Boardgame Design (Graphically, Of Course)

pic112126_md.jpgWith Origins out of the way, and none of us going to Comic-Con, we can get back to actually playing games and blogging. Of course, silly things like life are taking their toll on those two pursuits, but hopefully soon we’ll be back up and running at full force.

One of those silly distractions has been my last few undergrad classes, which is now complete. For one of my final assignments, I had to give an informative speech. Of course, I picked something about games. So summarized here is my talk on Functional Design in Boardgames.

First, why should you care about the design of your game? You want nothing to distract from the actual play of the game. The more frustrated people are with having to overcome the design to understand what’s going on, the less they’ll enjoy it no matter how good your game is. The goal is to give your players as little as possible to think about it terms of non-play related tasks so they can focus all their mental energy on making decisions in the game. This is not just for game publishers: when you design a prototype for playtesting or making a prototype to give to a publisher, you don’t want either audience to reject playing because of graphical gaffe.

There are three important areas to focus on: card design, board/piece design, and rule design. Here are some basic tips of each.

Cards held in a player’s hand should be fannable, since that’s how people will naturally hold the cards. Fannable means you can hold the cards in your hand to see what the card is without having to look at the entire card to see what it does. The information should be in the top left corner (as that’s how most people naturally fan cards- both right-handers and left). It should also be reversible, so that even if you are holding a card upside-down, you can still read the top-left corner. Playing cards have really perfected this, and should be emulated when possible. Changing this standard to meet some artistic goal of “looking different” is a BAD IDEA. (Also remember that when your cards have numbers on them to make sure that you can tell the difference between a 6 and a 9. Many companies will put a small underline or “.”)

Card backs should reflect their purpose in the game. If a game has card backs all the same, many people will assume that you shuffle the deck together. So, if you have a game where each player has a hand of cards specifically given to them, make the card backs different. The same goes if you have a game where cards are being used for different purposes; if possible, use different card sizes to distinguish between them. And if you make an expansion for the game, make extra sure that the cards match the cards from the original. Don’t change what the card backs look like or the type of stock, because you almost certainly don’t want people able to tell the expansion cards apart from the base game cards.

On the subject of stock, make sure the stock you pick is smooth enough to be shuffled (if it is a game where you’ll be shuffling the cards) and thick enough so that it cannot be seen through. Giving the card backs solid art often helps with this.

Cards aren’t everything in most games. You’ll also have pieces and boards to deal with in many cases. One important aspect in both is the use of color. Players will often have to deal with colored pieces throughout an entire game, and poorly chosen colors can easily cause frustration and inadvertent cheating.

Make sure the colors are distinguishable. Bad examples abound of those games who chose some kind of alternate color scheme where the colors cannot be told apart easily. This may happen for thematic reasons or production cost, but it’s just not worth it. Stick to the primary colors you see in most games: not only have they been chosen specifically for distinguishability, but many people like to play the same color from game to game, and it causes extra confusion when they can’t.

Try to avoid having player colors match neutral piece colors or parts on the board if there is no connection between them intended. Also, when possible, back up your colors with some other distinguishing characteristic like textures. That helps emphasize the difference between them and allow the colorblind to play.

If the game has a scoring track, your goal is to make the use of it as seamless as possible. Even if you’re good at adding, counting spaces on a score track takes away valuable time from playing that adds up over the course of the game. Number EVERY square on the track, and if possible, highlight every fifth square to make it easier to count. Make sure that the score track is long enough to accommodate reasonable scores in the game. If you have to wrap around the track more than once, it’s too small.

Finally, there’s rules design. Having good cards, pieces, and boards is no good if they can’t learn how to play. Rule design (and any kind of instructional writing) has tons of rules and studies for it. I’m only going to cover some basic tips, but rest assured, there’s no limit to how much education you can receive on this topic (and is going to be a focus in my Master’s degree program.)

The most important guideline of rules design is to be a simple as possible while being perfectly clear. Bloating the rules out with asides, exceptions, and talk just detracts from learning. Keep the rules themselves to a minimum word count while not being ambiguous. Try to use bolding, bullet points, and caps to separate out complicated instructions and important terms.

Use examples when appropriate. While sometimes they are confusing and detract from the flow, usually the rule is the more examples the better. Alea’s line does a great job of this by putting examples of rules in a consistent sidebar, so if you are confused about a rule you can look to the side and usually find a piece of help. Along with that, consider using player reference cards to minimize having to dig through a rulebook.

There are many, many more things that can be considered. I highly recommend checking out these articles (that are my primary sources here) that delve into the topic more thoroughly:

Mario T. Lanza: Superior Functional Design
Shannon Applecine: The Problem with Colors and List of Do’s and Don’ts for Component Design
Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman: Rules of Play

And if you’re truly wanting punishment, you can watch a video of the speech I gave. Next week, I will be giving a similar speech at the Rhode Island School of Design as a paid lecturer (so probably no CT next week.)

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.