How do you make board games?
March 1, 2013 9:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm in this game design class at college and I can't wrap my brain around it! Curious to hear about different peoples' processes, both mental and mechanical, when it comes to making games.

here's the backstory:
I'm in a game design class @ UCLA where we make physical board games with an emphasis on visuals and interesting rules. Our teacher is really into making deep, intellectual games - which is cool, but I haven't been able to get a game that is even playable. The upside is that I don't have to make a traditional board game, and in fact some students have made games which aren't even table-top games. They just have to be physical, not digital.

We have three projects for the class, but I didn't get anything finished for the last one because I spent too long trying to come up with an idea. Now we're on the final project, which is to make a "polemical game" - a game that conveys an opinion, such as "contemporary electronic music is conventional and simplistic" (that was one of my classmates' ideas).

So I really have to get something turned in for this assignment. I can't seem to get into the thick of the process. Instead I get stuck in the preliminary stages - that's what happened with the last project, and I don't want to get stuck there again. But I need to have some idea of what the GOALS and the MECHANICS are before I start making something...I've tried to just jump right in to fabrication but that has produced dubious results. Problem is, I can't seem to think of goals and mechanics that excite me about the project (or express a point).

My background is in drawing, I suck at math, and the idea of balancing a bunch of logic-heavy mechanics sounds tedious and beyond the scope of my abilities.

Also, I read the first 200 or so pages of the Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell, which was awesome, and gave me a broader perspective, but still left me stumped when it comes to actually moving forward with the creative process. For the last project I made like twenty pages of notes and possibilities, but there was nothing even remotely ready to mock up.
posted by Griffinlb to Education (18 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I read a YA book as a teenager called "The Girl Who Invented Romance" that featured a girl designing a board game (about guess what). It did talk in great detail about how she evolved the nature of her game. Dunno if you'd have time to wait around for an order off Amazon, but I liked it. She kind of did different drafts of the game here and there.

I've just altered boards along the lines of Monopoly myself, but for awhile I was brainstorming about a board game about being a hippie. I mentioned this to hippie friends and got a bunch of different answers as to how they would do the game--like one person was all for the game having goals, another was all like, it's blasphemous for hippies to have goals and be competing...It was a fun conversation.

Beyond that, I think that your having to come up with a "polemical game" makes it sound like no fun whatsoever. Who the hell is going to have good ideas when you're designing a game to drum some point into someone's head like a dropping anvil?

How deadly serious/intellectual does your game have to be? I mean, could you design "Love Stinks: The Board Game" and get away with it, or does it have to be no fun?

The most serious board games I can think of are Settlers of Catan and Pandemic--maybe if you have to argue a point, those might give you some ideas as to how to do a serious game.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:06 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I was doing this project, I'd break it down into the relevant steps:

1. Figure out my point. Let's say I wanted to use the one your classmate picked: contemporary electronic music is conventional and simplistic.

2. Define the goal that's relevant to that point. Have the players complete the game by creating a piece of electronic music out of simple components.

3. Define the mechanics. Distill contemporary electronic music into several components (perhaps a set of different bass patterns, a set of melodies, a set of percussion, etc. -- I don't listen to contemporary electronic music, but you get the idea). Have these components represented by cards or tokens. Figure out a way for players to collect these cards or tokens. Reward different combinations in some way.

4. Point made: Creating a piece of contemporary electronic music is assembling pre-made things into a defined order, requiring a mechanical devotion to assembly, but not so much creativity. Or something.

5. Create the game (if this is part of the requirement).

You might also be interested in this list of game mechanics I've had bookmarked for a while.
posted by brentajones at 10:15 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's hard to answer because there are a lot of approaches and what works for different people is different.

One approach might be "My favourite game is X. So I understand it's mechanics, and some of them I love, and some of them I don't. So I'm going to start with a mechanic I love from a game I love, throw out the game, and grow that into its own game, expanding and modifying it and supporting it with other mechanics, with this process guided by a theme I have in mind that I love"

Another might be starting with the theme, the polemic point you want to make, find a compelling argument for that point, figure out ways to explain and demonstrate that argument to someone who doesn't understand it, then that "guided path to enlightenment" that you've just worked out is the experience you want the game to give, and the mechanics to demonstrate, so then you start thinking about mechanics.

It's useful to get in the habit of heavily abstracting things - and unabstracting things back into something else entirely. Using story or background to make mechanisms make sense to players, or extracting mechanisms out of their context and re-purposing them in completely different ways.

Let's say the point you want to make is that a country is better off with universal healthcare. There are lots of strong arguments. The profit-motive giving perverse incentives is just one, but "profit" and "incentives" sounds likely to be an easy fit for game mechanics. So you might ponder a game where the players control healthcare organisations, and whoever makes the most money wins, but you make it so the mechanisms for making money are pretty clearly detrimental to the society (eg you lose points every turn for providing healthcare, but if you lower your losses (the amount of healthcare you provide) by investing in preventative care, while your opponent invests a little in preventative care but ALSO in making it harder for claims to get paid, you will lose because you offered society a better deal.
Once you have a simple high-level conceptual plan like that, then you can go in and start fleshing things out and trying to figure out the shape of those mechanics, the turn structure, etc, while at the same time bearing in mind whether following those rules seems like a fun game or a chore on par with doing taxes :-)

But even then - maybe in a polemic game, if it's not being evaluated in terms of things like fun or marketability, that thing we were just avoiding can be your mechanism - following the rules is a CHORE, a chore is a horrible boring thing, and a horrible boring thing is a disincentive, and a disincentive is a possible GAME MECHANIC. (this is an example of what meant by constantly abstracting and unabstracting things) So... maybe a game where following the rules to the letter is an absolute chore but shortcuts are available, and the point of the game is to show something something red tape bad?
posted by anonymisc at 10:52 PM on March 1, 2013

To expand, when thinking of an argument for the polemic, don't think in terms of saying to someone "therefore it follows from that, that this thing must be", think in terms of showing to someone "now let's pretend this tray of cupcakes is people, and this bag of chocolate chips is the influenza virus... if you were to scatter a handful of chocolate chips..."

Think in terms of visual things, physical things, manipulating things, to make your point.
Think about teachers you've had who had a knack for explaining things in cool ways.
posted by anonymisc at 11:03 PM on March 1, 2013

When I did this in real life, it was based on a throw away comment I made, "How funny would it be to create a board game that..."

What do you find absurd?

I find reality stars and how they make their money absurd (nite club and product promotions , alliances with other reality stars, book deaks, tv appearances, papparazzi "planned" scandals, etc., etc..) I could EASILY do a game on that. My game was about politics and legislation on the federal level, which is equally absurd.

You're welcome.
posted by jbenben at 1:05 AM on March 2, 2013

Polemical games aren't always particularly original in terms of game play. You could make the point about dance music, for example, by making a dead standard business simulation game where you're running a record label and construct songs out of interchangeable parts and trade them in for cash.

Try going through your board game collection and seeing which of your games could be used as a metaphor for something, especially games which involve money and trading.
posted by empath at 2:34 AM on March 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a real 'no win' situation (ha)...why dont you make it about that? 'You can't win!' Roll dice to move forward, every square has you pick a card or move back to a space where you have to pick a card...all the cards have hilarious no-win situations., um.."you win a trip to Venice! Unfortunately, due to global warming it's all under water and all your shoes get ruined...go back 3 spaces." The only math balancing you'd have to do is to make the (enticing) end space unattainable. Play continues until all players draw death cards...or one player draws a plague card or etc...
posted by sexyrobot at 6:29 AM on March 2, 2013

Could your polemical opinion be "designing games is difficult"? Create a game about creating a game. Call it metapoly.
posted by Conductor71 at 7:11 AM on March 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I recently played a polemic anarchist board game. It was next to impossible to win alone - only through cooperation would any of the players have a chance at not getting executed or going to prison.

Point made. It was also lots of fun. Memail me if you want more information about the game itself. The designer lives in Barcelona, so I'd have to ask around on your behalf.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:14 AM on March 2, 2013

Don't overwhelm yourself by trying to come up with an entirely new game out of nowhere. Start with a simple game you already understand, can be a kids game like Game of Life, Frustration!, Hungry Hippos, or Mousetrap. Now think of a way to adapt that to your theme, changing the props, the tokens etc. the more you try and shoehorn the existing game into your theme, the more you will need to brainstorm adaptations because it won't fit, and the game will naturally diverge from your starting point. Keep re-evaluating, is this fun? Play through the game and change it to make it fun.
posted by Joh at 8:20 AM on March 2, 2013

What are your favorite games to play? It seems like their mechanics would be a better starting point than trying to invent something just out of thin air.

the idea of balancing a bunch of logic-heavy mechanics sounds tedious and beyond the scope of my abilities.

Well, from what I've read of successful game design processes (e.g. dominion, settlers of catan), once the core mechanics are remotely plausible, balancing is a matter of massive amounts of playing/playtesting rather than doing math.
posted by advil at 8:24 AM on March 2, 2013

I really simple and fun formula, is a semi-coop game. Each player wants different things, but if they don't work together enough the game ends with them all losing. Ramp this up by having all players want drastically different and mutually exclusive things (maybe only one player can score points in any given round, or there is a snowball mechanic that everyone wants to prevent, or whenever one player gains points another loses them). Then just add in a veto mechanic, so the players cannot meaningfully work towards the goal without everybody on board.

Then all you have to do is theme it. A modern political theme jumps to mind immediately, but there are other fun alternatives. Maybe a meteor will hit earth in 12 turns unless the player build and populate a spaceship, but whoever has the majority on the spaceship gets to be in charge of the new society. Watch people back-stab until humanity goes extinct.
posted by Garm at 8:28 AM on March 2, 2013

I would start with an opinion or position that had enough arguments in favor of it fleshed out that I could mine them for material, an opinion where the barrier to acceptance is momentum, ignorance, taboos, misinformation, or cognitive biases. Things like climate change or gender equality, though you''re probably after something less obvious.

So, take "People should use insects as a food source" as an example. There are arguments in favor of doing this, but people dismiss those arguments for reasons that aren't rational. But I can get them to consider those arguments and think about the data backing those arguments by making it advantageous for them to do so within the game. So, maybe part of the game is a memory game where they have a bunch of cards with insects on one side and the percentage of protein they have on the other, and players have 10 seconds to memorize 6 of them, or something. So they're now having thoughts about insects and nutrition that they otherwise wouldn't. Or maybe I give an example of a food from another culture with a description of what it tastes like, and people have to guess what insect is in it, to impress upon players that people already use insects as food, and to confront the taboo about it by making them think about the taste.
posted by alphanerd at 10:06 AM on March 2, 2013

I made a board game that used Chutes and Ladders as the inspiration but it was about the reality of being unemployed. It took me three years to find a full time gig after I was laid off in 2001, and my art group took on the concept of work for a show we did, so this was me processing that extremely difficult experience.

My game used all the mechanics of C&L but was designed to bring out the huge frustration of being unemployed. The board was designed like a calendar (because you get UI week by week) and every ladder, although of varying lengths on the board, only ever took you one box ahead. Every chute took you between 1-5 spaces backwards.

I had a designer friend design the layout for me, and we printed it on large sheets of sticky paper that I then laid out on foamcore. We used binder tape on the top edge to reinforce the calendar look of it. I used copies of my actual UI checks (with all sensitive info blacked out, of course) as cards that provided context for moving back and forth on the board. The game pieces were little toys I found at Uncle Fun in Chicago, and I made one die to use in the game that had a one on all six sides, to reinforce the feeling I had during that time of my life of really not being able to get ahead of the game.

It was a really cathartic experience and one of my favorite projects. Perhaps if you find a similarly personal experience to use as the basis, you can save a little on therapy AND fulfill the requirements of your class? :) Good luck.
posted by deliciae at 10:19 AM on March 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're more into visuals and less into mechanics, then borrow someone else's mechanics, and add a twist -- maybe a social one. For example, maybe the game about electronic music is just gin rummy but the rules change based on the song that's playing (Krautrock mode!)

For a polemic, you don't even need to be particularly witty or snarky, you can just inhabit the same universe as the subject of your polemic. For example, Twilight Struggle is about the Cold War but follows the same twisted logic as its architects, which is all the commentary it needs.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:22 AM on March 2, 2013

Hey, what if you made a gender identity board game?
posted by oceanjesse at 11:20 AM on March 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're going to love Daniel Solis! Like you, he comes from an art rather than math or science background. He writes amazingly well about how to design games, including why certain mechanics work and don't work. His games are totally not the kind of games I play, but I still read him religiously.
posted by novalis_dt at 1:02 PM on March 2, 2013

I'm going to recommend that you ignore the polemical part and just figure out an interesting game mechanic, commit to it, and add the theme on top. It'd be much worse to hand in only a theme than if you hand in a board game like Apples to Apples with some vague statement about social bonding.

As for math and mechanics: you do not need to be good at math to design good board games. You do not need overly complicated rules. I recommend looking at games that focus on visuals and/or social interactions, and not at games that try to balance win-loss conditions or trading resources. Here's some great examples: Once Upon A Time (telling stories in a group with a set of cards), Werewolf/Mafia (getting the group to lynch each other and identify secret traitors), Apples-to-Apples, or even Pictionary.

If you are really at a loss for ideas, then do this: pick a race or competition in the real world and make a game about the conflict (all games are about conflict - if there's no conflict, there's unlikely to be a game). Cheerleaders sabotaging the competition. Marathon runners. Reality tv game show contestants voting each other off. Hotdog eating competitions. Climbing Mt. Everest (which could be a cool coop game where the goal is to get everyone up and down the mountain alive). Competing food trucks. Competing job applicants for the same position.

All you need to do is pick something and go with it. You can really make a game about anything. There's usually a point - like in all creative projects - where the really cool idea you had comes up against the reality of how much work you need to do, and it loses it's luster. It's easy to throw it aside and start over on something new. Don't do this.

To figure out the mechanics, start with what the player wants (win condition), and one thing a player can do in the game to get them closer to that. Then add one thing a player can do to set other players back. That's your bare-bones game. Then figure out if the best way to represent these is with cards or a board, whether you want dice or chance cards or player tokens to move around a location.

So, pick the inspiration. Then pick the goal or win condition. Then figure out two mechanics. Then figure out what the board game might look like.

Also, I'd like to point out that your game is probably going to be awful. Everyone's usually is. You're a student. Use your time to explore something and fail, safely with lots of feedback. Please don't get hung up on whether your game is any good or balanced.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 5:32 PM on March 2, 2013

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