4 Lessons from Sagrada for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Sagrada is one of my recent favorite board games. It is fundamentally a pretty simple game, but it has a lot of really endearing qualities. First and foremost, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. The dice are bright and pretty, as are the puzzle boards on which you build stained glass arrangements of dice. It’s ultimately a puzzle game, but a very attractive one with some subtle elements that arise from it being a nearly perfect information game where players draw from the same draft pool. It is also a smashing success of a game – so let’s talk about why that is.

Sagrada board game
Photo by Eric Yurko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. (Source).

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First, let’s do a quick rundown of how Sagrada works. Your objective is to score the most victory points. You do so by placing colorful dice on a 5 x 4 grid in such a way that you meet conditions spelled out on one or more public objectives and/or your private objective. You also make sure to fill in as many spaces as possible on your board and keep as many “favor tokens” as possible by the end of the game.

There are ninety dice in the game, of which there are five different colors. Each player will roll a certain amount of dice (2 for each player plus 1). Then you snake draft around the table and everybody picks one die to place on their board. Certain spaces on your board can only hold certain colors, certain spaces can only hold certain numbers, and some spaces have no restrictions. No matter what: no two dice with the same color or number can be adjacent to one another on the board.

Got all that? Good – because that’s basically Sagrada. There are few other elements, but that’s the gist.

1. Looks matter.

You can’t talk about Sagrada without gushing about the colors. In fact, this warrants another photo…

Sagrada board game
Photo by Eric Yurko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. (Source).

The bright, colorful dice, the gorgeous card backs, and the stained glass cardboard player boards are all incredibly photogenic. This game came out in 2017 and the creators knew that in order to succeed on social media, it had to make people stop and click. And boy did it! There was a while on Instagram where you couldn’t go 10 pictures on a board gamer’s Instagram feed without running into this game.

The key takeaway is that you need to be mindful of how your game looks and feels. This is not just because of the experience that gamers will have when they play it on the table. Gaming goes deeper than that. A lot of gamers – and people at large – experience things by sharing them through photos with their friends. Once you realize people are doing this, you can make games that are perfect for that kind of behavior, like Sagrada.

2. Combine chance with choice like Sagrada.

There is an old running gag in the board game industry about board gamers hating dice. Sagrada has 90 of them. Yet Sagrada doesn’t use dice like “roll a 6 and this happens.” No, they use dice as pieces with variable states. For example, in a four-player game of Sagrada, you start with a draft pool of 9, of which each player will eventually receive 2. The active player will always have one or more choices of dice to choose from and then an additional choice of “where do I put this on my board?” to make.

The point I’m making is that you can incorporate chance. Chance elements are valuable in game design because they keep games from being “solved” in the same way that chess – a perfect information, zero luck game – ultimately was. Yet adding an element of chance haphazardly can make the game feel like it’s playing you instead of the other way around. For that reason, you always want to make sure that gamers can make meaningful choices based on the chance events that occur.

3. Make your restrictions easy to remember.

In Sagrada, you can’t have two dice with the same number or color adjacent to one another. Easy to remember, right? While this creates a very real struggle that informs your decisions throughout the game, it’s not gimmicky and you’re not likely to forget it. This is an underrated strength of Sagrada. There are a number of ways this could have been implemented poorly. Take note, aspiring game designers!

4. Make passing a rarity.

The restrictions above will every once in a while cause you to cede your turn entirely. This is arguably one of the worst feelings that a game can give you. Losing your turn, or having to cede your turn because you can make no legal moves, generally feels awful. Yet this becomes a very real risk when you have easy-to-remember restrictions that apply to a lot of situations.

Sagrada has an easy way around this that greatly minimizes the amount of turns that you will have to pass. It comes from tool cards which allow you to take certain actions after you place favor tokens on them. Most of the time, you’re better off simply placing a die on your board and holding on to your favor tokens until the end of the game for extra victory points. However, when you’re truly stuck, the tool cards let you continue to influence the game in interesting and engaging ways. I like that aspect of Sagrada a lot.

If you truly must create a game where passing is an occasional necessity, it may be worth adding an extra mechanic that allows players to continue to take actions. Typically, you want to implement the fewest mechanics possible to decrease rule overhead. However, allowing players to continue to play and stay engaged is a good reason to make an exception to this heuristic. Learn from Sagrada in this sense.

I enjoy Sagrada a lot and I find it to be an excellent example of a modern board game. In a world where Scythe and Gloomhaven remain topical for years after their initial release, Sagrada is a remarkable example of what it takes to make gateway games that stay appealing over time.

72 thoughts on “4 Lessons from Sagrada for Aspiring Board Game Designers

  1. I can see why some people claim that Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra “stole” the basic design of the game. Since we already have the original Azul, and I’ve considered buying the Stained Glass of Sintra variant, I may reconsider and buy Sagrada instead.

    Nice blog!

  2. Great points about the simple to remember rules restrictions. I find games with loads of exceptions and niche rules see less table time as I may love them but teaching them is frustrating and slows things down.

  3. I appreciate the point about chance + choice. It’s too easy to allow random actions to drive gameplay forward, when IMO a good game engine runs on interesting player choices.

    What are the key differences between Sagrada and Azul?

    1. Thank you! Randomness is good for keeping a game spicy long after the first play, but you’re right that random actions can be really dangerous when misused. Sagrada is clever to me because it *subverts* the typical problems with dice.

      At a distance, Azul and Sagrada are pretty close in spirit. There are some minor differences in scoring, placement of pieces, and how you get pieces that end up adding up to substantially different end products. In short, there are no *huge* differences, there are just a few key little ones.

  4. This is such a beautiful game. I own Azul for the goal of having a game my parents would enjoy playing with me. I always go back and forth on acquiring this one as well.

    1. For what its worth, I actually bought a copy of this for my future mother-in-law as a gift, and she really enjoyed it. It’s like $40 on Amazon last I checked, which is worth it.

  5. I picked up Sagrada early 2018 with high hopes: it looked gorgeous and it was totally out of stock, save for one copy I found in the corner of my local game store. After bringing it home and playing it with my friends, we had a fun time. It was indeed gorgeous and simple enough that my friends, who were essentially non-gamers at that point, could learn the rules.

    However, it unfortunately started to sour on us. Now I can’t deny that Sagrada checks several boxes in the ‘good game design/ good game’ categories, but the puzzle started to take hold of our fun and slowly ask questions that we didn’t have answers to.

    Keep in mind, this was before I had acquired Azul, so we weren’t influenced by it so much.

    Our issues, in brief, were with the tools, the colors, and small aspects of the gameplay, specifically dealing with passing. Sagrada is, in many ways, an unforgiving puzzle. There is only exactly enough dice and moves to complete your window. Additionally, if you mess up, and the right tool isn’t available, then you’ve ended up with huge gaping holes. The tools very rarely seemed to help, and when they did it was a mad scramble to hastily fix any issues you had, and even then not all your problems could be fixed because your issue wasn’t about the use of tools, it was about still getting the right die to fit in the right spot.

    I understand the whole appeal of Sagrada is the difficult puzzle, and I could accept it, if it wasn’t for, in my opinion, Sagrada’s worst feature: the colors. Oh my giddy aunt, the colors are horrendous if you’re colorblind. I went in knowing the color would be an issue, but not as bad as it was. I had to constantly ask what color something was, and then recheck in my grid if I was ok. Everything starts to blend together when it’s in the grid, and it’s was a nightmare. Combine that with the unrelenting puzzle and the hidden color goal, which I had to guess which one I had if I didn’t get yellow or red, I did not have a great time because I couldn’t focus on the puzzle.

    Overall, I have mixed memories of Sagrada. I know it’s a good game in gameplay, theme, and overall design , but my personal experiences and faults with it deeply affect my enjoyment of the puzzle.

    1. Oh absolutely, Sagrada has serious problems with colorblindness accessibility. Having worked with Dr. Heron of Meeple Like Us on more than a few posts, I heard his voice in my head pointing that out from the minute I cracked open the box.

      While the “gaps” that prevent you from completing your window / limited use of tools never really bothered me, I can see that being frustrating. There’s something oddly uncomfortable about not being able to complete something you’re trying to complete in a game, even if it’s not the end-all-be-all of scoring.

  6. I honestly love how you can change your board each time you play. And not only just change it but make it easier or harder.

  7. You can have the most amazing combination of mechanisms and a game that flows really well, but unfortunately nobody will even give it a chance unless the aesthetics are there as well!

    1. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, but it’s true. People make purchasing decisions based on heuristics (like looks) and not necessarily data. The good news flipside is that you can attract people to complicated and weighty games with sharp branding.

  8. We also love Sagrada. Enjoyed so much the first play and every time thereafter, including the well done and versatile expansion. It’s easily teachable and wonderfully repayable.

  9. Agree on all points, except one…as a person who is color-blind, I had to mark all of my purple dice with a black dot on the pips. I couldn’t tell them apart from the blue. The game is beautiful, but some slight care in this department would have helped.

    1. Yeah, trying to use this game with any sort of colorblindness has to be borderline impossible. I wish they’d found a way to make it work, such as using symbols for pips or something.

  10. I thought Sagrada was OK, but I really liked it with the expansion. I think it changes a bit the game dynamics and for me it works better that way. I don’t know if it’s quite that simple to explain it and follow its multiple objectives for an older not very gamers group. But I’m curious to try it with them and see how it goes. Maybe I’ll be surprised 🙂

    1. I haven’t had the pleasure of trying the expansion yet – maybe I should give it a shot!

      What you just said about explaining rules to groups of non-gamers is really important. A lot of us, especially those of us deeply involved in the board game community, forget just how hard is to learn board games for the first time. There’s a lot of jargon, norms, and expectations that first-timers haven’t picked up yet. Photosynthesis, for example, may be a simple area control game, but only if you understand the concept of area control games!

  11. Great article this is a game I have been wanting to try. Not sure if I really want to own it though given I feel like it will scratch the same itch as Azul which I already have

  12. I’m interested in the randomness that you get from having a 3-4 player game. A perfect information game like chess only works as a no luck game because there are only 2 players. Adding a third player adds a layer of chance and an uncontrollable variable. So I wonder what it would be like to use turn order as the chance variable along with 3-4 players in a perfect information game.

  13. Essentially, what makes this game so great is the combination of:
    1) Very easy to learn.
    2) Can be as simple or complicated as you want.
    3) It has just enough luck involved.
    4) Bonus: Looks great on the table!

  14. #2 is big for my taste in gaming. I like when there is a balance between chance and choice. Too much chance and your decisions don’t seem to matter and players can lose their investment. Too much choice and the game will feel samey and end up with “these are the best opening moves always” problem.

  15. Not only is it a great game but the aesthetics are so beautiful. It’s also easy to pack which is a plus for me since I travel a lot.

  16. I especially like your point about chance. A little bit of randomness can go a long way to upping the replayability of a game. Too much and players can feel as though they are not in control, and too little (and/or perfect knowledge) can make the game solvable like you’ve described.

  17. I’ve only played Sagrada twice and it didn’t really do much for me. But after reading this you’ve inspired me to give it another shot.

  18. We love Sagrada for these reasons for sure! We teach this everyone we can and it has been almost universally loved. So nice to lay out the simple restrictions and not have to refer back to rules constantly. The one complaint I’ve heard is with max player count, was watching your super awesome dice you need dwindle away until it’s your turn etc..then the sadness you missed out on the cool stuff. I haven’t had an issue with this, personally, but I like rolling with what’s available and not planning to some crazy degree. I think of it as a diference between strategy and tactics.

    Great article, thank you!

  19. Unrelated to the game, but thought provoking:
    If we don’t teach children to be able to at least read cursive, how will they be able to read historical documents?

  20. I love Azul and Sagrada and they both make it to the table often. I also LOVE the colorful dice and boards in Sagrada and like the dice drafting mechanic–that works well no matter how many players you have.

  21. Looks matter but it bothers me that you list it as the first item. I would rather have a non-eye catching game that plays great and will last a long time than a shiny game that is hot for a week and then just takes up space. I don’t buy a ton of games so having games that will last for decades rather than weeks or months is important.

  22. This article has some great points. I agree with everything, but I’ll expand with my thoughts and offer different points (and some counter points) for consideration and thought: choice vs. chance and theme, the relevance of some “choice only” games, and aesthetics.
    First, regarding “choice vs. chance,” I appreciate and understand the need for balancing them. I think this balance should be directly tied to the theme for the game. Consider a war game as an example. These games reward your strategy and how you maneuver your pieces/forces against your opponent, but usually resolve combat with dice rolls to add the chance for the “fog of war.” These rolls are also usually modified for troop morale or terrain (with + or – the roll) to more accurately account for it without eliminating chance or over complicating the rules.
    I’d also like to point out that there is a niche for games that have no chance. These games I believe truly are a measure of who is the more skilled player. Chess is the classic example, but I’d also like to highlight Go here. Go is extremely simple to learn but has depth in strategy and skill. It’s also neat because play can shift from one part of the board to another suddenly. Unlike chess, I’m not sure it has been “fully solved” because of this potential sudden shifting. Also, most “hard core” Go players are okay losing and may prefer to lose if they “played beautifully.” I’ll also point out that these two games have been around for thousands of years and are still popular. That is significant. As mentioned earlier. They work because they are 2 players, and they are not for everyone (is there any game that can be for everyone?), but they do have their place.
    Regarding aesthetics, I agree that looks matter, but it can be overwhelming if there is too much color. For me, Sagrada is overwhelming and distracting when I first look at it. I’ll admit I’ve never played it or seen it in person, so that opinion could change when I finally do.
    I don’t want to run the color blindness point into the ground since so many others have talked about it, but I will just say I think a good technique is to incorporate those considerations early into design and get feedback throughout. A successful example of this is with the Kickstarter for Xia: Legends of a Drift System. Cody Miller informed the backers early about his considerations for color blind accessibility early regarding the design of the cargo cubes (resources) for the game. He asked for input and feedback and sent us backers several pictures of the process as we gave feedback. The result was great: color blind backers felt included, and I got the general sense that Cody was dedicated to making the game the best it could be.
    In summary, choice/ chance balance should be tied to theme, choice only games are relevant and have a niche, too much color can be overwhelming and distracting to some people and consider color-blindness issues early in design and seek feedback.

  23. Have not played Sagrada yet although having read the write up love the balance created by simple rules and playing the level of chance just right. Now another game I need to get!

  24. Hadn’t heard of this game before but I like puzzles and simple to remember rules so those seem to be pluses

  25. So, for the next game I make, if I want you to like it: Keep it colourful, pretty, and as unique looking as possible. Give it some chance/risk, but make that manageable/mitigable.
    Done. 😉

  26. Whether fair or not, Sagarada and Azul will probably always be mentioned in the same breath because of the proximity of release and beautiful presentation. For me though, that’s we’re most of the comparisons end. I think they are unique enough to own both. I give a nod to Sagrada over Azul due to the fantastic solo variant.

  27. For me it’s more important to have the chance and randomness mitigated than to have the pretty components. Glad to hear this covers both.

  28. Thanks for the review. Looks like a beautiful game with the right mix of randomness and strategy to make replays exciting!

  29. Thanks for your articles. Between yours and Story Board’s I get my maximum dose of board game related articles. Sagrada has been on my wishlist for a while, this article had pushed it up the list.

  30. I’m a sucker for dice, especially ones as beautiful as Sagrada’s. The visuals combined with the smooth, puzzly gameplay make it a real hit for me.

  31. Sagrada is the one game that my wife will play. The aesthetics are amazing! I love that every game feels like a new puzzle to solve.

  32. I want to try this game, i am a boardgame fan, so i want to try everything thar challenges my mind, so this game is in my list. Good article that gives some tips to look to the other side of the games, the design.

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