Making Board Games Leads to Better Video Games

It is a game designer’s job to understand the inner workings of games, a skill that takes some practice to get the hang of. Throughout my college experience, I have found that game design is much different than I had imagined, and requires a lot of puzzle solving and critical thinking skills. One of the most significant aspects of designing a game is mechanics; game mechanics are what make the game interactive and enjoyable. So how does someone like myself, who is looking to make it into the industry, learn the secrets behind creating good mechanics? The answer is simple: make board games.

First, let me define what I mean by the term “board game.” When I refer to a board game, it is an interactive, non-digital game with specific goals, win conditions, and a rules set. This includes card games, puzzle games, board games, etc. Essentially, if it is not an electronic game and requires some form of interactivity, I classify it under the very broad term of “board game” for the sake of generalization, something to keep in mind while reading this post. Essentially, you want to build paper prototypes, but since not everyone is familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, making board games is a simpler approach.

Board games are an interesting medium; they have been around for much longer than electronic games, and include an enormous number of genres and types. This is exactly why they are spectacular learning tools for game designers. It’s important for designers to play as many games as possible to learn from, but that should not be limited to video games. By playing various board games, you can gain insight on how the mechanics and game play work. While many digital games can seem, well, not fun, I have yet to find a board game that I didn’t think was fun. Board game designers, just like game designers, have an obligation to make their works fun and entertaining in order to keep players interested, and they are quite good at achieving this. It is often difficult to make every game fun, but it is something that game designers should certainly strive for. After all, what are video games if not interactive, digital toys?

Creating board games teaches designers the value of mechanics and game play. It is imperative that mechanics complement the theme, but are not overwhelmed by it. The theme can be utterly amazing, but if the mechanics are lacking, the game isn’t going to be fun to play. One way to practice this is to create mechanics for a game, then try applying different themes to it to see how the two can either work together or against each other. This can also be done in reverse, by creating a theme for a board game, then creating several different mechanics systems to it. Try thinking of just how many game play designs you can come up with for a board game, and what makes those designs fun. The fun factor is key, especially in board games.

In video games, it isn’t quite as obvious, but you are designing around a set of rules. This is much more obvious in board games since you have a defined rules set, so making your own board games can help you to refine your skills. Prototyping any game design before actually putting forth all the work that goes into a full game is always helpful, if not necessary. Try making board games as the prototype for a design you’ve been thinking about carrying out. It can really help to identify which aspects of the game play are fun, and which ones work well, as well as removing any unnecessary or uncooperative mechanics before spending the time, energy, and possibly money on a full version.

Board games can also aid you if you’re looking to put together a development team. Sometimes, it can be rather difficult to get an idea across, especially when it comes to mechanics, so having a playable prototype, even if it’s a board game, can help to bring the team together. If you can get together a team that’s truly passionate about the project they’re working on, then your design is much more likely to become an actual game. Part of getting your team passionate about what they’re making can come from playing a board game prototype they found to be a lot of fun.

There are plenty of reasons why game designers should make a board game at least once in their lives, and I hope that I’ve shed some light on a few of them. I’ll be featuring more posts on prototyping soon, so if you’re interested, keep an eye out.

    • Jared E. Thompson
    • October 14th, 2010

    I definitely concur with all-o-this, and I have two points to add:

    1. In response to you not having found a board game that’s fun: I feel that has to do with the other thing you said about making sure the “fun factor is key.” Figuring out whether something is fun or not is as simple as testing it in action: board games do this quite well. From the very first play test, you find out whether or not the mechanics for your board game work or just plain don’t. Thus, designers tend to correct or simplify rules and mechanics to fix the issues the game may have. This certainly supports what you’re saying about board games being good for prototyping.

    2. To tie in with the first point, board games tend to be fun because they play off of mechanics that are easy to understand without much explanation. Elegance in design in combination with simplicity can lead into games that contain both depth and good replay value. The greater depth there is, the longer it may last, but that’s not to say one board game is always more fun than the other (Chess for instance, great depth. Game I helped create in Game Design Workshop which involved landing on the moon and randomly drawing cards that were wormholes or attacking aliens… not so much, but a blast to play).


    P.S. My programming friend is convinced practically every game is a card game in disguise.

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