Board game design, Guest post

My previous post was on “learning from games that aren’t fun”. I started off with my own game, where I had (inadvertently!) designed the fun right out. I asked around on Facebook whether other people had ever made a similar mistake and I’m happy to report I’m not the only one! 🙂 (For the full Facebook discussion see here)

One of the replies was from Matt Fletcher, who gave a very detailed reply about his own struggles while designing “Gladiators of Dragon Isle” (looks gorgeous by the way, go take a look!). I asked whether I could use his reply as a guest post for my blog and he graciously agreed.

With that I’ll give it over to Matt

One of the characters in the game
The greatest mistake that I made was to include everything I wanted in a game. I wanted my game to be the greatest gladiator game out there, and more than just a combat game. I added thematic events, actions outside combat, actions inside combat, realistic actions like working and resting, player combat, combat against fantasy creatures…the list goes on.

The game played great. The mechanics were solid. The players loved it.

The mistake? It took 12 hours to finish a game. I had added too much to do, and it played more like a novel than a short story. The niche market for such a game is far too small, as the majority of players do not have the time or attention span to grind a game for that long.

It was really hard to shave off things I loved, but I had to make critical design decisions to get the duration down to 2 1/2 hours. I did it eventually, but it took several months of experimenting to correct.

Lesson: Don’t add everything you want from games into a single game.

I wish I could remember where, but a designer said something that really stuck with me early on: “If it isn’t essential to your game, it shouldn’t be in your game”.

It was one of those lines that really guided me, and so I took that advice and went through my game piece by piece.

I thought hard about what I wanted the game to convey.

You know that feeling the crowd emits in old gladiator movies, where they’re on the edge of their seat screaming for their guy to win? I wanted to give that feeling to players every game.

To do this, you needed to be invested in the gladiators, so it required a certain amount of buildup and anticipation.

If the mechanic did not directly support one of these conditions, it was removed.

After that, I watched the players and recorded the moments that people weren’t actively invested in what was going on. Did player A forget it was their turn? Why? What action took so long beforehand that they stopped paying attention? Is there a way that I can make that action quicker, or change it so it resolves immediately?

This took time, but some fixes were easy. Some examples:

1) Each gladiator had his own token, which was placed in worker placement style outside of combat to take different actions. People forgot who’s turn it was because they couldn’t remember which gladiator was which purely from the visual. You couldn’t just look at the board and know.

The fix: Make colored meeples for each house to take those actions. 2 blue guys, 2 red guys, and 1 green on the board. Guess who’s turn it is? This shaved 45 mins / game.

2) One of the thematic event cards would begin a combat with a dragon. Two of this card in the deck, and each could take quite a while to resolve.

The fix: Develop a unique combat resolution for that card that completed in 1 min. Shaved 50 mins / game.

And so on…

The big changes hurt. It was hard to accept that I could no longer keep them in the game. Let me give a quick summary to explain why.

The game is divided into 4 seasons. Each season had a FFA (Free For All) match and a Main Event.

The FFA was purely each player’s gladiators fighting for glory, if they chose to, without traps or NPC creatures. This gave the players complete control over the arena and all the factors affecting it.

The Main Event would have randomly generated traps and some kind of fantasy creature in the midst wreaking havoc while each team tried to secure victory over not only the creature but the other teams simultaneously.

Detail of the board
The combination of these two events made it so gladiators couldn’t always recover to full health. Combine that with injury cards when they went down, and it added a sense of realism and strategy. Each fight became an intense decision: Should I send my team in now? Is it worth it or should I bide my time and wait for a better opportunity? You couldn’t compete in them all.

The problem was that each fight took X amount of minutes to complete, and if you held back your team you were essentially waiting X minutes before you could play again. That didn’t work, but it enhanced the realism which was the core of what I was trying to capture.

This plays into a key lesson I learned for the experience.

NEVER include mechanics in the game that exclude certain players and take a significant amount of time to resolve.

Finally, I pulled the tooth. I got rid of the FFA (and cried a little on the inside). This was the final cut, and brought the duration to exactly where I wanted it.

Final Verdict: I loved it! I realized that the only reason the 12 hour version was good was because this diamond was hidden in the rough. By trimming all the mechanics that were kinda good, all I was left with was the really good ones. The game played great and received unanimous approval. It made me wish that I had done it earlier.

What I really took away from it: Don’t ever be too afraid to change something just because it works, you should give every idea a round at the table.

Matt Fletcher

Thank you Matt for sharing that! There are some very good lessons in there: Don’t try to put everything in one game. And cut what isn’t working, even if it’s something you absolutely love!

But the main thing I’m taking home is the idea of setting a vision for the game and then observing players to see where that vision breaks.

Thanks again!

Do you want to contribute?

If you have something interesting to say about about game design, something you learned while building your own game or through observation of others’, I’d be happy to make a guest post out of it!

If you’re interested you can contact me through the comments, twitter or at

About the (usual) author

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

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Board game design, 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: 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

— Bastiaan

Guest post, Prototyping

I’ve signed up to quite a few gyms over time. Some of them I went to very regularly and others I showed up twice and never looked back. What was the difference between them? One simple thing: Distance! When it comes to gyms, I’ve found that the amount of friction of going needs to be as small as possible. The same holds true for prototyping.

I’ve had hundreds of ideas for amazing games that never went further than a light bulb over my head. Because usually I’d be doing something else, not having access to a computer or my other design stuff, and the idea would die a quiet death. Or even worse, I just couldn’t be bothered to actually take the time to create the components; it was just too much work to fire up the computer, create a bunch of cards (in whatever editor), print them out, cut them to size, put them in sleeves (with a playing card for strength) and only then be able to test out my idea.

The above is the first two paragraphs of the guest post I wrote for GameGoodness. Want to read the rest? Go visit them!