Board game design

Introduction

Interacting just makes things better, if not cuter!
Whether it’s with a group of friends, your partner or the family, board games are inherently social (I’ll happily ignore the very few exceptions). This is because it’s fun to do things with a group of people, but also because the game gets better when you have other players. In this post I want to take a look at what player interaction adds to board games.

For this game I’ll be focusing on competitive games; I’m sure that an equal amount can be written about cooperative games, but I’ll leave that for another post.

There are three paths through which player interaction can make your game better:

  • Competition
  • Tension
  • Depth

Let’s start interacting!

Competition

At the end of the game there has to be a winner. Playing against the game (either solo or cooperative) allows for a win, but it’s just not as exciting as winning against an actual flesh-and-blood human being.

This competition also allows for a scaling of the difficulty of the game: As your skill level increases (hopefully) that of your opponents is also going up. This works especially well if you play games with the same group of people, where you’re all learning at the same time.

Having multiple opponents also allows players to set a different (personal) goal. If you know there are some experts at the table the chances of winning are low. But it might already be quite an achievement to not finish last. Or to do better than your best friend Mary.

You can compete against yourself, but it just isn’t as much fun
For some people however it can be quite off-putting to know in advance that they’re just not going to win because others are better at the game (have more experience). This is not something that’s easy to solve, though using high amounts of randomness (e.g. dice, cards) can create a possible win for anybody based on “luck”. That however might rub players who want to win based on skill the wrong way (who ever said that game design was easy?!).

Finally, playing against different players can bring out different elements of the game. Playing against someone who loves to go on the offense can be a very different experience than a defender. Thus, player interaction can increase the replayability of a game.

What’s needed for competition

Competition will happen whenever players have the same goal (winning), regardless of how the interaction between players actually is done mechanically; even if there is no interaction within the game, there can still be competition.

Tension

In a previous blog post I wrote about creating tension in your board game. There I already mentioned that “the human factor” can increase tension in board games. Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Tension comes about when there is uncertainty about a desired outcome. And, it is increased when you have (limited) influence over the outcome.

Playing against human opponents can significantly increase the uncertainty: Human beings are unpredictable and thus they are a source of randomness. The randomness “generated” by human beings however is much more interesting than that created by using dice: Dice are completely random, whilst human beings allow for quite some insight in what they would probably do: “Achmed only has a single soldier, so he’s probably not going to attack, but he’s got a huge pile of resources, so he might well build a factory…”.

This then increases the level of influence you have. Not over what happens on the other side of the table, but over how you’re going to prepare for it. If an attack is not likely you can relax on defense. Tension however comes because you still might be wrong. Especially if your opponent made the same analysis as you did and decides to attack after all, because he expects you won’t be expecting it.

Other players can also make a move more tense by making the outcome more important. I might really want to take an action and my opponent wants to prevent me from doing that. We both commit a number of (hidden) resources to get our way. Now it’s not just the original action that’s at stake, it’s also whether that pile of resources is going to waste or not!

What’s needed for tension

To create tension through player interaction you need there to be actual interaction. This can be through “getting in each other’s way” (e.g. vying for the same resources) or through more direct means (e.g. “attacking”). In general, the more directly you interact, the more tension there will be.

Depth

How will the final gear turn if I twist this one left?
Finally, player interaction can increase the depth of your game. It’s not easy to give a concise definition of depth, but for the discussion here it’s sufficient to say that a board game is deep if it continues to throw up interesting challenges (even after having played it many times).

In this post I go into what it means to have interesting decisions in your board game.

One part of depth is the amount you need to “look ahead” to play the game well. If there is no player interaction then all future moves are a combination of complete determinism (something set in motion will follow its rule-based path) and complete randomness (at some point there might be a random event: A die or a card draw).

Complete determinism is boring, as there is no variation to take into account. Complete randomness on the other hand is difficult, as the number of options tends to increase significantly; imagine having to throw a 6-sided die every turn: Looking ahead one turn means checking six possibilities (difficult), looking two turns ahead already makes this 36 (extremely hard)!

However as explained in the previous paragraph, human beings are semi-random: Of all the possible options, generally only a few are reasonable. When trying to analyze what my opponent will do (the next turn and the one after that), there are limited scenario’s I need to consider. Thus having an opponent in the loop generates “randomness”, but in a way that can be analyzed much better than a truly random event.

Also, figuring out what “reasonable” options are for my opponent is actually an interesting challenge in itself. The more player interaction you have, the more often you can indulge in this.

Sometimes players will act in unexpected ways. This then can open up new parts of the game that are not commonly visited, allowing for new and exciting challenges and choices.

Finally, high-skilled players will start to take into account what they expect their opponent to expect them to do: “My best move is to attack, but Kimberly can see that, so she probably kept a good card in her hand, so maybe it’s better to build instead…” This then can give an entirely new dimension to the game, where even though you know the game inside and out, it still remains challenging because of the second-guessing of the other players.

What is needed for depth

To increase the depth of your game through player interaction, you need some interaction, but not too much. If there is too much interaction, the number of possibilities can explode, similarly as through complete randomness.

For this it’s better to have interaction on a limited set of elements, so that players can analyze a reasonable amount of scenarios, without burning out their brains (and other players’ patience).

Next steps

In this post I tried to argue that player interactions can improve your board game. In a future post I hope to delve into what different forms of interaction you can put into your board game.

And perhaps I should also venture out and write a bit more about what depth entails (and how to get it in your board game)!

Feedback please!

I’d love to have some reader interaction: Let me know in the comments (below) or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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

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