Board game design, Immersion

Next stop: Mars!
Recently I played a game of “Terraforming Mars”. Being the huge nerd I am, I immensely enjoyed the game (whilst at the same time griping wholeheartedly about some of the components).

One of the most enjoyable moments came when I got a “Huge ice asteroid” card. It was expensive (in terms of in-game resources) and the game effect were pretty nifty. But that’s not what makes it a moment to remember.

In real life all I did was move some tokens from one place to another, take a card from my hand, showed it to everybody and placed it in front of me.

In my mind however I crashed a huge friggin’ asteroid on the face of another planet!!!

I was picturing gigatonnes of frozen water, hurtling down through an almost-non-existent (but slowly thickening!) atmosphere, delivering desperately needed water and heat to a barren planet.

Moving a card from my hand to the table and kissing a foreign planet with an asteroid. Could anything be more different than these two things? And yet, they did come together, in this particular game of Terraforming Mars.

A mind in two places

Games are played in two places at the same time.

On the board we shift around tokens, move our meeples, play cards. There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot do.

At the same time we’re playing in our minds, where we’re feeding our family, erecting monuments to the gods or sending asteroids to impact the face of a planet humanity hasn’t even been to yet. Here there aren’t any rules: You can do whatever it is that you like!

The first part (what happens on the board) are the mechanics and the rules. The second contains the “theme” of the game. But I believe it contains much more than just that.

The mechanistic approach

Make sure to get your mechanics right!
A game exists first and foremost because of its mechanics. Chess and Go, two of the most venerated games in history have next to no theme to them. If the mechanics are interesting enough, people will happily forget about the (lack of) theme and immersion.

I’ve played many a great game of Dominion and only when thinking about it afterwards does it seem weird that something like a village would come up at random moments instead of, you know, just being there! But the game is fun, the mechanics work and it’s a staple for introducing people to “the next level” of board games.

It even has its own moments of awesome, where you’re chaining card upon card and end up buying two provinces in the same turn. These are of a “mechanistic” awesomeness: You got to do something that made a big difference in game (what I called “Impact” in this post).

Feeding the mind

Most games I’ve played do not have hurtling-huge-balls-of-dirty-ice-into-the-face-of-Earth’s-neighbor-moments (or something of similar awesomeness). Mostly I’m too engrossed in finding the optimal move to pay much attention to what I’m doing “thematically”.

Which is a shame, because when these moments do happen, they tend to make the game so much better!

They transform an abstract optimization problem into something that feels real. They change a tough but engaging puzzle into something that, even if just for a moment, actually matters.

How to engage the imagination

For me the feeling of being transported away from the mechanics and into the theme has been in games of T.I.M.E. Stories, Netrunner, Dead of Winter, Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars.

So what do these games have in common? I think there are a number of elements.

Simulating life

This looks like a good life to simulate!
The games mentioned above all try to “simulate life” as closely as possible. They’ve taken a setting and players can do anything and everything that “makes sense” within that setting. And they’ve made it such that the way players do what they want to do also makes sense.

In Terraforming Mars you play a huge corporation that expends millions upon millions of Euros to re-arrange the solar system. Humanity can’t do this yet, but once we can this would be a way of doing it.

In Robinson Crusoe players use the limited time they have in a day to improve their lives on a deserted island, whilst trying to stave off one (small) disaster after another. It makes sense to consider whether it’s worth it to go hungry for a day if it means you can finish that shelter which will be useful for many nights to come.

It means that any action the player takes can be directly translated into real life and that there is as little as possible to clash with our view of reality. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be abstraction (please don’t try to simulate everything; I’m very happy that my pawns don’t need to use the toilet in-game…) but it does mean that you need to reach a reasonable amount of verisimilitude.

In Robinson Crusoe you are simulating a number of days and need to feed your characters at the beginning of the night phase. In Netrunner however time is far less important so there is no need to “feed” your character. Both work perfectly well in their respective settings.

Realistic “characters”

In each of the games mentioned above you’re playing a realistic “character”. For most games this is a human being though in the case of Terraforming Mars a big corporation also does the trick.

These “characters” (I’ll leave off the quotation marks after this) are (somewhat) fleshed out: I’m this character and not that one. Characters are unique, in that they have individual abilities and a unique representation. Here a picture says more than a thousand words and makes characters much more relatable.

Having a fleshed out character makes a wonderful form of dissociation possible, where a player becomes the character. Once this happens it is much easier to stay in the “game world”, translating mechanics into the working of real life and player actions into character actions. No longer am I moving a pawn, no, I am moving myself!

Note that there doesn’t have to be a 1-to-1 match between a player and their character. In Dead of Winter you’re a group of (individual, fleshed-out) people instead of a single person. In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re a (generic) temporal agent who inhabits an (individual, fleshed-out) person. There is something of a remove, but this still works.

You’ve got to keep ‘em motivated!

I feel very motivated to play a game now!
There is one part of “realistic characters” that I want to address separately: Motivation. Many game don’t really explain “why” you (your character) wants to do something. In Agricola I guess it’s sortof a good idea to have a bigger farm, but does it really matter whether it’s bigger than the neighbor’s (or that I have at least one of each type of animal)?

In the games mentioned however it’s clear why you’re doing what you do. In Netrunner the corporation wants to advance its agenda’s because that’s what corporations do. For the runner this is even better because the different characters actually have different motivations (ranging from hard profit to “because they can”). In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re solving the mystery because your boss ordered you, while in Robinson Crusoe it’s a fight for survival.

Motivations don’t have to be particularly strong, as long as they beat “that’s how the game is played”. This is because the character is not playing the game, it’s the player that’s playing. And if the character is doing something that doesn’t make sense for them to do in the real world, it’s very hard for the player to suspend disbelief and get in the skin of the character.

The cost of immersion

Games exist in a spectrum from pure abstract to “as life-like as possible”. The more you get to the latter, the easier it is to create immersion and memorable moments.

This comes at a cost though. Life-like means simulating enough of “real life” to make it believable and that can mean that you have to leave things out of your game because they don’t mesh with reality. Likewise, it can mean you have to put things in that aren’t good for play but make the illusion more believable.

This is a choice or a balance if you will. There are games that get played a lot even though they’re only half a step away from pure abstracts (Dominion anyone?). Some player prefer tight gameplay over having a story afterwards (or during the game). And neither is better than the other (just different!).

Closing thoughts

I’ve never hacked a megacorporation’s protected server, I have never been stranded on a deserted island, I’ve never thrown an asteroid onto the surface of a planet.

Except that I have, through playing awesome board games!

For me these kinds of games rise above other games which are “merely” innovative, perfectly balanced and tightly designed. As such I hope to one day be able to design something that reaches these heights as well.

Maybe the same holds true for you? If so, I hope that this post was of use for you!

And if maybe you know of other games that engender this sense of immersion, do let me know because I would love to play them!

Further reading

If you want to know more about this subject, maybe these posts are also of interest to you:

Storytelling for better board games, as story-telling is an important part of creating immersion.

Creating tension in board games, as immersion can help to increase tension and the other way around

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!

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

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

Board game design

Differentiating between a d6 and a d10 is definitely an important skill, but not exactly what I’m talking about…
I feel that I have quite a broad knowledge of the world, but I’m horrible at “small facts”. As such, Trivial Pursuit is not my game! Give me a heavy Euro on the other hand and I’m as happy as a child!

Players want to be challenged when playing a board game. This means doing something they have a chance to win, but that victory is far from guaranteed! As such they need to have the skills to compete; my skillset is for Euro games and not for Trivial Pursuit. Other people however will have a completely different skillset from me. This means that different gamers will enjoy different games, based on whether they have a decent ability of competing using the skills that the game requires.

So what are these skills? Aren’t they the same for all games?

Most certainly not!

In this post I want to go through a number of common skills / abilities that come up in board games. This can be used to recognize which skills are required for your game and to strengthen those aspects. Alternatively, when starting a new project, you can choose what abilities you want to create your challenges around.

I also hope to show that there are many more skills that you could incorporate than what most designers generally consider.

A useful skill

Not all games are designed primarily to be won. For example, a lot of “party games” are mostly designed to let the players have a good time. These games generally still can be won though (even if that winning is less important).

In this post I won’t focus on skills that will make a game more interesting or fun, only on those that help you get to the number 1 position.

1) Dexterity

Dexterity games involve the manipulation of physical object. Jenga is probably the most famous example, where you’re drawing blocks from a tower that gets closer and closer to collapsing.

Most dexterity games are “party” games – simple but highly entertaining.

That is not to say that “serious” games can’t use dexterity components. There are flavors of role playing games where with every action the players attempt, they have to remove a block from a Jenga tower; as long as the tower remains standing their characters achieve what they set out to do. But once the tower comes crashing down, the characters fail, spectacularly!

Dexterity as a skill gives very quick feedback: You know when you succeeded or not. The physicality of it is also something that appeals to players – it has that in common with rolling dice. This also makes it more interesting to watch, either as a bystander or as one of the other players; it’s much easier to see someone do something in the real world, than to imagine what they are trying to accomplish by pushing tokens around.

This seems like it would be cheating…

2) Memory

Memory comes into play when your players have to remember something. This can be the core of the game (such as the game Memory), or something that simply helps when playing (remembering how many victory points other players got in Puerto Rico). It can also be part of a larger skill such as “system analysis” as explained below, where many different game states need to be remembered after having analyzed them.

Like dexterity, many people feel that “memory” should not be a skill that is asked for in “serious” games.

3) Assessing probabilities

A lot of games use randomness, be it in the form of dice, cards or something else. This means that it’s usually possible to get an idea of whether an action is more likely to succeed or to fail. Yahtzee is a prime example of this, but it also holds for Catan.

Assessing what the probability of any given outcome is then becomes a valuable skill.

4) Mathematics

Some games require players to do (fairly) complicated sums in their mind. This can be to add up final scores, to assess probabilities (see above) or to simply see what the potential outcome of a move is.

Most people are not particular fond of “hard core mathematics” and so the common suggestion is to keep it to a minimum. However, it is certainly possible to design more niche games that do make use of this skill

This certainly would take a bit of analysis…

5) ”Systems analysis”

Board games have many components and elements, all of which can potentially influence each other. This creates a complex “system”, which obscures what the “best” move is (and thus keeping decisions interesting. See this post for more on interesting decisions in board games).

Systems analysis then is being able to untangle this system, to see through many steps of elements influencing each other.

System analysis can be improved for a single game (system), by simply playing it a lot. By doing this players build up intuition about how elements influence each other or which pieces are more important than others when trying to achieve a certain goal. Alternatively, players can try to analyze a game (system) without having played it (much), based solely on the rules and components. This is much harder to do as it revolves much more around logic and actually working things out in the mind.

System analysis is the core skill to play many Euro games.

6) Bluffing / Reading other players

Social deduction games let players take on a hidden role, which will have objectives that differ from the other role. The gist of the game then is to try to find out which roles the other players have, whilst keeping your own a secret. This requires bluffing as well as being able to read other players.

Other games will have some of this as well, where seasoned players will try to “crawl in their opponents’ heads” to try to predict what they will do on their next turn.

As human beings are infinitely more complex than any game can ever be on its own, this is a very good way of adding depth and interesting decisions to your game.

Special notice should be given to Poker. In the basis the core skill to play Poker is “assessing probabilities”. However, because Poker is played so much (and for so much money!), people long ago figured out how the probabilities work exactly. This then brings the game to a higher level, where the probabilities are just about irrelevant (as everybody knows them) and the bluffing / reading takes center stage.

Maybe I’ll finally win a game of trivial pursuit…

7) Knowledge

Trivial Pursuit is about “who knows most about obscure stuff”. There is a bit of randomness, but it hardly matters to the game.

In a sense knowledge is also about memory, except that here it is “memory of things that happened completely externally to the game”.

This is a post about “skills”, but knowledge is not really a skill as such, in that it cannot be trained within the game. If you assess probabilities enough you get better at them. If you do enough dexterity games you get a steadier hand. But playing knowledge games only increases your “skill” in an unintended way, namely by memorizing tidbits that have come up in previous games. To really get better at “knowledge”, you have to go out in the real world and gather it.

8) Storytelling

In Once Upon a Time players vie for the opportunity to continue with a mutual story so that they can play their cards.

Storytelling revolves around creativity and sometimes to ability to improvise. These are not skills that everybody has, or is comfortable showing off.

The best board games do create a story. In this sense the players are not “storytelling”, but they are helping to bring out a story. Bringing this story more to the forefront can help players to imagine what the game is a simulation of.

9) Humor

In Cards Against Humanity a rotating judge determines which player made the “best” completion of a sentence. This doesn’t strictly need to be humorous, but generally making something funny does help in scoring points.

Cards Against Humanity works because it’s hard not to make something funny once and awhile (even if a lot of other sentences really are just awful). A more free-form type of producing humor would run into the same problems as storytelling, in that not everybody has the ability to produce humor on-demand.

I think it’s a dragon!

10) Drawing

While not strictly a board game, Pictionary asks players to make drawings which other players will guess. Leaning more towards dexterity, Captain Sonar requires players to draw within certain lines before they can take any further actions.

Drawing in games is usually used to convey some sort of information

11) Logical thinking

Logical thinking comes to the fore when trying to understand how a game works. It is one of the sub-skills for systems analysis (see above).

Most games also unintentionally require logic skills, as there are bound to come up situations in play that are not adequately covered by the rules / rulebook. In this case logic can help to make sense of what to do.

12) Spatial reasoning

Carcasonne gives tiles to players that they need to fit into an ever expanding “map”. Being able to quickly see where a given tile will fit then allows a player to (mentally) try out many options and thus find the best location.

Spatial reasoning comes to the fore when the location of something relative to other things is important. This can be in two dimensions (as in Carcassone) but also in three (no example comes to mind as I tend to shy away from those games. But they exist!).

Probably to most famous example of this is Chess, where location of the different pieces and their position relative to other pieces is of paramount importance.

Closing thoughts

When coming up with this list I “discovered” quite a few skills that I had never thought of as being part of board games. I feel my horizon has broadened and I hope I was able to help you do a bit of the same. I’ll certainly consider incorporating other skills than my standard of “systems analysis”.

How about you? Are there any skills that you never really thought about but that you would be interested in incorporating in a (future) game?

This post also made me realize that there are many different types of “players” out there. It’s impossible to have them all love your game, but by incorporating different skills that are required, it would be possible to speak to a larger group of people.

More importantly, this can mean that very different types of people can compete. Not so good at assessing probabilities, you can ace the drawing aspect. Bad memory? See if your spatial reasoning is still enough to beat your opponent.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!

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

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

Board game design

Make the right impact and the results will ripple through the rest of the game
When playing a board game you’re trying to optimize your actions so as to increase your chances of winning. With each move you want to have an impact on the game, to swing it your way.

This means that as a designer you want your players to have the means to impact the game. That sounds obvious when written down like that, but what exactly does it mean to have an impact? And is more better?

Let’s try to shed some light…

What is impact?

During play, players make moves. The game is different before and after making that move: Suddenly a pawn is a few spaces further, there is a village token that wasn’t there before, or another player is suddenly down three armies. Each of these moves impacts the game.

Thus, one way of looking at impact is that it changes the current state of the game. There are different pieces on the board, players gained and lost resources and abilities.

There are however more ways in which the state of the game can change. Specifically, the game can change its own state: At the end of a round there is the cleanup, in which empty resource spaces get refilled, every player receives a coin or the deck of cards is shuffled. None of this is a choice made by the players (even though they are instrumental in carrying out the physical actions).

So perhaps it’s better to speak of player impact (after all, the rest is boring book-keeping).

But what if right before I open up my tenth victory point card in Catan, I give away all my wood, sheep and other resources in my hand. I’ve significantly altered the state of the game. But it’s meaningless, because nobody is getting a chance to actually use those resources as my next action is winning (and thus ending) the game (read this post on the temporariness of resources in board games). Thus, an action also has to be meaningful to have impact.

So, when speaking of making an impact, what I mean is a player action that changes the state of the game in a meaningful way.

Maximizing impact

An impact was made here…
As mentioned, players will try to maximize the impact of their moves (in such a way as to make their own chances of winning greater).

Making a high-impact move (or turn) is awesome! The turn where you build two village and a city in Catan, where you cycle through your entire deck to buy two provinces in Dominion, or you grab the last oven in front of the next player in Agricola, make profound changes to the game. They can be a big boon (as in, get you quite a bit closer to winning) when pulled off right.

This is also what players will talk about afterwards: The moment the game changed, that one turn where the underdog became a serious contender again. Such charged moments will make a game unforgettable and players will come back to recreate something equally amazing. Certainly something to include in your game!

Building up the impact

To allow for high-impact moves there has to be variation in the amount of impact different options can have; if everything is game-changing, then in the end nothing is!

One way is simply by randomly distributing elements that have a stronger or weaker impact on the game. Having a card that deals 10 damage will obviously have a bigger impact than a card that deals 1 damage. This can be frustrating though, as then the impact you can have on the game is determined purely by chance (see this post for more on luck and randomness in board games).

Much more satisfying is to be able to “build” towards your high-impact moment: Spending several turns in gathering the required resources before finally letting loose your big guns. This has several advantages, as discussed below.

First, it makes this a player choice: Go for that big splash or do something else entirely, retaining player agency.

Second, this creates opportunities for different strategies: Go for the small wins every turn, or forego all of those and hope that you can make a big splash some time further in the future. (See this post for more on general strategies in board games).

Third, this way the big boom can be made fair. A player has to sacrifice several turns / resources in getting to their final outcome. When the game is balanced well, this should be similar in power to other strategies.

Finally, there is much more anticipation and thus fun in steadily working towards something instead of having it delivered ready-to-go. The game is paced, having a calm buildup phase, before there is the sudden explosion (see this post for more on pacing in board games).

This is of course not to say that randomness cannot play a part of the buildup. But it should be exactly that: Part of it and not the main dish.

Making (an) impact

So how do you include high-impact events in your game? I see a number of options:

Engine building

I got more resources, let’s add another cylinder!
An engine is a combination of resources that produce more (of the same) resources. This allows for a continuous “scaling up” of production and thus an ever increasing impact.

Building an engine can be very satisfying as there is a good sense of progress. I do believe it misses something where it comes to the ”Wow-this-is-awesome!” feeling: There is never a moment when it is finished, when you reap the full rewards. An engine can always be built out further, made bigger and stronger. And thus there is never a single “this-is-it!” moment.


A combo is an engine where randomness determines whether you will have all the required elements. Dominion is a good example of this, where certain combinations of cards are very strong, but you have to get those cards in your hand at the same time to get started.

Combos do have the “Wow!” factor as they are never fully expected and every time you’re able to “go off” is a high excitement moment.

The burn

The burn (yes, that’s a made-up term…) is where you gather a large amount of resources and then “burn” through them to get your high-impact effect.

In principle this isn’t different from any action where you use some resources to achieve an effect. The difference is the amount of resources required and the size of impact it has on the game.

You can have specific effects that require a large amount of resources, but the ”Wow”-effect happens whenever someone is able to expend a large amount of resources (in a meaningful way): Building two villages and a city on the same turn in Catan is a pretty sweet to do even though you’re “only” doing more of what you’re always doing!

The grab

For something to have impact it doesn’t need to change the state of the game significantly for everybody; as long as at least one player feels it, a move has impact.

This can be by grabbing resources that another players really wants or in some other way denying them what they want. A good example of this is the “assassin” ability in Citadels, where you get to name a character and the player who took that character has to skip their turn.

The essence here is that some resource has to be scarce to begin with and you’re ensuring that a player cannot (immediately) get that resource (see this post for more on scarcity in board games).

Beware of this method, as it generally involves something negative for other players and not everybody likes their games to be aggressive. On the other hand, grabbing resources before someone else can is the bread-and-butter of your average passive-aggressive Euro game (Agricola, I’m looking at you!).

Final thoughts

The best games get talked about afterwards: ”Remember that one time when…” To get to level with your game you’ll have to give your players the ability to create moments that are worth talking about: High impact events.

I hope that in this post I was able to shed some light on the idea of impact, what it entails and how you can incorporate it in your game.

Having said that, not all games need to go from low to high and back again; see this as a tool, to be used when useful, and only then.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know what the impact of this post was on you in the comments below or on Twitter?!

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

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

Board game design


That’s quite a vision!
What kind of game are you creating?

”A game about zombies where…”
“Not what I meant.”
“A deck builder with…”
“No, also not it.”
“Well, what DO you mean then?”

When people ask about a game the two simplest answers are to talk about the theme and the mechanic. And while these are very important to a game, they’re not the core of the game.

From board to mind

When you play a board game, you’re pushing bits of cardboard, plastic and wood around. You move a card from a deck to your hand or you’re scattering dice over the table (in this post I write about the intricacies of moving playing pieces). And physically, this really is all you’re doing…

When written down like that it doesn’t feel particularly appealing, does it? Luckily there is a bit more to board games than just moving things around.

When we play a game, we send workers to a quarry (move our pawn to a space on the board) to carve out pieces of stone (little wooden cubes) to later use in constructing a majestuous monument (to play a card). The playing pieces and our actions are metaphors for something that could happen in real life (see this post for more on metaphors in board game design).

This then allows us to experience something we wouldn’t be able to in real life; I’ve never built a trading empire, conquered the world, raised monuments to the gods or utterly crushed my sworn enemies. But playing board games has allowed me to come awfully close!

It’s all about the experience

Such an amazing experience!
Board games allow the players to have experiences they wouldn’t be able to in real life. So what kind of experiences do you, as a designer, want them to have?

This is a personal question, one that every game designer should answer for themselves.

Still, I think that at a high level there are a number of experiences that board games are very good at conveying:

  • Power: In real life we tend to be relatively powerless (the boss says write that report and you write the report). In board games however we can vanquish our enemies, built world spanning civilizations and challenge the gods themselves. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon!
  • Wonder: Never have I lived on an uninhabited island, except through a board game. Traveling through time only works in books, movies and games. Board games don’t need to conform to human (or even natural) laws and so they can be used to create truly unique experiences.
  • Safety: A real-life adventure actually sucks. Being chased by a dragon is terrifying – and with good reason: You probably won’t survive. A board game however lets you experience the thrill without actually risking your life.
  • Victory: Board games end, and when they do there is a clear winner. Real life ends, but when it does you’ve neither won nor lost. The clarity and simplicity, it’s either black or white, can be highly refreshing.
  • Tension: Humans are monkeys at heart and as such we’re curious beyond belief: What will happen next? A well designed game can dish out surprise after surprise, keeping us at the edge of our seat with anticipation. (See this post for more on tension in board games).
  • Cooperation: Most games are played with others. And through this we can socialize, but more importantly, we can work together on something greater than what we could achieve on our own. This works best for cooperative games of course, but many player-versus-player games actually allow for quite some cooperation (trading in Catan, ganging up together in Risk).

I’m sure that if you give it a bit of time, you can think of many more experiences that your board game can bring your players.

A vision of your experience

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
The previous paragraph gave a number of high-level experiences that board games can bring. So how do you go about selecting what it is you want your board-game to bring? There are three questions you can ask about your game-to-be.

What do you want your players to do. “I want a game where players can build structures that reach into space”, or “I want players to want to give away their resources to other players” (the last was actually my thought for “Voluntarios”, the game I’m designing). Note that this may be closely linked to mechanics, but it certainly doesn’t need to be.

Or you can answer what, when and where they will be. “I want a game set on one of the moons of Jupiter” or “players should be primordial life-forms”. This is strongly related to the theme of the game.

Finally, you can start with what players will feel. “I want players to be amazed” or “The main emotion should be fear”.

Of the above I believe that the “what, when and where” is the easiest to start with, but also the weakest. It creates a back-drop, but alone it is not enough for a strong experience. For that you need players to do and feel. However, a setting can be great for creating inspiration for answering these questions.

What you want your players to “do” can be a strong start. It usually gives good inspiration for a setting and most actions at least have a hint of emotion to them. It also touches upon the core of the board game, as your players will be “doing” a lot of things whilst playing. And with this question answered, you’ll probably already have a few mechanics that would work well with it.

Starting with the feeling you want to engender is very abstract and as such needs further work to form the basis of a game. If you have a clear vision of this however it makes it much easier to answer any future questions about your game: “Does this help the player feel what I want her to feel?”. There is however generally not an obvious answer as to what actions could espouse your selected emotion(s).

In the end you’ll need to answer all three questions (don’t get stuck answering only the first two!) and the order matters less than actually answering them all in due time.

Closing thoughts

A good board game creates an unforgettable experience. It takes you away from everyday life and puts you back in a different time and place. It lets you see (in your mind’s eye) sights you never thought you’d see and it lets you do things you could never do in real life.

In order to do this you need to create a clear vision of what your game is trying to do. Do you have that vision for your current game? I’m sure you have a theme and probably some mechanics, but can you articulate what it is your players are doing? And perhaps more importantly, do you know what it is you want them to feel?

Next steps

In this post I went into the experience of board games. I gave ideas what this consists of and how to get to a vision of it, but not how to create the experience once you know what it’s to be. I’m sure I can fill another blog post with just that.

The experience also closely links to story-telling (another favorite subject), so maybe there will be a post combining the two.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to hear how you experienced this post, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!

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

A random but great idea!
Many board games incorporate randomness, and for good reason! Randomness can add a lot to a game, as we’ll see. But, everything should be done in moderation and that certainly holds true for randomness.

Let’s roll the dice!

What is randomness?

Randomness (in a board game) is an event that cannot be predicted exactly, but where each possible outcome follows strict (mathematical) rules.

The quintessential example is the dice roll: You will not know how many pips will come up, but you know it’ll be a number from 1 to 6 and each side has an equal chance.

The other common method for introducing randomness is through (shuffled) cards; you don’t know which cards you’ll get, but you can only get the ones that are in the deck to start with.

We can also say that an opponent plays “randomly”, usually when what she’s doing doesn’t seem to make sense. This is not the type of randomness I’m referring to; the outcome might be unpredictable but there is no (mathematical) rule behind it. For example an opponent might throw their meeples through the room, while a card cannot do that.

The uses of randomness

Randomness has several uses in board games:

Driving interesting decisions

Randomness creates uncertainty (see this post for more on uncertainty in board games) and as such it is a driver for interesting decisions. “If I attack I need a five or six to win. If I win I’ll be well set for my next goal, but if I lose then I’ll have to struggle to get back on top. Should I take that chance…?”

Randomness allows for a great many potential events, each of which will have a different impact on the game. Which ones do I take into account and how? Can I safely ignore something with a small probability or do I hedge my bets even there? Is a 75% chance “as good as certain”? Do I expend resources to influence what card comes up or am I secure in my position no matter what I draw?

Reducing analysis paralysis

I might know the cards in the deck, but I don’t know which one will be drawn next turn. Especially if there is a wide variety of possible outcomes I can’t analyze them all. And even if I could, I can’t prepare for them all. And thus most players won’t even try, leaving this bit of (potential) information out of the process of deciding what the best move is. And every bit of information not taken into account is a save in brain power and thus a quicker decision.

In chess you can think through what are the optimal moves for you and your opponent, several turns into the future. Add some randomness in there and that ability goes out of the window: We’re able to predict our opponent because she’s logical and tries to play optimally; neither of which is the case for a random process.

For more on reducing analysis paralysis in board games, see this post.

A source of tension

”You’ve decided, you’re taking the plunge, you’re going to take one more card! Slowly you draw the card towards you and with a slam you open it up for everyone to see. You groan as the one card that would stop you is staring you in the face!

Randomness can be a source of tension. You don’t know what is going to come up, but you’re certainly hoping for something. This creates an “is this going to work”-moment, which will get players to the edge of their seats.

See this post for more on tension in board games.

The equalizer

Experience, a more logical mind, intuition, all of these can help with winning a game. But it’s no fun if the same person always wins…

Randomness can help to equalize winning probabilities. A great player can draw a bad hand, a mediocre player can roll perfectly. And thus there is more than pure “skill” in determining who will win in the end. Of course some players get put off by this and playing well but losing due to a single die role is frustrating at best. Thus, this should be used with caution. Still some randomness can make a game more enjoyable for a wider variety of players.

Adding depth

As mentioned, randomness can create a great many possible events, especially when randomness follows randomness. This means that there will be more of the game to “explore”; it will take a while before all combinations have been observed.

This also relates to the previous point: If there is a reasonable amount of randomness, you can never be sure whether your strategy won because it’s awesome, or because you got lucky. This then means that players can play the same strategy multiple times before they figure out which of the two is the case.

Randomness can increase the depth and replayability of your game.

Simulating life

Many games have a “theme”: The real-life thing it is trying to simulate with all those cards, chits and meeples. It can be the colonization of an island (Catan) or saving the world from horrible diseases (Pandemic). In a game you’re trying to do something that (a group of) humans (or animals, or computers or whatever) might try to do in real life.

Life is unpredictable. There are other people who do strange things, diseases that suddenly crop up or unplanned for robbers. All of these might have a completely rational and understandable explanation, but they certainly seem to be random.

Randomness in a game then can be used to make a more believable gaming experience, to add to the theme and immerse players further into the story they are building in their head.


Randomness is awesome. Until it is not!

The flip side of randomness is (excessive) luck: Playing perfectly but losing due a bad draw. Or playing like a wet rag but winning because the dice love you.

Randomness will always imply some form of luck, it is what drives some of the good things mentioned above. But a game can contain randomness while still keeping the game interesting for anybody who wasn’t born under a lucky star.

Limit the impact

To limit luck, limit the impact that a single brush with fate has. This means that the game won’t hinge one die or one card draw.

Having said that, the impact of something should still be meaningful. If you roll a die and it doesn’t matter at all whether you get a 1 or a 6, you might as well not have rolled at all. Use luck to see if something goes a little bad or quite bad, instead of going perfectly or horribly.

Increase the randomness

This might seem counter-intuitive, but increasing the number of random elements in your game will actually reduce luck. This is because it is much more likely to get both good and bad results in equal amounts than to consistently do well or poorly.

Watch out though, because players are biased in what they see: Even though the randomness was completely evenhanded, they might still feel like they got screwed over (I can remember games of Catan where the 8 was never thrown!).

A nice example of this is Dominion. You’re drawing so many hands, that inevitably some of them will be great (turn on that engine!) while some of them will have you seeing nothing but green. In the end it evens out and the draw is part of the excitement of the game.

Allow for reactions

In monopoly you roll your dice and that’s it, that’s where you’re moving. There is no way to mitigate or anticipate the randomness of that roll.

In Catan on the other hand you’re also rolling dice, but you can work with them. You know that the sixes and eights are going to come up more often (even though you won’t know when exactly!), so you’ll be vying to build your villages and cities next to these numbers. You can’t control the randomness, but it’s perfectly possible to anticipate the probabilities.

Another good way is for players to choose whether they want to take on more randomness: “I’ve got three sixes and three dice left, I’ll gamble and hope that my next roll will give me at least one additional six!”

Closing thoughts

Randomness can be a real boon to board games, but like anything in excess it becomes a burden.

In the previous parts I’ve given suggestions about what randomness can do. I’m sure that if you give it some thought you can come up with even better uses for it. You can probably also come up with even more ways in which it can screw up your game… 🙂

Even though randomness can add to a game, that doesn’t mean it should always be used. There are awesome games that use minimal to no randomness. Like everything, it should be one of the many tools in your belt, to be taken out when useful, to be left alone when there are better choices.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!

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 (or randomly have a chat)? Leave a comment 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: