Board game design, Play-testing, Prototyping, Story telling

Grab your tools, we’re making a board game!
So you’ve got an idea for a board game. How do you turn it into something that can actually be played (and that people will enjoy)?

In this post I’ll give my take on how to go about this.

What this is -not- about

I’m not going to write how to get your ideas. I’ve found that people have many more ideas than time to work on them, so I’m going to assume that the bottleneck is not at the idea stage.

This is also not about how to make your game a commercial success. It will contain nothing getting published, kickstarter, social media, etc. There are other people that write about that, so if that’s what you’re looking for, there is a whole internet out there!

Too big an idea

Ideas are cheap. I can have 10 ideas before breakfast. Or I can have one really big idea idea before breakfast. With full game-play, hundreds of cards (each having 10 different pieces of information of course!).

However… When I try to turn that into a game, I always find that it doesn’t work quite the way I wanted it to. What seems brilliant in my mind is boring or even impossible when put into cardboard.

Thus: Don’t spend too much time on creating ideas.

The essence of the game

The essence of this game is nuts!
My feeling is that it’s much better to start small. What you need is the essence of your game. What is the summary of the game in 3 sentences?

During development you’ll be taking lots and lots of decisions, from minor thematic ones (“Should I use clowns or mimes as the bad guys?” to major mechanic ones (“Deckbuilding or worker placement? Why not both?!”). And what you need is a guide to help you make a choice. Without such a guide decisions become arbitrary. With such a guide you can test whether a decision is the right one or not: “Does it strengthen the essence of the game?”

To get to the essence of your game, it can help to answer the following questions:

  • Who will the players be? (Ogres! CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies! Mice!)
  • What do those characters want (and perhaps why do they want it?)? (Smash stuff! Beat the competition! Steal cheese!)
  • Why is that difficult? (There are human soldiers protecting the stuff to smash! The other CEOs are working hard not to be beaten! Cats, traps and other mice!)
  • What would you like your players to feel? (Glee (from all the destruction they cause)! Anxiety (for what the other CEOs will do)! Boldness (for going against the odds)!
  • What makes this awesome? (You get to smash stuff! You’ll feel so powerful when your plans work out! It’s great for a small mouse to beat big odds!)

These questions do not need to be answered in order and not all need to be answered: Can you describe what makes your game awesome? Start at the bottom. You have a clear idea of who you want your players to be? Start at the top. You don’t know yet what you want your players to feel? Skip that question.

Note that in the above there is only a hint of what kind of mechanics you might employ to create your game. Instead these questions relate more to the “theme” of the game. This is because I believe that themes are much easier for humans to grasp than the individual elements that make up a game. A theme is a stub for a story and having a “story” makes for a much more compact essence than mechanics do. Having a story allows you to ask “What happens next?”

In the mice game, you start your mice in their nest. What happens next? They go out into the house. What happens next? They encounter all sorts of obstacles such as cats and traps. What happens next…?

This then creates a framework around which you can build your game: I’ll need a nest, something outside the nest and obstacles. However, don’t go too far into this (see the remarks above about big ideas).

Is starting with a story the only way? Of course not! But I believe it’s a very powerful way, that will help you with all subsequent steps. But feel free to experiment!

First prototype

Maybe not the right type of enactment?
You have the “story” for your game. Now it’s time to add some way of enacting the first chapter of that story.

Here my suggestion is to keep it as simple as possible. You’re not going to be building your game in one go. Instead it’s going to be iterative and incremental. Because something can look absolutely amazing in your head, but only by playing will you know whether it actually works.

When you try to create a “full game” from scratch, you’ll implement things that won’t work (I guarantee it!). Which means you’ll have to re-do that part or (quite likely as well) scrap it entirely. Meaning a lot of work done for very little gain.

So, make the minimum that will allow you to play. Once that is more-or-less working, you can add to it easily enough.

How much do you need to create though? Enough for an entire game? Certainly not!

Create enough to play a round. A turn. A single action!

Your first prototype is to get going. It’s not going to be a fun game yet, it’s for learning purposes only.

For our mice game we’re going to need our mice to get to the cheese. Which means they need to be able to move around. And perhaps it’s nice if there actually is some cheese to go for as well. So as a bare minimum let’s select a pawn (from another game) to represent a mouse, we’ll have a board consisting of a grid (or even just a blank sheet of paper) and we’ll use a token (also from another game) to be the cheese. Place the mouse on one end of your “board” and the cheese at the other end.

And we’ll have a few rules.

A mouse token can be moved. By how much? Doesn’t really matter at this point, so choose an arbitrary number: 5 squares on your grid paper.

When a mouse gets to the cheese they can pick it up.

When the mouse with the cheese gets back to the starting square, you win the game.

That’s it. That’s your prototype!

Now, I hear you thinking: “But, but… There’s nothing there!”

And you’re right. There is nothing to this. But it’s a game. It can be played, it can be won. Time to play!

Your first game

You’ve built your very first prototype and you’ve set out the first rules. Now you go play your game.

So you take your mouse and move it 5 squares. And then you move it 5 squares again. And again. Until you get 2 squares away from the cheese. And then… If you strictly follow the rules of your game you’ll have to end the game or try to see if with a lot of maneuvering you can close that final gap.

But let’s say you quit your game then and there. Because you’ve done the most important thing in testing: You’ve found a problem!

Now this is a really simple problem so it’s easy enough to solve: You change the rules to say a mouse can move up to 5 squares.

And you start over.

Finding problems

Start your game again. This time you’re fairly easily able to get to the cheese and bring it back. Congratulations, you just finished (and won!) the very first time!

But by observing your play you find another problem: This is boring as hell!

Which is obviously not what you want your game to be. It should be fun and engaging and awesome.

Se let’s go solve this problem.

I found this light-bulb. Not sure how it’s going to help with my problem though…
When you find a problem in your game it’s generally a good idea to try to resolve it. For many problems the solution is obvious (like the previous one where it was difficult to actually reach the cheese).

Other problems might not have an immediate or perfect solution available.

It also makes sense to see what the problem behind the problem is. The problem with our game is that it’s boring. Which is a very general problem and not easy to solve as a whole. So what’s the cause of it being boring? A large part of it is that it’s just too easy. And thus a first step to making it more interesting would be to make the game more difficult. Specifically, there should be some opposition to reaching the goal (of bringing back the cheese). Now, this won’t suddenly make your game super. But it’s a step in the right direction. And with enough steps in the right direction, you reach your end goal: An amazing game.

Now it makes sense to do a small brainstorm session: Write down the gist of a number of possible solutions. Perhaps adding another player will solve things (direct competition for that cheese!). Or maybe it’s time to add the cat to the game, which will kill the player if they are not careful. Finally we could introduce traps to make life more difficult. With some time I’m sure you can come up with hundreds more options.

Actually… There are gazilions of possibilities: Space vortices that move the cheese, zombies that infect the mice, Mediterranean traders that require gold to buy the cheese.

“Wait, what?!?

This is one of the reasons I suggested starting with a “story”. Within that story there are a number of elements that “make sense”. And there are many many elements that do not. Because of the chosen story we do not actually need to consider space zombies, cheese pirates or robot dinosaurs. And while this is s a silly example, it does show that having a story makes the amount of options you need to consider much smaller. Which in the end allows you to move forward much faster. Of course there is a small risk: Perhaps undead robot dinosaurs from outer space really would make your game much much better. But you’ll probably never know…

When you have a set of (sensible!) solutions, pick the one that seems most likely to add to the game and implement it.

Implementing a solution

When you picked a solution to implement, you need to design it.

Let’s say we went for adding a cat. How can we add the cat in such a way that it’ll make the game more challenging but not impossibly so? Here again we have a number of options that we could go with. Perhaps the cat is mostly asleep but it wakes up at random moments. Or perhaps the mouse can go to places where the cat can’t, scurrying from a hole in the wall to underneath the sofa.

Each of these choices will bring about a different type of game. If the cat is awake at random moments we’re heading more towards a gambling game. If the mouse stays alive by moving from protected place to protected place it becomes a much more tactical movement game.

So which option to choose?

Once again we go back to our story and the questions to the answers we gave. We wanted mice to be “bold”, which seems to imply a good chance of getting caught out, with a reward for taking calculated risks.

At first sight the randomly sleeping cat fits that bill, but at second thought it would take away a lot of player agency: Randomly getting killed doesn’t have a lot to do with boldness.

But if we instead set out the “house” in such a way that you can take the safer but longer route, or the shorter but more risky route…

Which of course again gives the question how to do that exactly

Prototype 2.0

Back to the drawing board!
At this point (yes, before answering the previous question!) it’s time to update your prototype. If you try to “make” something in your head you’ll pass by a lot of problems that become glaringly obvious when you actually play.

We need stuff mice can hide under, so let’s place some random spaces on the board that are “safe”. Draw them or use something you can move around.

Because we’ll be changing things, let’s opt to cut out some random pieces of paper and place them over the board. We’ll pretend they are weirdly shaped couches or something (we’ll come up with justifications later!)

We’ll also add a rule: For every square that a mouse moves outside of a hidden area, the cat moves 3 squares directly towards the mouse (cats are much faster than mice of course).

Playtest 2.0

We reset the board and we play another game.

And we observe what happens.

Perhaps we find that it was very easy for the mouse to get the cheese. If so, make it more difficult, by making the cat faster or removing some furniture.

Or maybe the cat caught the mouse immediately: Make it easier by slowing down the cat or adding furniture.

But how much furniture do you need to add or remove?

Zooming in

When you first try a solution it’s unlikely that it’ll work perfectly in one go. As mentioned above, you’ll probably need to move the furniture or change the speed of the cat. And perhaps after that you’ll need to move it again.

Generally it takes a few iterations to get it right.

A good tip for this: When you make the first change to the game, make it bold. Remove all furniture except for 1 piece. Or quadruple the speed of the cat.

What you want is to end up on the “other side”: If the game was too easy, make it too hard and the other way around.

Then in the next iteration choose something in between the two extremes. And when you change it again move more toward one of the extremes again. This way you’re continuously “zooming in” on the right difficulty.

But where do you stop?

In the beginning of the game you’ll be painting with a very broad brush. Everything can change, so no need to put a lot of effort into getting any one element perfect. Use gut feeling to get to a “decent” level and leave it there. If it starts to bother you, you can come back and fine-tune further.

Later in development you’ll have solved the biggest issues, meaning that if you leave a change “too loose” it’ll become the next biggest issue. Spend a bit more time at getting it right so that you can move on to the next “real problem”.

How much is “a bit more”? You’ll develop the intuition to answer that!

Iterate to fun

In the previous paragraphs I described how you find problems and then you solve them. In all of this you keep the essence of your game in the forefront of your mind: Does it make sense? Does it add to the idea of the game?

But there is an even more important measure: Is it fun?!

In the end people play games for entertainment. Meaning they want to have a good time playing your game. So you need to iterate your game to make it fun.

That sounds obvious and it should be. But it’s also extremely difficult to actually do! But… There are ways!

There are many articles written about what constitutes a good board game (some even written by myself!). And I strongly suggest you read some of them to improve your skills. But in the end there is one thing that matters most when going for the fun…

Designing for fun: Play testing with others

Look at all those potential play-testers!
The core of finding the fun is testing with other people.

When you start designing your game you’ll be doing a lot of the testing yourself. The problems are big and obvious and easy to spot, so you don’t need to invest the time to get others involved.

At some point however the blatant problems are gone and you’ll have played your game so many times it’s completely impossible for you to tell whether you still enjoy it or not (yes, that really happens. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, you need to do more testing!)

This is where you bring in play testers from outside.

There are three groups of play testers that you’ll need in the course of your development:

  • Friends & Family
  • Other designers
  • Complete strangers

If you have a group of designers nearby I would strongly suggest starting your testing there. Fellow designers are generally more patient with things that don’t “quite work” yet. They are also better able to pinpoint where there are problems with your game.

I’ve found though that fellow designers are less useful to figuring out whether a game is fun or not. They tend to be so deep into designing that it’s hard to take a step back and simply “enjoy” a game. Still, they will give their opinion and you should be happy to make use of it.

Next to fellow designers it’s great to play your game with friends and family. They will have a much less in-depth look into your game, meaning they won’t be as good at spotting specific problems (and coming up with solutions). They are however a much better audience to test the “fun” with. Having said that, they might not be completely honest with you: It’s so much easier to say they enjoyed themselves and not hurt your feelings, than to honestly tell you they’d rather go swim with piranha’s than play another round of your game…

Finally, when you are getting to be very happy with your game (this is generally after tens if not hundreds of play tests!), you need to test with strangers. These people are far less invested in your personal well-being and thus will be more honest. Still, they have a tendency to be “polite”, which can mean they will make things appear nicer than they actually find them.

How to play test

So you’ve got a bunch of people together to test your game. What do you do now?

Many articles have been written about how to do play testing well (because it’s such an important subject!), so I’m not going to go in-depth into the subject (this article is long enough as it is!). But I want to give at least a few pointers.

As mentioned, in play testing you’re trying to find out if the game is fun and what is stopping it from being even more fun. For this you’re looking for “signs of trouble”.

A “sign of trouble” is any indication that a player is not having a good time, not having fun.

A great way to find out what players feel during your game is to ask them. You can do this during the game, but I’ve found it’s generally better to wait until the end, so as not to interrupt their experience. Try to ask the same question in multiple ways. Directly: “Did you enjoy the game” to subtly: “What would you change?”

A word of warning when asking players: You’re trying to find out the problems with your game. It’s then for you to find solutions, not for your play testers! They don’t know your game as well as you do. That doesn’t mean they won’t come up with suggestions though (people love being creative!). However, take these suggestions as pointing towards the problem, not as actual solutions to it: “What would be really cool is if I could trade cheese with other mice!” This can mean that the player feels there is too little player interaction. Ask further questions to get to the bottom of why they are suggesting something.

Whatever feedback your play testers give, thank them for it and write it down. You will forget exactly what people said in a day or two, meaning you wasted a perfectly good play test.

Finally: Do not defend your game! If they feel something, they are correct. Which is not to say you need to do something about it. In the end it’s your game. But time with play testers is valuable. Use it to get as much information as possible, not arguing.

Just as important as asking players is observing them while playing. Are they engaged or are they looking at their phone? Is there laughter or yawns?

The combination of asking and observation should allow you to hone in on the problems you find (allowing you to go into problem solving mode, as explained above).

The above is a cycle. And you’ll go through it many times. As mentioned above, what you’re trying to do is take steps towards a better game.

This will not be a direct path. You will need to back-track. Sometimes to a previous version, sometimes to 10 versions ago (yes, I’ve had that happen to me multiple times!). This sucks, but it’s part of the game. So learn to love it, or try a different hobby…

Some final tips

This is what you get when you look for tips on the internet…
Make your game short! This is simpler to design and test and it will be much easier to get people to play it. Half an hour is perfect, an hour is acceptable. If you need more time than that consider shelving the design and work on it as your fifth game.

Regularly check your game for things that can be taken out. Putting things in is easy and happens naturally. Elements however never disappear on their own, even if they are no longer needed. What purpose does everything in your game serve? If you can’t answer, experiment with the game without it.

Prototype early, prototype often! Test early, test often! Don’t design in your head, design in cardboard!

Summary

The above is a lot to take in I realize, so let me try to give the quick summary:

  • Create the story of your game
  • Create a prototype as quickly as possible
  • Find a problem and solve it
  • Do the previous step until you have a half-way decent game
  • Play test with others to find more problems and solve those
  • Do the previous step until you have a full-way decent game!

Closing thoughts

Creating a board game is a lot of fun! You get to be creative, you get to really own the process and the outcome and you get to be social while doing it. There is nothing like having a really difficult design problem and after chipping away at it you finally find the perfect solution! We play games because we like challenges. We make games because we like challenges!

But… Making a board game also takes a lot of free time and the chances of making any money out of it are very slim. If you don’t enjoy the process, don’t start on it. If you want to be rich invent a time machine and buy BitCoin.

However, if you want to do something creative, design a board game!

I hope that this “guide” has been helpful to whomever is starting on the journey of creating a game (and perhaps also to people who are much further along on that path?).

I’ve expressed my own opinions and ideas on how to do things. And being human, I tend to be wrong a lot. So if you disagree, I would love for you to let me know so we can learn together!

Further reading

Two elements that I believe are very important to any board game are tension and interesting decisions.

And one of the strongest ways of creating both is through player interaction.

Prototyping takes a lot of time and in the beginning you’ll be throwing away a lot of what you create. To do really rapid first “prototypes” I use what I call the “blank play-test”.

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.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, Los Buenos

Somehow these are meant to change how I play this game?!?
I’ve been able to get in a reasonable number of play tests for Los Buenos recently. The core of the game is pretty solid, but there are quite a few things “at the edges” that can be better. Changes thus have been relatively small, making comparisons between different versions easier to make.

What I’ve found interesting to see is that relatively small changes can result in significant differences in player behavior. On the one hand this is great, because it means I can incentivize different actions with minor adjustments. On the other, it also means that a small change could remove quite a bit of what is actually working. As always, it’s a balancing act…

In this post I want to go into a few things I’ve run into and hopefully gain some general ideas about incentives and player behavior.

Incentives – or: How much do I get?

One of the fundamental mechanics of Los Buenos is that a major way of gaining Karma Points (victory points) is by “helping” other players. Each player can start building projects and other players can place workers (technically they are work tokens but for this post the difference doesn’t matter) to help finish a building. Every player who places at least one worker gets 1 karma point. The player who places the most workers get additional karma points. In case of a tie these additional points don’t get given out. Thus, there is an incentive to “help the most”.

For most of the play tests the “bonus” for helping the most was 2 karma points, for a total of 3 (1 for helping at all, 2 for helping the most). The buildings available in the beginning of the game give the “owner” 3 or 4 karma points and require them to use some workers as well (mostly to gather the resources (wood and gold) required to be able to start building.) Thus, initiating a building and “helping the most” give about the same benefits.

The observed behavior was that players would work towards being “most helpful” and would be ok with others “helping the most” if it came up as well.

Then I changed the amount players got for “helping the most” to 3 karma points (for a total of 4). Behavior suddenly changed significantly: Players would think hard and actively collude to prevent others from getting these points.

In previous games I had regularly seen players take an action to “block” someone from gaining the points, but it was far from a sure thing. Now suddenly it was the one thing driving the game.

What behavior do I want?

It would be cool if my board game got people to do this!
So the question then becomes: What kind of behavior do I want? Well, maybe I should’ve asked this question before doing my tests, but hey, you use what you’ve got, right? 🙂

Having players actively work against each other makes for interesting player interaction. I like the fact that they were discussing on how they could block someone. It also creates more tension, as it means that players that have a chance to get the 4 points are eager for that to happen.

On the other side, it takes away player agency: During your turn you’re almost “obliged” to prevent another player from getting their points. And this reduces the amount of interesting choices players have to make. It’s not that they’re gone, but there are less of them!

It also makes it frustrating for players that it’s very hard for them to actually get the 4 points as this entirely depends on other players’ actions. Having said that, there are possibilities to “set up” the board in such a way that other players have to make a choice on who they prevent getting the 4 points.

Finally, the game with the higher points felt “harsher”: Players are much more working against each other. I want this to happen somewhat, but perhaps not all the time.

Based on the above I’m edging towards going back to giving 2 points for helping the most. I’m however not entirely sure, so I’ll run at least one other play test with the 3-point rule.

Incentive: The right place at the right time

The game includes “experts” and “expert spaces”. These expert spaces can only be occupied by expert workers, while expert workers can occupy both expert spaces and normal spaces. The twist is that when you place an expert on an expert space you get 1 karma (the rationale being that experts like doing difficult work).

The result of this is that as soon as an expert space becomes available, players are eager to place their expert, as it gives them a “free” karma. And players almost always do.

The upsides and downsides

We can all use a little nudge to start investing
The upside of this mechanic is that it gets players “invested” in building projects: You’ve already placed a worker, so why not go for the full bonus of “helping the most” as well?

This was something that was very useful in previous versions of the game, where there were buildings that required a lot of workers and players otherwise were inclined not to start on them – too much risk of someone else grabbing the “most helpful” bonus.

In the current version however the number of workers required is mostly 2 or 3, with a few “big” buildings needing 4 workers. Thus the incentive to “start” isn’t needed as much anymore.

Also, it’s an additional rule to game. Part of my vision is to make the game as “light” as possible – I’d like for people to feel it’s at about the same level as Catan. And thus I have to think about whether this (and every other) rule is “pulling its weight”.

Finally, there is some thematic explanation for getting a karma when placing an expert on an expert space, but it’s somewhat “thin”.

Thus, I’m going to make a version that doesn’t use experts at all to see if behavior changes significantly.

One thing I’m curious to see if it makes the game longer. I can imagine that having an obviously “good” action available makes it easier to make a choice. On the other hand, does that also mean that there are fewer interesting choices?

Lessons learned

Above I explained two sets of incentives within the game and the kind of behavior that they result in. For both I’m not sure whether I actively want to change anything, but thinking about it does make it much clearer what the pros and cons are.

It also made me realize that it’s a very good idea to start thinking about what kind of behavior I want and then to design towards that (instead of throwing things in and seeing what happens – what I’ve mostly been doing so far).

It also allows me to pro-actively create “experiments”: I’m going to experiment with removing the experts. The experiment will be a success if behavior does not change significantly (and people are not complaining that they are missing the expert).

I’ll also experiment further with the increased karma points for “helping the most”. There the “success” is less clear though: Both options have advantage and disadvantages. It would however be very useful to see whether the observed behavior works for other groups besides the one I tested with most recently. And if that’s the case I’ll see if I can somehow get the best of both worlds, with the increased tension of the higher points, while keeping the set of interesting choices from the lower points.

Finally, it’s good to get insight in behavior of people around the game. I might change something in the future which means it would be very beneficial to increase competition. I now know that one way of doing that is increasing the amount of point players get from helping the most.

Closing thoughts

Let’s paint us some incentives!
When you start designing a game you’re painting with a very broad brush. There is a big idea, some clues about which mechanics might work. And during early play tests those can change wholesale. Elements get cut, mechanics change irrecognizably, the theme goes from one end to the other. If you don’t like something a player is doing, just remove the entire thing!

Then when you get further into the design the game solidifies. Changes get smaller and more subtle. You might still swap something out if it’s not working but it gets more rare. Influencing what players do is more by setting up how elements interact than by wholesale addition and removal.

And then finally when you have a “working game” you want to perfect it. The tiniest brush the allows you to push your players to do a little bit more of something. To get them to take an action 10% less often.

I believe that it’s at this last part where you need to think deeply about your incentives. Why do players do what they do? Is that what you want them to do? How do you change it? How do you change it the right amount?

What are the incentives you’ve employed in your game?
Did you ever had “troublesome” player behavior? What did you do about it?
Do you actively think about how to get players to do what you want them to?

Further reading

A while back I also wrote a (more general) post on incentives in board games.

And In the above I talk about the expert spaces. This was the subject of another post as well, where I looked at how the scarcity of these spaces impacted the game.

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.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, Guest post

My previous post was on “learning from games that aren’t fun”. I started off with my own game, where I had (inadvertently!) designed the fun right out. I asked around on Facebook whether other people had ever made a similar mistake and I’m happy to report I’m not the only one! 🙂 (For the full Facebook discussion see here)

One of the replies was from Matt Fletcher, who gave a very detailed reply about his own struggles while designing “Gladiators of Dragon Isle” (looks gorgeous by the way, go take a look!). I asked whether I could use his reply as a guest post for my blog and he graciously agreed.

With that I’ll give it over to Matt


One of the characters in the game
The greatest mistake that I made was to include everything I wanted in a game. I wanted my game to be the greatest gladiator game out there, and more than just a combat game. I added thematic events, actions outside combat, actions inside combat, realistic actions like working and resting, player combat, combat against fantasy creatures…the list goes on.

The game played great. The mechanics were solid. The players loved it.

The mistake? It took 12 hours to finish a game. I had added too much to do, and it played more like a novel than a short story. The niche market for such a game is far too small, as the majority of players do not have the time or attention span to grind a game for that long.

It was really hard to shave off things I loved, but I had to make critical design decisions to get the duration down to 2 1/2 hours. I did it eventually, but it took several months of experimenting to correct.

Lesson: Don’t add everything you want from games into a single game.

I wish I could remember where, but a designer said something that really stuck with me early on: “If it isn’t essential to your game, it shouldn’t be in your game”.

It was one of those lines that really guided me, and so I took that advice and went through my game piece by piece.

I thought hard about what I wanted the game to convey.

You know that feeling the crowd emits in old gladiator movies, where they’re on the edge of their seat screaming for their guy to win? I wanted to give that feeling to players every game.

To do this, you needed to be invested in the gladiators, so it required a certain amount of buildup and anticipation.

If the mechanic did not directly support one of these conditions, it was removed.

After that, I watched the players and recorded the moments that people weren’t actively invested in what was going on. Did player A forget it was their turn? Why? What action took so long beforehand that they stopped paying attention? Is there a way that I can make that action quicker, or change it so it resolves immediately?

This took time, but some fixes were easy. Some examples:

1) Each gladiator had his own token, which was placed in worker placement style outside of combat to take different actions. People forgot who’s turn it was because they couldn’t remember which gladiator was which purely from the visual. You couldn’t just look at the board and know.

The fix: Make colored meeples for each house to take those actions. 2 blue guys, 2 red guys, and 1 green on the board. Guess who’s turn it is? This shaved 45 mins / game.

2) One of the thematic event cards would begin a combat with a dragon. Two of this card in the deck, and each could take quite a while to resolve.

The fix: Develop a unique combat resolution for that card that completed in 1 min. Shaved 50 mins / game.

And so on…

The big changes hurt. It was hard to accept that I could no longer keep them in the game. Let me give a quick summary to explain why.

The game is divided into 4 seasons. Each season had a FFA (Free For All) match and a Main Event.

The FFA was purely each player’s gladiators fighting for glory, if they chose to, without traps or NPC creatures. This gave the players complete control over the arena and all the factors affecting it.

The Main Event would have randomly generated traps and some kind of fantasy creature in the midst wreaking havoc while each team tried to secure victory over not only the creature but the other teams simultaneously.

Detail of the board
The combination of these two events made it so gladiators couldn’t always recover to full health. Combine that with injury cards when they went down, and it added a sense of realism and strategy. Each fight became an intense decision: Should I send my team in now? Is it worth it or should I bide my time and wait for a better opportunity? You couldn’t compete in them all.

The problem was that each fight took X amount of minutes to complete, and if you held back your team you were essentially waiting X minutes before you could play again. That didn’t work, but it enhanced the realism which was the core of what I was trying to capture.

This plays into a key lesson I learned for the experience.

NEVER include mechanics in the game that exclude certain players and take a significant amount of time to resolve.

Finally, I pulled the tooth. I got rid of the FFA (and cried a little on the inside). This was the final cut, and brought the duration to exactly where I wanted it.

Final Verdict: I loved it! I realized that the only reason the 12 hour version was good was because this diamond was hidden in the rough. By trimming all the mechanics that were kinda good, all I was left with was the really good ones. The game played great and received unanimous approval. It made me wish that I had done it earlier.

What I really took away from it: Don’t ever be too afraid to change something just because it works, you should give every idea a round at the table.

Matt Fletcher
gladiatorsofdragonisle.com


Thank you Matt for sharing that! There are some very good lessons in there: Don’t try to put everything in one game. And cut what isn’t working, even if it’s something you absolutely love!

But the main thing I’m taking home is the idea of setting a vision for the game and then observing players to see where that vision breaks.

Thanks again!

Do you want to contribute?

If you have something interesting to say about about game design, something you learned while building your own game or through observation of others’, I’d be happy to make a guest post out of it!

If you’re interested you can contact me through the comments, twitter or at b.reinink@makethemplay.com

About the (usual) 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, Fun, Learning from Existing Board Games, Los Buenos

This is the amount of not-fun I’m talking about!
In my previous post I mentioned I had “balanced my game to death”: In solving some technical issues, I drained all the fun out of it. I got some very interesting and useful reactions to that post and I’m happy to say that Los Buenos is back on track!

All of this did get me thinking: How is it possible to make a few (minor!) changes to a game and suddenly have it not be fun anymore?!

In this post I want to look at some games that I don’t think are fun (feel free to disagree, but please don’t try to convince me, I’ve got my mind made up!). From that I want to distill elements that make a game be not fun and then flip those around to be able to actively design for fun.

Not fun: (The previous version of) Los Buenos

When working on Los Buenos I wanted it “balanced”, without really giving much thought to what exactly that entailed. I had some vague feelings; something about different strategies all affording a similar win chance.

What I did (in hindsight of course!) was make every choice similar-ish. No matter what you did, the results would always be more-or-less the same (in karma (=victory) points). And players were left with an unsatisfied feeling of having done a lot, but not having played.

Not fun: Haunted house on the hill

Haunted house on the hill consists of two phases. In the first you’re exploring a house, in the second something or someone turns against (part of) the group and needs to be defeated.

I absolutely love the idea of this game! But I never enjoy actually playing it…

In the beginning you’re “exploring”, but there is no goal to it (except to trigger the second part). Any actions you take could work in your favor, but there is an (almost?) equal chance of them working against you.

Then when the second phase is triggered there is generally a huge discrepancy in power between the group and the “bad thing” (with either of these two ending up with much more power).

The result is that in the first part choices are random: You cannot predict what their consequences are and thus it doesn’t matter which choice you take.

In the second part the huge discrepancy in power means that you’re either going through the motions of winning, or going through the motions of losing, without much influence on the end result.

Not fun: Tic-tac-toe

“Draw in 6 moves!”
If you’re older than 7 years old a game of tic-tac-toe is finished before it starts. No matter what move you make, it’s perfectly clear what the opponent should do to ensure that you don’t get your 3-in-a-line. And likewise, you’ll be doing the same with them, meaning that any game of tic-tac-toe will end in a draw.

It matters which choice you make, but only in that it prevents you from losing.

And, it’s immediately clear what that choice should be.

Not fun: Risk & Munchkin

Risk and Munchkin suffer from the same problem: They can be interminable. This is because as soon as someone starts winning, the other players will gang-up to prevent exactly that. And thus the game will go back and forth, coming through a conclusion only because of luck, stupidity or people getting so bored they want to lose.

During a game your choices matter, but at some point the majority of those choices are geared towards not losing, through bringing down the player that is in the lead.

Not fun: Monopoly

Did I lose yet?!
Monopoly has the same ailment as Risk and Munchkin, in that it can take a very long time, but it has another big issue: It is extremely luck-driven. How you roll in the early game determines whether you can buy a lot of good locations. Then how you roll in the later game determines whether you end up on a lot of bad locations.

There are some low-level choices to be made: Buy something or not (but if you have the money, buy!). Mostly however the interesting “choice” is made by the dice: Where do you land and is this good or bad?

Drawing conclusions

Playing a board game consists of taking a series of choices. An essential part of the fun in a game then lies in making these choices interesting. In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched some ways in which choices can be uninteresting. Let’s draw out some common themes.

No choice

If there is no choice, there is nothing to agonize over. In Monopoly it’s the dice that play the game, with the humans around the table only there to throw them and move pawns accordingly. Choices really are very limited: Buy or don’t, what to sell when you run out of cash. Who wants to be a robot that does what a bunch of dice tell them?

No consequences

A choice can be uninteresting is if there are no (real) consequences. This is what Los Buenos suffered from: No matter which action or string of actions you took, the results would be just about the same. And while at the surface players were doing lots of things, intuitively they felt very well that it was just “going through the motions”.

In a similar way the choices in the second half of Haunted house on the hill are uninteresting. There are “real” consequences if any player completely screws up, but if everybody plays halfway decent then it is very clear who is going to win. And thus any single choice of action really doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game.

Consequences can’t be foreseen

If you play like this, it’s probably your own fault…
In the first half of Haunted house on the hill there are consequences to what players do: They might get bonuses or suffer penalties. But which of the two it’s going to be is completely random. From a strategy point of view it makes just as much sense to stand still as it is to go exploring. And doing nothing is about as boring as it gets.

Consequences are too clear

In Tic-tac-toe the consequences of your choices are extremely clear. Make the wrong choice and you lose (almost immediately).

In a more complex way this is what ails Munchkin and Risk as well. At some point the “rational” way to play is to attack the strongest player; either you do that, or you lose the game.

The result of too-clear consequences is that agency is taken away from the player. If you can (perfectly) foresee what is going to happen then it is also (perfectly) clear what the right choice is. Meaning that basically there is no choice.

Flipping the negatives around

As a board game designer, the right tools are essential!
So now we have some idea of what not to do. How to translate this in something we should do, something actionable?

First: give players choices. A game is about agency, making changes. For that players have to have a way of influencing the game, which means they have to have different options of doing so.

Second: Make choices have consequences. When players take an option, something has to happen! The state of the game has to change, be it for better or worse. The more different those consequences are, the more interesting the choice is. “Take 1 wood or take 1 stone” is a choice with consequences (you then have either a wood or a stone), but “Build a factory or attack Sue” is a far more interesting choice, as the consequences affect the game in completely different ways.

Third: Make it clear what the consequences are. Players need to be able to look into the future, to see whether any given option will make things better or worse for them. Only then can they make meaningful choices and only then will they care about them. Thus: Be careful when you have randomness involved in the consequences of choices.

Fourth: Don’t make the consequences too clear. If it’s completely obvious what the long-term results of a choice are then there isn’t really a choice to be made. The important word here is “long term”. It’s perfectly ok to see what will happen immediately (“If I place my worker here, I’ll get 1 wood”), but it should be obscured what that means over multiple rounds. This can be done through other players’ actions (“Will Achmed take the second wood I need?”) or randomness (“I hope the ‘woodworker’ will come out next turn so I have a good use for my 1 wood”).

Bringing this all together, what you want your players to think when they’ve made their choice is: “I’m reasonably sure that this option will bring me closer to victory.”

Some ideas for creating interesting choices

As mentioned, having fundamentally different consequences to choices makes for interesting options. One way of doing this is by allowing very different strategies to emerge. The “choice of strategy” then becomes a very interesting (and important) choice in the game.

I also suggested that direct consequences can be clear immediately, but that the long term effects should be obscured. This will happen quite naturally for a lot of games (there will be choices by other players and most likely randomness as well), but it is also possible to design it in. One way of doing this is by having “end game bonuses”; for example the player with the most houses gets an additional 5 points. This way a choice early in the game (e.g. “build a house or build a factory”) will have a consequence that is guaranteed to only be shown at the end of the game.

The two options above can even be meshed together: “This game my strategy is to build as many houses as possible!”

Closing thoughts

Decisions, decisions!
This blog post ended up being mostly about “interesting choices”. That most certainly isn’t the only source of fun for board games, but it’s a very fundamental one!

Perhaps it would be interesting to look at games that are “not fun” in different ways as well? I think I covered most of the games I’ve tried that I didn’t enjoy, but perhaps with some digging I’ll come to other ones (we tend to push our traumas away? 🙂 )

What are games you think aren’t fun?
Why aren’t they?
Or perhaps you have a game that is the perfect example of fun?

Further reading

This post mostly went into “interesting choices”. I’ve written about this before, in the context of a previous version of Los Buenos (then still called “Voluntarios”). There I was also able to lose the fun, but that time by removing choice from the game. At least I’m not making the same mistake twice…?

Once a choice is made, you get to a phase of “waiting to see whether your choice actually worked out”. This is where tension in board games comes in.

I made mention of strategy as allowing for interesting choices. In this article I wrote down a number of general board game strategies.

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.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design, Los Buenos, Mechanics, Play-testing

Maybe if I move the one stone just a few millimeters to the left?
A bit back I wrote about having gone to a convention to play test Los Buenos. I came back with a lot of compliments and also a lot of things that could be improved upon further. In the past few weeks I’ve been hacking away at these issues, while uncovering a few more.

Recently I was able to play a test game with my family. And lo-and-behold! All of the issues I’d identified were gone!

Except…

The game wasn’t fun anymore…(!)

In this post I want to do a post-mortem of the current state of the game. To see what went “wrong”, how I got there and to find steps to go forward.

This will go in-depth in some of the mechanics of the game. I’m not going to give all the rules, but for a very short overview of Los Buenos: It’s a worker placement game where after an earthquake you’re cleaning up and rebuilding a village. The goal is to do “as much good as possible”, which is expressed to gaining karma points whenever you do something that helps an opponent (e.g. cleaning up a destroyed building so that space becomes available to build on, or placing workers on an opponent’s building plan so you help them construct it). I hope this helps to grasp my descriptions of the game. If it’s still unclear, let me know?

The first diagnosis

Would there be a living to be made as a “board game doctor”?
As mentioned I found a number of elements that weren’t working perfectly in the game:

The biggest problem was that first round tended to play out in exactly the same way: The first player would distribute building plans (so they could have the “best” choice of building, while also gaining karma from other players taking one (they “helped” another player to get a plan, so they get karma!)), then the second would distribute money or wood (whichever they needed the most, while gaining karma from others taking some as well) and the third player would do wood or money (whichever of the two was left).

Now, this wasn’t an issue for most people who played the game for the first time. It gives some advantage to being an earlier player, but that can be reasonably be offset in later turns. However, when playing multiple times, it becomes glaringly obvious that you’re doing the same thing over and over.

Another problem was that in the last round sometimes there wasn’t much to do. There might not be any empty spaces to start a new building, or there were no resources to construct buildings with. Players would find something to do (though I’ve had it as well that a player couldn’t use all of their workers), but it regularly felt more like a scramble for a final few points than being actively constructive.

As a final but minor issue I wanted to make it a viable strategy to never construct any of your own buildings, but to win by gaining karma from helping others only.

Taking the medicine

Should I give my game the blue pill or the red pill?
I experimented with potential solutions to the problems above.

Tackling the last one first, I was able to balance things in such a way that “helping” became as powerful as “building”. This was done by reducing the number of karma points that a building gave to its owner to the be very similar to the number of points you could get when helping to build that building.

The other two problems were mostly solved by changing the way things got finished. Initially, finishing buildings and cleanup were done in at the end of the round. This was the moment when players got their karma, where a new building became available (to be used in subsequent turns) and (most importantly) where new resources (wood and money) became available through salvage (cleaning up of destroyed buildings).

I changed this so that whenever the work was done (all required workers were placed), something was finished. Especially for the “cleanup” this made a big difference: Resources and empty spaces (to build on) now became available throughout the round, instead of in a big bang at the end. This greatly reduced the power of the “distribute plans”, “distribute wood” and “distribute money” actions; as soon as some resources became available, some player would usually distribute them (taking most themselves). This would still benefit them, but it did mean there wasn’t the additional karma gained from helping other players get resources.

This also meant that during the final round it was much easier to make resources available and thus that it was fully possible to finish (or even start and finish) a building project.

To solve the issue of the stale first round one more ingredient was needed. The “distribute plans”, “distribute wood” and “distribute money” actions were not immediately available. Instead they needed to be “constructed” like any other kind of building. The first round was (mostly) spent on constructing these starting-action buildings, meaning that it became somewhat random when the actions became available and also how powerful they were at that moment. The result: the first turn played out differently every time!

Side effects worse than the disease?

“The operation was successful. Unfortunately your game is now being eaten by aliens!”
We played a game and all of the original issues were gone!

But the game lost its fun.

To use a quote: “It feels that it doesn’t matter which actions I take, they all give the same result in karma points.”

And this was true. Every action was give-or-take equally powerful. Only through consistently doing a tiny bit better than the others could you scrape together a meager few more karma points than the others.

The balance between different options had become too good. There were no more “stand-out” actions. Or to use the ideas from this post: Nothing made an impact anymore!

And that made for bland and boring gameplay.

What worked before the pills

Before making the changes there were some buildings that were somewhat better than others. Not incredibly much so, but still by a bit. This meant that there was an incentive to go for them. To want them instead of others. Creating excitement when you got them instead of something else. Creating tension on who would be able to grab what.

There were also awesome moves to make: Distributing wood and taking it all! Or giving it all away, earning a whopping 3 karma points with just a single worker (most actions get you in the order of 1 point). This was mostly possible because of the end-of-round finishing of things. There was stuff that was happening this round which set up a lot of possibilities for the next round. Because only in that next round could you make use of all the spaces and resources made available!

More injections or different injections?

I don’t like needles, so here is a picture of some cute bunnies instead
In solving one set of problems I created another set.

The choice now is whether I want to continue with what I have and solve the new stuff, or whether it makes more sense to go back to a previous version and try to solve the original problems but in a different way.

What’s the right way forward?

I feel that the answer to this one is actually quite simple. Previous problems were about solving important but in the end minor problems (similar first rounds, uninspiring last rounds). While my current problem is that the game has lost its fun!

Issues can be overlooked, as long as the game is enjoyable!

So, I’m going back to a previous version and I’ll try to solve my problems in a different way.

Thoughts on new treatments

The biggest issue that I had was that the first round always was the same. One way of fixing this is “skipping the first round”.

Generally in the first round people would work to get a project and to get the resources for them. Perhaps I can start them out with a project and the resources required. Or even better, start with projects that don’t require resources?

This is thematically somewhat less satisfying, but I think I can make a twist on the story that works. And while I think thematic embedding is very important, I do think fun should trump it!

For the last round having nothing to do, I believe that it would be possible to simply ignore this problem (no solution is also a solution!) but I do want to give it further thought. One option is to have some ways of generating resources throughout the game (there is already something in it to do that – perhaps it could be strengthened?).

A more important issue might be not having any empty spaces available to build on. This could be solved by creating a stronger incentive to create empty spaces? Simply giving out more karma points would probably work, but that might create other balancing issues (I don’t players to start the game with cleaning up all the available spaces either!). I’m sure that there is some intermediate solution that could be found for this, with a bit more thinking!

Strengthening the patient even further

I see a lot of potential!
This time at the “intensive care” has given me time to think about what is important in a game. I want to give more thought to “creating impact” in the game, to ensure that players can have “awesome turns” (while at the same time ensuring that these do not mean a complete win of the game).

This could be done by making things less balanced. More difference between buildings to be built. Giving a decent chance of having a lot of resources to spread so that the “distribute” actions become very cool when pulled off right.

I also think it would be good to give some thought about adding more strategy to the game. It’s now very “tactical”; players are trying to optimize each turn, without thinking ahead too much about how it will all come together. Luckily I already wrote something about general board game strategies some time ago. Perhaps I can make use of some earlier insights? 🙂

One way could be to have a mild form of “set collection” in the game, where you gain additional points based on what kind of buildings you’ve built. Another option is to do more with the location of buildings (relative to each other), so that players care more about what they are building where: Houses built next to each other gain additional points, but houses next to a workplace lose a point?

A final option is to add some sort of “objective”; hidden information on something that would score a player further points (this is inspired by this post on the different endings of board games).

And perhaps I’ll come up with some other ideas as well when pondering this further.

Closing thoughts

After playing the last test I felt down. It sucks to solve your problems only to create bigger ones in their place!

Now, with a bit of reflection, I’m already feeling a lot better. Set-backs happen. And in the bigger scheme of things, this really is a minor one.

In fact, some really good stuff might come from this. I hope I’ll be able to really strengthen the game where it comes to creating impactful turns and by injecting some strategy into it. Had these issues not come to the fore, I might never have thought about that!

What are your memorable set-backs?
How did you take them?
What did you learn from them?
And most importantly, what did they do to your game in the end?

Finally: If you have any brilliant ideas or solutions to my specific problem, I would love to hear about them! Leave me a comment or use one of the other ways of contacting me below?

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.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below: