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"We publish family games… but good luck with your game!"

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Years ago, when I was in high school, I came up with my own board game idea.  It built off some concepts I had learned from Settlers and Magic, with some new ideas I brought in myself.  It was an army-building strategy game, where you purchased cards to represent various units, and then could upgrade those cards with items, abilities, and even additional population.  I actually submitted the idea to Mayfair games, and got a response, though it was ultimately rejected when I sent in my rules.  “We publish Family games” they said, “But good luck with your game!”  I wish I still had the rejection letter.

Looking back, it was a fair rejection, as those rules were rough, untested, somewhat incomplete, and extremely overcomplicated.  The combat mechanic was very mechanical.  It involved adding up a lot of large numbers, and it did not lend itself to smooth, or fun, gameplay, nor did it provide any tension or depth or strategy.

Of course, I didn’t really realize this until I looked back a few months ago.  Now, I’m working on that project again, with new experience in writing and gaming, and I’ve come up with significantly stronger mechanics.  Hopefully, in a few months, I’ll have a working prototype to test it out with friends.

In the years since I first came up with the idea, I’ve learned a lot about board games and what makes them fun.  And now, here are some general thoughts on what I think every good board game needs.

1. Randomness.  In my first attempt at the game my goal was to eliminate randomness.  I was attempting to avoid the Catan pitfall of “we’ve just gone through 7 turns and I haven’t gotten a single resource!” but in doing so I removed all tension from the game and made it dry.  There was no sense of risk, it was simply, “Is my guy bigger than their guy? Okay, attack.”  Whether its dice rolls, shuffled decks of cards, or pulling from a bag of tiles, randomness is a pretty strong element.

2. Strategy
In games like Life, the randomness is there, but that’s all there is.  There are very few points in the game where you have any choice of what to do… you simply spin the wheel, go to the next square, and do what it says.  The entire game is anchored on how lucky you are in the squares you land on.  A good game should present with randomness, but give the player choices with what to do with the randomness dealt to them, that can have a strong effect on the outcome of the game.

3. Structure
My first thought for this one was “simplicity” but even a complicated game can be fun if it’s well structured.  A simple game moves quickly, but still feels like you have a lot of choices and can take some decent actions during your turn.  A complicated game gives you a lot to do, and every action should feel part of a bigger whole.


4. Interactivity
When actions you take in the game can effect the other players and vice versa, that makes that action much more powerful and dramatic.  Sometimes that can involve actions a little more “meta” like trying to convince another player to trade resources or ally against another player, and sometimes it’s something more direct – like blocking an opponent from extending their roads to build another settlement by placing your own roads or settlements in the way.


5. Creativity
Beyond just unique rules, a game can really stand out if it’s got quality art or quality writing.  No, it doesn’t have to be all packed and shiny to be a great game, but lets face it, we like to look at cool and unique pictures on the cards and the board or tiles, or at least solid design.  Funny or well-written quotes or descriptions on cards always add something, and even a quick backstory in the instruction manual to provide context can go a long way.  I’ve never played a good board game that didn’t have at least one or two of those elements.

What do you think makes a good board game?  Agree or disagree with anything I’ve said?

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You’ll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. I’d say that I agree with your thoughts 2-5. Number 5, Creativity, could maybe be thought of as “Theme”. Depending on the types of games you like the theme might be more important than the mechanics (something like Munchin comes to mind here). Others may prefer it the other way around (chess, go, and other abstract games are a pretty good example of this) or perhaps a good balance of the two is important. I personally find game mechanics to be the most important thing but the theme is generally the first thing you notice about a game and can really draw you into it.

    As for Randomness, I think it can be used well but there are plenty of examples of excellent games that don’t rely much or at all on this (Puerto Rico, Agricola, and Power Grid to list a few). In this case player interaction because very important to create a varying game experience from play to play.

    The main thing I would add to your list may fit within the Structure category and is the idea of some mechanic the drives the game towards it’s conclusion. Anything from limiting the number of turns to having an end of game condition that players can use to prevent things from dragging on indefinitely. This is something that Monopoly suffers from in my opinion. On the other hand it is implemented very cleverly in many games such as Dominion (multiple game ending conditions).

    Another thing that I enjoy is having several different paths to victory. It’s to try something new each time you play and win using a total different approach than the other players.

  2. Variability, there’s an item I forgot! Yeah, definitely having different legitimate ways to win is good stuff. I played a game of Dominion today in which my strategy and my opponents strategy were very very different, but at the end of the game the difference was 1 point.

    I’ve never played Puerto Rico, Agricola, and Power Grid, though I’ve heard good things about them. If Player Interaction is important in those games, in a sense that interaction is where the randomness comes in, as randomness is meant to add variability and tension, whereas those aspects are inherent when everything comes down to the players’ whims.

    I’m definitely out to explore the world of gaming as much as possible, I’ll have to put those games on my list.

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