Board game design

He’s not really my type…
”Why do we play board games?”

“To have fun, duh! Stop asking stupid questions!”

We play games to have fun. But I’ve found that different people enjoy different games, or different parts of the game. My wife for example doesn’t care much what she plays, as long as she wins! For myself I much more enjoy finding out what the different possibilities are that a game allows (though winning is neat too of course!).

Different players have different motivations for playing games. Understanding what these are can help create better board games.

Fun from games

Different players enjoy games for different reasons. When looking at the people I’ve played with I can see a number of distinct “types” of players:

  • Power-mongers
  • Socializers
  • Imaginers
  • Explorers
  • Creators

(Are all of those real words? They are now!)

In the following paragraphs I’ll write something about each of these drivers and how you can cater to each of them in creating your game.

Power

In board games you can rule civilizations, build monuments to the gods and utterly crush your opponents. All of these are expressions of power, of bending the world (within the game) to your will.

Power can be over the elements of the game: You get to decide what your workers do, where buildings are built or what your character does. These are the kings and queens of imaginary fiefdoms, happy to rule for as long as the game lasts.

The most important way to achieve this is of course by winning. After all, nothing shouts out that you’re more powerful than others than beating them.

As most games are built with player vs. player interaction in mind, this is an expected part of most games and nobody will begrudge a player of doing their best to gain the upper hand. In fact, many people are very happy to get some good opposition, as it makes it all the more delicious when you do finally grasp victory.

Another way in which players can express power is in “quarterbacking” in coops: Telling other players what they should do. Some people are happy to let others decide for them what the best move is (most importantly Socializers, see below), but it can be a real downer for many other players.

Designing for power-mongers

People who enjoy power in their games tend to prefer player vs. player games (though as mentioned, they can also show their preferences in coop games).

For some power-mongers the simple pleasure of winning is enough, but for others direct confrontation is preferred. Euro-style getting-in-the-way passive-aggressive play is not what they are looking for, they prefer more direct interaction. This can be through aggressive action (attack!) but it is also possible to exercise power over other people with more innocent player interactions: Forcing another player to give you 3 bricks for your one sheep in Catan can put a gleam in the power-monger’s eye.

When it comes to mechanics, anything they can amass will tickle their fancy. This can be resources, but preferably it’s something that can be used to directly interact with the other players with (think huge stockpiles of armies in Risk).

Area control is also a mechanic that works well for the power players, as it easily shows who has control (power!) over how much of the board.

Example games for Power-mongers

Risk, Dungeons & Dragons (really any RPG where you can build overpowered characters), Munchkin, Monopoly.

Socializing

“…so I said to her: You’re such a kid! Anyway, want to play a game?”
Board games are inherently social activities (I know, you can play board games online and there are quite a few solo games now…) and this is what Socializers love the most in playing.

For them it matters less what they are playing and more whom they are playing with. A game is a reason to get a group of friends or family together and that’s the thing to cherish.

As such they may have little to no interest in actually winning; in fact they may well give up a beneficial action to help someone else.

Designing for Socializers

Cooperative games are a natural fit for Socializers, as it allows them to put their best effort into winning (which everybody else seems to think is important), without anybody feeling bad (for having to lose). Also the joined victory or defeat can create a group feeling, which is something Socializers value.

Outside of cooperative games, Socializers prefer positive player interactions, for example trading (see this post for more on cooperative forms of player interaction). And they dislike confrontational player interactions such as direct attacks.

Socializers are also perfectly happy to play “multiplayer solitaire”, as it means they do not have to do anything that could antagonize anybody else.

A large dose of randomness can also be appreciated by Socializers, as it means that anybody losing is not of their doing.

Finally, Socializers prefer games that don’t require too much brainpower. Not because they can’t handle it, but because if everybody is staring intently at their cards, there will hardly be any banter going on… They also tend to like party games, as winning and losing tends to be less important than the fun that is had together.

Example games for Socializers

Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Pandemic, Captain Sonar.

Imagining

Board games allow us to live on an uninhabited island, colonize mars or be queen of a fairy kingdom. They allow players to experience things they never would be able to in real life. And Imaginers live for this.

A game for them is a way to be or do something that is out of the ordinary. And generally the more exotic the better. A game should create a story (though it doesn’t need to be a story-telling game): The best games are the ones where something happens you can tell your friends about afterwards.

And though it’s nice to imagine a glorious victory, a bitter defeat can be just as exciting.

Designing for Imaginers

Imaginers want to “live the game”. This means that a lot of work should be put into artwork and other visual elements, so that it’s easy for them to transport themselves to your game world.

Cooperative games tend to lend themselves a bit better to the style Imaginers prefer, as in real life we tend to cooperate more than that we are directly antagonistic to each other. But if you are simulating something where there is a clear rationale for confrontation (e.g. a war game) then this should definitely be included.

When playing the game mechanics should “make sense”. Every element should have a connection to something that could happen in real life – it makes sense that your family needs to eat at some point (Agricola), it does not make sense that parts of your kingdom show up at random moments (Dominion). This doesn’t mean that everything has to be simulated to the finest detail, a level of abstraction is fine (no toilet breaks for your workers required).

For Imaginers randomness has a place in a good board game, but only if it links to something that is (or comes across as) random in real life as well.

Mechanic wise, hidden information can be a big boon to Imaginers, as they can use their imagination on what it is that might be hidden for them. Worker placement works (pun intended) as it conforms quite well to the actual notion of “work being done”. And a board that represents a physical space (instead of say a number of tracks), on which playing pieces can be placed or moved around, helps to visualize what is going on.

For further reading, in this post I look at a number of games that do the “imagining” very well.

Example games for Imaginers

Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars, Dead of Winter, Netrunner.

Exploring

I wonder what’s at the bottom of this ocean / deck?!
There is nothing quite like opening up the box for a new game. What’s inside, what adventures, quests and clashes will it bring?

Explorers like the “new” and the “unknown”. A new card to draw, a tile to flip. But also a new mechanic to try or a combination to experiment with. As long as a game keeps bringing up new situations they are happy to play. But inevitably, a game will grow old and it will be time to move on to pastures greener.

It’s interesting to try out different combinations and to push the limits of the game. That will most probably mean an Explorer won’t win, but she’ll have a great time going down in a blaze.

Designing for Explorers

Explorers seek novelty. That means that for a game to continue to interest them, it will require a lot of depth (see this and this post on depth in board games). Player interaction is one good way of providing this, as it very hard to fully gauge the mind of your gaming buddies. And if actual depth is hard to provide, large amounts of content will do in a pinch: A game with a thousand unique cards is where it starts getting interesting.

Another way of keeping explorers interested is by providing components that can be combined in many different ways. Dominion is a good example of this; there are many combinations of kingdom cards that can be made and a proper explorer will want to try every one of them.

Explorers love hidden information, so be sure to add a lot of cards that can be drawn at different moments, tiles that can be flipped and tokens that are taken from bags.

When it comes to mechanics it’s more important that something is new than what it actually does.

Legacy games are the games for explorers, as they provide fresh content (and an evolving story) for many games to come. Because opening a small box inside your game is only slightly less awesome than opening the big box in the first place.

Explorers’ second favourite type of game are decksploration games (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories) where you get to explore what is in a deck of cards.

Example games for Explorers

Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic Legacy, The 7th Continent, Escape.

Creating

There is nothing quite like taking 10 turns to carefully set up your engine, seemingly not making any progress at all, only to then switch it on and win the game in one huge bonanza of victory points!

The Creator wants to make something, using the tools provided by the game. Each element provided is but a building block and it is her task to find the best combination out of all of those. This can be an amazing combo or an efficient engine, but also the prettiest tableau or the fullest hand. It does have to be useful though (else you’re just exploring).

Winning is the name of the game for the Creator, because that’s how you know what you built works. But where the Power-monger wants to win, no matter what, the Creator wants to win with style.

Designing for Creators

Creators need to be provided with lots of different elements that can interact with each other. They love the string actions, cards and tiles together to get to a beautiful machine that turns one resource into another, which is turned into the next, and so on, until at the end they get a big pile of victory points.

For Creators a game should be fairly “meaty”, to have sufficient raw material to work with. The more steps it takes to do something, the better.

This also means they prefer Euro style games; most war games don’t care much about how efficient your army is, as long as it’s big. Limited interaction also means that there is nothing getting in the way of working on the grand opus; there is nothing as frustrating as having your combo ready to fly, only to have it disrupted by someone stealing a card.

Similarly, randomness can be fun at times, but mostly it just means having to wait longer until you do your big trick. And the same holds true for hidden information: It can’t be incorporated into the engine, so it’s just frustrating.

Deck builders, bag builders, dice builders, tableau builders, all of these are great for Creators, as it allows them to piece together what they need from a big market of possible resources. Barring that, a game where there are lots of different cards and tiles that they can combine will make them happy.

Example games for Creators

Agricola, Dominion, Magic the Gathering, Catan.

Mixing types

No man is an island. But every person is a cocktail!
The previous paragraphs sketch 5 different “player types”. Obviously these are exagerations and abstractions; nobody is a “pure” Explorer or Socializer. Everybody caries each type (and more), but some types will be more strongly represented in one player than another (for example I’m a strong Explorer and a weak Power-monger).

And these 5 types certainly aren’t the end-all either. I’m sure that with some thought you could add another 5 (or 50!) categories. And perhaps you can come up with a completely different categorization as well.

The point isn’t that these types are the truth. Instead they are meant to help you think about what kind of players you are catering to. What parts of your game would appeal to whom? Can you add further elements to make them like it even more?

”But shouldn’t I make something that appeals to everybody?”

Well… If that were possible then yes! But unfortunately that’s not possible, something that I hope the different types also show. Different people like different things. You can make something that nobody hates, or you can make something that some people love, but not both. A game nobody hates doesn’t sell, a game that some people love does!

Closing thoughts

We create games to have them enjoyed by our players. But who are “our players”? Do you have an image in mind? Perhaps a friend (or yourself)? What does this specific person enjoy the most? And what does she absolutely hate in a game?

Are you play-testing with those people? Or are you pulling in random strangers and trying to cater to every suggestion that they bring up? Who is your audience and what do they like?

And when you test your friends’ games, are you able to tell them: “This game is not for me”? Because you may very well not be their target audience either.

Further reading

Thinking about player types helps to create a vision for your game. This post looks at the vision for your game from a different perspective.

And a long time ago I wrote a post on games without winners, in which I also briefly touched upon different player types.

About the author

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 (below) 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

OK, we’re all in this together! Going nowhere…
Recently I’ve been thinking about designing a board-game where players cooperate, even though there could only be a single winner.

Thus far I’ve found it hard going; it’s all too clear that cooperating means helping another win and thus getting yourself to lose.

So, it’s time to go to first principles, think deep and hard about different ways of engendering cooperation. The best way I’ve found for that is by writing about it: Nothing makes vague thoughts clear as committing them to paper (electrons). And who knows, maybe others will read this and come up with some brilliant ideas to help me further as well (do leave a comment or hit me up on twitter!)

What is cooperation?

Cooperation is anything where two or more people interact and those who interact benefit.

Note that this does not mean that all should benefit equally, only that all gain something from the cooperation.

Why have cooperation in your board-game?

Interaction between players is a strong driver of depth in board-games: Players are infinitely more complex than anything that can be captured in card-board (see this post on player interaction).

Interaction in most board-games is “negative”: Preventing another player from achieving their goals. This can either be very direct, by attacking them, more passively, by “getting in the way” or in a myriad of other ways.

Cooperation is a second form of interaction, one that is much more “positive”: All of those interacting gain. As such I believe it can be a source of additional fun in board-games.

Cooperation in real life

In real life cooperation is very often a good idea. ”Let’s go hunt with the entire group so we can take down a mammoth and have ample food for the entire village!”

This is because in real life we don’t normally think in winners and losers: Cooperating makes sure that we all have food and that none have to starve.

Having said that, cooperation is generally not entirely “fair”: The leader of the hunt gets more status and perhaps the juiciest bit of mammoth. But even here there is a trade-off: It takes a lot of investment to become leader of the hunt. And that investment certainly isn’t risk-free (mammoths have those tusks for a reason!)

Cooperation in board-games

Board-games have very clear winners and losers (though, do read this post for ideas on board-games without a winner). This makes that players will assess actions not only on how much it brings them but also what the others would gain: “an opponent’s gain is my loss”. In a two-player game this is very clear: There is little difference between my opponent gaining a point and myself losing one.

This makes it difficult to foster cooperation: My gain has to weigh up to what the other(s) gets.

But, there are board-games that do get people to cooperate. Let’s take a look at some ways in which this can be done.

1. Trading

How many bricks was I getting?
In Catan players can trade resources; they give something they have in high supply and get something that is scarce for them, in the process increasing the value for themselves (see this post about value and cost in board-games and this one on scarcity).

The player on the other side of the trade however gains in the same way. One player might get a better deal, but both players must agree that it’s good enough else they wouldn’t be willing to make the trade.

There are losers in this though: Anybody not in the trade. The traders increased the value of what they have in their hand and thus moved a little bit ahead, leaving anybody outside the trade a little bit behind.

Thus trading only really works when there are more than two players.

2. Moving ahead together

The idea of trading can be generalized to any action that benefits two or more players while leaving the other players behind.

In Munchkin players can work together to defeat a monster that a single player wouldn’t be able to handle. Any treasure that results from the encounter is then split by the cooperating players. There can be barter involved, but it’s not a real trade, as the resources are “new” (coming from the defeated monster).

3. Ganging up

In Risk it at some point becomes clear that a player is surging ahead. At this point every other player is at a serious risk (pun intended) of losing the game. There is then a clear incentive to gang up on the leader to bring her down a notch.

Once the playing field has been equalized again however there is no real reason to continue the cooperation; yesterday’s ally could well be tomorrow’s greatest threat!

This only works if there is a way of directly attacking other players, something that a lot of people are not particularly fond of.

And while the players who are bringing the leader low are cooperating, this is very directly at the cost of another player.

4. Accidental help

In Puerto Rico each player selects a role, which can then be executed by all players. This means that every role selected helps you, but it also helps all the other players.

Here you’re not only trying to find the role that help you most, but also the ones that benefit all the other players least.

Though this is a form of interaction that is “positive” for all players, it does not feel to me that it’s really “cooperating”. Still, it is a very powerful way of creating interesting forms of player interaction.

5. For the greater good

If there is a goal that needs to be achieved by all players, then people will very naturally cooperate to reach that goal.

In true cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic) this is an optimal way of playing. However this need not be the case in semi-cooperative games.

In Dead of Winter there is a mutual goal whilst players also have their own goals (and there is a chance of having a betrayer). Here people in general want to work together to reach the mutual goal, but they would much rather have the other players contribute more than they do themselves, as that leaves more resources for them to pursue their own individual goals.

This can even be implemented in non-cooperative games, if the penalty of non-cooperation is high enough (e.g. everybody loses the game).

6. Cooperative synergy

When trading, resources chance hands, but the total number of resources remains the same; value is created by having different preferences for resources.

Value however can also be created explicitly: Do an action on your own and you get two resources, but do the action together with someone else and you get five resources for the two of you.

Terra Mystica uses a form of this, where building buildings next to your opponent’s makes (some of them) cheaper, while at the same time allowing your opponent to take magical power.

In this case the game rules give a “multiplier” to incentivize cooperation (see this post on incentives in board games).

7. Hidden goals

This is a sure-fire way to getting someone to inadvertently help you!
When you cooperate you’re helping your opponent. This means that they are closer to winning and thus that you might lose the game.

One way to mitigate this somewhat is by having hidden goals; if you don’t know exactly what your opponent is trying to achieve, it becomes harder to see how much you’re helping them (and vice versa). This allows players to act more “selfishly”, looking more at what they will gain from the cooperation and taking less account of how much they are helping the other.

Though it’s not the best example, Risk can have this. If it’s my goal to eliminate yellow, then any player who attack attacks yellow is actually helping me achieve my goal.

While this technically complies with my definition of cooperation (both players benefit), it’s unknown to the player taking the action (attacking yellow) that she’s helping another player. As such this also feels like a weak form of cooperation.

Closing thoughts

Cooperation is a positive way of engendering interaction between players, with all the benefits that that entails. There are however natural barriers to cooperation in board-games, all stemming from the idea that any help to my opponent brings her closer to winning.

In the sections above I give a number of ways in which a board-game can make cooperation between players more likely. Hopefully these can be helpful to you in creating interesting and positive player interactions. And while I give a fair number, I’m sure that with a bit of thought you can come up with many more. If you find an interesting one do let me know?

Further reading

Cooperation is a form of player interaction. Read more about the subject here:
7 forms of player interaction
How to use player interaction for better board games

About the author

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.

Maybe you can cooperate with me? Leave a comment (below) 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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