Somewhat lengthy post about lessons on creating a board game

I’ve been working on a card game for about two years now. Here’s some pointers for those who seek to develop a physical board (or card) game.

One gotta learn much about game mechanics
I think it’s natural for board games to be somewhat less immersive than video games. In video games, you can actually create a game around a simple mechanics, and let player be immersed by the story and visuals. You can have simple mechanics too in board games, but telling a story is slightly more difficult. It can happen, but most of the games I play I can “see” what’s going on better, and can focus more on the mechanics.

This point is hard to explain, but let’s put it this way:

If you do a shooter (FPS), you pretty much have game mechanics designed for you. The real job is doing art, weapons, storyline… everything related to other stuff than mechanics.

If you do a “shooter” board game, it’s totally different. You gotta start ponder how much strategy will be involved, how the game is won, whether to use dice or not, all sorts of stuff that goes into having an enjoyable gaming.

With board games, you gotta have a solid mechanism there, and you have to really understand what makes it fun.

Design for co-op experience is a pretty good idea, but has flaws too
My game evolved to be for 1-4 players. It can be played either cooperatively or competitively. Main portion of testing has been me alone, only some with groups of 3-4 people. It’s difficult to design competitive system for more than 1, since you are the only one testing it.

If you make sure there’s cooperative mode where 1 player can play the game, then it’s easier to scale to 4.

But scaling doesn’t happen automatically. In my game, I barely could beat 1 player game, but when playing with 4 we easily beated it in one version. Later, I have added rules that balance the game better.

…but if doing cooperative, why do board game at all?
The flaw with “designing for 1 player experience too” is that, then you start asking yourself: “why do this as physical board game? why not do digital video game instead?”

That’s a damn good question. Main reason for me for doing a board game were these:

  • It’s my dream to make a card game and see it in stores.
  • Physical card games have better UI than for example ios card games. There’s something great about being able to touch and move cards.
  • 4 player multiplayer around real people in real world is just differently fun experience that computer games cannot ever reach. Occasionally, it’s fun to see real people… and play with them around the same table

Nevertheless, one should still consider whether to do physical board games or not. There are same drawbacks that I’ll list in the next point.

Drawbacks of doing physical games
Unless you are skilled with papernotes, pencil and scissors and can live with these… at some point you want to have cooler looking art, real cards and such stuff to test with. To me, it made a huge difference to actually have proper cards with game art in there. And this leads to following cons:

  • You would do good to invest in a good laser printer. I was consider this several times, but decided to simply use card making service instead. Anyways, a good laser printer is needed.
  • If you need other than cards, well, take them from other board games you have or buy some plastic soldier toys or anything from stores. My game is cards only, much for this reason.
  • Shipping takes time. I use Artscow (multi purpose cards rectangle to be exact) for my cards. Their card quality has increased during the 2 years and they always have some sort of “free shipping” or similar coupons available. Remember to have some sort of “bleed” there too.
  • Getting assets in game takes time. I created a “text to art” software that bakes text files and image files together and makes nice stuff that I can use in games. If you are interested about this, you can try pester me via email. It requires bit of manual work but has certainly helped me a lot.
  • Playtesting takes time: this was perhaps the most unexpected thing for me. I have a gaming group, but also 2 kids… so group playtesting sessions can have weeks of gaps.

So, creating a card game isn’t necessarily “a simpler thing” than what I first thought when I started making this game!

What took most of my time
Two things:

  • Game mechanics
  • Balancing

These two things by far have taken my time. It took me time to get mechanics “right”. Now I know they are good and work, and the last months have been about balancing. There has been cards that are way too powerful, and therefore needed tweaking.

One of the biggest positive lessons has been…
The fact that my game mechanics understanding has been improved. I pay much more attention to “core” of the games and how they work. I have needed to dive into the “fun” and really try understand it better. I think all video game developers would do good to design one card game, for the sake of learning more about game mechanics and how they contribute to fun gaming.

Some recommended reading
Here’s stuff I found handy:

There’s plenty of more, but these would be fine starting points.

What’s next?
I’ll polish my game, do final testing, have small self-pulish print run (like 50 copies via the Game Crafter to cater to those who want – but not more, in order not to scary any publishers away) and then knock on publisher doors.

Juuso Hietalahti