Whether you’re Eric Lang or Rob Daviau, one thing is sure – Making a board game is a process in which you edit and alter your prototype, intending to refine it. This refinement process is called game development. It includes everything from base mechanics to artwork, rules, and even down to the optimal components to be used in manufacturing. Here you’ll find some tips and resources, which will help you along the journey of developing your game.
1. Understand Your Approach When Making a Board Game
When it comes to game design, there are two approaches, which are referred to as - “Top-down” and “Bottom-up.”
Top-down means that you start with a very broad idea of the game- all of the mechanics you want the game to have, the theme, etc. And then you work your way into the details from there. R. Eric Reuss (Designer of Spirit Island) uses a similar approach and refers to it as “pruning”, as it is similar to pruning a tree – you get all of your ideas out and cut the ones which don’t work during testing while keeping the good ones.
Bottom-up can be seen as the opposite of top-down because you start with a simple mechanic and expand when you find that it works well. This process can be seen as “growing” your game. A great example of a designer who uses this technique is Bruno Cathala (designer of over 50 games, many of which on the BGG Top 100). On many occasions, he has said that he starts out with a “sparkling idea”, which he then grows into something bigger.
Both of these approaches are valid and have led to great games being produced. It is essential to know which method you need to use in your own game. Ask yourself this question - Does my game tend to overwhelm or underwhelm? Do I need to simplify and cut, or does the game need something added to spice it up? Asking these simple questions can give your game direction and will undoubtedly speed up your development process.
Check out these articles to learn more about the approach when it comes to game development:
Killing your Darlings – This article focuses on cutting and how a good designer should become alright with cutting elements of the game when it will ultimately help the game.
Different Approaches to Game Design - Here are four simple ways to start working on your game. This can be a good start for the “bottom-up” approach.
2. Know Your Strengths and Find Allies to Help You Make the Board Game
While yes, game designers generally wear many hats, it is an integral part of the process to find help where you need it and learn what you can and can’t handle. The main reason why companies like Kollosal Games, Awaken Realms, and CMON can produce huge Kickstarters, again and again, is because they have the funds to split up their workload. Of course, as an independent designer or small publisher, this is not always an option, but finding allies which you can work with will almost certainly help you make better games.
Find the things you are good at, be it balancing game mechanics or a good eye for graphic design. One way of doing that is by asking playtesters or other designers in online forums (The Board Game Design Lab Facebook Community is a great place for that) what the weak points of the game are? If you keep getting an answer like “The rules are not easy to understand” or “The turns aren’t as satisfying as I’d like”, think about ways you can get help.
Two heads are better than one is more often than not correct when you find the right people. There are plenty of other game designers who can help you out with mechanics, rulebook editors for rules, graphic designers for graphic design, and specialists in almost any game-related area you can think of! Find those people and ask them to help out (of course, find a way to return the favor, whether monetarily or by other means); you’ll find that the right person can help make your vision a reality!
More on Finding Allies:
More Facebook Groups - I recommend you join all of these groups; these are the places where you’ll most easily find whatever you need. There are groups for reviewers, artists, marketers, and all potential allies you may need on your journey.
Tips for Working with a Codesigner - This post by Carla Kopp has more information about what to expect when working with other people.
3. Nothing is Written in Stone - Adjust Your Board Game
Growing attached to your ideas is natural, but it can lead to many plateaus when it comes to development. If you’re developing your own game, this can be especially challenging, but it’s necessary to master the craft of developing games.
“Nothing is Written in Stone” is precisely what it sounds like; you must be alright with moving things around and trying out different approaches to the way your game works. You must see the state your game is in now as temporary, even if you’ve grown attached to it. You can always go back to the game the way it is now, so it’s better to have more options to choose from.
Once you’re ready to make changes, make them. A good rule of thumb is- “if you’re unsure if something should stay, cut it. If you don’t miss it, don’t bring it back” This part of the process can be some of the most fun... if you can see it that way. You’ll find that your game is capable of much more than you thought before looking at it with the developer’s eyes. It’s usually during this process when you’ll find what the key “fun factor” of your game is (sometimes referred to as the games’” core” or “core fantasy”); once you know that, things become a lot easier.
Of course, you will have to be careful not to stay too long in this part of the process. Your main objective should be to get your game out into the world in the best state possible. Once you have a good core, it will be easy to expand on it by returning to this part of the process and making slight additions and changes to the game’s mechanics. I’ve talked to dozens of designers, and I’ve never heard any of them having trouble with expansions if their game had a strong core.
Working with a Developer - This article goes in-depth on the job of a developer’s job when you’ve signed your game with a publisher. This will help you see your own game with “developer’s eyes.”
Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics - This concept is fascinating, as it delivers a fresh look at games in general. The video is based on this research paper, and I love the way Eduardo Baraf breaks it down
4. Check Your Board Game(Playtesters and Editors)
All good writers have editors who help them refine their work. We have something even more remarkable... Playtesters! Make it a habit to ask your playtesters for objective opinions after playtests. Ask your playtesters these two questions every time you test the game - “If you have to cut 10% of the game, what would you cut?”. Then, ask them the opposite “If there is one thing that must stay in the printed version of the game, what would it be?”
Under no circumstances should you underestimate your playtesters because games are a collaborative process, whether you like it or not. If you watch your playtesters carefully and grow accustomed to really listening, your game will be better for it.
Knowing which criticism to take when you should watch the game, and watch your players are skills you will have to develop by seeing your game played by diverse groups and having both blind tests and tests in which you (the designer) participate.
The Designer Effect - This article goes into things that may come up in playtests when the designer is present.
Leading a Playtest - Tips on how to conduct playtests
5. Optimize Your Board Game
Like anything, there are ways to optimize your development process. Things like keeping a record of the changes which have been made to the game and reports from play sessions can really help you optimize the process.
I would say that the best way to perfect your craft other than practicing it, is watching how others practice it. So, make time for playing games, reading design diaries, watching videos, listening to podcasts and seeing what decisions other designers and developers have made.
A wonderful place for more articles to check out about everything game design is Board Game Design Lab’s Designer Resources