The five things you must do when designing a board game

Dave Berlin Process 8 Comments

Experience, Theme, Mechanics, Playtests, Rules

How many times have you had a brilliant idea for a board game, and you race home from work or school or a board game designer meetup and can’t sleep because you’re so excited about your game? You pass out that night jotting down notes and dream of seeing your game on store shelves. And then, after working on this game furiously for days, you catch yourself wasting time sifting through stock photos of bacteria, looking for a good set of Proto-Norse runes, or meticulously cleaning stray pixels on your character designs in Photoshop. Maybe you’ve started working on your Kickstarter video script before you’ve played your game a single time. And no, these examples are not random. I’ve been there, and let me tell you this is not the straight line path to getting your game published.

Gamers care about details: about the fonts you choose on your cards, the quality of your meeples, and whether your Kickstarter stretch goals will significantly enhance your game. But when you’re just starting on a new design, when you have no idea whether your mechanics work well, or whether the game is even remotely fun, or if anyone else on earth will ever play it, polishing your icons will not get you there any faster. Furthermore, there are a number of things an experienced developer or publisher will do for you, or want to control themselves. There’s just no reason for you to take on every task, at least not in the beginning. So here’s my definitive list of the five things you absolutely must do when designing a board game. Everything else is just a distraction at the beginning of the process.

  1. Design the Experience: what feeling do you want your players to have when they play your game? This is the biggest part of the experience, what they’ll take with them when they leave, and what they will remember weeks or months after playing your game. I love the feeling of Mysterium: playing at night, with spooky music, communicating with a ghost who’s not allowed to speak. It’s a great experience, and it’s a very different feeling than other games.

    The feeling I want to elicit when gamers play Prism

    The feeling I want to elicit when gamers play Prism

    Another major factor contributing to the game experience is the type of game you’re making. BoardGameGeek divides games into eight subdomains, including:

    • Abstract strategy games like Go, Chess, and recent updates like The Duke
    • Customizable games like Magic: The Gathering or Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures
    • Thematic games include Pandemic Legacy or Dead of Winter
    • Family games: Ticket to Ride, King of Tokyo, and Takenoko are great for everyone
    • Children’s games like Animal Upon Animal, Outfoxed, and Coconuts (our house is slowly filling up with this type of game)
    • Party games: think One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Dixit, or Cards Against Humanity
    • Strategy games include Twilight Struggle, Puerto Rico, and Race for the Galaxy
    • Wargames include both historical and fictional battles, from Europe to Middle Earth

    Which one (or more) of these subdomains do you see your game falling into?

  2. Choose a Theme: I think it’s important to have a theme from the beginning. A game without a theme is just, well, mechanical. The theme of the game should fit with the game type, play into the feeling you wish to evoke, and set the tone for the whole experience. It helps you pick appropriate mechanics, define characters, build the world, come up with an enticing backstory, and so on. I find that my game designs come from a mechanic rattling around in my head and smashing into a theme–boom! A game design is born. And yes, you can design a game without a theme, but it will feel like a dimension is missing and your design just won’t come to life. Even chess has a theme! But pick something weirder than “medieval” or “farming”, please.
  3. Select Mechanics: you need at least one to make a game. Oftentimes I’ll get inspired by a game I play and want to try out a mechanic of my own. Micromanage was a marriage between a drafting game and an office theme, where you draft workers from a pool. Prism came about because I wanted a prisoner’s dilemma mechanism, and where else to do that but in a wizards’ prison? Ultimately your game may have several major mechanics, or one main one and a cast of supporting mechanics, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Pick a mechanic and test it! Once you’ve figured out the experience, theme, and mechanics, write a mission statement for your game. Refer back to this mission statement throughout the design process, and it will help you stick to your vision and provide direction when you run into problems.
  4. Prism is a highly thematic, mostly cooperative wizard adventure which evokes feelings of suspense as players race to find a way out of the prison; cooperation, as they work together to defeat the prison’s traps and monsters; and accomplishment as players build their characters in anticipation of a great final battle.

  5. Run Playtests: the three most important things to do when designing a board game are playtest, playtest, and playtest. Unless you plan to make a game that only you will play, you will need other people to make your dream come true. It’s okay to start small: set up the pieces, play each role yourself, and start to get a feel for how things are working. Then, expand the circle: pull your spouse in for a game, get your kids, or your friends. Move on to your gaming group, your designer meetup group, and ultimately, strangers. Yes, strangers are critically important to your success: they will give you more honest feedback than your friends, there are more of them in the world, and you can always find someone who is coming to your game fresh. Play your game with everyone who is willing, take notes, get feedback, and iterate until people start offering you money. If you’re in the San Diego area, check out the playtest event we run, Unpub Mini San Diego. If not, look for a local convention, an Unpub event, or start your own event!
  6. Gamers playtest new games at Unpub Mini SD Fall 2015

    Gamers playtest new games at Unpub Mini SD Fall 2015

  7. Write Rules: at some point you have to write down the rules for your game. This is always kind of a bummer for me; I like to play games more than describe them in a formal document. But, writing rules helps you organize your thoughts and see where there are holes in the game. Most importantly, rules let you hand your game off to a stranger and get them to play it without you telling them what to do every step of the way. If someone is confused by your rules, can’t figure out how to play, forgets a step, or just gets frustrated and gives up, you know you’ve got work to do.

    Be precise, concise, and complete.

    When you see all your rules written down in one place, it might help you realize your game is way too complex.

So that’s it. Those are the five pillars you need to build your game on. Focus on these five things, work to improve them, and switch between them when you get bored with one. Spend a night playtesting, and then go back to mechanics and see if they still make sense in light of your feedback. Then take a day and rewrite your rules. Check in with your mission statement, and see if players are having the experience you want. Above all, keep iterating and making your game the best it can be!

Did I miss anything that’s core to game design? Please remind me in the comments if I’ve forgotten anything critical.

Comments 8

  1. Hi Dave. Nice to meet ya, and thanks for the simplicity and clarity of your article. I’m certainly one to get bogged down in Photoshop since I’m already working in it all the time for my day job. I’ve found that Paperize ( is a fantastic new tool that forces you to focus on the content and function of your cards over the appearance, and is easily updatable (via spreadsheets) after you get a bunch of feedback for changes from your playtesters.

    One thing I might add to your “choose a theme” (which I agree is important for conjuring the feeling of your game) is to be open to changing your theme if you can’t find the fun factor, if a better idea is suggested, or if the mechanics feel like they’re leading you in a new direction. Openness to change is one of the most critical aspects of development, and fits into the playtest, playtest, playtest idea.

    And for writing rules, this one is so important that (as with art/graphic design) if you find you aren’t particularly suited for this task, find a third party that can help you. Learn how to teach your (or any) game well [ , , and teach it to someone who can absorb that learning and turn it into written rules. It may also help to think of the rulebook as a script for a how-to-play video (the two are slightly different beasts, but videos are becoming much more ubiquitous).

    Mostly, these suggestions just play to the idea that you must know your strengths and know when and where to bring in others to help. The tabletop gaming community is such a wonderful group of people that if you get out there and show your game and test the heck out of it, you’ll find people interested in what you’re doing and want to help!

    1. Post

      Hi John, thanks for the insightful comments. I agree that being flexible is an important trait, and one equally applicable to game design as other areas in life.

      I watched the Paperize video and it looks pretty exciting, so that’ll be something to keep an eye on.

      1. Post

        I can’t show you the secret handshake, but reach out to the Paperize team and see how you can help them out (perhaps by testing Paperize and offering feedback?). I’ve found that offering to help people can go a long way…

    1. Post
  2. Pingback: Ten major distractions when you start designing a board game | Galvanized Studios

  3. Always intrigued by how people define game mechanics. For our blog post “Game Basics: Mechanics”, we slightly altered the definition from “Mastering Game Mechanics” (highly recommended: which is: a set of rules that form a new rule unto themselves. Following this definition, taking turns is actually considered a game mechanic (which is explained in great detail in the video). So starting off, like you said, it’s definitely really important to choose a main mechanic and then you got to realize as you develop your game that there’s all these small mechanics that will make up how that mechanic works/support it.

    We too also really like the idea of that mission statement so that you’ve solidified what direction your mechanics and theme are taking you. It’s so important to have that direction so you can design with intent instead of always just seeing what sticks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *