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:

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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:

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Board game design, Mechanics

End of the line folks, time to start a new game!
All things must end, including (or especially!) board games. Imagine a game that just won’t stop (Monopoly? Risk?), it’s just not fun anymore after the 3th hour…

There are a number of common ways for games to end, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. In this post I want to take a look at different ending conditions for board games and how to use them in game design.

Between ending and winning

Ending a game and winning it does not need to be the same. Citadels ends when a player has built an 8th building. The winner however is the player who has gathered the most points during play, which need not be the same player! Alternatively, in Catan the player who first scores 10 points both wins and ends the game.

Ending the game when someone has won (like Catan) makes it very clear what you’re striving towards and how far or close everybody is to that. I’d say that in general this is the simpler option and thus worthwhile for lighter weight games.

There are however good reasons to pull winning and ending apart. For one it can keep the game tense for much longer, especially if part of the winning condition is hidden. In a game of Monopoly it’s generally clear who’s going to win well before someone actually does, making the latter part of the game far less fun for everybody involved. In a game of Terra Mystica on the other hand there are a lot of points only scored at the very end, meaning that you never know who will be the final winner. This tends to keep players involved much more, even if they’re not doing stellarly.

Determining the winner after the game has ended can obscure why someone won. Especially in a “point salad” game (a game where many different actions give you some victory points), it can be hard to determine which actions were a great idea and which ones were not so much. This can be good, as it makes the replay value of your game higher (“I’m not sure if it was my overall strategy or my great tactics that won me the game… Let’s play again to find out!”), but it can also leave people dissatisfied as there might not be a clear way of improving their play.

5 ways of ending a game

Having made the distinction between ending and winning a game, let’s look at some “traditional” ways of ending board games.

1. Set in stone

That’s one stone per round
Terra Mystica and Smallworld each have a given number of rounds and after those rounds are over, the game ends.

Similarly, Chess is generally played with a clock and if time runs out then the game ends (though it can also end earlier).

This is probably the simplest way of ending a game. Everybody knows exactly what is going to happen and they can plan accordingly.

A result of this is that players will tend to play differently in what they know is the last turn: No more investing, grab all those last-minute points!

2. The race

In Catan you’re in a race against the other players: Get to 10 points first. It doesn’t matter if the next round someone else would’ve gotten to 11 points (or 20), the game ends once a pre-set condition is met by a single player.

Similarly, Lewis & Clark is a literal racing game, in that you’re trying to be the first to get to the end of the board.

Racing games show clearly the progression of everybody and thus it’s easy to gauge how far you are from ending the game. There is however some uncertainty, as you can’t know for certain whether your opponent won’t pull a trick out of their sleeve and end the game early, or whether your perfect plan to end this turn gets thwarted and it’ll take you another go to get there.

As a result players will generally start playing differently towards the end of the game, but there is no clear cut-off when behavior changes. This depends on the estimates of each player on how much time they have left. As such it can create a “smoother” experience in that there are no sudden changes in the behavior over the course of the game.

3. The kill

In Monopoly and Captain Sonar you end the game when the other players (or team) is defeated. This generally means taking away certain resources (money for Monopoly, life for Captain Sonar).

Especially in multiplayer games “killing” someone isn’t much fun, as it means that they are no longer allowed to actively participate in the game. For two player games however this isn’t a problem because as soon as one player is out, the game ends for everybody.

“Killing” generally means very confrontational play: You’re directly trying to diminish the other player(s). Not every player is comfortable with these kinds of actions. However, it is also possible to “kill” in a more passive-aggressive way; in Monopoly you never directly “attack” your opponent, it is through their own “actions” (or the roll of the dice) that they are depleted of money.

Ending the game through player elimination can create huge swings in playing time, especially if there are multiple players present: There will be a tendency to “gang up” on whomever is perceived to be winning. The amount of player interaction then determines how successful this is.

4. Too much or too little

One more line and this game is over!
In Pandemic you lose the game if you run out of cards in the deck, if you run out of disease cubes or if the “outbreak” marker gets to the end of the track.

All of these are examples of having too much or too little of something.

This type of game end condition is especially prevalent in cooperative games, though it exists in player-vs-player games as well: In Bohnanza the game ends after running out of cards in the deck for the third time.

This is a very versatile mechanism to end the game with, as it allows for many different variant. How much do players have influence on whatever it is that is ticking towards the end? In Pandemic players very actively try not to get outbreaks, so there is a strong influence on that game end condition. Running out of cards however is only a function of the number of turns taken and thus players really have no control over it.

When players have a lot of control, the length of a game might swing quite a bit, as it depends on how well they are able exercise their control whether the end is triggered. If however there is limited control, game length is much more fixed.

5. The mission

In Risk players get a card telling them what they need to do to win the game: Control 24 area’s, control 3 continents, etc.

The result is that the game can end very suddenly: A player declares they have achieved their objective and the game is over. On the one hand this can create an interesting tension, on the other it can also leave players frustrated as they did not get to anticipate the end of the game. As such, care should be taken when using this mechanic.

However, it is generally hard to fulfill an objective, without signaling in advance that this is your objective and thus other players can anticipate the end of the game to a certain extent.

Using (hidden) objectives also creates an element of bluffing into the game. It can be a wise tactic to go for things that are not directly related to your objective so that other players will try to stop you from doing things you don’t really care about, while giving you free reign to do the things you do care about.

In modern versions of Risk players get multiple objectives and they show them when they are completed. This then gives a sense of progress towards the end: If a player has no objectives finished then they are unlike to be able to end the game any time soon, but if a player just needs a single one, it’s good to start preparing for the finish.

Technically this a version of the “race”, in that each player is racing to complete their own objective(s). However, in “standard” racing games all players are heading towards the same finish and it’s generally known how close they are to it.

Personally I would love to see more games that incorporated this mechanic to end the game. Perhaps something for my own next game…?

Closing thoughts

I’ve found that so far in my designs I never paid really a lot of attention to my end-game conditions. They sortof just “happened”. Which is not to say I never changed them around, but I did it without a lot of thought on what I was trying to achieve. I hope that for the future I can be a bit more direct in this.

And it would be interesting to design something around a specific game ender. As mentioned, I would love to see more around achieving certain “objectives”

Did you ever have specific considerations when designing the end of your game? What were your thoughts?

Further reading

I wrote a previous article about games ending, but that focused on the limited lifespan of any kind of resource: Resources are temporary

This also links to another post: The time-value of resources

And it seems that the awesome people over at Games Precipice had similar ideas, because here is their article on end conditions (I haven’t read it, but knowing their previous work I’m happy to endorse them unread)

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.

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Board game design, Startup Thinking Game

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

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

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

Back to the drawing board

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

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

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

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

Fun at helicopter altitude

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

These are perfect ingredients for a board game!

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

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

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

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

Slogging along at the earthworm level

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

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

Finding the balance

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

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

I think that’s possible.

Keeping what matters

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

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

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

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

The question to answer

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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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