4 Lessons from Paladins of the West Kingdom for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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In March of 2019, Paladins of the West Kingdom by Garphill Games raised nearly a million New Zealand dollars (around $600,000 USD) on Kickstarter. Ever since then, Paladins of the West Kingdom has been on the Board Game Geek Hotness list nearly every time I’ve checked. For this reason, we are going to dig into what makes this game so successful.

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But first, here’s a brief explanation of how the game works, taken from the Board Game Geek page:

The aim of Paladins of the West Kingdom is to be the player with the most victory points (VP) at game’s end. Points are gained by building outposts and fortifications, commissioning monks and confronting outsiders. Each round, players will enlist the help of a specific Paladin and gather workers to carry out tasks. As the game progresses, players will slowly increase their faith, strength and influence. Not only will these affect their final score, but they will also determine the significance of their actions. The game is concluded at the end of the seventh round.

1. Board gamers really like themes set in certain time periods.

When you’re making a fantasy board game (or novel), some time periods draw more attention than others. Think of all the fantasy books set in the Middle Ages. That time period is used as the setting for many stories at least partly because readers like and expect it. This is just as true with board games.

This may seem like a pretty superficial point to analyze regarding Paladins of the West Kingdom, but it’s really not. When board game publishers set out to either create a game from scratch, publish an existing game, or retheme an existing design, they do not do so arbitrarily. They look at many possibilities and make a determination based on market demands. Then they create a game that meets those demands, in short, assuring product-market fit.

If you’re a board game designer looking to make a financially successful game, one good place to start is by researching the market. Pay attention to what board gamers like. Look for repeating patterns of consumption. From there, you can make a game that fits within a defined, tested niche of the market while still applying your own personal touches to it.

2. Custom wooden pieces add component variability to the game without inflating cost.

This is a simple lesson, but an important one. A quick look at the Paladins of the West Kingdom rulebook reveals that there are nearly FOUR HUNDRED wooden parts included in every game.

Having so many wooden components gives players the sense that they are getting a great deal. And, indeed, wooden components add a lot to the tactile experience of the game.

However, in my experience with the creation of Tasty Humans, I’ve found that individual wooden pieces are often very cheap. Sometimes as little as $0.03 each even for custom wooden components. That means you can add a lot of them to a board game without driving the cost up too much!

3. Establishing intellectual property takes a long time, but makes selling new games easier in the long run.

Anyone who’s been watching board games for a while has likely noticed the rise of “intellectual property.” That is to say, games that fall within a larger series. The principle is the same as Marvel movies – create individual movies that cohere together into a massive whole.

From a quality perspective, there are pros and cons to focusing on series of games instead of individual games. Some people find the steady delivery of new games with a similar theme to be comforting. Others find it to be stultifyingly repetitive.

From a business perspective, though, it makes perfect sense to create series of games instead of individual games. You can reuse the same brand, the same mailing list, the same audience, and many of the same art assets when creating new games within a series. You can’t do that when your business model depends upon the steady creation of brand new one-offs.

So how does this tie into Paladins of the West Kingdom? It’s simple. Paladins of the West Kingdom is part of a series of games that includes Architects of the West Kingdom and stylistically similar games Raiders of the North SeaExplorers of the North Sea, and Shipwrights of the North Sea.

This is a rising trend in the board gaming world. Other examples include Scythe: Rise of Fenris and Founders of Gloomhaven. What’s more, board games draw heavily from fantasy and science fiction, which have been series-based since Lord of the Rings and Dune respectively.

4. Some gamers love making lots of decisions, but your theme has to set expectations to attract the right audience.

Many game designers see theme as having two primary objectives.

  1. Draw players in.
  2. Keep players engaged with the experience.

These two objectives are very important, and indeed, make board games worth playing. There is an underrated objective with game theming that many people often miss. That is: setting expectations.

For all the talk of accessibility in board games, sometimes you want to make an experience that isn’t for everyone. Gamers have described Paladins of the West Kingdom as being a game full of decision-making. For some people, this is amazing. Many of the best board games of all time are full of complex decision-making. But for some people, it’s a special circle of hell.

So what is a game creator to do? You use a theme that only attracts the type of gamers you want to attract. By using terms like “paladin” and showing medieval armor on the box, Paladins of the West Kingdom – and I say this with love – brands itself as a nerd game. That’s good – because with a weight of 3.63/5.0 on Board Game Geek, this is not a game for casual players.

Final Thoughts

Paladins of the West Kingdom is a good game for teaching board game creators how the board game market works. By looking closely at its financial success, we see the importance of theme both for attracting some gamers and repelling others. We also see the value of going all-in on wooden components and multi-game world-building.

And it does this all by being an enjoyable game on its own merits 🙂

The 10 Best Board Games of All Time and What We Can Learn from Them

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There are over 100,000 board games in existence. The vast majority have been forgotten and buried in the sands of time. A handful have stood out head and shoulders among the rest, working their way up to the top 10 games on Board Game Geek. This is a truly staggering achievement because pleasing Board Game Geek users is no easy task!

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Today, we’ll focus on the best of the best board games and reflect on why they’re so great. Or, at the very least, why the dedicated gamers of Board Game Geek consider them to be the best board games. By studying the greats, we – as designers and publishers – can create better board games for future generations.

Honorable Mention #1: Terra Mystica
best board game - terra mystica
Photo by kilroy_locke on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

The hardcore gamers who rate games on Board Game Geek are, in their heart of hearts, intellectuals looking for a challenge. Games allow us to transport to distant times and places, forgetting our day-to-day problems by letting us focus on innumerable in-game decisions.

Terra Mystica does this beautifully. It’s one of the heaviest, brainiest, most complex games to achieve notoriety. It’s a perfect information euro with a lot of rules and a lot of ways to play. It does this with a theme of perennial interest to gamers – building civilizations. In these ways, Terra Mystica was early to rise in the current board game boom – bringing heavy games back into vogue.

Honorable Mention #2: Great Western Trail
best board game - great western trail
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Great Western Trail isn’t a trailblazer if you read the reviews. It didn’t invent new ideas. It didn’t bring anything completely novel to the table. Yet it succeeds by the merit of being generally well put together. That’s no backhanded compliment – “second but better” is genuinely important in this world. It gave us Google and iPhones.

By generally well put together I mean it feels satisfying, doesn’t introduce new elements but marries them exceptionally well. You can see this reflected in the 9 and 10 scores of Board Game Geek, where people repeat some variation of “I really can’t explain it” and rattle off mechanics while trying to explain it. That’s the way empirical, logical, or intellectual people speak when they’re in love. That tells you all you need to know.

10. Scythe
best board game - scythe
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In its own right, Scythe is a fantastic engine-builder with an engaging theme. It really nailed the 1920s alt-future aesthetic while giving gamers a complex game to analyze and replay.

Yet Scythe cannot be decoupled from Jamey Stegmaier, the generous spirit behind the Kickstarter lessons blogScythe is not the first home-grown game to succeed, nor is it the first home-grown game to make millions. The visibility of the project just made it feel like it was, and that’s important. The biggest thing we can learn from Scythe comes from the fact that it is proof that small publishers can make it.

9. Brass: Birmingham
Photo by d0gb0t on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Brass: Birmingham is a recent strategy to the well-loved original game Brass, which came out in 2007. It’s an economic strategy game where you can take two of the following six actions every turn:

  1. Build – Pay required resources and place an industry tile.
  2. Network – Add a rail / canal link, expanding your network.
  3. Develop – Increase the VP value of an industry.
  4. Sell – Sell your cotton, manufactured goods and pottery.
  5. Loan – Take a £30 loan and reduce your income.
  6. Scout – Discard three cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. (This action replaces Double Action Build in original Brass.)

Economic strategy games are a mainstay of the board gaming world, and Brass: Birmingham has been considered by many reviewers to be an instant classic. In short, it’s the best possible implementation of a crunchy, complex, problem-solving game in a beloved genre.

8. Gaia Project
best board game - gaia project
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

As if Terra Mystica weren’t a fantastic achievement in board gaming in its own right, Gaia Project is a souped up version IN SPACE. It doubles down on everything that made Terra Mystica brilliant – the complex decision making and the epic theme of expanding civilization. Then it marries the game to a theme board gamers have demonstrated time and time again that they love – science fiction.

Gaia Project is a picture-perfect study on how to “fix something that ain’t broken.” The game’s existence is proof that the creators were listening to feedback on a deep level, addressing gamers’ basic needs while taking the game in a surprising cosmic direction.

7. Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)

I’ve spoken about Twilight Imperium at length in a different article, but it’s such a good game that it bears mention again here. This is a long, complex, expensive board game. There are a ton of different components and it can take up to eight hours to play.

What is the appeal of a game that monstrous in scale? Simply put, Twilight Imperium is a game that you can completely immerse yourself in. That’s the appeal – everything else disappears around you as you play it because the fantasy world is so well fleshed-out.

6. Star Wars Rebellion
best board game - star wars rebellion

Star Wars Rebellion is the only high-dollar intellectual property that you will see on this list. Board gamers are rightfully skeptical of the quality of games that come from movie studios and video game companies. Yet Star Wars Rebellion shows that big money can produce fantastic games that are really high-quality from a gameplay standpoint.

It also marks a turning point in board game storytelling. People on Board Game Geek who give this game a 9 or 10 keep saying “Star Wars in a box.” Star Wars is an incredibly enduring franchise based around story-telling beats that go back to ancient mythology. Board gaming, as abstract and mathematical as it can seem on the outside, is dependent upon story, too, whether we build it into the game or not. This game’s success proves that people want stories in their games.

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5. Twilight Struggle
best board game - twilight struggle
Photo by killy9999 on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

Speaking of stories, you can’t get much more interesting than the utterly insane forty-odd year stretch of time where the USA and USSR had nukes pointed at each other. The concept is so absurd that Stanley Kubrick made a comedy movie out of it. Twilight Struggle masterfully captures the tension of that era in the best wargame ever designed.

It has incredibly clever area control and hand management mechanics. It has depths that have led to 400 page strategy guides on the internet. It’s complex, engaging, and never seems to play the same way twice. Yet it always goes back to tension. Twilight Struggle is a masterpiece of capturing tension in games.

4. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
best board game - through the ages
Photo by JanaZemankova on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

Through the Ages was a smash hit when it came out in 2006 and was an even bigger smash hit when it was reissued in 2015. Like Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, it is truly epic in size and scope. It is a long, multi-hour game that spans thousands of years.

The mechanics are great, the decisions complex, and the gameplay overall is a blast. That’s not why it’s so enduring, though, at least not in my opinion. It’s a matter of size and scope. There is something deeply awe-inspiring about taking a civilization from antiquity to modernity. All the beauties of developing culture and all the ugliness of waging wars is captured within this game. It’s really kind of jaw-dropping, even more so because of the fundamental – if exaggerated – truth of its basis. This is not some sci-fi fantasy world. This is the world in which you and I live, work, and play.

3. Terraforming Mars
best board game - terraforming mars

Terraforming Mars was a smash hit when it came out and the hype has never died down since. For good reason, too. It is a truly fantastic game and we have a lot to learn from it.

I went back and forth in my own head thinking of how best to describe what we can learn from this game, but I think my friend Dr. Michael Heron at Meeple Like Us says it best in his own review:

I love this game – it’s fun, full of fascinating mechanisms and satisfying decisions.     It’s collegiate in its competition while also being cut-throat in its communality.    It rewards creative play more than any game I’ve seen in a long time.

2. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
best board game - pandemic legacy season 1

Pandemic Legacy is already built upon the incredibly durable and interesting mechanics of Pandemic, the international sensation of a game that inspired so many spin-offs. That alone would make it a solid game in its own right, but Pandemic Legacy takes in one step further. It was one of the first major legacy games, promising players an engaging story that unfolds over time. This paved the path for future legacy games, which is yet another reason to enjoy it.

1. Gloomhaven
best board game - gloomhaven

Gloomhaven is so massive that it’s hard to begin to describe why it’s good. It’s heavily story-driven, huge in size and scope like Through the Ages, and it has great components. The theme, backed up by lots of story, is incredibly in tune with gamers’ desires for rich, lived-in fantasy worlds. This game captures what gamers love about literally every other game above it in this article. Gloomhaven truly is the apotheosis of gamer desire.

4 Lessons from Dinosaur Island for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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A couple of years ago, Dinosaur Island was a massively successful game. It raised over $2 million on Kickstarter and stayed in the BoardGameGeek hotness for a really long time. Even now, two years later, the game’s name has enough cultural cachet to lead to the most popular board game giveaway Pangea has ever sponsored.

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For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk mostly about Dinosaur Island’s superficial qualities. That entails theme, components, and art. While the gameplay is certainly good in its own right, I believe it’s the aesthetic of the game that led to its popularity and, as such, the lessons in this post are dedicated to analyzing that aesthetic.

With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of the game from Board Game Geek:

In Dinosaur Island, players will have to collect DNA, research the DNA sequences of extinct dinosaur species, and then combine the ancient DNA in the correct sequence to bring these prehistoric creatures back to life. Dino cooking! All players will compete to build the most thrilling park each season, and then work to attract (and keep alive!) the most visitors each season that the park opens.

1. Dinosaur Island nails nostalgia.

Take one good look at this game. You know full well which era is being depicted and which movie is being imitated. It’s no secret that Millenials – which represent a glut of the board game market – love 90s nostalgia (which is, indeed, their own childhood).

Let’s be clear. Nostalgia works. It’s an effective lever for making money. Dinosaur Island is extremely effective at monetizing nostalgia.

2. With a distinctive art style, you will stand out on social media.

At a casual glance, Dinosaur Island might seem like a throwback. After all, it harkens back heavily to the very 1990s film Jurassic Park and the Michael Crichton novel that preceded it. The resemblance even toes the line of plagiarism (though I personally see the game as more of a loving tribute).

Sure, the neon and pastel colors make you think the game was made somewhere between the end of the Reagan administration and the pilot episode of Friends. But it’s really not a throwback. In fact, Dinosaur Island has a distinctly modern art style calculated for the social media age.

So let’s say you’re a modern-day board gamer. You’re scrolling through your board game heavy feed. You see pictures of gritty, realistic sci-fi worlds and detailed fantasy universes. There are grim, dark games and simple, abstract games. Nothing quite looks like Dinosaur Island, though, so you stop scrolling listlessly and double-tap like. Others like you do the same and the buzz builds. This same principle applies to retweets, Facebook ad efficiency, your ability to spot the game across the room at a convention, and so on.

It pays to look different.

3. Respect the power of the custom meeple.

It seems I can seldom emphasize enough the importance of the tactile experience of board games. After all, our world is rich with entertainment options the likes of which our distant ancestors could have only dreamed. There are only two things that meaningfully separate a board game from its video game counterpart. The first is socialization in real life with other people, and the second is the physical experience of components. Only one of those comes in the box.

With this in mind, a keen observer of the board game industry will notice there are a bunch of ways you can create unique physical experiences. You can use creative three-dimensional gameplay like Colt Express or props like Ca$h ‘n Guns.

Custom meeples, too, are a popular way of creating a wonderful physical experience. In many ways, they are actually superior. They are often the most cost-effective components when it comes to crafting unique experiences, often costing as little as $0.03 or $0.04 per piece in bulk when carved out of wood.

Gamers love custom meeples, they’re cheap, and they photograph well. Hard to beat that!

4. No matter how pretty the theme, don’t skimp on the game.

I’ve spent the entirety of this post so far praising the superficial qualities of Dinosaur Island. It’s true – the success of Dinosaur Island can be largely chalked up to the way it looks. That means art style, components, and theme as a whole.

But don’t succumb to the cynical conclusion that you can polish garbage and sell it for $2 million on Kickstarter. That’s just not true. As seemingly illogical as consumer behavior can be, gamers are at least sophisticated enough not to buy a truly bad game. To believe otherwise is to reduce gamers to mindless consumer drones, which is simply not the case.

A quick scroll through comments on Board Game Geek reveals statements such as the following:

  • “To my great surprise, this quickly became one of my wife’s favorite games… The theme makes it easier to teach, and once you’ve played a few times, the level of depth increases and you’ll really burn your brain at least a couple turns (but not too much).” – FranklinT
  • “This is a very good eurogame which is easier [to learn] than it appears at first sight.” – Glasgow17
  • “Jurassic Park the game is fun, light-hearted but heavy enough on strategy and a solid experience.” – Dudewiththeface

I interpret comments like the above as being indicators that the game meets at least a certain minimum expectation of quality. You see a lot of comments coming from people who find themselves in the unique position of being surprised by the quality of the game.

Not convinced? Consider one more factor. The number of board game reviewers with a truly substantial reach is pretty small and they constantly have to deal with a deluge of games. Many, upon reading rule books or playing a game, decline to provide a review when a game isn’t good. That didn’t happen here. If it did, the game wouldn’t have the reach needed to raise $2 million. So in summary, no – beauty cannot substitute for quality.

Final Thoughts

Dinosaur Island is a master class in branding through products. The game is keenly tailored for the audience it targets. Its art, components, and use of late 80s / early 90s nostalgia made the game stand out in a noisy world. From its success, we can all learn how to create games with enticing themes.