Principles of Tabletop Game Design

Designing a great board game is both fascinating and challenging. A skilled designer thinks deeply about all the dynamics at play in a game. They may see various mechanisms tied together in new ways. They may note how well a theme is integrated with those mechanisms and how players interact with each other. The designer may give only a passing glance to the physical components of the game and concentrate instead on the experience from the players’ point of view. How long is the downtime between turns? How much hidden information is in the game? What is the balance between skill and uncertainly? Does the game build to a crescendo in the final turns? Are all the components necessary? Is it fun?

Board game design is a multi-faceted art form. There is so much to consider. There are the mechanics, the illustrations, graphic design, the theme, the story telling, player psychology, rule writing, component design, and more. Above all these concerns are principles of game design that should inform every aspect of the effort. Here are some of the most important of these principles.

Challenge

When my son was quite young, he loved to play Monster Truck Madness on the computer. He usually turned off all the computer opponents to make sure his was the only truck in the race. He’d win every time. Funny that. As we get older, we realize that easy wins aren’t very satisfying. We want to be stretched to meet the goal. We don’t want the end to be a forgone conclusion.

Games should present difficult objectives to players along with incentives to meet those challenges. In a cooperative game, it may be the artificial intelligence mechanism that’s hard to overcome. In a competitive game, it’s the smarts of other human players. To this intelligence, a designer can add elements of chance, hidden information, plot twists, and other mechanisms to keep players on their toes. The challenge does not necessarily have to be about winning the game. How a player gets to the end can be just as satisfying.

Engagement

Constant engagement, immersive play, and emotional investment make a game tremendously satisfying. Engagement has to do with keeping a player’s attention at all times. A designer should make every effort to minimize downtime between turns. Downtime is when a player drifts away because they have nothing to do. Designers can eliminate turns altogether. They can structure the game so players need to plan their next moves in advance. They can eliminate choices in order to reduce turn duration.

Immersion contributes to engagement by taking a player out of the mundane context of life and making them feel they are in the game. Consider a movie cinema. You take your seat, the lights dim, and the screen fills your field of view. The speaker placement puts you in the middle of the sound stage. You’re removed from the normal context of life and placed into the narrative of the film. Design your game to be a cardboard cinema.

Emotional investment is about having some skin in the game. If your game is plodding along, consider adding some exhilarating highs and crushing lows. When a player has a setback, make it hurt (within reason). When they overcome an obstacle, reward them with a nice, shiny piece of cardboard. Make them proud, make them mad, or make them resolute. Get them emotionally involved.

Progression

What is it that ultimately keeps players at the game table? Applying many of the principles discussed here can improve a game, but it is progression that binds it all together. Progression is that sense of attainment in a game. It is the building of the card deck, the completion of railway routes, or the securing of a strong position. Progression keeps us reaching forward.

Narrative arc is the sequence of story events in a game from setting, to crisis, to resolution. Not all games tell a story but, for those that do, rising tension throughout the story keeps players engrossed. A narrative arc helps move a game forward.

Progressive disclosure is revealing new information in steps, rather than all at once. It builds anticipation and maintains interest. Remember the movie Godzilla? When the monster is first revealed, you see only a giant toe crushing a car, or the swish of a tail between buildings. The scriptwriter keeps you on the edge of your seat and refuses to reveal the whole monster until the right time. A game with progressive disclosure keeps players wanting to peek around the next corner. Resist the temptation to tell the whole story at the start.

Clarity

Clarity guides the usability of a game. User experience is a buzzword in the software world, but it applies to any product users interact with. Is it clear to the user exactly what they are to do at a given time and how they are to do it? Does each player know how the components work? What do the symbols mean? What is to be done in a given turn? A designer strives to achieve clarity in every aspect of a game.

Simplicity aids clarity. Any reduction in the number of rules and components means there are fewer details for players to keep in their heads. Even if a simple game is not the goal, a designer must remember that for many products, complexity is the enemy. Find ways of doing more with less.

Clarity is most critical for the rules and graphic design of a game. Good rule writing is extremely difficult. The choice of structure, wording, and illustrations significantly affects clarity. Favour the most direct and simple ways to describe game play. Graphic design is about how components like rule books, game boards, and cards communicate information to the player. It uses colour, white space, typography, and other techniques to assist player comprehension. Even the choice of thickness for a line can affect a user’s understanding of an item.

Choice

There’s nothing quite as mind-numbing as rolling dice to see how many squares you may move a pawn along a track. Many games in decades past were of that ilk. You might as well roll those same dice to simply decide the winner.

Choice brings meaning into a game. It makes players’ decisions count. We all want to affect the world around us and watching a game go by on auto pilot is no fun. Choice allows players to alter the game state and affect other player choices as well.

Variation contributes to choice. It’s not satisfying to simply decide how many dice to roll. The game gets more interesting when you can choose to roll dice, or draw an action card, or exchange a resource, or sing a song. Whatever floats your boat.

Allowing multiple paths to victory adds yet another dimension. A player may win by having the most train car routes, or the longest path, or the most cars, or some killer combination of those. More than one way to win encourages bold moves and creative thinking.

Balance

Balance is a slippery concept. It’s easier to define what it’s not than what it is. Balance is not equality. It doesn’t mean all players in a game get the same resources and opportunities. A game can be completely asymmetrical and still be “balanced”. Balance does not mean the game plays the same every time. A game is most captivating when the designer throws in unexpected twists. Balance is not about fairness. A designer should not necessarily try to make a game “fair” by punishing players who are ahead and forcing them back into the pack.

A game is balanced when it is rewarding for everyone and each player has a more or less equal chance of winning. And if not winning, then at least achieving personal goals and enjoying the experience. To balance a game is to adjust its rules and mechanics in order to remove obstacles that inhibit that satisfying experience. A game that allows a runaway leader to dominate play from the first turn is no fun for other players. A game that injects too much randomness can penalize skill and make it a futile endeavour. A balanced game is a game where every player has a reason to come to the table.

Social Interaction

Do people come together to play games, or do they play games as a reason to come together? One of the strengths of tabletop games is that players view their opponents (or team mates) face-to-face across the table. There is the possibility of laughter, reading of body language, “ah ha” moments, and verbal smack downs. Social interaction is a big reason we gather to play games.

Good design exploits mechanics to encourage social interplay in a game. Bluffing and bribing are obvious techniques, but some mechanics have a more subtle effect on player interaction. With card drafting, cards that one player chooses not to place in their hand are passed on to another player. This can aid that player or mess them up considerably. Trick taking can feel like an exercise in mind reading. An auction mechanic is more than just the acquisition of resources. It may require buffing, begging, borrowing, or stealing from another player. Good design maximizes social interaction.

Delight

After much anticipation, my son finally received a certain giant Kickstarter game. The box was bursting at the seams with components and we decided to remove the contents to reinforce it on the inside. Lifting out the plastic tray we found, hidden underneath, a sealed envelope. It read, “Open this when you think you deserve it.” That was so cool! What was in it? I’m not telling!

Delight can bring a thrill and a spark to the experience. It is encouraged by unexpected, enjoyable, or amusing touches designed into a game. It’s the “extra mile” of effort revealed for the pleasure of players. A game ought to be a pleasant and captivating experience that removes a person from the dreariness of everyday life. It should be delightful.

Surprise is when a player meets up with an unexpected event in a game, good or bad. It can be the result of a roll of the dice, a card drawn, or an unforeseen tactic from an opponent. A designer can contribute to the delight of surprise by introducing variability, appropriate randomness, or intentionally holding back information until later in the game.

Hidden information contributes to delight by maintaining a sense of mystery and opportunity. A game where everything is known becomes more of a puzzle. Hiding some cards, character abilities, or actions sparks curiosity. Revealing hidden information brings disbelief, glee, or dread.

Humour is a key ingredient for contributing to delight. The video game Worms Armageddon could have been about soldiers launching rockets and bombs at each other, but it wasn’t. It was about worms fighting each other with crazy weapons. Why throw just a bomb when you can throw a Super Banana Bomb? The challenge with humour is integrating it appropriately with game theme and mechanics. Humour can make a good game better, but it can’t save a mediocre game. Humour is a potent device in the designer’s tool box.

Let challenge, engagement, progression, clarity, choice, balance, social interaction, and delight inform your designs. And whatever you do, don’t forget to put fun in the box.

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