you’re able to “go off” is a high excitement moment.

The burn

The burn (yes, that’s a made-up term…) is where you gather a large amount of resources and then “burn” through them to get your high-impact effect.

In principle this isn’t different from any action where you use some resources to achieve an effect. The difference is the amount of resources required and the size of impact it has on the game.

You can have specific effects that require a large amount of resources, but the ”Wow”-effect happens whenever someone is able to expend a large amount of resources (in a meaningful way): Building two villages and a city on the same turn in Catan is a pretty sweet to do even though you’re “only” doing more of what you’re always doing!

The grab

For something to have impact it doesn’t need to change the state of the game significantly for everybody; as long as at least one player feels it, a move has impact.

This can be by grabbing resources that another players really wants or in some other way denying them what they want. A good example of this is the “assassin” ability in Citadels, where you get to name a character and the player who took that character has to skip their turn.

The essence here is that some resource has to be scarce to begin with and you’re ensuring that a player cannot (immediately) get that resource (see this post for more on scarcity in board games).

Beware of this method, as it generally involves something negative for other players and not everybody likes their games to be aggressive. On the other hand, grabbing resources before someone else can is the bread-and-butter of your average passive-aggressive Euro game (Agricola, I’m looking at you!).

Final thoughts

The best games get talked about afterwards: ”Remember that one time when…” To get to level with your game you’ll have to give your players the ability to create moments that are worth talking about: High impact events.

I hope that in this post I was able to shed some light on the idea of impact, what it entails and how you can incorporate it in your game.

Having said that, not all games need to go from low to high and back again; see this as a tool, to be used when useful, and only then.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know what the impact of this post was on you 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.

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