Board game design

He’s not really my type…
”Why do we play board games?”

“To have fun, duh! Stop asking stupid questions!”

We play games to have fun. But I’ve found that different people enjoy different games, or different parts of the game. My wife for example doesn’t care much what she plays, as long as she wins! For myself I much more enjoy finding out what the different possibilities are that a game allows (though winning is neat too of course!).

Different players have different motivations for playing games. Understanding what these are can help create better board games.

Fun from games

Different players enjoy games for different reasons. When looking at the people I’ve played with I can see a number of distinct “types” of players:

  • Power-mongers
  • Socializers
  • Imaginers
  • Explorers
  • Creators

(Are all of those real words? They are now!)

In the following paragraphs I’ll write something about each of these drivers and how you can cater to each of them in creating your game.

Power

In board games you can rule civilizations, build monuments to the gods and utterly crush your opponents. All of these are expressions of power, of bending the world (within the game) to your will.

Power can be over the elements of the game: You get to decide what your workers do, where buildings are built or what your character does. These are the kings and queens of imaginary fiefdoms, happy to rule for as long as the game lasts.

The most important way to achieve this is of course by winning. After all, nothing shouts out that you’re more powerful than others than beating them.

As most games are built with player vs. player interaction in mind, this is an expected part of most games and nobody will begrudge a player of doing their best to gain the upper hand. In fact, many people are very happy to get some good opposition, as it makes it all the more delicious when you do finally grasp victory.

Another way in which players can express power is in “quarterbacking” in coops: Telling other players what they should do. Some people are happy to let others decide for them what the best move is (most importantly Socializers, see below), but it can be a real downer for many other players.

Designing for power-mongers

People who enjoy power in their games tend to prefer player vs. player games (though as mentioned, they can also show their preferences in coop games).

For some power-mongers the simple pleasure of winning is enough, but for others direct confrontation is preferred. Euro-style getting-in-the-way passive-aggressive play is not what they are looking for, they prefer more direct interaction. This can be through aggressive action (attack!) but it is also possible to exercise power over other people with more innocent player interactions: Forcing another player to give you 3 bricks for your one sheep in Catan can put a gleam in the power-monger’s eye.

When it comes to mechanics, anything they can amass will tickle their fancy. This can be resources, but preferably it’s something that can be used to directly interact with the other players with (think huge stockpiles of armies in Risk).

Area control is also a mechanic that works well for the power players, as it easily shows who has control (power!) over how much of the board.

Example games for Power-mongers

Risk, Dungeons & Dragons (really any RPG where you can build overpowered characters), Munchkin, Monopoly.

Socializing

“…so I said to her: You’re such a kid! Anyway, want to play a game?”
Board games are inherently social activities (I know, you can play board games online and there are quite a few solo games now…) and this is what Socializers love the most in playing.

For them it matters less what they are playing and more whom they are playing with. A game is a reason to get a group of friends or family together and that’s the thing to cherish.

As such they may have little to no interest in actually winning; in fact they may well give up a beneficial action to help someone else.

Designing for Socializers

Cooperative games are a natural fit for Socializers, as it allows them to put their best effort into winning (which everybody else seems to think is important), without anybody feeling bad (for having to lose). Also the joined victory or defeat can create a group feeling, which is something Socializers value.

Outside of cooperative games, Socializers prefer positive player interactions, for example trading (see this post for more on cooperative forms of player interaction). And they dislike confrontational player interactions such as direct attacks.

Socializers are also perfectly happy to play “multiplayer solitaire”, as it means they do not have to do anything that could antagonize anybody else.

A large dose of randomness can also be appreciated by Socializers, as it means that anybody losing is not of their doing.

Finally, Socializers prefer games that don’t require too much brainpower. Not because they can’t handle it, but because if everybody is staring intently at their cards, there will hardly be any banter going on… They also tend to like party games, as winning and losing tends to be less important than the fun that is had together.

Example games for Socializers

Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Pandemic, Captain Sonar.

Imagining

Board games allow us to live on an uninhabited island, colonize mars or be queen of a fairy kingdom. They allow players to experience things they never would be able to in real life. And Imaginers live for this.

A game for them is a way to be or do something that is out of the ordinary. And generally the more exotic the better. A game should create a story (though it doesn’t need to be a story-telling game): The best games are the ones where something happens you can tell your friends about afterwards.

And though it’s nice to imagine a glorious victory, a bitter defeat can be just as exciting.

Designing for Imaginers

Imaginers want to “live the game”. This means that a lot of work should be put into artwork and other visual elements, so that it’s easy for them to transport themselves to your game world.

Cooperative games tend to lend themselves a bit better to the style Imaginers prefer, as in real life we tend to cooperate more than that we are directly antagonistic to each other. But if you are simulating something where there is a clear rationale for confrontation (e.g. a war game) then this should definitely be included.

When playing the game mechanics should “make sense”. Every element should have a connection to something that could happen in real life – it makes sense that your family needs to eat at some point (Agricola), it does not make sense that parts of your kingdom show up at random moments (Dominion). This doesn’t mean that everything has to be simulated to the finest detail, a level of abstraction is fine (no toilet breaks for your workers required).

For Imaginers randomness has a place in a good board game, but only if it links to something that is (or comes across as) random in real life as well.

Mechanic wise, hidden information can be a big boon to Imaginers, as they can use their imagination on what it is that might be hidden for them. Worker placement works (pun intended) as it conforms quite well to the actual notion of “work being done”. And a board that represents a physical space (instead of say a number of tracks), on which playing pieces can be placed or moved around, helps to visualize what is going on.

For further reading, in this post I look at a number of games that do the “imagining” very well.

Example games for Imaginers

Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars, Dead of Winter, Netrunner.

Exploring

I wonder what’s at the bottom of this ocean / deck?!
There is nothing quite like opening up the box for a new game. What’s inside, what adventures, quests and clashes will it bring?

Explorers like the “new” and the “unknown”. A new card to draw, a tile to flip. But also a new mechanic to try or a combination to experiment with. As long as a game keeps bringing up new situations they are happy to play. But inevitably, a game will grow old and it will be time to move on to pastures greener.

It’s interesting to try out different combinations and to push the limits of the game. That will most probably mean an Explorer won’t win, but she’ll have a great time going down in a blaze.

Designing for Explorers

Explorers seek novelty. That means that for a game to continue to interest them, it will require a lot of depth (see this and this post on depth in board games). Player interaction is one good way of providing this, as it very hard to fully gauge the mind of your gaming buddies. And if actual depth is hard to provide, large amounts of content will do in a pinch: A game with a thousand unique cards is where it starts getting interesting.

Another way of keeping explorers interested is by providing components that can be combined in many different ways. Dominion is a good example of this; there are many combinations of kingdom cards that can be made and a proper explorer will want to try every one of them.

Explorers love hidden information, so be sure to add a lot of cards that can be drawn at different moments, tiles that can be flipped and tokens that are taken from bags.

When it comes to mechanics it’s more important that something is new than what it actually does.

Legacy games are the games for explorers, as they provide fresh content (and an evolving story) for many games to come. Because opening a small box inside your game is only slightly less awesome than opening the big box in the first place.

Explorers’ second favourite type of game are decksploration games (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories) where you get to explore what is in a deck of cards.

Example games for Explorers

Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic Legacy, The 7th Continent, Escape.

Creating

There is nothing quite like taking 10 turns to carefully set up your engine, seemingly not making any progress at all, only to then switch it on and win the game in one huge bonanza of victory points!

The Creator wants to make something, using the tools provided by the game. Each element provided is but a building block and it is her task to find the best combination out of all of those. This can be an amazing combo or an efficient engine, but also the prettiest tableau or the fullest hand. It does have to be useful though (else you’re just exploring).

Winning is the name of the game for the Creator, because that’s how you know what you built works. But where the Power-monger wants to win, no matter what, the Creator wants to win with style.

Designing for Creators

Creators need to be provided with lots of different elements that can interact with each other. They love the string actions, cards and tiles together to get to a beautiful machine that turns one resource into another, which is turned into the next, and so on, until at the end they get a big pile of victory points.

For Creators a game should be fairly “meaty”, to have sufficient raw material to work with. The more steps it takes to do something, the better.

This also means they prefer Euro style games; most war games don’t care much about how efficient your army is, as long as it’s big. Limited interaction also means that there is nothing getting in the way of working on the grand opus; there is nothing as frustrating as having your combo ready to fly, only to have it disrupted by someone stealing a card.

Similarly, randomness can be fun at times, but mostly it just means having to wait longer until you do your big trick. And the same holds true for hidden information: It can’t be incorporated into the engine, so it’s just frustrating.

Deck builders, bag builders, dice builders, tableau builders, all of these are great for Creators, as it allows them to piece together what they need from a big market of possible resources. Barring that, a game where there are lots of different cards and tiles that they can combine will make them happy.

Example games for Creators

Agricola, Dominion, Magic the Gathering, Catan.

Mixing types

No man is an island. But every person is a cocktail!
The previous paragraphs sketch 5 different “player types”. Obviously these are exagerations and abstractions; nobody is a “pure” Explorer or Socializer. Everybody caries each type (and more), but some types will be more strongly represented in one player than another (for example I’m a strong Explorer and a weak Power-monger).

And these 5 types certainly aren’t the end-all either. I’m sure that with some thought you could add another 5 (or 50!) categories. And perhaps you can come up with a completely different categorization as well.

The point isn’t that these types are the truth. Instead they are meant to help you think about what kind of players you are catering to. What parts of your game would appeal to whom? Can you add further elements to make them like it even more?

”But shouldn’t I make something that appeals to everybody?”

Well… If that were possible then yes! But unfortunately that’s not possible, something that I hope the different types also show. Different people like different things. You can make something that nobody hates, or you can make something that some people love, but not both. A game nobody hates doesn’t sell, a game that some people love does!

Closing thoughts

We create games to have them enjoyed by our players. But who are “our players”? Do you have an image in mind? Perhaps a friend (or yourself)? What does this specific person enjoy the most? And what does she absolutely hate in a game?

Are you play-testing with those people? Or are you pulling in random strangers and trying to cater to every suggestion that they bring up? Who is your audience and what do they like?

And when you test your friends’ games, are you able to tell them: “This game is not for me”? Because you may very well not be their target audience either.

Further reading

Thinking about player types helps to create a vision for your game. This post looks at the vision for your game from a different perspective.

And a long time ago I wrote a post on games without winners, in which I also briefly touched upon different player types.

About the author

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

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

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Board game design

OK, we’re all in this together! Going nowhere…
Recently I’ve been thinking about designing a board-game where players cooperate, even though there could only be a single winner.

Thus far I’ve found it hard going; it’s all too clear that cooperating means helping another win and thus getting yourself to lose.

So, it’s time to go to first principles, think deep and hard about different ways of engendering cooperation. The best way I’ve found for that is by writing about it: Nothing makes vague thoughts clear as committing them to paper (electrons). And who knows, maybe others will read this and come up with some brilliant ideas to help me further as well (do leave a comment or hit me up on twitter!)

What is cooperation?

Cooperation is anything where two or more people interact and those who interact benefit.

Note that this does not mean that all should benefit equally, only that all gain something from the cooperation.

Why have cooperation in your board-game?

Interaction between players is a strong driver of depth in board-games: Players are infinitely more complex than anything that can be captured in card-board (see this post on player interaction).

Interaction in most board-games is “negative”: Preventing another player from achieving their goals. This can either be very direct, by attacking them, more passively, by “getting in the way” or in a myriad of other ways.

Cooperation is a second form of interaction, one that is much more “positive”: All of those interacting gain. As such I believe it can be a source of additional fun in board-games.

Cooperation in real life

In real life cooperation is very often a good idea. ”Let’s go hunt with the entire group so we can take down a mammoth and have ample food for the entire village!”

This is because in real life we don’t normally think in winners and losers: Cooperating makes sure that we all have food and that none have to starve.

Having said that, cooperation is generally not entirely “fair”: The leader of the hunt gets more status and perhaps the juiciest bit of mammoth. But even here there is a trade-off: It takes a lot of investment to become leader of the hunt. And that investment certainly isn’t risk-free (mammoths have those tusks for a reason!)

Cooperation in board-games

Board-games have very clear winners and losers (though, do read this post for ideas on board-games without a winner). This makes that players will assess actions not only on how much it brings them but also what the others would gain: “an opponent’s gain is my loss”. In a two-player game this is very clear: There is little difference between my opponent gaining a point and myself losing one.

This makes it difficult to foster cooperation: My gain has to weigh up to what the other(s) gets.

But, there are board-games that do get people to cooperate. Let’s take a look at some ways in which this can be done.

1. Trading

How many bricks was I getting?
In Catan players can trade resources; they give something they have in high supply and get something that is scarce for them, in the process increasing the value for themselves (see this post about value and cost in board-games and this one on scarcity).

The player on the other side of the trade however gains in the same way. One player might get a better deal, but both players must agree that it’s good enough else they wouldn’t be willing to make the trade.

There are losers in this though: Anybody not in the trade. The traders increased the value of what they have in their hand and thus moved a little bit ahead, leaving anybody outside the trade a little bit behind.

Thus trading only really works when there are more than two players.

2. Moving ahead together

The idea of trading can be generalized to any action that benefits two or more players while leaving the other players behind.

In Munchkin players can work together to defeat a monster that a single player wouldn’t be able to handle. Any treasure that results from the encounter is then split by the cooperating players. There can be barter involved, but it’s not a real trade, as the resources are “new” (coming from the defeated monster).

3. Ganging up

In Risk it at some point becomes clear that a player is surging ahead. At this point every other player is at a serious risk (pun intended) of losing the game. There is then a clear incentive to gang up on the leader to bring her down a notch.

Once the playing field has been equalized again however there is no real reason to continue the cooperation; yesterday’s ally could well be tomorrow’s greatest threat!

This only works if there is a way of directly attacking other players, something that a lot of people are not particularly fond of.

And while the players who are bringing the leader low are cooperating, this is very directly at the cost of another player.

4. Accidental help

In Puerto Rico each player selects a role, which can then be executed by all players. This means that every role selected helps you, but it also helps all the other players.

Here you’re not only trying to find the role that help you most, but also the ones that benefit all the other players least.

Though this is a form of interaction that is “positive” for all players, it does not feel to me that it’s really “cooperating”. Still, it is a very powerful way of creating interesting forms of player interaction.

5. For the greater good

If there is a goal that needs to be achieved by all players, then people will very naturally cooperate to reach that goal.

In true cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic) this is an optimal way of playing. However this need not be the case in semi-cooperative games.

In Dead of Winter there is a mutual goal whilst players also have their own goals (and there is a chance of having a betrayer). Here people in general want to work together to reach the mutual goal, but they would much rather have the other players contribute more than they do themselves, as that leaves more resources for them to pursue their own individual goals.

This can even be implemented in non-cooperative games, if the penalty of non-cooperation is high enough (e.g. everybody loses the game).

6. Cooperative synergy

When trading, resources chance hands, but the total number of resources remains the same; value is created by having different preferences for resources.

Value however can also be created explicitly: Do an action on your own and you get two resources, but do the action together with someone else and you get five resources for the two of you.

Terra Mystica uses a form of this, where building buildings next to your opponent’s makes (some of them) cheaper, while at the same time allowing your opponent to take magical power.

In this case the game rules give a “multiplier” to incentivize cooperation (see this post on incentives in board games).

7. Hidden goals

This is a sure-fire way to getting someone to inadvertently help you!
When you cooperate you’re helping your opponent. This means that they are closer to winning and thus that you might lose the game.

One way to mitigate this somewhat is by having hidden goals; if you don’t know exactly what your opponent is trying to achieve, it becomes harder to see how much you’re helping them (and vice versa). This allows players to act more “selfishly”, looking more at what they will gain from the cooperation and taking less account of how much they are helping the other.

Though it’s not the best example, Risk can have this. If it’s my goal to eliminate yellow, then any player who attack attacks yellow is actually helping me achieve my goal.

While this technically complies with my definition of cooperation (both players benefit), it’s unknown to the player taking the action (attacking yellow) that she’s helping another player. As such this also feels like a weak form of cooperation.

Closing thoughts

Cooperation is a positive way of engendering interaction between players, with all the benefits that that entails. There are however natural barriers to cooperation in board-games, all stemming from the idea that any help to my opponent brings her closer to winning.

In the sections above I give a number of ways in which a board-game can make cooperation between players more likely. Hopefully these can be helpful to you in creating interesting and positive player interactions. And while I give a fair number, I’m sure that with a bit of thought you can come up with many more. If you find an interesting one do let me know?

Further reading

Cooperation is a form of player interaction. Read more about the subject here:
7 forms of player interaction
How to use player interaction for better board games

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.

Maybe you can cooperate with me? 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

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.

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

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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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