A Crash Course in Board Games

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

Welcome to the inaugural post of Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game. Every week for the next year, and probably well beyond that, I’ll be posting a new article to this series. In it, I’ll be guiding you through every step of the process of creating board games: core concepts, ideas, design, development, manufacturing, crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter, selling, and marketing. If you want to self-publish a game by yourself or in a small team, you’re the kind of person I’m writing for. I remember how hard it was to learn on my own, and I’ve made it my mission to guide you through the whole process the way I wish I was when I created my first game, War Co.

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When I started, I knew nothing. Don’t believe me? Check out my origin story if you want to know more. I stumbled into the board game industry with vague hopes and dreams, a rough idea of how games worked, and a persistent grandiose delusion of making a lot of money. My ill-defined Pollyanna outlook carried me through the tough times when I had to learn everything from scratch.

Childhood Version of War Co
I taught myself how to make games from the ground up. Now you don’t have to do the same.

I’d like to save you from the trouble I had when I started making board games. For the next few posts, I’m going to assume you know nothing about games. Let’s start from the ground up and talk about all the super simple basic elements that need to be understood to make great games. Remember that no marathoner ever finished a race before sweating and huffing through their first belabored mile many months – or years – prior.

What is a game?

I’ve written a philosophical article in the past asking the age-old question of “what is a game?” In it, I suggested that games are difficult to define and that you have to find a definition that is useful to you. I mostly stand by that statement, but it’s an utterly useless one if you’re completely fresh to the games industry.

In absence of a formal definition, I’ll give you one that’s served me well. A game is competitive activity where one or more people compete against contrary forces – whether created by the game or created by interactions between players – for the pursuit of an objective and within the constraints of rules.

In short, a game is a fun activity involving an objective, constraints, and interaction. Take away the objective and you’ve got free-form entertainment. Remove the constraints and you have no competition – the natural result of a game. Eliminate the interaction – whether that be between the player and the game or between players and other players – and you have a series of unrelated events that fail to coalesce into anything resembling meaning.

Board Game Pieces
Board games are more than the sum of their parts.
Why do people play games?

Much like the above question, I’ve written a philosophical article on the question of “why do people play games?” I said that it’s a great way to socialize, satisfyingly meritocratic, and a fun way to live another life for a little while. Yet one day I asked this question on Twitter and got a wealth of insightful answers from gamers and other game developers which I would like to share with you.

What is a board game?

Most folks probably have an intuitive sense of what a board game is. It’s a game that’s played on a flat surface with pieces and pre-marked surface. That’s a broad enough definition to include games from Monopoly to Pandemic to chess.

Yet you must understand that people often use the phrase “board games” to refer to a larger subset of games known more accurately as “tabletop games.” People say “board games” to mean “tabletop games” the way people say “White House” to mean “US government.” That means card games, dice games, miniature games, and tile-based games also fall under the purview of what is frequently called “board games.” This is a very persistent colloquialism within the board game community.

This is really important to know. Not only does it help you demystify some of the speech you hear when you get into gaming, but it also has implications that could affect how you classify your website, categorize your Kickstarter campaign, or target an audience on social media or for advertising.

What are hobby board games?

Board games are a much different animal than most people in this world will ever realize. For a lot of people, board games are the outmoded, dusty games on Walmart shelves. You know the type: MonopolyScrabble, Risk, Mousetrap… These are board games, yes, but these are not the type of games I’m going to teach you to create. Contrary to most gamers, I don’t see these games as a bad thing, and if you want to make something like them, I suggest you start looking for ways to reach out to Mattel or Hasbro.

There is a whole underground board game economy that only a fortunate few seem to be privy to. Many people have played Ticket to Ride and Pandemic, yes, but big hobby games like Twilight Struggle, Scythe, and Power Grid are still not household names. These are all fantastic, fantastic games. They’re crafted with love and deep strategies. People have gathered around these games for years. Oh, but this isn’t some hipster thing known to only a few. This underground board game industry exceeds a billion dollars.

Twilight Struggle
Yeah. This ain’t Monopoly. This photo was taken by David Gray and posted to Flickr. It’s licensed under CC BY NC 2.0. (Source)
What’s the dfiference between mainstream board games and hobby board games?

Well, for one, simple distribution. Mainstream board games are the ones you find in stores like Walmart and hobby board games flourish online and in local gaming stores. Mainstream board games vary in quality from bad to good, whereas hobby board games – at least, the ones that get discovered – are often very good.

But what’s the real Chemical X here? It’s the community! The hobby board game community is a real entity of interconnected consumers, whereas mainstream board games sell to whoever passes by. Hobby board gamers hang out at game shops, start Meetup groups in their cities, have friends over to play board games, or even go to conventions like Essen and Gen Con. They have a beautifully complex media landscape rife with videos, podcasts, blogs, and forums.

Hobby board gamers have a passion. If you get into this subset of the larger board game industry, you’re not selling cheap stuff to people filling shelf space. You’re selling community and friendship through well-crafted design. You’re selling art. Not art like artwork, but art like a beautifully made gift of your heart and soul. Oh, and you can make good money doing it, too, if you stick to it for a few years.

Whose names should I know?

First, let’s start with a “what” and not a “who.” If there is one board game name you need to know, it is Board Game Geek. This is a website that essentially acts as a mecca to board gamers online. It’s one of the 2,500 most visited websites in the world, which is amazing considering the perceived obscurity of the hobby. Though it boasts an intimidating design, it contains an extraordinary amount of information that makes it analogous to IMDb, but for board games.

Board Game Geek
Board Game Geek – the world’s most beautiful site, in a weird way.

There is one board game designer whose name I’d like you to remember. His name is Jamey Stegmaier. He made Scythe, which is sitting at #7 on Board Game Geek at the time that I write this. He perfectly captured the self-publishing philosophy that is needed to succeed in this era. He’s made several games, all of which are considered to be good. Much of his success happened through the platform of Kickstarter, which acts as the gatekeeper to manufacturing of the current board game industry. What’s more, he marketed his company largely through one-on-one interaction and the massive Kickstarter Lessons blog, which is both very detailed and very generous. I’m sure he’s made his fair share of stumbles, but you’d do well to learn from the general arc of his career if you want to get into game development.

What about other important people?

You’ll probably also hear a lot of board game designer names tossed around. Names you hear might include Reiner Knizia, the ridiculously prolific creator of Tigris & Euphrates and Lost Cities. You might hear of Alan R. Moon, of Ticket to Ride fame. You’ll probably also hear Vlaada Chavatil, Bruno Faidutti, Antoine Bauza, Uwe Rosenberg, Bruno Cathala…

…okay, I’ll stop now. You get the idea. These are just a handful of the myriad names you’ll see on board game boxes and these designers are from the upper echelons of game design, so they might come up in conversation. I’ll refer you to this fantastic Board Game Geek thread if you want to get really into names. This isn’t even touching on hobby board game publishers, who I will consider to be out of the scope of this article.

There are all sorts of podcasters, reviewers, bloggers, and vloggers out there as well, and you’ll certainly want to get to know many of them on a personal basis. If you’re just getting started, though, I refer you to two and only two resources: The Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down. These are, by far, the most influential ones that I know of and the ones who come up most often in conversation. However, if you want to spread the word about your game, or just learn from gamers who aren’t as well-known, just look on Board Game Geek – you can always find an up-to-date thread full of great [insert medium you’re looking for].

What are some great hobby board games?

Oh my goodness, where do I even start? There are so many fantastic hobby board games out there today that I could utterly overwhelm you with suggestions.

First things first, there are some classics that you definitely will want to try when you get a chance. They tend to be cheap on Amazon because they’ve been out a while, so it’s really good for new game developers who are relatively noncommittal about the hobby to start here. Less financial risk!

Photo taken by Padaguan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Classics include:

What are some good newer board games?

The board game industry has radically taken off in the last decade, so there are always new games to be discovered. There are more games out there than I could ever possibly cover in a lifetime and they come faster than anybody could keep up with even if they tried really hard. However, if you look at any articles about games published around the time of this article’s publication (July 3, 2017), you’ll see some of the following names as well:

I’m holding back on my list of new games by a lot. There are actually far more great games than I care to even list, since I’m trying to stick with games that I’m pretty sure will still be brought up in conversation ten years from now when people are reading my articles on Google Glasses in their self-driving cars.

Where do I begin?

It’s great to think about what games are and why people play them. It’s useful to narrow down our discussion to hobby board games and to start listing specific media sources and games to look into. Yet it begs the question that you see bolded above: where do I begin?

I know this is a lot of information. The game lists alone could take you several months to fully explore. But listen: you don’t have to experience everything on these lists. Pick something, pick anything. Don’t stand paralyzed, overwhelmed by the number of decisions you could potentially make. Just do something.

By all means, start making your game today. Play anything you can get your hands on, even if it’s not one of Board Game Geek’s Top 100. You don’t even have to wait for next week’s article – A Crash Course in Game Development – to get started.

Games are about fun, interaction, socializing, competing, and generally being human. Much of game development, and the entrepreneurship that comes along with it, is about expressing yourself and branding your personal meaning onto the world through your creative endeavors. You don’t need my permission. You don’t need anyone’s permission. I’m just here to get you thinking and to tell you what board game buzzwords mean.

There is no “Go” space in game development. You can start anywhere you like.

9 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Board Games

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have been playing board games for the past 10 years but have started designing a strategy game the last few months with my son.

  2. I started designing a Game some time ago but I got stuck until I found this site. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  3. Hey! I’m in the same boat as you were lol, i’ve played some table tops in my day but nothing really on a grand scale. I’ve always wanted to make a tabletop game and i was thinking about 4 days ago, then a friend bought me a boardgame and i thought, I’m gonna do it. So in the last 2 days i’ve created a fun little game, with some pretty interesting mechanics and test played with coins and construction paper cards, on a cutout cardboard box and it was actually pretty fun, just needs tweaking. So i went online a minute ago to see if i was doing anything right, turns out i’m not so bad off, and after reading a few of your articles i’m convinced this is what i want to do.

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