Board game design

Build a hotel, or attack Australia?
”What move should I make?”

This is the essential question in any board game. Given the current state of the board, whatever information I gleaned from my opponents, the strategy I thought would be good at the beginning of the game, what right now is the optimal choice?

And it’s that uncertainty that plays a big part in the enjoyment of games.

Uncertainty as driver of interesting decisions

You don’t need to ask a question if you know what the answer is (unless you’re one of those people…). Likewise, if it’s clear what to do, you don’t need to ponder what your next step should be. If you have no options or if there is one clearly superior choice, there is no real need for a decision.

And if there is no need for a decision, there certainly can’t be an interesting decision.

Thus, there needs to be uncertainty: What option is best? What will get me most in the long run? And in the short run? What is most important right now? And how will my opponents respond?

Not knowing the right answer is what makes a choice interesting.

(See here for more on interesting choices in board games)

Uncertainty as driver of tension

You see the side-kick walking to the edge of the cliff and as the camera pans down we see the hero hanging by her fingernails. The side-kick reaches down and pulls the hero up…

Not particularly interesting, is it? At no point do you feel that there is actual trouble. Sure, hanging from your fingernails isn’t nice, but help is right there!

To be at the edge of our seats we need to worry, to hope for a miraculous safe. We need to be uncertain of what is going to happen.

This also holds in games. If you roll a die but it doesn’t matter whether it comes up one or six you’re not going to care about that roll. But if a one means total annihilation and a six is complete victory then you’ll be eyeing what pips come up like a hawk!

It is uncertainty about the outcomes (of a roll, an action, the entire game) that pulls in your players and creates the most important feeling in board games: Wanting to know what happens next.

(See here for more on tension in board games)

Food for thought

Where is the uncertainty in your game?

Does it engender interesting decisions and / or tension?

How often are your players uncertain?

How large is the impact of what they are uncertain about?

Feedback please!

I’m uncertain about how this post is received, so let me know in the comments below or on Twitter?!


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 (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design

Introduction

Interacting just makes things better, if not cuter!
Whether it’s with a group of friends, your partner or the family, board games are inherently social (I’ll happily ignore the very few exceptions). This is because it’s fun to do things with a group of people, but also because the game gets better when you have other players. In this post I want to take a look at what player interaction adds to board games.

For this game I’ll be focusing on competitive games; I’m sure that an equal amount can be written about cooperative games, but I’ll leave that for another post.

There are three paths through which player interaction can make your game better:

  • Competition
  • Tension
  • Depth

Let’s start interacting!

Competition

At the end of the game there has to be a winner. Playing against the game (either solo or cooperative) allows for a win, but it’s just not as exciting as winning against an actual flesh-and-blood human being.

This competition also allows for a scaling of the difficulty of the game: As your skill level increases (hopefully) that of your opponents is also going up. This works especially well if you play games with the same group of people, where you’re all learning at the same time.

Having multiple opponents also allows players to set a different (personal) goal. If you know there are some experts at the table the chances of winning are low. But it might already be quite an achievement to not finish last. Or to do better than your best friend Mary.

You can compete against yourself, but it just isn’t as much fun
For some people however it can be quite off-putting to know in advance that they’re just not going to win because others are better at the game (have more experience). This is not something that’s easy to solve, though using high amounts of randomness (e.g. dice, cards) can create a possible win for anybody based on “luck”. That however might rub players who want to win based on skill the wrong way (who ever said that game design was easy?!).

Finally, playing against different players can bring out different elements of the game. Playing against someone who loves to go on the offense can be a very different experience than a defender. Thus, player interaction can increase the replayability of a game.

What’s needed for competition

Competition will happen whenever players have the same goal (winning), regardless of how the interaction between players actually is done mechanically; even if there is no interaction within the game, there can still be competition.

Tension

In a previous blog post I wrote about creating tension in your board game. There I already mentioned that “the human factor” can increase tension in board games. Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Tension comes about when there is uncertainty about a desired outcome. And, it is increased when you have (limited) influence over the outcome.

Playing against human opponents can significantly increase the uncertainty: Human beings are unpredictable and thus they are a source of randomness. The randomness “generated” by human beings however is much more interesting than that created by using dice: Dice are completely random, whilst human beings allow for quite some insight in what they would probably do: “Achmed only has a single soldier, so he’s probably not going to attack, but he’s got a huge pile of resources, so he might well build a factory…”.

This then increases the level of influence you have. Not over what happens on the other side of the table, but over how you’re going to prepare for it. If an attack is not likely you can relax on defense. Tension however comes because you still might be wrong. Especially if your opponent made the same analysis as you did and decides to attack after all, because he expects you won’t be expecting it.

Other players can also make a move more tense by making the outcome more important. I might really want to take an action and my opponent wants to prevent me from doing that. We both commit a number of (hidden) resources to get our way. Now it’s not just the original action that’s at stake, it’s also whether that pile of resources is going to waste or not!

What’s needed for tension

To create tension through player interaction you need there to be actual interaction. This can be through “getting in each other’s way” (e.g. vying for the same resources) or through more direct means (e.g. “attacking”). In general, the more directly you interact, the more tension there will be.

Depth

How will the final gear turn if I twist this one left?
Finally, player interaction can increase the depth of your game. It’s not easy to give a concise definition of depth, but for the discussion here it’s sufficient to say that a board game is deep if it continues to throw up interesting challenges (even after having played it many times).

In this post I go into what it means to have interesting decisions in your board game.

One part of depth is the amount you need to “look ahead” to play the game well. If there is no player interaction then all future moves are a combination of complete determinism (something set in motion will follow its rule-based path) and complete randomness (at some point there might be a random event: A die or a card draw).

Complete determinism is boring, as there is no variation to take into account. Complete randomness on the other hand is difficult, as the number of options tends to increase significantly; imagine having to throw a 6-sided die every turn: Looking ahead one turn means checking six possibilities (difficult), looking two turns ahead already makes this 36 (extremely hard)!

However as explained in the previous paragraph, human beings are semi-random: Of all the possible options, generally only a few are reasonable. When trying to analyze what my opponent will do (the next turn and the one after that), there are limited scenario’s I need to consider. Thus having an opponent in the loop generates “randomness”, but in a way that can be analyzed much better than a truly random event.

Also, figuring out what “reasonable” options are for my opponent is actually an interesting challenge in itself. The more player interaction you have, the more often you can indulge in this.

Sometimes players will act in unexpected ways. This then can open up new parts of the game that are not commonly visited, allowing for new and exciting challenges and choices.

Finally, high-skilled players will start to take into account what they expect their opponent to expect them to do: “My best move is to attack, but Kimberly can see that, so she probably kept a good card in her hand, so maybe it’s better to build instead…” This then can give an entirely new dimension to the game, where even though you know the game inside and out, it still remains challenging because of the second-guessing of the other players.

What is needed for depth

To increase the depth of your game through player interaction, you need some interaction, but not too much. If there is too much interaction, the number of possibilities can explode, similarly as through complete randomness.

For this it’s better to have interaction on a limited set of elements, so that players can analyze a reasonable amount of scenarios, without burning out their brains (and other players’ patience).

Next steps

In this post I tried to argue that player interactions can improve your board game. In a future post I hope to delve into what different forms of interaction you can put into your board game.

And perhaps I should also venture out and write a bit more about what depth entails (and how to get it in your board game)!

Feedback please!

I’d love to have some reader interaction: 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? 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.

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Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

Introduction

Recently I had the joy of a weekend away with friends. In between sleeping late, hiking, great food and a beer or two, there was ample time to play games. And by far the biggest hit was “Evolution” (or specifically “Evolution – Climate”, which is the game with an expansion built in, though in this post I’m going to focus on the Evolution game, without the Climate expansion).

In this post I’ll do my best to dissect the game, trying to glean some insights as to why it’s such a good game (so that you can make yours equally great!).

Evolution in a nutshell

In Evolution you get a bunch of cards, with which you can create awesome animals with which you will compete in an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Cards can be discarded to start a new (“blank”) species, to increase population of a species or to increase body size. These cards can also be played to give your animals up to four “traits”: A long neck to get additional (plant) food, a hard shell or horns to protect against carnivores, or your species can become a carnivore itself so it can eat other animals. Finally, you have to discard a card to add (plant) food to the central food stockpile (called the watering hole).

Then it’s time to feed your animals. Herbivores eat from the watering hole and carnivores eat other animals. You decrease the population of your animal(s) if you can’t feed them (there are no more plants for your herbivores or all animals are protected against your carnivore) or when they get eaten by a carnivore. If the last animal of a species dies it goes extinct. But not to worry, you can start a new species!

Final scoring is for the amount of food your animals ate during the game, how much population you have left at the end of the game and how many traits your surviving species have.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the game, let’s delve into its brilliance!

The periphery

There are a few reasons that, though they aren’t central to the game, certainly help:

  • The game is relatively simple: There are only a handful of rules to remember and they’re all reasonably intuitive
  • The only real resource the game uses is cards, which are used in many capacities, lending the game a beautiful elegance
  • The cards are just beautiful to look at

The core

There are a number of elements that I believe are at the core of what makes Evolution such an enjoyable experience. The following paragraphs try to show these off.

Immersion

Evolution is very strong at immersing you in the game, making you care.

During the game you’re building a species: A pack-hunting, climbing, horned, carnivore or a burrowing, hibernating, migrating, long-necked herbivore? You take your pick! creating something gives a sense of “ownership”, which makes it much more likely that you’ll care about it.

This is enhanced by the fact that you’re creating a creature. We’ve all had a pet rabbit or gazed lovingly at an elephant in the zoo. There is something about animals that makes our human hearts skip a beat. Something that a city, civilization or farm just won’t do. The graphics on the cards help with this, turning any “mud-wallowing” (yes that’s a trait!) animal into a cute wart-hog and a “furry” animal into a great big ox.

These animals even act like (very stylized) versions of the real thing: They need to eat and they can breed, making them seem even more “real” to the mind’s eye.

And when the game has done everything it can to make you care about your make-belief animals, it does something wonderfully horrible: It kills them! Either because there just isn’t enough food, or because they become a tasty snack to another player’s carnivore. This creates a roller coaster of emotion from happy conception to tear-jerking death, helps to pull you even further into the game.

See this post for more on immersion through story telling.

Player interaction

Hey buddy, pall, friend… Wouldn’t you rather interact with someone else?
I love modern (Euro)games. But too often it feels like I’m playing on my own with people sitting nearby who only happen to be playing the same game.

Evolution has a healthy dose of player interaction: Which carnivore is preying on my cute bunny-like animal? What would be a good snack for my tiger-equivalent? Can my turtle get some food or is that lizard on the opposite side of the table going to grab the last vegetation?

Through this you’re constantly looking out for what your opponents are doing. It’s very figuratively a matter of eat-or-be-eaten.

And even if there is currently nothing that can touch my almost-dinosaur, I have to be acutely aware of what some player might evolve next turn: Can any carnivore grow large enough to eat it?

Obviously, getting your animals eaten by someone else isn’t good for your point total. Luckily it’s generally fairly doable to protect your animals, or at least make it costly for someone else to go after them. You might very well lose a bit of population, but getting an entire species eaten is generally more due to your own inattentiveness than what exactly your opponent does.

And of course, turn-around is fair game! Nothing is more fun than turning that cuddly prey-animal into a ferocious hunter itself!

The circle of life

Many games have a sense of buildup: Get resources to build something up so you can get more resources (rinse, wash, repeat). Mostly however this progression is either (almost) straight up (e.g. Agricola) or it’s a back-and-forth where my progress is your downfall (e.g. Risk).

In Evolution you’re definitely building things up (cool species, to be exact!). There is something very satisfying with creating the perfect killing machine or an animal that eats all available food before anybody else has the chance.

But there is a very real possibility of loss as well: Your apex predator can suddenly find itself going hungry as all prey has suddenly “evolved” powerful defenses against it. And one of your animals might go extinct, but it’s easy enough to create something new (and even more awesome!).

The result of this is that it’s never a case of “the winner keeps on winning”. No species is invulnerable for very long, the high will be brought low and the low will rise up. Possibly even multiple times in the same game.

Tension

Tense as a steel cable!
Is that carnivore coming after my cute little pig, or is my neighbor’s gecko a better bite? Will there be enough food to keep my species from losing half its population? Is that last prey animal my species can eat going to evolve the ability to climb so I can’t get at it?

Through a combination of never knowing what your opponents are going to do and some hidden information, there is a lot of tension in the game (see this post for more on tension in board games).

This partly overlaps with the paragraph about “immersion” about. Because you get so into the game, any threat is felt even more acutely. It’s not some abstract bits of wood and cardboard, it’s a magnificent species that might get wiped off the face of the earth (well, tabletop)!

Meaningful decisions

The amount of resources (see this post for more on resources in board games) you have available is very limited: You only get a few cards per turn. This means that you have to make those cards count! Increase population for additional points when feeding, but running the risk there might not be enough food? Increase body size to protect against predators? Start a new animal in the hopes that nobody will eat it straight away? Add further protective traits to your strongest animal? But which traits to give up?

And what’s nicest is that these choices are not made once, but every round again. A species is never “finished”; that great defense last turn might be a liability this turn. And where food was the limiting factor in the beginning of the game, maybe it’s all those pesky carnivores at the end. You’re constantly reacting and trying to foresee what the game (other players) are throwing at you.

An unfortunate choice might mean a wasted card, a significant loss of population or even the extinction of your species, so these choices matter!

And there are generally multiple ways of “solving” a problem. Predators roaming? Protect your species with traits, grow it too large to be eaten, breed it faster than it can be consumed, or have your own carnivore eat the other’s!

Lots of meaningful decisions to be made (see this post for more on meaningful decisions)!

Closing thoughts

Evolve, or you might end up as these guys
Evolution” certainly isn’t perfect. There is a bit of a learning curve for all of the different cards, it can be hard to keep track of exactly what all the other animals are capable of (especially with many players) and having a hand full of cards can lead to serious analysis-paralysis (see this post about how to reduce analysis-paralysis in your own game).

All of that doesn’t stop Evolution from being a great game! And it certainly doesn’t stop it from being a good example of how you can improve your own game.

Are you immersing the players in your game? Do they care about what it is they’re doing?

How do your players interact? Is your choice for multiplayer solitaire (or all-out war!) a deliberate one or just the easiest option? What do your players feel about their opponents at the end of the game?

What are the sources of tension in your game? Are they at the edge of their seats or looking at their phone most of the time?

Do players have meaningful decisions? Are there multiple choices that give distinctly different outcomes? Is there an always-best choice?

Good luck with your design endeavors!

Feedback please!

Wisdom evolves through discussion: I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, 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.

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Board game design, Story telling

Introduction

I strongly believe that (good) board-games are a form of storytelling. And that means we can use the lessons from storytelling to better our games.

One of the most important elements of any story is tension: Is she going to get the girl? Will he fall off the cliff? What’s going to happen?!?

In this article I want to look at what tension is and (more importantly) how to introduce it in your board-game.

Now that’s what I’m looking for!

What is tension?

In a good story the heroine is dodging bullets, almost getting blown up and getting stabbed in the back. She will dangle from cliffs, get captured by the bad guy or have a gun pressed to her head. And we’re left to wonder: “How is she going to get herself out of this one?”

Tension then is the uncertainty about whether a desired outcome is actually going happen.

There are two essential elements to this: Uncertainty and desired outcome. So how to create these?

Creating uncertainty

Uncertainty comes naturally in board-games. I’m never quite sure what my opponent is going to do. And though I might know the odds of a die-roll, I don’t know what number is going to come up until I actually roll. And is my opponent holding a harmless 2 or a high king? The human factor, randomness and hidden information are ways of introducing uncertainty.

It has to be the right kind of uncertainty though to produce tension. If it doesn’t matter whether my opponent holds a 2 or a king then I might be uncertain, but I don’t actually care and there won’t be any tension. Likewise, if I need to draw a card and only 1 card out of 50 is going be bad then there is very little tension as well: The chance of getting something I don’t like is simply too low.

Thus, the uncertainty needs to be on something that has a reasonable chance of changing the state of the game in the advantage or disadvantage of the player. What’s a reasonable chance? My feeling is that having a chance of succeeding of about 25 to 33% creates the most tension (note that here I don’t only mean chance in the form of a dice roll, but also a “chance” based on what hidden game pieces there might be or how my opponent might behave). This is a decent chance, but the odds are still stacked against you. You’re fervently hoping for the desired outcome, but you also know that things probably won’t go your way. But you can hope. And the more you hope, the more you care!

Because it’s just not doable to add these to every game…

Creating desired outcomes

The second part of the equation is that for something to be tense, the players have to desire one outcome over the other.

The more there is at stake, the more players will care. The ultimate thing players care about is winning or losing the game, so a move on which the game hinges will be filled with tension.

But even before the game is about to end, there will be things at stake. Will I be able to grab that pile of wood before Mary does? Will the next die roll see my army triumph or defeated?

One way of increasing tension is by putting more at stake. The bigger the pile of goodies you can “win”, the more interesting it becomes. The downside of this however is that too big a win can mean that it’s impossible for the opponent to catch up. And nothing drains the fun (tension!) out of a game quite as much as being forced to play while you know you’ve all but lost.

Upping the ante

One way around this is by increasing the stakes throughout the game. Even if you lost some in the beginning, the next time round you can win back a bit more and you’re back on track.

This is also the way in which many stories are structured, where the hero has to overcome bigger and bigger obstacles, leading to the final climatic battle against the evil scientist hell-bent on taking over the world.

Flowers, faith, what’s the difference?

Taking your faith in your own hands

Imagine a game where I flip a coin: Heads I win, tails you win. According to the ideas above this should create a fair amount of tension: There is a lot of uncertainty and the stakes are high (it’s winning or losing the entire game!). For most people however this wouldn’t be interesting and most certainly not tense.

What is missing here is the final ingredient to creating tension: Influence over the outcomes.

When you get a new apartment it’s strange, alien. But when you paint it, put your own furniture in, live in it, it becomes your own. When you (try to) influence the outcome of something in a game, you have to give it your attention. You might have to give up resources to gain the influence. You’re investing in it, and in the process you are working towards the outcome you want. Making it all the more painful if that outcome doesn’t come to be…

One of the best examples of this is in the final stages of the game Kuhhandel, where you’re bidding blind against your opponent for some cute farm animals. There is uncertainty (through the hidden bids), there are stakes (through the animal that you can gain), but because you have so much direct control over your part it’s an incredibly tense moment (I’ve seen people literally break out in sweat!).

Closing thoughts

Board-games tell stories and stories thrive on tension. I strongly believe that increasing tension in a game makes it better. In this article I tried to dissect what tension in board-games entails and to paint in broad strokes how to include (and increase) it in your board-game. I hope you’re able to make use of it!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, 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:

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