Designing a board game 101

I’ll be the first to admit that going into this project, I underestimated the amount of work that my team would inevitably dive into. I know now that designing a board game is no easy task. Despite what the internet may tell you, there’s a lot more to good board game design than just having a really excellent idea.

This blog post aims to give you a bit of an inside view into our process of designing a board game. Sometimes the best way to learn is to admire someone else’s mistakes.

A big thank you to my team mates Serena, Tammy and Mai for their consistent effort, dedication and general awesomeness. You are simply amazing.

Part 1: The Adventure Begins – Generating an idea

Inspiration can come from all sorts of places – other games, abstract concepts, emotions, books and other media – but usually are drawn from the creators life experiences (Zook Riedl, 2013, p.5).

From the start, we knew one thing – our game would be a party game. Party Games, as characterised by Stewart Woods (2012, pp.18-19), can be described as simpler games that focus on social interaction or performance as the primary method of play. We wanted to make a party game that was simple to learn and play, because those were the types of games we enjoyed.

We eventually decided on a card game idea based around the timely theme of pandemics. You could say we had something on our minds. We decided the following:

  • A card game for 2 – 4 players
  • The game would “simulate” the battleground of the everyday shopper desperately fighting other shoppers for control of pantry staples as they made their mad dash to the grocery store.
  • Players would win by being the first to collect all the items on their shopping list.
  • Power Cards (cards with actionable abilities) would allow players to control play, interfere with another players play and increase their chances of winning.
  • Deadly Virus cards (drawn at random) would force players to temporarily go into isolation, i.e. out of play for 1 round.
  • Game name: Grocery Dash!

Part 2. Figuring out game mechanics is really hard

Theme sorted, we investigated mechanics in existing games we knew and loved – Exploding Kittens and UNO. Exploding Kittens, a popular last-man standing party-game was one of the original game mechanics we looked at repurposing (stealing). We liked the concept of replacing the exploding kitten bomb card with our virus card that would temporarily remove players from the gameplay as they were forced into isolation.

Note that during this brain storming process, we didn’t seperate game mechanics from theme. According to Jeremy Holcomb (2017, pp.24-25), game designers should aspire to forget the idea that story and mechanics are things that can be developed separately. Instead the story of a game should work closely with the mechanics. Our inexperience as game designers meant that from the very beginning we were searching for ways to tie our mechanics to theme.

For more on mechanics, check out Serena’s Blog Post.

Part 3. Developing the narrative of the game

Researching and developing the game narrative was my task for this group project. But to do that I needed to understand how narrative structure could fit into board games.

The importance of story is more easily understood in video games where the game structure is often constructed around the conflict driven model of a dramatic narrative (Lindley, 2002, p.205). Specifically the narrative theory known as the Three Act Structure.

In cinema, the Three Act Structure is a story structure theory that aims to frame the way we tell stories throughout history (Ellis, 2016). Traditionally, film and television can be broken down into three acts that increase in tension before coming to a final resolution. Although not every film follows this structure, most do and many writers will find themselves subconsciously following this pattern without even realising it.

This theory can be applied to board games. However, unlike film where the Three Act Structure occurs on the screen for a passive audience, the player becomes an active participant in the telling of the game narrative. It is only through the act of playing that the story emerges. This is known as Emergent Story.

Emergent Story is the story generated during play that is created through the interaction of game mechanics and players (Sylvester, 2013, pp.90-91).

In order to create the opportunity for emergent stories within our game, we needed to find ways for the mechanics, rules, design and game components could work together to encourage a satisfying story experience.

One the ways our game components worked to communicate story were our Power Cards. Each power cards flavour text worked not only to communicate the rules but tied directly to our theme and overarching story.

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 4.44.57 pm

Part 4. Playtesting and why we probably needed to plan more before we got started.

We dived straight into playtesting with the help of a very rudimentary, printable prototype that each group member could play with.

Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 7.50.52 pm

If you’ve been paying attention you’d realise that our rules were pretty thin. We hadn’t even decided on how many of each playing card we should print. Instead, we agreed that each group member would decide for themselves on how many copies of each card they would print based on how many they felt could work.

And without really talking about it, we all managed to do slightly different things. Some people tried a deck of 60 cards, others played with a deck of 40. Each group member experimented with different ratios of Power Cards to Grocery Store Item cards. This freedom allowed us to change the game as we saw fit, while we played it.

From this playtesting we learnt what wasn’t working…

Part 5. How do we end this thing? And where do we go from here?

One of the problems we found was that our game wasn’t ending in a satisfying way. And for some playtested versions, it wasn’t ending at all. Which is a bit of a problem.

96241901_3790184761056594_2949296639925288960_n

Image credit – Tammy

Playtesting told us that we were doing too many things at the same time. It sounds very zen but simplifying a game is much harder than over complicating it.

So we’re back to the drawing board. Armed with the feedback (and harsh criticism) from friends and family we are ready to test again.

Wish us luck!


References

Ellis, L., 2016. 0:55 / 17:03 How Three-Act Screenplays Work (And Why It Matters). Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0QO7YuKKdI&gt; [Accessed 13 May 2020].

Holcomb, J 2017. ‘Story or Mechanics’, The White Box Essays, Gameplaywright, Minnesota, pp.24-25.

Lindley, C.A., 2002, June. The Gameplay Gestalt, Narrative, and Interactive Storytelling. In CGDC Conf.

Moura, G., 2014. The Three-Act Structure. [online] Elementsofcinema.com. Available at: <http://www.elementsofcinema.com/screenwriting/three-act-structure/&gt; [Accessed 13 May 2020].

Sylvester, T., 2013. Designing Games. 1st ed. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, pp.90-91.

Woods, S., 2012. Eurogames. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., pp.18-19.

Zook, A. and Riedl, M.O., 2013, May. Game conceptualization and development processes in the global game jam. In Workshop proceedings of the 8th international conference on the foundations of digital games (pp. 1-5).

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