Board game design

12 skills you can design board games around

Differentiating between a d6 and a d10 is definitely an important skill, but not exactly what I’m talking about…
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.

1) Dexterity

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.

This seems like it would be cheating…

2) Memory

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.

4) Mathematics

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

This certainly would take a bit of analysis…

5) ”Systems analysis”

Board games have many components and elements, all of which can potentially influence each other. This creates a complex “system”, which obscures what the “best” move is (and thus keeping decisions interesting. See this post for more on interesting decisions in board games).

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.

Maybe I’ll finally win a game of trivial pursuit…

7) Knowledge

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.

8) Storytelling

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.

9) Humor

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.

I think it’s a dragon!

10) Drawing

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.

Closing thoughts

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.

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.

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  1. Matt Rylatt

    Diplomatic skills. Many games require negotiation. The classic ‘Diplomacy’ made full use of this, and many game have followed suit – for example A Game of Thrones.
    This skill set often combines with bluffing for an excellent social game.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Good one!

      I’ve played so much Diplomacy, can’t believe I forgot this one! Luckily I have observant readers 🙂

  2. I would say that “planning ahead and executing a plan” is as a skill distinct from “systems analysis” — it’s all very well having a reasonable conception of what you need to do to win but turning that into a plan of action that can survive distraction and opportunism is a distinct skill.

    Agricola is a great example — depending on certain cards you’re going to make a plan at the beginning of the game and be tempted throughout it by various opportunistic choices to collect large amounts of resources that won’t necessarily further your plan. Or even Carcassonne, where you need to remember and keep on coming back to trying to get into that last field because that’s how you have planned to neutralize your opponent’s big score.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      That’s a very good point! This is something I’ve been digging into a bit lately: The difference between a “strategic” game (where planning is important) and a “tactical” game (where you are simply doing what’s best “right now”. Good examples as well. Thanks for the addition!

  3. Rutger

    Resource Management.
    The ability to allocate resources in the right way to achieve a goal. Meeple placing in Carcassonne is an example. The set of meeples in finite while your tiles come up randomly, so you better place the meeples to maximize chances to get points. Or refrain from placing them now and again.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Resource allocation… Capitalism versus a plan economy? 🙂

      But without kidding, I think this is a very good addition, thanks!

    2. I suppose there are plenty of these finer-grained “tactics” under “systems analysis” — there’s resource management in respect of husbanding physical tokens, but to come back to Agricola, one of the key resources in Agricola is how many actions you have before the next harvest, which leads you to plan a few turns in advance to e.g. “take the extra wood now so that when I Build Rooms I can build a couple of stables too” or “take stone and grain now so that I have enough resources to take the ‘Renovate and a Major/Minor Improvement’ next turn and be able to both renovate and build the Stone Oven in one go, and then use the purchase power of the Stone Oven to immediately Bake Bread”, which condenses 3 separate actions into one.

  4. Brian Hoare

    You might consider “Communication” as another skill. Possibly taking out “Drawing” into either Dexterity or Communication depending on how it used in the game.

    I’m thinking, mostly, of those games where one has to attempt to convey information under certain restrictions. Primarily there are the party games involving drawing, acting, miming or being banned from using certain words. There are also games like Bridge and Hanabi where players can reveal additional information by their in-game actions.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      While I agree that communication is an important skill for many games, I feel it is too broad to stand on its own. As you already mention, there are many subcategories of it and you can be good at one subcategory (e.g. drawing) and horrible at another (e.g. acting).

      Having said that, I make no claims to having the full or best list. This can be improved upon (do make your own list! And if you do, share it?)

  5. Gilbert Walker

    I think he means knowing which order to execute actions in (for maximum benefit). Personally, I think that comes under systems analysis – although I wonder if systems analysis is actually too broad a category and should be split into smaller ones?

    Love this post anyway.

    One thing I think you’ve missed is “Adaptation” or “Creative Thinking”. I’m thinking along the lines of the ability to adapt to NEW situations in the game. Innovation vs Efficiency.
    For instance, some friends I play games with are extremely good systems analysts (way better than me) in terms of efficiency -if given enough time. But when the landscape of the game changes, I can sometimes scrape a victory by formulating NEW tactics on the fly. Does this make sense?

    I guess I’m trying to differentiate between logical thinking (which tends to be more maths based perhaps?) and the “bending the rules” type of “outside the box” thinking which sometimes finds new combinations or tactics.

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Starcraft, but there’s a really famous moment in Brood War, where a protoss player (Bisu) beat the reigning Zerg player by using a strategy that no one had ever even considered using! Incredibly, this was after years and years of people playing the game, and Bisu’s outside the box strategy changed the metagame of Protoss vs Zerg permanently.

    I think technically creative thinking probably comes under systems analysis in your list, but I really do think it is arguably different to analyis. Actually it makes me think of a fascinating article on Steve Jobs arguing that he was a tweaker (smartand savvy improver, rather that an innovator. Whether or not you agree with the article’s assessment of Jobs, but it’s a fascinating to ponder:

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      I’d say that creative thinking is definitely different from system analysis. Analysis is finding out what is there, while creativity is about creating something new. Having said that, board-games have very clear and strict rules, so “finding everything possible within those rules” could fall under system analysis. However, just as easily you could see this as “finding a new strategy” (over and over), which would clearly be creative. Maybe it’s a matter of how much effort has been put into a game already? Imagine you are the inventor of chess and you’re playing the first few games with your buddies. Then one of them gets creative and invents the Fool’s Mate. This is something that obviously was completely unknown and so a creative effort. Compare this to a master chess player now, who should have a very good grasp of just about any strategy that is possible. The trick for her then is to execute as well as possible within this huge pile of built up knowledge. Being “creative” doesn’t help her at all, it’s all about analyzing the system (the current state of the game).

      Thus… If I ever do a follow-up of this post I’ll definitely add creative thinking! Thanks for the tip and also for the link, looking forward to reading that.


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