5 Tips for Elegant, Efficient Board Game Design

Go game at Hakone onsen
A while back, there was a thread titled "I want to learn from you," in which people stated the things they wanted to learn from each other. A couple people asked me about "elegant, efficient board game design." It was presumptuous of me to offer any kind of tips at the time, and still is, but here is what my tips were...

Be Cheap
Use the cheapest, most commonplace game props possible and use as few of them as possible. It's hard to make a baroque, overly complex game when you only have black and white beads on grid paper. Also, it makes distributing your game much easier when players already have the tools necessary. Look at the stuff around you right now. Examine how you can make a game out of those objects.

Forget Stuff Easily
I never mastered thAC0, I barely grasp probabilities, and I absolutely suck at advanced chess techniques. Consequently, I try to write my rules so that they would fit on a sheet of paper. Even better, on a business card. Or, still better, spoken aloud in easy conversation. By definition, a game of emergent complexity needs very few rules.

Explore the Physicality of Your Game Props
One way to be efficient and cheap is to examine your game props like Jackie Chan examines his stage props. Turn them upside down, examine how they rest in their natural state and how they group together. Can they stack? Do they make patterns? Don't forget to examine your boards too. If your board has a grid, do you play on the lines, the spaces or the vertices? Perhaps all three?

Bleed Your Props Dry
How much game-information can you draw from a single prop? Take a look at the standard deck of playing cards. 52 cards. 13 cards of a particular suit. 4 cards of each rank. 26 cards in each color. A card on its own has three levels of information: Suit, Rank, and Color. Here's where exploring the physicality of the prop comes in handy, because you can also turn a card upside down. You can line them up in rows and columns. Putting them in certain combinations at random have varying levels of probability. It's this wealth of information attained from the most compact of props that has given rise to a whole galaxy of possible card games.

Learn from the Ancients
In the past, no one had access to readymade miniatures, fancy boards or electronic components. They did have their household items and their imaginations, though. The game of mancala was originally played with seeds placed in little pits in the sand dug out with fingers. Go probably started when someone drew a grid in the dirt with a stick and grabbed some stones. Even Chaturanga, the Indian predecessor to Chess, Shogi and Xianqi, was based on familiar elements of Indian society at the time. Besides these superficial elements, a classic game's mechanics are often supremely efficient. Indeed, it's their elegance that made their transmission as memes so successful.

It's been about three or four years since I wrote those tips. Looking back, it doesn't seem like my process has changed that much. Perhaps now I'm more open to developing games with a bit more front-loaded complexity. Otherwise, the rest of this stuff is what I follow when I develop a new game. I'd like to toss in one important tip I didn't mention at the time.

Live more to play more.
I go through a long droughts of ideas. I'll keep producing, of course, and often that just leads to a recursive cycle of recycled ideas. I'll seclude game designer-brain in a mental quarantine, keeping it out of contact the other parts of my brain. ("If I buckle down even harder, if I keep at it another hour, I know this game idea will crack open and reveal its secrets.") This is a bad thing.

The only way to break out of the drought is to add water. In this case, to watch more movies, spend more time with friends, talk to people of different backgrounds, and just absorb as much of their nutritious, life-giving sustenance as you can. Okay, this metaphor is getting creepy. But I'm saying you can't work in a total vacuum. A closed mental system won't produce anything that wasn't in the system already. (This leads to a discussion of productivity vs creativity that I'll talk about later.)

So, open up your experience. The easiest way to get started is to play more games. Take notes. Think about them, but don't linger. Keep absorbing until you're sated, then get to work synthesizing those ideas into a great new game.

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Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.