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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