Board game design, Immersion

Next stop: Mars!
Recently I played a game of “Terraforming Mars”. Being the huge nerd I am, I immensely enjoyed the game (whilst at the same time griping wholeheartedly about some of the components).

One of the most enjoyable moments came when I got a “Huge ice asteroid” card. It was expensive (in terms of in-game resources) and the game effect were pretty nifty. But that’s not what makes it a moment to remember.

In real life all I did was move some tokens from one place to another, take a card from my hand, showed it to everybody and placed it in front of me.

In my mind however I crashed a huge friggin’ asteroid on the face of another planet!!!

I was picturing gigatonnes of frozen water, hurtling down through an almost-non-existent (but slowly thickening!) atmosphere, delivering desperately needed water and heat to a barren planet.

Moving a card from my hand to the table and kissing a foreign planet with an asteroid. Could anything be more different than these two things? And yet, they did come together, in this particular game of Terraforming Mars.

A mind in two places

Games are played in two places at the same time.

On the board we shift around tokens, move our meeples, play cards. There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot do.

At the same time we’re playing in our minds, where we’re feeding our family, erecting monuments to the gods or sending asteroids to impact the face of a planet humanity hasn’t even been to yet. Here there aren’t any rules: You can do whatever it is that you like!

The first part (what happens on the board) are the mechanics and the rules. The second contains the “theme” of the game. But I believe it contains much more than just that.

The mechanistic approach

Make sure to get your mechanics right!
A game exists first and foremost because of its mechanics. Chess and Go, two of the most venerated games in history have next to no theme to them. If the mechanics are interesting enough, people will happily forget about the (lack of) theme and immersion.

I’ve played many a great game of Dominion and only when thinking about it afterwards does it seem weird that something like a village would come up at random moments instead of, you know, just being there! But the game is fun, the mechanics work and it’s a staple for introducing people to “the next level” of board games.

It even has its own moments of awesome, where you’re chaining card upon card and end up buying two provinces in the same turn. These are of a “mechanistic” awesomeness: You got to do something that made a big difference in game (what I called “Impact” in this post).

Feeding the mind

Most games I’ve played do not have hurtling-huge-balls-of-dirty-ice-into-the-face-of-Earth’s-neighbor-moments (or something of similar awesomeness). Mostly I’m too engrossed in finding the optimal move to pay much attention to what I’m doing “thematically”.

Which is a shame, because when these moments do happen, they tend to make the game so much better!

They transform an abstract optimization problem into something that feels real. They change a tough but engaging puzzle into something that, even if just for a moment, actually matters.

How to engage the imagination

For me the feeling of being transported away from the mechanics and into the theme has been in games of T.I.M.E. Stories, Netrunner, Dead of Winter, Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars.

So what do these games have in common? I think there are a number of elements.

Simulating life

This looks like a good life to simulate!
The games mentioned above all try to “simulate life” as closely as possible. They’ve taken a setting and players can do anything and everything that “makes sense” within that setting. And they’ve made it such that the way players do what they want to do also makes sense.

In Terraforming Mars you play a huge corporation that expends millions upon millions of Euros to re-arrange the solar system. Humanity can’t do this yet, but once we can this would be a way of doing it.

In Robinson Crusoe players use the limited time they have in a day to improve their lives on a deserted island, whilst trying to stave off one (small) disaster after another. It makes sense to consider whether it’s worth it to go hungry for a day if it means you can finish that shelter which will be useful for many nights to come.

It means that any action the player takes can be directly translated into real life and that there is as little as possible to clash with our view of reality. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be abstraction (please don’t try to simulate everything; I’m very happy that my pawns don’t need to use the toilet in-game…) but it does mean that you need to reach a reasonable amount of verisimilitude.

In Robinson Crusoe you are simulating a number of days and need to feed your characters at the beginning of the night phase. In Netrunner however time is far less important so there is no need to “feed” your character. Both work perfectly well in their respective settings.

Realistic “characters”

In each of the games mentioned above you’re playing a realistic “character”. For most games this is a human being though in the case of Terraforming Mars a big corporation also does the trick.

These “characters” (I’ll leave off the quotation marks after this) are (somewhat) fleshed out: I’m this character and not that one. Characters are unique, in that they have individual abilities and a unique representation. Here a picture says more than a thousand words and makes characters much more relatable.

Having a fleshed out character makes a wonderful form of dissociation possible, where a player becomes the character. Once this happens it is much easier to stay in the “game world”, translating mechanics into the working of real life and player actions into character actions. No longer am I moving a pawn, no, I am moving myself!

Note that there doesn’t have to be a 1-to-1 match between a player and their character. In Dead of Winter you’re a group of (individual, fleshed-out) people instead of a single person. In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re a (generic) temporal agent who inhabits an (individual, fleshed-out) person. There is something of a remove, but this still works.

You’ve got to keep ‘em motivated!

I feel very motivated to play a game now!
There is one part of “realistic characters” that I want to address separately: Motivation. Many game don’t really explain “why” you (your character) wants to do something. In Agricola I guess it’s sortof a good idea to have a bigger farm, but does it really matter whether it’s bigger than the neighbor’s (or that I have at least one of each type of animal)?

In the games mentioned however it’s clear why you’re doing what you do. In Netrunner the corporation wants to advance its agenda’s because that’s what corporations do. For the runner this is even better because the different characters actually have different motivations (ranging from hard profit to “because they can”). In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re solving the mystery because your boss ordered you, while in Robinson Crusoe it’s a fight for survival.

Motivations don’t have to be particularly strong, as long as they beat “that’s how the game is played”. This is because the character is not playing the game, it’s the player that’s playing. And if the character is doing something that doesn’t make sense for them to do in the real world, it’s very hard for the player to suspend disbelief and get in the skin of the character.

The cost of immersion

Games exist in a spectrum from pure abstract to “as life-like as possible”. The more you get to the latter, the easier it is to create immersion and memorable moments.

This comes at a cost though. Life-like means simulating enough of “real life” to make it believable and that can mean that you have to leave things out of your game because they don’t mesh with reality. Likewise, it can mean you have to put things in that aren’t good for play but make the illusion more believable.

This is a choice or a balance if you will. There are games that get played a lot even though they’re only half a step away from pure abstracts (Dominion anyone?). Some player prefer tight gameplay over having a story afterwards (or during the game). And neither is better than the other (just different!).

Closing thoughts

I’ve never hacked a megacorporation’s protected server, I have never been stranded on a deserted island, I’ve never thrown an asteroid onto the surface of a planet.

Except that I have, through playing awesome board games!

For me these kinds of games rise above other games which are “merely” innovative, perfectly balanced and tightly designed. As such I hope to one day be able to design something that reaches these heights as well.

Maybe the same holds true for you? If so, I hope that this post was of use for you!

And if maybe you know of other games that engender this sense of immersion, do let me know because I would love to play them!

Further reading

If you want to know more about this subject, maybe these posts are also of interest to you:

Storytelling for better board games, as story-telling is an important part of creating immersion.

Creating tension in board games, as immersion can help to increase tension and the other way around

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?!

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 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


That’s quite a vision!
What kind of game are you creating?

”A game about zombies where…”
“Not what I meant.”
“A deck builder with…”
“No, also not it.”
“Well, what DO you mean then?”

When people ask about a game the two simplest answers are to talk about the theme and the mechanic. And while these are very important to a game, they’re not the core of the game.

From board to mind

When you play a board game, you’re pushing bits of cardboard, plastic and wood around. You move a card from a deck to your hand or you’re scattering dice over the table (in this post I write about the intricacies of moving playing pieces). And physically, this really is all you’re doing…

When written down like that it doesn’t feel particularly appealing, does it? Luckily there is a bit more to board games than just moving things around.

When we play a game, we send workers to a quarry (move our pawn to a space on the board) to carve out pieces of stone (little wooden cubes) to later use in constructing a majestuous monument (to play a card). The playing pieces and our actions are metaphors for something that could happen in real life (see this post for more on metaphors in board game design).

This then allows us to experience something we wouldn’t be able to in real life; I’ve never built a trading empire, conquered the world, raised monuments to the gods or utterly crushed my sworn enemies. But playing board games has allowed me to come awfully close!

It’s all about the experience

Such an amazing experience!
Board games allow the players to have experiences they wouldn’t be able to in real life. So what kind of experiences do you, as a designer, want them to have?

This is a personal question, one that every game designer should answer for themselves.

Still, I think that at a high level there are a number of experiences that board games are very good at conveying:

  • Power: In real life we tend to be relatively powerless (the boss says write that report and you write the report). In board games however we can vanquish our enemies, built world spanning civilizations and challenge the gods themselves. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon!
  • Wonder: Never have I lived on an uninhabited island, except through a board game. Traveling through time only works in books, movies and games. Board games don’t need to conform to human (or even natural) laws and so they can be used to create truly unique experiences.
  • Safety: A real-life adventure actually sucks. Being chased by a dragon is terrifying – and with good reason: You probably won’t survive. A board game however lets you experience the thrill without actually risking your life.
  • Victory: Board games end, and when they do there is a clear winner. Real life ends, but when it does you’ve neither won nor lost. The clarity and simplicity, it’s either black or white, can be highly refreshing.
  • Tension: Humans are monkeys at heart and as such we’re curious beyond belief: What will happen next? A well designed game can dish out surprise after surprise, keeping us at the edge of our seat with anticipation. (See this post for more on tension in board games).
  • Cooperation: Most games are played with others. And through this we can socialize, but more importantly, we can work together on something greater than what we could achieve on our own. This works best for cooperative games of course, but many player-versus-player games actually allow for quite some cooperation (trading in Catan, ganging up together in Risk).

I’m sure that if you give it a bit of time, you can think of many more experiences that your board game can bring your players.

A vision of your experience

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
The previous paragraph gave a number of high-level experiences that board games can bring. So how do you go about selecting what it is you want your board-game to bring? There are three questions you can ask about your game-to-be.

What do you want your players to do. “I want a game where players can build structures that reach into space”, or “I want players to want to give away their resources to other players” (the last was actually my thought for “Voluntarios”, the game I’m designing). Note that this may be closely linked to mechanics, but it certainly doesn’t need to be.

Or you can answer what, when and where they will be. “I want a game set on one of the moons of Jupiter” or “players should be primordial life-forms”. This is strongly related to the theme of the game.

Finally, you can start with what players will feel. “I want players to be amazed” or “The main emotion should be fear”.

Of the above I believe that the “what, when and where” is the easiest to start with, but also the weakest. It creates a back-drop, but alone it is not enough for a strong experience. For that you need players to do and feel. However, a setting can be great for creating inspiration for answering these questions.

What you want your players to “do” can be a strong start. It usually gives good inspiration for a setting and most actions at least have a hint of emotion to them. It also touches upon the core of the board game, as your players will be “doing” a lot of things whilst playing. And with this question answered, you’ll probably already have a few mechanics that would work well with it.

Starting with the feeling you want to engender is very abstract and as such needs further work to form the basis of a game. If you have a clear vision of this however it makes it much easier to answer any future questions about your game: “Does this help the player feel what I want her to feel?”. There is however generally not an obvious answer as to what actions could espouse your selected emotion(s).

In the end you’ll need to answer all three questions (don’t get stuck answering only the first two!) and the order matters less than actually answering them all in due time.

Closing thoughts

A good board game creates an unforgettable experience. It takes you away from everyday life and puts you back in a different time and place. It lets you see (in your mind’s eye) sights you never thought you’d see and it lets you do things you could never do in real life.

In order to do this you need to create a clear vision of what your game is trying to do. Do you have that vision for your current game? I’m sure you have a theme and probably some mechanics, but can you articulate what it is your players are doing? And perhaps more importantly, do you know what it is you want them to feel?

Next steps

In this post I went into the experience of board games. I gave ideas what this consists of and how to get to a vision of it, but not how to create the experience once you know what it’s to be. I’m sure I can fill another blog post with just that.

The experience also closely links to story-telling (another favorite subject), so maybe there will be a post combining the two.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to hear how you experienced this post, 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.

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

Board game design


Life is like a metaphor for a box of chocolates
Life is like a metaphor for a box of chocolates
This tile represents a house. That wooden cube stands for a real piece of construction wood. The deck of cards is the set of magic spells that you could cast. A turn is meant to convey a year. Placing a worker gives the idea of doing a certain amount labor.

Board-games exist by the grace of representations or metaphors. Anything in a game is a stand-in for something else (it probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun if you actually had to harvest a field if you placed your worker on a grain tile).

In this post I want to explore what this means from a design perspective..

Theme: The first metaphor

This park has a theme!
This park has a theme!
Puerto Rico would play exactly the same if you removed all references to production, shipping and taking the role of a certain person. What you’re actually doing is moving components from one location on the table to another. At the end of the game you count a certain kind of component and declare the player with the most as the winner. It is only in your mind are you growing coffee and loading it into a ship.

So why not be satisfied with moving bits of cardboard and wood around, why do we tack on this bit about building plantations in a Latin American country?

To answer that, let’s take a look at games without a theme first.

Games without theme

There are games that don’t have a theme, so called “abstracts”.

4 in a row is a nice example of this: As far as I know the discs you slide down the holder don’t represent anything. Victory doesn’t imply that some evil was defeated or that you built the best civilization. No: Get four meaningless discs in a meaningless row of and you win!

The freedom of the abstract

Chess is almost without theme
Chess is almost without theme
Abstracts are the “cleanest” of games: There is no meaning to convey and thus there are no restrictions on what pieces you can introduce or what you can design with those pieces.

This can certainly be an advantage: Full freedom in theory would allow for the most interesting games to be built.

In practice however I feel that this is generally not the case. A theme helps to limit the design space significantly (see this post on design spaces) and through that makes it simpler to make design choices. Limiting the design space makes it easier to explore what is left and thus come up with great choices within those limits.

Advantages of metaphors

Most modern games are not abstracts. Above I already give a reason why a theme can help in designing a game. There are however other reasons to include a theme (and other metaphors) in your board-game.

Theme and metaphors to make sense of the game

A song with a theme makes much more sense too!
A song with a theme makes much more sense too!
Metaphors help players to make sense of what is going on this game.

Compare: “So I need to hand in two of my yellow cubes for each blue cylinder at the end of round 4?”

To: “Ah, at the end of round 4 there is a harvest and I need to feed my family so they don’t go hungry!”

With metaphors we can much more easily make sense out of rules. Of course you need to feed your family. Of course it makes sense to pay wood and stone to build a building.

And rules that make sense are much easier to remember.

When there is no rule

We try to write rule-books that cover all possibilities. Unfortunately we are few and our players (hopefully!) are many. This means that there will be situations that are not covered by the rules.

If your game is thematic then it is in general much easier to figure out what to do when something crops up that is not covered in the rule-book: Do what would also make sense in real life.

Telling a story

Once upon a time there was a beautiful board-game....
Once upon a time there was a beautiful board-game….
Board-games convey a story: “Four civilizations came to this island trying to achieve economic dominance over the others. In the end the white civilization prevailed!” (Yes, that’s Catan).

People like stories, they like to be able to feel what is happening. To see the rise and fall of great nations, to enjoy a poor farmer’s family build out their farm to become an economic powerhouse. This creates a sense of meaning and empathy.

Without a theme it is very hard to generate a story: “This bunch of discs fell through a grid until one color victoriously got four discs in a row. And they lived happily ever after!” It just doesn’t have much of a ring to it…

A thoroughly ingrained theme makes a game feel more like a story. It helps to suspend disbelief and to keep players in the make-belief world that they together are creating. It helps players to “get into” the game.

See this post for more on board-games and story-telling.

A theme is conveyed through metaphors

As mentioned, the theme says “what the game is about”: This is a game about space combat, that is a game about intrigue in the roman era, here we’re dueling zombies in a hospital.

Board games make use of components. This red cube of wood represents a space ship in the first game, an influence point in the second and a wound in the third. The component is exactly the same but the way we use it and see it is completely different.

The meaning we give to that one component is a metaphor.

Likewise, any actions we take are metaphorical. We move that red cube from one space to another and we’ve flown our spaceship, influenced a senator or healed a wound.

The story gets told by having our metaphor-actions work on our metaphor-components.

The perfect metaphor

I feel I should make a game about plumbing now...
I feel I should make a game about plumbing now…
A real house requires wood, bricks, roof-tiles, plumbing, wiring. It’s built by a plethora of experts, of which each would be hard-pressed to do another’s work.

In games however it just requires a wood and a stone (or whatever the game proscribes).

Metaphors in games need not be perfect. In fact, they absolutely should not be perfect! Board-games work because we make abstraction, mostly simplifications. Real life is messy and chaotic, while in a board-game things work exactly according to the rules.

There is a lot of freedom to be found in this: Chose the metaphors you want to use, at the level of abstraction you want. Do you want to build plumbing, buildings or cities? Each is possible, each can work for the right game.

The winning metaphor

Many modern games do very well with their metaphors, except for at one point: Determining the winner.

Victory points are left, right and center in modern board-games. And though they work well, it’s sometimes very hard to see what they are a metaphor for.

In Puerto Rico you get points for delivering goods and building buildings. Why do these things specifically make you the “best” (from an in-game perspective)? Why not the number of colonists (having the “largest empire”) or money (being “richest”)?

One reason is that in real life there is no “communal end”. People move on or die, but the world (the story!) goes on without them. A game however does need an end and creating one that “makes sense” is hard.

In real life nobody truly wins or loses either. Sure, some people have an easy life and others a harsh one. But in the end we all die, without there being a podium or a gold cup handed out.

There are however games that make perfect sense regarding their ending and the winner. Racing games stop when someone gets to the end (and is declared the winner). Chess ends when the king is certain to be captured.

So come up with a plausible ending end winner!

That doesn’t make sense!

It doesn't matter if you look silly, as long as you're consistent!
It doesn’t matter if you look silly, as long as you’re consistent!
There are of course downsides to theme and metaphors. Mostly, they have to be consistent.

Let’s say you have a building themed game. You’ve been testing and it works really well to remove a worker every time you build a building. From a real-world perspective that is really hard to explain though; buildings don’t eat humans.

In this case you either have to accept that your theme and mechanics clash, change the mechanic or change the theme (perhaps in a distant future buildings are grown from humans?!).

This also shows that even though consistency can be a difficult, there are options when you run into this restriction.

Closing thoughts

Abstract games don’t require any “fluff” that makes thematic sense but doesn’t really add much to the game. Because of this it’s easier to get a deep game with simple rules (Go being a prime example).

However, without a theme and metaphors you’re missing out on story building and making sense of the “why” of certain rules. Do your metaphors help to create a story and to make sense of the rules?

The flip side of this is that for a thematic game it becomes more difficult to add a rule that the game needs but that doesn’t make sense within the theme. How much of a limitation should this be?

When designing your game, what kind of metaphors do you use? Could you use different ones? Or could you use a different component with the same metaphor? This becomes especially relevant when you are using a theme that has been used again and again (another zombie game anyone?). Dice as space-ships? Cards as health? Tokens as building plans? With some imagination I’m sure you can come up with some interesting ideas!

Next steps

For any game you have to make a choice as on what metaphors you do and don’t include. This relates to the level of abstraction you use in your game. It would be interesting to look further into these levels of abstraction and what they mean for game design.

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: