2 heads know more than 1. And 10 know more still! So instead of thinking about everything myself, I’m very happy to share with you some of the insightful, brilliant, thought-provoking or otherwise interesting articles that other people wrote about board game design.
It’s what you don’t notice that makes the game
For me an important part of board games is “immersing” in them, being to where the game transports me instead of at the table. Andy van Zandt (Twitter) made me realize that what really helps with this is making the playing experience as “smooth” as possible, letting the game flow without interruptions or “clunkiness”.
It’s not the size of your mechanics, it’s what you do with it!
Related to the previous article: Mechanics are a means to an end. Having a really cool mechanic isn’t enough, it’s about the experience you get through that mechanic (and the rest of the game).
Mark Major (Twitter) touches upon the subject, and I would love for him to go much deeper into it.
Jay Cormier (Twitter) and Sen-Foong Lim (Twitter) write about how limitations can be good for your game design. I fully agree with this, in that reducing the size of your design space (all the possible options you could potentially explore) allows you to go much deeper into what is left.
I wouldn’t go as far as they do though (seriously, 25 tiles and that’s it?!).
As a player of a board game you get your components and the rule book. From those you can figure out what you can do, but not what you should do (or even better: What’s fun to do). For most games there is nothing beyond “winning”, but why wouldn’t there be? Personally I enjoy beating a previous record, building the largest whatever, winning in a different way (or even losing in a different way!).
The article below touches upon these items from the perspective of computer games. It might be trickier to do the same in board games, but in no way impossible. Something to ponder…
I believe that interesting decisions and tension lie at the core of good (board) games. So, I was very happy to read Michael Ardizzone’s (Twitter) article about exactly those subjects (albeit in the context of computer games).
Particularly interesting are what he believes is required for tension (i.e. indirectness, exclusivity and situationality). Especially “indirectness” is something I had never thought about (but should have): We never simply “win the game” (no tension, boring!). Instead we take some resources to be able to build a building, which generates different resources, so that we can build a second building… Only very far down the road does any of this (hopefully!) lead to victory.
Does more indirection lead to more tension? Would that make more “strategic” games more tense? I don’t have the answers, but I’m very happy I now know to ask these questions!
Recently I played a game of “Terraforming Mars”. Being the huge nerd I am, I immensely enjoyed the game (whilst at the same time griping wholeheartedly about some of the components).
One of the most enjoyable moments came when I got a “Huge ice asteroid” card. It was expensive (in terms of in-game resources) and the game effect were pretty nifty. But that’s not what makes it a moment to remember.
In real life all I did was move some tokens from one place to another, take a card from my hand, showed it to everybody and placed it in front of me.
In my mind however I crashed a huge friggin’ asteroid on the face of another planet!!!
I was picturing gigatonnes of frozen water, hurtling down through an almost-non-existent (but slowly thickening!) atmosphere, delivering desperately needed water and heat to a barren planet.
Moving a card from my hand to the table and kissing a foreign planet with an asteroid. Could anything be more different than these two things? And yet, they did come together, in this particular game of Terraforming Mars.
A mind in two places
Games are played in two places at the same time.
On the board we shift around tokens, move our meeples, play cards. There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot do.
At the same time we’re playing in our minds, where we’re feeding our family, erecting monuments to the gods or sending asteroids to impact the face of a planet humanity hasn’t even been to yet. Here there aren’t any rules: You can do whatever it is that you like!
The first part (what happens on the board) are the mechanics and the rules. The second contains the “theme” of the game. But I believe it contains much more than just that.
The mechanistic approach
A game exists first and foremost because of its mechanics. Chess and Go, two of the most venerated games in history have next to no theme to them. If the mechanics are interesting enough, people will happily forget about the (lack of) theme and immersion.
I’ve played many a great game of Dominion and only when thinking about it afterwards does it seem weird that something like a village would come up at random moments instead of, you know, just being there! But the game is fun, the mechanics work and it’s a staple for introducing people to “the next level” of board games.
It even has its own moments of awesome, where you’re chaining card upon card and end up buying two provinces in the same turn. These are of a “mechanistic” awesomeness: You got to do something that made a big difference in game (what I called “Impact” in this post).
Feeding the mind
Most games I’ve played do not have hurtling-huge-balls-of-dirty-ice-into-the-face-of-Earth’s-neighbor-moments (or something of similar awesomeness). Mostly I’m too engrossed in finding the optimal move to pay much attention to what I’m doing “thematically”.
Which is a shame, because when these moments do happen, they tend to make the game so much better!
They transform an abstract optimization problem into something that feels real. They change a tough but engaging puzzle into something that, even if just for a moment, actually matters.
So what do these games have in common? I think there are a number of elements.
The games mentioned above all try to “simulate life” as closely as possible. They’ve taken a setting and players can do anything and everything that “makes sense” within that setting. And they’ve made it such that the way players do what they want to do also makes sense.
In Terraforming Mars you play a huge corporation that expends millions upon millions of Euros to re-arrange the solar system. Humanity can’t do this yet, but once we can this would be a way of doing it.
In Robinson Crusoe players use the limited time they have in a day to improve their lives on a deserted island, whilst trying to stave off one (small) disaster after another. It makes sense to consider whether it’s worth it to go hungry for a day if it means you can finish that shelter which will be useful for many nights to come.
It means that any action the player takes can be directly translated into real life and that there is as little as possible to clash with our view of reality. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be abstraction (please don’t try to simulate everything; I’m very happy that my pawns don’t need to use the toilet in-game…) but it does mean that you need to reach a reasonable amount of verisimilitude.
In Robinson Crusoe you are simulating a number of days and need to feed your characters at the beginning of the night phase. In Netrunner however time is far less important so there is no need to “feed” your character. Both work perfectly well in their respective settings.
In each of the games mentioned above you’re playing a realistic “character”. For most games this is a human being though in the case of Terraforming Mars a big corporation also does the trick.
These “characters” (I’ll leave off the quotation marks after this) are (somewhat) fleshed out: I’m this character and not that one. Characters are unique, in that they have individual abilities and a unique representation. Here a picture says more than a thousand words and makes characters much more relatable.
Having a fleshed out character makes a wonderful form of dissociation possible, where a player becomes the character. Once this happens it is much easier to stay in the “game world”, translating mechanics into the working of real life and player actions into character actions. No longer am I moving a pawn, no, I am moving myself!
Note that there doesn’t have to be a 1-to-1 match between a player and their character. In Dead of Winter you’re a group of (individual, fleshed-out) people instead of a single person. In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re a (generic) temporal agent who inhabits an (individual, fleshed-out) person. There is something of a remove, but this still works.
You’ve got to keep ‘em motivated!
There is one part of “realistic characters” that I want to address separately: Motivation. Many game don’t really explain “why” you (your character) wants to do something. In Agricola I guess it’s sortof a good idea to have a bigger farm, but does it really matter whether it’s bigger than the neighbor’s (or that I have at least one of each type of animal)?
In the games mentioned however it’s clear why you’re doing what you do. In Netrunner the corporation wants to advance its agenda’s because that’s what corporations do. For the runner this is even better because the different characters actually have different motivations (ranging from hard profit to “because they can”). In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re solving the mystery because your boss ordered you, while in Robinson Crusoe it’s a fight for survival.
Motivations don’t have to be particularly strong, as long as they beat “that’s how the game is played”. This is because the character is not playing the game, it’s the player that’s playing. And if the character is doing something that doesn’t make sense for them to do in the real world, it’s very hard for the player to suspend disbelief and get in the skin of the character.
The cost of immersion
Games exist in a spectrum from pure abstract to “as life-like as possible”. The more you get to the latter, the easier it is to create immersion and memorable moments.
This comes at a cost though. Life-like means simulating enough of “real life” to make it believable and that can mean that you have to leave things out of your game because they don’t mesh with reality. Likewise, it can mean you have to put things in that aren’t good for play but make the illusion more believable.
This is a choice or a balance if you will. There are games that get played a lot even though they’re only half a step away from pure abstracts (Dominion anyone?). Some player prefer tight gameplay over having a story afterwards (or during the game). And neither is better than the other (just different!).
I’ve never hacked a megacorporation’s protected server, I have never been stranded on a deserted island, I’ve never thrown an asteroid onto the surface of a planet.
Except that I have, through playing awesome board games!
For me these kinds of games rise above other games which are “merely” innovative, perfectly balanced and tightly designed. As such I hope to one day be able to design something that reaches these heights as well.
Maybe the same holds true for you? If so, I hope that this post was of use for you!
And if maybe you know of other games that engender this sense of immersion, do let me know because I would love to play them!
If you want to know more about this subject, maybe these posts are also of interest to you:
Recently I had the joy of a weekend away with friends. In between sleeping late, hiking, great food and a beer or two, there was ample time to play games. And by far the biggest hit was “Evolution” (or specifically “Evolution – Climate”, which is the game with an expansion built in, though in this post I’m going to focus on the Evolution game, without the Climate expansion).
In this post I’ll do my best to dissect the game, trying to glean some insights as to why it’s such a good game (so that you can make yours equally great!).
Evolution in a nutshell
In Evolution you get a bunch of cards, with which you can create awesome animals with which you will compete in an ever-evolving ecosystem.
Cards can be discarded to start a new (“blank”) species, to increase population of a species or to increase body size. These cards can also be played to give your animals up to four “traits”: A long neck to get additional (plant) food, a hard shell or horns to protect against carnivores, or your species can become a carnivore itself so it can eat other animals. Finally, you have to discard a card to add (plant) food to the central food stockpile (called the watering hole).
Then it’s time to feed your animals. Herbivores eat from the watering hole and carnivores eat other animals. You decrease the population of your animal(s) if you can’t feed them (there are no more plants for your herbivores or all animals are protected against your carnivore) or when they get eaten by a carnivore. If the last animal of a species dies it goes extinct. But not to worry, you can start a new species!
Final scoring is for the amount of food your animals ate during the game, how much population you have left at the end of the game and how many traits your surviving species have.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the game, let’s delve into its brilliance!
There are a few reasons that, though they aren’t central to the game, certainly help:
The game is relatively simple: There are only a handful of rules to remember and they’re all reasonably intuitive
The only real resource the game uses is cards, which are used in many capacities, lending the game a beautiful elegance
The cards are just beautiful to look at
There are a number of elements that I believe are at the core of what makes Evolution such an enjoyable experience. The following paragraphs try to show these off.
Evolution is very strong at immersing you in the game, making you care.
During the game you’re building a species: A pack-hunting, climbing, horned, carnivore or a burrowing, hibernating, migrating, long-necked herbivore? You take your pick! creating something gives a sense of “ownership”, which makes it much more likely that you’ll care about it.
This is enhanced by the fact that you’re creating a creature. We’ve all had a pet rabbit or gazed lovingly at an elephant in the zoo. There is something about animals that makes our human hearts skip a beat. Something that a city, civilization or farm just won’t do. The graphics on the cards help with this, turning any “mud-wallowing” (yes that’s a trait!) animal into a cute wart-hog and a “furry” animal into a great big ox.
These animals even act like (very stylized) versions of the real thing: They need to eat and they can breed, making them seem even more “real” to the mind’s eye.
And when the game has done everything it can to make you care about your make-belief animals, it does something wonderfully horrible: It kills them! Either because there just isn’t enough food, or because they become a tasty snack to another player’s carnivore. This creates a roller coaster of emotion from happy conception to tear-jerking death, helps to pull you even further into the game.
I love modern (Euro)games. But too often it feels like I’m playing on my own with people sitting nearby who only happen to be playing the same game.
Evolution has a healthy dose of player interaction: Which carnivore is preying on my cute bunny-like animal? What would be a good snack for my tiger-equivalent? Can my turtle get some food or is that lizard on the opposite side of the table going to grab the last vegetation?
Through this you’re constantly looking out for what your opponents are doing. It’s very figuratively a matter of eat-or-be-eaten.
And even if there is currently nothing that can touch my almost-dinosaur, I have to be acutely aware of what some player might evolve next turn: Can any carnivore grow large enough to eat it?
Obviously, getting your animals eaten by someone else isn’t good for your point total. Luckily it’s generally fairly doable to protect your animals, or at least make it costly for someone else to go after them. You might very well lose a bit of population, but getting an entire species eaten is generally more due to your own inattentiveness than what exactly your opponent does.
And of course, turn-around is fair game! Nothing is more fun than turning that cuddly prey-animal into a ferocious hunter itself!
The circle of life
Many games have a sense of buildup: Get resources to build something up so you can get more resources (rinse, wash, repeat). Mostly however this progression is either (almost) straight up (e.g. Agricola) or it’s a back-and-forth where my progress is your downfall (e.g. Risk).
In Evolution you’re definitely building things up (cool species, to be exact!). There is something very satisfying with creating the perfect killing machine or an animal that eats all available food before anybody else has the chance.
But there is a very real possibility of loss as well: Your apex predator can suddenly find itself going hungry as all prey has suddenly “evolved” powerful defenses against it. And one of your animals might go extinct, but it’s easy enough to create something new (and even more awesome!).
The result of this is that it’s never a case of “the winner keeps on winning”. No species is invulnerable for very long, the high will be brought low and the low will rise up. Possibly even multiple times in the same game.
Is that carnivore coming after my cute little pig, or is my neighbor’s gecko a better bite? Will there be enough food to keep my species from losing half its population? Is that last prey animal my species can eat going to evolve the ability to climb so I can’t get at it?
Through a combination of never knowing what your opponents are going to do and some hidden information, there is a lot of tension in the game (see this post for more on tension in board games).
This partly overlaps with the paragraph about “immersion” about. Because you get so into the game, any threat is felt even more acutely. It’s not some abstract bits of wood and cardboard, it’s a magnificent species that might get wiped off the face of the earth (well, tabletop)!
The amount of resources (see this post for more on resources in board games) you have available is very limited: You only get a few cards per turn. This means that you have to make those cards count! Increase population for additional points when feeding, but running the risk there might not be enough food? Increase body size to protect against predators? Start a new animal in the hopes that nobody will eat it straight away? Add further protective traits to your strongest animal? But which traits to give up?
And what’s nicest is that these choices are not made once, but every round again. A species is never “finished”; that great defense last turn might be a liability this turn. And where food was the limiting factor in the beginning of the game, maybe it’s all those pesky carnivores at the end. You’re constantly reacting and trying to foresee what the game (other players) are throwing at you.
An unfortunate choice might mean a wasted card, a significant loss of population or even the extinction of your species, so these choices matter!
And there are generally multiple ways of “solving” a problem. Predators roaming? Protect your species with traits, grow it too large to be eaten, breed it faster than it can be consumed, or have your own carnivore eat the other’s!
“Evolution” certainly isn’t perfect. There is a bit of a learning curve for all of the different cards, it can be hard to keep track of exactly what all the other animals are capable of (especially with many players) and having a hand full of cards can lead to serious analysis-paralysis (see this post about how to reduce analysis-paralysis in your own game).
All of that doesn’t stop Evolution from being a great game! And it certainly doesn’t stop it from being a good example of how you can improve your own game.
Are you immersing the players in your game? Do they care about what it is they’re doing?
How do your players interact? Is your choice for multiplayer solitaire (or all-out war!) a deliberate one or just the easiest option? What do your players feel about their opponents at the end of the game?
What are the sources of tension in your game? Are they at the edge of their seats or looking at their phone most of the time?
Do players have meaningful decisions? Are there multiple choices that give distinctly different outcomes? Is there an always-best choice?
Good luck with your design endeavors!
Wisdom evolves through discussion: 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 completely missed the point?!
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.