4 Lessons from Twilight Struggle for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Twilight Struggle has been considered one of the best board games of all time. It’s been on the Board Game Geek Top 10 for as long as I can remember and for a while was the #1 game. Twilight Struggle is in equal measures incredible and frustrating, needlessly complicated and elegant in its simplicity. No matter how you feel about it, there is a lot that new board game designers can learn from it.

To give you a sense of what Twilight Struggle is like, I’ll borrow an explanation from an old post of mine from 2016:

In Twilight Struggle, you play as either the USA or the USSR during the Cold War era from 1945 to 1989. This is strictly a two-player game. The objective is to score the most points by the end, be the first one to reach 20 points, or to run the DEFCON meter all the way up to DEFCON 1 (thermonuclear war) on your opponent’s turn. It’s played over 10 rounds, split into three eras with different cards: Early War, Mid-War, and Late War.

I won’t get too much into the DEFCON meter, since that’s a whole can of worms that’s outside of the scope of this breakdown. To score, you want to have control of certain regions of the board when scoring cards come around. Broadly speaking, if you have more countries in Africa, you get points when the Africa scoring card comes around. Other scoring regions include South America, Central America, North America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Asia, and Europe. Instead of both players racking up separate tallies, the score rather moves along a two-ended 20 point track (40 points total) with an advantage to the USSR or USA.

 

1. If you are going to make a game hard to learn, make it worth learning.

From the explanation above, you can tell Twilight Struggle is a complex game. The rule book is long and confusing. Even the basic premises take multiple paragraphs to explain. I once found a strategy guide over 400 pages in length for this game.

For all the talk of accessibility and gateway games, I think some games are meant to be complex. Some games make you work to uncover their secrets. Instead of trying to quickly appeal to you, the games say “no, you play on my terms.” In a weird way, this works wonders and the effort required to learn makes you really appreciate the game.

Maybe it’s your aspiration to make a heavy wargame. Indeed, many of the greatest board games of all time are complex, drawn-out affairs meant for gritty battles of intellectual prowess. If that’s the case, you must internalize one key lesson. Your game better be worth it.

If your game is going to take hours to learn, and many more hours to master, people need to love it. You need die-hard fans to come out of play-testing sessions. Your game must make fanatics so consumed with affection for your game that they proselytize its merits to others. Otherwise, the effort required to learn simply is not worth it.

 

2. Pacing is crucial.

In that old post I linked above, I talk at length about how Twilight Struggle is incredibly proficient at maintaining tension for the entirety of the game. In my opinion, pacing is one of the most underrated aspects of board game design. This is something we even considered when developing Tasty Humans, an entirely different sort of game.

Put simply, board games have to be interesting for the entirety of their run time. For relatively long games like Twilight Struggle, which tend to be an hour and a half or more in gameplay time, this is especially crucial. The game must evolve and change over time.

Twilight Struggle, because of its structure, has a rhythm to it. It’s split into Early War, Mid-War, and Late War. Different cards become available at different times. The USSR tends to have an early advantage, and they want the game to end early. The US tends to have a late advantage, and they want to drag the game out. The constant, subtle fluctuation in viable strategies keeps the game fresh over its entire runtime.

 

3. Luck is not evil. Powerlessness is.

A lot of heavy games stay away from dice. In general, the heaviest games stay away from anything remotely resembling chance elements. The idea being that long games need to have less chance in them so that the most strategic player wins.

It makes sense for long games to reward smart, dedicated players. I don’t think anybody could dispute that. But I think the aversion to dice shown by many hardcore hobby gamers is shortsighted.

Twilight Struggle uses dice, and by extension, incorporates a luck element. However, at no point is a player truly powerless. Before every dice roll, a player can calculate the odds of a particular maneuver going one way over the other. They can say to themselves, “I have a 70% chance of getting what I want, so may as well try it.”

What’s really important here is that the dice never become the boss of the player. The player holds all the decision-making power, and they choose to play or not to play certain games of probability. That’s infinitely more nuanced than, say, Chutes & Ladders.

 

4. Reward creative play.

Heavy games are intellectual exercises. Like a reader reading James Joyce or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, players want to be challenged. They want to fight for every tiny victory. Lovers of heavy board games are motivated by becoming competent at something difficult.

When a game functions as an intellectual exercise, you have to reward creative play. In Twilight Struggle, you are given ample opportunity to sabotage your opponent by forcing them to make tough decisions. You can pursue different scoring strategies by dominating different regions on the map. You can initiate subtle transitions of power by realignment or dramatic ones by staging a coup.

No two games of Twilight Struggle are ever the same. Sometimes the US wins by controlling Southeast Asia. Other times, the USSR takes over South America via Cuba and Africa via Egypt. Players cannot come up with strategies well in advance, they have to constantly respond to events on the board.

From these factors, you have enormous potential for creative play. (Another wonderful example of creative play? Terraforming Mars.)

 

Final Thoughts

Twilight Struggle is a gritty, difficult, complex game that rewards players seeking a challenge. For those dedicated enough to unlocking its secrets, you can learn from its perfect pacing, clever use of chance elements, and its abundant opportunities for creative play.

If you’re developing your first board game, I strongly recommend you buy a copy of Twilight Struggle. Even if you don’t have someone to play it with, the Steam store has a version available for $14.99. You can play against the computer or friends online. Worth every penny 🙂

Tasty Humans: How Our Board Game Raised $20,536 on Kickstarter

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After a year of development, Tasty Humans raised $20,536 on Kickstarter. It’s a puzzle-solving, tile placement board game for 1-4 players where you play as a fantasy monster who’s hungry for villagers. We could not be happier with how the campaign turned out, and the game is available for pre-order now!

This stands in stark contrast to the last Kickstarter campaign I ran, which was Highways & Byways in March 2018. After canceling that campaign at around 30% of the goal, I wrote a long in-depth post about what exactly went wrong. Indeed, with Tasty Humans, both the game development and the marketing processes were radically different than they used to be, and this ultimately paid off.

This was a small, tight, humble, simple project. Having seen ups and downs, I was determined to see just how far we could go with $2,500. I never intended to take this game project on, but ultimately, it worked out really well. Now I would like to share what I’ve learned with you 🙂

 

Tasty Humans Had Good Product-Market Fit

Everybody values different things in life. No two people are the same, and neither are their interests. For that reason, when you’re creating products, you have to do so with your audience in mind. This is true no matter what industry you work in. When your product feels tailor-made for audience, we call that product-market fit.

 

The Early Design

Tasty Humans had strong product-market fit potential from the get-go. An extremely talented new designer, Ryan Langewisch, won a 48-hour board game design contest. The GameSmiths judged all these anonymous submissions. His submission – then called Fantasy Feast – stood out head and shoulders above the competition, scoring fully two points higher on a ten-point scale than any of the other nineteen participants.

My friend, Tyson Mertlich, member of the GameSmiths told me, “you have to try this game.” Sure enough, I did, and it was really, really uncommonly good. It was then that I agreed to produce the game provided we spent only $2,500 to produce it and we split the costs 50/50.

 

Mid-Development

It’s not enough to simply make a good game, though. To sell in this awfully noisy, competitive board gaming environment, you have to have mechanics and art that people really enjoy. On the note of mechanics, we were really lucky. The mechanics that were chosen for the initial game – tile placement, variable player powers, and so on – all screened well with an audience. Additionally, the material costs to create this game were surprisingly low, so we didn’t have to make any major cuts. The cuts that we did make (two-sided monster boards, 330 gsm cards, etc.) ended up being added back as stretch goals when they became financially viable.

Tyson found a wonderful Russian artist named Petr Semenikhin. He made the caricature art that really refined the look of Tasty Humans. As soon as we received his art, we started running Facebook “page like” ads to see how well the art would be received. We very quickly had empirical data that suggested that a certain subset of board gamers loved the art. (Relevance Score of 8, 9, 10 and really low cost per action.)

 

Late Development

After the game was fully completed, everything we did, from the price point to the page set up was based on successful campaigns. I’ve been running a marketing agency for the last several months that has actually, through a bizarre twist of fate, superseded Pangea Games in revenue. As part of running that company, I’ve become very good at market research.

I looked at probably 30 or 40 different successful campaigns of a similar price point with a similar “feel.” Once I collated all the data, we reverse-engineered a high-quality Kickstarter page with the right prices. We even hired this fantastic voice actor from Fiverr for the video!

When all was said and done, the conversion rate was a staggering 5.5% per unique user on the campaign page. That means that for every 1,000 computers that accessed our campaign page, 55 became backers and did not cancel their pledges. According to CrowdCrux, the typical Kickstarter conversion rate is 1.5 – 5%.

 

We Had a Fantastic Team Dynamic

I cannot emphasize how important liking your team is. We were very communicative and always willing to help one another out. Ryan and Tyson were very organized and timely, handling their respective work with ease and excellence. Even Petr, who I know spoke with directly, was creating art at a breakneck pace. In fact, he turned around brand new stretch goal art before our funds even had a chance to clear, giving us a little buffer room if something goes sideways with manufacturing or freight shipping.

 

Good Supply Chain Management Reduced Costs

Over the last few months, I’ve provided a lot of consulting work for Fulfillrite, who met me through this blog. For that reason, I’ve become extremely familiar with order fulfillment, which is their specialty, but also related industries like freight shipping and customs. On top of that, I’ve been working back and forth with printers to create specs for a long time.

This is all to say that we optimized for product cost in the long run. The problem with making a game for $2,500 is that you don’t benefit from the economies of scale like the bigger companies do. That means you have to make games for the lowest possible cost or else your price will, by necessity, be too high for anybody to buy.

 

We Didn’t Spend Much on Marketing, But Our ROI was High

We added another $2,500 in marketing costs, bringing the total to about $5,000. At the very beginning, we did not intend to do this, but with the marketing agency doing so well and with Tasty Humans showing such potential, it would have been foolish to squander the opportunity by being cheap.

We ordered a few more review copies than we needed, which added a few hundred. We had Rahdo do a video, which was the best $500 I’ve ever spent! Then after that, we waited until two days before the game launched and then ran a bunch of Facebook ads.

Why wait until two days before? The two day time period gave us adequate time for Facebook to approve the ads and for us to test them. It also meant we wouldn’t spend much money before the game was, you know, buyable. Once we knew the ad worked, we really juiced it up with a few hundred for the first two days of the campaign. We then ultimately spent a total of about $1,600 on Facebook ads over the life of the campaign.

One of my regrets with this campaign is that we never turned on conversion tracking for Facebook ads. We’ll never know for sure how much the ads brought in. I stopped and started the ads for a couple of days. From that, I imputed that we earned $6-7 per every ad dollar, which I feel pretty good about.

Another one of my regrets with this campaign is that we were so risk-averse. We had such a high conversion rate on the page, so few review copies, and relatively little money spent on ads. If we had invested more early on, it’s very possible that we could have made $50,000 or more on this campaign.

 

Tasty Humans Was the Least Stressful Campaign I’ve Ever Run

I don’t have too many regrets, though. In fact, this is the least stressful Kickstarter campaign I’ve ever run. Having seen dramatic highs and dramatic lows in the board game business, this was a relative breeze.

Our team is fantastic, which made launch day less stressful. With relatively little money on the line and the agency being a viable way to generate revenue, the specter of failure no longer had the same ability to frighten.

 

Do We Have Any Regrets?

I can’t speak for the other guys, but I have to say I don’t really have regrets that matter on this project. I’ve tried to nitpick and autopsy this game like War Co. or Highways & Byways, but the simple truth is that this accomplished every objective we wanted it to and more.

What objectives were those? Well, I wanted redemption after a failed campaign and I wanted to launch a low-risk project. Ryan wanted to see his design come to life. Tyson wanted to establish himself as a capable board game developer. On all fronts, we succeded.

My one regret is that we didn’t spend more on the marketing campaign. We would have bought a couple more review copies, spent some more on ads, and maybe attended another convention or two.

 

Now What?

With Tasty Humans funded, all that’s left is manufacturing and fulfillment. As logistically tricky as these can be, both are familiar territory for Pangea Games.

At this point, we’re considering new game ideas. For me personally, I’m still working on building the marketing agency. The agency will need to settle into more of a routine before I become actively involved in new games. That said, we’re kicking around the idea of doing another 48-hour design contest in late September. You never know… 🙂

 

The 10 Most Popular Board Games and How They Made Gaming Better

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Board gaming has a long, storied history that goes back to ancient times. You can find old games of Ur, Senet, and Chess carved out of stone and buried in tombs. Indeed, the modern board game landscape that we know and love is only about as old as Catan, which came out in 1995. There were popular board games long before then, though.

I’m not too old myself – on the young end of the millennial generation – but I can remember a time of popular board games before the modern board gaming boom. Perhaps it’s Christmas Eve today that’s kindling my nostalgic impulses. I’d like to take a moment today and look back at the top-selling, most popular board games of all time. Some have aged beautifully, some have aged horribly, but in all cases we can talk about them and learn from them.

 

Honorable Mention: Life
Photo by paw on Board Game Geek under CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Made in 1960, Life is one of the most popular board games of all time. The basic idea is that you want to end the game with more assets than anyone else. The rules are different in every version, but the concepts stay the same – you spin the spinner and make a handful of key decisions at intersections. It is in those moments that you influence which way your, well, life will go.

Life isn’t fair. It’s not a strategic masterwork nor is it a game that can be solved or analyzed. Honestly, it’s pretty luck-driven and messy.

Life does one thing exceptionally well, though, and we as gamers should be grateful. It lays the groundwork for modern, narrative-driven games. Life is, by definition, a game made on an epic scale. Players live out their entire lives on that board, with life-changing successes and failures coming at each step. Try to think of another game from before 1975 telling personal stories on a scale so vivid. I can’t think of one!

 

Honorable Mention: Chutes and Ladders (or Snakes and Ladders)

 

Chutes and Ladders is a lot older than you might think. Before being published by Milton Bradley in 1943, it was an ancient Indian board game that came from around the year 200 BC. The game is one of pure luck, and indeed, was used as a way to teach moral lessons. There is no strategic element to either the ancient or the modern version.

All you do to play Chutes and Ladders is spin a spinner and move the specified amount of spaces. Ladders move you up higher on the board and chutes drop you down to lower spaces. Modern versions still come with moral lessons.

With a derisive snort, some hardcore gamers may say “what did this game actually contribute to gaming?” As I see it, Chutes and Ladders gave us three gifts:

One: it was one of the few board games that had anything resembling a modern theme. Remember: in the 1940s, your popular board games were checkers, chess, backgammon, and Othello, all of which were abstract strategy. Yes, you had Monopoly, but that was a rare exception.

Two: along with Monopoly, it was one of the first appreciably “mass market” games. Without mass market games, you wouldn’t have hobby games. Period, point blank.

Three: strategically, the game is a snooze. Mathematically, it’s really interesting. Games like ChessGoConnect Four, and Chutes and Ladders are playgrounds for mathematicians. As they learn more, we as game designers absorb little bits and pieces of their wisdom and subconsciously incorporate them into our designs. Worth remembering!

 

10. Risk

 

popular board game - risk
Photo by janus on Board Game Geek under CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Risk is a popular mass-market wargame that came to life in the late 1950s. The focus is on the oldest of human ambitions: to conquer the world. For most board gamers old enough to read this blog, Risk was the first game to introduce them to concepts like area control and influence – at least in a non-abstract way. Risk is a viscerally real game with success and failures spelled out upon the map for all to see.

This game laid the groundwork for other games of world domination, like Axis & Allies and Twilight Struggle. Yes, there are far better games out there today – including the two I just listed. But my takeaway? This is the game we owe gratitude to because it helped introduce the world to wargames.

 

9. Pictionary

 

popular board game - pictionary

 

Pictionary is super simple. Ultimately, it boils down to drawing a picture and others guess what it is. It’s like charades with drawings instead of actions.

The board is practically a vestigial organ to the game as a whole experience. The only thing that matters are the drawings and how people guess what they are. Anybody of any age can get into the game and have a good time – making it remarkably accessible and a fun way to pass the time. This game made Concept and Telestrations possible, and for that, we can be grateful.

 

8. Trivial Pursuit

 

popular board game - trivial pursuit

 

Trivial Pursuit is a simple concept, and like Pictionary, the board doesn’t matter terribly much. The core engine of the game is fueled by answering questions about anything and everything. It’s basically every bar or restaurant’s trivia night boiled down into a single game.

It’s got a 5.2 on Board Game Geek, and to be honest, that’s not great. I think that’s a little harsh because it undersells just how much Trivial Pursuit brought to the hobby. Trivial Pursuit has over fifty special versions, which has laid the groundwork for games like Ticket to Ride to release multiple versions of a game based around the same engine. Trivial Pursuit swaps the questions and Ticket to Ride swaps the maps. The latter wouldn’t be possible without the former.

In any case, the prodigious growth of Trivial Pursuit as a franchise raised interest in party games, giving us delights like Balderdash, Codenames, and Dixit in the future.

 

7. Othello

 

popular board game - othello

 

Backgammon. Chess. Checkers. Go. These are all really, really old games. As such, they are pure abstract strategy games unmarred by the ephemeral themes du jour of modern board games.

Othello is not an ancient game, but it feels like it could have been even though it came out as late as 1883. Othello packaged up abstract strategy qualities into a new package, laying the groundwork for SantoriniPatchworkAzulOnitama, and other modern hits.

 

6. Clue / Cluedo

 

popular board game - clue or cluedo
Photo by DancerInDC on Board Game Geek under CC-BY-ND 3.0 license. (Source)

 

Even the most purely intellectual games like Chess or Go have elements of bluffing and deduction. You’re always trying to analyze your opponents’ moves and react accordingly. Clue (or for those of you who spell colour with a “u” – Cluedo), was the first mass-market game to make bluffing and deduction an explicit part of the game.

It is out of the mansion, yes – the very one where Miss Scarlet committed a murder with a lead pipe in the billiards room – that more sophisticated tabletop games that receive critical acclaim today were born. I’m talking about Mysterium, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and Mansions of Madness.

 

5. Monopoly

 

popular board game - monopoly

 

Nearly everybody I know has played Monopoly. Roll the dice, buy properties, pay rent to other players, and curse at the dice. It’s a well-known routine in the household of many people who grew up with board games.

Look, I’ll be honest. Monopoly is not a good game. It’s got a 4.4 on Board Game Geek and I’ve made my stance on it abundantly clear in the past. In fact, the game was created initially by socialists to show why unchecked capitalism sucks. Couldn’t make this up if I tried!

Yet it has served the hobby board game industry in two incredible and contradictory ways. First and foremost, it more or less made the market for mass market games. That, in turn, led to the hobby board games we know and love. We owe Monopoly our gratitude for this. In an alternate universe with no Monopoly, there is no Scythe or Rising Sun or Codenames.

Second, Monopoly managed to open the floodgates while being a decidedly broken game. It’s become the whipping boy of elitist hobby board gamers, so much so that it’s comical. In becoming a whipping boy, it’s shown game designers of our generation what not to do – helping many games avoid runaway leaders, an over-reliance on luck, non-judicious implementation of player elimination, and burdensome game length.

 

4. Scrabble

 

popular board game - scrabble
Photo by Today Testing, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

I’m going to stick my neck out for Scrabble. It’s got a 6.3 on Board Game Geek and I think that’s too low. It’s a smart, simple, and elegant game that uses the very elements of our language as components.

Scrabble is the foundation of just about every word-based tabletop game out there. That alone is an achievement for the ages, but I think there is something more important going on. In Scrabble, the pieces you work with are thrown into a bag and doled out by random chance. That’s the foundational quality of collectible card games like Magic. You can make maneuvers to benefit yourself and to block others – that’s an atypical form of area control and influence. Scrabble hasn’t so much created direct spiritual successors as it has burrowed its way into the psyche of game developers – coming out in subtle ways as they borrow mechanisms from this 1948 masterpiece.

 

3. Backgammon

 

popular board game - backgammon

 

Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence. It’s estimated to be around 5,000 years old and was mentioned in written history by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. King Tutankhamun was rumored to have played this game at one point.

Let that sink in.

Here we have this game, installed on just about every computer and available in every store, that was played in the Mesopotamian era. What’s more, it’s still a pretty good abstract strategy game and it stands the test of time. My takeaway here as that Backgammon is the great-great-great-great-etc. grandfather of every game we play.

 

2. Checkers

 

popular board game - checkers

 

Checkers is a straightforward abstract strategy game for 2 players. Like a lot of games from antiquity or the medieval times, there is no theme per se, just a simple arrangement of pieces that follow some rules and allow for a battle of wits. These days it’s one of the first games that young children learn and it can be found outside of every Cracker Barrel restaurant sitting on wooden barrels. (It’s not as hard as the peg game, though…)

I’ve seen a lot of arguments online about whether checkers is a game of subtlety and nuance or a game of brutish simplicity. As for myself, I’ll readily admit its been many years since I’ve played the game. Whether you play all the time or remember the rules 40 years after you last played a game, you have to admit checkers has one astounding quality. It’s a tremendous game to teach children. If you want to start children out with a brainy game, checkers is a good place to start. Raise ’em up right!

 

1. Chess

 

popular board game - chess

 

Last but certainly not least, the best-selling game of all-time is Chess. It’s for great reasons, too. Chess has variable player powers, a sophisticated area control foundation, and endless possibilities of play. It’s captivated people from Humphrey Bogart to Joseph Stalin to the RZA. One could write volumes on the contribution of chess to the gaming community and to the world at large. I’ll keep it simple.

Chess has given us communities. It’s given us diehard fans who tweak their strategies, obsess, and seek ways to better themselves. Like no other game before it, chess has stoked passion and earned love. Chess has made livelihoods and Chess has caused deaths.

Try saying that about the latest CMON game 😛