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.

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

Facebooktwitterreddit
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

Facebooktwitterreddit
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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
Board game design

One of the “holy grails” of board game design is depth.

Most players and designers have an intuition what this means, but it remains somewhat of a nebulous concept; I’ve never found a definition that I felt was complete. I don’t think I can give one, but I’m very happy to take you along in my thought process.

A first take at depth – Replayability?

Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes!
What is depth? Chess has it, Tic-tac-toe does not. It has something to do with replayability and how much a game makes your brain work. But that’s still very vague… And while I’d be able to rank any given game I’ve played on the more-or-less-deep-scale, I wouldn’t be able to say what makes a game deep.

The first thing that comes up is “replayability”. A game has to be replayable many times to be deep.

For me Puerto Rico and Agricola are “deep” games. I’ve played these games many times and I still feel I haven’t entirely gotten to the bottom of them. They make your brain work and they are heavily replayable. So far, so good.

I’ve also played a lot games of 6 Nimmt! and Citadels. Both of which I feel are not particularly deep. They’ve got replayability but the cerebral element is less than for the other games? Hm…

A second take at depth – Strategy?

In Puerto Rico there are different high-level strategies you can take (e.g. go for lots of money, or deliver lots of cheap goods). There is strong interaction with other players as it makes a big difference who takes what role, making the game tactical. Thus, both strategy and tactics play a big role in Puerto Rico.

In 6 Nimmt! on the other hand it’s almost impossible to form any longer-term strategy; instead you’re trying to find the single best card that works with what is currently on the table.

So is the difference that there are “strategical” choices?

I’m sure that this helps but I don’t think it’s the core of depth. But what then is?

See this post for more on strategy in board games.

A third look at depth – Learning curve?

In 6Nimmt you play a single round and you understand the game. And after having finished an entire game, you’re almost as good at it as someone who has played tens of games.

In Puerto Rico however there is a huge difference between the first and the second game. And the second and the tenth. And the tenth and the hundredth. In Puerto Rico (or Agricola) there are a lot of subtleties that only become apparent after playing the game many many times. Even after the 20th game I’m discovering new things, new elements to combine, different strategies to try out.

This then is where I believe the core of “depth” lies: How much is there to learn about the game? How many plays does it take until you “understand” it?

Note that this is something else than having a game that is difficult to learn. I’ll grant that Agricola and Puerto Rico aren’t easy to learn: There are many game components and a lot of rules you need to remember. But it is possible to have a deep game without having to memorize twenty pages of rules: Chess has relatively simple rules (you could fit them on a single sheet of paper), but it takes years and years of practice to become good at it.

The dark and light sides of depth

Depth certainly has it’s downsides…
So is depth always a good thing?

I’d say no. In fact, for most players, depth is a downside to a board game!

Most people are very happy to have a game where they can learn the rules and then play at a “competitive” level. With a deep game however, a beginner is going to lose to someone intermediate while someone intermediate is going to lose to an expert. And it takes a somewhat perverse mind to continue playing-and-losing to get to a level where you can beat your friend who has 10 games more experience.

These people want a game of 6Nimmt or Ticket to Ride, where they can step in and have something of a chance of winning.

For a certain kind of person however (e.g. me!), depth is a good thing. Yes, losing sucks and winning is good, but the element of learning a new game, of getting better can be just as amazing!

Depth also adds to replayability. If you can continue to get better, there is a reason to come back to a game again and again. In fact, the reason to stop playing a given game for me is usually when I feel I’ve “solved” it, when there is nothing left to learn.

Digging a hole (or: How to create depth)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

We have some notion of what depth entails, but a much more important question then is: How do you add it to your board game?

The short answer: Add complexity!

Depth is a measure of how much there is to “learn” or “discover” in a game. Thus, to add depth, you need to add things that players need to learn. This comes down to adding complexity to the game, as each bit of complexity creates something that players need to unravel before they “get” the game.

Now you might say: ”Isn’t complexity bad?”

Well, yes and no. Unnecessary complexity is bad. Complexity for its own sake is bad. But every game needs a certain level of complexity. Think of it this way: If there was no complexity, you’d have the equivalent of Tic-tac-toe. And nobody wants to play that!

Still, there is better and worse ways of adding complexity to get to depth. Let’s go from bad to better.

The rules lawyer

The absolute worst way to try to add depth is by adding rules (for the sake of adding rules). Yes, your complexity will increase (significantly!) but your depth will only increase marginally.

This is because rules add “up-front” complexity, in that you need to cram more into your head before you can start playing. This means there isn’t actually that much more to discover whilst you’re playing.

Components are king

A second way of adding depth is by having more components. The easiest way to look at this is when you have a deck of cards and you add another card to it. Players will need to “discover” that card, what it does and how it works with the rest of the game.

However, most likely that card will work more-or-less the same as the other cards that are already in the deck and thus the majority of the “learning” is already done when players know the other cards. Unless of course that card is so radically different that it completely changes the game. Unfortunately, that would completely change the game

Still, this is a decent way of adding depth, as it is simple enough to do.

Dancing with lady luck

He’s a lucky man to be dancing with her
A game can be made deeper by adding randomness to it.

Randomness means that it takes a number of games before all possible combinations have been explored. If card A and component B work really well together, but you only get them together in game 3 then you’ll be discovering something new in game 3!

Likewise, randomness distorts information on how well a strategy works; perhaps you have a new strategy that you think is good, but you get screwed by the dice. You then have to play again (with the same strategy) to figure out that it really was the dice and not your strategy that was at fault. In other words: It takes more games to discover exactly how good certain choices are because the information is obscured.

See this post for more on randomness in board games.

Inter-action

The best way of increasing depth is by adding interactions to your game.

There are two types of interaction that are relevant here, both of which are great for adding depth to a game: Interaction between game elements and interaction between players.

Interaction between game elements

Consider Chess.

Chess has relatively simple rules, but it’s an extremely deep game. That’s because there is an incredible amount of interaction possible between the game pieces and the board: Any piece can move to any space on the board (with some minor exceptions) and any piece can interact with any of the opponent’s pieces. That means that at any given time there is a staggering amount of moves that is possible. Learning which of those is “the best” (or in my case: “adequate”) takes many many games and thus creates a very deep game.

Compare this to 6Nimmt, where during a turn for each piece (card) only 1 choice needs to be made: Play it or keep it in hand. There is very limited interaction between game elements and thus the game remains shallow.

Interaction between players

Don’t let the surface distract you from what lies underneath
On the surface Poker is a pretty boring game. You get some cards, others are opened and you look at who can create the best hand between what they have and what’s on the table. Except for some betting you can’t even make any choices!

Still Poker is a much beloved game, not because the mechanics are so interesting, but because of the player interactions. The game is all about reading your opponent and trying to outsmart them.

Player interactions create a lot of depth, because human beings are so much more complex than any board game can ever be on its own.

In a sense the reasoning here is the same as for randomness: There is uncertainty on whether a strategy or choice worked because it was good or because your opponent played poorly. This means you need to try out your strategy multiple times, against multiple opponents if possible. You need to learn whether it really is your choices or just dumb luck.

And there is another layer to this: Even if the game stays the same, opponents can change. Either because you’re playing a different one, or because the old one picked up a new trick or two. And so games with heavy player interaction can stay interesting even though mechanically you know them better than the back of your own hand.

Interaction (whether player or game element) needs to come from the rules and the components; while I wrote that adding rules or components for their own sake won’t help much, designing them specifically for interaction can significantly increase the depth of your game.

In this post I go further into player interaction in board games.

Closing thoughts

Depth is the holy grail of many board game designers. But, as anything in life, there are benefits but also costs to it. Costs are increased complexity for your players (harder to learn, harder to master), but also for you as a designer: Depth is complex to create! Think carefully whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

If you do chose to try to make something deep, I hope that the suggestions above will help you in your creative endeavors. If so, I’d love to hear all about it!

Having written the last part about player interactions I understand a bit better why I always feel that many Euro games are “missing something”. They need to get their depth from mechanical interaction and / or lots of components (Agricola, I’m looking at you!). A combination of mechanical and player interaction would be a much more “elegant” solution. And while I understand the desire for games not to have players go head-to-head (Risk-style), there are many different ways of interacting that are not necessarily antagonistic (even if they don’t need to be fully beneficial to the other players either).

The basis for Voluntarios, the game I’m working on, is to have lots of (semi-positive) interaction between players. Perhaps it would be also good to think about (further) interaction between game elements?

I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out…

Further reading

This post has more on the joys of learning a board game.

Here are 7 forms of player interaction that you can incorporate in your board game.

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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
Board game design

A thousand ways for players to interact

So many people, so many interactions!
Board games are inherently social activities (the few solo games I’m happily going to ignore here). This is because it’s fun to do stuff with other people, but also because interaction makes board games better.

In a previous post I argued why interaction can be so beneficial to board games. In this game I want to build upon that by going into a number of ways in which interaction can actually happen in board games.

Attacking

The most obvious way of interacting with other players is by “attacking” them. An attack is any action that directly negatively influences a single opponent. The key words here are:

  • Direct: It’s clear that an attack is aimed, it’s not the consequence of doing something else, it’s going for the heart. An attack is different from for example taking resources from the board which could’ve been taken by anybody, which isn’t directed at anybody in particular.
  • Negative: Your opponent isn’t going to be happy with this and might well work to prevent an attack or retaliate after it happened.
  • Single opponent
  • : Attacks are generally made against a single opponent. It’s possible to make multiple attacks (against different opponents) but they are generally viewed as separate events.

Reasons to attack can either be sabotage – to reduce the resources of an opponent and thus stop her from winning, or stealing – to gain the resources of an opponent and help yourself in winning, whilst reducing the opponent’s chances. Note that resources can be a very broad category – see this post for more on resources in board-games.

As mentioned, opponents generally are not happy to be attacked and thus will try to prevent attacks. This can be through different forms of defense: In Risk you pile up armies to defend your lands, in Citadels you choose an unexpected character to reduce the chances of getting murdered.

Attacking (and defending) in general requires resources: Armies, a turn, etc. Thus, there are costs related to attacking, which need to be taken into account when choosing to attack or not. This can then be used to incentivize (or de-incentivize) players from attacking. See this post for more on incentives in board games.

Advantages and disadvantages of having attacks in your game

Attacking is one of the most direct and “simple” form of player interaction. It can create a lot of tension (“Will I be safe this turn?” “Will I survive?”) and lead to very interesting decisions (“Attack and leave myself open?” “Attack John or Melissa?”). Both can lead to a highly energetic atmosphere.

On the downside, attacks can lead to a player falling down so far they can’t get up again. It also allows “ganging up”, meaning anybody winning gets taken down and a game can drag on forever (Risk, I’m looking at you!). Finally, a lot of people are not comfortable with direct confrontation in their friendly game group.

Trading

Hey, wanna trade some bananas?
A second obvious way in which players can interact is through trading. In this case two (and sometimes more) players give resources away and get other resources back.

Players will trade if they feel that the value of what they are getting is higher than the value of what they are giving away. See this post for more on the value of resources in board games. This means that different resources have to have different values to different players.

Trading generally works best if there are at least 3 players; with only 2 if my opponent thinks that a trade is worthwhile, it must be a bad deal for me.

Advantages and disadvantages of using trading

Trading allows for very “friendly” player interaction as both parties gain something. It also makes balancing the value of resources easier: Simply let the players decide what something is worth by seeing what they’ll trade for it.

On the opposite side, trading can be somewhat time consuming, especially if there are multiple potential trade partners. This is further exacerbated if the to-be-traded goods are hidden, as then part of the trade has to be discovery of who has what. Because of the time consumption, trading needs to be a fairly large part of the game and can’t simply be “tacked on”.

Giving

An alternative to trading is giving, where one player gives something to another player, without a compensation from that player.

This can happen in a cooperative game, where all players have the same objective and another player can make better use of a given resource. It can also happen when there is a reward given by the game for giving resources away (this was one of the prime ideas for the game I’m currently designing myself). Finally a resource can be given away if it has negative value for the player; for example in Bohnanza cards in hand have to stay in the same order, meaning that some can “get in the way”. In this case it can be beneficial to give away a card so that it doesn’t need to be played.

Advantages and disadvantages to allowing giving

The advantage of giving is that it’s one of the most “friendly” ways of interacting with other players.

Giving can suffer from the same disadvantages as trading if the “value” of a resource can be negative to players and nobody is willing to take what you want to get rid of. This is usually less of a problem because there is no need to “discover” what is being given away.

Giving is not an easy mechanic to incorporate in an interesting way. Thus, the game would need to be built around it quite strongly for it to work.

Auctioning

Auctions are where the game or a player puts forth one or more resources and the other players can “bid” and the highest bidder gains the resources. If a player offered the resources then that player gains the highest bid.

Auctioning is similar to trading in that it requires players to have different valuations of resources. If these differences are too large however then no interesting auction will result, as the players with love valuations will have very little incentive to bid.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing auctions

Auctions allow players to “value” resources based on their own situation, making balancing easier. It can also give a very interesting and hectic atmosphere based on the tension of getting what you need for the right price.

Auctions tend to be time-consuming and thus need to be a big part of your game. Also, auctions can get very rowdy, meaning they’re not that good for a quiet and contemplative game.

Taking resources

I’ll take that…
The passive-aggressive little brother of the direct attack, many modern games allow players to take resources that might have been taken by other players as well. Again, this is for a very general sense of resources; resources might be a bunch of wood tokens or a coveted space on the board.

Taking resources is indirect, in that you’re not (negatively) influencing any single player, but instead are taking up resources that might have been beneficial for all players present. The result of this is a less “adversarial” feeling to a game; it hardly ever results in retaliation.

The result is a puzzle, where you’re trying to determine what would be the best resources for yourself, whilst at the same time reducing the value of what is left for the other players.

Resource taking it the bread-and-butter of all modern Euro games.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing resource taking

Resource taking allows for (adversarial) player interaction without directly targeting. As such it leads to a generally friendly atmosphere. Resource taking turns into an interesting puzzle where there are difficult choices to be made on what is most important right now. It can also lead to tension, as you’re hoping that other players will leave for you what you require.

As a disadvantage I see that the player interaction is fairly minimal and very indirect. This means that some of the stronger advantages of player interaction are not always used (this post gives the advantages of player interaction).

I also feel that resource taking has been somewhat overdone in modern games. But, I don’t see us getting rid of it any time soon either!

Changing the board / rules

It is possible for a player action to change the board, to which other players can then respond. In Carcasonne for example players are laying out tiles and creating the “board” together. Thus, every round there is a different board to take into account.

And for many games part of the rules is embedded in the playing pieces present. Fluxx is the quintessential example of this, where all the rules are printed on the cards that are played.

These two elements allow for some deep and fundamental changes to the way the game is played. This then allows for many ways to influence other players.

Most of these changes are similar to the “taking resources”, in that every player is affected. However, it is possible to have asymmetric effects, where you’re the only beneficiary (similar to an attack) or where some opponents suffer while others gain.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing board changes

Player interactions through board or rule changes can be very interesting because they’re not done that often or that strongly. They also allow for (very) complex interactions. At the same time such a change most likely wouldn’t feel like a direct “attack”, conserving a “friendly” vibe.

The biggest downside is that setting up interesting board or rule changes is far from trivial and thus requires quite some work from the developer. And there certainly will be individual changes that have a detrimental effect on the game being played: With great power comes great responsibility!

Social deduction

You can only hide for so long…
There is a whole genre of games where each player gets a role and has to keep that hidden from the other players, whilst trying to deduce what roles those other players have.

Here the interaction is in observing the actions other players take, whilst keeping your own actions as obscure as possible. This interaction is mostly not directly through in-game actions, but more on the higher “mental” level. This mental level is much larger and richer than any game can ever be and thus the interactions can be very rich as well.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing social deduction

Social deduction can allow for a very rich mental “game”. It can add incredible amounts of depth to a game, because there is always more to learn (about how your opponent thinks).

Social deduction tends to dominate other game aspects, in that it is hard to combine with more traditional elements (though for example Citadels does a marvelous job!)

Closing thoughts

In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched seven different types of player interaction, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. This is obviously a far from complete list. And neither is each of the different types of interaction fully explored. I do hope that you will be able to recognize which elements you have present in your game. Or perhaps you’ve seen something that you feel would be a benefit to the game you’re currently creating?

Next steps

As mentioned, the list presented here is not complete, so perhaps some time in the future I’ll write the expanded version?

It would also be interesting to dig deeper into one of the types of player interaction. Especially the “changing the board / rules” seems to hold a lot of promise for interesting and deep game play.

Feedback please!

I love reader interaction; let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit