How to Design the Core Engine of Your Board Game

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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 first of a 19-part suite on board game design and development. I am going to teach you my own methods every week for the next four to five months.

My board game design philosophy stems from the Five Levels model, which I created and explain in depth in Five Levels of Communication through Game Development. The basic idea is that board games are a means of communication that facilitate gameplay. This communication happens on five levels: the core engine of the game, mechanics, rules, the internal narrative or “theme”, and the external narrative or “community and marketing.”

This guide comes in three parts:

  1. What’s the core engine of a game?
  2. How do I come up with an idea for the core engine for my game?
  3. How do I turn the idea into a working game engine?

 

What’s the core engine of a game?

 

Well, if you want to be literal about it…

 

The core engine of a board game is what’s left when you strip a game of mechanics and obstacles. The core engine is a mix of the objective of your game and the feelings you want it to evoke. The core engine is the bare minimum set of mechanics and concepts you need to have a functioning (but not necessarily fun) game.

 

To illustrate my point, here are the core engines of some games you might know:

Pandemic: The purpose is to wipe viruses off the face of the earth, save lives, and be a hero. The core engine involves this concept plus mechanics related to virus eradication. The movement, the classes, the geography, and so on are not part of the core engine – they are means to an end.

Carcassonne: The purpose is to build the best village. The placement of tiles is part of the core engine. The scoring and more finicky rules about tile placement are not part of the core engine – they are means to an end.

Twilight Struggle: You play as the US or USSR trying to win the war through strategic and tactical maneuvers. The core engine of this game relies on tension and area control. All the cards, the particulars of scoring, and the strategies are not part of the core engine.

Chess: Defeat the enemy by killing the king – that’s the core engine. The fact that you start with sixteen pieces and that pieces move in different ways back up the core engine as non-core mechanics.

My own game, Highways & Bywaystravel, explore, and move fast across the United States. That idea coupled with a board full of connected roads are the core engine. Every rule on how fast you can move, where you can go, and what can slow you down or speed you up is not part of the core engine.

You’ll notice that most of the games I just listed have a mix of basic mechanics and “theme” in their core engine. That’s no accident. You can’t take viruses out of Pandemic – it wouldn’t be Pandemic any more, even if it were functionally the same with a swapped out theme. The core engine is like a game’s “soul.”

 

How do I come up with an idea for the core engine for my game?

 

How do you know what your game’s core engine is? Well, it’s different for every game and every creator. Plus, if you ask gamers what the core engine of your game is, they’ll give you different answers. That means the core engine is an incredibly subjective matter that requires some introspection on your part. Don’t get hung up on perfection – it’s not possible here!

Your core engine centers around an idea. Here are some questions to help you come up with that idea.

 

Deep down, what do I want this game to be about?

I wanted War Co. to be a sinister game about the destructiveness and futility of war. Out of that, the core engine became slowly dwindling your opponents’ resources down to nothing and scraping by in the end with far less than you had to begin with. In order to do that, I needed some cards that followed simple, repeatable rules that allowed for the elimination of cards.

On the other hand, I wanted Highways & Byways to capture the feelings I had on my Great American Road Trips (yes, all caps is necessary). I gave it a sense of motion, travel, and exploration, because that’s ultimately what my road trips were about. In order to do that, I just needed a network of roads.

If your game were a statement, what would that statement be? Creators, whether or not they mean to, often build around messages. What I want you to do is take that vague vision and spell it out explicitly. By describing the game you want on the most basic level, you can begin to build around that. Mechanics, rules, and so on – they’re all just a means to explore that idea.

 

What’s the one thing about this game I can’t give up?

Sometimes you want to build a game around a mechanic. Sometimes you want to build it around a theme. Either way, there is something behind your desire there. Why are you so set on a specific mechanic or theme? What draws you to it? Spell out the basic emotions behind your desires and you may very well develop a core engine out of that.

 

What do I like to play?

If you think about the games you like to play, you will probably find that you’re drawn to certain mechanics and themes. Much like the previous question, that’s a sign you should think more deeply about the emotions behind those mechanics and themes. Why do you like them? Do you want to emulate them?

 

How do I turn the idea into a working game engine?

 

There is no easy answer for this. You can try creating the first thing that comes to your head. You can also try looking at Board Game Geek’s list of mechanics and picking out the ones you think will support your ideas. This is not an exact science – this is all on you.

As an example, with Highways & Byways, I started Googling scenic roads in the United States. I pasted their shapes on a map. Then I drew lines between them for highways so the whole map was connected. Then I added spaces to regulate distance in the game. When I finished doing that, I had the core engine of my game. I was able to move pieces around the board. That’s it – everything else is just polish on top of the core engine.

 

Before I ever spoke a word about it online, this is what Highways & Byways looked like. I was still doing research to make a good core engine.

 

When you take your basic idea and give it just enough to be able to do something, you’ve got a core engine. That can mean having a network of roads you can move a piece on without any breaks like in Highways & Byways. That can mean having a card game whose core concepts allow you to eliminate cards from your enemies like in War Co.

 


 

Game design is a notoriously imprecise science. Board games are entertainment, meaning they are based on emotion deep down, on-purpose or not. As a designer, you can benefit from consciously recognizing the emotions you want to evoke, articulating them into a basic idea, and building an engine around that idea.

Coming up next week, we’re going to be discussing how to play-test a core engine. Until then, please leave your questions and comments below 🙂

16 Mistakes I Made on My First Game & How You Can Avoid Them

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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, in the spirit of Halloween, I wrote Performing a Board Game Autopsy: Learning from Your Mistakes. The analogy is morbid, but the concept is simple. If you spend time analyzing your failures, you can pick out specific things that you can do better next time. In April of this year, I did an autopsy on my first game, War Co.

 

 

I launched War Co. on Kickstarter in August 2016. Collectively, 146 backers raised $12,510 to bring War Co. to life. The game was published, shipped and fulfilled ahead of schedule, and I broke even on finances. By most measures, War Co. can be considered a modest success.

With the ever-critical eye of a designer, I can see a lot of extremely simple mistakes I made. It was a huge learning experience. I was way out of my comfort zone and ended up learning a ton simply because I took a big risk. I recommend you do the same because trial-and-error is often the fastest way to learn once you do the basic research. I’ve listed 16 mistakes I made on War Co. – every single one of which I had to learn by trial-and-error.

 

1: I did not test whether a CCG would work well in the market.

If you want to make money, you need to find out what people spend their money on. It’s as simple as that. Because War Co. started as a childhood dream, I did not do that. I made the game I felt like making, which essentially made it a passion project. Because of this, finding people who wanted the same things I wanted was an uphill battle.

This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s important to ask yourself what’s most important: self-expression or money. They’re not mutually exclusive, but you need to pick one ideal to focus on. I chose self-expression with War Co.

If you’re going with self-expression, then do what you want and find people after you do it. If you’re going for money, you need to do market testing. Look up people’s Google searches. See which Kickstarters get backed. Make a bunch of Facebook ads and see who responds the best.

Lesson: If you’re in it for cash, test the market.

 

2: I did not order a prototype prior to manufacturing from the same company that printed.

This was an objectively dumb thing to do. I trusted that Print Ninja would be a good printer with nothing more than their standard-issue sample kit. It would have cost several hundred dollars to have them set up their offset printing machines to do a single copy of War Co. for my examination. In retrospect, though, I probably should have negotiated or paid for the custom sample before trusting them to print all the inventory.

The cards came out in excellent quality. In fact, Print Ninja even printed a slight overrun, giving me more inventory than expected. My issue here is entirely with my method and not with the results.

Lesson: Don’t ever take product quality as a matter of faith.

 

3: War Co. was designed as a six unit product instead of a single-box product.

 

 

This caused logistics and marketing problems. War Co. consists of six different decks. That means six different shippable units and a ridiculous number of potential orders. This six-deck product design caused me to pay extra for “pick-and-pack” fees with overseas suppliers, multiplied the minimum order quantity with the printer by six, and confused customers who weren’t sure which decks to buy. The funny thing is that most people ended up buying all six – so I could have conceivably put them all in a single box.

The takeaway here is that if you do alternate versions of your game, each one will become a shippable unit. If you have one game with plastic tokens and one with metal tokens, you have two shippable units. It can get complicated quickly.

Lesson: Simplify before you ship.

 

4: I did not even know that hobby board gaming was a market until SIX MONTHS into development.

You have no risk of making that mistake since you’re on this blog.

Lesson: Know your audience!

 

5: I did not have enough day-to-day board gamer interactions.

This is actually separate from the previous point. Even after finding out about the hobby board game market, I still focused primarily on an untargeted social media approach. It wasn’t until about February or March of 2016 that I started really talking to board gamers. Bear in mind that by this point, I’d already failed at Kickstarter once.

Lesson: Talk to your customers.

 

6: I charged way too much for international shipping.

 

For everyone in the USA, you don’t have to worry about shipping or customs fees at all!

For everyone in the EU, shipping for two decks of cards is $20, four decks of cards is $25, and six decks of cards is $30.

To Canada: Shipping for two decks of cards is $12, four decks of cards is $15, and six decks of cards is $15.

To Australia: Shipping for two decks of cards is $20, four decks of cards is $25, and six decks of cards is $30.

 

Many backers did not realize this, but the high shipping costs were a direct result of War Co. being a six unit product. That means I had to cover pick-and-pack fees as well as normal shipping fees. The downstream result was that about 80% of my backers were in the USA, as opposed to 60-65% for other similar campaigns. I left tons of money on the table with this mistake.

Lesson: Don’t charge too much for shipping.

 

7: I did not optimize the card layout before the campaign.

 

 

I ended up pivoting during the campaign after gathering opinions from one of the updates. People overwhelmingly preferred design B. While I’m glad we were able to correct the card layout during the campaign, launching with design A probably cost a lot of money on Day 1.

Lesson: Make your product gorgeous before you launch.

 

8: I did not finish the box art before the campaign.

This is an extension of the above. Pretty box art would have worked a lot better than the photo I’d initially used for my Kickstarter campaign.

Lesson: Again, make your product gorgeous before you launch.

 

9: My social media approach was untargeted and used suboptimal content.

Since I had no idea who I was marketing the game to for the longest time, the War Co. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook drew the wrong crowd. I was posting cool sci-fi art and corporate satire. What was conspicuously missing from my feed? Board game and card game content.

My social media accounts got big because I was very active and aggressive about outreach, but the poor targeting meant that relatively few people actually backed the campaign.

Lesson: Pick a specific target audience and make sure all your social media is designed for them.

 

10: My attempts at advertising were ineffective and untested.

I played around with Facebook ads, but I suffered from the same problems as above. I didn’t have a clear sense of target market and I did not polish the advertisements. As a result, very few people clicked on them. I didn’t have a systematic approach toward correcting bad ad results like I do now. I just gave up and focused on other things.

Lesson: Pick a specific target audience, test ads with small amounts of money, and change what doesn’t work.

 

11: I underestimated taxes.

Assets are taxable in the United States. That means all the War Co. inventory was considered taxable at the cost I paid for it. I ended up sending a $1,250 check to the White House earlier this year. Whoopsy-daisy.

Lesson: Know your federal, state, and local tax laws. Call an accountant.

 

12: I denied obvious and unpleasant facts.

This is one of the dangers of working alone. I was emotional about War Co. in ways that I’m not emotional about Highways & Byways. That means I took way too long to fix bad game mechanics, clean up bad ideas, and so on. I did eventually polish the game to a state which people really enjoy – it just took me way too long to correct my course when I went astray.

Lesson: Find someone who can give you hard feedback.

 

13: I nearly burned out.

There was a time where I was working 70 hours in a week between work and War Co. I had headaches all the time. I was tired. I was stressed. I was constantly anxious. It’s pretty obvious looking back what was going on. I was burning out.

Lesson: If you feel like crap all the time, something is wrong and you need a break.

 

14: I got too attached to untested ideas.

This is an extension of Mistake 12. Part of why I am so rigorous about testing my ideas now is because I know how much emotion can take me for a ride.

Lesson: Test everything.

 

15: I got too focused on superficial metrics.

I cared way too much about social media followers, web traffic, and what specific individuals were saying. All of these were misdirects. You have a limited capacity to care and you shouldn’t waste it on garbage. If you want money, focus on sales. If you want attention, focus on web traffic or mailing list size. If you want quality, focus on BGG rating.

Lesson: Only focus on the metrics that relate to your results.

 

16: I set impossible expectations on time to deliver.

Setting a schedule is one of the hardest things to get right. To some extent, you just need to know how long it takes to develop a game, market it, campaign, manufacture, and fulfill. There was a time when I thought all this would take a year. It ended up taking closer to two. Thankfully, by the time I launched the campaign, my time estimates were really accurate. However, I suffered a lot by holding myself to impossible standards of development.

Lesson: Don’t hold yourself to arbitrary deadlines.

 


 

Even with all these little failures listed out in plain text, I want you to understand something. Taking calculated risks is one of the best things you can do. Trial-and-error is a fantastic teacher. Book learning, blog posts, online courses, and all that jazz can only go so far. Go out there, make mistakes, analyze your mistakes, and do better next time. Embrace the journey.

Got any stories of your own mistakes you’d like to share? Leave a reply in the comments 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’ve updated the game to version I-3.
  • I’ve had more people blind play-test it.
  • The jury’s still out on whether the post-Protospiel updates are enough to finalize the game.
  • James’ art deliveries continue to be fantastic. Would you expect anything less?

Performing a Board Game Autopsy: Learning from Your Mistakes

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Few words carry the emotional weight that “autopsy” does. It’s a morbid term associated with an analysis of what we’re all afraid of deep down. In a business context, autopsies don’t help us diagnose death, but rather failure. It is a way of helping us learn from our mistakes and adjust our behavior accordingly. A business autopsy is when you use evidence to determine why and how a project failed.

 

 

Performing a board game autopsy is scary because it requires you to look long and hard at your failures. That fear is why I saved this Start to Finish article for the spookiest time of the year. My first board game autopsy was one I did of my first game, War Co., that I wrote in April of this year. This was a little over two months after I successfully fulfilled the campaign on-time and under budget.

You’ll note that while War Co. was successful in some respects, I wrote an autopsy nonetheless to identify weak areas. You can have a successful project and still perform a project autopsy. You can even perform autopsies on projects in anticipation of failure as a way of identifying weaknesses before they are a problem. Below are some excerpts from the autopsy.

 

War Co. is dead. It is survived by its creator and the hundred-or-so people who believed in it enough to put money into the Kickstarter campaign.

I started the writing with humor. It made me feel better about the fact that I was about to eviscerate a childhood dream.

 

Things I Did Wrong with the Campaign
  • THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: Still not enough honest board gamer interactions.
  • ANOTHER ELEPHANT: International shipping costs were way too high.
  • Graphics, video, and photography were all weak.
  • Stretch goal structure was really poorly done and failed to sustain momentum.
  • Product still looked dodgy before the redesign in the second week.

This is a partial list of some of the things that I believe I did wrong in the campaign. Other headers include:

  • Things I Did Wrong with the Product
  • Things I Did Wrong with Fulfillment
  • Things I Did Wrong with Sales
  • Things I Did Wrong with Social Media
  • Things I Did Wrong Financially
  • Things I Did Wrong with Customers & The Market
  • Things I Did Wrong Emotionally

 

Moving Forward: Talk to gamers more (or at least read). Charge less for shipping. Make a better looking page. Make a better product.

This is my prescription for improving in the future. Under each header, I listed things I did wrong, and under each list, I provided suggestions for moving forward like what you see above. Providing suggestions for moving forward prevents the autopsy from being a document about kicking yourself, rather turning it into a tool to identify issues and their solutions instead. In a way, you’re putting Do Not Enter signs along paths you’ve traveled that do not work so you don’t make the same mistakes twice.

 

 

At this point, I’d like to provide a guide on how to perform an autopsy on your board game project. Each autopsy write-up you do will be highly personal and distinctive, but these five steps will give you a rough guideline.

 

Step 1: Start with a blunt, uncompromising statement of the facts (or your imagined worse-case scenario).

 

The magic of doing a project autopsy is that it provides an unflinching negative viewpoint of your project. So many creators get either excited or defensive, where both emotional states are divorced from the raw facts. State how long you’ve been working on your game, how much you’ve gotten done, how many people are paying attention, and how much money you’ve made. Tell how much you or your team have enjoyed or hated the process. Talk about what you see happening from here. Be honest as you’re doing all of this.

 

Step 2: Create several sections, one for each of the areas you got wrong.

 

The sections you choose to use in your analysis are up to you. You can use as many or as few as you like. Sectioning off your autopsy provides you with the ability to easily give it structure and prompt you to acknowledge mistakes you may have forgotten about. To get you started, here are some section suggestions.

  • Game Design
  • Game Production: General
  • Game Production: Prototyping
  • Game Proudction: Manufacturing
  • Marketing: General
  • Marketing: Targeting
  • Marketing: Outreach
  • Kickstarter: Campaign (if you do a Kickstarter)
  • Kickstarter: Fulfillment (if you do a Kickstarter)
  • Sales
  • Emotions
  • Money
  • Legal

 

Step 3: List all the things you or your team did wrong under each section.

 

This is pretty self-explanatory, though it’s arguably the hardest part. For each of the sections on the autopsy, list as many things as you can think of that you did wrong. Don’t worry about repeating yourself or meeting some kind of minimum. Don’t ignore problems because you have too many written or create ones because you don’t have enough. The point of a project autopsy is the raw honesty of it.

 

Step 4: List suggestions for preventing similar mistakes in the future.

 

Under each section, provide a list of general principles to follow going forward that will prevent you from making the same mistakes. For example, when talking about failures of War Co. as an overall product, I wrote “better play-testing, better market testing, more rigor in product manufacturing and design, don’t do multi-SKU products.” By that I mean that different play-testing and market testing methods would have helped me find more people who would have liked it sooner. More rigor in product manufacturing in design is referring to some things I’m not a fan of with the packaging, mostly minor gripes. That bit about the “multi-SKU products” refers to the fact that War Co. is a six box product, which made it tricky to deal with as a first-time game publisher. My customers never saw evidence of those struggles, but that’s because there was some hardcore organization behind the scenes.

 

Step 5: Periodically look back of your autopsy and compare it to your current project.

 

Lastly, your project autopsy should be periodically looked at. You’ll get the most benefit out of doing it initially, but every once in a while, you’ll want to compare your current project to your old autopsy. It’s so easy to slip back into old habits and make the same mistakes twice. Many times, that’s what destroys a promising creator’s career – making the same mistakes too many times before eventually falling into stagnation.