Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

The pile of games after a few people had arrived…
Last weekend we had games weekend: 30 people coming together in a secluded place to play board games!

This is of course the best chance to play both familiar and new games. And to pay a bit of attention to what all these games bring to the table (pun intended).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was really surprised in how all of these games had something special. And how this specialness could be in so many different “directions”.

So today’s post I’m going to go through a number of the games I played last weekend and pick out one (or a few) thing(s) that stood out for me from a design perspective.

Azul

One-sentence synopsis: Draft tiles, lay them on your board in such a way that they can move to the other side of your board in such a way as to optimize your score.

We’re used to have a single score track (usually going around the board!) and everybody shows their progress on that. Azul instead uses separate scoring tracks for each player (that they have on their personal boards).

This is probably just from an efficiency perspective as there is no central board (though there could’ve been a scoring track which probably would’ve taken up less “real estate” than adding a track to every player board).

The result was that it was harder to compare who was ahead! You’d have to scan back and forth between players to figure that out. Not hard, but it was an extra action. This ensures that starting players generally won’t do it and thus save a bit of mental space. For a game that is so nicely simple I really like that this adds just that tiny bit more simplicity.

On the other hand it does also mean that there is a tiny bit less player interaction. For this game a worthwhile tradeoff though.

How does your game use lay-out to drive player attention? Are there things they should pay more attention to? Or things they should just not focus on? What other ways can lay-out be used to shape the way a game is experiences?

Energy Empire & Viticulture

It’s wine makin’ time!
One-sentence synopsis: Worker placement games in which you respectively build an industrial empire while minimizing pollution and where you are planting and harvesting grapes to turn them into valuable wine.

Two quite different games, but they both “solved” the same problem: What to do when someone takes a space on the board that you really wanted? Both games are worker placement games and so here it mostly relates to spaces for workers.

Energy Empire allows players to add workers to occupied spaces if they make a higher “pile” than the next highest pile, where a pile consists of a worker on top and “energy” below (it’s called “Energy Empire” after all!).

Viticulture on the other hand has 3 spaces for any action and even if those are taken you have a bigger worker which can always be used. The first space however gives a bonus (which can range from minor to making the space twice as good).

The result is that these games are much less cut-throat in having to plan ahead where you can place your workers (something for example Agricola can really punish you in). Players need less mental space in trying to think things through in advance and thus these games become significantly “lighter” on the mind, reducing analysis paralysis (see this post for 14 ways of reducing analysis paralysis in your board game).

The “downside” is that there is also less player interaction. It still matters somewhat when you place, but it’s more from an efficiency perspective than in a “I have to do this!” sense. This in turn reduces the tension of hoping that a space will stay available for you to use.

I feel that these choices make these games much more accessible and easier for first-time players. You will hardly ever be “stuck”, you’ll just be less efficient. At the same time they still allow for a lot of depth, because you do want to place your workers as efficiently as possible.

Are there more or less efficient ways of doing things in your game? Are there ways of “shutting other players down” (temporarily)? What does that do to the game?

Spirit Island

Those poor invaders never stood a chance!
One-sentence synopsis: A cooperative game where you play a spirit trying to gain power to kick colonizing invaders off of your island.

This was by far my favorite game of the weekend (and the only one I played twice!). I could easily write an entire post on this, but let’s just take a few highlights.

First the game solves the “quarterbacking” problem (one player telling others how they should play, which is common in cooperative games) through high levels of asymmetry and just really a lot of things going on: I was barely able to focus on my own bit of the game and would’ve been completely overwhelmed if I had to “play” for the others as well.

At the same time the game “compartmentalizes” very well: “I’ll take care of this, can you handle that?”. Through this it really creates a sense of “cooperation”.

If you’re creating a coop, how do you prevent quarterbacking? Could other games benefit from “overwhelming as a whole while manageable when compartmentalized”? Is it possible to have player vs. player game that forces you to focus on your bit, while there is stuff happening in other places that is actually relevant to you as well? And how much of a recipe for analysis paralysis would this be?!

The game also does very well at forcing players to look ahead. There are two parts to this. The first is that some of the actions you take happen before the “game takes its actions” and some of them happen afterwards. Thus, a number of your actions will be useless for your current problems but they will help with future problems.

The second part of this is the ingenious system that shows which bad stuff is going to happen to which type of land. Every turn a card is drawn showing a land type. On that land type the invaders (the “bad guys”, the ones you’re trying to defeat) will “explore” this turn (moving into that land type from other lands). The next turn they will “build” on that land type (while exploring on another), which increases the damage they can do. Then on the third turn they “ravage”, meaning actually doing damage. This creates for a buildup, which you can (have to!) anticipate.

Does it benefit your players to look ahead or is it possible to take your game one turn at a time? Can you add something that would allow players to “look ahead” at what will be coming? This could be an “event deck”, but perhaps also “programmed actions” from other players?”

The final bit that stood out was the emotions the game engenders. In the beginning we really had a feeling of feeling overwhelmed! Later in the game this turned to weary optimism and finally to a real sense of victory. Compare this to Pandemic which starts relatively slow and then ramps up the threats. Here you’re starting basically waist-deep in smelly stuff already.

Most games start out fairly slowly and then ramp up. Can you turn that around? And how are your players feeling when they play your game? Is that what you want them to feel? How do you make them feel what you want?

Kodama

This. But with more fireflies, mushrooms, clouds and caterpillars!
One-sentence synopsis: Place branches with lovely features such as fireflies and mushrooms on your ever-growing tree to score the features.

Location is important in any board game: Having a card in my hand is much better than having one in the deck! But other than in which “region” a card is it doesn’t matter exactly where it is.

I love how in Kodama you have to optimize the exact location of where you place a card. It has to fit, but you also want to keep space available for future growth.

It is also an exceedingly beautiful game, which really helps to give you the feeling you’re growing a tree.

How else can you use the exact position of resources on the board / table to make a game?

How do the visuals of your game add to the game experience? How can you improve upon that?

Number 9

Place shapes (numbers) so that they fit on top of each other; the higher you get the more points you gain.

Board games are generally played in 2 dimensions: Where on the board something is placed matters, but we hardly ever go up.

I also love the simplicity of this game; it was explained to me by an 8-year old.

A while back I wrote a post that explicitly went into the use of space in board games.

How can you use “space” in different ways for board game design? Can you have a game where pieces have to stay off of the board (above it?)? How does movement through 3 dimensions change a game? Is it possible to more explicitly add “time” to a game?

What difficulty level is your game? Can you make it a lower level (while keeping your depth of course! 😉 )?

Robinson Crusoe

At the end of the game we actually had quite a fancy hut!
One-sentence synopsis: A cooperative worker placement game of surviving on an deserted island while (depending on the scenario) trying to overcome the weather, cannibals, a volcano or even King Kong.

Robinson Crusoe has a great mechanic where you can use two workers and ensure that an action works, or you can use a single one but you’re going to have to roll some dice which might (will!) give you some bad stuff. Either you spread your workers and risk bad stuff, or you keep them together and run the risk of not being able to do enough to stave off bad stuff in the future. The game gives you control, while at the same time it forces you to gamble. The result is extremely tense, having players constantly at the edge of their seat because they are always at the edge of not making it.

The game is also one of the most thematic games I’ve ever played. Everything “makes sense”, in that you are taking the actions that you would be taking when really on a deserted island. More than that, the “forced gambling” (with the live of your character!) gives exactly the appropriate emotions of swinging between hope and despair.

In this post I talk more about how immersive Robinson Crusoe (and other games) are.

Where is the tension in your game? How do you give players a sense of control, while they still are required to “gamble”? What feelings do you want your players to have and what are the right mechanics to bring out those feelings?

Closing thoughts

Next time you play a game, try to pick out something that makes the game stand out. Maybe it’s a mechanic, maybe it’s the feeling it engenders, maybe it’s the way the theme is brought to live. Then think about why this is the case and what you can learn from it?

And if you find some interesting things, I would love for you to let me know!

Further reading

A while back I went in-depth on the Evolution board game and picked it apart for its lessons.

About the author

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

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

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

Grab your tools, we’re making a board game!
So you’ve got an idea for a board game. How do you turn it into something that can actually be played (and that people will enjoy)?

In this post I’ll give my take on how to go about this.

What this is -not- about

I’m not going to write how to get your ideas. I’ve found that people have many more ideas than time to work on them, so I’m going to assume that the bottleneck is not at the idea stage.

This is also not about how to make your game a commercial success. It will contain nothing getting published, kickstarter, social media, etc. There are other people that write about that, so if that’s what you’re looking for, there is a whole internet out there!

Too big an idea

Ideas are cheap. I can have 10 ideas before breakfast. Or I can have one really big idea idea before breakfast. With full game-play, hundreds of cards (each having 10 different pieces of information of course!).

However… When I try to turn that into a game, I always find that it doesn’t work quite the way I wanted it to. What seems brilliant in my mind is boring or even impossible when put into cardboard.

Thus: Don’t spend too much time on creating ideas.

The essence of the game

The essence of this game is nuts!
My feeling is that it’s much better to start small. What you need is the essence of your game. What is the summary of the game in 3 sentences?

During development you’ll be taking lots and lots of decisions, from minor thematic ones (“Should I use clowns or mimes as the bad guys?” to major mechanic ones (“Deckbuilding or worker placement? Why not both?!”). And what you need is a guide to help you make a choice. Without such a guide decisions become arbitrary. With such a guide you can test whether a decision is the right one or not: “Does it strengthen the essence of the game?”

To get to the essence of your game, it can help to answer the following questions:

  • Who will the players be? (Ogres! CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies! Mice!)
  • What do those characters want (and perhaps why do they want it?)? (Smash stuff! Beat the competition! Steal cheese!)
  • Why is that difficult? (There are human soldiers protecting the stuff to smash! The other CEOs are working hard not to be beaten! Cats, traps and other mice!)
  • What would you like your players to feel? (Glee (from all the destruction they cause)! Anxiety (for what the other CEOs will do)! Boldness (for going against the odds)!
  • What makes this awesome? (You get to smash stuff! You’ll feel so powerful when your plans work out! It’s great for a small mouse to beat big odds!)

These questions do not need to be answered in order and not all need to be answered: Can you describe what makes your game awesome? Start at the bottom. You have a clear idea of who you want your players to be? Start at the top. You don’t know yet what you want your players to feel? Skip that question.

Note that in the above there is only a hint of what kind of mechanics you might employ to create your game. Instead these questions relate more to the “theme” of the game. This is because I believe that themes are much easier for humans to grasp than the individual elements that make up a game. A theme is a stub for a story and having a “story” makes for a much more compact essence than mechanics do. Having a story allows you to ask “What happens next?”

In the mice game, you start your mice in their nest. What happens next? They go out into the house. What happens next? They encounter all sorts of obstacles such as cats and traps. What happens next…?

This then creates a framework around which you can build your game: I’ll need a nest, something outside the nest and obstacles. However, don’t go too far into this (see the remarks above about big ideas).

Is starting with a story the only way? Of course not! But I believe it’s a very powerful way, that will help you with all subsequent steps. But feel free to experiment!

First prototype

Maybe not the right type of enactment?
You have the “story” for your game. Now it’s time to add some way of enacting the first chapter of that story.

Here my suggestion is to keep it as simple as possible. You’re not going to be building your game in one go. Instead it’s going to be iterative and incremental. Because something can look absolutely amazing in your head, but only by playing will you know whether it actually works.

When you try to create a “full game” from scratch, you’ll implement things that won’t work (I guarantee it!). Which means you’ll have to re-do that part or (quite likely as well) scrap it entirely. Meaning a lot of work done for very little gain.

So, make the minimum that will allow you to play. Once that is more-or-less working, you can add to it easily enough.

How much do you need to create though? Enough for an entire game? Certainly not!

Create enough to play a round. A turn. A single action!

Your first prototype is to get going. It’s not going to be a fun game yet, it’s for learning purposes only.

For our mice game we’re going to need our mice to get to the cheese. Which means they need to be able to move around. And perhaps it’s nice if there actually is some cheese to go for as well. So as a bare minimum let’s select a pawn (from another game) to represent a mouse, we’ll have a board consisting of a grid (or even just a blank sheet of paper) and we’ll use a token (also from another game) to be the cheese. Place the mouse on one end of your “board” and the cheese at the other end.

And we’ll have a few rules.

A mouse token can be moved. By how much? Doesn’t really matter at this point, so choose an arbitrary number: 5 squares on your grid paper.

When a mouse gets to the cheese they can pick it up.

When the mouse with the cheese gets back to the starting square, you win the game.

That’s it. That’s your prototype!

Now, I hear you thinking: “But, but… There’s nothing there!”

And you’re right. There is nothing to this. But it’s a game. It can be played, it can be won. Time to play!

Your first game

You’ve built your very first prototype and you’ve set out the first rules. Now you go play your game.

So you take your mouse and move it 5 squares. And then you move it 5 squares again. And again. Until you get 2 squares away from the cheese. And then… If you strictly follow the rules of your game you’ll have to end the game or try to see if with a lot of maneuvering you can close that final gap.

But let’s say you quit your game then and there. Because you’ve done the most important thing in testing: You’ve found a problem!

Now this is a really simple problem so it’s easy enough to solve: You change the rules to say a mouse can move up to 5 squares.

And you start over.

Finding problems

Start your game again. This time you’re fairly easily able to get to the cheese and bring it back. Congratulations, you just finished (and won!) the very first time!

But by observing your play you find another problem: This is boring as hell!

Which is obviously not what you want your game to be. It should be fun and engaging and awesome.

Se let’s go solve this problem.

I found this light-bulb. Not sure how it’s going to help with my problem though…
When you find a problem in your game it’s generally a good idea to try to resolve it. For many problems the solution is obvious (like the previous one where it was difficult to actually reach the cheese).

Other problems might not have an immediate or perfect solution available.

It also makes sense to see what the problem behind the problem is. The problem with our game is that it’s boring. Which is a very general problem and not easy to solve as a whole. So what’s the cause of it being boring? A large part of it is that it’s just too easy. And thus a first step to making it more interesting would be to make the game more difficult. Specifically, there should be some opposition to reaching the goal (of bringing back the cheese). Now, this won’t suddenly make your game super. But it’s a step in the right direction. And with enough steps in the right direction, you reach your end goal: An amazing game.

Now it makes sense to do a small brainstorm session: Write down the gist of a number of possible solutions. Perhaps adding another player will solve things (direct competition for that cheese!). Or maybe it’s time to add the cat to the game, which will kill the player if they are not careful. Finally we could introduce traps to make life more difficult. With some time I’m sure you can come up with hundreds more options.

Actually… There are gazilions of possibilities: Space vortices that move the cheese, zombies that infect the mice, Mediterranean traders that require gold to buy the cheese.

“Wait, what?!?

This is one of the reasons I suggested starting with a “story”. Within that story there are a number of elements that “make sense”. And there are many many elements that do not. Because of the chosen story we do not actually need to consider space zombies, cheese pirates or robot dinosaurs. And while this is s a silly example, it does show that having a story makes the amount of options you need to consider much smaller. Which in the end allows you to move forward much faster. Of course there is a small risk: Perhaps undead robot dinosaurs from outer space really would make your game much much better. But you’ll probably never know…

When you have a set of (sensible!) solutions, pick the one that seems most likely to add to the game and implement it.

Implementing a solution

When you picked a solution to implement, you need to design it.

Let’s say we went for adding a cat. How can we add the cat in such a way that it’ll make the game more challenging but not impossibly so? Here again we have a number of options that we could go with. Perhaps the cat is mostly asleep but it wakes up at random moments. Or perhaps the mouse can go to places where the cat can’t, scurrying from a hole in the wall to underneath the sofa.

Each of these choices will bring about a different type of game. If the cat is awake at random moments we’re heading more towards a gambling game. If the mouse stays alive by moving from protected place to protected place it becomes a much more tactical movement game.

So which option to choose?

Once again we go back to our story and the questions to the answers we gave. We wanted mice to be “bold”, which seems to imply a good chance of getting caught out, with a reward for taking calculated risks.

At first sight the randomly sleeping cat fits that bill, but at second thought it would take away a lot of player agency: Randomly getting killed doesn’t have a lot to do with boldness.

But if we instead set out the “house” in such a way that you can take the safer but longer route, or the shorter but more risky route…

Which of course again gives the question how to do that exactly

Prototype 2.0

Back to the drawing board!
At this point (yes, before answering the previous question!) it’s time to update your prototype. If you try to “make” something in your head you’ll pass by a lot of problems that become glaringly obvious when you actually play.

We need stuff mice can hide under, so let’s place some random spaces on the board that are “safe”. Draw them or use something you can move around.

Because we’ll be changing things, let’s opt to cut out some random pieces of paper and place them over the board. We’ll pretend they are weirdly shaped couches or something (we’ll come up with justifications later!)

We’ll also add a rule: For every square that a mouse moves outside of a hidden area, the cat moves 3 squares directly towards the mouse (cats are much faster than mice of course).

Playtest 2.0

We reset the board and we play another game.

And we observe what happens.

Perhaps we find that it was very easy for the mouse to get the cheese. If so, make it more difficult, by making the cat faster or removing some furniture.

Or maybe the cat caught the mouse immediately: Make it easier by slowing down the cat or adding furniture.

But how much furniture do you need to add or remove?

Zooming in

When you first try a solution it’s unlikely that it’ll work perfectly in one go. As mentioned above, you’ll probably need to move the furniture or change the speed of the cat. And perhaps after that you’ll need to move it again.

Generally it takes a few iterations to get it right.

A good tip for this: When you make the first change to the game, make it bold. Remove all furniture except for 1 piece. Or quadruple the speed of the cat.

What you want is to end up on the “other side”: If the game was too easy, make it too hard and the other way around.

Then in the next iteration choose something in between the two extremes. And when you change it again move more toward one of the extremes again. This way you’re continuously “zooming in” on the right difficulty.

But where do you stop?

In the beginning of the game you’ll be painting with a very broad brush. Everything can change, so no need to put a lot of effort into getting any one element perfect. Use gut feeling to get to a “decent” level and leave it there. If it starts to bother you, you can come back and fine-tune further.

Later in development you’ll have solved the biggest issues, meaning that if you leave a change “too loose” it’ll become the next biggest issue. Spend a bit more time at getting it right so that you can move on to the next “real problem”.

How much is “a bit more”? You’ll develop the intuition to answer that!

Iterate to fun

In the previous paragraphs I described how you find problems and then you solve them. In all of this you keep the essence of your game in the forefront of your mind: Does it make sense? Does it add to the idea of the game?

But there is an even more important measure: Is it fun?!

In the end people play games for entertainment. Meaning they want to have a good time playing your game. So you need to iterate your game to make it fun.

That sounds obvious and it should be. But it’s also extremely difficult to actually do! But… There are ways!

There are many articles written about what constitutes a good board game (some even written by myself!). And I strongly suggest you read some of them to improve your skills. But in the end there is one thing that matters most when going for the fun…

Designing for fun: Play testing with others

Look at all those potential play-testers!
The core of finding the fun is testing with other people.

When you start designing your game you’ll be doing a lot of the testing yourself. The problems are big and obvious and easy to spot, so you don’t need to invest the time to get others involved.

At some point however the blatant problems are gone and you’ll have played your game so many times it’s completely impossible for you to tell whether you still enjoy it or not (yes, that really happens. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, you need to do more testing!)

This is where you bring in play testers from outside.

There are three groups of play testers that you’ll need in the course of your development:

  • Friends & Family
  • Other designers
  • Complete strangers

If you have a group of designers nearby I would strongly suggest starting your testing there. Fellow designers are generally more patient with things that don’t “quite work” yet. They are also better able to pinpoint where there are problems with your game.

I’ve found though that fellow designers are less useful to figuring out whether a game is fun or not. They tend to be so deep into designing that it’s hard to take a step back and simply “enjoy” a game. Still, they will give their opinion and you should be happy to make use of it.

Next to fellow designers it’s great to play your game with friends and family. They will have a much less in-depth look into your game, meaning they won’t be as good at spotting specific problems (and coming up with solutions). They are however a much better audience to test the “fun” with. Having said that, they might not be completely honest with you: It’s so much easier to say they enjoyed themselves and not hurt your feelings, than to honestly tell you they’d rather go swim with piranha’s than play another round of your game…

Finally, when you are getting to be very happy with your game (this is generally after tens if not hundreds of play tests!), you need to test with strangers. These people are far less invested in your personal well-being and thus will be more honest. Still, they have a tendency to be “polite”, which can mean they will make things appear nicer than they actually find them.

How to play test

So you’ve got a bunch of people together to test your game. What do you do now?

Many articles have been written about how to do play testing well (because it’s such an important subject!), so I’m not going to go in-depth into the subject (this article is long enough as it is!). But I want to give at least a few pointers.

As mentioned, in play testing you’re trying to find out if the game is fun and what is stopping it from being even more fun. For this you’re looking for “signs of trouble”.

A “sign of trouble” is any indication that a player is not having a good time, not having fun.

A great way to find out what players feel during your game is to ask them. You can do this during the game, but I’ve found it’s generally better to wait until the end, so as not to interrupt their experience. Try to ask the same question in multiple ways. Directly: “Did you enjoy the game” to subtly: “What would you change?”

A word of warning when asking players: You’re trying to find out the problems with your game. It’s then for you to find solutions, not for your play testers! They don’t know your game as well as you do. That doesn’t mean they won’t come up with suggestions though (people love being creative!). However, take these suggestions as pointing towards the problem, not as actual solutions to it: “What would be really cool is if I could trade cheese with other mice!” This can mean that the player feels there is too little player interaction. Ask further questions to get to the bottom of why they are suggesting something.

Whatever feedback your play testers give, thank them for it and write it down. You will forget exactly what people said in a day or two, meaning you wasted a perfectly good play test.

Finally: Do not defend your game! If they feel something, they are correct. Which is not to say you need to do something about it. In the end it’s your game. But time with play testers is valuable. Use it to get as much information as possible, not arguing.

Just as important as asking players is observing them while playing. Are they engaged or are they looking at their phone? Is there laughter or yawns?

The combination of asking and observation should allow you to hone in on the problems you find (allowing you to go into problem solving mode, as explained above).

The above is a cycle. And you’ll go through it many times. As mentioned above, what you’re trying to do is take steps towards a better game.

This will not be a direct path. You will need to back-track. Sometimes to a previous version, sometimes to 10 versions ago (yes, I’ve had that happen to me multiple times!). This sucks, but it’s part of the game. So learn to love it, or try a different hobby…

Some final tips

This is what you get when you look for tips on the internet…
Make your game short! This is simpler to design and test and it will be much easier to get people to play it. Half an hour is perfect, an hour is acceptable. If you need more time than that consider shelving the design and work on it as your fifth game.

Regularly check your game for things that can be taken out. Putting things in is easy and happens naturally. Elements however never disappear on their own, even if they are no longer needed. What purpose does everything in your game serve? If you can’t answer, experiment with the game without it.

Prototype early, prototype often! Test early, test often! Don’t design in your head, design in cardboard!

Summary

The above is a lot to take in I realize, so let me try to give the quick summary:

  • Create the story of your game
  • Create a prototype as quickly as possible
  • Find a problem and solve it
  • Do the previous step until you have a half-way decent game
  • Play test with others to find more problems and solve those
  • Do the previous step until you have a full-way decent game!

Closing thoughts

Creating a board game is a lot of fun! You get to be creative, you get to really own the process and the outcome and you get to be social while doing it. There is nothing like having a really difficult design problem and after chipping away at it you finally find the perfect solution! We play games because we like challenges. We make games because we like challenges!

But… Making a board game also takes a lot of free time and the chances of making any money out of it are very slim. If you don’t enjoy the process, don’t start on it. If you want to be rich invent a time machine and buy BitCoin.

However, if you want to do something creative, design a board game!

I hope that this “guide” has been helpful to whomever is starting on the journey of creating a game (and perhaps also to people who are much further along on that path?).

I’ve expressed my own opinions and ideas on how to do things. And being human, I tend to be wrong a lot. So if you disagree, I would love for you to let me know so we can learn together!

Further reading

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

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

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

About the author

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

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

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

Board game design, Fun, Learning from Existing Board Games, Los Buenos

This is the amount of not-fun I’m talking about!
In my previous post I mentioned I had “balanced my game to death”: In solving some technical issues, I drained all the fun out of it. I got some very interesting and useful reactions to that post and I’m happy to say that Los Buenos is back on track!

All of this did get me thinking: How is it possible to make a few (minor!) changes to a game and suddenly have it not be fun anymore?!

In this post I want to look at some games that I don’t think are fun (feel free to disagree, but please don’t try to convince me, I’ve got my mind made up!). From that I want to distill elements that make a game be not fun and then flip those around to be able to actively design for fun.

Not fun: (The previous version of) Los Buenos

When working on Los Buenos I wanted it “balanced”, without really giving much thought to what exactly that entailed. I had some vague feelings; something about different strategies all affording a similar win chance.

What I did (in hindsight of course!) was make every choice similar-ish. No matter what you did, the results would always be more-or-less the same (in karma (=victory) points). And players were left with an unsatisfied feeling of having done a lot, but not having played.

Not fun: Haunted house on the hill

Haunted house on the hill consists of two phases. In the first you’re exploring a house, in the second something or someone turns against (part of) the group and needs to be defeated.

I absolutely love the idea of this game! But I never enjoy actually playing it…

In the beginning you’re “exploring”, but there is no goal to it (except to trigger the second part). Any actions you take could work in your favor, but there is an (almost?) equal chance of them working against you.

Then when the second phase is triggered there is generally a huge discrepancy in power between the group and the “bad thing” (with either of these two ending up with much more power).

The result is that in the first part choices are random: You cannot predict what their consequences are and thus it doesn’t matter which choice you take.

In the second part the huge discrepancy in power means that you’re either going through the motions of winning, or going through the motions of losing, without much influence on the end result.

Not fun: Tic-tac-toe

“Draw in 6 moves!”
If you’re older than 7 years old a game of tic-tac-toe is finished before it starts. No matter what move you make, it’s perfectly clear what the opponent should do to ensure that you don’t get your 3-in-a-line. And likewise, you’ll be doing the same with them, meaning that any game of tic-tac-toe will end in a draw.

It matters which choice you make, but only in that it prevents you from losing.

And, it’s immediately clear what that choice should be.

Not fun: Risk & Munchkin

Risk and Munchkin suffer from the same problem: They can be interminable. This is because as soon as someone starts winning, the other players will gang-up to prevent exactly that. And thus the game will go back and forth, coming through a conclusion only because of luck, stupidity or people getting so bored they want to lose.

During a game your choices matter, but at some point the majority of those choices are geared towards not losing, through bringing down the player that is in the lead.

Not fun: Monopoly

Did I lose yet?!
Monopoly has the same ailment as Risk and Munchkin, in that it can take a very long time, but it has another big issue: It is extremely luck-driven. How you roll in the early game determines whether you can buy a lot of good locations. Then how you roll in the later game determines whether you end up on a lot of bad locations.

There are some low-level choices to be made: Buy something or not (but if you have the money, buy!). Mostly however the interesting “choice” is made by the dice: Where do you land and is this good or bad?

Drawing conclusions

Playing a board game consists of taking a series of choices. An essential part of the fun in a game then lies in making these choices interesting. In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched some ways in which choices can be uninteresting. Let’s draw out some common themes.

No choice

If there is no choice, there is nothing to agonize over. In Monopoly it’s the dice that play the game, with the humans around the table only there to throw them and move pawns accordingly. Choices really are very limited: Buy or don’t, what to sell when you run out of cash. Who wants to be a robot that does what a bunch of dice tell them?

No consequences

A choice can be uninteresting is if there are no (real) consequences. This is what Los Buenos suffered from: No matter which action or string of actions you took, the results would be just about the same. And while at the surface players were doing lots of things, intuitively they felt very well that it was just “going through the motions”.

In a similar way the choices in the second half of Haunted house on the hill are uninteresting. There are “real” consequences if any player completely screws up, but if everybody plays halfway decent then it is very clear who is going to win. And thus any single choice of action really doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game.

Consequences can’t be foreseen

If you play like this, it’s probably your own fault…
In the first half of Haunted house on the hill there are consequences to what players do: They might get bonuses or suffer penalties. But which of the two it’s going to be is completely random. From a strategy point of view it makes just as much sense to stand still as it is to go exploring. And doing nothing is about as boring as it gets.

Consequences are too clear

In Tic-tac-toe the consequences of your choices are extremely clear. Make the wrong choice and you lose (almost immediately).

In a more complex way this is what ails Munchkin and Risk as well. At some point the “rational” way to play is to attack the strongest player; either you do that, or you lose the game.

The result of too-clear consequences is that agency is taken away from the player. If you can (perfectly) foresee what is going to happen then it is also (perfectly) clear what the right choice is. Meaning that basically there is no choice.

Flipping the negatives around

As a board game designer, the right tools are essential!
So now we have some idea of what not to do. How to translate this in something we should do, something actionable?

First: give players choices. A game is about agency, making changes. For that players have to have a way of influencing the game, which means they have to have different options of doing so.

Second: Make choices have consequences. When players take an option, something has to happen! The state of the game has to change, be it for better or worse. The more different those consequences are, the more interesting the choice is. “Take 1 wood or take 1 stone” is a choice with consequences (you then have either a wood or a stone), but “Build a factory or attack Sue” is a far more interesting choice, as the consequences affect the game in completely different ways.

Third: Make it clear what the consequences are. Players need to be able to look into the future, to see whether any given option will make things better or worse for them. Only then can they make meaningful choices and only then will they care about them. Thus: Be careful when you have randomness involved in the consequences of choices.

Fourth: Don’t make the consequences too clear. If it’s completely obvious what the long-term results of a choice are then there isn’t really a choice to be made. The important word here is “long term”. It’s perfectly ok to see what will happen immediately (“If I place my worker here, I’ll get 1 wood”), but it should be obscured what that means over multiple rounds. This can be done through other players’ actions (“Will Achmed take the second wood I need?”) or randomness (“I hope the ‘woodworker’ will come out next turn so I have a good use for my 1 wood”).

Bringing this all together, what you want your players to think when they’ve made their choice is: “I’m reasonably sure that this option will bring me closer to victory.”

Some ideas for creating interesting choices

As mentioned, having fundamentally different consequences to choices makes for interesting options. One way of doing this is by allowing very different strategies to emerge. The “choice of strategy” then becomes a very interesting (and important) choice in the game.

I also suggested that direct consequences can be clear immediately, but that the long term effects should be obscured. This will happen quite naturally for a lot of games (there will be choices by other players and most likely randomness as well), but it is also possible to design it in. One way of doing this is by having “end game bonuses”; for example the player with the most houses gets an additional 5 points. This way a choice early in the game (e.g. “build a house or build a factory”) will have a consequence that is guaranteed to only be shown at the end of the game.

The two options above can even be meshed together: “This game my strategy is to build as many houses as possible!”

Closing thoughts

Decisions, decisions!
This blog post ended up being mostly about “interesting choices”. That most certainly isn’t the only source of fun for board games, but it’s a very fundamental one!

Perhaps it would be interesting to look at games that are “not fun” in different ways as well? I think I covered most of the games I’ve tried that I didn’t enjoy, but perhaps with some digging I’ll come to other ones (we tend to push our traumas away? 🙂 )

What are games you think aren’t fun?
Why aren’t they?
Or perhaps you have a game that is the perfect example of fun?

Further reading

This post mostly went into “interesting choices”. I’ve written about this before, in the context of a previous version of Los Buenos (then still called “Voluntarios”). There I was also able to lose the fun, but that time by removing choice from the game. At least I’m not making the same mistake twice…?

Once a choice is made, you get to a phase of “waiting to see whether your choice actually worked out”. This is where tension in board games comes in.

I made mention of strategy as allowing for interesting choices. In this article I wrote down a number of general board game strategies.

About the author

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

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

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Around the Web, Board game design

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

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

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

Oh the drama!

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

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

Time for another lesson

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

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

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

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

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

You’re such a loser!

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

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

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

Agency: Randomize!

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

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

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

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

Traitor!

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

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

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

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

Final remarks

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

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

Further reading

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

About the author

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

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

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

Board game design

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.

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