Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

Design insights from a weekend of playing 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.


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?


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.

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  1. Always enjoy reading your thoughts, Bastiaan.

    I don’t have much to add but I had the same thought when playing Azul – the personal scoring track was an interesting deviation from the norm. After playing it another 2 or 3 times I find myself liking the idea a lot – once everyone has an understanding of the scoring process, it’s easier to score each round as everyone can do it themselves. It turns what might otherwise be a recurring mid-game lull into a very quick clean-up phase. The time saved is minimal but I find it preferable to “Okay, this is 1 point, and this is 2 more points, 1 more point down here…” for each player.

    The second benefit is that the player board contains all of an opponent’s status in one place. If my choice between drafting 2 colors is relatively equal in value to me, I’m inevitably looking at the effect each choice has on other players. Toward the end of the game I’m also going to have to consider where I stand in scoring contention, and that might be quicker to observe for each player when it is all in one place. That is as opposed to my normal routine:
    1) Scan my opponent’s board
    2) Look at a central scoring track
    3) Realize I forgot what color my opponent is playing
    4) Realize I have no idea what color I’m playing either
    5) Look back at opponent’s board
    6) Search the scoring track for my opponent’s color
    7) Try to make sense of the situation
    8) Make an eight point list about it

    I’m not sure the personal scoring track is a good fit for most games, but in Azul, I like that it skips the need for player colors in a game where the only purpose they would serve is scoring markers on a central scoring track. Skipping the central scoring track also eliminates the need for another manufactured component in addition to the player boards.

    I’ll also add that Number 9’s set-up (or lack of set-up needed) is such a welcome attribute in this era of games.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Loving your list! And I’m very happy that I’m not the only one that this happens to! 🙂

      And you’re right that Azul does away with player colors this way. Because it’s such a colorful game this adds to it a tiny bit I feel; this way your own color is not going to clash with the tiles.

      I wonder if they explicitly thought about all of this when creating the game?

      And I completely agree that it would be nice to have more games that require as little set-up as Number 9. Would be interesting to create a game with exactly that as a requirement? I can imagine you could do it with some really complex games as well. Lay out the board and from that moment on players start playing, taking what they need from the box the moment they need it. You’d have to have limited types of components (or be willing to do a lot of searching, which would beat the purpose…)

      Thanks for the addition!


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