How to Design a Board Game

What Is a Board Game?

To put it simply, a board game is a fun engine. Players put time into it and get fun out. So, as a designer, you want to maximize the time to fun ratio. Now, that’s obviously easier said than done, but hopefully this booklet will help you start figuring out what it takes to create a fun engine that keeps players coming back time and time again.

Why Designing Games Is Important

Board games are different from other forms of entertainment because they’re about a lot more than just sitting and absorbing content. Instead, games give players an active role in determining how the experience is going to play out. They give people the opportunity to not only enjoy a story but also to have an impact on how that story gets told.

That means game designers are storytellers to the highest degree because what we’re really creating is opportunities for others to tell great stories. We bring people together around a table to experience something that will hopefully build relationships and create lasting memories.

So, if you ever find yourself asking, “Does this even matter?” the answer is YES! All artistic expressions come with their fair share of tough days, and designing board games is no different. But in those moments, just remind yourself that games matter, and they have the ability to improve people’s lives.

Where to Start

The first stage of game design can be the most exciting but also the most challenging. Usually, something will spark an idea and make you think, “That would be a cool game!” But then what? Turning an idea into a playable game can seem like a monumental task, and it’s often so overwhelming to think about that many people just leave the ideas in their heads.

So, the best thing you can do is simply start getting ideas out of your head. Write down everything that comes to mind. Write down bad ideas that you’ll erase later. Write down placeholder ideas to bridge the gap from one thought to another.

Don’t hold anything back, and don’t worry so much about organization or critiquing your ideas. There will be plenty of time for that later. Just get as many thoughts out as possible. Once they’re out, you can start figuring out everything else. And remember that most great writers are actually great re-writers, and in the same way, most great game designers are actually great re-designers.

Theme vs Mechanisms vs Experience

There’s an age-old debate about the best place to start when creating a game. Some designers start with theme; others start with a core mechanism; and more recently, some designers start with a specific experience in mind. Honestly, there’s no wrong answer, and all three methods have led to games considered to be the “best of all time.”

Just go with the method that works best for you. Typically, it’s more about the way your brain approaches the world anyway, so don’t get caught up on the frivolous debate.

And if you’re having a hard time figuring out which mechanism(s) to use in your game, you can find a massive list HERE.

Where to Put Ideas

Every designer has their preferred place to put and store ideas. Some people go all digital with things like Evernote, Google Docs, or OneNote. This makes storing, editing, and moving ideas really easy.

Other designers opt for a physical method and use things like a bullet journal, notebook, or color-coded binder. This works well for people who like to be able to write and draw easily on the same page, and it can help you avoid the distractions from a digital device.

Personally, I write everything down on notecards and use recipe organizer pages inside a three-ring binder to keep track of everything. This makes it easy to move and change ideas, and I always keep a few notecards in my pocket, so I can write down ideas immediately when they pop up.

There’s really no wrong answer. Just figure out a system that works for you and go with it. The main thing is to get the ideas out.

Find the Fun

As soon as you have an idea for a game, go ahead and start thinking through where the actual fun will be. In other words, start defining the player experience. An abstract puzzle game is going to provide a very different experience than a character-driven adventure game. Even if those games have a similar theme, their “fun” is going to be found in very different places.

I find it helpful to answer a handful of basic questions as I begin a new design:

  1. Who is the game for? Defining your target audience is going to help you make lots of design decisions.
  2. How should the players feel? Do you want them to feel heroic, thoughtful, paranoid, etc? This will help you figure out other aspects of the game.
  3. What makes this game different? Why would people want to play this game over other games on the market? What sets it apart? It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but it shouldn’t just be a clone of something else.
  4. What are some possible mechanisms that line up with the desired player experience? A great game feels like everything fits together.
  5. What are players trying to accomplish, and how do they win? Defining what you want players to do in the game and how they’re going to win will make a lot of other decisions easier down the road.
  6. What player count, play time, and age range should the game have? Defining these basic elements can give you a helpful box to keep your game inside. If the game is supposed to be a quick-playing, hour-long sci-fi game, you’ll likely have a different combat system than if the game is supposed to be a two-hour epic space opera.

There are plenty of other questions you can ask yourself, but the main thing is to be very intentional about where the fun in your game can be found. When you define that properly, it’s much easier to cut any aspects of your game that steer away from the fun.

Play Lots of Games

One of the best things you can do to learn and grow as a designer is play LOTS of other games. If you want to become a great writer, read every book you can get your hands on. If you want to become a great game designer, play as many games as you can.

Play the greatest games of all time. Play games no one has ever heard of. Play other designers’ prototypes. Play games that you love. Play games that you hate. Play games in genres you’re not even interested in.

Playing lots of different games will give you ideas for your own designs. You’ll learn how designers solved certain problems and handled different situations. And playing newer games will show you what’s popular in the current market.

For some great lists of games to play, go HERE.

Minimum Viable Product

When you start a design, it’s easy to overthink things and bite off way more than you can chew. When I was just starting out, I packed journals full of cool ideas that grew out of control until I felt so overwhelmed by their magnitude that I moved on to something else. It wasn’t until I learned how to create a minimum viable product that my ideas started to actually become prototypes.

A minimum viable product (or MVP) is the smallest, simplest version of your idea. If you want to create a massive space game with lots of ship-to-ship combat, the MVP might be the simple dice-rolling combat mechanism. If you want to create a Euro-style game about farming, the MVP might be the resource collection mechanism.

Focusing on a small aspect of a game’s overall design makes it way easier to get things done, and you can start figuring out if the game is fun or not long before you put a bunch of time into it. And creating one part of the game can give you momentum to finish others.

Typically, I design different parts of a game as individual modules. First, I might create the movement system. Then, I’ll work on the combat system. After that, I’ll put together the resource management system. I’ll playtest each system individually to see what works and what doesn’t, but the main priority is to create now and edit later. And once I have several systems in place, I’ll start combining them so that they work together.

It’s not a perfect way to do things, but it might work for you. I find that it saves a ton of time, and it gives me small victories that energize me to work on the next aspect of the game.

But no matter what system works for you, the main thing is to get something on the table. You can’t playtest an idea, so work to make something that you can actually play around with to see if it’s a game worth pursuing.

How to Get Unstuck

Designer’s block is very real and very frustrating, but it’s just part of the process. I hope you never deal with it, but chances are good that it’s going to hit you rather often. You’ll be working on a game, and everything will be fitting together nicely when all of a sudden an obstacle comes up that you have no idea how to solve.

It’s typical, so don’t get overly frustrated. Some of the best games ever created got stuck for years before the designer figured out an answer to a certain issue.

When you get stuck, I recommend putting the design on hold and letting your brain rest for a bit. This is a great time to play other games, and the answer to your problem might be found in seeing how another designer handled a similar situation.

This is also a great time to work on a totally different game. I’m constantly figuring out ways to fix one game while working on a completely different project. Sometimes the brain just needs to be slightly distracted to work its way through a challenge.

And, honestly, sometimes you get stuck on something that you just aren’t a good enough designer yet to solve. Like all other artforms, game design takes time, practice, and dedication if you want to get good at it. And you’ll be able to identify a good game long before you’ll be able to create a good game. Just keep going.

Most people never become great at something because they quit long before they’ve spent enough time to earn greatness. The greatest writers, artists, designers, etc. only got to that point because they created a bunch of art that ended up in the trash, and they kept going. I encourage you to do the same.

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