“One card in your hand is worth ten in the deck!” (Free after a well-known saying).
In board-games the location of where components are makes a very big impact on the game. The same token can be invaluable when it’s in your pile, a source of worry when the opponent has it, a consideration when on the board and near meaningless in the general stock.
In this post I want to delve into the spatial element of board-games.
The state of the game
You walk up to a game in progress and you look at the board: Ah, Mary has ten cards in hand and a lot of resources in front of her, while Mike is holding on to a single card and has a minute pile of cubes. It’s pretty obvious that Mary is doing better!
You got this information just by taking a look of what is where.
The location of all the different playing pieces shows the state of the game. It is a snapshot of all the information that is relevant right now.
Location, location, location
Board-game components generally have a location. This cube is on the “grain” field. That card is in my hand.
In general the location of a piece is important: Having your Catan village on the intersection between a 6, 5 and 10 is very different from having it between the desert, a 2 and an 11.
Location also carries a lot of information regarding playing pieces. A yellow cube on the grain field represents grain that can be harvested by any player, while a yellow cube in front of me is my grain, which nobody can touch!
In some cases the location can even change the what the game piece represents (what it is a metaphor for; see this post for more on metaphors in board-game design). In San Juan face up cards on the table are built buildings, while face down cards on top of (certain) buildings represent goods stored in that building.
Move. Your. Sheep!
Where the location of playing pieces represents the state of the game, movement is the actual playing of it.
During our turn we make changes to the game by moving stuff around: I move this worker from my house to the field and I get two grain cubes, which I move from the general stock to my playing area. Or: I put this wood piece back in the general pile and move this building tile to an empty space of the board and put a marker of my color on top of it.
We’ll sink deep in thought trying to come up with the –literally- best move. The change in the position of the board pieces that will give us the largest advantage.
What’s your orientation?
Strictly speaking all board-game pieces are 3-dimensional. Meaning that they have an orientation.
This orientation can also be used to convey information. A face-up card has a different meaning than a face-down card. In Carcasonne laying down a meeple means something different than one standing up.
Board-games use random effect. The two most common methods of generating randomness are by rolling dice (where we care about the orientation) and by shuffling a deck of cards (where we care about the location (in the deck)).
In both cases vigorous motion is responsible for creating the randomness.
Hidden in plain sight
In general the location and orientation of something is common knowledge: It’s easy to see where something is and what way it is facing.
Many games however make use of hidden information.
This can either be done by putting something in a hidden location (behind a screen or in a bag) or by orienting it in such a way as to hide the important part of the component (e.g. by putting a card face down, or holding it in your hand)
Stuff that is not space-bound
So is there nothing but location, orientation and movement? Not exactly.
One very important part of board-games is what goes on in players’ minds and between players. We try to think of the best move and we work on outsmarting our opponents. Or we want to manipulate someone into doing our bidding.
In some games the mental / social is the most important part of the game. Social deduction games care very little for location and orientation (though keeping your role-card face down is important!)
Location, orientation and movement are what make most board-games. Can you use these in different ways?
Are there locations for playing pieces that are not generally used? Underneath the board? In between other playing pieces?
Can you use the same component differently in different locations? Cubes in hand versus on the board? Cards that are building components, currency, and part of the board in different spaces?
Can you do something with the orientation? Standing and lying meeples? Cards that stand up?
Is there an interesting way to randomize? Pour out a hand full of cubes over the board? Roll a cylinder down a track?
How can you hide information? Hide resources underneath other ones?
Good luck with your designing!
I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I need to re-orient myself?!
Hi, 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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