Board Game Design

I’m currently on vacation, sitting on a small laptop in a cabin in Michigan. Laptops are a new and controversial addition to the cabin and when I think back to my summers here without electronics, they always included three major activities: swimming, reading, and playing board games. I could also include sunburns, but if I start down that tangent, the list would get somewhat ridiculous. It was here that I learned spades, hearts and poker, which eventually led to summers with my┬ácousins Patrick and Sarah┬áplaying warhammer, magic, and any new board game we could bring to each other.

Now I’m lucky enough to consider myself a new board game designer, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with some very talented board game designers. I would include in that list our teachers Jay Cormier, Graeme Jahns, and Pietro Esposti (a classmate who I know will make an amazing board game someday, probably many). I thought I would give some advice gleaned from the many mistakes I’ve made to those students who are starting board games this term. I hope you might find it useful. Here are some guidelines I’m trying to follow now:


1. LISTEN to your collaborators. Even if you are building a game on your own, you are collaborating with your playtesters. Very often the same problems remain in a game since the conception simply due to a lack of listening. Look for people who are interested in what your doing, or who have relevant experience and listen to them.

2. ITERATE your rules, your game, and your assumptions. Consider each choice you’ve made in designing the game from the theme to the turn order and try changing it for a few playtests. You may end up going back to the way things were, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of why they came out that way.

3. STAY GRATEFUL to me this is part of having fun while making the game. Just look around at all the people who are willing to talk to you about game design, take their time to play your game, or read your rules. None of them has to give you the gift of their attention and it’s really incredible when you consider it.

4. PLAT-TEST in every way you can think, with lots of different people, and lots of different settings. Think about the best ways to test your game (ie in a coffee shop, in a car, or in a basement) and get people testing there. Look for unconventional audiences for your game and watch the playtesters. If they are your friends, they might be nice and tell you they like the game, but watch and see how engaged they are and ask yourself why.

5. PROTOTYPE NOW! Yes right now. Stop reading this and go prototype something. And get people to play it! Even if your board game ends up completely different, you’ll at least have put some thought into the design.

Good luck! And to Patrick and Sarah, you better get ready because next summer we’re making a game together in Michigan!

Eric “Shad” Miller is a TA and VFS Game Design Alumni