Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Board Design

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Context: Infinite Legacy

Last week I expanded the infinite legacy playtesting to a larger group to try to get some broader feedback. That was a nerve wracking excercise that deserves a detailed write up at some point, but it did not happen immediately because my spine promptly exploded leaving me stuck in bed for the next six days or so.

One of the reasons for running the Patreon for a year before asking for any support is to work out kinks, I'm pleased that I've got a system in place to say "I was injured this week and didn't do any work, so nobody pays anything" and confident it'll stand up to such problems once it's launched. Anyway, this week I was recovered enough to do more work and wanted to talk about it because it touches on a really important part of board game design: Board design!

You can play a lot of games without ever really thinking about the layout of the board. How many spaces are there on the Small World board? How many of those are magic spaces? How many are field spaces? How many are magic and field spaces?

At some point the designer of any board game has had to make decisions like that and there isn't always a mathematically obvious solution. To some extent the goal is symmetry: You don't want your game to be unfair, so putting too many of one resource type together will benefit solutions that exploit that particular resource. Always having the same combination of things occuring together means that comboing them is disproportionately powerful compared to combining other resources.

However you also don't want it too symmetrical. When a board is identical in all directions, it's boring. It also robs the player of meaningful choice - part of how players choose a Small World faction is to look at the least defended routes onto the board and see what sorts of resource they're rich in. Or to consider what opening might maximise the things that they score for. A perfectly symmetrical board with exactly balanced resources would take away a meaningful decision leaving all approaches equally valid.

There's also the need to constrain the board to generate the sort of game play that you're looking for. In Infinite Legacy playtesting has revealed that the sweet spot for spaces between cities is three. At two spaces cities can expand once each and come into contact immediately, which feels too fast and robs players of agency to avert a war if that's what they're aiming for. At four spaces cities can expand twice each without coming into contact - given only five moves are made in a game that's almost half the game!

This sort of spatial consideration affects a lot of different types of board game. Consider something like Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan, the fundemental challenge is to move onto the board, get to a spot and move off without being caught (or to catch the person doing that if you play as the guards). The distance between things is a *huge* factor for that game. Why are the spaces in the fortress smaller than the ones around the edge of the board? Because that's where the interesting gameplay happens - there needs to be enough space for evasion to be possible in the key objective areas, but not so much that it's guaranteed. There needs to be enough distance to make crossing that area meaningful, wheras walking around the edge of the board isn't intended as a meaningful challenge or a game focus.

A lot of the time there's a degree of theorycrafting that's possible. Smallworld can say "If all the players have a race down of average size I want there to be 8 too few spaces for them to all spread out", Infinite Legacy can say "I would like the first conflict to be possible by turn 2 and likely by turn 4", Ninja can say "I would like the direct route away from a successful objective to be three turns of movement" - but playtesting is always necessary to refine exactly how a board should be laid out.

As you may have noticed (If you've been following this project) I've been using the Smallworld board to playtest, but moving the city locations around each test to try out different configurations and distances and concentrations of resouce. That's been great for getting a feel for how these things impact gameplay - but I'm getting a good enough feel now.

It's time for the game to have its own board and for that to start being tested and mutated depending on what awful things players decide to do to it.
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