Tabletop Game Design Lessons from Playing with Family over Christmas

Hey everybody (yes you, 1 of 3 fans!) I’m back after a lovely Christmas and New Years break and I’m basically gunna just give you a TL;DR for this whole post right now. Board Games with family are great, but also difficult, and the choice you make really makes or breaks the flow of the day.

Put simply, this is a post to help designers, aspiring designers, and those with just a tiny interest in tabletop game design, to make their games easier and quicker to understand, and will ultimately lead to your players having more fun and a generally better time. By following a simple set of rules not only will the right people find your games and play them, but also those people will be interacting and enjoying something that is familiar, makes sense, is straightforward to understand and that they will want to play again and again. Who wouldn’t want that for their game design!

1. Keep the rules Simple and succinct

This is the number one golden rule people. There is a really easy benchmark for this as well, it just needs to be easier to understand when players read the rules to each other, than having a player attempt to explain it because they are scared the rules might seem complicated. Use visual cues, and colour, and very clear and concise language that actually describes the act of doing things within the game.

And for the love of all that is holy please start your rules off with the actual aim of the game. The aim of the game, or in other words; how to win it, literally gives context to everything that is contained in the rulebook.

Aside from that though there are loads of really cool and super fun (for copywriters maybe) ways to create clarity and present information effectively. Things like: use positive confirmation and affirmation rather than negative (say ‘move into these spaces’ rather than ‘don’t move into these spaces’), use repeated and obvious terminology that easily describes sets of actions or behaviours, and generally describing things individually instead of trying to explain broad concepts or large sets of rules at once.

Also remember, this isn’t a novel, so try to keep the paragraphs nice and short, this is especially useful for when your grandparents (or anyone really, people forget things) put on their reading glasses to read it after asking for the 50th time for you to explain it to them. Serves you right for breaking out the heavyweight Euro at the in-laws for Christmas though really…

2. Know your target audience

So, you’ve made your rules nice and simple, good? Not good! (Actually this is just my bad for not putting this point before the last one.)

Thing is, you have to cater your rules, your diagrams, and even your tone of voice to suit your target audience. You know when your relatives come over for christmas and you talk a little louder to Grandma to make sure that she can understand what you’re saying. Not in a condescending way though, just because the human body naturally deteriorates over time (true story folks.) That’s why you have to cater to your audience.

Don’t feel like you have to accept your audience and stick with that though, allow the development of your game to tell you what your target audience. Like when you started school and they do a little sports test to see which students are good at what sports, same thing (except less degrading for children.) If you can figure out first who you are writing for, and then write for them, you’ll be doing a lot better than a lot of rulebooks out there.

3. Do not assume things are self explanatory

Clarify everything. Even with a terminology glossary if you have to. The aim here is to remove any ambiguity at all. Don’t allow interpretation if a rule needs to be clear cut, and specifically state it if interpretation of the rule is allowed. Remember, the rules should explain the game better than someone simply explaining it because the rulebook is confusing.

Unfortunately, writing a made up or ambiguous word like ‘philangey’, or ‘combobulation’ is just not gunna cut it. Use words that people understand without having to look them up, and if you can’t, then explain what those words mean without breaking the flow of the reader.

I know, I know, it’s like I’m just giving you a list of things to do without explaining exactly how to do them, like some kind of proof-reading tabletop fascist over here, but so much of this stuff is subjective. So I kind of can’t explain how to do them. Or I can and I just can’t be bothered.

4. Playtest like a mother…

Like a literal mother. Not that other word that starts with mother and ends in something rude and maybe beginning with the letter F. If you test like your actual mother, then who knows what untold problems and issues you could uncover in your board game rulebook.

I mean this really depends on the type of mother you have, but for the purposes of this I’m assuming they like wine at Christmas, and also don’t have a lot of time for things that are unnecessarily confusing and take a long time. Especially not things that would require someone to think or learn. I do love my mother though, honest. I just wouldn’t play Yamatai with her…

Testing is the crux of good game design though. Blind play testing is even better. It’s incredible how much you can learn about literally every aspect of your game from just simply watching people play it. Like a creepy little board game gremlin, watching from the corner whilst people play with your precious… ok no, that sounds weird. Blind playlets, but don’t go full gremlin ok. Probably for the best that.

5. Players should never feel completely out of the game

One of the actual banes of my life. Ok, maybe that’s actually the most middle class thing I could have ever said. An issue with board games is the bane of my life, what a life eh. I’ll stop now.

This is the reason Monopoly sucks so bad though, and this is the reason why a lot of newer style board games are so good! No player ever feels completely out of the game, and if they do, then there are other incentives for them to work towards! Didn’t win guys, but I did complete the longest road. In your face road builders of this weird hexagonal island. Never thought I’d live somewhere so geometrically sensitive. Or build roads for that matter. Oh, life with your twists and turns. Just like that road I just built, who’d have known.

6. Actually scrap all of those, just always focus on clarity and unambiguousness

Unambiguity? Disambiguity? I have no idea which one it is, but you get what I’m trying to say right? Of course you do! Otherwise why would you be here! A pity read? Oh. Fair enough, I’ll take it!

Basically this whole thing just boils down to one thing. Keeping it simple.

Oh and being concise, so two things. Oh and also making sure you are aware of your target audience, and always playlets. So four things. Oh, and making sure people are always able to stay in the game.

Five things.

Should have just stuck with the 5 points I guess.

Yours playtestingly,

Chris

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