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Board Game Design 101

Regardless if you’re a budding designer, an experienced game maker or simply interested in the design process, this is where I share the various methods, guidelines, and resources I use to teach board game design to my Game Development students at Algonquin College.
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The Design Process

Gerry Paquette
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This is the first in a series of presentations given at [geekurl=]CanGames[/geekurl] from 2011 onwards.

The purpose of the series is to share my experience teaching board game design at a community college over the past five years as well as my own personal forays into the field.

This initial presentation acts as an overview covering the overall process from which will stem a series of more focused topics.

This iterative process is based on the 'Getting Started' guide from the [geekurl=]Board Game Designer's Forum[/geekurl].


BBG offers the ultimate resource for board game design.

It serves as your 1-stop research center, offers great support in terms of play testing, allows you to network with other game designers, provides a place to promote your designs and even publish them in the Print-&-Play format if you so desire.

Sign-up and build a presence for yourself with a detailed profile.

Keep track of the games you own, have played, and wish to purchase. Before you can design a board game you need to have played a lot of contemporary games. This is a fun way to familiarize yourself with modern game mechanics and effective theme integration.

BBG offers a compressive list of board game mechanics along with detailed descriptions link to games that use them.

The other important sorting mechanism is category which can use to identify games by type or genre.

Theme Driven Design

The advantage to this approach is that it offers a dynamic back-&-forth way of building up your game. Having a theme narrows down the choice of applicable mechanics. You can resort to your theme to find solutions to problematic mechanics. All you need do is ask yourself "What would happen in a real-life situation?"

Similar to film directors, your goal as a designer is to provide your players (audience) with a rich experience as if they just lived through something fantastic. Unlike film, you don't need to tell the whole story.

Start with an event, as situation, or a scene from a film.

It could be a Mexican standoff...

...or the executions of the French Revolution...

...or even a duel between rivaling wizards!

Building on this premise, you can develop the details surrounding this situation in order to create an introduction for your game. This will serve as player motivation.

This elements of this theme are then reflected in the game compoents.

Note how the dragon is used to keep track of the mana for each wizard.

The theme also serves to guide what mechanics are used. In this case, broken planks are added at the end of each round to reduce the playing surface thus creating mounting tension.

The players depicted on the back of the box demonstrate their engagement in playing out their roles.

Thus a well integrated theme can lead to a richer and more enjoyable gaming experience.

Power Search

BGG offers excellent advance search features that allow you to find the best use of mechanics you may be considering, or possible mechanics you haven't considered used in similarly themes games.

A games image gallery can be used to learn how a particular mechanic is used. Take the 'action point allowance system' as it is applied in Pandemic.

Seeing how an existing game makes use of a particular mechanic serves as guidance in developing your own.

Geeklists are another great way of reviewing games based on a particular theme, category, mechanic, or any other aspect. Here are a few of my favorites:

- What Specific Game Mechanics Make You Say "Cool!"
- Marrying Theme and Mechanics: the Games that do it Best
- games that wouldn't work without the theme
- Top Ranked Game for each Mechanic
- Game Movement: How Games Move Pieces
- To boldly play where no man has played before - Star Trek Games
- Side View Boards

One of the most useful lists is a photo comparison between existing games and their early prototypes.

- From Prototype to Finished Game - Photo Comparisons of Well-Known Games

A common mistake that many novice designers get into, especially if they are artistically inclined, is to put too much work in creating a their prototypes. This is the equivalent of putting all the emphasis on visual effects instead of the story in a movie.

Putting Your Game Theory to the Test

This is the iterative part of the design process that will take up most of your time. It involves testing your game with your fellow designers, partners and even by yourself. This is where problems and omissions reveal themselves cause you to rethink, change, adjust and test again.

The thing to focus on at this point is not the visuals but the basic functionality of your game. In order to do this effectively, you will want to take the simplest and most economical route.

Graph paper works well for mapping out your board. I like to use vellum paper used in architecture as it is more resistant to multiple erasures. You can find it in most art supply stores. Plastic poster frames can be used to flatten the paper board providing an nice playing surface.

Colored index cards cut in half work well as playing cards. They are think enough not to see through and easier to shuffle than paper. Colors can be use to differentiate between different types of cards.

Pencils are used in both these cases as they allow for quick changes that can be made on-the-fly while testing your game.

It is VERY IMPORTANT that you take notes whenever you test your game.

Take note of the players, the goal of the session, and time. This will allow you to determine to average playing time for your game. If you have a particular time frame in mind, you will know that you are either over or under your goal.

Resist the temptation to solve problems as they arise or implementing new ideas. Just take note of what is missing or what can be added and keep playing the game.

If the game is seriously broken, then it's OK to stop, make changes, and try again.

Over time you be able to review these notes and make sure that each issue has been addressed.

Being organized is also important.

The table above was used to keep track of the cards for one of my games and is organized by quantity, type, and relationship.

Rules of the Game

The hardest part of the process is coming up with a good set of rules for you game.

The 3 C's are used to ensure this. The problem is that, just like the old 'Good-Fast-Cheap' model, these three aspects tend to work against one and other.

Making sure that every possible aspect of the game is covered in great detail would make your rules 'complete' but doing so may make them excessive long which is not 'concise'.

Short and 'concise' rules may not explain things in a way that is 'clear' to all readers.

Clarity also applies to how your rules are formated. Including multiple rules in a large block of text makes a particular rule hard to find when referencing.

'Consistency' is an added 'C' applies to how you make reference to the various elements of your game. If you identify a playing piece as a 'pawn', then you cannot call it anything else but that throughout your explanations. Going from playing piece, to pawn, to hero character creates confusion in the reader.

Start by listing every rule that you can think of for your game as a list in point form.

Group various points into categories that will become topics in your rules.

Sort these topics in oder of importance to the player as they are learning the game. Start with an overview, followed by basics before getting into exceptions or scoring details.

Provide examples for complex or hard-to-describe rules.

Illustrations can eventually be added to show the game set-up or identify various aspects of a card.

Consider adding a play through example.

Strategy tips are another item you might want to add the end to help players understand the more subtle aspects of your game.

One of the best ways to learn about writing good rules is to use a set of existing rules as a template.

Pandemic Rules (with permission from Z-Man Games)

Many rules for modern games are available in PDF format can be found in the 'File' section for that game on BGG.

The Ultimate Test

Once you feel that your game has been developed enough to be playable without problems, it's time to invite friends and family members to give it a go.

Your role in these blind playtests is to be a silent observer. You are not allowed to say anything or guide the players in any way.

Players need to be able to learn the game themselves based on your rules alone.

The thing to keep in mind is that 'You don't ship with the box'.

I've developed the following playtest form to collect useful information from these sessions.

It includes basic information such as date, time, player names, etc... You may want to thank your play testers by name in the final version of your game.

The feedback you collect from these forms will not always be evident. For example, players may ask about a rule that is actually included in your documentation. Rather then respond with "Well, that's not my fault, they didn't read the rules carefully enough!", ask yourself "Why didn't they see the rule that was there?". This is where clarity comes into it. You need to isolate this rule more and make it stand out more so as not to be missed. Or, it may need to be repeated wherever it applies.

Making Your Game Presentable

Take note of what you see in the prototype-to-finished-game list mentioned earlier.

A presentable prototype is a not meant to look like a published gamed. Most publishers use their own artists for this.

Your game does need to be visually appealing but only in terms of functionality.

Artwork need not be professional and use of clip art is perfectly acceptable. Try to keep the style of art consistent as much as possible.

MS Word has a book fold page setup that makes half-page booklets easy to create. Simply save the final result as a PDF and take to your local print shop.

Boxes, boards and playing pieces can be scavenged from existing games. Used games can be bought quite cheaply from thrift stores.

Full-size sticker sheets can be used to cover an old board with your design. You will most likely have to do so in sections as the sticker sheets are limited to regular paper size. The same sheets can be used to recover an existing box or spinner board.

Card stock can be used for printing your playing cards and player mats.

Sticker sheets can be applied to mat board, typically used in picture framing, to create tiles for component boards.

Black foam core board and black masking tape can be used to create hinged game boards.

One of the BBG members offers a prototype creation service as well as guidance for self publishing.

Print & Play Productions

There's also a commercial site where you can get blank boards, boxes, and game components.

The Game Crafter service is relatively new and offers an online outlet for the production and distribution of your game.

Advice for Novices

Like most things in life, few start off being really good at anything, it takes countless hours of practice and repetition in order to become proficient.

The typical novice will spend several years on one idea whereas the seasoned board game designer will come up with many ideas every years.

It generally takes 12 to 18 months to develop a game.

Having a partner to work with offers many advantages. Besides having someone to bounce ideas off, each can focus on one particular aspect of the game. A common combination is that of developer & artist. One focuses on the mechanics and logistics while the other works on the visual design.

Designing a game from scratch can be a daunting challenge. You might want to consider modding (i.e. modifying) an existing game. Many video game designers started out using game editors to reinvent existing games.

Zombie in my Pocket is a very simple yet elegant game that lends itself well to re-theming; so much so that it has spawned a small family of related my Pocket

One of the lessons I learned after taking part in a 2-month game design contest is that I would have been much better off if I had limited myself to a card game rather than a full-blown game system which ended taking a couple of years to complete.

It's interesting to note that Z-Man Games started out with a series of b-movie themed card games.

The other advantage to designing a card game is that you can get it professionally produced through ArtsCow.

Not only do they offer single orders at a very reasonable price, you can post a link on BGG to make it accessible to anyone interested in having their own copy.

Get Involved

Becoming an active member of the BGG community is probably the single best thing you can do towards becoming a board game designer. Taking part in contests such as the one I did a few years ago (Print And Play Contest - Design a Co-Op Game and win GeekGold) will not only motivate you but also put in touch with other designers.

Another community site you might want to consider is the Board Game Designer's Forum -


The Dice Tower is simply the best podcast dealing with the board games.

It recently expanded into a network of game related podcast which includes one dealing with the theory of board game design -

The Little Metal Dog Show has been around for just over a year and features informative and insightful interviews with board game designers -
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