Board Game Design: Elements of a Game
In my Conceptual Thinking article, I took a look at the thought process and concepts that went into designing a board game. I thought that it might be a nice idea to take a look at the physical elements of a board game as well. The idea here is that as much as I hope the previous article helped you figure out what you wanted to do with your game, this article might help you figure out how to do what you want to do, and give you ideas that you might not have considered. Should you use dice or cards? How big or small do you make the board (or maybe make a couple boards that you can configure differently to change up the game)? What sort of pieces do you need to keep track of points or economics? I’m not going to tell you the best way to do anything. Instead, I’m just going to examine the guts of a game and give you examples of what they could be used for. Half the fun of designing a game is figuring out how to do it.
What is a board game?
Before we take a look at what composes a game, we should first define what a board game is. The easiest definition is: A board game is a game where the central source of information and structure is a playing board. This is important to note, because there are games out there which may look similar. For instance, Cribbage uses a board to track points, but the board is secondary to the card play. Many other card games use boards to identify card groupings or other static information in order to better organize the cards in play, but the main information and structure of the game still comes from the cards themselves. Some role-playing games also use props such as flash cards or boards to keep track of characters, but the boards are again only incidental and their removal would in no way impact the game.
And that is the best way to answer the question “is it a board game:” Can you still play the game if you remove the board?
What's in a game?
I know I used that heading before, but it’s appropriate here, too. You might say this is the physical side of the “spiritual” question posed in my Board Game Design 101 article.
Obviously, a board game needs a board, but a board alone does not a game make. Everything that can possibly be included in a board game (and there are games that include a ridiculous amount of components) can be broken down into one of six categories: Boards, cards, dice, markers/counters/tokens, playing pieces, and notepads. You could include playing pieces in the tokens category, but I’ve broken them out because they do need to be considered differently.
The board is the most important element of a board game, for the obvious reasons already discussed. It is the central component around which everything revolves. The board sits between all the players and is the common area that affects, and is effected by, everyone. Your game may not include any of the other components (but unless it includes at least one more, it could be a very confusing game), but it absolutely has to have a board.
The main board should contain all the static information that is available to all the players. The caveat to this is you don’t want to clutter up the board to make it hard to read the information. The players should be able to find what they need quickly.
- If the players need to move pieces around, like in Monopoly, or Clue, or Parcheesi, or any number of race games, this is the top priority for the game board. You want your spaces to be large enough to hold at least two playing pieces while still being able to tell at a glance which space those pieces are on.
- If the players all need to draw from a central pile of cards and other components, it is a good idea to outline spaces for those piles to have them in easy reach and facilitate setup, like the Community Chest and Chance card piles in Monopoly. This is not a priority, as cards and other materials can just as easily be placed to the side of the board, but it is a good design idea if there is room on the board. Having delineated spaces makes setup easier and reduces confusion, especially if the card piles get knocked over and cards go everywhere.
- If your spaces need to be labelled for clarity (as in Clue, where it is important to tell which room is which), make sure the labels are larger than any surrounding text, and in a contrasting color which makes them stand out from the background. Labels absolutely need to be seen and read in a glance so players spend less time hunting around the board and more time playing the game.
- If you need text on the board, like in a space that tells you to miss a turn, or go forward or backward X amount of spaces, you want to use as few words as possible to make the meaning clear, and the shorter the word, the better. “Go back 2 squares” is fine. “Move 2 spaces in the opposite direction” is awful. The font should be only large enough to read. You don’t want it too small, but you do want it to take up as little space as possible. And like labels, make sure it’s in a contrasting color from the background, so it stands out.
- It is a good idea to put the important rules on the board to players can easily refer to them, but only if they don’t change, or are default rules that can be replaced infrequently throughout the game. If the rules change often (every few turns or so), don’t put them on the board. They belong on cards or some other component.
The one thing to remember is there is no hard and fast rules to game design. The guidelines above make for a clear and understandable board, but you don’t really have to follow them (although you may not have a successful game on your hands if you break them).
That said, who says you need only one board? Or that it has to be one solid piece?
There are many games with variable boards, composed of hexagons or squares or other puzzle-piece type shapes. Many boards are made up of tiles that get placed as the game progresses, being built dynamically.
There are also many games that use tracking boards. An adventure game might give each character a board where they can track their character’s items, life, skills, etc. Or there might be a board used to keep track of the players’ score and other variable information that affects all the players.
The board is the focal point of the game, so a creative board goes a long way to convey a game’s theme and provide immersion. I would caution you to not get creative just to get creative. Decorate the board according to the game’s theme, sure. A good looking game board is a huge draw to try the game, despite the adage about judging a book by its cover. But don’t go crazy with variable boards or multiple boards or even 3D boards unless it serves a purpose and contributes to the game’s focus.
This is where you can really get crazy. Cards are used for a variety of purposes: extra “flash card” style rules references, randomized (or maybe not so randomized) extra rules that can affect a game in various ways, an alternative to dice for making game decisions, and lots of other details that supplement game play (more on that in a bit).
Since one of the uses for cards is as an alternative to dice, let’s take a look at dice before we continue. Dice are pretty straightforward, and a nice segue into action and decision mechanics (which we’ll need to touch on in this section).
I like dice. Odds are, if you’re a gamer, you like dice, too. I like grabbing a handful of dice and shaking them up to roll. They make a pleasing patter on the tabletop. I like stacking them up to build little fortresses and walls while I play a game. I even like collecting and looking at pretty dice. Dice are fun, and add a visceral component to a game that I just can’t adequately describe.
Dice come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The “standard” dice come with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20 sides. From a production standpoint, all the companies have these dies in place, and it costs very little to add a normal die to your game. In fact, games with die sizes other than six might seem a little exciting or exotic. The general public is used to six sides, since the majority of mass market and gambling games use six-died dice (after all, back before plastic injection when dice were made by hand, they were the easiest to make).
You can include any type of die you want, but don’t go crazy. Dice are great tools for a game, but unless it’s specifically a dice-based game, they should be practically invisible, staying out of the way until they’re needed to affect a decision.
Nowadays, it’s easy to make custom dice. Your dice can be colors, symbols, letters, phrases, anything you want. Don’t feel roped into providing only 1-6 as options. Dice are a great randomization tool, and there is a lot more freedom with just what they can randomize.
Dice can also be very useful as counters, to keep track of variables throughout the game. More on that when I get to counters and other tokens.
Back to cards...
When you want to do fun and interesting things with games, it’s usually in the cards. This is where you can add all sorts of details and complexity to your game. It’s also a good way to balance randomness with strategy. There are two main purposes for cards within a game: details and actions. We’ll discuss actions first.
Anything that a player wants to do on his or her turn to further progress toward the goal is an action. It can be as simple as roll and move in one direction, or the player could chose from a number of actions.
The simplest action is “roll and move.” You roll a die and move that amount of spaces, like Chutes and Ladders or Parcheesi, or any number of games in which the players are racing along a board in a single direction. Obviously, the players are at the mercy of luck and have no actual input in this process. Now say you wanted to introduce a little strategy to make the game a bit more interesting. Instead of using a die, make a deck of cards with different values on them. Now a player can draw a hand of cards and play one, and move a number of spaces equal to its value. This is the simplest illustration of the dice vs cards choice. If you want it completely random and have a fixed number of choices, use dice. If you want to give the player a choice, or want to dynamically change the amount of choices (keeping it completely random), use cards. Candyland does the latter; Players draw the top card of the deck and move accordingly. It is still completely random, but with four colors and the option to move one or two spaces (not to mention the special board spaces), there are simply too many possibilities for dice to do adequately. Furthermore, you could customize your game by adding to or removing cards. You don’t have that freedom with dice.
Another way cards can be used for actions is for extra actions, like the Chance and Community Chest piles in Monopoly. If you want something to happen to a player when he or she lands on a space, or makes a certain action, but you want a varied effect, cards are a good solution.
Cards are also best used for all the extraneous details and variables in complex games. The deeds in Monopoly are an example, or the people, places, and weapons in Clue. Both examples are of information vital to the game, but the information is only available or pertinent to one or few of the players. If your game contains rules or details that do not affect all the players, placing them on cards will make it easier to keep track of who those rules are affecting simply by passing the card around.
This is the one component of the game with the most freedom and potential for creativity, but this also carries with it the most potential to bog the game down. Remember that each deck of cards adds to setup and cleanup time, and adds more things for the players to keep track of. They take up space, which requires more playing room. You can lose cards, and have to shuffle decks. There is an actual physical and practical tradeoff to consider when adding cards, not just a mental or conceptual one.
Much like the board, the look of the cards also go a long way toward establishing theme. You also want to keep a balance between decoration and function. The cards must absolutely be readable. Make labels and icons stand out, and any text should be a contrasting color from the background. Unlike the board, you can pick up and read a card a card, so you can get away with smaller fonts, but you shouldn’t need a magnifying glass to play the game. Make sure the cards have a consistent layout, especially if you have more than one type of card. Once the players get to know the cards, they will be able to more easily identify information, and if you have different types of cards, providing a different layout for each type will help the player instantly recognize what type of card is being used. Any information that is constant throughout all the cards should be in the same place on the card.
As I said before, playing pieces are actually tokens, but are so important to a board game that they deserve to be thought of differently. My definition of a playing piece is any piece on the board that is central to displaying the player’s actions during the course of the game.
The most basic playing piece is a colored pawn used to represent the player, like in Sorry or Parcheesi, or Clue. Playing pieces can be very simple to very elaborate, like the fun metal pieces in Monopoly (my favorite is the dog), or beyond. There is a game called Heroclix, by WizKids/NECA, Inc. Wizkids innovated a new type of playing piece which they termed the “clix” base. Their games are wargame-style games which took the genre forward by placing all the unit’s statistics (attack power, health, weapons, etc) on the figure’s base. While this by itself wasn’t terribly new, the statistics could also change dynamically with the amount of damage the unit received. The solution they came up with, the clix base, is a very elegant one, and a prime example of just how intricate you can get with your playing pieces.
To take the wargame example one more step, you could provide multiple playing pieces for your players. This is very common in strategy (wargame-esque) boardgames like Risk. All those little men, horses, and cannons are playing pieces by my definition because their positions change on the board to actively display the player’s status and intentions during the game.
The point of this section is that you can do a lot with your playing pieces. You can even use them to store static public information specific to the player, to free up your other components (if, however, you want that information private to the player, you’re better off using cards or a tracking board).
As far as design goes, playing pieces can help convey the theme of the game, but it’s not as necessary or even as powerful a conveyance as the board and cards. You do want your playing pieces to be distinct. They should be obvious in their differences so the players can tell at a glance which piece is theirs. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve played with similar-looking pieces which led to us moving the wrong piece more often than not. Can can do this the best with colors (stick to bold, easily distinguishable colors). If your pieces are sculpted, make sure they are distinctive (the Monopoly pieces, for example). Use geometry here and make sure the silhouettes of the pieces are noticeably different. I can’t stress enough the words distinct and different. If the players get too confused over who is who, your game dies. Period. They will stop playing, pack it up, move on to something else, and perhaps never play again. If it’s a good game with only that flaw, they may perhaps choose their own playing pieces, but your best bet is to head that off at the pass and not present them with that particular challenge.
Markers, Counters, and Tokens
In plain terms, everything in this category is a token. A token is simply a representation of an object or idea. You’ll see these three terms interchanged a lot, and oftentimes while discussing the same component. So what’s the difference? While everything is a token, much like playing pieces, markers and counters are tokens with a specific purpose.
Markers are tokens that do not convey any information on their own. Instead, they alter an indea or value depending on where they are placed. For example, say you have a tracking board that keeps score for all the players, with boxes numbered one through ten. Each player would be represented by a different marker. By itself, that marker conveys no information - it represents the player, but in such an ambiguous fashion that it tells you nothing. But if it is placed in the “two” box, it means that the player now has two points. The information it conveys is completely dependant on its position on the board - the context, in other words.
Counters are tokens that convey values. Usually, this is a number value that can rise and fall. By itself it’s just a number. One, or five. We have no way of knowing what the value actually is. One or five of what? Let’s take the tracking board described above and tweak it a little. Instead of boxes labelled one through ten, we now have a box for each player, and a bunch of little red round discs with black numbers on them, numbered one through ten. By themselves, the counters are pretty nondescript and all we can really tell is that their value is whatever number is printed on them. But if we place them in the boxes, suddenly player one has three points, and player two has five points. The information conveyed by counters is a combination of the value printed on the counter itself and its context, its placement on a board or card. Play money is a good example of this. You can have five or ten dollars, but if it’s just sitting around, you don’t know who owns that five or ten dollars. Place it in front of a player and now we have useful information that tells us that that player has five or ten dollars.
Another creative and potentially cost-effective use for dice is as counters. If you needed a large amount of counters valued at one through ten, you could achieve the same result by using a ten-sided die. Simply turn the die to the side with the appropriate number, and you have the result you want using one-tenth the amount of components.
Now we get to the actual term token. A token is a representation of an idea, but also a representation that holds a specific piece of information independent of context. No matter where it is placed on the board, it always means the same thing. I use Monopoly a lot for my illustrations because there’s a very good chance that you, dear reader, know the game. You’ve at least seen it, if not played it, so it makes for nice clear universal examples. The houses and hotels are what I’m talking about here. In Monopoly, a house is a house is a house. No matter which property the house is placed on, it means the same thing. It is not a counter, since it is one specific identifiable object, and it is not a marker, since it has its own meaning and is not affected by context. There will be times where context will affect a token’s meaning, but that usually only happens to playing pieces (playing pieces are necessarily dynamic in their meanings because they represent actions and intentions, not just a single piece of information) and is otherwise few and far between. I urge you to keep to the definitions provided and make it simple. To elaborate....
You can dress up your tokens, markers, and counters to fit in with the game’s theme, but they need to be instantly identifiable. These things absolutely need to be clear and distinct so you can get your information in a glance and keep playing. Each component should convey a distinct and specific piece of information. When in doubt, use a solid colored geometric shape. This is a very acceptable exception to the phrase “The devil is in the details.” Instead, think “Less is more.”
There is one last category that you may not use very often, but is worth touching on. Notepads are generally found in party games like Pictionary or Balderdash, and such games where writing and drawing are major components of the game. You don’t find them too often in board games, because keeping notes tends to bog a game down. The only board game I play regularly that uses a notepad is Clue. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other game that needs one. If you need to keep track of details, cards, counters, and scoring tracks are the way to go. Wait, I just thought of another game, but it’s not published anymore: Warhammer Quest, by Games Workshop, which is a fantasy adventure game where your character can grow in power and abilities over time. There is too much information to keep track of using static components, so a notepad is the more elegant (and cost-effective) solution. This is an exception, however, and very few board games will ever require a notepad.
To be honest, I have no design suggestions for notepads other than make sure you give the player ample space for notes, and otherwise stick to the readability suggestions for boards and cards. Financially speaking, it’s not worth making a pretty notepad in color and all thematic. It’s just going to get written on and tossed away when the game is over. The look of the notepad should be the absolute last thing you think about, since the only time players will care is when they don’t have enough space to write on.
Putting it all together
As I said in the beginning of this article, the intent is not to tell you how to design your game, but rather to let you know how you can design your game. My goal here is to give you ideas for you to discover your own solutions. Use games you like as examples and build from there. There is no shame in aping a good mechanic or design decision. If it works, it works, and ultimately it’s the game as a whole that people think about, not that single mechanic or component. That said, don’t steal copyrightable stuff like artwork or text. That’s just not cool.
So get designing, and keep playing!