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.

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Board game design

A random but great idea!
Many board games incorporate randomness, and for good reason! Randomness can add a lot to a game, as we’ll see. But, everything should be done in moderation and that certainly holds true for randomness.

Let’s roll the dice!

What is randomness?

Randomness (in a board game) is an event that cannot be predicted exactly, but where each possible outcome follows strict (mathematical) rules.

The quintessential example is the dice roll: You will not know how many pips will come up, but you know it’ll be a number from 1 to 6 and each side has an equal chance.

The other common method for introducing randomness is through (shuffled) cards; you don’t know which cards you’ll get, but you can only get the ones that are in the deck to start with.

We can also say that an opponent plays “randomly”, usually when what she’s doing doesn’t seem to make sense. This is not the type of randomness I’m referring to; the outcome might be unpredictable but there is no (mathematical) rule behind it. For example an opponent might throw their meeples through the room, while a card cannot do that.

The uses of randomness

Randomness has several uses in board games:

Driving interesting decisions

Randomness creates uncertainty (see this post for more on uncertainty in board games) and as such it is a driver for interesting decisions. “If I attack I need a five or six to win. If I win I’ll be well set for my next goal, but if I lose then I’ll have to struggle to get back on top. Should I take that chance…?”

Randomness allows for a great many potential events, each of which will have a different impact on the game. Which ones do I take into account and how? Can I safely ignore something with a small probability or do I hedge my bets even there? Is a 75% chance “as good as certain”? Do I expend resources to influence what card comes up or am I secure in my position no matter what I draw?

Reducing analysis paralysis

I might know the cards in the deck, but I don’t know which one will be drawn next turn. Especially if there is a wide variety of possible outcomes I can’t analyze them all. And even if I could, I can’t prepare for them all. And thus most players won’t even try, leaving this bit of (potential) information out of the process of deciding what the best move is. And every bit of information not taken into account is a save in brain power and thus a quicker decision.

In chess you can think through what are the optimal moves for you and your opponent, several turns into the future. Add some randomness in there and that ability goes out of the window: We’re able to predict our opponent because she’s logical and tries to play optimally; neither of which is the case for a random process.

For more on reducing analysis paralysis in board games, see this post.

A source of tension

”You’ve decided, you’re taking the plunge, you’re going to take one more card! Slowly you draw the card towards you and with a slam you open it up for everyone to see. You groan as the one card that would stop you is staring you in the face!

Randomness can be a source of tension. You don’t know what is going to come up, but you’re certainly hoping for something. This creates an “is this going to work”-moment, which will get players to the edge of their seats.

See this post for more on tension in board games.

The equalizer

Experience, a more logical mind, intuition, all of these can help with winning a game. But it’s no fun if the same person always wins…

Randomness can help to equalize winning probabilities. A great player can draw a bad hand, a mediocre player can roll perfectly. And thus there is more than pure “skill” in determining who will win in the end. Of course some players get put off by this and playing well but losing due to a single die role is frustrating at best. Thus, this should be used with caution. Still some randomness can make a game more enjoyable for a wider variety of players.

Adding depth

As mentioned, randomness can create a great many possible events, especially when randomness follows randomness. This means that there will be more of the game to “explore”; it will take a while before all combinations have been observed.

This also relates to the previous point: If there is a reasonable amount of randomness, you can never be sure whether your strategy won because it’s awesome, or because you got lucky. This then means that players can play the same strategy multiple times before they figure out which of the two is the case.

Randomness can increase the depth and replayability of your game.

Simulating life

Many games have a “theme”: The real-life thing it is trying to simulate with all those cards, chits and meeples. It can be the colonization of an island (Catan) or saving the world from horrible diseases (Pandemic). In a game you’re trying to do something that (a group of) humans (or animals, or computers or whatever) might try to do in real life.

Life is unpredictable. There are other people who do strange things, diseases that suddenly crop up or unplanned for robbers. All of these might have a completely rational and understandable explanation, but they certainly seem to be random.

Randomness in a game then can be used to make a more believable gaming experience, to add to the theme and immerse players further into the story they are building in their head.

Luck

Randomness is awesome. Until it is not!

The flip side of randomness is (excessive) luck: Playing perfectly but losing due a bad draw. Or playing like a wet rag but winning because the dice love you.

Randomness will always imply some form of luck, it is what drives some of the good things mentioned above. But a game can contain randomness while still keeping the game interesting for anybody who wasn’t born under a lucky star.

Limit the impact

To limit luck, limit the impact that a single brush with fate has. This means that the game won’t hinge one die or one card draw.

Having said that, the impact of something should still be meaningful. If you roll a die and it doesn’t matter at all whether you get a 1 or a 6, you might as well not have rolled at all. Use luck to see if something goes a little bad or quite bad, instead of going perfectly or horribly.

Increase the randomness

This might seem counter-intuitive, but increasing the number of random elements in your game will actually reduce luck. This is because it is much more likely to get both good and bad results in equal amounts than to consistently do well or poorly.

Watch out though, because players are biased in what they see: Even though the randomness was completely evenhanded, they might still feel like they got screwed over (I can remember games of Catan where the 8 was never thrown!).

A nice example of this is Dominion. You’re drawing so many hands, that inevitably some of them will be great (turn on that engine!) while some of them will have you seeing nothing but green. In the end it evens out and the draw is part of the excitement of the game.

Allow for reactions

In monopoly you roll your dice and that’s it, that’s where you’re moving. There is no way to mitigate or anticipate the randomness of that roll.

In Catan on the other hand you’re also rolling dice, but you can work with them. You know that the sixes and eights are going to come up more often (even though you won’t know when exactly!), so you’ll be vying to build your villages and cities next to these numbers. You can’t control the randomness, but it’s perfectly possible to anticipate the probabilities.

Another good way is for players to choose whether they want to take on more randomness: “I’ve got three sixes and three dice left, I’ll gamble and hope that my next roll will give me at least one additional six!”

Closing thoughts

Randomness can be a real boon to board games, but like anything in excess it becomes a burden.

In the previous parts I’ve given suggestions about what randomness can do. I’m sure that if you give it some thought you can come up with even better uses for it. You can probably also come up with even more ways in which it can screw up your game… 🙂

Even though randomness can add to a game, that doesn’t mean it should always be used. There are awesome games that use minimal to no randomness. Like everything, it should be one of the many tools in your belt, to be taken out when useful, to be left alone when there are better choices.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below 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 (or randomly have a chat)? Leave a comment 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:

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