May 7, 2010

My Board Game Design Experience

My creative experience has always been with writing or PC game development. As I am not a programmer, board games were a natural fit for my creative energies. But, they present a different set of challenges I found quite interesting. I thought I'd write down my process for any interested.

Before I get going, if you're at all interested in game design for any medium you should read Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. It inspired me to stop thinking and begin doing. (Speaking of doing, I need to finish the book...)

My inspiration came from a love of science fiction, space battles, and humor. I wanted to create a setting that let you tell the story of building an empire in space, while hopefully laughing amongst friends.

I love strategy. As a gamer it was my first experience (Command and Conquer), so I wanted something that relied heavily on strategy.

Finally, like many designs, I took inspiration elsewhere, in particular from The Settlers of Catan and Munchkin. I love how Catan has a solid mix of board information (i.e. things all players know and can plan against) and hidden information that only you know. This makes the game unexpected and very rewarding when you plan against contingencies.This is very similar to Texas Hold 'Em -- all players see the cards on the table, but only you know what you have in your hand. Content wise, I love how you win -- a set number of points. It's very clear and obvious, though how you get there is never so simple.

I absolutely adore Munchkin's reliance on quick and frequent backstabbing, wheeling and dealing, and clean, straightforward design.

I typed down every thought I had, with a particular focus on the flow of the game. Board games have a rhythm -- players take turns, decisions are made, rinse, repeat. I tried to focus my brainstorm such that each component was envisioned as a portion of this flow. I tried to think about three phases in particular: beginning of the game, middle of the game, and end game.

For PC development we often (sometimes mistakenly) rely heavily on the notion of a player's "first 15 minutes." This was somewhat similar. What would I do on my first turn? What would I do on my fifth turn? What would I do on my 15th turn to win the game?

Furthermore, how long would the game take? Ideally, an hour or less as time is precious. This meant I needed to streamline things and not overwhelm with unnecessary rules and complexity. How do I make the middle of the game just as exciting as the beginning when everything is new? With board games, a design may become complex not necessarily because of the actual mechanics, but how you present the information to a player. If you have several card types, several currencies, multiple players, various phases of play (movement turn, attack turn, etc.) you must figure out how to do so in a clean and straightforward manner. With a PC game you can have the code handle it for you. With a board game you don't have that luxury.

Monopoly, to me, is the most fun on the first two laps around the board. You don't know what properties you own and every dice roll is a delight. Then you hit a long lull, especially if you don't own good properties or suffer from bad luck. I wanted to avoid that and put more control in the hands of the player.

I had to make a few decisions really early. One of these has had a fundamental impact on the game every time I've modified it.

How do players move? The options I considered (with benefits mentioned) were:
  • Dice roll -- Randomness is fun. It builds camaraderie and joy around the table when you see someone finally nail that roll they were looking for, or you see someone snatch something away from someone else when they get what they needed.
  • Pre-set movement card -- If players know how far they will move, they can create strategy around it. Furthermore, you avoid the obnoxious (and frequent) occurrence of always missing the dice roll you need to land on that one final spot. .
I went with pre-set movement cards. Players move up to or less than 4 spaces per turn. After the first play test, I found that my board was too big, so travel time was frequent. As there is no gameplay to travel, this was bad. To fix this, I've reduced empty space on the board. Also, to bolster the upgrades and hopefully allow for a bit more choice and long-term strategy, I've modified this to a fuel unit system.

Players now earn a certain amount of fuel per turn. Through random events and certain upgrades they can earn more. Finally, they can hold onto fuel between turns to keep some in reserve. I have found that this not only simplifies a lot of my rules (even though it sounds more complex!), it presents more choices. 

So Many Cards
Cards are easy to read, stack, and are genuinely fun to draw. It's strange how your design can be modified by things like drawing a card, but it totally can!

Below are some samples of my cards, with a brief explanation of how they might work.

Space Encounters -- Players earn these cards every turn and when passing through asteroid belts (a common movement space on the board). The intent of these is to give players a set of tools to attack their opponents and change up the game. These are the unknowns you as a player must account for and hopefully plan against. Here is an example:

Homeworld Tax Collector
You recently enrolled in an online course that allows you to collect taxes on an "as needed" basis from other intergalactic pilots. Seems like now's as good a time as any?

You may collect 500 Credits from any player.

Play Rules: You must be on the Homeworld to play this card. This card can be played at any time.

Pirate Attacks -- Pirates attack every so many turns. These attacks can have significant penalties. However, all players know when pirates attack, there are ways to offset the penalties, and players can use Space Encounter cards to steer the pirates towards their opponents. Here is an example:

Pirate Flea Market
Pirates are natural auctioneers -- they love to sell things, especially things that aren't theirs. 

All players except the targeted player roll the dice. Highest dice roll is able to purchase any planetary upgrade from the targeted player for 500 Credits. The targeted player will lose the upgrade, which is then placed on the planet of the purchaser's choosing.

The bold words in green explain the gameplay. That's a lot of words! Too many, but how do I explain it clearly? Only play testing will tell.

Assembly Required
When designers create a video game they must program the components. For a board game, code is replaced with paper, crayons, poster board, and a glue stick. I recommend you stock up on index cards. 

This is where UI design starts to come into play. Do you have all the right information on the cards? I found that I had what I thought were simple notes called out in the rules. However, they weren't simple in actuality and you cannot expect players to know things as well as you (the designer) know them. Really, it's much better to put useful information on the cards, board, or just with simple visual indicators. These can be colors or just written notes.

It's also important to think about how many players will play the game because space is a premium. One of the reasons I went from 5 to 4 players is simply to reduce table crowding and preserve precious board space. 

Play Test Play Test Play Test
One lesson that carries over from PC game development to board games is that nothing matters until you play test it. Until the players verify your ideas are awesome, chances are they aren't. 

I was surprised after my first test that items I worried would be too tedious, and therefore stripped out, turned out to be much requested features. I brought them back for my next test, which I hope to hold soon.

I tried to incorporate some bold tuning changes as well. I remember a Soren Johnson design column where he referenced a Sid Meier tuning maxim that said "double it or cut it by half." So, I doubled starting credits, halved travel space, and greatly reduced most prices so things can be bought far more quickly. I also doubled the amount of Space Encounter cards players will pick up and increased the chance of Pirate Attacks. Ideally, these changes will make the game faster, more dynamic, and more exciting for players.

I cut a great deal of content. Many of my planetary upgrades were geared for too specific a situation, which meant players weren't clear how valuable they were as the likelihood of the situation occurring was low. I merged many of them to make them more valuable and to streamline the game. I cut a few one-off components to the game to hopefully reduce the number of things players need to keep track of. 

More notes to come!

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