Board game design, Play-testing, Prototyping, Story telling

Grab your tools, we’re making a board game!
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

The essence of this game is nuts!
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!

First prototype

Maybe not the right type of enactment?
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.

Finding problems

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.

I found this light-bulb. Not sure how it’s going to help with my problem though…
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.

“Wait, what?!?

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

Prototype 2.0

Back to the drawing board!
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).

Playtest 2.0

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?

Zooming in

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

Look at all those potential play-testers!
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
  • Other designers
  • Complete strangers

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

This is what you get when you look for tips on the internet…
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!

Summary

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!

Closing thoughts

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!

Further reading

Two elements that I believe are very important to any board game are tension and interesting decisions.

And one of the strongest ways of creating both is through player interaction.

Prototyping takes a lot of time and in the beginning you’ll be throwing away a lot of what you create. To do really rapid first “prototypes” I use what I call the “blank play-test”.

About the 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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Around the Web, Board game design

Brilliance is forever!
I’m a big fan of board game design blogs. I love reading other people’s thoughts, to complement or contradict my own, or as a source of inspiration.

When I read something that I find striking in one way or another, I save it for re-reading. And of course that’s a great source for having things to share with other people as well.

So I hope you also find something interesting in the articles below. Happy reading!

Oh the drama!

I love getting enmeshed in a game, to really feel I’m there. For me this links mostly to storytelling, but Nick O’Leary from MostDangerousGameDesing.com (the site seems to have been abandoned – unfortunately!) makes a connection to tension and three mechanics that can induce this “dramatic tension”. While the last two options are sortof common (hide who’s ahead and engine building), the first one struck my attention as something worth a further ponder: Reducing the amount of resources that are available, so that players have to “fight” over them.

Read the full article here: Three mechanics that create dramatic tension

Time for another lesson

How many lessons can you come up with regarding game design? From the top of my head I’m sure I can come up with 10 or so. And if I really sit down I might get to 30.

But then, I’m not Talen Lee, who came up with a staggering 260.5 (his count, not mine)!

Some insightful, some inspiring, some banal, some funny. But they’re all short and great for some light reading. Here is a random selection:

188: Deck builders give up a painful amount of space to your starter cards, and that’s PER PLAYER
11: There is no game idea too small to be worth trying to make interesting
49: Puns are SURPRISINGLY USEFUL for keeping people remembering game information, or expressing the core of a game idea. Murder Most Fowl is my favorite example, but it’s hardly alone.

The link is to the first ten, just follow the rabbit hole to get to all the rest: 2016’s lessons of gaming

You’re such a loser!

A lot of people play board games to win. But with more than 2 players (and a player vs. player game) the number of players that win will be lower than that number of players that… don’t. So in a sense losing is a more important aspect of games than winning.

In this article Gregory Carslaw gives 4 pointers on how to make losing fun (or at least, as painless as possible): Losing is fun

One thing I’d like to add to this: I’ve been playing Seafall (legacy player vs. player game) and I’m finding that losing a game there is way less bad than losing a “normal” game. There is something about it being just a “small step” in the bigger scheme of things that makes it easier to take? Of course, I can imagine that for the final game it’ll be much bigger…

Agency: Randomize!

Randomness is used a lot in board games. In some games it adds to variety and tension, in others it feels more like a stone being thrown in your face.

This article from No Hidden Info is geared towards computer games, but it is just as applicable to board games. It talks about player agency in the face of randomness: Agency and Randomness

Part of this was already known (input and output randomness), but the important addition to me is that randomness can be “closer” or “further”, meaning that you have less or more time (turns) to “respond” to it. An example that comes to mind is the “random event cards” from Robinson Crusoe. When they are first drawn they immediately do something (usually bad). Then they move to the bottom of the board. The following random event card pushes the first card one to the side and the next one pushes it off of the board, causing a second bad thing to happen. The first random event is “close”: There is nothing you can do about it. The second one is far: You have at least 2 turns in which you can “fix” it.

What other interesting ways are there to push out the results of randomness further down the line?

Traitor!

Player interaction is one of the strongest drivers of depth – other players are both smart and unpredictable and as such you can add a lot of “game” without adding any further rules.

Isaac Shalev from Kind Fortress takes a look at one particular player-interaction element: Distrust. This comes to the fore in coops that allow traitors (e.g. Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactica), and just about any social deduction game.

I can imagine using this in other settings as well. Imagine a game where trading is possible. You trade cards from your hand and these can be both beneficial and detrimental. Cards are traded closed and to each side of the trade one (also closed) card is added from the general deck. Then if you get one bad card it could be because of bad luck, but it might be because your trading partner screwed you over as well…

Here is the article: Everything you do is the reason I don’t trust you

Final remarks

I hope you enjoyed reading these articles (and my thoughts about them).

What articles did you read that really struck a chord with you and why? I’d love to hear them for my own learning. And perhaps they’ll end up in a next version of “Other people’s brilliance”?

Further reading

In case you want to read more of other people’s brilliance, here is my first post with curated articles from around the internet: Other people’s brilliance: 6 great articles about board game design.

About the 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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Board game design

He’s not really my type…
”Why do we play board games?”

“To have fun, duh! Stop asking stupid questions!”

We play games to have fun. But I’ve found that different people enjoy different games, or different parts of the game. My wife for example doesn’t care much what she plays, as long as she wins! For myself I much more enjoy finding out what the different possibilities are that a game allows (though winning is neat too of course!).

Different players have different motivations for playing games. Understanding what these are can help create better board games.

Fun from games

Different players enjoy games for different reasons. When looking at the people I’ve played with I can see a number of distinct “types” of players:

  • Power-mongers
  • Socializers
  • Imaginers
  • Explorers
  • Creators

(Are all of those real words? They are now!)

In the following paragraphs I’ll write something about each of these drivers and how you can cater to each of them in creating your game.

Power

In board games you can rule civilizations, build monuments to the gods and utterly crush your opponents. All of these are expressions of power, of bending the world (within the game) to your will.

Power can be over the elements of the game: You get to decide what your workers do, where buildings are built or what your character does. These are the kings and queens of imaginary fiefdoms, happy to rule for as long as the game lasts.

The most important way to achieve this is of course by winning. After all, nothing shouts out that you’re more powerful than others than beating them.

As most games are built with player vs. player interaction in mind, this is an expected part of most games and nobody will begrudge a player of doing their best to gain the upper hand. In fact, many people are very happy to get some good opposition, as it makes it all the more delicious when you do finally grasp victory.

Another way in which players can express power is in “quarterbacking” in coops: Telling other players what they should do. Some people are happy to let others decide for them what the best move is (most importantly Socializers, see below), but it can be a real downer for many other players.

Designing for power-mongers

People who enjoy power in their games tend to prefer player vs. player games (though as mentioned, they can also show their preferences in coop games).

For some power-mongers the simple pleasure of winning is enough, but for others direct confrontation is preferred. Euro-style getting-in-the-way passive-aggressive play is not what they are looking for, they prefer more direct interaction. This can be through aggressive action (attack!) but it is also possible to exercise power over other people with more innocent player interactions: Forcing another player to give you 3 bricks for your one sheep in Catan can put a gleam in the power-monger’s eye.

When it comes to mechanics, anything they can amass will tickle their fancy. This can be resources, but preferably it’s something that can be used to directly interact with the other players with (think huge stockpiles of armies in Risk).

Area control is also a mechanic that works well for the power players, as it easily shows who has control (power!) over how much of the board.

Example games for Power-mongers

Risk, Dungeons & Dragons (really any RPG where you can build overpowered characters), Munchkin, Monopoly.

Socializing

“…so I said to her: You’re such a kid! Anyway, want to play a game?”
Board games are inherently social activities (I know, you can play board games online and there are quite a few solo games now…) and this is what Socializers love the most in playing.

For them it matters less what they are playing and more whom they are playing with. A game is a reason to get a group of friends or family together and that’s the thing to cherish.

As such they may have little to no interest in actually winning; in fact they may well give up a beneficial action to help someone else.

Designing for Socializers

Cooperative games are a natural fit for Socializers, as it allows them to put their best effort into winning (which everybody else seems to think is important), without anybody feeling bad (for having to lose). Also the joined victory or defeat can create a group feeling, which is something Socializers value.

Outside of cooperative games, Socializers prefer positive player interactions, for example trading (see this post for more on cooperative forms of player interaction). And they dislike confrontational player interactions such as direct attacks.

Socializers are also perfectly happy to play “multiplayer solitaire”, as it means they do not have to do anything that could antagonize anybody else.

A large dose of randomness can also be appreciated by Socializers, as it means that anybody losing is not of their doing.

Finally, Socializers prefer games that don’t require too much brainpower. Not because they can’t handle it, but because if everybody is staring intently at their cards, there will hardly be any banter going on… They also tend to like party games, as winning and losing tends to be less important than the fun that is had together.

Example games for Socializers

Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Pandemic, Captain Sonar.

Imagining

Board games allow us to live on an uninhabited island, colonize mars or be queen of a fairy kingdom. They allow players to experience things they never would be able to in real life. And Imaginers live for this.

A game for them is a way to be or do something that is out of the ordinary. And generally the more exotic the better. A game should create a story (though it doesn’t need to be a story-telling game): The best games are the ones where something happens you can tell your friends about afterwards.

And though it’s nice to imagine a glorious victory, a bitter defeat can be just as exciting.

Designing for Imaginers

Imaginers want to “live the game”. This means that a lot of work should be put into artwork and other visual elements, so that it’s easy for them to transport themselves to your game world.

Cooperative games tend to lend themselves a bit better to the style Imaginers prefer, as in real life we tend to cooperate more than that we are directly antagonistic to each other. But if you are simulating something where there is a clear rationale for confrontation (e.g. a war game) then this should definitely be included.

When playing the game mechanics should “make sense”. Every element should have a connection to something that could happen in real life – it makes sense that your family needs to eat at some point (Agricola), it does not make sense that parts of your kingdom show up at random moments (Dominion). This doesn’t mean that everything has to be simulated to the finest detail, a level of abstraction is fine (no toilet breaks for your workers required).

For Imaginers randomness has a place in a good board game, but only if it links to something that is (or comes across as) random in real life as well.

Mechanic wise, hidden information can be a big boon to Imaginers, as they can use their imagination on what it is that might be hidden for them. Worker placement works (pun intended) as it conforms quite well to the actual notion of “work being done”. And a board that represents a physical space (instead of say a number of tracks), on which playing pieces can be placed or moved around, helps to visualize what is going on.

For further reading, in this post I look at a number of games that do the “imagining” very well.

Example games for Imaginers

Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars, Dead of Winter, Netrunner.

Exploring

I wonder what’s at the bottom of this ocean / deck?!
There is nothing quite like opening up the box for a new game. What’s inside, what adventures, quests and clashes will it bring?

Explorers like the “new” and the “unknown”. A new card to draw, a tile to flip. But also a new mechanic to try or a combination to experiment with. As long as a game keeps bringing up new situations they are happy to play. But inevitably, a game will grow old and it will be time to move on to pastures greener.

It’s interesting to try out different combinations and to push the limits of the game. That will most probably mean an Explorer won’t win, but she’ll have a great time going down in a blaze.

Designing for Explorers

Explorers seek novelty. That means that for a game to continue to interest them, it will require a lot of depth (see this and this post on depth in board games). Player interaction is one good way of providing this, as it very hard to fully gauge the mind of your gaming buddies. And if actual depth is hard to provide, large amounts of content will do in a pinch: A game with a thousand unique cards is where it starts getting interesting.

Another way of keeping explorers interested is by providing components that can be combined in many different ways. Dominion is a good example of this; there are many combinations of kingdom cards that can be made and a proper explorer will want to try every one of them.

Explorers love hidden information, so be sure to add a lot of cards that can be drawn at different moments, tiles that can be flipped and tokens that are taken from bags.

When it comes to mechanics it’s more important that something is new than what it actually does.

Legacy games are the games for explorers, as they provide fresh content (and an evolving story) for many games to come. Because opening a small box inside your game is only slightly less awesome than opening the big box in the first place.

Explorers’ second favourite type of game are decksploration games (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories) where you get to explore what is in a deck of cards.

Example games for Explorers

Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic Legacy, The 7th Continent, Escape.

Creating

There is nothing quite like taking 10 turns to carefully set up your engine, seemingly not making any progress at all, only to then switch it on and win the game in one huge bonanza of victory points!

The Creator wants to make something, using the tools provided by the game. Each element provided is but a building block and it is her task to find the best combination out of all of those. This can be an amazing combo or an efficient engine, but also the prettiest tableau or the fullest hand. It does have to be useful though (else you’re just exploring).

Winning is the name of the game for the Creator, because that’s how you know what you built works. But where the Power-monger wants to win, no matter what, the Creator wants to win with style.

Designing for Creators

Creators need to be provided with lots of different elements that can interact with each other. They love the string actions, cards and tiles together to get to a beautiful machine that turns one resource into another, which is turned into the next, and so on, until at the end they get a big pile of victory points.

For Creators a game should be fairly “meaty”, to have sufficient raw material to work with. The more steps it takes to do something, the better.

This also means they prefer Euro style games; most war games don’t care much about how efficient your army is, as long as it’s big. Limited interaction also means that there is nothing getting in the way of working on the grand opus; there is nothing as frustrating as having your combo ready to fly, only to have it disrupted by someone stealing a card.

Similarly, randomness can be fun at times, but mostly it just means having to wait longer until you do your big trick. And the same holds true for hidden information: It can’t be incorporated into the engine, so it’s just frustrating.

Deck builders, bag builders, dice builders, tableau builders, all of these are great for Creators, as it allows them to piece together what they need from a big market of possible resources. Barring that, a game where there are lots of different cards and tiles that they can combine will make them happy.

Example games for Creators

Agricola, Dominion, Magic the Gathering, Catan.

Mixing types

No man is an island. But every person is a cocktail!
The previous paragraphs sketch 5 different “player types”. Obviously these are exagerations and abstractions; nobody is a “pure” Explorer or Socializer. Everybody caries each type (and more), but some types will be more strongly represented in one player than another (for example I’m a strong Explorer and a weak Power-monger).

And these 5 types certainly aren’t the end-all either. I’m sure that with some thought you could add another 5 (or 50!) categories. And perhaps you can come up with a completely different categorization as well.

The point isn’t that these types are the truth. Instead they are meant to help you think about what kind of players you are catering to. What parts of your game would appeal to whom? Can you add further elements to make them like it even more?

”But shouldn’t I make something that appeals to everybody?”

Well… If that were possible then yes! But unfortunately that’s not possible, something that I hope the different types also show. Different people like different things. You can make something that nobody hates, or you can make something that some people love, but not both. A game nobody hates doesn’t sell, a game that some people love does!

Closing thoughts

We create games to have them enjoyed by our players. But who are “our players”? Do you have an image in mind? Perhaps a friend (or yourself)? What does this specific person enjoy the most? And what does she absolutely hate in a game?

Are you play-testing with those people? Or are you pulling in random strangers and trying to cater to every suggestion that they bring up? Who is your audience and what do they like?

And when you test your friends’ games, are you able to tell them: “This game is not for me”? Because you may very well not be their target audience either.

Further reading

Thinking about player types helps to create a vision for your game. This post looks at the vision for your game from a different perspective.

And a long time ago I wrote a post on games without winners, in which I also briefly touched upon different player types.

About the 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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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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: mtgreenb@yahoo.com) 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 b.reinink@makethemplay.com

— Bastiaan

Board game design

It’s time to go even deeper!
They say: “The best way to learn is to teach”. I never really believed this, but when learning about board game design I decided to give it a try. This blog is one of the results of that.

Last week I wrote a post about “depth”, what it means for a game to be deep and how to add depth to a game.

As a way to get some discussion going (and not to get readers! What kind of lowlife do you think I am?! 😉 ) I linked to that blog post in several forms of social media.

They also say: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!” This has also turned out to be more true than I was expecting, as some minor hell broke loose in discussions over what “depth” means exactly and how I could possibly think that adding complexity to a game could me it more deep (the audacity!).

Still, the second best way to learn is by listening (reading) carefully and perhaps going into discussion with your fellow scholars. If you’re interested I can direct you to some interesting (and lively!) discussion on depth and (sometimes) related matters:
On Reddit
On Facebook
On BoardGameGeek

For those of you who are not interested in reading a number of rambling discussions, let me do my best to express a few of the things I’ve learned through all of these jolly back-and-forths.

But before digging into that, I’d like to thank everybody who in some way contributed to all of these discussions. I’ve certainly learned a lot through them and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly!

Semantics – Or: Is what I see as red the same as what you call red?

As happens more often, a lot of the discussions resolved about “what does a word mean exactly, in the context of board-games”. We all have intuitions about what “depth” and “complexity” mean, but these meanings will be subtly (or largely!) different.

This holds true in the discussions, but also when reading elsewhere. There is no agreed upon meaning for many higher level terms (like depth).

The take away of this is that it’s important to be very clear in what you mean.

One way of doing that is by having good definitions – even if my definition is different from yours, when I write “depth”, this is what I mean.

But what I think is a better way of doing this, is showing why it’s important. I started out my post by writing that “depth” is one of the holy grails of game design. Why is that though? Depth itself doesn’t make a game better, it’s a means to an end. The same holds true for many other “abstract” terms.

I’ll get back to this one a bit below…

Depth – it goes deeper than you think

In my original post I ended up with a loose definition of a deep game as: “One that requires a large number of play-throughs to master” (I’m sure I used slightly different words).

Some other (loose and not so losse) definitions were offered. One that struck me as being on to something was: ”Depth is the number of emergent, experientially different possibilities or meaningful choices that come out of one ruleset”

I’m thinking about this deeply
I believe this indeed captures quite well what most people feel is depth, though it uses a lot of difficult words to do so (but perhaps that’s necessary as it’s a difficult concept?). “Experientially different possibilities or meaningful choices” to me means being provided with something new regularly. This doesn’t strictly mean that it takes many games to master, but it’s hard to imagine having a lot of “experientially different possibilities” and seeing through them in the first game. So I feel this relates quite well to what I tried to capture in my own loose definition.

The thing that I find difficult to place is the “emergent” part. For me the sentence would read exactly the same without that word in. The difference that is being made is perhaps one of “elegance”? If I create a game which has many experientially different possibilities and I do so by having many rules and components, do I have a less deep game than one that does exactly the same but with fewer rules and components?

My personal feeling is that the second game would certainly be simpler, more elegant (to again use a difficult, abstract term that I’m not going to bother defining) and better even, but I don’t feel that the game would be more deep

Digging a hole – or: How to create depth – Again

In the original post I suggested that depth can be created. Some people argued that this was not the case, that depth has to be in the core of the game.

I certainly agree that it’s easier to bake it into the foundation of your game, instead of adding it afterwards. Still, that depth needs to be put into the game in some way; the designer is going to have to create it. And for that you’re going to need tools, of which I suggested a few in the original post. All of which (I there said) involved adding complexity.

Which sparked probably the largest number of comments…

It’s not as complex as you think – It’s worse than that!

Let’s say your goal is to create a game that takes many games to master and / or has a large number of experientially different possibilities to bestow upon the player (I’m leaving the “emergent” bit off for now).

This means that the game needs to throw out “new stuff” (new experientially different possibilities / something new to learn) with some regularity.

That new stuff has to come from somewhere. It has to be generated by the game. Which means that the designer has to somehow create something that does this.

I called this “complexity”. After thinking about it further I believe this was not the best choice of words. My premise was basically that adding anything to a game would make it harder to master (and would give more experientially different possibilities), simply because there was more of it. At a very basic level this isn’t wrong: Simply adding more stuff does make it harder to master and it means that there is more complexity. But it’s not the complexity itself that makes the game harder to master, it’s the additional stuff. There is correlation but not causation. Or better to say, both the complexity and the “depth” are caused by a third factor: Adding stuff.

There is a far more important point to be made though: Adding random stuff is a stupid way of making a game harder to master (creating more experientially different possibilities).

The previous post did go into that a bit, saying that some ways of adding complexity (adding stuff) were better than others, but it did not do a particularly good job of driving that point home.

Why bother with depth anyway?

What are we trying to hit anyway?
At the top of this post I made a remark about looking at the reasons for digging into abstract terms, as the term itself is generally not the end-goal.

So what is the end-goal of depth in board games?

Or even better, what is the end-goal of board games in general?

While different people will play games for different reasons, they all get something out of it. Joy, fun, call it what you will.

Thus, the “goal” of a board game is to create fun.

And most board games do quite a decent job of this; I have never walked away halfway through trying a game for the first time (though I’ve walked away halfway through setting one up – but that’s another story…). A game has to be pretty bad if you don’t get some joy out of it the first time you play it.

However… Games aren’t played just a single time. The best games you play over and over again, until the cards are torn, half the components are missing and the box is more tape than cardboard.

This is where I believe that depth comes in: To increase the replayability of a game.

Of novelty and replayability

Human beings are novelty seekers and learning machines. We want something new and cool, not something old and boring. This means that games have to cater to this (or be so good that we’re happy to fork over our hard-earned money for only a single hit; T.I.M.E. Stories anyone?). They need to present many experientially different possibilities and many learning experiences, lest we cast them aside for something more shiny and fresh.

And as long as they do keep providing us with fresh stuff to try, more things to wrap our brains around, we’ll happily keep coming back.

So is “depth” the only way to create replayability?

Well, perhaps…

Imagine a game where you’re not learning anything more, would you continue playing it? Or one where you’ve seen every possible combination of components and rules it can theoretically generate?

Some people are happy to play something for the joy of spending time with friends, or the pleasure of thrashing their siblings. But this requires something that in essence is external to the game; I don’t feel comfortable as a designer to pack my game with a bunch of friends and a sibling or two…

So no, depth is not the end-all of replayability. But it’s close to it in terms of what you as a designer can influence.

A step back: Looking at emergence

What might emerge from this?
In the previous paragraphs I worked with a part of the definition of depth as giving in the discussions mentioned. The thing I left out was “emergence”.

This also relates to a remark I made above: That it’s stupid to create depth by adding random stuff.

Yes, you’ll need to create depth. But there are better and worse ways of doing it. Having a boat-load of components makes it possible to have many different experientially different possibilities. But it makes for a very expensive game. Having a ton of rules can mean that there is a lot to master, but it would take considerable effort before you could even play your first round.

Thus, it’s more elegant to achieve the same, but with less stuff (rules, components).

What you want is a generator of experientially different possibilities. What you want is emergence.

Creating emergence

So how do you create emergence? How do get to a generator of novelty?

Here I’ll happily refer back to my previous post as well. There I wrote that the best way of introducing complexity was through interactions, between game pieces and between players.

Throw away the bit about complexity and what you get is that the best way of introducing depth is through these interactions.

The circle is complete

As designers we would like our games to be played many many times. For this we need some way of keeping our players coming back for more, with experientially different possibilities / further levels of the game to master.

That means the game needs to present novel situations with some regularity. We can “hard code” these in, through a plethora of rules and components, but a much more elegant way is by having them emerge naturally, from the interaction between the different game pieces and the players.

Closing thoughts

I’m very happy with the many many reactions I got on my previous post. As mentioned I learned a lot from them and I had a great time discussing things further. It’s a shame that at some point things got so deep that I was unable to respond to everything.

I’ve picked out a few things that came up during the discussions on social media in this post, though there is many more nuggets of wisdom hidden in there. If you have the time, go through all that was said (links at the top of this article) and form your own opinion!

The discussions mentioned have helped me to understand even better what “depth” does and does not mean. More importantly, it made me realize why we want depth – to increase replayability. That in turn made it much more clear what we were talking about.

In a sense, “depth” is a difficult way of saying “replayability created in an elegant way”.

Now I’m sure that some people will feel that this definition isn’t quite right. I welcome the further discussion and learnings that that is going to bring! 🙂

As mentioned, it’s not that hard to create replayability: Just add more stuff! But, done that way the price may very well not be worth it. The “elegance” is a requirement to keep the game within proportions.

And that brings us back to the beginning of the previous post: “Depth is one of the holy grails of board game design”!

About the 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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below: