Bringing it Together – The Board Game as a Project

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Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the ninth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

This suite is based on the Five Levels of Communication through Game Development, my own personal board game development philosophy. However, I’ve brought in Carla Kopp from Weird Giraffe Games so that you can get two viewpoints instead of just one.

 

 

With various other developers, I’ve talked about all the different parts that go into making a board game: the core engine, the mechanics, rules, and storytelling / internal narrative.

Except that’s not really all, is it? These elements will give you a game in a box, but they won’t make a game with social impact. Games are more than just what’s in the box. Games are also the marketing used to promote them – the advertising and the footwork of the game developers who made them. Games are also the Kickstarter campaign and the stores they’re kept in. Games are the community that talks about them on forums and plays them at conventions. Games become everything that people claim that they are. I call this “external narrative.”

So how on earth do you bring all that together into a cohesive whole? There is only so much a game developer can do to influence player perception and much of it is not what you’d expect.

This question is why I’ve brought in Carla, who you might know from Super Hack Override & Stellar Leap, two tabletop games that have been successful on Kickstarter. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation via Facebook Messenger.

This guide comes in four parts:

  1. Who is Carla?
  2. The Forgotten Parts of Game Development
  3. Finding an Audience
  4. Parting Advice

 

Who is Carla?

 

Brandon: Thank you very much for agreeing to help me out on this post! Tell me a little about yourself and your projects.

Carla: I’m Carla Kopp and I’m a software engineer during the day. During most other times, I’m working on my game publishing company, Weird Giraffe Games. So far, we have two published games, Super Hack Override and Stellar Leap.

Carla: Super Hack Override is a fast-paced filler game for 2-6 players that plays in 10-20 minutes. In the game, you’re a hacker trying to hack into enough facilities to gain the attention of the Supreme Super Hacker, all while avoiding Hacker Jail and making sure no one else can hack faster than you can.

Carla: Stellar Leap is a space exploration game for 1-5 players with worker placement, variable player powers, and a strategic twist on dice rolling in about an hour. The Galaxy is determined by the players who can also choose to trigger galaxy-wide events that can change how the game works for everyone.

Carla: I’ll be Kickstarting my next game, Fire in the Library, soon! It’s a press-your-luck game with variable turn order in which players must try their best to rescue books and accumulate knowledge. Everyone starts with tools to help mitigate their luck or change the probabilities for their opponents and can gain more as the game goes on.

Carla: I have a few other games in the works as well, Drapple and Observance. Drapple is an abstract, tile-laying gardening game. Observance is a game of stargazing, engine building, and time management. There are a few more, but those are the most far along.

Brandon: My copy of Stellar Leap is still being manufactured at the time we’re doing this interview, but I’m looking forward to it. My brother and I have had a lot of fun with Super Hack Override!

Brandon: Respect to you and Nick for being able to put these games together as fast as you have. That’s a lot of work!

 

The Forgotten Parts of Game Development

 

Brandon: Games are big projects. What goes into making them that a lot of people forget about?

Carla: There’s a ton of work, but one thing I spend a lot of time on is updating all the game data in a spreadsheet, updating nandeck files, printing out new cards, and cutting them. Every iteration of each game has to be created somehow and there are A LOT of iterations – usually a new one after each playtest, especially in the beginning. I sometimes use blank cards or write on prototypes if I need to iterate quickly, but that typically only happens at conventions.

Carla: There’s making the review prototypes themselves. Stellar Leap took more than two weeks to put together 11 prototypes. This meant separating colors of cubes, chits, and meeples, counting them, putting them all into individual small bags. Cards from the Game Crafter are also in a random order, so I had to separate all of those and put them into different bags. I decided to make my own player boards out of foamboard and artboard. That meant printing out the board images on paper, gluing them to boards, waiting for them to dry, and cutting them all out. There were 5 boards for each game – 55 boards – and cutting each one wasn’t exactly easy or fast. There were a few other pieces to add in, but it definitely wasn’t a fun few weeks.

Brandon: The manual sorting of pieces can be an especially big one if you’re not expecting it. That’s really easy to forget.

Carla: Granted, it’s not necessary to do that level of effort; the reviewers could separate the cards themselves and not everything needs to be in its own bag. I could have done simple card stock for the boards. I’m just a bit of a perfectionist and want to make a good impression.

Carla: There’s also just all the logistics of it all. Games aren’t made by one person usually and definitely not in my case. I work with at least one artist per game, if not an illustrator, graphics designer, and even an artist specifically for meeples! Then there’s playtesters, manufacturers (many at first, until you make a decision on which one to go with), reviewers (I try to go with at least 10), interviewers (written, podcasts, and video), and people to talk to to set up demos. There are just so many people and events to coordinate and it definitely doesn’t magically fall into place.

Brandon: There’s a lot of truth to this. It’s common to juggle a lot of technologies and demands on your time. Even though I “work alone“, I don’t really. I have a freelance artist, a community of game developers to bounce ideas off of, play-testers both online and offline, reviewers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. You get the idea. I have dozens of spreadsheets for different things – people to talk to, marketing leads, game files, play-testing logs, you name it.

 

Artwork from the upcoming Fire in the Library.

 

Finding an Audience

 

Brandon: All this is behind the scenes. You have to think about what’s publicly visible, too. How do you find the right audience and spread the word?

Carla: Right now, my methods are really varied. I post frequently on all the progress I make on Twitter and occasionally Instagram. I make “work in progress” threads on Board Game Geek to talk about progress, then post to the appropriate Geek Lists during the Kickstarter. I post in a large variety of Facebook groups while progress is being made on art and other aspects of the game and usually ask questions, while also linking my Facebook page. During the Kickstarter, there are about 20 different groups I post to, depending on the game.

Carla: Always post in relevant groups, but try to make the post engaging. Whenever I demo or playtest, I make sure to get the email address of the person, so I can inform them when the Kickstarter starts. I also run a game night at the local cupcake store and get emails from the people that attend that. There’s also Reddit and I tend to stick to my local subreddit, as the board game subreddits tend to not approve of posting about your own games. I also try to go to as many conventions as I can and playtest as much as possible.

Carla: I also do a lot of interviews! Between written, video, and podcasts, I did 17 interviews during my last Kickstarter. Not only that, there’s also certain board gaming websites that take press releases. I’ve tried a variety of advertising, as well, but I’m definitely going to get farther away from that as traditional advertising doesn’t seem to work as well as I’d hope. I’ve run a few contests as well, but I’m not sure any of those have helped all that much. Contests might be good for unknown publishers, but I’m not exactly unknown at this point.

Brandon: That’s a ton of really good information and I have, in response, a few reactions. The first being that no matter what location you go to – Board Game Geek, Facebook, Reddit, or cons – you’re going to really specific places to spread the word of your games. Not only do you make engaging content, but you post it to specific groups, specific lists, and specific subreddits. It’s targeting. It’s smart business, and because attention is limited and constantly being sucked away, it’s polite, too.

Brandon: As for finding out which places are the best, well, I haven’t found a better way than experimenting – online and offline. Once you found places that work and people who were receptive to what you had to say, you always got their email and give them a place to go. That helps build a community, or at the very least, keep you organized. That’s where podcasts, video, interviews – even this very one – come in. It’s all outreach!

Brandon: This is what networking looks like…it’s talking to a lot of people. Both to spread your ideas and to make them better.

Brandon: Think I just had a marketing geek moment there.

Carla: Reviews are also so important! I have a list of reviewers that are great to work with, but you can’t just choose the ones you like, you have to choose ones that will like your game and increase your audience.

Brandon: Yes, you definitely need to reach out to reviewers for trust and visibility to your intended audience. I try to aim for professional ones with a well-targeted audience, even if they might say something I don’t like.

 

Parting Advice

 

Brandon: If there were one piece of advice you could give yourself before you started making games, what would it be?

Carla: Be prepared for a lot of work, learning, and growing as a person. It’s going to be hard, but you’ll be better for it and gain a ton of friends. It’s not an industry where you’ll earn a lot of money, but it does have a lot of heart.

Brandon: Amen to that. It’s a fun process and you meet a ton of people.

Brandon: Alright, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you very much! Good luck on Fire in the Library, I’m looking forward to it 🙂

Carla: Thank you! I’m looking forward to seeing Highways & Byways, as well!

 

 


 

Board games are big projects, so a lot goes on behind the scenes. Experts can make it look easy, but it isn’t. How you handle manufacturing, logistics, and marketing can all affect how your games are perceived. Those perceptions, in turn, become a part of your game – even if you don’t intend for them to.

Got any war stories from your game projects? Tell us about them in the comments below 🙂

 

How to Test Your Storytelling Powers & Make People Connect with Your Board Games

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Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the eighth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

This suite is based on the Five Levels of Communication through Game Development, my own personal board game development philosophy. However, I’ve brought in Dylan Cromwell, the lead designer of Seize the Bean so that you can get two viewpoints instead of just one.

 

 

Just like last week’s article, we’re going to focus on what I call internal narrative. It is true that games speak to players through gameplay – the core engine, mechanics, and rules. However, when people think of storytelling in games, they think of theme, story, art, components, and even box design. The internal narrative covers everything about the game itself as a complete product minus the gameplay. That’s what we’re talking about today.

This guide comes in five parts:

  1. How do we play-test our storytelling?
  2. How do we make stories that resonate?
  3. How do we make art match the story?
  4. How do we make the physical experience match the story?
  5. Parting advice

 

How do we play-test our storytelling?

 

Brandon: We spoke a lot last week about how to tell stories in board games.

Brandon: One thing we agreed upon was the necessity of making sure gameplay and storytelling fit together perfectly.

Brandon: This is true even for games that aren’t considered thematic since even abstract games like chess have an intrinsic story to them.

Brandon: How do we play-test our board games to make sure our stories and our gameplay match each other?

Dylan: Wow, that’s a pretty intense question because there are certainly a lot of “right” answers. We could cover a whole series of articles just on the topic of proper and productive play-testing. I think one angle – epecially true for asymmetrical characters or seemingly unbalanced strategies, as is the case with Seize the Bean – is making sure you’re aware of at least a few of the player paths you expect or want to exist in the game.

Dylan: For example, the hipster customers in Seize the Bean have a simple, understandable mechanic that is directly tied to the theme and story: they make you raise your hype. Not allow you to, but make you. That means you’re drawing more customers into your line. This pushes the boundaries of what you can handle, resource-wise. So when it comes to the over-hyped café in real life that can’t handle the sudden explosion of business, you get that feeling in Seize the Bean if a player tries to go only for hipsters. Making sure this is working, though, requires myself and my co-designer, Andy Couch (as well as our game developers, Joder, Remigi, and Ninja), to actually implement that strategy during our weekly play-testing. We don’t look for every possible strategy. That’s not possible and it’s not our focus, but we do tackle the ones that make up the heart of the game.

 

 

Dylan: There are two other things which definitely take us into the realm of “basics of play-testing process,” but I think they are important to mention, especially when trying to convey thick theme and rich story.

Dylan: Those are accessibility and graphic design.

Dylan: We had to get text sizing right. Colors were backed up by easily identifiable symbols to make sure that all players could clearly see the information on the cards. The amount of people we’ve tested with who are color-blind or have sight issues definitely did not fit the statistic we’ve heard from manufacturers. If we didn’t make things accessible, they wouldn’t get to be immersed in the story as much.

Dylan: The second aspect is the general graphic design, especially when it comes to card effects or other mechanical symbols. We made the huge mistake of taking very verbose iconography to SPIEL17. We hoped people would “decode” the symbols themselves but actually everyone needed to have an explanation or look them up on a cheat sheet. If that’s the case, all of those 4 or 5 symbol strings can be reduced to a single symbol.

Dylan: This was massive because visual learners were totally shut out of the whole concept of upgrading their café with decorations since the verbal explanation went in one ear and out the other. It was made even worse because the cards were basically like hieroglyphics to them. They missed the benefit of doing so completely and therefore ignored this aspect of the game, eliminating this part of the story and experience for themselves.

Dylan: In summary: test a variety of strategies. Those are the stories your players will create. Test the accessibility because otherwise players can’t play those stories out. Test the graphics because otherwise players won’t play all parts of the game to discover those stories.

Brandon: A lot of the time you just have to test and test and test to make sure your mechanics and theme match up. You can then either change the theme or change the mechanics depending on what direction you’re going in. You can’t pursue everything – you and the team are wise to recognize that!

Brandon: Absolutely right that accessibility plays a huge role in making sure the story comes across. Failure to achieve a baseline level of accessibility can easily stop a story from resonating.

Brandon: Speaking of which…

 

How do we make stories that resonate?

 

Brandon: How do we make stories that resonate with others? I’m not just talking about making theme and mechanics consistent, I’m talking about making memorable stories.

Dylan: This is a great question and really applies to Seize the Bean. Not only does it claim to be about coffee, but it claims to be about Berlin, which is a pretty specific city. We ran into this early on: how will we make the theme and story universally relate-able enough that even people who don’t know Berlin can get into it?

Dylan: What we discovered was that it helps to find an overlap between your specific, unique story details and those that are more universally known. My previous example about hipsters is quite useful and another one would be tourists. Almost everyone can relate to a comical loathing of tourists, even though we’re all often tourists ourselves. The idea that serving a tourist in your shop might make other customers impatient and therefore leave or give you a bad review is pretty universally relate-able.

Dylan: Earlier on, we had our different customer groups bound to certain districts (neighborhoods) of Berlin. While this was super thematic it not only restricted our design massively, but it also ejected players who didn’t know those districts (and even some who did, when they did not agree with our categorization, such as loads of hipsters in Kreuzberg and loads of rebels in Friedrichshain). Once we removed the districts we had less design restriction and a much more accessible story for all players, not just those that know Berlin. For players who missed the districts we even found a way to include them, but I’ll let that be a surprise.

Dylan: Beyond making sure that your story is as universally relatable as possible, it’s also important to make it very unique. That’s the best way for it to be memorable. I think we’re all pretty tired of zombie games (except maybe Rahdo!), so another game about the rise of the dead is probably not going to be as memorable as a game about talking cabbages who are looking for apartments to rent. We discovered this early on with Seize the Bean, actually much to our surprise, that there weren’t that many games about coffee and especially not that many about running a café. This has helped the story of the game be more memorable as well, that it’s unique and doesn’t feel like a clone of another game.

Brandon: It’s a wise choice to focus on feelings and universal experiences instead of Berliner in-jokes.

Brandon: Similarly, I’m also making a game based on a specific location. I’ve had to strip Americana to its core feelings so I don’t alienate others. That means there’s no reliance on state names, an understanding of the country’s geography, or anything like that required to play. Likewise, I stuck to things just about everything can agree on: road trips are cool and we have nice scenery. All the other American in-jokes got the boot, now referenced only in low-key flavor text for those who pay attention.

 

 

Brandon: A good rule of thumb to make sure your stories work (whether or not you work on a game based on a particular region of the world)…

Brandon: Test with people around the world. If your basic messages work in America, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, China, and Japan, then you’ve probably made a story that is essentially human and not cultural in origin.

Brandon: (Testing through Tabletop Simulator makes this all a lot easier, by the way.)

 

How do we make art match the story?

 

Brandon: Before you ask for art and when you’re reviewing your artist’s work, how do you make sure your art supports the stories you’re trying to tell?

Dylan: Before you even ask for art, I think you need a discussion (internally with yourself or with your team if you have one) about what the art should convey; not literally, but what feeling, what mood. A lot of artists call the initial creation of this a type of assessment a “mood board.” It’s not that you have to visually make one, but get a sense of what would best represent your story. As I’ve said, Seize the Bean is meant to poke fun (respectfully) at all the wild diversity of Berlin, so having a cartoony, comical style would fit. Your game might need a more photo-realistic, painterly style, or even like War Co., a sci-fi, 3D style. Whatever it may be, nail that down and then go artist hunting.

Dylan: Once you find an artist (or a few), then it’s important to properly brief them about your work. We’ve learned this the hard way with Seize the Bean. Even though our artist, Mario Fernández García-Pulgar, has been a complete angel through all of our changes, we’ve definitely requested much more work of him than we needed to, due to asking for artwork far too early. This is a common mistake by first-time creators.

Dylan: When timing is right and your game is play-testing well and you’ve got your artist and they’ve seen your awesomely clear briefs, then reviewing their work makes sense. What I’ve found is that artists need space, but also benefit from a gentle nudge to challenge them a bit in how far they can take an idea. When I asked Mario for good and bad review tokens I simply had a thumbs up or thumbs down icon in mind. What he returned to me was brilliant: full on little comments from fake people!

 

 

Brandon: I’d recommend waiting until you have a working game and then picking an artist who you either a) know personally or b) whose portfolio fits your needs perfectly.

Dylan: This is great point, Brandon: having an existing relationship with the artist (actually, anyone on your team) is really helpful, especially if you plan to work remotely. For us, it was great for us because I had actually worked with Mario before on previous projects. And I already knew how he worked so we had a lot of trust. Trust is important because you should guide your artists but not control them. Listen closely when they aren’t feeling like an idea or direction is going to work. After all, that’s why you’ve hired them: for their expertise and creative vision.

Brandon: Artists love creative freedom. You give them flexible specs and watch them have fun. Correct a little as needed. I’ve seen great results by doing this.

Dylan: I always like to say it’s good to “let others surprise you” but great to “let them surprise themselves”.

Brandon: And yes, yes, yes, please listen to their feedback on visuals. That’s part of the benefit of hiring an artist. And this is so critical art is not only super important to feeling and storytelling, but it’s also a powerful marketing tool anyone can use.

Brandon: War Co. got sold on its art. Byways will probably be the same.

Dylan: Seize the Bean too, by far! And likely our next project for 2018, Towers of the Sun. All three of the artists on those two projects are just amazing. We’re very thankful to be working with them!

 

How do we make the physical experience match the story?

 

Brandon: So let’s say you have a great story that matches your gameplay. Let’s say you have great art, too. A lot of solid games nail these aspects but slip up on components.

Brandon: How do you make sure your storytelling works physically and not just visually or mentally?

Dylan: Honestly, that’s been the hardest and at the same time, the easiest part of Seize the Bean.

Dylan: Earlier versions were already wrapped in the idea of shop upgrades, coffee blends and various customers; those elements have always been there. But what I refer to as the game scope (whether or not you serve individual customers or a whole pile as a unit, whether you can have more than one shop, whether there is a big city map or a small image of a single café, etc) was unclear. While testing various game scopes and finally settling on the one we have, we noticed that 3D beans were awesome to play with but a pain to count in large quantities.

Dylan: Typically our scope didn’t require pay-out of beans in large quantities but it did often involve the initial purchase of them in large quantities. Therefore the physical, semi-dexterous mechanic (and component) of the scoop was born. As fun and silly as it feels playing with it, it solved a lot of serious physical issues early on. So in this sense, my business partner and fellow game developer, Josh Wilson (who was the one that dreamed up the idea of the scoop), identified the problem (too many things to physically count) and created a solution. The beauty here is the things (the beans) helped tell the story so removing them wasn’t ideal, and the solution he dreamed up also helped further tell the story so this was a win-win situation.

Dylan: Why do I say it was the hardest and the easiest? Well, adding in 3D components like beans and milk cartons and even our super realistic sugar cubes is easy. It’s also hard though because now that we’re going to Kickstarter on January 16th we’ll really require a critical mass of backers in order to fund those premium components. If not, we’ll need to find the best way to manufacture them more affordably, say with tokens. This won’t cripple the theme or story but it certainly won’t help tell it as richly. So that’s the danger of specialty components. Whenever you can, as creator, find a way to use economically sound components, you should.

Dylan: Another interesting physical bit of our process was card size.

Dylan: We wanted to get the feeling that a whole city of choices (customers, decorations and products) were out there on the table, but we didn’t want the players to need a huge ballroom table just to play.

Dylan: Therefore we actually looked to Feudalia for inspiration, and have been testing a 75x50mm card size that’s surprisingly worked out quite well for us.

Dylan: That’s something else to consider often; how can you modify the shape, size or other features of your components to better deliver your story? For us it was simple: get as much out on the table as we can, hah!

Brandon: It sounds like you’ve touched on the most important thing.

Brandon: Physical accessibility comes first. No matter how pretty it is, you have to make the game functional before anything else. Easy to use, easy to see, easy to count. Fail at any of these and your story gets lost in the shuffle.

Brandon: When you can add stylish stuff like beans, milk cartons, and sugar cubes without running up the manufacture price or losing accessibility, by all means, do it.

 

 

Brandon: The way you use parts is a lot more important than the parts you use. That’s why so many games are still using plain old plastic cubes, punch-out tokens, and so on. It works and it doesn’t hurt the gameplay experience.

Brandon: I will say, though: component upgrades make fantastic Kickstarter stretch goals.

 

Parting advice

 

Brandon: Okay, last question.

Brandon: If you go back to when you started in game design and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dylan: There’s too many, why only one!? Hahaha…

Dylan: …but I think above all: don’t forget to have fun.

Dylan: That’s why we’re all in this, after all, isn’t it?

Dylan: I would let my past self know it’s gonna be a long journey: no matter how well you play-test, how perfectly timed your art briefs hit the artist’s desk, how costly your bits and pieces are, how big and friendly your fanbase grows to be…you’re in for a looong ride, so enjoy it. Do whatever you gotta do to make it something you love every step of the way.

Dylan: That, and maayyyybe drink a little bit less coffee.

Brandon: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Brandon: As a coffee fan, I can’t back you on drinking less coffee, though.

Brandon: Thank you very much, I look forward to sharing this!

Dylan: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me on-board the Brandon Game Dev express! It was a pleasure to chat about War Co., Highways & Byways, and Seize the Bean!

 


 

Telling stories is one of the most essentially human instincts. Whether or not we mean to, we tell stories through games. It’s best to embrace storytelling no matter how thematic your game is and perfect its tone. Through art, physical components, and clever use of language, board games can transcend their parts and become rich experiences.

In next week’s article, I’ll be bringing a special guest to talk about bringing everything together for your board game project – mechanics, rules, stories, and business. What does a board game look like when everything finally comes together?

For now, please leave your questions and comments about storytelling in games below 🙂

How to Tell Great Stories Through Board Games

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the seventh of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

This suite is based on the Five Levels of Communication through Game Development, my own personal board game development philosophy. However, I’ve brought in Dylan Cromwell, the lead designer of Seize the Bean so that you can get two viewpoints instead of just one.

 

 

For this and the article that follows, we’re going to focus on what I call internal narrative. It is true that games speak to players through gameplay – the core engine, mechanics, and rules. However, when people think of storytelling in games, they think of theme, story, art, components, and even box design. The internal narrative covers everything about the game itself as a complete product minus the gameplay. That’s what we’re talking about today.

This guide comes in four parts:

  1. Who is Dylan and what is Seize the Bean?
  2. Why is storytelling important?
  3. How can you tell stories through games?
  4. How do you make stories match their games?

 

Who is Dylan and what is Seize the Bean?

 

Brandon: Thank you very much for agreeing to help with this post!

Brandon: Tell me a little about yourself and your project, Seize the Bean.

Dylan: I’m a long time artist and creative person – started out drawing and blowing glass. I’ve always had games in my life since being a dungeon master in D&D as a child. As I grew, I got more into technology and found myself doing mostly programming jobs.

Dylan: Recently I’ve learned to grow and manage great teams as well. I’ve just had my first child (a daughter!), so I’ve time off of work. Whilst spending it with my family, I’m also utilizing it to attempt to launch my own games publishing company, Quality Beast. Our first project scheduled for release is Seize the Bean, a comical, super thematic deck-builder based on our HQ city, Berlin.

 

The Seize the Bean prototype has little sugar cube pieces to tell its story. Do not eat!

 

Dylan: In Seize the Bean, players take the role of pretentious baristas (no offense!) who believe they can do everything better than their boss. They quit their job and grab their measly savings to open their own hot café in the diverse city of Berlin. The only problem is that all their friends (also pretentious baristas) have done the same thing!

Dylan: It was our intention from the beginning to create a silly, tongue-in-cheek game that acted as a window into the diverse and distinct social archetypes of Berlin: hipsters, tourists, artists, start-up employees, unemployed expatriates, street freaks, tech nerds, families, fashionistas, society rebels, and more. We knew we wanted to allow players to attract certain types but also wanted that players would need to manage who came and how they were served. Would a hipster like it if you also served tourists?

Dylan: The trick about the game and the theme is that no one agrees on what makes things the best. Is it hype? Coffee quality? Social dynamics? A quiet place to work alone? We wanted the game to allow a variety of strategies to be victorious, thus allowing the players themselves to show their own diversity. We wanted some people to play it with careful resource management whilst others treated it like a push your luck game of scarcity.

Dylan: This was our challenge in trying to flesh out appropriate mechanics for Seize the Bean’s wild and almost untame-able theme.

Brandon: That’s an exciting theme! It seems we’re both working to capture physical locations through gameplay, so this resonates with me.

Brandon: Berlin, in particular, is one of the most culturally eclectic cities in the world. The coffee shop – real or in game – provides a common ground for all these different sorts of people to gather and mingle.

Brandon: Because we are all, of course, addicted to caffeine 😛

 

Why is storytelling important?

 

Brandon: A lot of people who first get into board gaming are surprised how rich and immersive their worlds can be. Why do you think storytelling is important in board gaming?

Dylan: I’ll try to answer that both personally and professionally.

Dylan: For me personally, I must admit I’ve heard people (especially those in my team) refer to me as “the theme guy.” I’ll see a piece of art or hear an ancient myth and – boom – I’m inspired. My design visualizations always have a rich thematic beginning, even if that theme is abstract. That story is really crucial to me because it pulls me in. Sure, once I’m in, abstract strategy is fine and I can get really deeply focused on it (in fact our next release will be an abstract strategy game), but having some layer of make-believe lets me fully enter that world. Chess is such a fantastic example: it’s really a geometric puzzle. But the pieces have such honor, prestige, and allure to them that it gives way to a rich and complex history even without having any formal story at all. Almost no one I know begins chess with a story of “you are a king / queen at war.”

Dylan: On a professional level, whilst I am new to the board game industry, I’ve found that art and theme are the major components that can bring people in without having heard anything about the gameplay. I don’t ever want to proclaim this is more important than mechanics; it certainly is not. I’ve found that the majority of players who may be attracted by art and story are just as easily pushed away if the mechanics aren’t fun and don’t back up that story that’s been told. In fact we faced this dilemma with version two of Seize the Bean, where the game mechanics were becoming some sort of grindy euro engine builder which completely betrayed the story that the art and theme was selling to the players. I think not everyone needs this, but on some level a lot of players appreciate the presence of a rich and thought-out theme and art basis upon which the mechanics lay, because it allows them to dive more deeply into the experience. It gives them a universe to explore; it brings what would otherwise be pretty dry mechanics to life.

Brandon: “Theme guy” has been reading ancient texts again and claiming it’s for work…

Brandon: On some level, humanity is built to see stories no matter where we look or whether they’re really there or not.

Brandon: You can even see this in chess or abstract euros simply through the actions you perform within the game.

Brandon: Now you mention earlier that sometimes theme and mechanics can clash and work against players’ expectations in a negative way. I’ve actually touched on this before. I use the phrase theme-mechanic unity to describe when the theme and the gameplay perfectly line up.

Brandon: Failing to achieve theme-mechanic unity can feel really off-putting, especially in modern gaming.

 

How can you tell stories through games?

 

Brandon: All this said, what tools do we have at our disposal to tell stories through games?

Dylan: The most obvious is art. The second is language. These are two I’ve found come most naturally to me. Especially with English – thankfully a super blurry language to begin with – there is a lot of room to work around the theme, finding new names for things that might be more convincing and thus more immersive for the players.

Dylan: But art and language can only get you so far. Discovering physical or mental actions that players embrace in the game helps a lot to deliver the story; not just because they may fit the theme, but because the players do these things themselves. In essence: they drive the story.

Dylan: In Seize the Bean, for example, we knew that the player had to have a way of stylizing or building their café so that it attracted the type of customers they were going after. It took a lot of variations until we found the right approach, but something a simple as installing a tourist upgrade (like free Berlin city maps) gives the player the ability to now take a tourist customer card during an open draft. This really helps to put the player in the driver’s seat of their own story within the game’s universe. What we found was this went beyond our expectations of a pre-established story: it allowed players to create stories we hadn’t even thought of yet.

Brandon: Art, language, and mechanics sell the story in a big way.

Brandon: I’d say that components and the physical or social behaviors you are compelled to perform should be included as well. A really simple example from my own work is that Highways & Byways is about travel, so all the Travel Markers (placed to show where you’ll be traveling), have little GPS symbols on them.

 

 

Dylan: You’re right! How can I forget: Seize the Bean’s components fuel the theme for almost all our players. We’ve created our own 3D printed coffee beans (literally modeled after a real coffee bean), miniature milk cartons and even super realistic sugar cubes. Not only do we provide these in the game, but there’s a fun and light-hearted scooping mechanism in which players get a variable amount of beans with each go. That and some small, silly good and bad review tokens with funny statements on them all work together to really bring out the theme.

 

 

How do you make stories match their games?

 

Brandon: How do you make sure the story you’re telling is consistent with the gameplay?

Dylan: That’s a hard one. We discovered that our story was more about humor, which is typically a lightweight feeling, so the game shouldn’t feel overly heavy or go on too long. We also noted it was bringing in a crowd of very diverse gamers, even groups that had a diverse range of game experience and different approaches to the learning curve. This meant that brutal penalties or lack of rubber-banding were a really bad thing in our game.

Dylan: Early on, our story and mechanics allowed shops to go out of business, literally ejecting players from the game. It became obvious that while this could be part of the story, it betrayed the ideas of fun and humor and thus didn’t fit the game’s true ethos. I think this is important for creators to remember: your story is how you write it and it can change. Watch and listen to your players and how they react, they are going to be your compass, guiding you back on track to keep your story and gameplay consistent.

Dylan: I also think you should talk to your team and ask again and again “what is our game about? How should it play? What is its weight? Who are its target players?”

Dylan: These question are super easy to only ask once and forget or even overlook completely. But they help set your goal. It took us until the third version of Seize the Bean to finally say “this is not a grindy engine-builder euro, it’s a kennerspiel, yes, but one that’s quick to explain and not to long to play”.

Editor Note: Kennerspiel translates to “connoisseur/expert game.”

Brandon: I agree that humor and game length are connected tightly. Part of the magic of good jokes is that they’re gone just as soon as you process them – you can’t overstay your welcome! In games, that means keeping humorous ones under an hour (usually…always play-test this stuff). Same thing with game weight and learning curve.

Brandon: It sounds like you had to experiment a lot before you found what you ultimately wanted Seize the Bean to be about. This is something that happens in game design a lot.

Brandon: To share some examples from my own experiences about making gameplay and storytelling consistent…

Brandon: War Co. is about scavenging the remnants of a very, very old war and using them to fight in an endless cycle of retaliation. Such a waste of human potential! You see this reflected in the fact that the entire game is about reducing your enemies’ supplies to nothing. You feel the effects of scarcity because you always have to throw out one of your own cards at the end of the turn, too. It’s a harsh, unforgiving game (and a lot of people are surprisingly into that!)

 

The world of War Co. isn’t exactly heaven.

 

Brandon: Highways & Byways is about constantly being on the move, a narrative borrowed from some pretty extreme road trips I’ve taken (like 5,000 miles in 9 days). That’s what the whole game is about – moving physically on the board and travelling real roads. Every turn you have to deal will something that happens to you (an event) and try to plan for the future. I’m relentless about keeping the underlying story consistent in the way it plays, looks, and feels.

Brandon: So let’s say you’ve done some play-tests and you’re ready to start ordering art and making physical components. How do you make sure that your art and components are consistent with your storytelling?

Dylan: Art direction and component choices are a tough piece of the puzzle. Finding the right artist is key. It’s better that you align with someone’s natural instinct and style so they are at their most comfortable. There are some extremely professional and highly talented artists and graphic designers who can create a wide array of styles but mostly people already have a vibe and matching this to your game – and what your audience is going to expect and like – is pretty key.

Dylan: Once you’ve done that, making sure to set up a good working arrangement with your artist and/or graphic designer is also very important. People work best when things are clear and fair for all. Beyond that, making sure to supply them enough info about that game up front is also very important; even better if they’re able to play the game and get a feel for it. Not a single creative person I’ve ever encountered wants to be told exactly what to do, so it’s a good idea to explain how their work should feel in the end, but not precisely outline what it should look like; give their creativity space to grow and stretch your story. Many artists are fantastic storytellers and if you let them into your universe they’ll likely expand it beyond your expectations.

Brandon: Finding the right people is so, so important.

Brandon: If you do that you can give them a paragraph or two for each piece and otherwise let them run with it. The results then wind up that much better because you’re not nailing art to a spec document, though documents are important.

Dylan: For components, the trick in the end is always going to be the price. Board games aren’t easy to manufacture or sell unless you’ve got a lot of funding up front, ready to spend, and a lot of confidence on the back side that your game will sell enough to replenish the investment. We’re lucky enough at Quality Beast to have team members who can 3D model and 3D print so we’re able to experiment in those areas.

Dylan: On a more simple level, though, thinking about how each component represents something in your game world is a good exercise. Does this card allow the players’ imaginations to run wild? If not, ask yourself what else could it be that would further the game’s immersive environment. We’ve gotten away in a lot of areas of Seize the Bean by converting things like “victory points” to “good reviews” but had a tough time getting the player board to be both functional and represent a café environment accurately!

Brandon: Components are hard. You’re right that especially for the newer designers, you need to find what’s available and work with that when you can. If you customize, you better make it really, really count.

Brandon: If you can’t do custom components, I’d argue the next best thing is using them creatively. I’m turning tarot cards into postcards for Byways. If memory serves, Colt Express turns interlocking pieces into a train.

Dylan: Sometimes it’s even about removal of components completely. Often we designers try to cram too much into one game, constantly demanding that it needs to fit our original vision.

Brandon: Yes, absolutely. And that’s something you have to train yourself out of. Creation requires reduction.

Dylan: We had this issue with “coffee blend” cards, trying to make Seize the Bean into a dual-deck-builder (customers going into one deck, blend cards going into another). I’m very happy we wised up and scrapped that idea. It was just too much going into a game that ultimately wanted to be about the customers more than the coffee itself.

Dylan: So, in summary, getting the art and components to match the story is also about letting go. The same could be said for mechanics too, I think.

Brandon: Similarly, Byways has left behind an impound yard of abandoned mechanics. War Co. had 500 cards at first and 200 of them never made the cut.

Dylan: Hahaha, yes, I know that exact process. “Kill your darlings” I think some have called it. A typical writing technique.

Brandon: I’ve heard it called the delightfully morbid “drowning puppies”

Brandon: Which…god…what an awful and vivid metaphor

Dylan: Ouch. That’s a game whose story I wouldn’t like to see fleshed out in component, art nor mechanics, I’ll say that much!

Brandon: So next week, we’ll talk less about what storytelling is and more about how to do it right. Stay tuned, everybody!

 


 

Telling stories is one of the most essentially human instincts. Whether or not we mean to, we tell stories through games. It’s best to embrace storytelling no matter how thematic your game is and perfect its tone. Through art, physical components, and clever use of language, board games can transcend their parts and become rich experiences.

In next week’s article, Dylan and I will continue to discuss storytelling in games. We will focus on testing our stories instead of simply creating them. For now, please leave your questions and comments about storytelling in games below 🙂