Board game design, Fun, Learning from Existing Board Games, Los Buenos

This is the amount of not-fun I’m talking about!
In my previous post I mentioned I had “balanced my game to death”: In solving some technical issues, I drained all the fun out of it. I got some very interesting and useful reactions to that post and I’m happy to say that Los Buenos is back on track!

All of this did get me thinking: How is it possible to make a few (minor!) changes to a game and suddenly have it not be fun anymore?!

In this post I want to look at some games that I don’t think are fun (feel free to disagree, but please don’t try to convince me, I’ve got my mind made up!). From that I want to distill elements that make a game be not fun and then flip those around to be able to actively design for fun.

Not fun: (The previous version of) Los Buenos

When working on Los Buenos I wanted it “balanced”, without really giving much thought to what exactly that entailed. I had some vague feelings; something about different strategies all affording a similar win chance.

What I did (in hindsight of course!) was make every choice similar-ish. No matter what you did, the results would always be more-or-less the same (in karma (=victory) points). And players were left with an unsatisfied feeling of having done a lot, but not having played.

Not fun: Haunted house on the hill

Haunted house on the hill consists of two phases. In the first you’re exploring a house, in the second something or someone turns against (part of) the group and needs to be defeated.

I absolutely love the idea of this game! But I never enjoy actually playing it…

In the beginning you’re “exploring”, but there is no goal to it (except to trigger the second part). Any actions you take could work in your favor, but there is an (almost?) equal chance of them working against you.

Then when the second phase is triggered there is generally a huge discrepancy in power between the group and the “bad thing” (with either of these two ending up with much more power).

The result is that in the first part choices are random: You cannot predict what their consequences are and thus it doesn’t matter which choice you take.

In the second part the huge discrepancy in power means that you’re either going through the motions of winning, or going through the motions of losing, without much influence on the end result.

Not fun: Tic-tac-toe

“Draw in 6 moves!”
If you’re older than 7 years old a game of tic-tac-toe is finished before it starts. No matter what move you make, it’s perfectly clear what the opponent should do to ensure that you don’t get your 3-in-a-line. And likewise, you’ll be doing the same with them, meaning that any game of tic-tac-toe will end in a draw.

It matters which choice you make, but only in that it prevents you from losing.

And, it’s immediately clear what that choice should be.

Not fun: Risk & Munchkin

Risk and Munchkin suffer from the same problem: They can be interminable. This is because as soon as someone starts winning, the other players will gang-up to prevent exactly that. And thus the game will go back and forth, coming through a conclusion only because of luck, stupidity or people getting so bored they want to lose.

During a game your choices matter, but at some point the majority of those choices are geared towards not losing, through bringing down the player that is in the lead.

Not fun: Monopoly

Did I lose yet?!
Monopoly has the same ailment as Risk and Munchkin, in that it can take a very long time, but it has another big issue: It is extremely luck-driven. How you roll in the early game determines whether you can buy a lot of good locations. Then how you roll in the later game determines whether you end up on a lot of bad locations.

There are some low-level choices to be made: Buy something or not (but if you have the money, buy!). Mostly however the interesting “choice” is made by the dice: Where do you land and is this good or bad?

Drawing conclusions

Playing a board game consists of taking a series of choices. An essential part of the fun in a game then lies in making these choices interesting. In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched some ways in which choices can be uninteresting. Let’s draw out some common themes.

No choice

If there is no choice, there is nothing to agonize over. In Monopoly it’s the dice that play the game, with the humans around the table only there to throw them and move pawns accordingly. Choices really are very limited: Buy or don’t, what to sell when you run out of cash. Who wants to be a robot that does what a bunch of dice tell them?

No consequences

A choice can be uninteresting is if there are no (real) consequences. This is what Los Buenos suffered from: No matter which action or string of actions you took, the results would be just about the same. And while at the surface players were doing lots of things, intuitively they felt very well that it was just “going through the motions”.

In a similar way the choices in the second half of Haunted house on the hill are uninteresting. There are “real” consequences if any player completely screws up, but if everybody plays halfway decent then it is very clear who is going to win. And thus any single choice of action really doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game.

Consequences can’t be foreseen

If you play like this, it’s probably your own fault…
In the first half of Haunted house on the hill there are consequences to what players do: They might get bonuses or suffer penalties. But which of the two it’s going to be is completely random. From a strategy point of view it makes just as much sense to stand still as it is to go exploring. And doing nothing is about as boring as it gets.

Consequences are too clear

In Tic-tac-toe the consequences of your choices are extremely clear. Make the wrong choice and you lose (almost immediately).

In a more complex way this is what ails Munchkin and Risk as well. At some point the “rational” way to play is to attack the strongest player; either you do that, or you lose the game.

The result of too-clear consequences is that agency is taken away from the player. If you can (perfectly) foresee what is going to happen then it is also (perfectly) clear what the right choice is. Meaning that basically there is no choice.

Flipping the negatives around

As a board game designer, the right tools are essential!
So now we have some idea of what not to do. How to translate this in something we should do, something actionable?

First: give players choices. A game is about agency, making changes. For that players have to have a way of influencing the game, which means they have to have different options of doing so.

Second: Make choices have consequences. When players take an option, something has to happen! The state of the game has to change, be it for better or worse. The more different those consequences are, the more interesting the choice is. “Take 1 wood or take 1 stone” is a choice with consequences (you then have either a wood or a stone), but “Build a factory or attack Sue” is a far more interesting choice, as the consequences affect the game in completely different ways.

Third: Make it clear what the consequences are. Players need to be able to look into the future, to see whether any given option will make things better or worse for them. Only then can they make meaningful choices and only then will they care about them. Thus: Be careful when you have randomness involved in the consequences of choices.

Fourth: Don’t make the consequences too clear. If it’s completely obvious what the long-term results of a choice are then there isn’t really a choice to be made. The important word here is “long term”. It’s perfectly ok to see what will happen immediately (“If I place my worker here, I’ll get 1 wood”), but it should be obscured what that means over multiple rounds. This can be done through other players’ actions (“Will Achmed take the second wood I need?”) or randomness (“I hope the ‘woodworker’ will come out next turn so I have a good use for my 1 wood”).

Bringing this all together, what you want your players to think when they’ve made their choice is: “I’m reasonably sure that this option will bring me closer to victory.”

Some ideas for creating interesting choices

As mentioned, having fundamentally different consequences to choices makes for interesting options. One way of doing this is by allowing very different strategies to emerge. The “choice of strategy” then becomes a very interesting (and important) choice in the game.

I also suggested that direct consequences can be clear immediately, but that the long term effects should be obscured. This will happen quite naturally for a lot of games (there will be choices by other players and most likely randomness as well), but it is also possible to design it in. One way of doing this is by having “end game bonuses”; for example the player with the most houses gets an additional 5 points. This way a choice early in the game (e.g. “build a house or build a factory”) will have a consequence that is guaranteed to only be shown at the end of the game.

The two options above can even be meshed together: “This game my strategy is to build as many houses as possible!”

Closing thoughts

Decisions, decisions!
This blog post ended up being mostly about “interesting choices”. That most certainly isn’t the only source of fun for board games, but it’s a very fundamental one!

Perhaps it would be interesting to look at games that are “not fun” in different ways as well? I think I covered most of the games I’ve tried that I didn’t enjoy, but perhaps with some digging I’ll come to other ones (we tend to push our traumas away? 🙂 )

What are games you think aren’t fun?
Why aren’t they?
Or perhaps you have a game that is the perfect example of fun?

Further reading

This post mostly went into “interesting choices”. I’ve written about this before, in the context of a previous version of Los Buenos (then still called “Voluntarios”). There I was also able to lose the fun, but that time by removing choice from the game. At least I’m not making the same mistake twice…?

Once a choice is made, you get to a phase of “waiting to see whether your choice actually worked out”. This is where tension in board games comes in.

I made mention of strategy as allowing for interesting choices. In this article I wrote down a number of general board game strategies.

About the author

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

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If life were a board-game, would people play it? Would it get published? Let’s take a look!

What type of game is life

Let’s first look into what kind of game life is.

Player interaction

Life is best described as a semi-cooperative game, in that there is ample room for both fruitful cooperation, but there can be quite a bit of in-play adversity as well. In-play adversity can be very intense, even leading to sudden player elimination.

Each player gets a pawn more-or-less like this
Major mechanics

Worker placement is probably the most important “major” mechanic. It’s got a slight twist compared to other games in that you only get to have a single worker, and you get to allocate time for that worker to accomplish actions. In the later game it is possible to obtain multiple workers, but you still need to allocate time from your original worker for them to take actions. An interesting part of this is figuring out whether this trade is worth it or not.

The other major mechanic is resource gathering and allocation. There are a great deal of resources in the game, with accompanying advantages and disadvantages; food is a requirement, but diamonds really are just a nice-to-have There is a rich in-game economy which lets you get from one resource to another. What I do dislike is that there is this one resource “money” which can be traded for almost all of the other ones.

Minor mechanics

Next to worker placement, there are numerous minor mechanics. At different points in the game there will be pick-up-and-delivery, bluffing, social deduction, area control and many others.

It’s quite interesting that you can chose which of these mechanics you are most interested in and use those more frequently.

The good

So what are some of the good features of the game?

Depth of play

Life offers incredible depth of play, with huge amounts of possibilities open to players and a nearly infinite strategies possible. This is better than any other game I’ve ever seen and is probably it’s most important selling point.

One downside of this depth is that it brings the difficulty of making a choice between all the different options. The result is that players tend to copy what the other players nearby are doing, which sometimes makes for a bit boring (local) game play. “Mary, John, Alice and Bob think it’s a good idea to have a kid, so I should probably get one too.”

Player interaction

The player interaction is truly superb. You can form alliances or make enemies, stand together or try to eliminate another player altogether. The mechanics for this are subtle and well thought-through. This is done by giving bonuses to players who work together (greater productivity, increased defense, etc.) but also by having feedback loops which mean that going without interacting with other players can be quite costly in “mental resources”: Getting too high on the “loneliness track” can be a real killer!

Much of the depth of the game is driven by this player interaction.

There is some really beautiful artwork in life!
The artwork

A lot of attention was put into the board and the looks of the player representations. And while not all of it is exceptional, there most certainly are parts which are better than any other game I’ve ever laid eyes one!

The neutral

Some elements aren’t good or bad but neutral or good and bad in equal dosages.

Length of play

A game of life can differ significantly for different players, some playing for decades while others don’t even get minutes.

For most players however life is much longer than any other game one would generally play. This is good as it makes it possible to explore the fast depths that the game has to offer.

The fact that play length is very random does detract significantly from the game.

The bad

Like any board-game there are pieces that could’ve done with a bit more testing before they were put in the final version.

Too damned easy…
Player elimination

As already mentioned the game incorporates player elimination. In fact, player elimination is very simple in general, though there are also strong in-game consequences for doing this, making it a risky strategy to pursue.

That however does not help any players that actually get eliminated…

The rule book

There is none.

Instead there is a sort of awkward tutorial phase in which new abilities and options slowly become available. This takes a long time and is not particularly interesting.

The one redeeming quality is that it blends perfectly into the actual game play so that you’re never quite sure whether you’re still in tutorial mode or playing already.

Still, having the rules written out would’ve been a really big boon!

Unclear winning conditions

As there are no written rules, the winning conditions are unclear.

This can make for interesting game play as it allows players to choose their own goal, but in general it is found to be quite irritating; I would call this one of the major design flaws of the game.

Unbalanced starting positions

Starting positions for players are random, but these have a tremendous impact on the game. They determine early access to resources, which have huge cumulative effects throughout the game; when you start in the “Europe” region you can expect to have more starting resources than players at the very end of the game if they start in “Africa”. Could do with some proper balancing!


Large parts of the game tend to be quite repetitive and boring.

This is in part because of the unclear winning conditions, which makes it difficult to make a choice of which option is better than the others. The result is that many players start to hedge and go for resources that are very “general” in nature (i.e. “coins” and “social status”) so that if they somehow figure out what their winning conditions are, they can change their resources relatively easy.

Runaway leaders

Even though there are no clear winning conditions, having more resources is obviously useful.

When resources are relatively scarce, getting enough resources to pay the many different “taxes” (e.g. “food” which gets consumed every turn, the requirement for “shelter”, etc.) can be quite demanding. Moving towards getting a bit more resources can be very challenging.

However when you do get to a decent surplus of resources, it is incredibly easy to increase these further, to ridiculous amounts even (I’ve heard stories of players who literally had a million times more resources than other players!).

This is further exacerbated by the unbalanced starting positions, making a random element that is determined before starting the most important part of whether you can get to a surplus at all.

The interesting

So what are some of the more interesting bits of the game, what makes it stand out from all the other board-games that are out there?

You know what this game needs? Another player!
Player generation

One truly unique mechanic is that it is possible for players to generate new players! This is something I’ve never seen implemented in anything else.

Generating a new player costs quite something in resources (also because this includes resources required for the tutorial), but for most players this is attainable.

It’s also interesting that not one but two players are required to generate a new player. The result of this is an increase in overall cooperation in the game and further deepens the player interaction.

The artwork interacts with the game

The artwork can have a direct impact on the game!

The first way this is done is through pieces of the board that can enhance (or detract from) your mental resources (e.g. “sunset” can increase your “mood”).

Even more amazing is that the artwork of the player representations have an impact on how they influence other players: Players that have been rendered more beautifully generally interact more easily with other players!

This is one example of an unbalanced starting resources; the artwork for different players differs significantly and while it can be changed, this is difficult. For game play it is a negative, but the idea is very elegant and interesting!

Play only once

Life can be played once and that’s it. There are some discussions on different forums that it’s possible to start anew, but how that would be done and whether it actually works is murky and highly debated.

This means that it is not possible to implement what you learned in one game to the next. Due to potential game length however it is possible to pick up a lot of the game whilst playing it. And one could argue that playing a second game with knowledge of the first would give an incredible advantage compared to other players.

There are some other games that aren’t fun to play more than once, but they still can be. For life however this is strictly not possible.

The final verdict

Though the game has some serious balance problems, this can be forgiven because of the incredible depth that the game offers and some very interesting new mechanics.

If the imbalances get improved I would rate it higher, but as it stands, it gets 3 stars out of 5.

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 or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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