Sitting down to write out the rules of a game is one of the most daunting tasks a games designer will ever face. The thought process, methods, and interests of a designer, a writer, and a player are all very different. As designers we need to first understand the design of the game, become a great writer to express it, and think through as what information a player will need to understand and successfully play the game. As designers shifting into the role of a player is not all that hard, but becoming a writer is somewhat more challenging.
Advice for the next generation of designers
When I first became interested in board game design back in the late 80’s there was not much of an internet to search. My local library did not have any books on board game design and few people around me thought much about such things. This is not the case today, now a google search for board game design returns “About 40,000,000 results in (0.56 seconds)”.
Let me start out with a rant about how this is not a mechanic… no that won’t do, as I want you to actually listen to what I have to say on this point…. Humm, what if I said that I am a traitor to all game designers by thinking this is not a mechanic… no, that won’t do either… THIS IS NOT A BOARD GAME MECHANIC!!! (I am joking)
The traitor “mechanic” is actually just a simple variant of the variable player powers or player roles mechanic(s) designed to create an asymmetric player role whose purpose is to instigate conflict and add intrigue to the game. There I said it…
Action Points Allowance Systems
For many years games would only let players take the same action over and over each turn, in chess that action is to move one piece. Then games started letting players pick from a short list of actions but they still could only do one of those actions each turn. While things keep changing, many games still use the pick one from a list of actions mechanic, and for those games, it can (and often does) work well. Over the years designers have begun to introduce the idea that players could take several actions in the same turn, this has given players the ability to do more combinations and feel that they have more control over what was going on in the game.
Deciding how many actions the players get each turn and how other players should be able to react to this string of actions has also evolved over time. Some games let players do one action for each of their game pieces on the board, while others limit the player’s total actions per turn to a set amount. Many worker placement games have players taking turns up to the limit of workers (actions) they have left each round. All of these are the foundation pieces for what has now become known as the Action Point Allowance System or just the Action Point (AP) mechanic for short.
This workhorse of a mechanic has historically filled many roles in games. This has been everything from the core mechanic of a game all the way down to a small sub-mechanic that you might not have realized was even set collection. Games like Gin Rummy, and Go Fish, are examples of games where the core mechanic is set collection. Monopoly, Ticket to Ride, and 7 Wonders are all games that have a heavy use of set collection, but they also have other mechanics that play a large role in shaping the gameplay. Then there are games like Forbidden Desert that have many other mechanics all working toward the singular goal of making a set. Did I lose anyone?
Understand, Forbidden Desert is not a set collection game (in the traditional sense), but it does have one set to collect. The players need to find all of the parts to fix their ship… collecting this one set of components is the goal of the game. As a workhorse mechanic, no matter what role set collection has in building gameplay, it is capable of filling that role. This means deciding how much of a role set collection will have in your game is the first step.
Players can take many types of actions in a game, this article will deal with just some of the actions related to dice. Dice rolling is normally considered a random mechanic in games, and rightly so. However, giving players actions related to the already rolled dice and not just giving them the task of rolling them to decide the outcome, opens up another world of possibilities in game design. This deals with choice, as the fundamental difference between a task a player must do and an action they have selected.
For thousands of years and across many types of games, players have been told by the game rules to roll dice. This has traditionally only been used to find the outcome of an action that is happening in the game. The player might be able to choose the action but then are told to perform the task of rolling dice to determine the outcome of that action. What if the designer just changed the order of these things? We could make many other combinations of actions, tasks, and outcomes relating to dice. Discussed further down, under the title, dice and the outcome.
Having something for players to collect or gain or make and then consume or use or spend adds interest to a game and can enhance a game’s theme. It can also quickly drive up the amount of complexity in the game. As designers, we need to understand when to add resources to a game and how to make them fit within a game’s flow and theme. From the most simple infinite bank to the most complicated economic simulations, knowing how many and what kinds of resources you need for the game you are working on, can be a challenging issue.
Fitting the resources into the theme has more to do with what the resources are named and what they are used for. When it comes to fitting them into the flow of a game, we are talking more about how the resources are produced and used turn-to-turn and how those things might change throughout the game. As long as things make sense to the players you should be fine. Just remember, wood should not become spaceships… (unless you are Russian)