Board game design, Personal, This blog

My goal is to enjoy the sunset. From a mountain. While designing board games.
I’ve given a number of prototypes for Los Buenos to people with the request to test it without me being there to explain (or influence). While this is happening I don’t want to do any further work on the game as I don’t want to have superseded the feedback I’m going to get. Which leaves me with time and energy to work on a new project.

There is one idea that has been buzzing around in the back of my head for a long time and it was the first thing I felt like picking up. I however also realize that it’s going to be a monster of a game to design, requiring a ton of content and a bunch of new mechanics that I only have some vague ideas about. And my fears are that if I pick this up I’ll sink my teeth into it and not let go until I have something, which may well take many years.

An alternative is to start working on something smaller and simpler. I don’t have any particular ideas for this yet, but coming up with ideas is not that hard.

Still, it’s a conundrum. And so I asked online for ideas and suggestions.

Suggestions were split about halfway for the two options. But I got one really good question:

”What are your goals as a designer?”

Interestingly enough, I had never really thought about that! But now I am thinking. And perhaps this is something useful for other people as well?

How I got into designing

I used to work in financial services as a freelancer. The pay was good, it was intellectually stimulating and it lacked any form of creativity whatsoever. I was able to convince myself that things were ok for a long time. But then it started to seep in that I wasn’t that happy with the line of work.

Having saved up a decent amount (and having a loving girlfriend who was willing to pay a bit more of the rent – Thanks love!) I decided to take a few months of sabbatical. I didn’t want to go travel and not see my girlfriend, so I had to come up with something else to fill my time.

I loved playing board games and was very interested to do something with that. I started a small company with some friends to do something on the overlap between board games and digital technology. As a sortof “aside” to the company we thought it would be good to actually create a board game to get a feel for the industry.

The company fairly quickly collapsed as there was no real clear goal and everybody else was doing things on the side. But “creating the game” had firmly taken hold and I loved continuing with it.

It was also at this time that I started to write this blog. I had once read somewhere that the best way to learn is by teaching. Through my writing here I can say I now fully agree!

A few months passed and the game got better, but it was still far from great. And my savings were running out. So, back to what I knew would make money: Financial services. Different company, different type of work. But still the same problem of not being creative…

So when after a year I got a message that a company was looking for someone to help them create a bespoke board game, I was very enthusiastic! And very scared!

Still, I’m very happy that I accepted the offer and that I now really am earning my bread through board game design.

Seeing your own game in store

Look for me here. At some point…
When I first started designing a board game my idea was that hopefully it would help me somehow get established in the board game world. Then I had to go back to financial services and it became a cool hobby to pour my excess creativity into. At that point I didn’t really need to make any money off of it, so my goal was to see something that I made for sale in my local board game store.

That is still my goal, because it would totally amazing to see something I’ve created really “out there” in the world!

But it’s come full circle: I’m again hoping to establish myself into the board game world. And as such having a game published is a goal, but also a means to an end. It means gaining the experience of designing something that people actually want to buy! It means getting my name out there so that hopefully it will become easier to take the next steps. Because the more you’ve done, the easier it becomes to do more (I imagine that if Uwe Rosenberg walked into a publisher’s office saying he had a game he wanted published, they would sign him there and then without even looking at the game).

A designer for how long?

This brings me to an even more fundamental question: How long do I want to be a board game designer, in the sense that that is the way I make my money?

There are three parts to answering this question.

First, I know myself well enough that eventually everything gets to be boring. On the other hand, I stayed in financial services for ten years while never really loving what I did. Still, do I want to “commit” to this for a long time? What if I really hate it after 2 more years? Of course that can happen, but I don’t really expect it will. And even saying something now doesn’t mean I’m oath-bound to actually see it through.

Second, I’m dead scared that this won’t last. Yes, I have an assignment now. But that game is going to get finished at some point. And it feels like I got extremely lucky this time. Realistically, how many other companies are there going to be that want to have a bespoke game developed?! So it almost feels like hubris to make a goal out of continuing doing this. Then again, if you don’t set that goal the chances of it actually happening go down even further!

Third, I do not want to go back to the other thing I know I can do well, which is finance. If I have to I will and I won’t hate it, but I won’t love it like I love game design. I could try to pick up a different (third!) career, but there I’d have to start even more from scratch than in game design.

So…

I believe that I’ll enjoy doing game design for at least another five years and I can fully imagine doing it for the next ten. It sure beats the obvious alternative. After ten years it becomes too hard to make anything like realistic predictions for the future. Aiming for “over 5 years” then seems quite reasonable. In other words, enough to really learn things and to make a career out of this.

To be continued…

Let’s keep on keeping on
My goal as a game designer then becomes first and foremost: Continue being a game designer. Or perhaps better, continue getting paid to design games!

That means a number of things.

It means I want to spend time on designing games. Which is easy enough: Lock myself in a room, do some prototyping, test for a bit: I’m a game designer!

That is a good start, but it’s not enough. As “designing” isn’t what people pay for, it’s the end results. Which means getting games out there!

These can be mass-market games, or bespoke games for companies. The first are probably more fun to make as I have full creative freedom. The second however are easier to pay the bills with. So a combination of the two would be best? Probably with a skew towards the second.

It also means getting my name out there. Having games in the hands of players certainly would help with this, so this is a self-re-enforcing step. (Good! :- ) )

But just that will not be enough, I’ll also have to spread my name in other ways. This blog certainly is a good step (it got me my first assignment!) so I’ll definitely continue doing that.

I’m also somewhat active on social media, though that can definitely be picked up. It’s a balance though, because it’s very hard to see what the direct benefits of it are. How much time is the right amount to invest? I guess this is something that would be good to think about further (perhaps in another blog post?).

What to make next?

Luckily there are always choices
All of this was brought on by a simple question: What kind of game should I start working on for my next project? Should I make the game that I would love to make, knowing I might be biting off more than I could possibly chew? Or would it be better to go for something simpler?

I have dreams. I hope to someday to make something as awesome as Gloomhaven or Pandemic Legacy. And this big idea might be it!

But it probably isn’t.

Because for every mega success, there are hundreds if not thousands of games that fall somewhere between outright failures to “decent”. And so pure statistics are against me in this. (Did I mention I used to work in risk management?)

And while I’d love to work on something that has the potential to be overwhelmingly awesome, it can wait. That idea will still be there in one year. It’ll still be there in 10 if need be.

For the shorter run I believe that getting a bit of volume in production is more important, pays off more, than taking a chance on hitting it big.

And so, based on what my goals are as a designer, my choice is to work on something other than my big idea.

Watch this space for further updates!

Closing thoughts

It’s been very good to articulate my thoughts (and fears!) for what I want to do with this “newfound career”. It made me realize some things that weren’t clear when they were happening, like how much I missed being creative in my previous jobs.

One thing that is still unclear is how much of this is based on luck? I know I got the design job I’m currently holding because I’ve been prolific in writing and doing my best in getting my name out there. But is that all it takes? How many other companies are walking around with an idea for a game? Is this a one-off or can it really be a steady source of income?

“Luckily” I’ve been in this situation before. I worked for 5 years in a permanent role in financial services before I started as a freelancer. My first assignment felt like dumb luck. The second already gave a bit more security and after the third I felt confident that there really was a decent demand for my skills.

For board game design I’m not at that point at all, but just knowing it can be reached makes things easier!

What are your goals as a board game designer?

So all of this has been about me. But what about you? What are your goals and dreams as a designer? What are you doing to achieve them?

Perhaps more interesting, what are your fears? Or what were your fears which you have now conquered?

I’d love to hear your story!

Further reading

Want to know a bit more about how all of this started? Here is the first post for this blog.

And I mentioned that I am now working as a freelance game designer. You can read more about that here.

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.

Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

The pile of games after a few people had arrived…
Last weekend we had games weekend: 30 people coming together in a secluded place to play board games!

This is of course the best chance to play both familiar and new games. And to pay a bit of attention to what all these games bring to the table (pun intended).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was really surprised in how all of these games had something special. And how this specialness could be in so many different “directions”.

So today’s post I’m going to go through a number of the games I played last weekend and pick out one (or a few) thing(s) that stood out for me from a design perspective.

Azul

One-sentence synopsis: Draft tiles, lay them on your board in such a way that they can move to the other side of your board in such a way as to optimize your score.

We’re used to have a single score track (usually going around the board!) and everybody shows their progress on that. Azul instead uses separate scoring tracks for each player (that they have on their personal boards).

This is probably just from an efficiency perspective as there is no central board (though there could’ve been a scoring track which probably would’ve taken up less “real estate” than adding a track to every player board).

The result was that it was harder to compare who was ahead! You’d have to scan back and forth between players to figure that out. Not hard, but it was an extra action. This ensures that starting players generally won’t do it and thus save a bit of mental space. For a game that is so nicely simple I really like that this adds just that tiny bit more simplicity.

On the other hand it does also mean that there is a tiny bit less player interaction. For this game a worthwhile tradeoff though.

How does your game use lay-out to drive player attention? Are there things they should pay more attention to? Or things they should just not focus on? What other ways can lay-out be used to shape the way a game is experiences?

Energy Empire & Viticulture

It’s wine makin’ time!
One-sentence synopsis: Worker placement games in which you respectively build an industrial empire while minimizing pollution and where you are planting and harvesting grapes to turn them into valuable wine.

Two quite different games, but they both “solved” the same problem: What to do when someone takes a space on the board that you really wanted? Both games are worker placement games and so here it mostly relates to spaces for workers.

Energy Empire allows players to add workers to occupied spaces if they make a higher “pile” than the next highest pile, where a pile consists of a worker on top and “energy” below (it’s called “Energy Empire” after all!).

Viticulture on the other hand has 3 spaces for any action and even if those are taken you have a bigger worker which can always be used. The first space however gives a bonus (which can range from minor to making the space twice as good).

The result is that these games are much less cut-throat in having to plan ahead where you can place your workers (something for example Agricola can really punish you in). Players need less mental space in trying to think things through in advance and thus these games become significantly “lighter” on the mind, reducing analysis paralysis (see this post for 14 ways of reducing analysis paralysis in your board game).

The “downside” is that there is also less player interaction. It still matters somewhat when you place, but it’s more from an efficiency perspective than in a “I have to do this!” sense. This in turn reduces the tension of hoping that a space will stay available for you to use.

I feel that these choices make these games much more accessible and easier for first-time players. You will hardly ever be “stuck”, you’ll just be less efficient. At the same time they still allow for a lot of depth, because you do want to place your workers as efficiently as possible.

Are there more or less efficient ways of doing things in your game? Are there ways of “shutting other players down” (temporarily)? What does that do to the game?

Spirit Island

Those poor invaders never stood a chance!
One-sentence synopsis: A cooperative game where you play a spirit trying to gain power to kick colonizing invaders off of your island.

This was by far my favorite game of the weekend (and the only one I played twice!). I could easily write an entire post on this, but let’s just take a few highlights.

First the game solves the “quarterbacking” problem (one player telling others how they should play, which is common in cooperative games) through high levels of asymmetry and just really a lot of things going on: I was barely able to focus on my own bit of the game and would’ve been completely overwhelmed if I had to “play” for the others as well.

At the same time the game “compartmentalizes” very well: “I’ll take care of this, can you handle that?”. Through this it really creates a sense of “cooperation”.

If you’re creating a coop, how do you prevent quarterbacking? Could other games benefit from “overwhelming as a whole while manageable when compartmentalized”? Is it possible to have player vs. player game that forces you to focus on your bit, while there is stuff happening in other places that is actually relevant to you as well? And how much of a recipe for analysis paralysis would this be?!

The game also does very well at forcing players to look ahead. There are two parts to this. The first is that some of the actions you take happen before the “game takes its actions” and some of them happen afterwards. Thus, a number of your actions will be useless for your current problems but they will help with future problems.

The second part of this is the ingenious system that shows which bad stuff is going to happen to which type of land. Every turn a card is drawn showing a land type. On that land type the invaders (the “bad guys”, the ones you’re trying to defeat) will “explore” this turn (moving into that land type from other lands). The next turn they will “build” on that land type (while exploring on another), which increases the damage they can do. Then on the third turn they “ravage”, meaning actually doing damage. This creates for a buildup, which you can (have to!) anticipate.

Does it benefit your players to look ahead or is it possible to take your game one turn at a time? Can you add something that would allow players to “look ahead” at what will be coming? This could be an “event deck”, but perhaps also “programmed actions” from other players?”

The final bit that stood out was the emotions the game engenders. In the beginning we really had a feeling of feeling overwhelmed! Later in the game this turned to weary optimism and finally to a real sense of victory. Compare this to Pandemic which starts relatively slow and then ramps up the threats. Here you’re starting basically waist-deep in smelly stuff already.

Most games start out fairly slowly and then ramp up. Can you turn that around? And how are your players feeling when they play your game? Is that what you want them to feel? How do you make them feel what you want?

Kodama

This. But with more fireflies, mushrooms, clouds and caterpillars!
One-sentence synopsis: Place branches with lovely features such as fireflies and mushrooms on your ever-growing tree to score the features.

Location is important in any board game: Having a card in my hand is much better than having one in the deck! But other than in which “region” a card is it doesn’t matter exactly where it is.

I love how in Kodama you have to optimize the exact location of where you place a card. It has to fit, but you also want to keep space available for future growth.

It is also an exceedingly beautiful game, which really helps to give you the feeling you’re growing a tree.

How else can you use the exact position of resources on the board / table to make a game?

How do the visuals of your game add to the game experience? How can you improve upon that?

Number 9

Place shapes (numbers) so that they fit on top of each other; the higher you get the more points you gain.

Board games are generally played in 2 dimensions: Where on the board something is placed matters, but we hardly ever go up.

I also love the simplicity of this game; it was explained to me by an 8-year old.

A while back I wrote a post that explicitly went into the use of space in board games.

How can you use “space” in different ways for board game design? Can you have a game where pieces have to stay off of the board (above it?)? How does movement through 3 dimensions change a game? Is it possible to more explicitly add “time” to a game?

What difficulty level is your game? Can you make it a lower level (while keeping your depth of course! 😉 )?

Robinson Crusoe

At the end of the game we actually had quite a fancy hut!
One-sentence synopsis: A cooperative worker placement game of surviving on an deserted island while (depending on the scenario) trying to overcome the weather, cannibals, a volcano or even King Kong.

Robinson Crusoe has a great mechanic where you can use two workers and ensure that an action works, or you can use a single one but you’re going to have to roll some dice which might (will!) give you some bad stuff. Either you spread your workers and risk bad stuff, or you keep them together and run the risk of not being able to do enough to stave off bad stuff in the future. The game gives you control, while at the same time it forces you to gamble. The result is extremely tense, having players constantly at the edge of their seat because they are always at the edge of not making it.

The game is also one of the most thematic games I’ve ever played. Everything “makes sense”, in that you are taking the actions that you would be taking when really on a deserted island. More than that, the “forced gambling” (with the live of your character!) gives exactly the appropriate emotions of swinging between hope and despair.

In this post I talk more about how immersive Robinson Crusoe (and other games) are.

Where is the tension in your game? How do you give players a sense of control, while they still are required to “gamble”? What feelings do you want your players to have and what are the right mechanics to bring out those feelings?

Closing thoughts

Next time you play a game, try to pick out something that makes the game stand out. Maybe it’s a mechanic, maybe it’s the feeling it engenders, maybe it’s the way the theme is brought to live. Then think about why this is the case and what you can learn from it?

And if you find some interesting things, I would love for you to let me know!

Further reading

A while back I went in-depth on the Evolution board game and picked it apart for its lessons.

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, In-game economics

Clear value right there!
When we want something in real life we go to the appropriate shop, give them some of our money and take whatever it was we desired (of course there are things that money can’t buy, but for this post I want to focus on things that are definitely in the sphere of standard economics).

If I desire a particular teacup you own, while you desire it less, it makes sense for me to give some of my money to you and take your teacup. This way I get something I desire and you get the ability to buy something else you desire.

Of course goods don’t just spring into existence – teacups need to be made. And to make things you need to give up things of value: You need to buy materials and pay workers. Perhaps you also need to buy tools and machines. You pay for marketing your product. And having it shipped to shops. Etc.

We’ve built up a whole economy designed to produce things that other people value more than the value that needs to be given up in producing the thing (and getting it to the buyer).

This means that in a production process the amount of value has to increase. The amount of value output has to be higher than the amount of value input.

What does all of this have to do with board games you might ask?

Value in board games

Board games have an in-game economy. We spend some resources (wood-tokens, turns, cards, actions, etc. – see this post for more on in-game resources) to get other resources (stone-tokens, new cards, different actions). In this sense a board game resembles a modern economy quite closely.

In the real economy we do things because they produce value, where value is measured as “something that people desire” (I’m sure if you dig into it you can go to an even deeper level. Something having to do with survival-of-the-fittest or something. I’m perfectly happy to leave it at this though.).

To understand the in-game economy it helps to understand what “value” means within the game.

As a first approximation we can use the same notion as we use for the real economy: “Things that players desire”.

But because this is a game, it’s quite easy to go one step further. Because while in real life people’s desires a decidedly murky, in a game it’s very clear what the goal is: To win! And so players “desire” whatever brings them closer to winning.

“Value” in a board game therefore is equivalent to getting closer to winning.

Some examples

I value you this much higher than your sheep!
The previous paragraph was quite abstract, so let’s make this more concrete.

In Catan I win when I have 10 victory points. And thus I will greatly value a victory point, because it most directly gets me closer to winning.

But I will also value anything that helps me get victory points; I love getting a village because it’s 1 VP closer to the finish. But that village is also going to produce resources. And those resources are going to help me get more victory points!

To build a village I need to gather resources: Wood, sheep, grain and stone. So I value those resources, because each one is one step towards building something that gets me 1 step closer to victory! If you think that’s convoluted, it can much worse… But let’s not get into that right now (I’ll spare your and my own brains!).

I also value anything that stops my opponents from getting closer to winning. Placing the robber helps me only marginally, but it can be quite a big issue for the other players. And as long as they are not winning, I have more time to get my own victory. Clear value creation!

Comparability

The idea of value makes it possible to compare different options. If I can either get an additional village or I get a “1 victory point” card in Catan, which do I prefer? I would say it’s the village, as it will produce further resources and thus has a higher value than the single victory point card.

In this example it is possible to make a direct comparison between two options and declare one of them better.

Of course such comparisons are hardly ever so easy. Because the 1 victory point card costs less to buy than a village. But there is also a randomness to buying a card, so I might not actually get that 1 point. And I can even imagine edge cases where I would prefer the 1 victory point card (something with knowing that my opponent holds a “monopoly” card). So even in such a simple and clear-cut example there is uncertainty.

And this is good! You want players to be able to more-or-less compare options, but not entirely. Because this is where interesting decisions are born! If there is ambiguity on which option actually holds the most value players will have to make a choice and live with the consequences.

Because if the value of each option was perfectly known, there wouldn’t be any choice to make: Simply take the one with the highest value!

The value economy

Got to keep the economy running!
In the beginning of this article I wrote how our economy is geared towards increasing value with each (production) step. The same should hold true for your board game economy.

Many games take multiple steps to get to a “final product”. In Catan I need resources to build first roads, then a village and finally a city. In each of these steps I’m increasing the value of what I have. This creates a sense of progression for your players as well a clear incentive to make certain choices (see this post on incentives in board games). Increases in value thus are a clear way of “steering” your players, without forcing them to do anything (they are free to not take the value increasing option…).

Of course it can be very interesting as well to make it much less clear that something actually has a positive value. Imagine a city in Catan being worth 0 points. Then there is a benefit (increased production) but also a downside (losing a victory point!). Given the target audience of Catan I fully understand that they decided not to go with this, but maybe your own game could use such a value trade-off?

Value is relative

I love going on vacation, while you might want a big car. We value different things.

In most board games players start out similarly (there are exceptions of course) and so in the beginning players will value the same thing the same way.

But once the game gets going players will have made choices that change the value of things for them. If you have a grain harbor you value grain more than if you don’t. If you’re one ore away from building a city then that ore is much more desirable than if you already have a hand full of the stuff.

When players are doing just-about the same you get a boring game. You want players to take different avenues. And for this you want them to value things differently. You want to vary how much additional benefit players get based on what they already have.

This can relate to strategic but also to tactical choices: What gives the most value in the long run versus what gives the most value right now.

Of course you also don’t want players to have completely different valuations, as that would mean they would have nothing to compete over!

Closing thoughts

This is closed now…
Thinking about the value of things in your board game can help you take a step away from the gritty details of the design and take a more holistic approach: What are ways of creating value? How can value be lost? Are there very efficient ways of creating value? What would happen if it was easier to create value? Or if you made it more difficult?

Under what circumstances would players value options differently? How big are those differences in value? And are they likely to occur? Can you increase those differences? should you?

I hope you found this post valuable!

Further reading

A while back I wrote a number of other posts about in-game economics. Here is a small selection:

Most fundamentally is the idea of resources in board games.

This current post also closely links to this post about cost and value in board games.

And finally an interesting way of creating value is through the use of (positive) feedback loops.

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: