Board game design

Though some great games can only be played a single time (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories, though there technically it’s a scenario that can only be played once), replayability is generally seen as something to strive for when designing games.

So the rules are simple…
In a recent post I argued that why we like “deep” games is that they are replayable.

Then I recently read this article, which does an amazing job in tying depth, strategy, tactics and many more subjects together (warning, long read!). In it the author defines depth as:

“Depth is a function of the layering of heuristic understanding necessary for effective play”

This seems to coincide well with my own ideas. I never gave a formal definition, but informally it’s something like: ”A game is deep if it requires a lot of play-throughs to master”. I guess my loose definition is a bit more easy to understand, while the definition from the article is more rigorous. Take your pick…

Both ideas center around how much you need to invest to really learn a game. And thus learning is one of the central points here. Which will be the subject of this post.

How humans learn

Kids learn through rewards and punishments: “Hold your hand against a burning stove and it burns (don’t do that again!).” And: “Eat a piece of candy and you get a delicious taste in your mouth (more please!)”. There is a very quick feedback between the action (touching a stove) and the result (pain!). Because of this you really only need a single encounter with a hot stove to be very careful around one for the rest of your life. Likewise, if we get a candy and it doesn’t taste good, we’ll be slightly less inclined to have more candy in the future.

As we get older, we can learn when there is a bigger remove between our actions and the results: “Be nice now and get desert later.” Or: “Don’t do your homework today and get punished at school tomorrow.” Still, there is a clear connection between our action and what comes our way because of it; the teacher is very clear that you have to go see the principle because you didn’t do your homework.

When we are grown up we can handle even bigger temporal differences: “Study for a year and you’ll be in line for a promotion after that.” And as long as we do actually get the promotion, we’ll have learned that studying leads to advancement.

The examples above all have a clear link between our actions and what we get out of it. But those connections aren’t always so clear cut, especially when timeframes are longer: “Did I get my promotion because I worked hard, because I have skills that nobody else in the team has or because I sucked up to the boss?”

The joys of learning

Humans really like learning stuff – being able to form a connection between an action and its results. This makes sense, because else life would involve random acts and random results, meaning you’d never be able to predict what would happen next. People without the ability to predict don’t survive very long (“Let’s see what happens when I go pet that lion?!”)

You might disagree that people enjoy learning. That is because most people associate learning with school and school is anything but fun. This is because when studying the result is very indirect. What you learn in school doesn’t help you to predict the world better, it only helps you to do well on an exam.

Learning the correct conjugation of a French verb in school doesn’t do anything in real life. But compare this to someone who moved to France who has a bit of insight and through interacting with the locals is improving his language ability. This does immediately impact his life and as such is much more satisfying.

Learning in board games

So what does all of this have to do with board games (yes, the subject of this blog really still is board games!)?

The most important thing to learn is not to play this game…
When you first play a game you suck. And you’ll readily lose to someone with more experience. But while playing your first game you’re gaining insight in how the game is played. You should play this card and not that, going for points early makes you lose steam for the end game.

This is not some dry learning you’re doing in school, no, you’re learning something that is immediately applicable, in the next round or in the next game.

My belief is that this is one of the most important reasons people enjoy board games so much: They give the best kind of learning experience. The kind that can be used right away. You are now able to predict the future that much better, well done, have a shot of dopamine!

How to learn to play a board game

So you want people to be learning while they play your game, as that gives a pleasurable rush.

How do players learn a game? Through a bit of insight, but mostly through trial-and-error. When you play Catan for the first time (with others who have no experience) you haven’t a clue on what the best choices are, so you place your villages almost at random. Then a few rounds in someone remarks that rolling sixes and eights seems more likely than twos and twelves, so you’ve learned to focus on the big numbers (big as in that they have a larger font size on the tiles). Good, have your jolt of pleasure!

Then you learn that you need to spread what kind of resources you get (buzz!, but that a bunch of meadows combined with a sheep harbor is also a good idea (buzz!). Then your neighbor blocks one of your roads and takes a juicy spot, taking the game to another level (more buzz!).

When you’ve played a lot of different board games you start to recognize meta-patters: More resources is generally better. Getting more actions (e.g. more workers) is almost always is a good investment. Etc. But you still need to dig into the game to really learn its specific ins and outs. Which means playing, trying and failing. Until you stop failing.

The measure of success

What does it mean to stop failing? What does it mean to succeed?

When learning French your aim is to be able to have a conversation with that hot Parisian. When learning to play a game, your aim is to win.

The learning feedback loop

During a board game you do a lot of things. And at the same time your opponents are also doing lots of things. You’re playing cards, gathering resources, bluffing and moving tokens about. Depending on what game you’re playing you might take between a single and hundreds of distinct actions.

Sing it back, bring it back. Sing it back to me!
Only when all these actions are taken does the game reach its end. And only then can you determine whether you did well or not, because only then will the winner be known.

The result is that the feedback loop on whether any single action was “correct” is relatively long: Only after the game is over can you determine if that action was part of a winning way of playing.

More interestingly, giving feedback (win / loss) only at the end of the game obscures the information about any single action immensely. Because was it this action or that one that made the difference? Was it their combination? Or were both of those actually sub-optimal but did you win because you did a few other things right?

Worse, you can have won because of luck. Or because everybody else was playing like wet rags.

The result is that it can be very difficult to figure out what an optimal choice is at any given moment (which is of course exactly what we want; it’s well known that interesting (read: difficult) choices make for good games).

Too long a feedback loop

However…

If the feedback is too obscure, if you really can’t figure out how or why you won (or more likely, lost) then a game will lose its appeal. As written above, learning is fun if you can use what you’ve learned. And that means that something actionable has to come out of the learning experience: ”Next time I won’t place my first village between the dessert, the sea and a two…”

Luckily, games generally provide shorter feedback loops as well. In Catan you can see when someone else is getting more resources than you are. Being human we instinctively understand that more stuff is better! So it might only take few turns to regret placing our village at a two instead of at a six, meaning we will have learned something.

A layering of feedback loops

The ideal game then has feedback loops at many different “levels”; there should be extremely quick feedback (having more villages means I get more stuff!), intermediate feedback (placing a village at a six is better than at a two), long term feedback (taking a number of development cards is a good idea as that obscures how many points I have, meaning I won’t be the target of the robber that often) and every level in between.

“Deep” games have many layers of such feedback loops, resulting in interesting learning experience for absolute beginners, but also for people who have already played a game for a hundred times.

What this means for game design

So how does all of this help us design better board games?

I think it’s a light bulb…
Telling players how they are doing can help create short feedback loops. If you gain a few victory points with most actions then you can very quickly see your progress and measure it against your opponents’. This helps to quickly progress through understanding, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your target audience. If you’re trying to create something quick and light then this is definitely the way to go. But if you’re catering to die-hard gamers then it makes more sense to obscure any form of progression, as these people can more likely glean the “basics” quite easily and would in fact be more enamored by having to learn through long-term feedback loops. This then means that it would be better to give as little information as possible about “who’s ahead”; no victory point tracks (or perhaps no victory points at all). Imagine for example a series of hidden objectives which stay hidden until a player has achieved all of theirs and declares herself the winner.

It also means that self-testing of your game-under-development is difficult if not impossible. It’s your game so you’ve probably played it many times and know the ins and outs, meaning you aren’t learning anymore. Or even if you are, it is most certainly not at the same level as a novice player. You might argue that different versions of your own game will require new learning and you’d be right about that, but that learning is helped immensely by all the learning you’ve done on previous versions (I’m going to assume here that versions are actually quite alike; if not you’re basically starting on a new game).

This is not to say that self-testing is completely useless; when balancing game elements you can probably get reasonably far just on your own. Just remember that you will be playing as an expert and thus that the “balance” you’d create would be for an expert. The result can be that the game would actually be quite unbalanced when playing for the first time if an opponent happens to stumble upon a strong combination that an expert would easily deal with but that will simply kill you when you’re new. As an example consider the Fool’s Mate in Chess which is not fun to get served up when you’re learning the game.

Closing thoughts

As mentioned above, I believe that “learning” is one of the main drivers of enjoyment for games. This is in general not something you need to think about actively when designing; it’ll happen automatically. But when you’re going a layer deeper, this might be exactly the thing to think about: What is the learning path, what would players pick up first, what later? Is there an entry level that’s interesting enough to get to the deeper stuff? Is there deep stuff that keeps the game interesting for a long period?

Indirectly this also answers why I love writing this blog so much: I’m learning – not about any given board game, but about board game design. I hope you’re enjoying your learning as well! 🙂

Further readin

A while back I wrote about the different ways in which learning a board game can be enjoyed: The joys of learning board games

And perhaps you’d be interested in creating something that requires different skills to be learned? 12 Skills you can design board games around

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 (because hey, it’s fun!)? 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

Some time back I wrote an article about scarcity in board games. The premise was that board games revolve around resources (in many different variants) and that scarcity of (some of) those resources creates interesting choices.

What is scarce becomes valuable
In this post I want to go into an example of this, based on Voluntarios (volunteers in Spanish), the game I’m working on. Specifically I want to go into a somewhat novel form of scarcity: The scarcity of space.

A first scarcity of space

In Voluntarios you’re at the head of a group of volunteers (workers) and you have those volunteers do work (in a slight twist on worker-placement, the details of which I won’t bother you with) on reconstructing a village after an earthquake.

There are two types of workers: Experts and Normal workers. Most of the work that needs to be done is “normal” work, but there is also some work that can only be done by Experts. Experts can do the work of Normal workers, but it costs the player a Karma (= victory) point when doing so (because when you’re an expert, you don’t want to do simple menial work, now do you?!). And of course Normal workers can’t do Expert work.

The number of spaces where Expert work needs to be done will ebb and flow through the game, but on average there are slightly fewer spaces than the number of Expert workers available. This means that there is an incentive to “get rid” of Expert workers as soon as an Expert space becomes available. This then creates an interesting decision, where a player needs to decide between placing an Expert or doing something else that might be more useful to do, but with the risk (or even certainty) of losing a point when the Expert is forced to do Normal work.

Expert spaces are created through buildings that can be worked on by all players, but where the player controlling the building will get the benefits when it’s finished. However, making such spaces available generally does not mean that a player can take advantage of them (by placing an Expert) immediately. Thus, there is a choice between making Expert spaces available (which will go toward finishing a building a player controls) and waiting for someone else to do it so that an Expert worker can be placed.

A second scarcity of space

A prototype construction project – with space for 1 Expert (green) and 2 Normal workers (blue)
One of the advantages that finished buildings can have is that they give the controlling player an additional worker. This means that the number of workers increases throughout the game. The total number of spaces for workers however goes down as much as it goes up, meaning that there can be moments where there are more workers than spaces to place them.

Of course, letting things go to waste is well, a waste. Therefore there is a mechanic that players lose points when they have unused workers left at the end of a round.

The result is that players need to think very carefully on whether they want to control buildings that give additional workers; they may be beneficial, but when space runs out they are very much a burden. This then creates interesting strategical choices on whether to invest in more workers or to go for other types of buildings.

And it’s not a stand-alone choice, it very much depends on what the other players are doing as well; if everybody else is investing in other buildings, then having a few more workers of your own means you’ll still be able to place them without too much trouble.

The good, the bad and the unexpected

One of the two types of space scarcity works like a charm. The other has some… Side effects.

Can you guess which one is which?

Well no worry, I’m going to tell you!

(No) space: The final frontier!

When there is not enough space for all workers the result is that all possible worker spaces get filled and thus that all associated actions are taken. A number of those actions benefit not just the player taking them, but other players as well (think of role selection, but through placing a worker instead of taking a card). For any given action there are only two options: I take the action or someone else takes the action.

This is actually quite a bit less interesting than what happens for most games: I take the action, someone else takes the action or the action doesn’t happen.

When all actions are taken there is still jostling for getting the actions that you really want, but there is no tension about which actions exactly will have happened when the round has ended.

Worse, when there are limited spaces at some point players are “forced” to place workers in spaces they aren’t really interested in or even worse, would actively prefer not to take. Technically they have the choice of not placing a worker, but if the downside is high (which it was in my game) then it’s not really a choice at all. And thus this mechanic took away player agency and resulted in a lot of frustration

Bad choice of space scarcity! And thus “too little space for all workers” will be taken care of in the next iteration.

Without space everybody can hear you scream!

What do you mean that space can be scarce?!
The other option for making space scarce, jostling for positions for Expert workers, however works well. It indeed creates a sense of urgency about “having to get rid of” your Expert workers.

So why does this work but scarcity of space for all workers doesn’t?

The fundamental difference I feel is that Expert-space-scarcity doesn’t take away options. An Expert worker can be used for any space, though at a penalty. You’d like to avoid that penalty, and so you’ll work towards that, but you don’t have to. This gives the player control.

For the full-space-scarcity on the other hand at some point it becomes clear how many spaces there and thus for how many workers you’re going to have to take a penalty. There are some actions you can take to increase spaces during a turn, but they help everybody (almost) equally and thus do not really give a sense of control.

Salvage space?

So full-space-scarcity is a bad idea.

But…

I like the idea, as it is novel and actually goes against the idea of so many games that “more workers is better”. So might there be a way to salvage the mechanic?

What if this scarcity generally doesn’t happen, but only shows up every once and awhile? Like in 1/5th of all the rounds?

Would that be enough to force players to take it into account when choosing how many workers to go for? Or will it happen “at random” and frustrate players just as much as when it happens regularly? Perhaps if players are veterans they would learn to plan for this, but for rookies it could still be a big downer? Would it be bad enough that the rookies never turn into veterans?

I haven’t fully given up on the idea, so who knows how and where this might show up?

Closing thoughts

Scarcity is one of the fundamental building blocks of board games – something has to be scarce for there to be any competition.

In this post I gave two very concrete examples of scarcity, one that worked and another that didn’t. The fact that I used the somewhat unusual scarcity-of-space hopefully doesn’t detract from the lessons that can be taken from this.

The most important of these I feel is that when working with scarcity, allow your players to work with it, instead of simply having it forced upon them. In this sense there is a similarity to randomness: Forcing players to live with (the outcomes of) randomness is tedious, but once you give them some control after the randomness has happened, the game becomes a whole lot more interesting.

I hope that after reading this you’ll take a look at where the scarcities are in your own game and how your players get to handle these.

Further reading

For more on Voluntarios, read this post which uses Voluntarios as an example for strategy in board games, or this post in which I realized Voluntarios had too few interesting decisions.

And here is the original post on scarcity.

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.

Insights are scarce so 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, Guest post, Learning, Player Interaction, This blog

I wished I had board game design classes in school!
Why do I write this blog? To learn about board game design (it says so right in the sub title!). But also a little bit to inspire people to make more and better board games. So I was extremely happy when Matthew Bivens (you can mail him at: mtgreenb@yahoo.com) reached out to me saying that my posts had been a great help not just to him, but to the kids he’s teaching board game design as a summer school project! Not only that, he was kind enough to write down his experiences. So without further ado, let me give the word to Matthew:

This summer I approached my board game design unit as a series of projects that would be constructed over the entire six week period. Prior to the start of this time I had encountered the Make Them Play blog and found a post on Player Interaction that felt like a good
introduction to the game design process for my high school students. As summer school was in process another article on Player Experience came out from the same blog. These two articles became activities that I had for my students.

On the first week the students started with making some components with their initials and then reading the Player Interaction blog post as a part of another activity. In that activity they listened to an excerpt from the Building the Game podcast, where a Survival game was pitched. The reason for choosing this pitch was the use of a simple card game, 31, as the foundation for the Survival game. In the exercise the students explored three different forms of player interaction and then applied the concepts to create a modified version of a game played with a standard deck of cards.

I would like to spend more time with this exercise and include an opportunity for students to play card games prior to writing out multiple player interaction concepts for making card games into board games. Here I think that it would be good to hit on the concept of theme and discuss it in relation to the design principle of unity. Overall students did a good job at this task and those who didn’t were not in the class the day we did it or had issues with staying focused on assigned tasks and trouble completing homework.

Following the component design project the students created a modified version of Carcassone, where the tiles had unique icons to a unique set and the way that the game is played was manipulated by the addition of cards that change how many tiles you draw/place and the number of meeples used to claim an area. The students had not had the opportunity to play Carcassone, but were able to follow the video guide and make the components. There was an additional digital project on making a map based game similar to TransAmerica.

Today’s students: Tomorrow’s artists and board game designers!
As the second week came along I brought the ideas of the Player Experience blog post into an activity. In this activity the students took the ideas of the two blog posts and wrote out a paragraph to be placed onto a Player Experience Vision Board. Here they collected some images to show concepts related to the experience that they wanted to have and I think that this task needs to have some changes made. Use of graphic icons is an important part of the process, so I would like to have the students collect icons that relate to the experience and interaction of the game that they would like to design. In the version of the activity they were encouraged to find more illustrative images of the desired experience.

There were a few students who did not get the activity, but after a short discussion they were able to submit their concepts again. Moving forward all of the student vision boards were placed into a presentation and students read through each others, without knowing which board belonged to which student. They made choices in an online form on who they would like to work with based on vision boards and explained the choice. There could have been more done to match students up in groups based on these choices, but the time was limited and I allowed the students to choose who they wanted to work with.

Over the remainder of summer school we went through the process of board game design presentation, playing published games, creating prototypes, writing rules and play testing. There was a group vision statement that was the basis for the prototype/rules. In the last week of summer school student groups were demonstrating the board games they developed. I graded the categories of formal game elements, game mechanics, narrative/theme, player interaction and player experience. Attacking and taking resources were the two most popular forms of interaction, with trading and changing the board coming up too. Tension, victory and power were the dominant experiences that the students developed the games around, with the ideas of wonder and safety coming up in two different games.

Attacks being a solid form of actual interaction was an easy connection for students to make, so it saw some good results. Changing the board was the player interaction goal for one of the most unique games that was created. Trading wasn’t actually used much in the games that were claiming and players didn’t interact much. Where taking resources occurred it wasn’t much like the Euro Game style found in worker placement, but more along the lines of you got a card and you get these resources. Although we spent the most time with player interaction, it wasn’t as thought out as I would like to see that. I think that providing more examples and opportunities to explore player interaction will help out in the future.

Wonder was an interesting experience that one group of students aimed for by having a search for an item in a game where danger could be in the places that you looked or the path traveled to get there. The experiences that were most common lined up with the interactions of attacking and taking resources. A version of the victory experience was a game that had to do with keeping a secret and they had a unique way of determining how many spaces were revealed, but it seemed like it was more a game of tension. The way that the games made use of the experience wasn’t as well thought out as I would like. Again I think that it got off to a good start of trying this approach of introducing concepts through reading blog posts on the topics.

One of these might actually be quite handy for sketching out a quick prototype…
Going forward I feel that there is a need to focus on the dialog that students have about all the types of designs that they create and develop a good critical lexicon, so that they are able to apply it to their own designs. At the same time the engagement with games that the students make modifications of is something that I desire to bring in. I believe that by incorporating the game design process into the art classes that I teach there is a long term benefit that they students will receive. In bringing in the game design blog posts from Make Them Play and the clip from the podcast Building the Game, I believe that positive results came out of it.

It is tough to compare this summer school class to the class in the previous spring semester and the years before. In the years prior the class has only spent about a quarter of the year investigating the game design concepts, but my general feeling about the class from this summer is that there was a better result overall due to the longer time with the experience. I look forward to introducing this to the new group of students that I have started to work with and playing the games that they design.

Thank you Matthew! Again, I’m incredibly happy to see more people take up the noble art of board game design. And who knows, perhaps one of these students will some day create the next big sensation?

Perhaps you were also somehow inspired by one my posts or otherwise have something you feel would be interesting for this blog? If so, drop me a line on Twitter, in the comments below or by emailing to b.reinink@makethemplay.com

— Bastiaan

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Board game design

It’s time to go even deeper!
They say: “The best way to learn is to teach”. I never really believed this, but when learning about board game design I decided to give it a try. This blog is one of the results of that.

Last week I wrote a post about “depth”, what it means for a game to be deep and how to add depth to a game.

As a way to get some discussion going (and not to get readers! What kind of lowlife do you think I am?! 😉 ) I linked to that blog post in several forms of social media.

They also say: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!” This has also turned out to be more true than I was expecting, as some minor hell broke loose in discussions over what “depth” means exactly and how I could possibly think that adding complexity to a game could me it more deep (the audacity!).

Still, the second best way to learn is by listening (reading) carefully and perhaps going into discussion with your fellow scholars. If you’re interested I can direct you to some interesting (and lively!) discussion on depth and (sometimes) related matters:
On Reddit
On Facebook
On BoardGameGeek

For those of you who are not interested in reading a number of rambling discussions, let me do my best to express a few of the things I’ve learned through all of these jolly back-and-forths.

But before digging into that, I’d like to thank everybody who in some way contributed to all of these discussions. I’ve certainly learned a lot through them and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly!

Semantics – Or: Is what I see as red the same as what you call red?

As happens more often, a lot of the discussions resolved about “what does a word mean exactly, in the context of board-games”. We all have intuitions about what “depth” and “complexity” mean, but these meanings will be subtly (or largely!) different.

This holds true in the discussions, but also when reading elsewhere. There is no agreed upon meaning for many higher level terms (like depth).

The take away of this is that it’s important to be very clear in what you mean.

One way of doing that is by having good definitions – even if my definition is different from yours, when I write “depth”, this is what I mean.

But what I think is a better way of doing this, is showing why it’s important. I started out my post by writing that “depth” is one of the holy grails of game design. Why is that though? Depth itself doesn’t make a game better, it’s a means to an end. The same holds true for many other “abstract” terms.

I’ll get back to this one a bit below…

Depth – it goes deeper than you think

In my original post I ended up with a loose definition of a deep game as: “One that requires a large number of play-throughs to master” (I’m sure I used slightly different words).

Some other (loose and not so losse) definitions were offered. One that struck me as being on to something was: ”Depth is the number of emergent, experientially different possibilities or meaningful choices that come out of one ruleset”

I’m thinking about this deeply
I believe this indeed captures quite well what most people feel is depth, though it uses a lot of difficult words to do so (but perhaps that’s necessary as it’s a difficult concept?). “Experientially different possibilities or meaningful choices” to me means being provided with something new regularly. This doesn’t strictly mean that it takes many games to master, but it’s hard to imagine having a lot of “experientially different possibilities” and seeing through them in the first game. So I feel this relates quite well to what I tried to capture in my own loose definition.

The thing that I find difficult to place is the “emergent” part. For me the sentence would read exactly the same without that word in. The difference that is being made is perhaps one of “elegance”? If I create a game which has many experientially different possibilities and I do so by having many rules and components, do I have a less deep game than one that does exactly the same but with fewer rules and components?

My personal feeling is that the second game would certainly be simpler, more elegant (to again use a difficult, abstract term that I’m not going to bother defining) and better even, but I don’t feel that the game would be more deep

Digging a hole – or: How to create depth – Again

In the original post I suggested that depth can be created. Some people argued that this was not the case, that depth has to be in the core of the game.

I certainly agree that it’s easier to bake it into the foundation of your game, instead of adding it afterwards. Still, that depth needs to be put into the game in some way; the designer is going to have to create it. And for that you’re going to need tools, of which I suggested a few in the original post. All of which (I there said) involved adding complexity.

Which sparked probably the largest number of comments…

It’s not as complex as you think – It’s worse than that!

Let’s say your goal is to create a game that takes many games to master and / or has a large number of experientially different possibilities to bestow upon the player (I’m leaving the “emergent” bit off for now).

This means that the game needs to throw out “new stuff” (new experientially different possibilities / something new to learn) with some regularity.

That new stuff has to come from somewhere. It has to be generated by the game. Which means that the designer has to somehow create something that does this.

I called this “complexity”. After thinking about it further I believe this was not the best choice of words. My premise was basically that adding anything to a game would make it harder to master (and would give more experientially different possibilities), simply because there was more of it. At a very basic level this isn’t wrong: Simply adding more stuff does make it harder to master and it means that there is more complexity. But it’s not the complexity itself that makes the game harder to master, it’s the additional stuff. There is correlation but not causation. Or better to say, both the complexity and the “depth” are caused by a third factor: Adding stuff.

There is a far more important point to be made though: Adding random stuff is a stupid way of making a game harder to master (creating more experientially different possibilities).

The previous post did go into that a bit, saying that some ways of adding complexity (adding stuff) were better than others, but it did not do a particularly good job of driving that point home.

Why bother with depth anyway?

What are we trying to hit anyway?
At the top of this post I made a remark about looking at the reasons for digging into abstract terms, as the term itself is generally not the end-goal.

So what is the end-goal of depth in board games?

Or even better, what is the end-goal of board games in general?

While different people will play games for different reasons, they all get something out of it. Joy, fun, call it what you will.

Thus, the “goal” of a board game is to create fun.

And most board games do quite a decent job of this; I have never walked away halfway through trying a game for the first time (though I’ve walked away halfway through setting one up – but that’s another story…). A game has to be pretty bad if you don’t get some joy out of it the first time you play it.

However… Games aren’t played just a single time. The best games you play over and over again, until the cards are torn, half the components are missing and the box is more tape than cardboard.

This is where I believe that depth comes in: To increase the replayability of a game.

Of novelty and replayability

Human beings are novelty seekers and learning machines. We want something new and cool, not something old and boring. This means that games have to cater to this (or be so good that we’re happy to fork over our hard-earned money for only a single hit; T.I.M.E. Stories anyone?). They need to present many experientially different possibilities and many learning experiences, lest we cast them aside for something more shiny and fresh.

And as long as they do keep providing us with fresh stuff to try, more things to wrap our brains around, we’ll happily keep coming back.

So is “depth” the only way to create replayability?

Well, perhaps…

Imagine a game where you’re not learning anything more, would you continue playing it? Or one where you’ve seen every possible combination of components and rules it can theoretically generate?

Some people are happy to play something for the joy of spending time with friends, or the pleasure of thrashing their siblings. But this requires something that in essence is external to the game; I don’t feel comfortable as a designer to pack my game with a bunch of friends and a sibling or two…

So no, depth is not the end-all of replayability. But it’s close to it in terms of what you as a designer can influence.

A step back: Looking at emergence

What might emerge from this?
In the previous paragraphs I worked with a part of the definition of depth as giving in the discussions mentioned. The thing I left out was “emergence”.

This also relates to a remark I made above: That it’s stupid to create depth by adding random stuff.

Yes, you’ll need to create depth. But there are better and worse ways of doing it. Having a boat-load of components makes it possible to have many different experientially different possibilities. But it makes for a very expensive game. Having a ton of rules can mean that there is a lot to master, but it would take considerable effort before you could even play your first round.

Thus, it’s more elegant to achieve the same, but with less stuff (rules, components).

What you want is a generator of experientially different possibilities. What you want is emergence.

Creating emergence

So how do you create emergence? How do get to a generator of novelty?

Here I’ll happily refer back to my previous post as well. There I wrote that the best way of introducing complexity was through interactions, between game pieces and between players.

Throw away the bit about complexity and what you get is that the best way of introducing depth is through these interactions.

The circle is complete

As designers we would like our games to be played many many times. For this we need some way of keeping our players coming back for more, with experientially different possibilities / further levels of the game to master.

That means the game needs to present novel situations with some regularity. We can “hard code” these in, through a plethora of rules and components, but a much more elegant way is by having them emerge naturally, from the interaction between the different game pieces and the players.

Closing thoughts

I’m very happy with the many many reactions I got on my previous post. As mentioned I learned a lot from them and I had a great time discussing things further. It’s a shame that at some point things got so deep that I was unable to respond to everything.

I’ve picked out a few things that came up during the discussions on social media in this post, though there is many more nuggets of wisdom hidden in there. If you have the time, go through all that was said (links at the top of this article) and form your own opinion!

The discussions mentioned have helped me to understand even better what “depth” does and does not mean. More importantly, it made me realize why we want depth – to increase replayability. That in turn made it much more clear what we were talking about.

In a sense, “depth” is a difficult way of saying “replayability created in an elegant way”.

Now I’m sure that some people will feel that this definition isn’t quite right. I welcome the further discussion and learnings that that is going to bring! 🙂

As mentioned, it’s not that hard to create replayability: Just add more stuff! But, done that way the price may very well not be worth it. The “elegance” is a requirement to keep the game within proportions.

And that brings us back to the beginning of the previous post: “Depth is one of the holy grails of board game design”!

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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Board game design

One of the “holy grails” of board game design is depth.

Most players and designers have an intuition what this means, but it remains somewhat of a nebulous concept; I’ve never found a definition that I felt was complete. I don’t think I can give one, but I’m very happy to take you along in my thought process.

A first take at depth – Replayability?

Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes!
What is depth? Chess has it, Tic-tac-toe does not. It has something to do with replayability and how much a game makes your brain work. But that’s still very vague… And while I’d be able to rank any given game I’ve played on the more-or-less-deep-scale, I wouldn’t be able to say what makes a game deep.

The first thing that comes up is “replayability”. A game has to be replayable many times to be deep.

For me Puerto Rico and Agricola are “deep” games. I’ve played these games many times and I still feel I haven’t entirely gotten to the bottom of them. They make your brain work and they are heavily replayable. So far, so good.

I’ve also played a lot games of 6 Nimmt! and Citadels. Both of which I feel are not particularly deep. They’ve got replayability but the cerebral element is less than for the other games? Hm…

A second take at depth – Strategy?

In Puerto Rico there are different high-level strategies you can take (e.g. go for lots of money, or deliver lots of cheap goods). There is strong interaction with other players as it makes a big difference who takes what role, making the game tactical. Thus, both strategy and tactics play a big role in Puerto Rico.

In 6 Nimmt! on the other hand it’s almost impossible to form any longer-term strategy; instead you’re trying to find the single best card that works with what is currently on the table.

So is the difference that there are “strategical” choices?

I’m sure that this helps but I don’t think it’s the core of depth. But what then is?

See this post for more on strategy in board games.

A third look at depth – Learning curve?

In 6Nimmt you play a single round and you understand the game. And after having finished an entire game, you’re almost as good at it as someone who has played tens of games.

In Puerto Rico however there is a huge difference between the first and the second game. And the second and the tenth. And the tenth and the hundredth. In Puerto Rico (or Agricola) there are a lot of subtleties that only become apparent after playing the game many many times. Even after the 20th game I’m discovering new things, new elements to combine, different strategies to try out.

This then is where I believe the core of “depth” lies: How much is there to learn about the game? How many plays does it take until you “understand” it?

Note that this is something else than having a game that is difficult to learn. I’ll grant that Agricola and Puerto Rico aren’t easy to learn: There are many game components and a lot of rules you need to remember. But it is possible to have a deep game without having to memorize twenty pages of rules: Chess has relatively simple rules (you could fit them on a single sheet of paper), but it takes years and years of practice to become good at it.

The dark and light sides of depth

Depth certainly has it’s downsides…
So is depth always a good thing?

I’d say no. In fact, for most players, depth is a downside to a board game!

Most people are very happy to have a game where they can learn the rules and then play at a “competitive” level. With a deep game however, a beginner is going to lose to someone intermediate while someone intermediate is going to lose to an expert. And it takes a somewhat perverse mind to continue playing-and-losing to get to a level where you can beat your friend who has 10 games more experience.

These people want a game of 6Nimmt or Ticket to Ride, where they can step in and have something of a chance of winning.

For a certain kind of person however (e.g. me!), depth is a good thing. Yes, losing sucks and winning is good, but the element of learning a new game, of getting better can be just as amazing!

Depth also adds to replayability. If you can continue to get better, there is a reason to come back to a game again and again. In fact, the reason to stop playing a given game for me is usually when I feel I’ve “solved” it, when there is nothing left to learn.

Digging a hole (or: How to create depth)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

We have some notion of what depth entails, but a much more important question then is: How do you add it to your board game?

The short answer: Add complexity!

Depth is a measure of how much there is to “learn” or “discover” in a game. Thus, to add depth, you need to add things that players need to learn. This comes down to adding complexity to the game, as each bit of complexity creates something that players need to unravel before they “get” the game.

Now you might say: ”Isn’t complexity bad?”

Well, yes and no. Unnecessary complexity is bad. Complexity for its own sake is bad. But every game needs a certain level of complexity. Think of it this way: If there was no complexity, you’d have the equivalent of Tic-tac-toe. And nobody wants to play that!

Still, there is better and worse ways of adding complexity to get to depth. Let’s go from bad to better.

The rules lawyer

The absolute worst way to try to add depth is by adding rules (for the sake of adding rules). Yes, your complexity will increase (significantly!) but your depth will only increase marginally.

This is because rules add “up-front” complexity, in that you need to cram more into your head before you can start playing. This means there isn’t actually that much more to discover whilst you’re playing.

Components are king

A second way of adding depth is by having more components. The easiest way to look at this is when you have a deck of cards and you add another card to it. Players will need to “discover” that card, what it does and how it works with the rest of the game.

However, most likely that card will work more-or-less the same as the other cards that are already in the deck and thus the majority of the “learning” is already done when players know the other cards. Unless of course that card is so radically different that it completely changes the game. Unfortunately, that would completely change the game

Still, this is a decent way of adding depth, as it is simple enough to do.

Dancing with lady luck

He’s a lucky man to be dancing with her
A game can be made deeper by adding randomness to it.

Randomness means that it takes a number of games before all possible combinations have been explored. If card A and component B work really well together, but you only get them together in game 3 then you’ll be discovering something new in game 3!

Likewise, randomness distorts information on how well a strategy works; perhaps you have a new strategy that you think is good, but you get screwed by the dice. You then have to play again (with the same strategy) to figure out that it really was the dice and not your strategy that was at fault. In other words: It takes more games to discover exactly how good certain choices are because the information is obscured.

See this post for more on randomness in board games.

Inter-action

The best way of increasing depth is by adding interactions to your game.

There are two types of interaction that are relevant here, both of which are great for adding depth to a game: Interaction between game elements and interaction between players.

Interaction between game elements

Consider Chess.

Chess has relatively simple rules, but it’s an extremely deep game. That’s because there is an incredible amount of interaction possible between the game pieces and the board: Any piece can move to any space on the board (with some minor exceptions) and any piece can interact with any of the opponent’s pieces. That means that at any given time there is a staggering amount of moves that is possible. Learning which of those is “the best” (or in my case: “adequate”) takes many many games and thus creates a very deep game.

Compare this to 6Nimmt, where during a turn for each piece (card) only 1 choice needs to be made: Play it or keep it in hand. There is very limited interaction between game elements and thus the game remains shallow.

Interaction between players

Don’t let the surface distract you from what lies underneath
On the surface Poker is a pretty boring game. You get some cards, others are opened and you look at who can create the best hand between what they have and what’s on the table. Except for some betting you can’t even make any choices!

Still Poker is a much beloved game, not because the mechanics are so interesting, but because of the player interactions. The game is all about reading your opponent and trying to outsmart them.

Player interactions create a lot of depth, because human beings are so much more complex than any board game can ever be on its own.

In a sense the reasoning here is the same as for randomness: There is uncertainty on whether a strategy or choice worked because it was good or because your opponent played poorly. This means you need to try out your strategy multiple times, against multiple opponents if possible. You need to learn whether it really is your choices or just dumb luck.

And there is another layer to this: Even if the game stays the same, opponents can change. Either because you’re playing a different one, or because the old one picked up a new trick or two. And so games with heavy player interaction can stay interesting even though mechanically you know them better than the back of your own hand.

Interaction (whether player or game element) needs to come from the rules and the components; while I wrote that adding rules or components for their own sake won’t help much, designing them specifically for interaction can significantly increase the depth of your game.

In this post I go further into player interaction in board games.

Closing thoughts

Depth is the holy grail of many board game designers. But, as anything in life, there are benefits but also costs to it. Costs are increased complexity for your players (harder to learn, harder to master), but also for you as a designer: Depth is complex to create! Think carefully whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

If you do chose to try to make something deep, I hope that the suggestions above will help you in your creative endeavors. If so, I’d love to hear all about it!

Having written the last part about player interactions I understand a bit better why I always feel that many Euro games are “missing something”. They need to get their depth from mechanical interaction and / or lots of components (Agricola, I’m looking at you!). A combination of mechanical and player interaction would be a much more “elegant” solution. And while I understand the desire for games not to have players go head-to-head (Risk-style), there are many different ways of interacting that are not necessarily antagonistic (even if they don’t need to be fully beneficial to the other players either).

The basis for Voluntarios, the game I’m working on, is to have lots of (semi-positive) interaction between players. Perhaps it would be also good to think about (further) interaction between game elements?

I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out…

Further reading

This post has more on the joys of learning a board game.

Here are 7 forms of player interaction that you can incorporate in your board game.

About the author

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

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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

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