Theorycrafting LVL 0: What’s in a game?

I want to build a board game. These blog posts chronicle my process of learning, designing, and playtesting along the way.

Why should I read this?

Today I’m going to review the sources of content I’ve found to help me learn more about board game design. If you’re interested in broadening your pipeline of content, these will be good recommendations to dive deeper on. If you’re not looking to read more, I’ll provide terser summaries for you to get the concepts without investing the time or money.

I’ll also share a rough sketch of what the board game design process seems to be, based on my preliminary research.

Building a content pipeline

Right. So a review of content needs… content. This is always one of my favorite-most-frustrating parts of starting to learn something new. Who the hell are my credible sources? Where do I even begin?

I solved this problem like any self respecting person: trolling through Reddit while on the toilet.

Reddit. You’re #1 source of hard-hitting, intellectual content.

A quick Google for “Reddit best board game podcasts” found me a wonderful list of podcasts on /r/boardgames.

I narrowed down the list to anything that was mentioned more than a few times and didn’t have a dumb logo. Pretty rigorous, right? Here’s what made the cut:

I find the best way to immerse myself in a new area is just to find one or two quality sources. Then I read those sources obsessively, taking note of all the offhand comments they make to people they follow, books they read, etc. Slowly my network broadens and becomes more comprehensive.

You know. Like a disease.

So far, I’ve only listened to Ludology. It’s fantastic. The episodes I listened to:

  • Tips and tricks for early design and prototyping
  • How asymmetrical player positions affect a game
  • An analysis of Terraforming Mars

The asymmetry and Terraforming Mars episodes were so interesting that I’ll write a whole post just on my thoughts from each one. The design and prototyping episode dovetailed nicely with my deeper analysis below, so I’ll include it there.

I also found TableTop, where Wil Wheaton plays board games with famous friends. This is mostly just fun to watch, but it does expose me to more games.

Finally, I bought a copy of Rules of Play, which came up in every list of “must read books on game design”.

Rules of Play

When I got Rules of Play, I was encouraged. It’s a textbook. This fit nicely with my initial premise that I just needed to learn a bunch of fundamental concepts and fill in the blanks of my knowledge. Then making a game would be just like any other engineering problem. I patted myself on the back for how well this was going.

Then I read the first chapter of Rules of Play.

Everything is going to be OK. I think.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of concrete, fundamental concepts to learn. But the first chapter was an exploration of meaning and how it applies to games. The word semiotics was used a lot. Shit got real philosophical.

It was a very interesting read, but after putting a tentative toe into the waters of the board game world, I’ve gotten the overwhelming sense that game design is much more art than science. No one really knows what they’re doing. They just know when things are going wrong and how to move towards something better.

I walked away from my first reading session of Rules of Play with 3 big takeaways. I’ll tie them all together once I explain what they are.

1. Games are a lens

Being my usual, hyper-analytical self, I was excited to write down a definition for “what is a game”. But Rules of Play made a good case that I’m an idiot. They made a comparison to poetry that, after failing 3 times to write a non-garbage summary of the argument, I’m just going to quote here:

It would be strange for us to say, for example, that poetry is storytelling. Although storytelling is one way of understanding poetry, it is just one of many possible perspectives. We could also explore poetry formally, within the context of rhyme and meter, or historically, with an emphasis on printing technologies. Each of these perspectives offers a valid way of looking at poetry — yet utilizing just one of them gives access to only part of the total picture. On the other hand, these frames, and many others, considered together begin to sketch out the heterogeneous and multifaceted cultural phenomena called poetry.
Like I said — shit got philosophical.

The point they’re making is that trying to pin down what a game is will only limit your ability to understand games. It’s more useful to think of games as a series of traits and themes that mostly add up to something coherent. Just don’t try to think about it too hard.

There are many ways to think about games and there are many ways to apply game design to problems in the world. Letting yourself switch between frames fluidly, and not trying too hard to grasp the concepts concretely in your head all at once, will — ironically — give you more mastery over the medium.

2. Prototype all the things

In addition to reading, I also got coffee with my coworker Daniel, who minored in game design. The one thing Daniel repeated again and again was “just make something”. No matter how much I learned, I would never be able to anticipate what’s actually fun. I need to get something in front of people and then start tweaking.

In short, game design is not like architecture where you carefully design a structure from a set of requirements and first principles. It’s more like writing, where you vomit a horrible rough draft onto paper and then go about editing that draft into something that people can’t tell was once vomit.

Practically Hemingway.

Launch and iterate is already the Silicon Valley way, so this point stands well on its own I think. What really surprised me was just how aggressively you’re supposed to prototype. Rules of Play had a concrete rule of thumb:

A game prototype should be created and playtested, at the absolute latest, 20 percent of the way into a project schedule.

So prototyping doesn’t mean “once you’ve got a pretty solid idea, test it out”. It means “the minute you’ve got anything, try playing it.”

The guys from Ludology had a similar approach. They try to get a prototype ready within a month of coming up with an idea for a year-and-a-half long project.

3. Meaningful Play

Rules of Play develops the concept of meaningful play to explain when a game is good. In just a few days of research, I’ve already heard two different sources casually reference meaningful play, so I get the feeling it’s an industry term now.

Rules of Play suggests that one way to look at a player interacting with a game — a lens, one might say — is as a series of choices and then consequences for those choices. To identify points that could be improved in your game, enumerate the choices that a player makes and then try to quantify how meaningful each choice is.

A choice is meaningful if it meets two criteria:

  • It’s easy to discern what the result of the choice is. You can tell what impact your choice had on the world.
  • The result of the choice is integrated into the rest of the game. Your choice has impact on later things, like future options or your chance of winning.

To improve a certain aspect of your game, you can try to make a choice have more immediate, clear feedback. Or you can try to increase the impact that a choice has on the rest of the game.

The Takeaway

If you want more casually consumable content on board games and game design, listen to Ludology and watch Tabletop on YouTube. If you want some serious academic rigor, buy Rules of Play.

All the concepts above have started to give me a rough sense of what designing a game will look like:

  • Brainstorm some ideas
  • Pick the most compelling one
  • Flesh it out just enough to make some kind of prototype
  • Shove that prototype in people’s faces
  • Break the game down into all the choices that are being made
  • Try to get a sense for what choices are meaningful or not
  • Look at choices from different angles, finding ways to increase the meaningfulness of choices
  • Repeat

I feel like this has given me a much firmer footing on how to move forward. I’ve got the beginnings of a pipeline for thoughtful content that I can use to grow my general understanding. And I’ve got a better picture of how game design should look.

And apparently now I need to make a prototype.