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.
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.
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.
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.
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?