This year at Life, the Universe and Everything (LTUE), I participated in the tabletop gaming track. This was a great experience. Not only was I sharing what I’ve learned over the years writing and editing for and about games, but I learned from others willing to share their experiences. The panels were all titled for board games and the discussions broadened out to include all tabletop gaming.
This is the first of four articles based on my notes.
Panel: Introduction to Board Game Design
A basic overview of the board game creation process, from theme to gameplay to balance.
We started out by asking our audience how many of them have created house rules for a game they like to play. Every hand went up. I believe every person who has ever come up with a house rule, or created their own set of rules using another game’s pieces, has developed a game. That’s where this seems to always start.
These are not listed in the order of importance. Everyone’s creative juices run differently. One person might know who they want to build a game for, while another knows the story they want their game to tell.
Some of these might not even be needed. But, before you exclude it, make sure you know you’re cutting that part out of your development process and why.
It is important to know who is going to be playing your game. You might be creating a game for younger players, or maybe an older group sitting around at a party. They might be looking for something to be done in 30 minutes or something to fill hours. Some will be looking for something that will make them laugh without concern while others want deep strategy that keeps players watching every move taking place.
Every gamer is different in what they like and don’t like. They are going to have their own expectations of what should be part of a game they’re going to play. There are also expectations for the type of game. War games, dice games, worker placement, narratives, you name your style and there will be a list of things you expect, and others expect those same things.
As you design your game, you need to understand what those expectations are. You either need to meet those expectations or have a good justification to exclude them from your game. For every twist you make on those expectations, you need to know why you’re making the change and learn how you’re going to present it to keep your audience satisfied.
Most new games tell a story as a major element. From other panels, it was clear most players now like to have some story guiding the game. Story is not an absolute because there are many games built around the mechanics. But let’s look at why story can help in development.
Stories are constructed around a sequence of actions that drive the story from its beginning to its conclusion. Sound familiar? When you are developing a game you need to consider what drives the players forward through the game. This can be used from the time the game is set up until the last play takes place.
Story construction can help keep players intrigued. I’ve had the opportunity of playing games that were not ready for market, or should not have been released. One of the problems is usually the game is flat. A flat game is one where the game doesn’t change during play—there is no beginning, middle, and end—the actions are just repetitions of the previous turn. Flat games have their place for newer players. Unfortunately, for experienced gamers, after being played a few times the place these games end up at is usually on the shelf or in the donation bin.
Think about how your game’s story drives change throughout the game. Are their strategy changes, or do the turns kind of blend into each other because you are basically doing the same actions over and over? Those that build and change are the types of games most people want to play again. Replay-ability means they will come back to it.
Games need a mechanic. But which one? There are many mechanics used in games. Sometimes there is only one and other games use more. I am not going to try to list the possibilities because it would take too long and I would miss something. The important part is to find a mechanic fitting to your game’s feel and something you can comfortably work with.
Be willing to try different mechanics. I had the opportunity of playing a battle game while in its later stages of development. The designer’s goal was to put the players inside a tank during battle. He worked with several mechanics that kept pushing the feel away from the tank and into the broader strategy in the field of battle. He tried different mechanics. He found that using a dice pool allowed for the action to focus the player as the tank commander directing their crew (Tank Brawl review).
He kept his story and feel for the game by finding the right mechanic for that game.
Having people play your game is the end goal. To get a game to that point, it needs to be played through its iterations, its successful steps forward, and those that push it backwards. It needs to be playtested.
Playtesting almost always starts with you, the developer. You have to get it to a point others can start to play. But don’t try to make it perfect before others take it up on the playtesting table. It is because it is not ready that you want people playing a prototype. They will help you build a better game. You have your trusted players, and then you have to get it played by those who are not familiar with what you have gone through.
Along with just reaching out to friends, then friends of friends, gaming stores and conventions are great places to find players who are willing to play and give feedback. These don’t have to be big national events. Local shops and cons may not have as many people, which can be a benefit. You can get to know those who are in the area and smaller events are usually more flexible with time.
Taking Inspiration from Other Games
It is important to do research. For developing games, some of the best research is playing games. I know for most game developers, this is a real heartache. I mean when I have to buy another game because I’m doing research, it can be rough. Play games of different types and find out what you like and don’t like.
Figure out what makes a game work for you. What elements are part of the game that bring you back to the table to play that one again? Which of those features can you use in your creation?
The games that end up sitting on your shelf gathering dust, the ones you stole the dice out of, can also help you make a better game. There is something about those games you shy away from. What is it? They have a problematic area that you can keep away from with that great game you’re creating.
Like the title says, this is an introduction. Every one of these sections can be a series of articles or presentations. Once you get started, you will learn more about what you want to do and how to do it. And the more you do, the better you will become.
Game development is a creative endeavor that can be fulfilling and frustrating at the same time. This is the same for artists of all types. You have a great idea and you need to make it real. So jot down your ideas, break out some butcher paper or a deck of playing cards and a Sharpie. Make something that looks crude so you can start playing. Just get started.
Fellow Panelists (information from program guide)
Carl Duzzett was sent from the future to assassinate the mother of an eventual resistance leader. He married her instead and now designs games and writes speculative fiction with an unfair advantage. carlduzett.net (review of Carl’s game Coins)
B.A. Simmons is the author of the Archipelago series, a seafaring science fiction adventure (review of The Voyage of the Entdecker, book one of the series). He lives in Ogden, Utah, where he works full time teaching English and history to junior high students. He is also a collaborator on Planet Archipelago, a table-top RPG set in the same world as his series. basimmonsauthor.com.
Devon Stern has been a hobby board game designer for years and has more recently worked in indie video game development. He loves it when a set of mechanics comes together. puddygum.itch.io.
Daniel Yocom runs Guild Master Gaming, which has supported tabletop gaming and other things geek. It includes reviews of games, books, and movies. Articles also appear on other websites. He has short stories published and is working on his first novel. guildmastergaming.blogspot.com.