Board game design, Startup Thinking Game

Between fun and learning: Abstraction in board game design

That’s one way of making learning more exciting…
As mentioned in this post, I’m currently working with oneUp, to create a board game that explains how to run a startup.

Over the previous period I was already working with them to create a first version of this, so I spent some evenings and Saturdays on creating a prototype.

That prototype was a game first and and educational tool second: It was fun to play, but it didn’t actually teach you that much about how to run a successful startup.

Back to the drawing board

We have just started a next version, 2.0 if you will. In this version the learning or educational aspects will come first. And if that means sacrificing some of the “fun”, then that’s acceptable.

And while I think it’s a good idea to focus on teaching useful stuff first (for this specific game!), it’s definitely not the case that it can be boring as hell. If you only want to teach, go stand in front of a classroom! I’m creating a board game and one of the key aspects of a (good) board game is that it’s engaging.

So the question is, do “fun” and “learning” necessarily bite each other?

At a high level I say “no”. But when going into details it might very well be “yes”.

Fun at helicopter altitude

Running a startup is super interesting! You are forced to learn a lot – about business, your clients, what kind of solutions you can provide, finding your niche, etc. There is a lot of uncertainty and there are tough decisions to make.

These are perfect ingredients for a board game!

Have resources, will go faster: It works for board games and for startups!
You’re building your engine, starting with nothing and revving it up so that you have a money-making-machine.

While you’re doing this you’re making interesting decisions: Which problem to solve, whom to hire for that and whether to push through or try something different when things aren’t going as expected.

There is a lot of tension: Will you be able to get traction with your product, can you convince the venture capitalists to shower you in money, are you working on a problem that people actually care about?

So, at this level I have no doubt that running a startup can be perfectly captured in a fun and engaging board game!

Slogging along at the earthworm level

At the same time, the game should teach the players something. And that means you have to get into the gritty details of exactly how you do something.

In board games this almost always gets abstracted away: Imagine a city builder where you’re not just handing two wood and one stone to the general stock and you get a house tile, but where you have mechanics for connecting your building to the sewage system and deciding where the electric sockets should go. In real life these things are (very!) important, but they’re hardly fun.

Finding the balance

Building board games is all about finding balances. Between immersion and abstraction. Between strategy and tactics. Between speed of play and completeness.

In essence there is no real difference with what I’m facing: I’ll need to find a balance between putting things in to make it good for teaching, abstracting enough to make it fun.

I think that’s possible.

Keeping what matters

Too abstract for my taste…
Connecting a house to the sewage system is a lot of work. Work which requires deep technical knowledge.

However, if I’m planning a city I care that houses get connected to the sewage system, but I don’t really care how. Thus when I have a game that should teach city-planners-to-be it would be perfectly ok to include the sewage-connection as a thing you need to do (and “waste” resources on (pun intended) to get done), but where the actual action is fully abstracted away: Move the plumber token to the sewage icon on your house tile and you’re done!

If done well your future city planner will remember to get the sewage system in place when she’s building her first city, but also be happy to outsource the actual work to a platoon of pipe-layers.

Similarly, for the Startup Thinking Game I believe it’s possible to have abstracted actions for some of the important work that needs to be done when running a startup, without spelling out exactly how those actions are performed.

The question to answer

The question then becomes what the right level of detail is that should be in the game. Should it teach players to build cities or to connect pipes to each other? Because trying to both most likely isn’t going to work (too long to play, not fun, both).

Luckily I can fall back on the rest of the team to help me answer this question. They have far more knowledge about running startups than I do (it’s why they started this business!)

And in true startup-fashion this will be an iterative process. Try something out and see if it solves the problem. If not, come up with something new and try again. And again, if necessary.

Startups, board games and Rome have something in common: They weren’t built in a single day.

Closing thoughts

Abstraction is an element of any board game, but also of any teaching effort! When taking a course on city planning the teacher needs to think about the level of detail / abstraction as much as the game designer does.

The incentives are somewhat different though: Teachers want to get stuff in their students heads, while game designers want players to have fun. And thus when standing in front of a classroom there will be natural drive to “explain more”, while for game designers it’s more common to “take things out”.

The result of that in classrooms people get told stuff that isn’t important or useful to them and boredom ensues. While people playing a game will be entertained, but probably won’t pick up a lot of stuff as it’s all been abstracted out.

Have you tried to explain something through a board game? How did that go?
Or have you struggled with finding the right balance between detail and abstraction? What happened?

Further reading

In this post I explain how I came to work for oneUp as a game designer.

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.

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  1. Nice article Bastiaan. I have worked as a teacher and board game designer so this is a subject I’m very interested in. In my experience, the qualities that make a good board game are exactly the same as those of a good lesson. You mention “standing in front of a classroom with a natural drive to explain more” – this is actually one of the worst methods of teaching. Learners need ownership of the subject and an opportunity to experiment with it – in other words, they need a game. I’ve written a short article about this here

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Richard,

      Cool that you have been thinking about this (and doing something with it!). It’s been years since I’ve sat in a class room, so I’m happy that things are progressing there as well! 🙂 And I’m looking forward to reading your article, thanks for sharing.

  2. Sean

    I took part in a startup programme over here. It was run over 10 weeks, with about 6 Saturday’s (9-1) of lectures & practical activities & 5 Tuesday night sessions where industry people came to speak on accounting, IP, legal stuff, marketing (& identifying your market) etc. Each week we repeated a bit of the week before but delved deeper, branching across into another aspect. In the end the best 10 were chosen to pitch for the chance for seed funding.

    What I noticed was that whilst there is a ton of stuff needed to run a startup, the most important stuff should be done prior to actually starting. Have you analysed your market & not only identified a need but a reason why someone would use your product/service over that of something already there, have you fully costed everything including paying yourself a living salary, how will you fund the initial start up expenses etc? I feel that these need to be enforced as a lesson early on in the game – maybe those that spend time have a slower start but reduced risk later on while others can rush forward & possibly gain more early but have more things to potentially overcome.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Sean,

      Interesting that you did such a course. Did it help with future endeavors? Board game design even?!

      What you describe is exactly the thing we want to get across: Don’t build stuff you are not absolutely certain of will fulfill a need (an important need, for people you can reach, that are willing to pay what you ask!)


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