How to Play a Lot of Board Games with Little Time and Little Money

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.



This week with Highways & Byways, I’ve been making little improvements to the game to make it more usable and easy-to-understand. I’m at a stage where I’m optimizing instead of iterating, which makes me thankful for the extensive background in board gaming that I’ve gained in the last couple of years. Yet it has just been a couple of years – I’m not a lifelong board gamer. I wasn’t there when Catan came out in 1995. I built up my knowledge of board gaming quickly and inexpensively, two things I don’t think a lot of people think to do.

Playing a lot of board games is necessary to creating great board games. Playing games exposes you to mechanics and design trends. It helps you know what gamers like and how they interact. You learn what you find awesome and what you find annoying, and you come to have convictions about changing what you can change. I don’t take issue with the belief that you can benefit from playing a lot of games to be a good designer, I take issue with the invisible scripts people think they have to follow in order to play lots of games.


Photo taken by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner and posted to Flickr under the CC BY-SA 2.0 License (Source)


Before we get to how you play lots of board games with little time and little money, I’d like to put three myths in the ground right now.

First, you don’t have to play hundreds of board games before you start designing. In fact, I think the point of diminishing return is somewhere in the dozens before your own personal experimentation and experience teaches you more than broad exposure to games will. A lot of people, left to their own devices will use the pernicious myth of “I need to play more games” to defend their game dev procrastination.

Second, you don’t have to spend tons of time or money through Amazon shopping sprees or conventions to play lots of games. There are better ways that are more suited to the lifestyles of those with a limited amount of discretionary income. I’ve seen people with shelves of 500 games. That’s awesome and I love that they’re so dedicated to the hobby! Just understand that you don’t have to spend $15,000 on games like that gamer to be a good game dev.

Third, the board gaming hobby doesn’t have to be for the upper middle class like a lot of people make it out to be. In fact, this bothers me a lot. I see gamers making fun of gamers for not having the newest $100 game and it makes me raw. Gaming shouldn’t exclude people because board gaming is intrinsically social and cannot benefit from in-groups and out-groups. If you’re an aspiring game dev, avoid snobbery. 

This all brings me to the crux of this Dev Diary entry…


How to Play a Lot of Board Games with Little Time and Little Money


Broadly speaking, I can think of three ways that you can play a lot of board games without much time or money commitment. To become a good game developer, your goal should be to play a wide variety of games. That means you’ll want to play games that are new and old, for large groups and small groups, and ones that have all sorts of different mechanics. Each of these three ways should enable you to do that.

Method #1: Go to and create an account. Search for board game related events in your community. Odds are good that if you live in or near a moderately populated urban center, you’ll find multiple board gaming groups. I personally live in Chattanooga, TN, which barely cracks the top 100 populated metropolitan areas in the United States and there is no shortage of meetup groups near me.

Method #2: Go to a local board gaming store. If you don’t have one, you might be able to find a video game store or comic shop that also carries board games. Odds are very strong that if you find a place near you that sells hobby board games, they’ll have meet-ups every week or every two weeks where you can play the board games in the store. All you have to do is look them up on Google and give them a call.

Method #3: Let’s say for example that you live in a remote place like the desert of Nevada. There are no meet-up groups or game shops for a hundred miles in any direction. As long as you still have a broadband connection, you can download Tabletop Simulator, a $19.99 Steam game, that will enable you to play board games online. You can then find other players by searching around in the Server Browser. Better yet, you can find Facebook groups that coordinate Tabletop Sim games. Not only will this tool allow you to play lots of games cheaply and from the comfort of your home, but it will also give you the ability to play other designers’ prototypes if they make them available on Tabletop Sim.


Like I was saying earlier this week in 5 Games to Make You a Better Board Game Dev for $64.63, it doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to get started in board gaming. Sometimes it helps just to have a sense of direction, and I’m happy to provide that 🙂



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m experimenting with new components on Tabletop Simulator. This lets me approximate size, color, and shape to see if they pass basic play-tests before I test with actual components.
  • I added a small token for the first player – a simple accessibility gesture.
  • I applied James’ art for the card backs and templates to Tabletop Simulator – this will let the play-testers and i catch readability issues before I spend money printing a physical prototype.
  • I rebalanced the Event Cards. I had one card that was overpowered and a couple others that were awkwardly worded and had unusual implications as a result.
  • I improved the Reference Cards to be simpler.
  • I rewrote the rules from scratch to be simpler – no major changes to actual gameplay. This is purely a usability fix.

5 Games to Make You a Better Board Game Dev for $64.63

Posted on 8 CommentsPosted in Start to Finish

Getting started in board game development can be both intimidating and expensive. I’m almost certainly not the only blogger you’ve looked to for advice, and I can probably guess one thing you get told a lot: “play more games!” (Yeah, gee thanks, Sherlock.)

It’s true that playing more board games will make you a better board game developer. However, when you’re first getting started, you might not even be sure if you’re into board gaming at all. Even if you are into board gaming, you may not have the cash on hand to buy a whole bunch of new games.

To help you get started in your board game development journey, I’ve made a list of five classic board games which you can pick up, all combined, for just $64.63. They’re all great games, but I’ve made this list specifically based on three criteria that I think work to your benefit.

  1. They’re cheap.
  2. They’re readily available and have a large community that likes to talk about them.
  3. All these games together will teach you a wide variety of mechanics.


Game #1: An Old Copy of Catan from a Thrift Store – $3.00



Catan is the premiere game of the hobby board game market. When it came out in 1995, it was just about the best game around. Catan has a mixed reputation within the modern board game market because it’s old and because so many groups have played it to death. If you’re just getting into board gaming, though, you can pick up a copy of Catan at practically any thrift store for around $3.00 if you don’t mind the occasional missing piece.

This is a neat way to introduce brand new board game devs to odd concepts like modular boards – that is, boards that do not have the same form every time you play. Catan changes the shape of its island every time you play. The resources you can readily access change as well, as will you trading strategy.

As a bonus, you can get your friends to beg to a crowded room “wood for sheep! Wood for sheep, please, wood for sheep!”


Game #2: Pandemic on Amazon – $21.60


Pandemic Board Game
Photo taken by Jana Reifegerste and posted on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0 (Source)


Pandemic is the game that made me get into board gaming. I’ve spoken at length about how I admire the way it’s designed. The reason I recommend this game is because it’s cooperative, which is kind of mind-blowing if you’ve only played competitive board games like I had prior to picking this up.

The basic idea is that you work together with other players to keep diseases at bay for long enough to cure them. This is quite tricky because your ability to move and respond is quite limited and the diseases have a way of multiplying very quickly.

There is a lot of depth to this game. In addition to teaching you about cooperative gameplay, it will teach you about action point systems which require you to use a limited number of actions to maximize the effectiveness of your turn. Each player has a class like Medic, Researcher, or Scientist that allows them to use a different ability. Pandemic also teaches you hand management and set collection in a way that I consider deeper than Catan but while remaining overall very approachable.


Game #3: Codenames on Amazon – $14.99


Photo by Alper Çuğun, posted to Flickr under CC BY 2.0 License.



If I did not include a party game on this list, I would be remiss. Codenames is a blast because it plays optimally around 6 or 8 players, whereas most games peak around 3 or 4.

The core concept is dead simple: someone leads each team by giving them one word cues that are intended to associate with words laid out in a 5×5 grid. When your team lead gives a good clue word and the teammates make good guesses, you suss out the enemy spies. But if the clue word is not so hot, you might hit an innocent bystander…or worse.

It’s really light and you’ll pick it up in about 5 minutes the first time play. Don’t study the mechanics of this game. Study people’s interactions with the game. As a game dev, you need to play games like Catan and Pandemic to understand how to make game mechanics, but you also need to play games like Codenames to understand player behavior.


Game #4: Carcassonne on Amazon – $17.55


Photo from Wikipedia, under the CC BY-SA 3.0 License.


Carcassonne is a classic tile-laying game where you and your opponent take turns building the French countryside with cities, roads, cloisters, and fields. You gain points by placing some of your limited meeples in the right place at the right time. You can read my more in-depth post about the game here.

What I want you to pay attention to as a game dev is how it accommodates different play styles. Sometimes it feels like an area influence / area control game along the lines of Risk. In other games, it feels very take-that, very cutthroat. Occasionally, it’s a friendly game where you and your opponent go your own separate ways. It’s very interesting that a game this simple and intuitive has so many viable strategies.


Game #5: Twilight Struggle on Steam during a 50% Sale – $7.49



I can scarcely even begin to describe Twilight Struggle in a couple of paragraphs. I love this game, and you can read about how I believe it masterfully maintains tension in this article. Long story short, it’s a 2-player game where you play as either the USA or the USSR – both of whom are eternally struggling to spread their ideology into the world at large.

This game takes around 10 or 15 hours to learn. The learning curve is brutal. In fact, there is a 425 page strategy guide floating around online for free. There are a lot of reasons I recommend it to you. It was #1 on Board Game Geek for a long time. It’s available on Steam for $7.49 if you catch it at the right time. The AI is fairly robust, although you’ll outgrow it after about 20-25 games. You can play it all alone through the Steam app, which is fantastic if you’re just getting started and haven’t got any board game playing friends in town yet.

There are some fascinating dynamics in this game. You play with hand full of cards – some of which are good for you and some of which are good for your opponent. When you get ones that are good for you, you can choose to play the event written on the card or use its points to influence or take over other countries. Likewise, when you get ones that are good for your enemy, you can use the points to influence or take over other countries BUT the event written on the card will benefit your opponent. This is just one of the cool dynamics in the game – there are many others.



Do you know of other great games that new board game devs can pick up for cheap? Let me know in the comments.

How to Tell When Play-Testing Feedback is Useful or Not

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.



Play-testing is so critical in board game development that I’ve dedicated several articles to the subject. Yet I’ve never seen article that deals with one of the biggest issues with play-testing: being able to tell the difference between signal and noise. You can’t believe everything your play-testers tell you, even though a lot of game developers will give you a coy response if you say that directly.


Don’t believe a dev who says “I’ve never wanted to flip the table because of some useless play-testing feedback.”


First, let’s have a refresher on good play-testing practices. The most important rule is write down all the feedback you receive during play-testing. Do this even if you’ve heard the feedback before, even if you think it’s stupid, and even if you know the feedback is wrong. Play-testing is ultimately about testing the subjective experiences of people playing your game. Every opinion – however misinformed you may believe to be – is a data point. As in rigorous scientific experiments, data points are to be gathered accurately and then interpreted later. By treating play-testing with a scientific mindset, you won’t risk losing valuable feedback because you got your feelings hurt.

It’s also a good idea to have a clear objective when you start a play-test. Some objectives I’ve used for testing Highways & Byways are “make sure Byway Cards communicate the location of roads clearly” and “gather data on the balance of Event Cards.” If you’ve made a recent tweak, having objectives going in helps you gather relevant data. Choose something to pay extra close attention to, such as balance, communication, or accessibility. All this said, there are no hard and fast rules going into play-testing. That is why recording data is important – so you can dispassionately review what people say at a later time.

When it’s time to review play-testing results, here are some guidelines I follow…


3 Times Play-Testing Feedback is Probably Not Useful


The player clearly does not understand the game. At some point, no matter how simple your game, you’ll have someone who doesn’t read the rules. Or perhaps you’ll have someone who can’t pick up the game from playing. Or perhaps even you’ll have someone who understands the game perfectly in a vacuum, but cannot form a coherent strategy to save their life. If you’ve got 20 play-testers and 1 of those 20 suffers from one or more of these issues when no one else does, the feedback is likely addressing an issue with the player and not the game.

This can be caused not by necessarily having a “dumb player,” but simply by having a distracted player. If someone is tired, stressed, or otherwise emotional, it might be hard for them to pick up your game and recognize that they are having a hard time picking up your game. Sometimes people just don’t “take” to games for some reason unrelated to their intelligence or well-being. It’s like that with me and Agricola (but you keep that between us two – I’ll lose my game dev card if you let that secret out).

When people don’t understand the game, they can give you all sorts of negative or neutral feedback that seems nonsensical or left-field. You may be able to tweak the game to make it communicate more clearly, and you should always ask yourself if that is the case. Yet if you believe the player is truly at a loss for understanding, try running their feedback by some other play-testers. If the other play-testers say “this player does not understand the game,” then it’s probably okay to disregard their feedback.


The player is providing feedback related to the tool you’re testing with, but the game itself. Whether you’re using a physical prototype with pennies for tokens or Tabletop Simulator, play-test versions of games often don’t look pretty or feel quite like the final product would. If you know that you’ll be changing the game to have better components, don’t worry about comments on your bad components. If you will be passing hands of cards around the table in real life – don’t be upset when people say “it’s hard to pass hands in Tabletop Simulator.”

Important caveat: always play-test anything that goes into the final version of your game.


The player is wildly pitching ideas. In general, if your game is on the right track, I find that you’ll get far more comments than questions. If you get a play-tester who has all sorts of ideas that don’t match up with the direction you’re taking the game in, that might be a sign of three things. One, they could be legitimately good ideas which you should consider. Two, they might not understand the game – see the previous point. Three, they might be pushing their creative instincts and desires on to your project. If that last one is the case, that’s got more to do with them than you. As always, I suggest you run wild ideas by other play-testers if you’re not sure.


3 Times Play-Testing Feedback is Definitely Useful


The feedback is regarding an issue that is both tangible and objective. If a player says “you’ve got a typo” or “this card could resolve in an undesirable way, watch me do it,” you must pay attention. When you get specific feedback about issues that are clear-cut, that’s as useful as it gets. Thank them and fix the issue next time you make a version. You don’t need multiple people to confirm these sorts of issues.


Multiple people have independently said the same thing. When it comes to matters like balance or fun, it’s really hard to know what is best. There is no clear answer like the ones for typos or loopholes. When multiple people say “I feel like this game isn’t balanced so well,” it doesn’t matter if your game is balanced perfectly in an Excel spreadsheet according to infallible mathematics. When a good portion of your play-testers feel like something’s wrong with your game, then something is probably wrong with your game. In fact, “majority rule” is one of the best ways to gauge the quality of your game when it comes to matters of taste.


Feedback is associated with actions that confirm the feedback. Imagine a player spends a minute or two organizing their hand, slowing down the game, and they say “you know, these cards are awfully fiddly.” It might be a problem if they took a minute or two without saying something. It might be a problem if they complained it was fiddly but only took a few seconds. Yet if both are happening at the same time, then something is up. Likewise, if a player says, “I don’t know what to do here,” and proceeds to make an absolutely bonkers strategic error, then your game may need clarification in some areas.


Despite my scientific rigor in recording feedback, there is a reason I refer to play-testing as The Art of the Play-Test in a prior article. The guidelines above are made to help you determine when play-testing feedback is useful and when it is not. Yet I can offer no certainty, no absolutes, and no rubrics. The decisions you make here are where game development becomes an art form – a matter of taste, judgement, and care.




Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Chugging right along in play-testing. I need to make some minor updates to balance and polish the game a bit, but everybody who’s tested it so far has liked it. That’s rare and I’m thankful.
  • James has delivered some card art templates. It’s nothing flashy and it’s nothing that shares particularly well. Despite this, please understand that this is the basis of our workflow from here on out, making it good progress.