4 Lessons from Imhotep for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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A few weeks into our long isolation, my fiancee and I played Imhotep for the first time. Yes, I know we’re just a few years behind the rest of the world in that regard. But hey, that’s what being isolated for weeks on end is for, right?

In any case, we received this game as a gift from grandmother, who apparently has a really good eye for which hobby board game to buy! Naturally, we needed to set the game up and take a few photos to send to her, if nothing else. We ended up playing longer than expected!

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Like many board games, Imhotep has a lot to teach board game designers. But first, a quick explanation of the rules:

In Imhotep, players become builders in Egypt. You want to build a combination of pyramids, obelisks, burial chambers, and temples. All of these structures will earn you points.

You build these structures with stone. Stone is gathered from a quarry and transported via boats. Collecting stone is a single action, as is loading stone onto a boat, and offloading it onto the structure of your choice. You get one action per turn.

It’s all pretty straightforward euro fare at this point, but one mechanic stands out to me as being incredibly profound. You can’t load stone onto a boat and build a structure in the same turn. That means you can load stone onto a boat and your opponent can move your stone to a completely unexpected place, thus wasting your stone or forcing you to use it in a way you didn’t want to. Keep this in mind for the rest of the article!

1. One way to obscure scoring: count points for different actions at different times.

Anytime you make a “point salad” style game, it’s important to obscure scoring so that there’s no clear winner or loser during the game. (Point salad here meaning any game where you gather points from a variety of sources.)

In Imhotep, this is done in a very simple way. When you build pyramids, points count immediately. When you build temples, points count at the end of the round. Collecting cards, creating a burial chamber, and building an obelisk, on the other hand, are all only scored at the end of the game.

This is hardly unique to board games, but Imhotep does this in such a clear way that new board game designers would do well to pay attention.

2. Use simple mechanics to create options for counterplay.

One of the elements of great game design is interaction. When players don’t interact, this creates games that feel like “multiplayer solitaire.” That’s not necessarily bad, but a lot of gamers don’t like that.

Imhotep, on the other hand, avoids the multiplayer solitaire problem by limiting players actions so severely. This means you can choose to either move stone onto a boat or offload stone from a boat. You can never do both in the same turn.

That means you can place stone on a boat with the intention to move it to a specific place. Your opponent can then choose to move your boat somewhere else entirely, thus thwarting your plan. Even if they don’t do that, the threat looms and that creates a new level of gameplay where you make your moves based on expected countermoves by your opponents.

3. Don’t let players control their destiny completely.

Games need luck to feel fresh. Without luck, you create games that can be completely solved. With very few exceptions, you have to add luck to a game to make it interesting. This is not just true for luck-driven games like Quacks of Quedlinburg. It’s also true for super skill-heavy games like Twilight Struggle.

In Imhotep, the element of luck doesn’t come from the game, but rather other players. Even though anticipating your opponents’ moves is a skill, you can never do so with 100% certainty, so there is always a luck element. There is always chance. You measure risks, move accordingly, sometimes getting lucky and sometimes getting unlucky.

4. Force players to improvise.

Because boats are moved unpredictably in Imhotep, you are forced to improvise. You can’t count on your stones going to any particular place on the board. Because of that, you simply have to load up as much stone as possible and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you.

Sometimes, you can pick up a clean 7 points by moving to the pyramids at the right time. Other times, you can create a horizontal row of four stones in the burial chamber, scoring a cool 10 points at the end of the game. Yet you cannot consistently plan in advance. Every turn, you look at the board in front of you and you make the best move you can.

Final Thoughts

Imhotep is a smart, sharply designed game with a surprising amount of strategy. Because it plays quickly and is easy to learn, I recommend that board game designers pick up a copy to learn from it. It has a lot to teach about creating a strategic game based on improvisation 🙂

Photo credit: Pongrácz Zsolt. CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source.

How Coronavirus Will Change Board Games (7 Guesses)

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The coronavirus pandemic has weighed heavily on my mind ever since I first bought a basket full of Nyquil in tiny neighborhood Walmart on the first day of March. We’re going through a world-changing event right now. It’s scary and it’s going to be a long slog with no easy way out.

Both terrible and beautiful things have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. Nothing will be unchanged, including board games. Yes, the coronavirus will change board games. That’s what I want to talk about today.

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Look, I’m no psychic. I thought iPads were stupid in 2010. Obviously, I was wrong. I will be wrong many, many more times in my life. Predicting the future is a notoriously difficult trade. Nevertheless, trying to do so leads us to have interesting and necessary conversations.

Board games. Some of us play them for entertainment alone. Many of us design them for fun. Many others still design them for profit. Whether you love board games for the gameplay, the creative outlet, or the money-making potential, the coronavirus is going to change the way you play board games.

I want to talk about what I think’s going to happen. I want to hear your thoughts in the comments below, too. Let’s process this together.

1. Solo and 2-player games are going to be massive.

Board games are social in nature, so we tend to think of board games as being for at least 2 players and usually 3 or more. Yet this does not reflect underlying trends that have been simmering for a long time. For example, there are a ton of solo board games out there and the market for them has been pretty good for a while.

A lot of people are still stuck in their homes. Many others are going to voluntarily stay in their homes for a while. The number of people who are going to be spending time alone or with only their significant other or roommate is going to be much higher than in 2019. Board games, therefore, need to reflect this change in social dynamics. The ones that do will sell more copies.

2. Board games will become more popular because they feel like luxuries but are inexpensive.

Economic recessions have weird impacts. For example, lipstick sales famously went up during the 2008 recession. This makes no sense until you realize that lipstick is an inexpensive way of feeling attractive and put-together. That feeling might otherwise be pursued by getting a fancy haircut or new wardrobe.

People need to feel connected to others. They need human connection. Normally, a concert or big event would be a great way to fill that need. However, both of those are expensive, and board games do the job reasonably well for less money. (This is not even to mention the impacts of social distancing on large events.)

3. Board games will become more popular because people need human connection.

Speaking of filling a need for human connection, board games won’t just excel because they’re a cheap way of connecting people. They will excel because they’re an available way of connecting people.

Casually going to the movies, the theater, a concert, or a convention is not going to be nearly as common in the next few years as it used to be. Yet the same behaviors that drove people to do those things will still drive them to seek human connection – just in different ways. It won’t always be Zoom calls!

4. Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia will spike in popularity.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people to adopt technologies that they would otherwise be much slower to even notice. One of those technologies is video calling, or anything related to remote work. Yet how do board game developers work remotely?

Enter Tabletop Simulator (or Tabletopia). These tools make it possible for developers to play-test together and for gamers to play board games online. While playing board games on a computer might have seemed tedious even six months ago, it’s a relief in a time when it’s literally dangerous to touch physical board game pieces.

5. The coronavirus has ended traditional board game conventions for the foreseeable future.

One of the best ways to prevent spread of the coronavirus is incredibly simple: stay several feet away from other people. Physical distancing is such an easy-to-understand concept, but it precludes so many events that we take for granted. Among them, board game conventions.

We’re not going to see traditional board game conventions in 2020. We may not see them in 2021 either. If the opportunity to go to a convention arises, many people will be very reasonably skittish about going.

There has been a lot of talk of virtual board game conventions. Certainly, technology makes it easier to have virtual board game conventions. However, much of the magic of board game conventions comes from the sheer stimulation of a 1,000 geeky booths and 100,000 geeky people all around you.

It’s not the same on Twitch. It could be better and it could be worse. We’ll find out soon enough.

6. Many small publishers are going to close.

I hated typing that sentence. I don’t want to be Brandon the Game Doomer here. Nevertheless, I’ve written this blog with the earnest belief that it’s important to talk about the hard stuff, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

This is not a good time to have a small business, generally speaking. Some businesses, particularly eCommerce or professional services that can be performed remotely, are doing great. Everyone else, well…

You can’t go to that restaurant (or shouldn’t). You can’t go to that store (or shouldn’t). Need I go on?

Now board games can be sold online, and many publishers will do that. Board games, in general, I believe are a great business to be in right now. However, many publishers rely on local gaming stores, or worse, conventions, to sell their games.

That business model, simply put, is just not going to work in 2020 and probably not in 2021. That’s a long time to go without revenue. A lot of our beloved publishers are going to have to adapt or close.

7. Super small board game publishers will have the best chance they’ll ever have to succeed.

Demand for board games is probably going to go up. High-quality publishers, on the other hand, are likely to fold. That means the massive demand for board games will still be there but will remain unmet for a while.

If you are a solo creator or a member of a small team of board game creators, you will soon have the levelest playing field you’ll probably ever see. People will crave well-made games and there may not be enough of them to go around. Start creating something worthwhile in advance so you can fill that need.

How do you think coronavirus will change board games?

I’m still trying to comprehend the scale of the changes that we are seeing right now. What do you think the board gaming world is going to look like a year or five from now? Let me know in the comments below!

I Make Board Games in Tabletop Simulator (A Guest Post)

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As the coronavirus lockdown continues, a lot of people are having a hard time getting their board game fix. The ability to play board games online, however, has never been easier. That’s because it’s easy to make board games in Tabletop Simulator, an inexpensive board game simulation tool available on the Steam store.

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I’ve talked about how you can create a Tabletop Simulator demo for your own game before. This week, though, I have something special in mind. Because so many people are interested in Tabletop Simulator right now, I want to introduce you to Kenny. Kenny runs the Pangea Games social media as well as a company called Overboard Games, which makes board games in Tabletop Simulator for various different publishers.

It’s a super cool niche for him to be in and I love his business model. That’s why I want to give him a chance to tell his story.

Who Am I & What is Tabletop Simulator?

Hey! My name is Kenny, and I create games on Tabletop Simulator for publishers and designers. I also create all the social media posts for Pangea Games, including the weird cheese question.

Tabletop Simulator is a physics-based board game engine which you can buy on Steam. With over 30,000 games, it’s the biggest platform to play all your favorite games. Overboard Games has made 30 games in Tabletop Simulator so far and that list will keep getting bigger.

If you’re looking to learn the game you can read our article, How to Learn Tabletop Simulator. You can learn how to install and then play the game like a pro.

How Did I Start?

I started playing board games originally on Tabletop Simulator in 2017. This later spawned an online community called Overboard Games. The Discord server grew over the years and it’s currently sitting at 700 members. I would love for you to join and play with other like-minded board gamers during this lockdown.

After a year of playing games, I decided to make board games in Tabletop Simulator from publicly available print-and-play games. My first creation was a demo of Blight Chronicles: Agent Decker for their Kickstarter which was simple but functional. I continued importing games for 7 months into Tabletop Simulator before commissioned to create Chai by Steeped Games.

How Chai Changed the Way I View Tabletop Simulator

Chai showed me what a Tabletop Simulator workshop creation needed, atmosphere, quality and a well-designed workshop page. Chai was the first game on the workshop to have a custom environment akin to the Tabletop Simulator DLC’s (downloadable content). This made the Tabletop Simulator creation stand out and it showed. It kept gaining followers and subscribers, which was fantastic!

From this point on, we knew that a custom environment was essential. Tabletop Simulator alone isn’t exactly the prettiest platform. With each game we created, our quality improved and we were able to provide better functionality.

Tabletop Simulator allows you to script functions within the game. This allowed us to take on more complex games and automate set-up. Something as simple as scripted setup can do wonders for your game. Shuffling decks, dealing tiles, and assigning first player at a push of a button is very useful.

Chai Board Game – 2018 Original by Overboard Games
Chai Board Game – 2020 Update by Overboard Games

This birthed our motto: “We don’t want to put your game on a table and call a day. We want your game to be a showcase to be used for a lifetime.” From that point on, we’ve worked top names including Portal Games, Stronghold Games, and Garphill Games. All the publishers and independent designers with whom I’ve worked have been wonderful about supporting the platform and my business. I’ve thanked them before and I’ll thank again them now.

Kickstarters & Tabletop: A Match Made in Heaven

We’ve worked very closely with games before they launch on Kickstarter. Without a shadow of a doubt, we can say that Tabletop Simulator demos have been beneficial. Board games are expensive, especially massive miniature-heavy games. Therefore, Tabletop Simulator allows board gamers to play before they pledge.

I believe Kickstarter has created a very impulsive way of buying board games. Tabletop Simulator, therefore, counters that trend. It will help you understand what you want to buy and what is just hype. I think we’ve all fallen victim to purchasing expensive games that we haven’t enjoyed.

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The Unheard-of Benefits of Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator doesn’t just let people play before pledging, it’s also a great place to design and playtest games. Tabletop Simulator can be used to prototype your game with hundreds of people remotely with the freedom to change and customize on a whim. This freedom allows you to experiment with 100-foot minis or just 1 deck of cards. It’s entirely up to you.

Experimenting like this with physical components would be a very costly process. On a digital platform, the cost is basically zero. You pay $20 one time for Tabletop Simulator, and that’s it.

Of course, that’s all theory. Let’s talk about an actual person and their experience!

I’d like to share a story by Dustin Hendrickson. He originally developed and tested Don’t Let it Die on Tabletop Simulator so I reached out to him and this is what he said…

The Story of Dustin Hendrickson in His Own Words…

I’m a software engineer by trade, but have been designing and creating games since I was in middle school. After working on standalone video games as a one-man studio I decided to switch from video games to a childhood love of mine, board games!

Luckily, I also had extensive knowledge of Photoshop, so I set out to make my first board game using Photoshop and a software program called Tabletop Simulator. I had used Tabletop Simulator before to create some one-off custom mods and expansions for games such as Massive Darkness and Welcome Back to The Dungeon, but that was the extent of my actual board game design experience.

It didn’t take too long to get my workflow down for creating components in Photoshop and importing them into Tabletop Simulator. Some of the benefits that I immediately noticed was the speed at which I could make changes and get them to the table for testing.

I had luckily gotten the game approved for the Tabletop Simulator Spotlight section where they show off custom made content on the main game menu page. This kicked off the momentum and got tons of people to try the game and leave feedback. Blind playtesting of your games is very valuable when it comes to helping refine your rules and making sure your game is easily approachable.

Don’t Let it Die on Tabletop Simulator
How Tabletop Simulator Helped Dustin Hendrickson, in His Own Words…

Having a demo on Tabletop Simulator saves a ton of time and money. You would normally need to get physical copies made and shipped. Then any changes made would require a new print run of game components. It’s a money and time sink, but necessary!

Using Tabletop Simulator was also a great way to market without being sucked into the Facebook ads scene. I was able to offer the game for free to anyone who had Tabletop Simulator, which led to more people trying the game, liking it, and then telling their friends about it!

After getting a ton of messages from people asking about a physical copy, I decided to take the steps needed to make one. After tons of research, phone calls, and emails with tons of publishers and manufacturers, I decided the best route to get the game physical was to self-publish it on The Game Crafter and push the Tabletop Simulator version to create a fan-base worldwide, which would be needed if I were to crowdfund the game.

So all in all, Tabletop Simulator was monumental to the success of the Kickstarter campaign. It’s a valuable marketing, testing, feedback, and community-creating tool that all designers should take a look at. It may improve propel their efficiency and workflow when working on new game ideas!

Back to Kenny again…

Tabletop Simulator & A History of DMCA Takedowns

When I started playing games on Tabletop Simulator, there weren’t many publisher-approved creations. However, there were DLC’s – that started in 2015. Publishers at the time were strictly using Tabletopia since it has an official filtering system.

Tabletop Simulator, however, was living its life on the high seas of unofficial content. It didn’t last long, though. A few big publishers started sending DMCA copyright violation notices. At the time, the biggest DMCA was issued over Munchkin. Since then, Bang and Pandemic have gone thorugh the same thing.

One DMCA stands out above all others: the “Legend” DMCA. It’s said that Legend was DMCAed and forced to take down the Legendary Encounters series. However, this caused everything with the word “legend” in the name to be taken down, whether intentional or not. Oops.

For this reason, Tabletop Simulator doesn’t have the best reputation. However, over the years, publishers and designers have been using the platform in conjunction with mod makers like myself to promote their games.

This is great progress for Tabletop Simulator and for the industry as a whole. This way, we can respect Tabletop Simulator for what it’s doing for the industry. I anticipate the publishers and designers will continue to have mod makers create Tabletop Simulator versions of their games. Ultimately, we may see an official workshop list for big name games, which Berserk Games – creators of Tabletop Simulator – is looking into.

Final Thoughts on Making Board Games in Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator has a long history with a lot of bumps along the way. The freedom it offers us to create and play games with all our friends far outweighs the negative aspects.

I think as the years go by, Tabletop Simulator will garner more attention and support from publishers and designers. Tabletop Simulator can only improve and develop with your help, so please support it by downloading the game on Steam and uploading your board games as workshop items. And if you need help? We’ll be there!