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.
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.
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.
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…
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?
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…
We play games to have fun. But I’ve found that different people enjoy different games, or different parts of the game. My wife for example doesn’t care much what she plays, as long as she wins! For myself I much more enjoy finding out what the different possibilities are that a game allows (though winning is neat too of course!).
Different players have different motivations for playing games. Understanding what these are can help create better board games.
Fun from games
Different players enjoy games for different reasons. When looking at the people I’ve played with I can see a number of distinct “types” of players:
(Are all of those real words? They are now!)
In the following paragraphs I’ll write something about each of these drivers and how you can cater to each of them in creating your game.
In board games you can rule civilizations, build monuments to the gods and utterly crush your opponents. All of these are expressions of power, of bending the world (within the game) to your will.
Power can be over the elements of the game: You get to decide what your workers do, where buildings are built or what your character does. These are the kings and queens of imaginary fiefdoms, happy to rule for as long as the game lasts.
The most important way to achieve this is of course by winning. After all, nothing shouts out that you’re more powerful than others than beating them.
As most games are built with player vs. player interaction in mind, this is an expected part of most games and nobody will begrudge a player of doing their best to gain the upper hand. In fact, many people are very happy to get some good opposition, as it makes it all the more delicious when you do finally grasp victory.
Another way in which players can express power is in “quarterbacking” in coops: Telling other players what they should do. Some people are happy to let others decide for them what the best move is (most importantly Socializers, see below), but it can be a real downer for many other players.
Designing for power-mongers
People who enjoy power in their games tend to prefer player vs. player games (though as mentioned, they can also show their preferences in coop games).
For some power-mongers the simple pleasure of winning is enough, but for others direct confrontation is preferred. Euro-style getting-in-the-way passive-aggressive play is not what they are looking for, they prefer more direct interaction. This can be through aggressive action (attack!) but it is also possible to exercise power over other people with more innocent player interactions: Forcing another player to give you 3 bricks for your one sheep in Catan can put a gleam in the power-monger’s eye.
When it comes to mechanics, anything they can amass will tickle their fancy. This can be resources, but preferably it’s something that can be used to directly interact with the other players with (think huge stockpiles of armies in Risk).
Area control is also a mechanic that works well for the power players, as it easily shows who has control (power!) over how much of the board.
Example games for Power-mongers
Risk, Dungeons & Dragons (really any RPG where you can build overpowered characters), Munchkin, Monopoly.
Board games are inherently social activities (I know, you can play board games online and there are quite a few solo games now…) and this is what Socializers love the most in playing.
For them it matters less what they are playing and more whom they are playing with. A game is a reason to get a group of friends or family together and that’s the thing to cherish.
As such they may have little to no interest in actually winning; in fact they may well give up a beneficial action to help someone else.
Designing for Socializers
Cooperative games are a natural fit for Socializers, as it allows them to put their best effort into winning (which everybody else seems to think is important), without anybody feeling bad (for having to lose). Also the joined victory or defeat can create a group feeling, which is something Socializers value.
Socializers are also perfectly happy to play “multiplayer solitaire”, as it means they do not have to do anything that could antagonize anybody else.
A large dose of randomness can also be appreciated by Socializers, as it means that anybody losing is not of their doing.
Finally, Socializers prefer games that don’t require too much brainpower. Not because they can’t handle it, but because if everybody is staring intently at their cards, there will hardly be any banter going on… They also tend to like party games, as winning and losing tends to be less important than the fun that is had together.
Example games for Socializers
Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Pandemic, Captain Sonar.
Board games allow us to live on an uninhabited island, colonize mars or be queen of a fairy kingdom. They allow players to experience things they never would be able to in real life. And Imaginers live for this.
A game for them is a way to be or do something that is out of the ordinary. And generally the more exotic the better. A game should create a story (though it doesn’t need to be a story-telling game): The best games are the ones where something happens you can tell your friends about afterwards.
And though it’s nice to imagine a glorious victory, a bitter defeat can be just as exciting.
Designing for Imaginers
Imaginers want to “live the game”. This means that a lot of work should be put into artwork and other visual elements, so that it’s easy for them to transport themselves to your game world.
Cooperative games tend to lend themselves a bit better to the style Imaginers prefer, as in real life we tend to cooperate more than that we are directly antagonistic to each other. But if you are simulating something where there is a clear rationale for confrontation (e.g. a war game) then this should definitely be included.
When playing the game mechanics should “make sense”. Every element should have a connection to something that could happen in real life – it makes sense that your family needs to eat at some point (Agricola), it does not make sense that parts of your kingdom show up at random moments (Dominion). This doesn’t mean that everything has to be simulated to the finest detail, a level of abstraction is fine (no toilet breaks for your workers required).
For Imaginers randomness has a place in a good board game, but only if it links to something that is (or comes across as) random in real life as well.
Mechanic wise, hidden information can be a big boon to Imaginers, as they can use their imagination on what it is that might be hidden for them. Worker placement works (pun intended) as it conforms quite well to the actual notion of “work being done”. And a board that represents a physical space (instead of say a number of tracks), on which playing pieces can be placed or moved around, helps to visualize what is going on.
Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars, Dead of Winter, Netrunner.
There is nothing quite like opening up the box for a new game. What’s inside, what adventures, quests and clashes will it bring?
Explorers like the “new” and the “unknown”. A new card to draw, a tile to flip. But also a new mechanic to try or a combination to experiment with. As long as a game keeps bringing up new situations they are happy to play. But inevitably, a game will grow old and it will be time to move on to pastures greener.
It’s interesting to try out different combinations and to push the limits of the game. That will most probably mean an Explorer won’t win, but she’ll have a great time going down in a blaze.
Designing for Explorers
Explorers seek novelty. That means that for a game to continue to interest them, it will require a lot of depth (see this and this post on depth in board games). Player interaction is one good way of providing this, as it very hard to fully gauge the mind of your gaming buddies. And if actual depth is hard to provide, large amounts of content will do in a pinch: A game with a thousand unique cards is where it starts getting interesting.
Another way of keeping explorers interested is by providing components that can be combined in many different ways. Dominion is a good example of this; there are many combinations of kingdom cards that can be made and a proper explorer will want to try every one of them.
Explorers love hidden information, so be sure to add a lot of cards that can be drawn at different moments, tiles that can be flipped and tokens that are taken from bags.
When it comes to mechanics it’s more important that something is new than what it actually does.
Legacy games are the games for explorers, as they provide fresh content (and an evolving story) for many games to come. Because opening a small box inside your game is only slightly less awesome than opening the big box in the first place.
Explorers’ second favourite type of game are decksploration games (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories) where you get to explore what is in a deck of cards.
Example games for Explorers
Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic Legacy, The 7th Continent, Escape.
There is nothing quite like taking 10 turns to carefully set up your engine, seemingly not making any progress at all, only to then switch it on and win the game in one huge bonanza of victory points!
The Creator wants to make something, using the tools provided by the game. Each element provided is but a building block and it is her task to find the best combination out of all of those. This can be an amazing combo or an efficient engine, but also the prettiest tableau or the fullest hand. It does have to be useful though (else you’re just exploring).
Winning is the name of the game for the Creator, because that’s how you know what you built works. But where the Power-monger wants to win, no matter what, the Creator wants to win with style.
Designing for Creators
Creators need to be provided with lots of different elements that can interact with each other. They love the string actions, cards and tiles together to get to a beautiful machine that turns one resource into another, which is turned into the next, and so on, until at the end they get a big pile of victory points.
For Creators a game should be fairly “meaty”, to have sufficient raw material to work with. The more steps it takes to do something, the better.
This also means they prefer Euro style games; most war games don’t care much about how efficient your army is, as long as it’s big. Limited interaction also means that there is nothing getting in the way of working on the grand opus; there is nothing as frustrating as having your combo ready to fly, only to have it disrupted by someone stealing a card.
Similarly, randomness can be fun at times, but mostly it just means having to wait longer until you do your big trick. And the same holds true for hidden information: It can’t be incorporated into the engine, so it’s just frustrating.
Deck builders, bag builders, dice builders, tableau builders, all of these are great for Creators, as it allows them to piece together what they need from a big market of possible resources. Barring that, a game where there are lots of different cards and tiles that they can combine will make them happy.
Example games for Creators
Agricola, Dominion, Magic the Gathering, Catan.
The previous paragraphs sketch 5 different “player types”. Obviously these are exagerations and abstractions; nobody is a “pure” Explorer or Socializer. Everybody caries each type (and more), but some types will be more strongly represented in one player than another (for example I’m a strong Explorer and a weak Power-monger).
And these 5 types certainly aren’t the end-all either. I’m sure that with some thought you could add another 5 (or 50!) categories. And perhaps you can come up with a completely different categorization as well.
The point isn’t that these types are the truth. Instead they are meant to help you think about what kind of players you are catering to. What parts of your game would appeal to whom? Can you add further elements to make them like it even more?
”But shouldn’t I make something that appeals to everybody?”
Well… If that were possible then yes! But unfortunately that’s not possible, something that I hope the different types also show. Different people like different things. You can make something that nobody hates, or you can make something that some people love, but not both. A game nobody hates doesn’t sell, a game that some people love does!
We create games to have them enjoyed by our players. But who are “our players”? Do you have an image in mind? Perhaps a friend (or yourself)? What does this specific person enjoy the most? And what does she absolutely hate in a game?
Are you play-testing with those people? Or are you pulling in random strangers and trying to cater to every suggestion that they bring up? Who is your audience and what do they like?
And when you test your friends’ games, are you able to tell them: “This game is not for me”? Because you may very well not be their target audience either.
When we play a game we get better. We try a strategy and see it work or fail. We find that this card is strong and that one is weak. We learn.
Now you might be going: ”Well, duh!”. But bear with me, because this has some interesting consequences for board-game design.
The joys of learning
Humans are learning machines. You can see this when you observe kids: Infinitely curious, happy to try anything. Which makes sense: Imagine a kid that wasn’t interested in learning to walk; they wouldn’t be particularly effective in later life… And so the desire to learn is hard-coded into our being.
As adults we’ve left the exploration phase behind. We know it’s a bad idea to grab a burning stove, how our hands work, that bees are to be avoided and that ice-cream is delicious.
That doesn’t mean we stop learning though. Or that the craving for new things to learn goes away. It just means that we have do a bit more work to get to something that gets our neurons firing.
Which is where board-games (and really any form of entertainment) comes in: A system all set up with juicy and intricate rules that we can figure out!
Three levels of learning
Board-games offer three levels of learning:
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Learning the rules
The first part of learning a game is learning the rules. These are what is written in the rulebook or what is explained by someone who has played before.
For most people this is not a particularly enjoyable experience. This is because it mostly comes down to memory; can you remember the rules well enough to get to the next level? Because of this player-aids (and simple-to-remember rules!) are a big boon to games.
For some people (myself included) learning the rules is enjoyable as well. I think this is because simply by learning the rules you already get some insights into the system behind them, which is the next level of learning.
Learning the system
The second part of learning a game is understanding the system. This is how the rules and components interact to create something bigger than the sum of the parts.
In poker the rules say which hand beats which and that you can bet chips based on whether you think you will win the round. Just from reading that however you most likely wouldn’t realize that it’s possible to bluff.
The system is all the interactions that are possible. It’s the difference in Dominion between playing a Smithy and a Village, and then seeing what could happen if you play them both.
For many people there is real joy to be found in this phase of learning the game. That’s because true insight is created. By playing, you figure something out that you hadn’t known before. Eureka!
Learning to win
The final part of the journey is to learn to win. This means understanding the system well enough to know which option is better than another, to find new and more intricate combinations to get even more bang for your scarce resources (see this post for scarcity in board-games).
It is here that you are trying new tactics and strategies, optimizing a single turn or getting the best out of your entire play.
Better: To win, mastering the system isn’t enough; you also need to outsmart your opponent(s), taking the experience of learning to an even higher level!
This is what we mean when we say that a game takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master: Rules that are simple to memorize, but a system that is interesting to delve into and a game that keeps on bringing up new learning experiences.
Learning and replayability
One of the holy grails in board-game design is “replayability”, the possibility to play a game multiple times without it getting boring.
A very good bad example of this is tic-tac-toe. No one in their right mind would play this, right? Well, not true: Kids actually really enjoy this game. For them it is not obvious that you can always play to get a draw. They haven’t learned yet that this is the case. And so they’ll happily keep at it, throwing their full intellectual capacity at it. Until they get it. At which point they’ll be like you and me, not touching it ever again.
The lesson is that as long as there is something to be learned in a game, it’ll stay interesting. I think I’ve played 50+ games of Agricola in my life, but I’ll gladly play another round, because there really is more to be explored.
The way then to increase replayability is by allowing a lot of things to be learned within the game. There are two ways of doing this:
Learning in the deep end
“Depth” is one of the other holy grails of board-game design (mostly because it gives replayability!) and it would take an entire blog post (and more!) to go into it (many others have done so, a bit of Googling should get you far).
Just scratching the surface, I would say that depth is “interesting complexity”. One way of incorporating this in your game is having multiple viable tactics and strategies. Each of these can be tried out and players can learn how well they work, which are the best and which combine well.
If it takes 3 tries to really work out a strategy then adding one more strategy just increased the replayability by 3 games…
Once you know something, there is nothing left to learn. It’s gotten boring and thus not worth any further effort. Tic-tac-toe as explained above is a good example of this.
But what if you sortof know what’s going on, but not entirely? This is extremely tantalizing for the human brain: “I’ve figured it out so far, now I want to know the last bits as well!” As long as there is ambiguity, the brain will continue to work on it.
One way of introducing ambiguity is by creating situational dependence. This means that your strategy depends strongly on tactics and the state of the rest of the game.
Imagine you have a good strategy, which needs a combination of resources. In some games you can get these reasonably well, but in others they are scarce. You need to learn more (namely, how to ensure that you get those resources)!
But what if there is no sure-fire way of getting them? Then your strategy will mostly win, but not always. And you’ll continue to wonder what you can do better.
This ambiguity can be the result of randomness. As long as you don’t draw too poor cards or you’re not rolling only ones, your strategy does well. Figuring this out is more difficult than a strategy that does not involve any randomness. At some point however the player is going to catch on and accept that the strategy just can’t be improved, that in the end it’s lady Fortune that decides whether it succeeds or not. And they’ll stop playing the game (or latch on to a new strategy to try).
This is especially the case since randomness tends to be rather “heavy handed”. Sure, sometimes you’ll be exactly 1 resource short, but in many cased you’ll really have way too little (or you’re drowning in the good stuff). When the influence of randomness is so un-subtle, it’s easy to see that it’s the culprit.
A more interesting way of creating ambiguity is through player interaction. This is the way the typical “Euro” game works: ”I could execute my strategy perfectly, if it weren’t for the others players getting in my way!”
If you’re short wood this game, then next game you’ll pounce on it more aggressively. With as a result that another player has a chance to take the stone that you also need. Your priority shifts again next game, but once more you’re missing something. Is this because the strategy is flawed, or does it mean that you just have to be even better at foreseeing what your opponent will do?
The learning process in a board-game then is working through the hard choices and – through experience – finding out which option does give the best results.
This allows us to rephrase the part about ambiguity from above in different terms. If there truly is an optimal choice then we need to learn this once and then we (our brain) is done. If however the choice is only optimal part of the time (because of randomness or the actions of other players) then we’re not done learning (and enjoying!) yet.
A tip when playing
Winning is a big part of the enjoyment of playing a game. I hope though that the above has shown that learning the game is just as big a part of the pleasure.
Therefore: Optimize your learning pleasure – don’t look up tips and tricks online. Figure it out for yourself. Even if that means taking a beating.
Board-games give an opportunity to learn, something that isn’t present a lot otherwise in adult life. It is one of the joys of playing and as such should be in the forefront of a designer’s mind.
To allow players to continue to learn within the game, there should be a lot of game space to explore. This can be in broad strokes, in the form of different strategies to try out, but also at a micro level, when trying to get the best out of a chosen strategy.
Ambiguity in outcomes means that the brain hasn’t learned all it can, resulting in a drive to learn and thus to play more.
I already mentioned that “depth” would take an entire blog post to delve into (see what I did there?), so I probably will take the plunge at some point (see what I did there? I’m on a role!).
Ambiguity in board-games is also something I feel that can be explored further. Above are some good opening thoughts, but this can definitely be expanded upon.
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?!
Hi, 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.
We play a board game and at the end of it one person does a fist pump while the others hang their heads. One winner and multiple losers.
The difference can be one lousy point (on a total of two hundred) and still there is a watershed between glorious victory and humiliating defeat.
As a board game designer this fascinates me: Why is “the winner” so important?
No-winner game: Sim-City
There is a whole swath of computer “games” that can’t be won, with Sim-City being the first that comes to mind. I spent hours staring at my screen, trying to get enough money to be able to create more space for houses so that I could get more money…
Technically such a “game” would be better qualified as a “simulation”, but it’s not my intention to get into semantics here.
And though you can’t win Sim-City, I generally did have an idea of what I wanted to do: Get the biggest city. Or create a city without any pollution. Or see how quickly I could completely raze what I built up using tornados. What I wanted to do became my goal for that particular session. I wouldn’t “win” the game. But I could most certainly achieve something.