When we want something in real life we go to the appropriate shop, give them some of our money and take whatever it was we desired (of course there are things that money can’t buy, but for this post I want to focus on things that are definitely in the sphere of standard economics).
If I desire a particular teacup you own, while you desire it less, it makes sense for me to give some of my money to you and take your teacup. This way I get something I desire and you get the ability to buy something else you desire.
Of course goods don’t just spring into existence – teacups need to be made. And to make things you need to give up things of value: You need to buy materials and pay workers. Perhaps you also need to buy tools and machines. You pay for marketing your product. And having it shipped to shops. Etc.
We’ve built up a whole economy designed to produce things that other people value more than the value that needs to be given up in producing the thing (and getting it to the buyer).
This means that in a production process the amount of value has to increase. The amount of value output has to be higher than the amount of value input.
What does all of this have to do with board games you might ask?
Value in board games
Board games have an in-game economy. We spend some resources (wood-tokens, turns, cards, actions, etc. – see this post for more on in-game resources) to get other resources (stone-tokens, new cards, different actions). In this sense a board game resembles a modern economy quite closely.
In the real economy we do things because they produce value, where value is measured as “something that people desire” (I’m sure if you dig into it you can go to an even deeper level. Something having to do with survival-of-the-fittest or something. I’m perfectly happy to leave it at this though.).
To understand the in-game economy it helps to understand what “value” means within the game.
As a first approximation we can use the same notion as we use for the real economy: “Things that players desire”.
But because this is a game, it’s quite easy to go one step further. Because while in real life people’s desires a decidedly murky, in a game it’s very clear what the goal is: To win! And so players “desire” whatever brings them closer to winning.
“Value” in a board game therefore is equivalent to getting closer to winning.
The previous paragraph was quite abstract, so let’s make this more concrete.
In Catan I win when I have 10 victory points. And thus I will greatly value a victory point, because it most directly gets me closer to winning.
But I will also value anything that helps me get victory points; I love getting a village because it’s 1 VP closer to the finish. But that village is also going to produce resources. And those resources are going to help me get more victory points!
To build a village I need to gather resources: Wood, sheep, grain and stone. So I value those resources, because each one is one step towards building something that gets me 1 step closer to victory! If you think that’s convoluted, it can much worse… But let’s not get into that right now (I’ll spare your and my own brains!).
I also value anything that stops my opponents from getting closer to winning. Placing the robber helps me only marginally, but it can be quite a big issue for the other players. And as long as they are not winning, I have more time to get my own victory. Clear value creation!
The idea of value makes it possible to compare different options. If I can either get an additional village or I get a “1 victory point” card in Catan, which do I prefer? I would say it’s the village, as it will produce further resources and thus has a higher value than the single victory point card.
In this example it is possible to make a direct comparison between two options and declare one of them better.
Of course such comparisons are hardly ever so easy. Because the 1 victory point card costs less to buy than a village. But there is also a randomness to buying a card, so I might not actually get that 1 point. And I can even imagine edge cases where I would prefer the 1 victory point card (something with knowing that my opponent holds a “monopoly” card). So even in such a simple and clear-cut example there is uncertainty.
And this is good! You want players to be able to more-or-less compare options, but not entirely. Because this is where interesting decisions are born! If there is ambiguity on which option actually holds the most value players will have to make a choice and live with the consequences.
Because if the value of each option was perfectly known, there wouldn’t be any choice to make: Simply take the one with the highest value!
The value economy
In the beginning of this article I wrote how our economy is geared towards increasing value with each (production) step. The same should hold true for your board game economy.
Many games take multiple steps to get to a “final product”. In Catan I need resources to build first roads, then a village and finally a city. In each of these steps I’m increasing the value of what I have. This creates a sense of progression for your players as well a clear incentive to make certain choices (see this post on incentives in board games). Increases in value thus are a clear way of “steering” your players, without forcing them to do anything (they are free to not take the value increasing option…).
Of course it can be very interesting as well to make it much less clear that something actually has a positive value. Imagine a city in Catan being worth 0 points. Then there is a benefit (increased production) but also a downside (losing a victory point!). Given the target audience of Catan I fully understand that they decided not to go with this, but maybe your own game could use such a value trade-off?
Value is relative
I love going on vacation, while you might want a big car. We value different things.
In most board games players start out similarly (there are exceptions of course) and so in the beginning players will value the same thing the same way.
But once the game gets going players will have made choices that change the value of things for them. If you have a grain harbor you value grain more than if you don’t. If you’re one ore away from building a city then that ore is much more desirable than if you already have a hand full of the stuff.
When players are doing just-about the same you get a boring game. You want players to take different avenues. And for this you want them to value things differently. You want to vary how much additional benefit players get based on what they already have.
This can relate to strategic but also to tactical choices: What gives the most value in the long run versus what gives the most value right now.
Of course you also don’t want players to have completely different valuations, as that would mean they would have nothing to compete over!
Thinking about the value of things in your board game can help you take a step away from the gritty details of the design and take a more holistic approach: What are ways of creating value? How can value be lost? Are there very efficient ways of creating value? What would happen if it was easier to create value? Or if you made it more difficult?
Under what circumstances would players value options differently? How big are those differences in value? And are they likely to occur? Can you increase those differences? should you?
I hope you found this post valuable!
A while back I wrote a number of other posts about in-game economics. Here is a small selection:
So you’ve got an idea for a board game. How do you turn it into something that can actually be played (and that people will enjoy)?
In this post I’ll give my take on how to go about this.
What this is -not- about
I’m not going to write how to get your ideas. I’ve found that people have many more ideas than time to work on them, so I’m going to assume that the bottleneck is not at the idea stage.
This is also not about how to make your game a commercial success. It will contain nothing getting published, kickstarter, social media, etc. There are other people that write about that, so if that’s what you’re looking for, there is a whole internet out there!
Too big an idea
Ideas are cheap. I can have 10 ideas before breakfast. Or I can have one really big idea idea before breakfast. With full game-play, hundreds of cards (each having 10 different pieces of information of course!).
However… When I try to turn that into a game, I always find that it doesn’t work quite the way I wanted it to. What seems brilliant in my mind is boring or even impossible when put into cardboard.
Thus: Don’t spend too much time on creating ideas.
The essence of the game
My feeling is that it’s much better to start small. What you need is the essence of your game. What is the summary of the game in 3 sentences?
During development you’ll be taking lots and lots of decisions, from minor thematic ones (“Should I use clowns or mimes as the bad guys?” to major mechanic ones (“Deckbuilding or worker placement? Why not both?!”). And what you need is a guide to help you make a choice. Without such a guide decisions become arbitrary. With such a guide you can test whether a decision is the right one or not: “Does it strengthen the essence of the game?”
To get to the essence of your game, it can help to answer the following questions:
Who will the players be? (Ogres! CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies! Mice!)
What do those characters want (and perhaps why do they want it?)? (Smash stuff! Beat the competition! Steal cheese!)
Why is that difficult? (There are human soldiers protecting the stuff to smash! The other CEOs are working hard not to be beaten! Cats, traps and other mice!)
What would you like your players to feel? (Glee (from all the destruction they cause)! Anxiety (for what the other CEOs will do)! Boldness (for going against the odds)!
What makes this awesome? (You get to smash stuff! You’ll feel so powerful when your plans work out! It’s great for a small mouse to beat big odds!)
These questions do not need to be answered in order and not all need to be answered: Can you describe what makes your game awesome? Start at the bottom. You have a clear idea of who you want your players to be? Start at the top. You don’t know yet what you want your players to feel? Skip that question.
Note that in the above there is only a hint of what kind of mechanics you might employ to create your game. Instead these questions relate more to the “theme” of the game. This is because I believe that themes are much easier for humans to grasp than the individual elements that make up a game. A theme is a stub for a story and having a “story” makes for a much more compact essence than mechanics do. Having a story allows you to ask “What happens next?”
In the mice game, you start your mice in their nest. What happens next? They go out into the house. What happens next? They encounter all sorts of obstacles such as cats and traps. What happens next…?
This then creates a framework around which you can build your game: I’ll need a nest, something outside the nest and obstacles. However, don’t go too far into this (see the remarks above about big ideas).
Is starting with a story the only way? Of course not! But I believe it’s a very powerful way, that will help you with all subsequent steps. But feel free to experiment!
You have the “story” for your game. Now it’s time to add some way of enacting the first chapter of that story.
Here my suggestion is to keep it as simple as possible. You’re not going to be building your game in one go. Instead it’s going to be iterative and incremental. Because something can look absolutely amazing in your head, but only by playing will you know whether it actually works.
When you try to create a “full game” from scratch, you’ll implement things that won’t work (I guarantee it!). Which means you’ll have to re-do that part or (quite likely as well) scrap it entirely. Meaning a lot of work done for very little gain.
So, make the minimum that will allow you to play. Once that is more-or-less working, you can add to it easily enough.
How much do you need to create though? Enough for an entire game? Certainly not!
Create enough to play a round. A turn. A single action!
Your first prototype is to get going. It’s not going to be a fun game yet, it’s for learning purposes only.
For our mice game we’re going to need our mice to get to the cheese. Which means they need to be able to move around. And perhaps it’s nice if there actually is some cheese to go for as well. So as a bare minimum let’s select a pawn (from another game) to represent a mouse, we’ll have a board consisting of a grid (or even just a blank sheet of paper) and we’ll use a token (also from another game) to be the cheese. Place the mouse on one end of your “board” and the cheese at the other end.
And we’ll have a few rules.
A mouse token can be moved. By how much? Doesn’t really matter at this point, so choose an arbitrary number: 5 squares on your grid paper.
When a mouse gets to the cheese they can pick it up.
When the mouse with the cheese gets back to the starting square, you win the game.
That’s it. That’s your prototype!
Now, I hear you thinking: “But, but… There’s nothing there!”
And you’re right. There is nothing to this. But it’s a game. It can be played, it can be won. Time to play!
Your first game
You’ve built your very first prototype and you’ve set out the first rules. Now you go play your game.
So you take your mouse and move it 5 squares. And then you move it 5 squares again. And again. Until you get 2 squares away from the cheese. And then… If you strictly follow the rules of your game you’ll have to end the game or try to see if with a lot of maneuvering you can close that final gap.
But let’s say you quit your game then and there. Because you’ve done the most important thing in testing: You’ve found a problem!
Now this is a really simple problem so it’s easy enough to solve: You change the rules to say a mouse can move up to 5 squares.
And you start over.
Start your game again. This time you’re fairly easily able to get to the cheese and bring it back. Congratulations, you just finished (and won!) the very first time!
But by observing your play you find another problem: This is boring as hell!
Which is obviously not what you want your game to be. It should be fun and engaging and awesome.
Se let’s go solve this problem.
When you find a problem in your game it’s generally a good idea to try to resolve it. For many problems the solution is obvious (like the previous one where it was difficult to actually reach the cheese).
Other problems might not have an immediate or perfect solution available.
It also makes sense to see what the problem behind the problem is. The problem with our game is that it’s boring. Which is a very general problem and not easy to solve as a whole. So what’s the cause of it being boring? A large part of it is that it’s just too easy. And thus a first step to making it more interesting would be to make the game more difficult. Specifically, there should be some opposition to reaching the goal (of bringing back the cheese). Now, this won’t suddenly make your game super. But it’s a step in the right direction. And with enough steps in the right direction, you reach your end goal: An amazing game.
Now it makes sense to do a small brainstorm session: Write down the gist of a number of possible solutions. Perhaps adding another player will solve things (direct competition for that cheese!). Or maybe it’s time to add the cat to the game, which will kill the player if they are not careful. Finally we could introduce traps to make life more difficult. With some time I’m sure you can come up with hundreds more options.
Actually… There are gazilions of possibilities: Space vortices that move the cheese, zombies that infect the mice, Mediterranean traders that require gold to buy the cheese.
This is one of the reasons I suggested starting with a “story”. Within that story there are a number of elements that “make sense”. And there are many many elements that do not. Because of the chosen story we do not actually need to consider space zombies, cheese pirates or robot dinosaurs. And while this is s a silly example, it does show that having a story makes the amount of options you need to consider much smaller. Which in the end allows you to move forward much faster. Of course there is a small risk: Perhaps undead robot dinosaurs from outer space really would make your game much much better. But you’ll probably never know…
When you have a set of (sensible!) solutions, pick the one that seems most likely to add to the game and implement it.
Implementing a solution
When you picked a solution to implement, you need to design it.
Let’s say we went for adding a cat. How can we add the cat in such a way that it’ll make the game more challenging but not impossibly so? Here again we have a number of options that we could go with. Perhaps the cat is mostly asleep but it wakes up at random moments. Or perhaps the mouse can go to places where the cat can’t, scurrying from a hole in the wall to underneath the sofa.
Each of these choices will bring about a different type of game. If the cat is awake at random moments we’re heading more towards a gambling game. If the mouse stays alive by moving from protected place to protected place it becomes a much more tactical movement game.
So which option to choose?
Once again we go back to our story and the questions to the answers we gave. We wanted mice to be “bold”, which seems to imply a good chance of getting caught out, with a reward for taking calculated risks.
At first sight the randomly sleeping cat fits that bill, but at second thought it would take away a lot of player agency: Randomly getting killed doesn’t have a lot to do with boldness.
But if we instead set out the “house” in such a way that you can take the safer but longer route, or the shorter but more risky route…
Which of course again gives the question how to do that exactly…
At this point (yes, before answering the previous question!) it’s time to update your prototype. If you try to “make” something in your head you’ll pass by a lot of problems that become glaringly obvious when you actually play.
We need stuff mice can hide under, so let’s place some random spaces on the board that are “safe”. Draw them or use something you can move around.
Because we’ll be changing things, let’s opt to cut out some random pieces of paper and place them over the board. We’ll pretend they are weirdly shaped couches or something (we’ll come up with justifications later!)
We’ll also add a rule: For every square that a mouse moves outside of a hidden area, the cat moves 3 squares directly towards the mouse (cats are much faster than mice of course).
We reset the board and we play another game.
And we observe what happens.
Perhaps we find that it was very easy for the mouse to get the cheese. If so, make it more difficult, by making the cat faster or removing some furniture.
Or maybe the cat caught the mouse immediately: Make it easier by slowing down the cat or adding furniture.
But how much furniture do you need to add or remove?
When you first try a solution it’s unlikely that it’ll work perfectly in one go. As mentioned above, you’ll probably need to move the furniture or change the speed of the cat. And perhaps after that you’ll need to move it again.
Generally it takes a few iterations to get it right.
A good tip for this: When you make the first change to the game, make it bold. Remove all furniture except for 1 piece. Or quadruple the speed of the cat.
What you want is to end up on the “other side”: If the game was too easy, make it too hard and the other way around.
Then in the next iteration choose something in between the two extremes. And when you change it again move more toward one of the extremes again. This way you’re continuously “zooming in” on the right difficulty.
But where do you stop?
In the beginning of the game you’ll be painting with a very broad brush. Everything can change, so no need to put a lot of effort into getting any one element perfect. Use gut feeling to get to a “decent” level and leave it there. If it starts to bother you, you can come back and fine-tune further.
Later in development you’ll have solved the biggest issues, meaning that if you leave a change “too loose” it’ll become the next biggest issue. Spend a bit more time at getting it right so that you can move on to the next “real problem”.
How much is “a bit more”? You’ll develop the intuition to answer that!
Iterate to fun
In the previous paragraphs I described how you find problems and then you solve them. In all of this you keep the essence of your game in the forefront of your mind: Does it make sense? Does it add to the idea of the game?
But there is an even more important measure: Is it fun?!
In the end people play games for entertainment. Meaning they want to have a good time playing your game. So you need to iterate your game to make it fun.
That sounds obvious and it should be. But it’s also extremely difficult to actually do! But… There are ways!
There are many articles written about what constitutes a good board game (some even written by myself!). And I strongly suggest you read some of them to improve your skills. But in the end there is one thing that matters most when going for the fun…
Designing for fun: Play testing with others
The core of finding the fun is testing with other people.
When you start designing your game you’ll be doing a lot of the testing yourself. The problems are big and obvious and easy to spot, so you don’t need to invest the time to get others involved.
At some point however the blatant problems are gone and you’ll have played your game so many times it’s completely impossible for you to tell whether you still enjoy it or not (yes, that really happens. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, you need to do more testing!)
This is where you bring in play testers from outside.
There are three groups of play testers that you’ll need in the course of your development:
Friends & Family
If you have a group of designers nearby I would strongly suggest starting your testing there. Fellow designers are generally more patient with things that don’t “quite work” yet. They are also better able to pinpoint where there are problems with your game.
I’ve found though that fellow designers are less useful to figuring out whether a game is fun or not. They tend to be so deep into designing that it’s hard to take a step back and simply “enjoy” a game. Still, they will give their opinion and you should be happy to make use of it.
Next to fellow designers it’s great to play your game with friends and family. They will have a much less in-depth look into your game, meaning they won’t be as good at spotting specific problems (and coming up with solutions). They are however a much better audience to test the “fun” with. Having said that, they might not be completely honest with you: It’s so much easier to say they enjoyed themselves and not hurt your feelings, than to honestly tell you they’d rather go swim with piranha’s than play another round of your game…
Finally, when you are getting to be very happy with your game (this is generally after tens if not hundreds of play tests!), you need to test with strangers. These people are far less invested in your personal well-being and thus will be more honest. Still, they have a tendency to be “polite”, which can mean they will make things appear nicer than they actually find them.
How to play test
So you’ve got a bunch of people together to test your game. What do you do now?
Many articles have been written about how to do play testing well (because it’s such an important subject!), so I’m not going to go in-depth into the subject (this article is long enough as it is!). But I want to give at least a few pointers.
As mentioned, in play testing you’re trying to find out if the game is fun and what is stopping it from being even more fun. For this you’re looking for “signs of trouble”.
A “sign of trouble” is any indication that a player is not having a good time, not having fun.
A great way to find out what players feel during your game is to ask them. You can do this during the game, but I’ve found it’s generally better to wait until the end, so as not to interrupt their experience. Try to ask the same question in multiple ways. Directly: “Did you enjoy the game” to subtly: “What would you change?”
A word of warning when asking players: You’re trying to find out the problems with your game. It’s then for you to find solutions, not for your play testers! They don’t know your game as well as you do. That doesn’t mean they won’t come up with suggestions though (people love being creative!). However, take these suggestions as pointing towards the problem, not as actual solutions to it: “What would be really cool is if I could trade cheese with other mice!” This can mean that the player feels there is too little player interaction. Ask further questions to get to the bottom of why they are suggesting something.
Whatever feedback your play testers give, thank them for it and write it down. You will forget exactly what people said in a day or two, meaning you wasted a perfectly good play test.
Finally: Do not defend your game! If they feel something, they are correct. Which is not to say you need to do something about it. In the end it’s your game. But time with play testers is valuable. Use it to get as much information as possible, not arguing.
Just as important as asking players is observing them while playing. Are they engaged or are they looking at their phone? Is there laughter or yawns?
The combination of asking and observation should allow you to hone in on the problems you find (allowing you to go into problem solving mode, as explained above).
The above is a cycle. And you’ll go through it many times. As mentioned above, what you’re trying to do is take steps towards a better game.
This will not be a direct path. You will need to back-track. Sometimes to a previous version, sometimes to 10 versions ago (yes, I’ve had that happen to me multiple times!). This sucks, but it’s part of the game. So learn to love it, or try a different hobby…
Some final tips
Make your game short! This is simpler to design and test and it will be much easier to get people to play it. Half an hour is perfect, an hour is acceptable. If you need more time than that consider shelving the design and work on it as your fifth game.
Regularly check your game for things that can be taken out. Putting things in is easy and happens naturally. Elements however never disappear on their own, even if they are no longer needed. What purpose does everything in your game serve? If you can’t answer, experiment with the game without it.
Prototype early, prototype often! Test early, test often! Don’t design in your head, design in cardboard!
The above is a lot to take in I realize, so let me try to give the quick summary:
Create the story of your game
Create a prototype as quickly as possible
Find a problem and solve it
Do the previous step until you have a half-way decent game
Play test with others to find more problems and solve those
Do the previous step until you have a full-way decent game!
Creating a board game is a lot of fun! You get to be creative, you get to really own the process and the outcome and you get to be social while doing it. There is nothing like having a really difficult design problem and after chipping away at it you finally find the perfect solution! We play games because we like challenges. We make games because we like challenges!
But… Making a board game also takes a lot of free time and the chances of making any money out of it are very slim. If you don’t enjoy the process, don’t start on it. If you want to be rich invent a time machine and buy BitCoin.
However, if you want to do something creative, design a board game!
I hope that this “guide” has been helpful to whomever is starting on the journey of creating a game (and perhaps also to people who are much further along on that path?).
I’ve expressed my own opinions and ideas on how to do things. And being human, I tend to be wrong a lot. So if you disagree, I would love for you to let me know so we can learn together!
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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!”
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?
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.
Though some great games can only be played a single time (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories, though there technically it’s a scenario that can only be played once), replayability is generally seen as something to strive for when designing games.
In a recent post I argued that why we like “deep” games is that they are replayable.
Then I recently read this article, which does an amazing job in tying depth, strategy, tactics and many more subjects together (warning, long read!). In it the author defines depth as:
“Depth is a function of the layering of heuristic understanding necessary for effective play”
This seems to coincide well with my own ideas. I never gave a formal definition, but informally it’s something like: ”A game is deep if it requires a lot of play-throughs to master”. I guess my loose definition is a bit more easy to understand, while the definition from the article is more rigorous. Take your pick…
Both ideas center around how much you need to invest to really learn a game. And thus learning is one of the central points here. Which will be the subject of this post.
How humans learn
Kids learn through rewards and punishments: “Hold your hand against a burning stove and it burns (don’t do that again!).” And: “Eat a piece of candy and you get a delicious taste in your mouth (more please!)”. There is a very quick feedback between the action (touching a stove) and the result (pain!). Because of this you really only need a single encounter with a hot stove to be very careful around one for the rest of your life. Likewise, if we get a candy and it doesn’t taste good, we’ll be slightly less inclined to have more candy in the future.
As we get older, we can learn when there is a bigger remove between our actions and the results: “Be nice now and get desert later.” Or: “Don’t do your homework today and get punished at school tomorrow.” Still, there is a clear connection between our action and what comes our way because of it; the teacher is very clear that you have to go see the principle because you didn’t do your homework.
When we are grown up we can handle even bigger temporal differences: “Study for a year and you’ll be in line for a promotion after that.” And as long as we do actually get the promotion, we’ll have learned that studying leads to advancement.
The examples above all have a clear link between our actions and what we get out of it. But those connections aren’t always so clear cut, especially when timeframes are longer: “Did I get my promotion because I worked hard, because I have skills that nobody else in the team has or because I sucked up to the boss?”
The joys of learning
Humans really like learning stuff – being able to form a connection between an action and its results. This makes sense, because else life would involve random acts and random results, meaning you’d never be able to predict what would happen next. People without the ability to predict don’t survive very long (“Let’s see what happens when I go pet that lion?!”)
You might disagree that people enjoy learning. That is because most people associate learning with school and school is anything but fun. This is because when studying the result is very indirect. What you learn in school doesn’t help you to predict the world better, it only helps you to do well on an exam.
Learning the correct conjugation of a French verb in school doesn’t do anything in real life. But compare this to someone who moved to France who has a bit of insight and through interacting with the locals is improving his language ability. This does immediately impact his life and as such is much more satisfying.
Learning in board games
So what does all of this have to do with board games (yes, the subject of this blog really still is board games!)?
When you first play a game you suck. And you’ll readily lose to someone with more experience. But while playing your first game you’re gaining insight in how the game is played. You should play this card and not that, going for points early makes you lose steam for the end game.
This is not some dry learning you’re doing in school, no, you’re learning something that is immediately applicable, in the next round or in the next game.
My belief is that this is one of the most important reasons people enjoy board games so much: They give the best kind of learning experience. The kind that can be used right away. You are now able to predict the future that much better, well done, have a shot of dopamine!
How to learn to play a board game
So you want people to be learning while they play your game, as that gives a pleasurable rush.
How do players learn a game? Through a bit of insight, but mostly through trial-and-error. When you play Catan for the first time (with others who have no experience) you haven’t a clue on what the best choices are, so you place your villages almost at random. Then a few rounds in someone remarks that rolling sixes and eights seems more likely than twos and twelves, so you’ve learned to focus on the big numbers (big as in that they have a larger font size on the tiles). Good, have your jolt of pleasure!
Then you learn that you need to spread what kind of resources you get (buzz!, but that a bunch of meadows combined with a sheep harbor is also a good idea (buzz!). Then your neighbor blocks one of your roads and takes a juicy spot, taking the game to another level (more buzz!).
When you’ve played a lot of different board games you start to recognize meta-patters: More resources is generally better. Getting more actions (e.g. more workers) is almost always is a good investment. Etc. But you still need to dig into the game to really learn its specific ins and outs. Which means playing, trying and failing. Until you stop failing.
The measure of success
What does it mean to stop failing? What does it mean to succeed?
When learning French your aim is to be able to have a conversation with that hot Parisian. When learning to play a game, your aim is to win.
The learning feedback loop
During a board game you do a lot of things. And at the same time your opponents are also doing lots of things. You’re playing cards, gathering resources, bluffing and moving tokens about. Depending on what game you’re playing you might take between a single and hundreds of distinct actions.
Only when all these actions are taken does the game reach its end. And only then can you determine whether you did well or not, because only then will the winner be known.
The result is that the feedback loop on whether any single action was “correct” is relatively long: Only after the game is over can you determine if that action was part of a winning way of playing.
More interestingly, giving feedback (win / loss) only at the end of the game obscures the information about any single action immensely. Because was it this action or that one that made the difference? Was it their combination? Or were both of those actually sub-optimal but did you win because you did a few other things right?
Worse, you can have won because of luck. Or because everybody else was playing like wet rags.
If the feedback is too obscure, if you really can’t figure out how or why you won (or more likely, lost) then a game will lose its appeal. As written above, learning is fun if you can use what you’ve learned. And that means that something actionable has to come out of the learning experience: ”Next time I won’t place my first village between the dessert, the sea and a two…”
Luckily, games generally provide shorter feedback loops as well. In Catan you can see when someone else is getting more resources than you are. Being human we instinctively understand that more stuff is better! So it might only take few turns to regret placing our village at a two instead of at a six, meaning we will have learned something.
A layering of feedback loops
The ideal game then has feedback loops at many different “levels”; there should be extremely quick feedback (having more villages means I get more stuff!), intermediate feedback (placing a village at a six is better than at a two), long term feedback (taking a number of development cards is a good idea as that obscures how many points I have, meaning I won’t be the target of the robber that often) and every level in between.
“Deep” games have many layers of such feedback loops, resulting in interesting learning experience for absolute beginners, but also for people who have already played a game for a hundred times.
What this means for game design
So how does all of this help us design better board games?
Telling players how they are doing can help create short feedback loops. If you gain a few victory points with most actions then you can very quickly see your progress and measure it against your opponents’. This helps to quickly progress through understanding, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your target audience. If you’re trying to create something quick and light then this is definitely the way to go. But if you’re catering to die-hard gamers then it makes more sense to obscure any form of progression, as these people can more likely glean the “basics” quite easily and would in fact be more enamored by having to learn through long-term feedback loops. This then means that it would be better to give as little information as possible about “who’s ahead”; no victory point tracks (or perhaps no victory points at all). Imagine for example a series of hidden objectives which stay hidden until a player has achieved all of theirs and declares herself the winner.
It also means that self-testing of your game-under-development is difficult if not impossible. It’s your game so you’ve probably played it many times and know the ins and outs, meaning you aren’t learning anymore. Or even if you are, it is most certainly not at the same level as a novice player. You might argue that different versions of your own game will require new learning and you’d be right about that, but that learning is helped immensely by all the learning you’ve done on previous versions (I’m going to assume here that versions are actually quite alike; if not you’re basically starting on a new game).
This is not to say that self-testing is completely useless; when balancing game elements you can probably get reasonably far just on your own. Just remember that you will be playing as an expert and thus that the “balance” you’d create would be for an expert. The result can be that the game would actually be quite unbalanced when playing for the first time if an opponent happens to stumble upon a strong combination that an expert would easily deal with but that will simply kill you when you’re new. As an example consider the Fool’s Mate in Chess which is not fun to get served up when you’re learning the game.
As mentioned above, I believe that “learning” is one of the main drivers of enjoyment for games. This is in general not something you need to think about actively when designing; it’ll happen automatically. But when you’re going a layer deeper, this might be exactly the thing to think about: What is the learning path, what would players pick up first, what later? Is there an entry level that’s interesting enough to get to the deeper stuff? Is there deep stuff that keeps the game interesting for a long period?
Indirectly this also answers why I love writing this blog so much: I’m learning – not about any given board game, but about board game design. I hope you’re enjoying your learning as well! 🙂
This is the essential question in any board game. Given the current state of the board, whatever information I gleaned from my opponents, the strategy I thought would be good at the beginning of the game, what right now is the optimal choice?
And it’s that uncertainty that plays a big part in the enjoyment of games.
Uncertainty as driver of interesting decisions
You don’t need to ask a question if you know what the answer is (unless you’re one of those people…). Likewise, if it’s clear what to do, you don’t need to ponder what your next step should be. If you have no options or if there is one clearly superior choice, there is no real need for a decision.
And if there is no need for a decision, there certainly can’t be an interesting decision.
Thus, there needs to be uncertainty: What option is best? What will get me most in the long run? And in the short run? What is most important right now? And how will my opponents respond?
Not knowing the right answer is what makes a choice interesting.
You see the side-kick walking to the edge of the cliff and as the camera pans down we see the hero hanging by her fingernails. The side-kick reaches down and pulls the hero up…
Not particularly interesting, is it? At no point do you feel that there is actual trouble. Sure, hanging from your fingernails isn’t nice, but help is right there!
To be at the edge of our seats we need to worry, to hope for a miraculous safe. We need to be uncertain of what is going to happen.
This also holds in games. If you roll a die but it doesn’t matter whether it comes up one or six you’re not going to care about that roll. But if a one means total annihilation and a six is complete victory then you’ll be eyeing what pips come up like a hawk!
It is uncertainty about the outcomes (of a roll, an action, the entire game) that pulls in your players and creates the most important feeling in board games: Wanting to know what happens next.