Board Game Design: Conceptual Thinking
So you want to make a board game...
you don’t need this article to do that. You really don’t need any
article to do that. Just grab some paper, pick a goal, draw a board,
and fill in the details as you go along. This article really isn’t
about how to create a great game. It’s an overview of what comprises a
We take games for granted, mostly, so when a game isn’t fun, it just isn’t fun. We don’t really know why it isn’t fun, or how to fix it, just that we don’t like it. And that’s cool - fun is subjective, after all. But suppose you knew why, and you knew how to fix it? Well, that’s what this article is for. It’s to help you think about board games a little differently so that it’s easier to make a game from scratch that’s everything you want it to be. Or maybe you bought a new game and it just wasn’t fun. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll be able to make it fun.
We’re not going to go into specifics here. I’m not going to talk about systems and mechanics and balancing. Instead, we’ll look at concepts and ideas. Theory rather than practice. If you’ve ever played a board game, you already know all you need to know about systems and mechanics. It’s not something you need to give any thought to, just copy what you like.
Also, I’m discussing multiplayer games here. While this all can apply to solitaire games, if you’re the only person playing, why are you reading this? Just go make whatever game you want since you have a better idea of what’s fun for you than I do.
That's what I do
Before we go on, an anecdote. I beg your indulgence, but I thought this might be a nice illustration of what I just talked about, and what I’ll be talking about below. Hopefully, it’ll give you the idea to do this yourself with your friends, or parents, or kids, or grandparents, or even your pets (no judgements - I used to build mazes for my hermit crabs to see which one would get out first).
I’ve been making games since I can remember. Board games, outdoor games, card games, games of lets play pretend... I’d just get some friends together and we’d make up the rules as we went along. We played a version of Calvinball before the name was coined, as I’m sure did many many kids. I’m not a professional (yet), just someone who’s been doing this a while and wants to spread the passion.
My mother used to work for a printing company as a programmer. The benefit of this was the huge reams of paper (all sizes and colors) she’d bring home for her kids to use. And when I say reams, I mean rolls of paper that were taller than I was. Back in elementary school, a couple friends and I would walk home, stop off at my house and grab a roll of paper, then head to my friend’s house and his finished basement. We’d roll out the paper, and start making a game. They were mostly race games (I’ll touch on this later), since pretty much all mass market games for kids are race games. They were easy to do and actually the most fun to design, I think. The goal was to get from point A to point B.
The game I remember best had a starship theme. We were racing intergalactic fighters, and blowing up your opponent wasn’t just an option, it was encouraged (there was an awful lot of blowing up your opponent in these games, if I recall). For this starship game, we knew what we wanted, so we rolled out paper, fished some dice from another game, and started drawing a board. One of use would draw the board and make all the squares for movement while the others filled in the squares with stuff like “Go back 2 squares” or “Lose a turn” or “Swap places with another player” and so on. Then we decided it would be fun to be able to shoot at each other, too, so we made little weapon cards and added spaces on the board where you could gain said cards. We even got a little more intricate and gave our ships life points so they could withstand more than one blast. We’d play the one game over and over again, adding stuff to it each time, until it was just right.
And then we’d make a new one the next week or even next day.
What's in a game?
board games have four central concepts, as defined by myself. This
isn’t something established among industry professionals (there’s no
official standard or formula, since games are after all subjective),
just something I’ve identified in 30+ years of playing and making games
for my own amusement.
The four concepts that comprise a game are goal, interaction, focus, and theme. I’m listing them in what I feel is the order of importance. Note again that I’m not discussing systems and mechanics such as “roll and move” or “card-based actions” or victory points or an economy structure, or anything that would bog us down with numbers and rules. We’re just going to focus on the ideas, and you should be able to fill in the mechanics based on what you enjoy when playing a game.
If a game isn’t fun, then it’s because something in one of these categories doesn’t quite line up with what you want. In a lot of cases, it’s really only one category, and if that was different, the rest of it would be perfect. But ideas from one category can impact the development or perception of ideas in the other categories. If that sounds a little messy and convoluted, it really isn’t. Once you identify what ideas belong to what categories, you’ll be able to see what is actually wrong with the game and maybe have an idea on how to make it more to your liking. Every idea actually does have a clear category that it belongs in, as you’ll see.
The object of the game, this is really the most important and straightforward category. Without this, it wouldn’t be a game, just a lot of playing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but without a goal, we eventually lose interest in the playing.
Goals can be as simple as the first person to go around the board wins, to complex like collect three shiny buttons and move them to the round green circles and then go back and forth across the board five times. But a goal is the win condition. How you get there is up to the focus, but the goal is the destination.
Generally speaking, every game is a race: You either want to be first or have more. There are, however, two types of races - race and conquest. Race is, obviously, be the first to X. Be the first to collect one million dollars. Be the first to get to the last square. Be the first to count all your chickens before they hatch. Conquest is the have more side of the race. Take over more land than your opponent. Collect more sets than the other players. Eat more hot dogs. Count more chickens in one minute. Most conquest games involve direct conflict (more on that later) like Risk and Stratego and Chess.
Another thing about a goal is it can be changed. Goals do not have to be static, and this usually leads to very exciting games. There is a card game called Fluxx which starts off with no goals. It has goal cards which players can play to define the goal (or redefine the goal if someone played a card they didn’t like). There are also board games which set up scenarios, such as war games, in which the goal is different every time you play. Allowing a variable goal leads to replayability, which isn’t a core game concept, but a “fun concept” which I’ll touch on at the end.
The goal of the game is the seed from which everything else grows. If you don’t know why you’re playing, it’s a safe bet you’re not sure how to play, either.
I’ve been flip-flopping as to whether this is more important than focus, or vice versa, but in the end I realized this is a “planning” concept, whereas focus is an “execution” concept. In other words, the amount of interaction you want will determine where you put your focus. The two concepts work hand-in-hand. I’ve separated them into two concepts because you should think of interaction as a concept and a unique aspect of the game. Blending them together might confuse you to think that the rules are a problem when really you want to change how the players interact (which then causes you to change the rules, but at least you know what rules to change now). It’s the question of whether or not you want to be able to blow up your opponents’ starship.
There are three types of interaction a game, which I’m defining from the players’ point of view: cooperation, direct competition, and indirect competition.
Cooperation is exactly that. All the players are working together to meet the goal. They all win or lose together. In this case, the tension (to use a storytelling term) is in the players vs the game itself. There aren’t many cooperative games, but this type of game is becoming more popular and has been proven by such games as Arkham Horror and Castle Panic to be quite fun.
Direct competition is just as straightforward. The players are all directly competing against each other to achieve the goal. In this case, every advancement a player makes is at the detriment of the other players, as in games like Chess, Checkers, and Risk.
Indirect competition is a bit trickier. A lot of games are criticized for being “multiplayer solitaire” or waiting games because the players are all doing their own things and interacting very little, if at all. They are still competing to reach the goal, but they do so independent of each other. The Game of Life, for instance, or Clue, or Monopoly. Any affect the players have on the game is done to the game itself in the depletion of resources, or changing the board, or even changing rules. This then would cause a setback for the other players, or change the way they play the game, but that doesn’t necessarily need to happen. There may not be any effect on the other players at all. This type of active vs passive playing ties into the immersion, which I’ll also discuss later, alongside replayability.
This is the meat and potatoes of the game. Here’s the concept that shapes all the rules. I call it focus
because you want your game to have one. You can just have a jumble of
rules and let your players do all sorts of stuff, but that could just
turn into a mess of a game. Ideally, you want your game to have a focus
which will provide a framework for the rules to better help the players
achieve the goal.
So what is a focus? First, what’s the goal? The focus is the most important way to reach that goal. In a lot of cases, there will be several ways to achieve the goal with no clear indication of which way is best. Theme will help you here, and we’ll get to that in a bit. I’ll give you a simple illustration first.
Suppose your goal is to be the first player to get from point A to point B. Obviously, movement will be the focus. You want to provide interesting ways for the players to traverse your board from point to point. That becomes your framework for the game rules. How do the players move? What determines how far they move? Are there any ways to modify their movement? The interaction question comes into play now: can the players directly block the other players, or should they leave “traps” by modifying the board? All your questions are focused around movement, and the details spring from there. You can get as complicated as you want as long as you remember that everything should ultimately tie back to that one focus: how it affects the players’ movement.
For another example, let’s take a look at Monopoly. The goal of that game is to buy out all the other players. Naturally, the focus is making money. But how do you let the players make money? There’s a lot of different ways to make money in real life. How do you pick what would be the most fun? This is where theme comes in to save the day - in Monopoly, it’s real estate, so you shift the focus to buying and leveraging real estate in order to bankrupt your opponents.
So what is theme?
Theme is fluff. There is a lot of debate amongst hardcore gamers
about whether theme is important. Theme vs mechanics, as it were. How
much of a theme do you need? Does it really help? Do you need one at
all? I’m of the opinion that yes, it matters, but only insofar as it
helps you define the game’s focus. Does a game need a theme to be fun?
Nope! See Checkers, Chess (although one can argue there’s a theme to
that one), Go, Othello, and any number of other “abstract” games. You
can have as much theme or as little theme as you want. It’s a style
choice, and the most subjective of any game aspect. But my Monopoly
example above illustrates why I feel it’s important, and I’ll elaborate
on it in a moment.
The theme of a game is no different than the setting of a story. It’s the time and place in which the events take place. Theme is conveyed in artwork, the layout of the board, the playing pieces, all the visual elements that make the game pleasing to look at, but have no real effect on how it plays. For instance, Monopoly is Monopoly is Monopoly, but just look at all the different versions it has! One for each city, one for every sports team, even ones for fictional comic, movie, and television franchises. Instead of buying real estate, you could be buying ball players, or superheroes, or renting movies. The theme is pasted on - California Monopoly, Simpsons Monopoly, Star Wars Monopoly - but it always plays the same way. The importance of theme only goes so far (I realize this runs counter to my Monopoly argument, but bear with me).
My spaceship game could just as easily been a Nascar game. We could have been racing cars instead of starships, or we could even have been racing dogsleds! We wanted spaceships, which then gave us the idea for wormholes, and black holes, and photon torpedoes, and laser cannons, and shields, and and and.... Mechanically speaking, the wormholes were simply squares that said “move to the big X” and black holes made you miss a number of turns, but the theme helped us shape the focus. If we had been doing Nascar, we probably would not have had squares teleporting our cars all over the place. And they probably wouldn’t have shot at each other, either.
Back to Monopoly and the point of this section: why theme helps game design. As I discussed above, there are a lot of ways to make money, and there are multiple games which deal with making the most amount of money. Off the top of my head, I could allow my players to buy and sell goods, like a stock market scenario; I could allow them to create products with resources to sell for money; I could use an auction-style system where players have a certain number of objects to sell and need to seize the right opportunity to make the most money with those items; or, I could give them access to real estate like in Monopoly. See where theme comes in? All of those options are perfectly valid, and in fact I could use them all - but that would make for an awfully diluted and confusing game. The theme here helps narrow down my choices and sharpen my focus to make for a streamlined, and ultimately more effective, game. Beyond that, it can be as heavy or as light as my taste allows, as long as it suits its purpose of supporting the gameplay first.
But is it fun?
Everything I’ve discussed so far are, to use a business term, features of a game. They are what the game is and does and how it goes about providing you with enjoyment. But they are not the end product, the enjoyment is. The entertainment you derive from a game is its ultimate product and that’s what’s most important. The concepts above are all causes as to why we would think a game is fun or not, but they’re not necessarily why we declare a game fun or not fun. Let’s take a look at the elements of the game’s product (fun), two of which I alluded to earlier: Immersion, tension, balance, and replayability.
Simply put, it’s how invested you are in the game. A lot of people would say that immersion has to do with the artwork, and the way the rules are written, and any flavor text on the cards that helps support the theme of the game. Much like a video game or a movie, the argument is that immersion is how well presented the game is, in order to draw you in. Well, if that’s what does it for you, fine, but that’s not what immersion is, in my opinion.Total immersion is the point where you forget about everything, even that you’re playing a game, and you’re only really aware of the game. If you’ve ever seen two grandmasters going at it in Chess, you’ve watched total immersion. And there’s no artwork, no frilly elaborate playing pieces, no bells or whistles. Just a board, distinctive movable shapes, and a timeclock. In this case, the strategy is so deep and convoluted that you can get lost in and enjoy the thought process itself. The game’s mechanics provide the immersion.
Then you have your fantasy adventure board game, like Talisman, or Runebound, or something like Arkham Horror (referenced earlier), where the board and cards and pieces are so intricate and elaborate that you can’t help but be drawn into the setting of the game. Personally speaking, I love heavily themed games because I can’t wait to get that next tidbit of the game’s world on one of the cards, or buried in the rulebook. It has nothing to do with winning the game, but it helps tell the story, and themes can get so heavy that the game tells you a story as you play, and you can get lost in that.
And going back to Monopoly (last time, I promise), you can get very immersed in that, too. There’s something hypnotic about going around the board, and getting money is always a thrill. And if you’ve never haggled over the price of a deed while buying out another player - well, you should play with my brother. He’ll get you immersed plenty while he takes all your money.
is very very important. Without this, you’ll never really have
immersion - or if you do, it won’t last long. I probably should have
listed this first, but immersion was a good lead-in.
In storytelling terms, this is the conflict of the piece and what creates the drama. Man vs nature, man vs man, man vs himself, etc etc etc. The tension comes from the risk our protagonist faces in his or her challenges. The same holds true for games. If the players are not risking anything, then the game has little to no meaning, and attentions could flag.
The stakes don’t have to be high. In most games, the tension simply comes from the race. The players are only risking not winning. In direct conflict games where players are attacking and eliminating each other directly, the tension is much more apparent: Not only can you not win, but you are actively being destroyed by your opponent. The player has more to lose.
Games with time limits also serve to increase tension. Each player is guaranteed to lose opportunity with every turn he or she takes, so each turn really has to count for something. Cooperative games use this as the primary source to build tension. As the time limit dwindles down, perhaps the players have more risk than simply not achieving the goal in time. Many competitive games use time limits, too, although a lot of them do it to keep the game from dragging on rather than to build tension.
Tension is easy enough to establish and in most cases it’s done without any real conscious thought. The design decisions guided by the categories above will set all that up for you. And if not... well, it could be as simple as changing an indirect conflict to a direct conflict, and vice-versa. But that also shifts your focus, so you’ll have a few more design decisions to make. My guidelines above are there to help you identify what to fix, not how to fix it.
I don't want to hit this one too hard, because it's the most subjective of all the "fun concepts," but it is something you need to think about.
When we talk about balance, we really mean two different things: fairness and momentum. Balance is basically the game playing the way you want it to play. How fair is it? And how quickly does the game move?
You do want to keep the game more or less fair, and keep all the players feeling like they at least started on the same foot. Whether the game remains fair as it goes along is up to you. Likewise with momentum. You do want to get the game off to a quick start early on so that when you do throw the "heavy stuff" at the players, they feel like they've progressed enough so that the game doesn't bog down all of a sudden. Whether the game plays in fits and starts or whether it stays at one speed is all up to you.
That's what we mean by balance, and it's a subjective idea, set by you, the game designer.
is a harder one to nail down, but you want a game that people will want
to play over and over again. In basic terms, you do that by changing
things. An element of randomness in the game goes a long way toward
elongating its playing life. For games with no element of chance,
sometimes the only thing to do is change opponents (if I knew I couldn’t
possibly beat you at Chess no matter how good I got, I wouldn’t play
you anymore, even if it meant never playing the game again). Having
some sort of perception that anyone can win entices players to keep
playing even after they’ve lost. After all, next time the dice rolls
may be better and they’ll win then.
A good rule of thumb (although not set in stone) is don’t change the rules. While that card game I mentioned before, Fluxx, gleefully changes its rules mid-game with wild abandon, very few games can get away with that. Build your random elements into the rules and make sure that the players feel supported every step of the way. Changing the game should not be an unpleasant surprise to the players, a feeling that the game “cheated” in some way. Some games utilize variable boards, some use cards, and many others use just a die or two for movement. You don’t have to go crazy, but if you do it right, you can trick the players into thinking that it’s not really their fault they lost, it’s just the way their luck went. Or, if your game provides a different experience every time, maybe the next setup will be better for them.
By the same token, you don’t want the game to be too random. You don’t want the players to feel like they have no control over whether they win or lose. I stopped playing games like The Game of Life and Careers because of that very reason. I kept rolling 1s.
If you design it, they will play...
want to close this article by encouraging you to go out and make your
own games. They can just be for you and your friends, or just your
family, but go design something new. Anyone can make a game, because
anyone can dictate what they like. If you want to play something new,
and don’t have the money to buy something, make it. Designing a game is
a fun process and can be a rewarding group activity.
If you work with my concepts in mind, odds are you’ll come up with a pretty spiffy game. After all, these are all concepts I ripped off of - er, discovered through playing - a large number of very successful games. Oh, and one last piece of advice: Keep it simple. If you have to add a rule, add just enough to get the job done. If you spend more time arguing about rules than you do playing the game, something is wrong.
So get designing, and keep playing!