2 heads know more than 1. And 10 know more still! So instead of thinking about everything myself, I’m very happy to share with you some of the insightful, brilliant, thought-provoking or otherwise interesting articles that other people wrote about board game design.
It’s what you don’t notice that makes the game
For me an important part of board games is “immersing” in them, being to where the game transports me instead of at the table. Andy van Zandt (Twitter) made me realize that what really helps with this is making the playing experience as “smooth” as possible, letting the game flow without interruptions or “clunkiness”.
It’s not the size of your mechanics, it’s what you do with it!
Related to the previous article: Mechanics are a means to an end. Having a really cool mechanic isn’t enough, it’s about the experience you get through that mechanic (and the rest of the game).
Mark Major (Twitter) touches upon the subject, and I would love for him to go much deeper into it.
Jay Cormier (Twitter) and Sen-Foong Lim (Twitter) write about how limitations can be good for your game design. I fully agree with this, in that reducing the size of your design space (all the possible options you could potentially explore) allows you to go much deeper into what is left.
I wouldn’t go as far as they do though (seriously, 25 tiles and that’s it?!).
As a player of a board game you get your components and the rule book. From those you can figure out what you can do, but not what you should do (or even better: What’s fun to do). For most games there is nothing beyond “winning”, but why wouldn’t there be? Personally I enjoy beating a previous record, building the largest whatever, winning in a different way (or even losing in a different way!).
The article below touches upon these items from the perspective of computer games. It might be trickier to do the same in board games, but in no way impossible. Something to ponder…
I believe that interesting decisions and tension lie at the core of good (board) games. So, I was very happy to read Michael Ardizzone’s (Twitter) article about exactly those subjects (albeit in the context of computer games).
Particularly interesting are what he believes is required for tension (i.e. indirectness, exclusivity and situationality). Especially “indirectness” is something I had never thought about (but should have): We never simply “win the game” (no tension, boring!). Instead we take some resources to be able to build a building, which generates different resources, so that we can build a second building… Only very far down the road does any of this (hopefully!) lead to victory.
Does more indirection lead to more tension? Would that make more “strategic” games more tense? I don’t have the answers, but I’m very happy I now know to ask these questions!
After a long time of just plodding along, Voluntarios, the game I’ve been working on, has moved forward in a big step. The core seems to work and I’m about ready to start on some serious balancing.
Before doing that I decided to take a step back and look at the game from a distance.
Yes, the core works, it’s fun, there are interesting decisions, there is a reasonable amount of tension. But still there was something missing…
When playing Voluntarios you’re really trying to answer “What is the best move right now?”. The game is highly tactical, but it’s hardly strategical. That’s doesn’t need to be a problem, but if I could add strategy without making the game much more complex, that would certainly increase the replayability of the game (and thus its awesomeness!).
So I got digging into the idea of “strategy”. Join me to see how deep this rabbit hole goes?
What is strategy?
The first question to answer is “What is strategy?” or “What does it mean for a game to be strategical?”.
My first and intuitive answer would be that a game is strategic when it offers different (viable) paths to victory. An example of this would be Puerto Rico, where one viable strategy is to produce a lot of cheap stuff and ship it, while another is trying to get as much money as possible and get to the expensive point-producing buildings. These are two main strategies, with many variations on how to actually execute these.
In my mind this means that (once you know a game well) you can chose a strategy before the game begins and then follow that. Of course you’ll still need to make turn-by-turn (“tactical”) decisions while playing, but those should choices all be geared to execute your strategy as much as possible, given the state of the game.
But then what about Agricola? I’d say this is a fairly strategic game, in that there are medium term goals you’re trying to achieve, like building your food engine, getting the well or growing your family. But at the end of the game everybody generally achieved more-or-less the same. Everybody has multiple family members, a few animals, some professions, etc. In Agricola you don’t go in deciding “I’m going to have all my professions and win that way!”. Still, working towards medium-term or intermediate goals is strategic as well, isn’t it?
And how does Carcassone rank? I’ll put my tile here to start a new city which I can claim and then finish over the next few turns. Is it a strategy to start that new city?
The conclusion from the examples above would be that a “strategicalness” (is that a word? It is now!) comes in different time-frames, from long-term (over the entire game) to short-term (for the next round only)
What is strategy – take 2
Whilst working through this I posted a question on Reddit (see here for the discussion) and someone posted what I think is a great way of looking at strategy:
”Strategy emerges when players have different options later on in the game, based on decisions they made earlier in the game.”
You play the game, you make choices and because of that new choices become available. This fits all of the examples above, whether they are “long term” or “short term”.
I would add one thing to this though. It’s not only making different options available, but also making different options lucrative. By this I mean that a certain option can always be available, but whether it is a good option depends on earlier choices. As an example, in Agricola at some point the option to increase your family becomes available. After the card is flipped this option is always there, but whether it’s a good option for me very strongly depends on how much food I’m able to produce.
The summary is that any choice that changes how you would play the rest of the game is a strategic choice!
And thus a game that has many of such choices is high in strategy.
Why strategy at all?
So we’ve more-or-less answered what strategy is. But there is a more fundamental question to be asked: Why do you need your game to be strategical at all?
In the introduction I already touched upon one reason: Because it adds replayability (“depth”) to a game.
A game that allows for multiple (viable) strategies remains interesting for much longer. On different plays you can try a new strategy and as you’re doing things differently (doing different things!), in a sense you’re playing a new game.
And of course you won’t perfect a strategy the first time around, so you’ll need a few games to really find out whether it works (and is better than some of the other strategies available).
The “longer term” a strategy is, the more the above holds. In Carcasonne I can try out the “roads” and “cities” strategies very easily in the same game and figure out that cities gives me more points. In Puerto Rico however the “big money” and “deliver cheap stuff” strategies really do require separate plays (and multiple of them!) before you can compare.
A second reason is that strategic and tactical options can clash, creating interesting decisions (see this post for more on interesting decisions): Go for the pile of wood which I can only take this turn but which I don’t need for my strategy, or strategically expand my family so I can produce more in the long run?
Third, strategic choices are generally harder to make than tactical ones (you need to “oversee” a lot more potential results), which makes a game more interesting for a fair amount of people (and will make them less interesting for people who prefer their games simpler).
Fourth, making strategic choices available makes that your game changes while playing it. ”Strategy emerges when players have different options later on in the game, based on decisions they made earlier in the game.” When we turn this around, making a strategic games gives players different options later in the game than they had in the beginning. This means that the game “refreshes”, that you’re not making basically the same choices over and over again.
Strategies and viable strategies
A game may have many choices that change how you play the game, but if they very obviously don’t help you to win the game, they might as well not be there. As an extreme example, it’s possible to “concede” on your first turn in a game of chess and it will make the game play out very differently than if you didn’t. Does that make it a “strategy”? Technically maybe, but not in any real sense!
A slightly less extreme example would be Catan. At a tactical level there are many choices (”Build my road here or there?”) and even for the short term there are “strategic” choices to be made (“Save up for a city or a village?), but for the long term there is really only a single over-arching viable (long term) strategy for winning the game: Build stuff that gets you resources as quickly as possible and use those resources to build more stuff.
It can be that different strategies are “viable” against different opponents. When you’re sitting down with people who have never played Agricola before it might work perfectly well to not bother with building out your house, getting multiple family members and setting up a food engine. For a game with veterans however you will most definitely need to do these things if you want to have any chance of winning.
Strategy versus progression
The last reason for strategy from the previous paragraph says that strategy means you don’t do the same thing again and again. In this way it creates a sense of “progression”.
It is however not the only way of creating progression in a game. In Agricola you open up a new card every turn, meaning that every turn there is (at least) one new thing that you can do (or at the very least should take into account).
And it is also possible to have players “progress” without making deep strategic choices. In Catan players start out building roads and villages and then at some point “progress” to cities and development cards. This is not set in stone: It’s perfectly possible to start out buying development cards from the get go and as such this could be deemed a “strategy”. But as explained in the previous paragraph, it’s not really a viable strategy and thus everybody ends up doing more-or-less the same. The progression then is a result of being “forced” to follow the only viable strategy.
Playing for the long term
Board games have a goal: To win! That means that anything that helps you reach that goal is a good thing to do. In Chess you can sacrifice half of your pieces if in the end you get that check-mate.
In this sense, anything you do is for the long term; and thus any move is “strategic”.
Except that most modern games aren’t as binary as Chess. Instead of doing this one very specific thing (the check-mate), you’re either trying to get more (victory points mostly) or go faster (to the finish line) than your opponent. Agricola is about getting the most points, Catan is about getting ten points the fastest.
Both games work great, but there is a downside (from a strategy point of view): Instead of a grand finale (the check-mate) there are many steps that all need to be taken to bring you closer to the final goal – every victory point needs to be earned and each brings you somewhat closer to winning. This makes these games “shortsighted”; instead of asking “How can I win this game?”, you’ll be wondering “How can I get my next victory point?”.
This then turns a potential long-term strategic arc into a much shorter-term one. This makes it much easier for players to understand what to do (get the next point!) but it detracts from taking a long-term and in-depth view of the game.
Having a deeply strategic game can make a game better, but it certainly comes with downsides; it will generally make the game more complex and thus it might take longer and invite paralysis analysis.
Strategies come on a spectrum of time, ranging from the full game to looking ahead only to the next turn. Both advantages and disadvantages become more pronounced with a longer time-frame.
Strategicalness is intertwined with a sense of progression in a game, though there are other ways of accomplishing this as well.
The yardstick of any game is whether it’s fun to play. Adding strategy can make something more fun for a group of players whilst detracting for others. Who are you building for?
In writing this post I had my own game Voluntarios in the back of my mind. I found that it already has quite some medium-term strategy and I’m wondering whether it’s necessary to add further long-term strategy to it. It currently is fairly light, does it need to be burdened with extra weight? I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I certainly understand better what the question means!
Recently I played a game of “Terraforming Mars”. Being the huge nerd I am, I immensely enjoyed the game (whilst at the same time griping wholeheartedly about some of the components).
One of the most enjoyable moments came when I got a “Huge ice asteroid” card. It was expensive (in terms of in-game resources) and the game effect were pretty nifty. But that’s not what makes it a moment to remember.
In real life all I did was move some tokens from one place to another, take a card from my hand, showed it to everybody and placed it in front of me.
In my mind however I crashed a huge friggin’ asteroid on the face of another planet!!!
I was picturing gigatonnes of frozen water, hurtling down through an almost-non-existent (but slowly thickening!) atmosphere, delivering desperately needed water and heat to a barren planet.
Moving a card from my hand to the table and kissing a foreign planet with an asteroid. Could anything be more different than these two things? And yet, they did come together, in this particular game of Terraforming Mars.
A mind in two places
Games are played in two places at the same time.
On the board we shift around tokens, move our meeples, play cards. There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot do.
At the same time we’re playing in our minds, where we’re feeding our family, erecting monuments to the gods or sending asteroids to impact the face of a planet humanity hasn’t even been to yet. Here there aren’t any rules: You can do whatever it is that you like!
The first part (what happens on the board) are the mechanics and the rules. The second contains the “theme” of the game. But I believe it contains much more than just that.
The mechanistic approach
A game exists first and foremost because of its mechanics. Chess and Go, two of the most venerated games in history have next to no theme to them. If the mechanics are interesting enough, people will happily forget about the (lack of) theme and immersion.
I’ve played many a great game of Dominion and only when thinking about it afterwards does it seem weird that something like a village would come up at random moments instead of, you know, just being there! But the game is fun, the mechanics work and it’s a staple for introducing people to “the next level” of board games.
It even has its own moments of awesome, where you’re chaining card upon card and end up buying two provinces in the same turn. These are of a “mechanistic” awesomeness: You got to do something that made a big difference in game (what I called “Impact” in this post).
Feeding the mind
Most games I’ve played do not have hurtling-huge-balls-of-dirty-ice-into-the-face-of-Earth’s-neighbor-moments (or something of similar awesomeness). Mostly I’m too engrossed in finding the optimal move to pay much attention to what I’m doing “thematically”.
Which is a shame, because when these moments do happen, they tend to make the game so much better!
They transform an abstract optimization problem into something that feels real. They change a tough but engaging puzzle into something that, even if just for a moment, actually matters.
So what do these games have in common? I think there are a number of elements.
The games mentioned above all try to “simulate life” as closely as possible. They’ve taken a setting and players can do anything and everything that “makes sense” within that setting. And they’ve made it such that the way players do what they want to do also makes sense.
In Terraforming Mars you play a huge corporation that expends millions upon millions of Euros to re-arrange the solar system. Humanity can’t do this yet, but once we can this would be a way of doing it.
In Robinson Crusoe players use the limited time they have in a day to improve their lives on a deserted island, whilst trying to stave off one (small) disaster after another. It makes sense to consider whether it’s worth it to go hungry for a day if it means you can finish that shelter which will be useful for many nights to come.
It means that any action the player takes can be directly translated into real life and that there is as little as possible to clash with our view of reality. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be abstraction (please don’t try to simulate everything; I’m very happy that my pawns don’t need to use the toilet in-game…) but it does mean that you need to reach a reasonable amount of verisimilitude.
In Robinson Crusoe you are simulating a number of days and need to feed your characters at the beginning of the night phase. In Netrunner however time is far less important so there is no need to “feed” your character. Both work perfectly well in their respective settings.
In each of the games mentioned above you’re playing a realistic “character”. For most games this is a human being though in the case of Terraforming Mars a big corporation also does the trick.
These “characters” (I’ll leave off the quotation marks after this) are (somewhat) fleshed out: I’m this character and not that one. Characters are unique, in that they have individual abilities and a unique representation. Here a picture says more than a thousand words and makes characters much more relatable.
Having a fleshed out character makes a wonderful form of dissociation possible, where a player becomes the character. Once this happens it is much easier to stay in the “game world”, translating mechanics into the working of real life and player actions into character actions. No longer am I moving a pawn, no, I am moving myself!
Note that there doesn’t have to be a 1-to-1 match between a player and their character. In Dead of Winter you’re a group of (individual, fleshed-out) people instead of a single person. In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re a (generic) temporal agent who inhabits an (individual, fleshed-out) person. There is something of a remove, but this still works.
You’ve got to keep ‘em motivated!
There is one part of “realistic characters” that I want to address separately: Motivation. Many game don’t really explain “why” you (your character) wants to do something. In Agricola I guess it’s sortof a good idea to have a bigger farm, but does it really matter whether it’s bigger than the neighbor’s (or that I have at least one of each type of animal)?
In the games mentioned however it’s clear why you’re doing what you do. In Netrunner the corporation wants to advance its agenda’s because that’s what corporations do. For the runner this is even better because the different characters actually have different motivations (ranging from hard profit to “because they can”). In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re solving the mystery because your boss ordered you, while in Robinson Crusoe it’s a fight for survival.
Motivations don’t have to be particularly strong, as long as they beat “that’s how the game is played”. This is because the character is not playing the game, it’s the player that’s playing. And if the character is doing something that doesn’t make sense for them to do in the real world, it’s very hard for the player to suspend disbelief and get in the skin of the character.
The cost of immersion
Games exist in a spectrum from pure abstract to “as life-like as possible”. The more you get to the latter, the easier it is to create immersion and memorable moments.
This comes at a cost though. Life-like means simulating enough of “real life” to make it believable and that can mean that you have to leave things out of your game because they don’t mesh with reality. Likewise, it can mean you have to put things in that aren’t good for play but make the illusion more believable.
This is a choice or a balance if you will. There are games that get played a lot even though they’re only half a step away from pure abstracts (Dominion anyone?). Some player prefer tight gameplay over having a story afterwards (or during the game). And neither is better than the other (just different!).
I’ve never hacked a megacorporation’s protected server, I have never been stranded on a deserted island, I’ve never thrown an asteroid onto the surface of a planet.
Except that I have, through playing awesome board games!
For me these kinds of games rise above other games which are “merely” innovative, perfectly balanced and tightly designed. As such I hope to one day be able to design something that reaches these heights as well.
Maybe the same holds true for you? If so, I hope that this post was of use for you!
And if maybe you know of other games that engender this sense of immersion, do let me know because I would love to play them!
If you want to know more about this subject, maybe these posts are also of interest to you:
I feel that I have quite a broad knowledge of the world, but I’m horrible at “small facts”. As such, Trivial Pursuit is not my game! Give me a heavy Euro on the other hand and I’m as happy as a child!
Players want to be challenged when playing a board game. This means doing something they have a chance to win, but that victory is far from guaranteed! As such they need to have the skills to compete; my skillset is for Euro games and not for Trivial Pursuit. Other people however will have a completely different skillset from me. This means that different gamers will enjoy different games, based on whether they have a decent ability of competing using the skills that the game requires.
So what are these skills? Aren’t they the same for all games?
Most certainly not!
In this post I want to go through a number of common skills / abilities that come up in board games. This can be used to recognize which skills are required for your game and to strengthen those aspects. Alternatively, when starting a new project, you can choose what abilities you want to create your challenges around.
I also hope to show that there are many more skills that you could incorporate than what most designers generally consider.
A useful skill
Not all games are designed primarily to be won. For example, a lot of “party games” are mostly designed to let the players have a good time. These games generally still can be won though (even if that winning is less important).
In this post I won’t focus on skills that will make a game more interesting or fun, only on those that help you get to the number 1 position.
Dexterity games involve the manipulation of physical object. Jenga is probably the most famous example, where you’re drawing blocks from a tower that gets closer and closer to collapsing.
Most dexterity games are “party” games – simple but highly entertaining.
That is not to say that “serious” games can’t use dexterity components. There are flavors of role playing games where with every action the players attempt, they have to remove a block from a Jenga tower; as long as the tower remains standing their characters achieve what they set out to do. But once the tower comes crashing down, the characters fail, spectacularly!
Dexterity as a skill gives very quick feedback: You know when you succeeded or not. The physicality of it is also something that appeals to players – it has that in common with rolling dice. This also makes it more interesting to watch, either as a bystander or as one of the other players; it’s much easier to see someone do something in the real world, than to imagine what they are trying to accomplish by pushing tokens around.
Memory comes into play when your players have to remember something. This can be the core of the game (such as the game Memory), or something that simply helps when playing (remembering how many victory points other players got in Puerto Rico). It can also be part of a larger skill such as “system analysis” as explained below, where many different game states need to be remembered after having analyzed them.
Like dexterity, many people feel that “memory” should not be a skill that is asked for in “serious” games.
3) Assessing probabilities
A lot of games use randomness, be it in the form of dice, cards or something else. This means that it’s usually possible to get an idea of whether an action is more likely to succeed or to fail. Yahtzee is a prime example of this, but it also holds for Catan.
Assessing what the probability of any given outcome is then becomes a valuable skill.
Some games require players to do (fairly) complicated sums in their mind. This can be to add up final scores, to assess probabilities (see above) or to simply see what the potential outcome of a move is.
Most people are not particular fond of “hard core mathematics” and so the common suggestion is to keep it to a minimum. However, it is certainly possible to design more niche games that do make use of this skill
Systems analysis then is being able to untangle this system, to see through many steps of elements influencing each other.
System analysis can be improved for a single game (system), by simply playing it a lot. By doing this players build up intuition about how elements influence each other or which pieces are more important than others when trying to achieve a certain goal. Alternatively, players can try to analyze a game (system) without having played it (much), based solely on the rules and components. This is much harder to do as it revolves much more around logic and actually working things out in the mind.
System analysis is the core skill to play many Euro games.
6) Bluffing / Reading other players
Social deduction games let players take on a hidden role, which will have objectives that differ from the other role. The gist of the game then is to try to find out which roles the other players have, whilst keeping your own a secret. This requires bluffing as well as being able to read other players.
Other games will have some of this as well, where seasoned players will try to “crawl in their opponents’ heads” to try to predict what they will do on their next turn.
As human beings are infinitely more complex than any game can ever be on its own, this is a very good way of adding depth and interesting decisions to your game.
Special notice should be given to Poker. In the basis the core skill to play Poker is “assessing probabilities”. However, because Poker is played so much (and for so much money!), people long ago figured out how the probabilities work exactly. This then brings the game to a higher level, where the probabilities are just about irrelevant (as everybody knows them) and the bluffing / reading takes center stage.
Trivial Pursuit is about “who knows most about obscure stuff”. There is a bit of randomness, but it hardly matters to the game.
In a sense knowledge is also about memory, except that here it is “memory of things that happened completely externally to the game”.
This is a post about “skills”, but knowledge is not really a skill as such, in that it cannot be trained within the game. If you assess probabilities enough you get better at them. If you do enough dexterity games you get a steadier hand. But playing knowledge games only increases your “skill” in an unintended way, namely by memorizing tidbits that have come up in previous games. To really get better at “knowledge”, you have to go out in the real world and gather it.
In Once Upon a Time players vie for the opportunity to continue with a mutual story so that they can play their cards.
Storytelling revolves around creativity and sometimes to ability to improvise. These are not skills that everybody has, or is comfortable showing off.
The best board games do create a story. In this sense the players are not “storytelling”, but they are helping to bring out a story. Bringing this story more to the forefront can help players to imagine what the game is a simulation of.
In Cards Against Humanity a rotating judge determines which player made the “best” completion of a sentence. This doesn’t strictly need to be humorous, but generally making something funny does help in scoring points.
Cards Against Humanity works because it’s hard not to make something funny once and awhile (even if a lot of other sentences really are just awful). A more free-form type of producing humor would run into the same problems as storytelling, in that not everybody has the ability to produce humor on-demand.
While not strictly a board game, Pictionary asks players to make drawings which other players will guess. Leaning more towards dexterity, Captain Sonar requires players to draw within certain lines before they can take any further actions.
Drawing in games is usually used to convey some sort of information
11) Logical thinking
Logical thinking comes to the fore when trying to understand how a game works. It is one of the sub-skills for systems analysis (see above).
Most games also unintentionally require logic skills, as there are bound to come up situations in play that are not adequately covered by the rules / rulebook. In this case logic can help to make sense of what to do.
12) Spatial reasoning
Carcasonne gives tiles to players that they need to fit into an ever expanding “map”. Being able to quickly see where a given tile will fit then allows a player to (mentally) try out many options and thus find the best location.
Spatial reasoning comes to the fore when the location of something relative to other things is important. This can be in two dimensions (as in Carcassone) but also in three (no example comes to mind as I tend to shy away from those games. But they exist!).
Probably to most famous example of this is Chess, where location of the different pieces and their position relative to other pieces is of paramount importance.
When coming up with this list I “discovered” quite a few skills that I had never thought of as being part of board games. I feel my horizon has broadened and I hope I was able to help you do a bit of the same. I’ll certainly consider incorporating other skills than my standard of “systems analysis”.
How about you? Are there any skills that you never really thought about but that you would be interested in incorporating in a (future) game?
This post also made me realize that there are many different types of “players” out there. It’s impossible to have them all love your game, but by incorporating different skills that are required, it would be possible to speak to a larger group of people.
More importantly, this can mean that very different types of people can compete. Not so good at assessing probabilities, you can ace the drawing aspect. Bad memory? See if your spatial reasoning is still enough to beat your opponent.
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?!
Hi, 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.