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How to Design a Board Game

You play a lot of games. You love playing games. You probably eat, sleep, and breathe board games! Personally, I’d recommend balancing out your board game consumption with some Point Salad.

But even after playing so many games, you find that there’s a gaming itch that you need to scratch. You want to design your own board game! Where do you even begin?

Now, I’m going to preface all of this to say that I’m an aspiring amateur designer. This means that I don’t have any board games published and no designer accolades to back up my recommendations. However, there is a general creative process that can be followed and applied to a multitude of things, including board game design.

Top-Down or Bottom-Up Design

Alright, so this first point goes without saying, but you need to have an idea for your board game. There are two main ways that designers go about designing their game. You can either start with a top-down or bottom-up design. Mark Rosewater, who is the head designer for Magic: the Gathering, has some great comments about these two design methods, which you can read about here.

A top-down design is when you have an idea for the flavor or theme and want to build a game around that. For example, maybe you want to make a game about a pirate bakery called Pi-rates. This may lend itself towards the types of mechanics and gameplay involved in your design. Everything is built around and within this thematic shell.

Bottom-up design is essentially the opposite. You might have a novel mechanic in mind that you want to showcase. At the time, you’re not thinking about theme. It’s something that you will gradually develop as the mechanics are fleshed out and finalized. Abstract games like Azul and Sagrada are usually examples of bottom-up design.

When you first decide that you want to design a board game, you need to design how you’re going to approach it from one of these two perspectives. Or, perhaps, you’ll make your own hybrid method of both of these. Keep in mind that there’s no wrong way to eat design a board game.

Here are some questions that you can use that might help you decide where you want to begin:

  • Do you know what you want your game to be about?
  • What do you want your players to do during the game?
  • What kind of game do you want to design?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • What is your end goal for the game? Do you want to publish it, or is this just a personal project?

Write down all of your ideas! A key part of brainstorming that’s often quoted is, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad idea.’ Even an idea that doesn’t end up making the cut for your game can help lead you to something that does. Or, maybe it’ll find its way to another game that you create. The point is, you don’t want to forget anything that you think up.

Tapestry Board Game Review, end-game board showing conquered and explored tiles.
Games like Tapestry didn’t start out as a finished product; they went through countless design iterations.

Prototype It!

The next step is to put a prototype together. Now, a lot of people spend too much time in this step because they want their prototype to look good. They want all of the details finalized and everything named, etc. However, you need to see if the game works. Chances are very, very high that the game you start with is going to be drastically different than the final game that you end up with.

All you need are the basics to whip up a prototype. Don’t worry about whether your game board has the exact spacing that you’re looking for, or that your components aren’t the specific colors that you want. Just get your game into a playable state.

There are a ton of kits and spare board game components that you can use to help you get started. Again, you don’t need anything fancy. Different colors of generic meeples, cubes, spare playing cards, and cardstock can go a long way. There are some kits out there, like the White Box, that are nice little starter kits with components that will get the job done.

Alternatively, you can take components from other games you own. Just make sure that you know where they came from! If I ever upgrade game components with fancier metal coins or whatnot, I’ll keep those old cardboard chits to use in my game designing. And, if you want to go the cheapest route, you can just cut out pieces of paper and draw on them!

One component that’s been a huge hit for me are dry erase playing cards, like these ones. They make it really easy to make quick changes on the fly without having to cross stuff out or reprint cards. There are tons of creative ways you can make components as well, like cutting off sections of a wooden dowel or repurposing toy soldiers. Here are some basic components that you might want to consider having:

  • Meeples
  • Colored Cubes
  • Colored Dice
  • Playing Cards
  • Index Cards
  • Cardboard Chits (or cut down some dry-erase cards to create your own)
  • Markers
  • Pencils
  • Spare Card Sleeves
  • Plastic Counters
  • Paper

Alternatively, you can put together your game digitally on a platform like Tabletop Simulator. The nice thing about going that route is you can digitally save your various iterations of the game as you go along. The main negative is that there is a small learning curve with the software, and you can get lost in trying to make the game look good instead of being content with basic components.

Umbra Via
Some games, like Umbra Via, come with great components to repurpose for prototyping!

Playtesting Your Game

Once you have something that you can actually play, it’s time to playtest it! It’s usually good to playtest with yourself until you get something a little more concrete, because you’re going to find issues with it. That’s a given, and just a part of the process. Don’t get discouraged when you discover a game-breaking combo or a mechanic that flat-out doesn’t work.

Playtesting your board game is going to be where you spend the majority of your time. You’ll go back and forth between designing, playtesting, redesigning, and playtesting many times. Once you have a game that you feel is good or good enough at least, that’s when you start seeking out other players to help get you the feedback that you really need.

Start taking notes. Notes are so important because you can see your progress, and you can keep track of reactions the game. A lot of designers utilize surveys or forms with standardized questions so that the feedback from players is always in the same order and always answering the same questions. Don’t forget to leave a free-form space for players to leave their other comments as well.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of how to lead a playtest, as that process is quite extensive in and of itself. However, it’s important that you are able to accept feedback from people, both positive and negative. Sometimes the best feedback is what comes from the ‘negatives’; you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. And, as a designer, you are sometimes too deep into your project to see issues that fresh eyes might see.

Here are some additional questions you can use to frame your note-taking:

  • What parts of the game are the most fun?
  • What parts of the game don’t work as well?
  • Is the game balanced? Should it be?
  • What specifically doesn’t work about about the game?
  • How long did the playthrough take?
  • Is anything explicitly broken within the game?
  • Who did I play with? Did they have any specific thoughts?
  • Is the game fun?
  • What questions do I still have about the game?
  • What do I like about the game?
  • Do the mechanics match the theme?
  • Does the theme work?

Designing Your Board Game

Those are the basics to making a game! Design, prototype, and test. Don’t worry about grabbing ideas and mechanics from other games, either. Most games are a conglomeration, a re-imagining, or a mash-up of other games anyways. There are a ton of great resources for game design, which I’ll probably compile together for a future post.

At the end of the day, always keep your end-goal in mind. Designing a game just for yourself can be a lot different than trying to get your game published. However, as long as your game is fun and you enjoy it, that’s really all that matters.

I’ll probably have more to say and expand upon regarding board game design in the future, so stay tuned for future installments!