10 Elements of Good Game Design

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When I was a neophyte game developer, I found an excellent article by Wizards of the Coast, creators of Magic: the Gathering, called Ten Things Every Game Needs. It was written almost five years ago, but the wisdom within the article is still very relevant. This two-part article was so influential in my initial design of War Co. that I actually quoted it in my business plan. No matter what type of game you’re making, these 10 elements are critical to making a good game.

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I have taken and slightly modified the ten success factors listed in their article and made them into one easy-to-read list. I’ve added my own commentary so I can give concrete, personal examples of why this framework worked for me when developing War Co. and then eventually Tasty Humans.

1. A clear objective

If there is one thing every game needs, it’s a clear objective. Survive to the end. Cure the disease. Get the most victory points. The objective of any good game must be clear, concise, intuitive, and memorable. It should also be at the top of the rulebook in paragraph number one.

In War Co., the objective is “run your opponent out of cards.” Last person standing, basically. In Tasty Humans, the objective is “win the most points” because it is a victory point-driven game.

2. Constraints

Without constraints, the pursuit of an objective is not a game, but rather freeform play. Objectives and constraints together comprise the core framework of a game.

In War Co., the primary limits are the number of cards you can play and energy use. Energy use keeps you from playing all the strongest, best cards at one time. In Tasty Humans, points are earned by monsters for eating people and arranging their body part tiles in certain ways in the monster’s stomach. There are limits to exactly how you can place tiles, and you don’t always get what you want.

3. Interactivity

There’s a few forms of interactivity that you can find in a great game.

  • Constraints, expressed both through directly through rules and indirectly through strategy and tactics, must interact with the objective.
  • Game elements must interact with one another in ways that are both unique and understandable throughout the course of the game. The pieces in a game of chess have seemingly infinite ways to maneuver. The cards in Netrunner can be combined in complex ways.
  • In all games that are not solitaire games, there is some element of social interaction, even if it’s not a “party game.”

In War Co., interactions come from every one of the cards being unique and having a different effect. Socially, most of the interaction is friendly sparring in response to the “take that” nature of the game. Well, at least I think it’s friendly sparring. Tasty Humans, on the other hand, is much closer to being a solitaire game, but there is still a common pool of cards that all players interact with and change.

4. Runaway leader killer

Games, being intrinsically competitive, need to keep tension to the last move. While you want skilled players to have an advantage, players who are losing early on need a way to catch up. If you don’t have this, you may wind up players disengaging halfway through when they realize they have no chance. A modest amount of luck and chance, even in games of skill, can go a long way to achieving this.

In War Co., the number of cards you have left is effectively your life. Even if you fall behind, there’s a lot of ways to slow your discard rate, redraw old cards, and drag your opponent down with you.

Tasty Humans tallies up points at the end, so this issue is largely sidestepped.

5. Inertia

Games need to keep a steady pace of interesting events to keep players engaged. Interactions need to feel meaningful and important. You don’t want players to ever feel like they’re “grinding” and you want to leave players wanting more when the game is done.

In War Co., there was no magic trick to nailing down the pacing. I just play tested it hundreds of times until it “felt” right and the game didn’t lag. In the worst case scenario, I have the rarely used “stalemate rule” which threatens players with heavy discarding if they don’t make a move. The mere threat is usually enough to keep the game going.

On the other hand, playing Tasty Humans has short turns, which helps the game stay snappy even though it’s a brain-burny puzzle game.

6. Surprise

Predictability is the bane of games. Use chance and unique interactions to prevent games from having one path to victory. You don’t want your game to feel predictable. If you can use an algorithm to solve your game like a Rubik’s cube, you need more surprise.

my-trap-card

In War Co., one place I’ve encouraged surprise is the facedown card mechanic. Players can play cards facedown and turn them face-up at any time – including their opponents’ turns – making their effects take place right at that moment. This creates a game of espionage and counterespionage, with a lot of bluffing thrown in, too.

In Tasty Humans, you never know exactly which adventurer your opponents will eat. Their choice of adventurer will affect the adventurers available to you, sometimes in profound ways. You can plan your whole turn ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean you will get what you expect!

7. Strategy

To make your game worth playing for the first, second, and third times, you need to nail down interactivity, inertia, and surprise. However, if you want your game to be built to last, people need the sense that they can get better at it, refining their play style over time. Games need to encourage people to master them over time.

Strategy is where War Co. excels, sometimes even to the detriment of the first and second games. Each starter deck takes a few plays to completely understand since there’s so many secrets and combinations. As soon as you get used to that, then you’ll be compelled to create your own deck – a whole new kind of strategic challenge.

Tasty Humans is similarly strategic. Throughout the entire game, you must place tiles in your monster’s stomach in such a way that you will earn the most points from scoring tiles.

8. Fun

This seems obvious, but never lose sight of it. If you hate the game you’re playtesting, do something different.

War Co. was garbage in its first ten iterations. It stalled out for the next four. It was only around version 15 that it started being really, really fun. Tasty Humans is about monsters fighting humans instead of the other way around, which gets a sick laugh out of everybody who sees the game.

9. Flavor

If you want your game to be great, it can’t simply be a technical masterpiece. Don’t just playtest it and refine the mechanics. Make it feel unique.

This is the art for Spectrum in War Co., drawn by James Masino.
This is the art for Spectrum in War Co., drawn by James Masino.

The best example of flavor of War Co. can be found in the artwork drawn by James Masino. Instead of being a generic sci-fi apocalypse defined in gritty, gray tones, he turned up the color and turned what could have been a by-the-numbers apocalypse into an operatic, psychedelic technicolor horror show.

On the other hand, with Tasty Humans, we kept the game by being dark by using really bright and pretty pastel colors.

10. A hook.

Lastly, once you make it technically clever and unique, there’s one last thing you need: a simple takeaway. Clever marketing messages are succinct: the soundbite, the earworm, or the logo. If you want your game to sell, it needs to be “the one where you X”. This is how you get people in the door to see all the rest of the work you’ve done. You can’t get people to appreciate nuances unless you get them in the door.

According to the Kickstarter feedback I’ve gotten, the biggest draw for War Co. is the art. Everything else after they see bright, beautiful apocalyptic spaceships is a pleasant surprise. For Tasty Humans, it’s all about the monsters!

BONUS: A narrative.

This eleventh element is something I came up with completely on my own. Nothing connects with people quite like a story. If you can give your game a story, you build a whole world of context that draws patterns in the mechanics and the theme. I’m very glad I wrote a novel’s worth of lore for War Co. It made game development, artwork, and promotion all a lot easier.


I encourage you to read the original article I’ve paraphrased and responded to above. By using my own work as an example, I hope you can read their original write-up with a concrete context and use their lessons to make an incredible game of your own.





How We Fulfilled the Tasty Humans Board Game Kickstarter

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Tasty Humans is the latest, and in my opinion, the greatest creation of Pangea Games. It’s a tile-placement, puzzle-solving board game for 1-4 players about villagers attacking monsters. Except it’s from the monsters’ point of view! The Tasty Humans Kickstarter went on to raise $20,536 and then several thousand more on BackerKit for a total of $28,000 and counting.

It’s been an extraordinary privilege of mine to work with Ryan Langewisch, the designer of the game as well as Tyson Mertlich, the developer who helped make the magic happen so early on. They were the creative force behind the game, and really, the soul of it.

But my role? I took their work, which they had so painstakingly and lovingly created, and marketed it before printing it and sending it around the world. Now I’m going to tell you how I did that last part.

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What is Kickstarter fulfillment?

You hear all this talk about Kickstarter fulfillment. What exactly is it?

As backers use the term, fulfillment covers basically everything between a Kickstarter campaign ending and people receiving their rewards. That means manufacturing, freight, customs, and order fulfillment.

How Tasty Humans was manufactured is complicated and I intend to write a post about just that. Suffice it to say, BangWee printed Tasty Humans and they did an absolutely phenomenal job. The price was low, the material quality was high, the colors were gorgeous, and the customer service was handled remarkably well. I have nothing but praise for those folks printing board games out in Hong Kong.

As for the rest of fulfillment, there are basically three parts: freight, customs, and order fulfillment. Freight involves getting large shipments of games from the manufacturer to a fulfillment warehouse. Customs involves importing goods into a different country. Order fulfillment involves finding a warehouse to store inventory, putting items in boxes, and shipping those boxes to customers.

How did we handle freight shipping and customs?

Fresh off the truck in the Fulfillrite warehouse!

Freight shipping is one of the most intimidating parts of Kickstarter fulfillment. It’s one of those legacy industries that even in the 2020s is bursting at the seams with unnecessary middlemen and Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Many freight companies have websites that look like they were made when Friends was airing new episodes. What’s more, their customer service tends to be spotty and vague.

So imagine my relief when the CEO of Fulfillrite turned me onto a tool called Freightos. It’s basically Expedia for freight companies. You make an account, log in, describe your shipment and its weight, and – boom – you have a list as long as your arm of sea and air shipping companies. You literally just have to pick one, enter in your credit card information, and fill out a few forms. How these guys haven’t taken over the world yet is beyond me.

Now most freight companies that you select through a marketplace like Freightos will handle customs for you. But there are still two salient points which I feel must be made.

First and foremost: pad your schedule to account for customs exams. Make sure you have some extra cash set aside, too. Customs flags games for additional exams pretty often. Tasty Humans, in particular, was pulled aside for about two weeks and X-rayed. Shortly thereafter, a bill for $600 arrived in my email inbox. Nice.

Second: if you absolutely feel the need to have warehouses in different countries, split your freight at the point of origin. Don’t ship from China, import the whole thing into the US, pay a customs bill, and then ship part of it to Germany, and pay a customs bill again. What’s the use in that?

A brief note before we talk about fulfillment…

I would like to talk about how we handled order fulfillment. However, I am first obliged to say the following.

We used Fulfillrite for order fulfillment. I have done a considerable amount of paid consulting work for Fulfillrite, and I still do. As such, consider this paragraph the necessary disclosure of that fact. Even still, I will relay the facts of our experience with them exactly as they happened.

How did we handle order fulfillment?

I can’t see why something like this would get held up at customs.

Fulfillment went really well! During the downtime caused by the customs delay, I went ahead and integrated BackerKit with Fulfillrite’s systems. On that fateful Monday morning when the games arrived, January 6, there were about 700 orders ready to go. The remaining 140 were either $1 backers with no physical reward, stragglers who had not yet provided an address, and people whose credit cards expired before they could be charged.

The games arrived sometime around 10:30 that morning. They had about 200 shipped out by noon. By the time I had typed up an update to go out to my backers, a mere five hours later, there were only 100 orders left unshipped. The only reason they had not received the inventory and shipped every order that day is because I had to wire transfer more funds into the dashboard.

Holy smokes! I’ve consulted with these folks for a long time, so I know what they’re capable of. But I really think the same-day shipping and receiving speaks for itself.

Now you may ask yourself, as I initially did, “how do you fulfill international orders from a US-only warehouse?” They had recently partnered with a company called Asendia, which is a postal carrier that specializes in shipping to foreign countries in such a way where the shipper pays the customs fee. It’s a neat way of circumventing the myriad problems that come with having a dedicated warehouse in Europe or the UK, a subject about which I will likely write a 2,500 word, SEO-friendly diatribe about later.

No campaign fulfillment ever goes without a hitch, of course, and Tasty Humans ran into two distinct ones.

Problem 1: The Padded Envelope Affair

I marked “padded envelope” as an acceptable form of shipping packaging for a 2-pound, foot-long, sharp-cornered board game. Thinking back, this was likely something I did because I expected there would be large padded mailers with thick walls which would be acceptable packaging for board games. This wasn’t the case.

No one overrode my initial error in judgment by forcing the games to go out in rigid boxes. My approval of shipping Tasty Humans with padded envelopes instead of rigid boxes went unquestioned. But let’s be real: can I truly be frustrated with a fulfillment company for following my instructions to the letter?

Problem 2: The Customs-Free Customs Fees Affair

Remember how I said we were using a service called Asendia to pay for customs on behalf of our international customers? Well, Politifact says “mostly true.” A lot of people don’t know this, but you have to cross a certain threshold item value before customs fees are incurred. This is called the de minimis customs value and it’s different for every single one of the 200-odd countries on this planet.

Fulfillrite’s systems are very smart. They calculate the cheapest overall postage, and they assign that to your order unless you override it or otherwise specify. So for many European countries, we ended up sending packages via USPS or FedEx, and no one was hit with customs fees. Places like the U.K. that have low de minimis values, we sent packages via Asendia and paid the customs fee for our customers, and they never even noticed!

But this was not so for Denmark or Sweden. No, our northern European friends were hit with value-added taxes that were not covered by Asendia…mainly because we didn’t use Asendia. We used USPS.

You could call this a fault of Fulfillrite’s system. You could call it my own error for not overriding the default shipping method. No matter who you blame, though, the fact remains that I ended up Pangea-PayPal’ing six or seven Scandinavians because we take our “no customs fee” promise very seriously, even if it means reimbursing customers.

What did we do well?

Overall, the process was very smooth. We’d go with Fulfillrite again in a heartbeat. Freightos was also wonderful in helping us to arrange freight as well. BangWee, the printer of Tasty Humans, has gotten nothing but compliments and we are particularly thrilled with the quality of their materials.

I’m own worst critic and I’m happy with how this campaign turned out. This campaign’s fulfillment process has met the standards of a guy who beats himself up for not being able to run six miles when it’s 100 degrees outside.

What would we have done differently?

Looking back, we’d fix the two problems we mentioned with fulfillment earlier. We would also pad our timelines by another month or two overall. The simple fact is that even though we were very fast and efficient in shipping this campaign, we missed our target date by two weeks. A drop in the bucket for a five-month process, sure, but still not what I had intended.

Imagine working in a warehouse and pulling bright red board games emblazoned with the name “Tasty Humans” in a sea of industrial steel, concrete, and beige cardboard boxes.

Final Thoughts on Fulfilling the Tasty Humans Kickstarter

We were very happy with how fulfillment went for Tasty Humans. The campaign ran into few issues, was pretty close to shipping on-time, and stayed within our budget. By sharing our story with you, we hope that you can have a similarly positive fulfillment experience with your board game Kickstarter!





9 Ways to Avoid Despair and Move Forward After Failure

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This is the last of four articles in the Failure Recovery series on Start to Finish. My own recent failure to launch a board game in 2018Highways & Byways, is what inspired this detour from the originally planned articles. I think that a frank discussion of failure – what it looks like, the consequences, and moving forward – is really important for new creators to learn.

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Failure is brutal. Nobody wants to fail. Nobody sets out to fail. Yet when we take on projects that are bigger than we are able to complete with our skillsets and resources, failure becomes part of life. Success often comes from what you learn from a string of failures. That’s why today, I’m going to talk about nine ways you can avoid despair and move forward after failure.

Step 1: Focus on diagnosing the failure.

I talk about this in more detail in How to Diagnose Failure & Move Forward as a Board Game Developer. Long story short: map out your process, work backward, and see where it broke down. This is good for your rational business interests, but I think it’s also good for coping, too. For me, I found it much easier to analyze business problems than to handle the raw emotion of Kickstarter failure in the week or two immediately following the cancellation.

Step 2: Make a plan to fix the failure.

This is also covered in the previously linked article in Step 1, but it bears repeating. Having an action plan based on careful analysis of what went wrong can make you feel like your failure is useful. I believe that failure is most painful when it is not given meaning. When given meaning, failure becomes bearable. Once it’s bearable, it can be useful and perhaps even motivating.

Step 3: Let it hurt.

Failure hurts. It really, really does. That’s okay. Disappointment, pain, and frustration are part of the human experience. It is unavoidable and you can ask Buddha if you don’t believe me.

It’s okay to let it upset you, take it personally, and be frustrated. If you need to take a day off, do it. If you need to take a week off, do it. If you need to sulk, sulk. You obviously don’t want to succumb to the siren song of self-pity for too long, but you need to release your emotions so that you can move forward. Bottled emotions are painful at best and dangerous at worst.

For me, the raw emotional upset of the Highways & Byways campaign didn’t hit me until the middle of April. This was after I had cancelled the campaign, made a Plan B, and started executing a pivot. For some reason, it was after doing all these things that I was most comfortable processing the pain.

Perhaps for you, feeling the pain will come before you can take action. Perhaps it can come many months later. No matter what: don’t feel bad about feeling bad.

Step 4: Look for the silver lining.

Should you find yourself succumbing to the siren song of self-pity for so long that you risk being dashed upon the rocks, it’s time to take a step back. Positive things come out of failure, even though failure seems devastating. It’s like a forest fire in the sense that it destroys a lot of trees, but creates fertile soil from which stronger, better trees can grow.

For example, when Highways & Byways failed, I had a better understanding of the need to do market research. That’s a clear takeaway, but what most people don’t see is that it cleared up my calendar since I wasn’t busy running a campaign anymore. I was able to focus on doing more things I enjoyed in game development. Furthermore, it instantly broke me of my bad habit of working alone – one of the most dangerous things you can do in business.

Even if you fail fantastically in a public place, it’s probably not a complete wash. You’re probably walking away with more knowledge, more experience, and perhaps even more resources. Even when you feel bad, there is probably something that can make you feel better.

Step 5: Keep some perspective.

Just about everybody who is successful has experienced setbacks. I could list examples of CEOs and athletes, but it’s cliche and you’ve heard it. That’s because it’s true and you’re no exception.

Think about the difficulties your heroes must have faced to get where they are. The path to success is not an easy one. It’s special because it’s uncommon and hard to reach. The scarcity of success is what makes it sweet, so acknowledge the scarcity.

Step 6: Start something new.

Nothing cures the sting of failure like starting something new. In fact, this is what Hayao Miyazaki – creator of the movie Spirited Awaysuggests for escaping disappointment with past projects. I find it personally to be true as well. Nothing cures your frustration and desire for self-pity quite like hard work. You still need to carefully balance your workload so you can stay healthy for the long road ahead, but excessive downtime after disappointment is a recipe for disaster.

Open up your heart to pursuing passion again. Try something new. Work hard to make something beautiful. Just be smarter about it next time, like I know you will.

Step 7: Build a dream team.

It’s dangerous to go alone. When you work alone, it’s really hard to recover from a failure. If a team of five launches an unpopular product, that’s okay, because they can likely create something new within a short period of time. Someone working alone may take a year or longer to recover.

For that reason, the period of time that passes right after a failure is the perfect time to build a network and find teammates. Together, you all become stronger and you can make better games as a result!

Step 8: If you’re still stuck, take a break.

If you’ve been grinding away for months or years on end, it’s easy to get stuck in the same ruminative thought patterns. Even the sting of failure is not enough to break repetitive thought patterns sometimes. Only time and distance can do that.

If you’re able to and it’s appropriate, take a short break after a high-profile failure. Do the immediate damage control and take a few weeks to sort out urgent crises. Then go to Hawaii. Or at least reconnect with some friends or family.

Step 9: If you’re still stuck after a break, seek professional advice.

If you’ve recently suffered a setback and the steps above haven’t helped, then it’s time to call in the calvary. By that, I mean any qualified professional who can help you see a way forward. That might mean a career counselor, a therapist, or maybe even a life coach.

The point I’m making here is that if you are frustrated, disappointed, or anxious and you feel deeply in a rut, it’s okay to reach out for professional advice. In fact, it’s more than simply okay – it’s smart!


This is the end of the Failure Recovery series. We’ve covered how to diagnose failure, move forward, recognize common pitfalls, save your reputation, and resist despair. I hope these articles have helped you recover from a recent failure, prevent failure, or lose your fear of failure.

Do you have a good way of coping with failure? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear it 🙂