4 Lessons from Pandemic for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Behind the Scenes

Can you hear that coughing? It’s time to talk about Pandemic – one of the greatest games ever made. Pandemic is an evergreen game with a multitude of variants and legacy games. It’s also the first cooperative game for a lot of gamers. Despite being more than ten years old now, this new classic can still teach us a lot.

Just for clarity: I’m covering the original Pandemic, not the legacy version.


Pandemic Board Game
Photo taken by Jana Reifegerste and posted on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0 (Source)


A long time ago on this blog, I wrote Pandemic: Getting People to Work Together. In it, I talk about why I love Pandemic for introducing me to hobby games and why I find its take on cooperative gameplay particularly effective. From that article, allow me to repost a simple explanation of how the game works:


There are four diseases, each represented by a different color cube – red, yellow, blue, and black. The objective is to cure all the diseases by collecting five cards that correspond to each color and discarding the cards at a CDC research station.

Here are the three main obstacles to success:

  1. These diseases slowly add up in different regions. When more than 3 cubes of one color end up on one city, there’s an outbreak, and you have to put a disease cube on each connected city (infecting up to SIX others). If you hit 8 outbreaks, you lose. Outbreaks can cause chain outbreaks, too, so if you get one, you’re likely to get two or three or four at the same time.
  2. If you run out of cards to draw, you lose. This is basically a time limit.
  3. If you run out of disease cubes, you lose because your disease is too far spread (or the makers of the game were cheap, we’ll never know which).


1. Pick a theme that creates natural tension.

For many gamers, myself included, the best themes for board games are ones that create a lot of tension. Naturally, the theme you choose should correspond to the weight of the game and the audience you’re hoping to draw. That is to say, you have to be mindful of product-market fitTwilight Struggle focused on the Cold War. Through the Ages makes you bear the load of an entire civilization.

Pandemic forces you to reckon with an existential threat likely to annihilate humanity in our interconnected era – no big deal. Of all the eschatological events that could destroy humanity, an actual pandemic ranks pretty high, after a nuclear war and climate change. The former is a cliched subject in apocalyptic games, the latter being pretty difficult to make a game about (an inconvenient truth, I know).

The point is: the name of the game, the theme, and the behaviors implied by each action you take in the game ratchet up the tension even without diseases rapidly taking over cities. You’re sweating the moment you get this game out of the box. If you’re a fledgling designer and you want to make your players nervous, this is how you do it.


2. A well-designed co-op game like Pandemic stands out among the crowd.

You know what I’ve noticed? There is a relative dearth of good cooperative games out there in the board gaming world. At the time of writing this article, about 6% of board games listed on board game have cooperative play. From the get-go, that gives Pandemic a unique niche to fit into.

If you’re looking to design a new game and you’d like to make an immediate impression, consider making a cooperative game. In my anecdotal experiences, a new co-op game almost always gets a “ooh, it’s a co-op!” reaction and it’s a lot easier to compete with 6% of games than it is to compete with 94% of games. I credit Pandemic here for bringing cooperative play into vogue.


3. Force players to balance tactics and strategy.

Everything I’ve mentioned before is superficial, but nevertheless very important to the lasting appeal of Pandemic. Getting into the gameplay of Pandemic itself, you notice that the game creates all kinds of interesting decision points at every turn. How you respond to an outbreak in South America or a near shortage of red cubes will determine how the rest of your game will go, and indeed, what you will get punished for.

Oh, and you will get punished. Pandemic forces you to balance tactics and strategy. If you are constantly running around and fighting disease, especially if that entails direct or charter flights, it will be much harder to reach a research station and find a cure to each disease. Yet working to cure diseases means you spend less time preventing outbreaks from overrunning regions and ending your game prematurely. To some extent, you can divvy up responsibility among different players, but you will still ultimately need to stay close enough to pass resources in order to play effectively.

Forcing players to manage short-term crises while working toward long-term goals is a great way to make a game engaging. Pandemic displays this well.


4. Use a manageable element of chance.

Pandemic is, in some ways, a chance-driven game. The cities which are infected at first are chosen randomly, but after a while, you know which cities are likely to come up – you just don’t know when. That means you’ve got to make choices about when to, say, provide aid to a 3-cube near-disaster in Osaka and when to let it slide for just one more turn. A truly proficient player can even calculate the probability of certain outcomes, but they can never know for certain what is going to happen next. Twilight Struggle, one of my eternal favorite games, also has this quality, but Pandemic has it in a way that’s much easier to intuitively understand.

When creating games with chance, you want to be careful in implementing it. When players are completely blindsided by chance, it can make the game disengaging and frustrating. You need to give them interesting choices before the chance event and after the chance event, as well as a sense of the range of potential outcomes.



Pandemic is a complex delight. Its tension and cooperative nature set the stage before you ever start playing. The interesting decision points around balancing short-term and long-term needs and the manageable chance-driven events are worth study by all aspiring game designers. Learn from Pandemic and you’ll make a game people never get sick of 🙂

4 Lessons from Santorini for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Behind the Scenes

Santorini is a fantastic board game that came out about two years ago. In its heart, it’s an abstract strategy game that could have come from antiquity. It has been given the modern board game polish, though, with adorably cutesy art of Greek gods, and an incredibly photogenic set of stackable plastic components.


Santorini board game
Photo by Eric Yurko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


Santorini is so straightforward that I can explain the entirety of the basic rules to you here. The goal of the game is to stand on a tower that is three blocks high. Start by placing your two pieces anywhere on the board. On each turn, you move one space orthogonally or diagonally. You may move on the same level, step up one level, or step down any number of levels. Then you place one building piece diagonally or orthogonally. You place a base on an empty square, turn one-story towers into two-story towers, turn two-story towers into three-story towers, and put domes on three-story towers.

That’s it. No, really. There are god cards that give you variable player powers, but you don’t even need them to appreciate the game. The rules could not possibly be simpler, and yet the strategy of the game gets pretty heady.

There are lots of reasons I love, love, love this game. For the purposes of this article, though, we’ll be discussing four lessons for board game designers to take away from it.


1. Physical game presence counts for a lot.

Santorini would be just as playable on a flat, unadorned 5 x 5 board with flat wooden pieces to signify towers. You could use two black pawns and two white pawns for player pieces. The rules of the game would not be affected in the slightest, and it wouldn’t even make it more complicated to play.

What I’m getting at is that the stylish white towers of Santorini that stand upon the floating cardboard island are purely aesthetic. There is no need for them from a gameplay standpoint, but they add a lot of value to the game as a product nonetheless. For better or worse, people judge games based on how they look and how they feel from a tactile standpoint. That means if you can turn a simple abstract strategy into a 3D and lush experience, you’ll make the game so much better for gamers.

The takeaway for game designers here is to think carefully about the user experience. The physical presence of your game will make or break it for many people.


2. Make complexity come from interactions, not rules.

As I said before, Santorini can be an extremely heady game. My fiancee has said that it’s like chess on a tic-tac-toe board – meant as a compliment! Yet the game’s rules are even simpler than chess, which has variable player powers for each individual piece – pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, king, and queen.

Santorini is as simple as Go to explain, but like Go, it is very difficult to master. The game can unfold in innumerable different ways and the appropriate tactics for each situation are always changing. None of the complexity comes from a misunderstanding of rules. It comes from the game’s interactions, which raise questions like:

  • “How do I best prevent my piece from being trapped by 2-story towers?”
  • “How do I best position myself to put domes on promising 3-story towers before my opponent can stand on them?”
  • “Should I build toward the center or toward the side?”

Questions like the above are the ones you want players asking about your game.


3. Create a light mode to make the first game easier.

Remember how I mentioned that you don’t really need the god cards to appreciate the game? As it turns out, the god cards are, in fact, purely optional. The addition of variable player powers is not needed to play the game, though it does add spice if you’ve got a few games under your belt already. As such, the first game of Santorini you play probably won’t involve the god cards – and that’s good! It allows you to learn the fundamentals of the game without having to deal with the more advanced concepts.

For game designers, the lesson to take away is to create a “light mode” for first time gameplay. Learning a board game from the rulebook remains one of the necessary evils of the hobby. Learning the rules – one way or another – is probably the most inaccessible part of board gaming. Creating a light version allows players to learn for the first time without contending with the full complexity of the game.


4. Marry abstraction to a simple theme for the best of both worlds.

The greatest trick that Santorini ever pulled was making an abstract strategy game feel thematic. It is through the great use of components, cutesy art, and especially the overall physical experience of the game that this is possible. While the abstract game in and of itself could certainly hold its own in tight-knit gaming circles, it wouldn’t place the game on the shelves of Target or Wal-Mart. To stand out in the noisy world, your game needs to look attractive and make a great first impression.

A good game is not enough. Your good game needs to be beautiful and feel special in order to be purchased. Santorini does this through a variety of different methods, and we should take note. If you are a board game designer, or perhaps more appropriately, a developer or publisher, you need to think about the game as a product and the experience as a selling point. Santorini is a textbook example of this being done par excellence.



Judicious use of different thematic elements have given the abstract Santorini the sheen it needs to appeal to gamers when shopping at the store. What’s more, the complexity of the game grows as gamers learn more, meaning the learning curve is perfectly adjusted to each player’s skillset. These qualities have put Santorini among the patheon of great games, and we can learn from them so that our own designs may one day last to antiquity.

5 Lessons from Catan for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on 5 CommentsPosted in Behind the Scenes

In 1995, the game formerly known as Settlers of Catan was nothing more than the obscure creation of designer Klaus Teuber. The board game market as we know it today did not exist yet. Catan was the first major hobby board game to come into existence. Even 24 years later, we can still look back at this game and learn lessons from it.


Catan board game


Catan is pretty straightforward. You create an island of hexagonal tiles, each of which represents a different type of terrain. From this terrain, you gather wood, grain, brick, sheep, and stone. Over time, you build up settlements and roads. The ultimate goal, as with many board games, is to score the most points, which you do by building settlements and cities, having the longest road, and a couple of ancillary functions related to development cards.

From these easy-to-understand game, I can think of five lessons that are incredibly important for any aspiring designers to internalize.


1. Make your game easy to learn so it appeals to a wider audience like Catan.

The most popular modern board games, such as Risk and Monopoly, suffer from many of the same flaws. Chief among these flaws is having a disproportionately high amount of rules overhead. Before 1995, board games typically went one of two ways. They were very simple and didn’t have the level of strategic play which we are used to as modern gamers. Alternatively, they were Byzantine in their complexity and much of this came from the rules. Catan creates complexity from interactions between players and game elements, but not the actual rule set.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Much of what made people roll their eyes at board games made in the twentieth century disappeared when playing Catan. You never felt like you had to study a rulebook to play. The game can be adequately explained in 10 minutes. So many people who were on the fence about board gaming as a whole could play Catan and enjoy it.


2. Make elegant rules so no one has to be a rules lawyer.

Building upon the prior point, because Catan has a simple rule set, nobody had to play the unenviable role of “rules lawyer.” Nobody had to say “um, there’s actually no money on free parking” or “you get to move twice when you roll doubles.” You didn’t have to remember exceptions and oddities. The least intuitive mechanic is probably the robber who steals resource cards from other players when you roll a 7, and to be honest, you remember it when the number is rolled simply because 7 does not appear anywhere on the board.

This is a hallmark of well-made games. Less time spent memorizing and arguing about the rules allows for more time for strategizing. By keeping the rules simple, Catan removed one of the most common flaws from board games and set the bar higher.


3. Resist simple zero-sum mechanics to create a more interesting game.

In general, zero-sum is the default state of competitive board games. Among the many things about Catan that I find fascinating is the existence of trading. In board games, trading is not uncommon. Perhaps it is because trading was a mechanic long before Catan or perhaps it because everybody wanted their own version of “wood for sheep” in the years to come.

No matter what, trading in Catan is interesting because while the game as a whole is competitive, it creates an incentive within the rules of the game itself to cooperate. Anyone who’s taken an economics class knows that trade hinges upon both parties gaining something valuable from the transaction. In Catan, the lumber you provide me may help finish my road and the grain I send to you may complete your settlement. Catan creates situations where coordinating with others is more sensible than acting in pure self-interest.

For modern game designers, my recommendation is that even in competitive games, you find opportunities to encourage players to form alliances. This isn’t always doable, but when it is, it creates a whole new layer to the game.


4. Don’t overstay your welcome.

Catan is not a long game. It seldom exceeds 90 minutes and is usually closer to an hour once you know what you’re doing. While this isn’t a snappy game by modern standards – that would be 30 to 60 minutes – it is a good deal quicker than a lot of its predecessors. Many people hated the idea of two or three hours games like Risk or Monopoly, which made Catan a breath of fresh air.

The takeaway for you as a designer is to keep your games as short as possible for their weight. Obviously, extremely complex games should run for longer periods of time and extremely simple ones should be over in half an hour or less. The point is: cut the fluff.


5. Create reasons for players to interact with one another.

Circling back to trading for a moment, the magic of that mechanic is not simply in its subversion of zero-sum competition. That alone is substantial but equally important is the social interactions encouraged by trading. You may be trading in a friendly, genuine manner or you may be trading in a desperate, scattered, thirsty manner. Either way, you have to talk to your fellow gamers. You have to acknowledge them, their wants and needs, and try to either meet them or conceal the fact that you can’t meet them.

Social dynamics add so much to a game. This is why games like Cards Against Humanity – as much as gamers love to hate it – have the enduring power that they do. Games are nothing more than a front for spending time with other people. That’s the ultimate need that games meet for most gamers, more so than escapism or intellectual challenge. Catan acknowledges and encourages interaction. If you, as a designer, do this too, you will have greatly extended the life of your board game.



Catan was a trendsetting game for a lot of reasons. A lot of games have come and gone and Catan endures. Let’s learn from what it has done right so we can be better designers 🙂