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

10 Old Board Games that Still Stand the Test of Time

Some things are better left in the past.

But then some things are better left not left in the past. If you get what I’m saying.

Ok, what I’m saying is some stuff should NEVER BE RELEGATED TO THE PAST IN THE FIRST PLACE. Like the following games for example.

These games are the stalwarts of the industry, those games that have stood the test of time, and not just because they love to create drama over something entirely luck based at your family Christmas (I’m looking at you monopoly…). But instead, they stand the test of time because they are just REALLY  REALLY genuinely good. Mechanically, thematically, other reason-ily, just totally good games.

Lets start with some more recently republished and updated classics…

1. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

Ohhhhh I do love this one.

So much so that I must mention it in about every other article I write on this site, it’s just that good!

This one started out life relatively recently (compared to some of the ancient games on this list) in the 1980s as a text based folio of mysteries, murders and character  dialogues. Now that might SOUND boring, but it actually won the Spiel des Jahres in 1985 it was so gosh darn good. And that was WAY before all these board game hipsters (myself unfortunately included) started getting involved.

And whilst you’re here why not give my actual real life review a read…

2. Survive! Escape from Atlantis

Sticking with the 80s theme are we. Yes.

Also: awww look at that adorable child sticking his nose up against the glass of a pod under some water in what appears to be definitely the actual city of Atlantis. Definitely not some flimsy, plastic, sugary Disney ride thats for sure…

I’ve distracted myself. Back to the article!

Survive is an example of a successful game, much like Sherlock, that has been reprinted time and time again over the last 30+ years.  It is a classic survival game, that actively encourages people to be mean to each other, which is brilliant, but in a way that doesn’t seem overly mean and aggressive, double brilliant!

Alongside that it’s also a wonderful game for people getting into the hobby of board games, and continues to have replay value despite being very very simple on the surface (something I would consider a positive).

3. Backgammon

Right, less of that 80s  ‘Stranger Things’ faux nostalgia muck and more of the GOOD ANCIENT super historical stuff, ok?

Ok!

Backgammon it is then.

I am a huuuuuuge fan of backgammon. And much like a lot of old timey abstract affairs it involves a geometric print playing surface and some round monochrome tokens as playing pieces.

Backgammon is great because it’s strategic, has a lot of replay value, has never needed to have different rules or mechanic changes added to make it more enjoyable, and actually has a fairly decent ability for the loosing player to come back late in the game and still win it.

4. Fury of Dracula

I want to suck your blood? More like I want to play your amazing but actually very very long hidden movement game. Nailed it.

Ok, YES we’ve come right back to the 80s again but don’t blame me! Blame the people who keep reprinting these clearly excellent games. I wish I had a game that would be reprinted and have its rules rewritten 3 or 4 times over the next 30 years. Pretty sure that counts as a win in the industry.

This game is the original modern hidden movement game (not sure there are any non-modern hidden movement games but I’m just gunna go out there and say there are JUST IN CASE someone fact checks this…), whereby one player assumes the role of Dracula, and in a bid to be really super vampirical and totally  badass, tries to evade capture for a specific number of turns.

This game can sometimes suffer from being TOO LONG, and if you’re not a fan of long games, but really want a hidden movement mechanic then go for  ‘Whitehall Mystery.’ Because that is also good.

For the original big daddy though, Fury of Dracula is where it’s AT.

5. Dungeons & Dragons

Ok, ok, choose some older games they said. Well, I’ll go one decade older but THATS ALL YOU’LL GET.

Well, maybe it’s not all you’ll get (see the rest of the article). But is IS where I’ll start.

The 70s! What a wondrous time of brown and orange coloured interior design, trousers with the foot holes cut a little bit to widely, and television sets being large cubes with bulbous screens that made a weird high pitched noise whenever you turned them on. A glorious age for sure.

Not only was the aesthetic glorious though, as was the tabletop gaming. 1974 was the year the now infamous Gary Guygax (and Dave Arneson) brought the legendary role playing system of Dungeons & Dragons into the world.

I mean, what more needs to be said really. This one goes from strength to strength. Hell, it was even a major plot point in one of the decades most watched television series.

6. Risk

70s not good enough eh?

Fine.

Lets go back 2 WHOLE DECADES MORE. To a time of very businessman friendly calculated risk. Or not so calculated risk as my plastic troops keep telling me. ‘Stop invading people without properly planning a milatary strategy’ they whine at me from the game board. Well, rather fight than be the boring guy who just sits back  and watches everyone else rip each other apart, only to come back strong at the end and suddenly invade everything whilst everyone else is looking, right? Nobody likes that guy.

Everybody likes Risk though. Well, maybe not EVERYBODY, but at least enough people to keep it in print, including tons and tons of licensed versions, for just about 50 years.

7. Chess

Oh, so you want to go OLDER STILL.

Well then how about some 6th Century gaming for you.

I honestly don’t really have much to say about this one. It’s Chess, and it’s bloody brilliant. Abstract strategy at it’s purest, this game will never get old, is incredibly deep whilst being incredibly simple, and will be played for generations and generations to come.

Everybody should own a Chess set. It should basically be a human right at this point.

8. Santorini

The original version of Santorini was conceived around 30 ish years ago, as far as I can tell from loose descriptions on the internet (don’t blame me I just can’t be bothered to fully read the kickstarter page).

Sure, it’s not the oldest, but what it lacks in age it makes up for in just, well… really really good gameplay.

Like a lot of the games on this list it is an abstract strategy affair for 2 players. Unlike a lot of the games on this list however it has a theme that really elevates it to the next level. As players you take control of greek gods looking to rule the city of Santorini (you know, the place in real life with those lovely blue domed roofs that you see on people’s holiday  instagram posts), and the first player to move their piece to the top level of a building wins the game.

Again, like so many on this list, it is deceptively simple, but incredibly deep, replayable and most of all just plain fun.

9. Go

NOW we’re getting into the REALLY RUDDY OLD stuff huh?

Yeah you know it, it’s Go!

Yes, the game that some super crazy smart guy just got beaten at by an even smarter and super machine learning-able AI that google has developed.

As far as games that stand the test of time go this one is the absolute KING. It is the most abstract of the abstract, the most strategic of the strategic, and it even has a built in difficulty modifier. So if you totally suck, you can play with a handicap!

I’ll be needing that I think…

10. Love Letter

Ah the last game of the list! Finally I can stop writing!

I mean, finally I can stop… providing you all with such valuable and  relevant information.

Nope, that’s still bad.

Moving on, the last game is a wonderfully simple game called Love Letter.  I’ll be honest here as well, this game actually isn’t old at all, and after researching more is really just a very excellent and quite new game.

It’ll definitely stand the test of time though. Actually, scrap that, this is my new number 10…

Actual 10. Mancala

Look! It’s so gosh darn simple you can play it in the gosh darn SAND ON THE BEACH.

Another monster old game, this one is good, but I’d probs choose one of the others to play if I’m honest.

Where Mancala shines, is in it’s sheer simplicity.

Actually, that’s where the majority of these games shine to be honest. Just design simple games people! Can’t be that hard right?

Yours historically,

Chris