Let’s face it. The pandemic has made a huge impact on the world overall, including, of course, board games, which is what I want to focus on in this article. Without being able to meet in person, many of us have changed how we play games, while others have stopped playing board games altogether and turned to other forms of entertainment. All of that has directly impacted the design and development of new games and I want to try and evaluate what that impact is. (This topic was inspired by the always wonderful Bez.)
Making a new game is a very long process that can take anything from a few months to many years. It usually starts with a spark of an idea, that slowly glows in the mind of a designer, getting bigger over time until eventually becoming a flame that burns for many months before finally lighting the fire. However, a new game can also come in a flash of inspiration that rapidly spreads and lights up every synapse and brain cell, forcing itself into life. I want to look at these initial, sometimes laborious, steps of game design to find out how designers feed our appetite for new games.
We all love to play board games. We each have our favourite genres, themes and mechanisms, and ultimately our favourite games. Over time our favourites change of course, as new games come out and we get a chance to play them. Yet, when we play a board game, we don’t usually think about how this game came into being in the first place. Chances are we know the designer of the game. In fact, we might have chosen the game because we like other games by the same designer. Yet, very few will have any inkling of the hard work the designer has put into taking a spark of an idea and turning it into a working game. In the film The Games Designers written and directed by Eric Rayl, Mike Selinker phrases it really well: “Board game design is hard, like, I mean, real hard.”
The list of tasks a game designer has open at any one point in time can be very long and it is constantly evolving. Designing a game is a long journey, even for the simplest of games. It can be a battle between what’s good for the game and what the game designer wants the game to be. It comes with a lot of changes, some of them very painful, some of them creating the long-needed breakthrough that breaks an impasse. Elements get added, others get taken out until eventually, the final product bears little resemblance to the notes that were scribbled on a piece of paper when the designer had an initial idea.
We all play games for different reasons, and we all approach them differently. In fact, we may play the same game differently on two different days, just because we’re in a different mood. However, I’m not talking about playing a different strategy or choosing a different character or even just playing with a different player colour. I’m talking about something different altogether.
Tabletop game designers want to create an enjoyable experience for people – whatever enjoyable means in this context. From that starting point, they create a game that is balanced, flows well and meets the desired complexity requirements, as well as meets other criteria. They may use the skillset of developers to refine everything, and if a publisher is involved, there will be additional criteria that have to be met. However, in this article, I want to focus on enjoyment, what it means and whose responsibility it is to make a game enjoyable.
The price bubble has burst and the property market has crashed. People have lost a lot of money when they were forced to sell everything at a much lower price. They bought too high and got out too late. Yet, there are also a number of happy faces around the table. They bought land when prices were still extremely low, built properties, rented them out, earned a decent income and then sold everything at the peak of the market – or at least sold most of it, breaking even with everything else. These are the property tycoons that managed to make it big in Magnate: The First City by Naylor Games.
I have previously spoken about unique games, which were something new at the time – see my article “There can be only one”. It was KeyForge by Fantasy Flight Games and designed by Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame, which started this new way of making games. There is probably a better and longer description of the term, but in short, the term unique in this context describes games where every published copy is different in a number of ways. In KeyForge this is, for example, the name and logo, as well as the composition of the different cards, but different decks will still have some cards the same. I want to look at some aspects of unique game design in more detail to explore the concept.
A hook, as per the dictionary definition, is something that draws you in. In games, a hook can be a number of different things. Often it is something visually exciting, such as beautiful illustrations, amazingly detailed miniatures, realistic resources or some sort of physical component that is integral to gameplay. Hooks can also be an interesting theme, an exciting gameplay mechanism or even the background story behind how a game was made. Certain awards or even the price of a game can be a hook too. Ultimately it’s about finding something that grabs your attention and gets you to take a closer look.
When you look at buying a modern tabletop game, you will have a rough idea as to how much you think it is worth – or you will have some sort of budget in your head that you want to stick to, and which guides you to the sort of games that you think you can afford. Your price expectations will be based on things such as the quantity and quality of the components, replayability and probably also rarity or hotness of a game. Yet, the amount of money you’re willing to put on the counter doesn’t always match the real cost or value of a game and is either too much or too little in comparison.