Tips to start designing Board Games

posted in: Uncategorized | 0

This week, I gave an introductory talk on how to design board games at my alma matter: Philippine Science High School. There was a board game workshop during the YMSAT Week (Youth, Mathematics, Science, and Technology Week) where the students played different science-themed games and locally designed games. It was really great to be back at my high school (and also a little distressing realizing how long ago it was haha).

For today’s blog, I want to share what I shared to the students: some tips on where to start designing board games. You can view my slides here:

1.) Just do it!

There’s no better way to learn game design than to just start. Pick up a pen and paper and prototype your game idea as quickly as you can and try it out. Fail and fail until you succeed. Unlike the sciences where the process is to do a review of related work first before designing your experiment, you learn game design by the process of doing it, playtesting, figuring out where you are lacking, studying that, then going back into designing the next iteration of your game. Doing is better than getting ready (though I do have some tips here to set you off on your game design journey).

The proper mindset

One of the most important mindsets you need to have when starting game design is this: “You won’t know if a game is fun until you try it out.”

Because games are interactive and played by people, there will always be a human element that moves the game. Since human beings are complex and unpredictable, the only way to see if the game is working as intended and people are enjoying themselves is to try it out.

Make something playable right away

It doesn’t help that “fun” is such a vague, human experience that can’t really be quantified. You just feel if something is fun or not. You can’t measure it. You can’t predict it. You just have to try it out and see if is actually fun.

Luckily, it’s quite easy to make a playable prototype. Just write down your rules on some paper, draw out the board, write down the cards on some index cards, and you can test it out right away to see if it is as fun as you imagined it.

Game Design Tools

Here are tools you will use to make your prototype:

  • Spreadsheets
    • Spreadsheets are where you document the components of your game and what each ability, card, and “thing” does. Designers often prefer using spreadsheets to docs because you can do simple math and counting with these as well as more complex probability and balancing equations later on (though you’ll eventually need docs for your rulebook).
  • Scratch Paper, Cardboard, Index Cards, Crafting Materials, Random Junk
    • Tabletop game design is an inexpensive craft to get started in because you can use recyclable materials for your prototype. Anything can be a component from bottle caps, to scratch paper, to random cardboard pieces. You don’t need to buy components when you are starting out (except maybe dice since these need to be weighted properly).
  • Printer and Graphic Design Software
    • Once you are a little further along and need prototypes with a little more polish, you can experiment with different graphic design software and a printer. While there is paid software like Photoshop and InDesign, there are also free ones you can try like Gimp, Inkscape, and Scribus.

The first 10 games you make will probably be bad… and that’s okay!

Game design is a lot of trial and error. When you’re starting out, you will have lots of ideas. When you finally get to try them out, you’ll realize ideas can work fine in your imagination but fall flat in reality. That’s fine and a normal part of learning how to be a game designer.

When starting out, focus on learning the craft. Learn the process, learn how to prototype and iterate quickly, and learn why your games are not as fun as you envisioned them. If you keep it up, you’ll eventually stumble upon a keeper.

2.) Focus on Mechanics

A lot of what people love in games are the art, the lore, the stories, and the settings that the games are set in. These may even be the very reason why you wanted to start designing games in the first place. However, the game rules (aka the mechanics) are the foundation of a game. If the game’s rules aren’t fun, the players won’t care about the art, lore, etc of your game.

Art and lore can come later. Even when games are published, publishers are often only interested in the mechanics of the game. Often, the publisher might only want to keep the mechanics and they will replace everything else. They might retheme the game and commission new art.

That being said, one aspect of game design is keeping up your morale and enthusiasm. Game design can be a lot of work and you have to truly enjoy it to keep going. If you are inspired by art and lore, then go ahead and create enough of it to keep you going. Just keep in mind that mechanics are still the foundation that you build your art and lore on top of.

3.) Playtest

Again, you won’t know if a game is fun until you put it on the table and try it out. So try to get to that point as quickly as you can! The more you playtest a game, the more feedback you get which will improve your game and make you sharper at the craft of game design. Don’t wait until you think your game is perfect or ready to be played; just make sure it is playable. Prototype the bare minimum needed to test your game then do it!

Be part of a community

The easiest way to force yourself to playtest and get good at game design is to join a game design community. These communities usually meet regularly to play each other’s games, give feedback, and discuss game design. The perks of joining a community are:

  • Having people you can test with regularly
  • Learning more about game design from those with more experience
  • Playing other people’s games can give you more ideas for your own
  • Practicing how to think about games and give feedback about it
  • Challenging yourself to come up with a prototype quickly for the next playtest meetup

UnPub PH

If you are based in the Philippines (specifically in Manila), you can join our game design community UnPub PH. We meet every 2nd Saturday of the month to playtest.

4.) Play lots of Games

Games are made of mechanics and the best way to learn new mechanics is by playing lots of different kinds of games. There are all kinds of games just to name a few:

  • Trading Card Games
  • Deckbuilding Games
  • Euro games
  • American-style Games
  • Party Games
  • Dexterity Games
  • Roll-and-Writes

And there are tons of game mechanics which include but are not limited to:

  • Drafting
  • Worker Placement
  • Auction
  • Area Control
  • Engine-building
  • Social Deduction
  • Etc etc etc

The more games you play and the more mechanics you try, the bigger your toolbox will be when putting mechanics together for your own games. Sometimes, I also get my best ideas while playing another game. When I’m stuck and can’t think of a solution to a game design problem I’m having, playing games and seeing how other designers solve their problems can give me the ideas I need to fix my own.

5.) Remember your “Why?”

Leonardo Da Vinci once said “Art is never done, only abandoned” and the same is true with games. As you develop your game you might feel like there is always more you can improve. That feeling can get you lost if you don’t have a guiding vision for your game.

It’s easy to get distracted by a mechanic in a new game you played, to be swayed by the feedback of playtesters, and to get attracted to other game ideas while you are making your game. So, it’s very helpful to remember your “Why?”. Why exactly are you making this game? What is your vision for your game? What do you want to accomplish? If you are getting lost in your design, it’s important to reflect and think about these questions so you have something to guide you to your final design.

Of course it doesn’t mean you have to be rigid in your vision and you can’t be flexible. As you learn more about game design and see your game in action, it’s alright to change your initial vision. What’s important is you always have a vision to guide you and that you are not just stumbling blindly in the dark with your design decisions.

And those are my tips to those starting out in design! For those who’ve already explored this craft thoroughly, what tips would you give? If you like this content, consider following this blog too.

Follow Nico Valdez:

Game Designer

Nico is a game designer, programmer, songwriter, ex-audio engineer, amateur fiction writer, and president of Balangay Entertainment®. One of the less competitive members of Balangay, Nico only wins against 2k, Marx, and Aya when he's played the game before and they haven't. Nico always wins against Aa. He'll play almost anything as long as it's not loud. He likes euro games for their strategy and thematic games for their roleplaying. He doesn't like party games that much because they get too noisy for his ear disability.

Comments are closed.