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

How to create a board game

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Eastlyn. (Thinking about this)

    Thanks for the article. My design process is often asking myself questions that set challenges. I have a game board I like & good mechnisms & a beginning of a theme. So how much does this advice you give here change or ceasee to apply as the gane being designed is intended to be on the theme-light side of the story narrative to totally abstract spectrum. I came to a good board design & a good movement mechanism & a good rule structure without having a real theme. This is a conquer this much territory to win game with a few other requirements to win & a few twists. I as I design am seeing something as simple as a 5 color Sorry-like look. Is there a problem with this beyond the obvious which is players learn rules related with a theme more easily than separate rules not theme rated? Does a no art work game or simple looking game mean an unworkable game? Added on stuff to a design can look tacky or like kid stickers on an object. Please give me a pointer as to where start or a compass heading as to how to look at this issue.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hey,

      In the end everybody has to find their own method. I’ve described what I think is a good way to start, but it certainly isn’t the only way.

      And you’re right, my method is less applicable to an abstract, though that’s only the “create a story” start. The rest (find a problem, solve the problem. Iterate fast. Build a prototype quickly) is just as useful for an abstract game I feel.

      You’re right that having a story / theme helps with learning the rules but it’s not necessary. People have been playing checkers for a long time and the theme there is really thin!

      I’d shy away from creating a lot of artwork when in the design phase of a game. Find some placeholder art somewhere on the internet if you want -some- picture on it? But I’d only focus on this once you get ready to do a kickstarter (if you find a publisher they will mostly take care of the artwork).

      I hope this helps?

      Good luck!

      Reply
    2. I’d say that even with a themeless game (as party games/word games certainly are) it’s not so much a matter of having a theme in mind as a ‘core’ in mind.

      This might be a core experience or mood to evoke, a core mechanism that everything else must support, a core decision you’re building around, or whatever.

      As themeless games tend to be simpler affairs (somewhat by necessity given you can’t do thematic ‘piggybacking’), I believe you can spend a little longer deciding what that core should be (or even decide upon that core based on playtesting a variety of things before you settle on one) and then just work towards that singular ‘purpose’.

      Reply
      1. BastiaanReinink Author

        Hi Bez,

        I fully agree, even if you don’t have a strong theme, there should still be a “core” to your game, the thing that your game is trying to achieve. This might not be so much a “story”, but it can be as much a guide to your development as a story.

        Thanks!

        Reply
  2. Great article.

    I feel like your points are spot on for most situations and the narrative is good at illustrating the example.

    I believe that the ability to playtest in your mind depends on the person. E.g. you didn’t notice that with 5 spaces moved, moving 1 space down is trivially easy. :-p (e.g. 2 left, 1 up, 2 right)

    An even number would be far more tricky to manage and would – as you say – require actual maneuvering.

    I believe that the best possible skill you can develop as a designer is the ability to ‘read’ people well – to know if they’re having fun or not, regardless of what they may tell you.

    Another useful technique can be in solo testing to simply move pieces about to fill the gaps that are hard to model in your brain. Then you can more efficiently work out the ramifications and emergent behaviours of your system.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      You caught out my inability to do mental maneuvering! 🙂

      Reading people is a very useful skill in board game design (and probably not one that people would think of immediately when thinking about board game design!). It’s also a really hard one to pick up… I’ve been working on this for quite a while now and I certainly have a whole road ahead of me! But, but by bit we get better.

      Do you have specific tips regarding how to do this or what to pay attention to?

      Reply

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