7 Lessons from Monopoly for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Monopoly: it’s one of the oldest board games in the store. It’s one of the top 10 best-selling board games. There are over 1,144 versions of it on the Monopoly wiki. It’s also a terrible board game.

Oof. There’s a good chance I offended you with that last statement, but it’s important. Monopoly has a staggeringly low 4.4 out of 10 on BoardGameGeek. When board gamers need a game to mercilessly mock, they look no further than Monopoly.

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Monopoly is a bad game, but have a little respect.

Yes, your ire toward Monopoly is well-placed, but put down the pitchforks. It played a role in history and we have a lot to thank it for. A world without Monopoly is a world without Scythe, Gloomhaven, Spirit Island, and Terraforming Mars. It’s the reason why modern board games don’t look like chess, checkers, backgammon, and Go.

The game was created initially by socialists to show why unchecked capitalism sucks. It’s easy to forget this. This game was never meant to blow up, it just did because it was in the right place in the right time. It also just so happened to make modern board gaming as we know it viable. So be kind, and say “thank you, next.”

Besides, when we – as gamers and game developers – put aside our frustration for a moment, we can actually see Monopoly for what it is: a solid concept with bad execution. There are a lot of questionable game design decisions that, if corrected, could have made for a fantastic game. In short, we can learn a lot of lessons from Monopoly.

1. Runaway leaders and family games are a bad mix.

Of the many issues that board games can have, runaway leaders are among the worst. Sure, there are some skill games where you want the ability to leave your opponents hopelessly behind in the dust, but those games are intellectual, challenging, and for a very specific and dedicated crowd who know what they’re getting into. That’s not how family games are meant to go!

There is some bitter truth behind the joking that Monopoly makes families fight. Once you start winning at Monopoly, you can buy more properties, charge more rent, buy more properties, and…you get the idea. Early on, if you get a bad chance card, land on the railroads, and hit luxury tax, you can end up with far less cash than your opponents and from the very beginning of the game feel like it’s hopeless. That’s an awful feeling.

The key takeaway here? If you’re making a family game longer than, say, thirty minutes, you need a way for losers to catch-up. This is a critical element of good game design.

2. Long games cannot rely heavily on luck.

A lot of ink has been spilled about how luck can be used in board games. Here’s the way I think of it: unless you are specifically making a board game where your objective is literally to push your luck, a la Quacks of Quedlinburg, then don’t have a major part of the game be determined by pure luck.

How do you implement luck without forcing events upon players? Well, perhaps different dice rolls can give players different options to choose from. Give players the option to hold onto randomly selected cards for later use at a convenient time. Things like this go a long way.

If you fail to do this, well, your game will play the players and not the other way around.

3. Pacing is important – the game needs to stay interesting for the entire time.

I think I said it best in 2016 when I first wrote about Monopoly:

Despite letting leaders run away and providing inadequate catch-up mechanics, Monopoly is not a fast game. In fact, it tends to drag on for an hour or more before the obvious leader finally claims victory. You can drag a game on by being the losing player who keeps landing – by random dice roll – on properties not owned by your opponent. This is not at all hard to do, especially considering that you keep getting $200 just for rolling the dice five or six times!

4. Think twice before you make a long game.

Okay, so it’s date night. You and your beau are trying to pick out a movie. It’s a little late, or maybe one of you had a long day at work. Perhaps one of you didn’t sleep well. Your choices are:

  • A three-and-a-half-hour epic, complex, challenging movie like Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Basic slightly-under-two-hours comedy.

We like to think we’d enjoy the first option, but we often default to the latter. It makes sense, too. Your gamers are busy. They’re tired. They’ve got stuff going on. Jobs. Kids. You name it.

If you want to make a long game, you have to make it a phenomenal experience. I’m talking about full-on Twilight Imperium or Gloomhaven. Even then, only a small fraction of people are up for an eight-hour board game.

Know your audience. Most people will start getting uncomfortable in their seats if a game goes over an hour. Most board gamers, even, will tolerate up to two hours.

One of the cardinal sins of Monopoly is that it often lasts three or more.

5. Keep the rules as simple as possible.

Business Insider ran an article in 2017 where they listed six ways people were playing Monopoly wrong. To save you a click, they were:

  1. Unnecessarily taking a lap before buying properties.
  2. Taking money when landing on Free Parking.
  3. Properties are not auctioned.
  4. Refusing to let players earn when they’re in jail.
  5. Giving players extra money for landing on Go.
  6. Giving properties back to the bank after losing.

Some of these misconceptions are generations of people misteaching the game. Yet if the game were not as complicated as it was to begin with, people wouldn’t feel the need to make up rules.

It’s not even that the rulebook is long! It’s just that the rules are unintuitive and feel wrong to people when they play the game. Good game designers will look for ways to eliminate “desire paths” in their game – places where people play the game in ways that aren’t intended. They then either change their game to curtail the behavior or clarify the rules.

6. Don’t use paper money.

This may sound like a small detail, but it’s really not. Paper money is bad news. It’s a relatively expensive material, and it’s not very satisfying. You have to fiddle with it and you can’t tell denominations apart without looking. Cardboard coins, wooden discs of different shapes, and poker chips are all better options.

Board gamers – even the really casual ones – interact with your game’s soul (it’s theme, rules, and so on) through its components. That means when your components are fiddly and annoying, so is your game!

7. Watch your playtesters’ reactions.

With so many issues, it seems unlikely that Monopoly was thoroughly playtested. At the very least, it wasn’t playtested to modern standards. So many of the flaws above can be observed and corrected. Aspiring designers should take note of the many flaws of Monopoly so they can avoid replicating them!

Final Thoughts About Monopoly

As deeply flawed as Monopoly is, the world is a better place because it exists. It helped paved the way for modern board gaming while providing a great case study in bad game design. The game’s frustrating legacy has indirectly made many, many board games much better.

Next time you encounter the latest version of Monopoly in Walmart, take a moment to smile at the game. Then walk past it without putting it in your cart 😛

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How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

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Many of you know that I’m in love with Tabletop Simulator as a testing tool. It’s a simple app on the Steam store, it costs $19.99, and it’s been an extraordinary resource for me during the development of War Co.Highways & Byways, and Tasty Humans.

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The 5 Benefits of Using Tabletop Simulator

I’d like to explain to you exactly how to create a demo of your board game on Tabletop Simulator, but first let’s discuss what I perceive as its five main benefits:

1. It saves you a ton of money and time on prototyping.

Even using simple paper and ink from your printer can add up pretty quickly when you’re making different versions of your game. This can easily add up into the hundreds of dollars, as it did with War Co. for me before I discovered LackeyCCG and eventually Tabletop Sim.

2. It takes less time to create a prototype.

Instead of physically creating a new game or swapping out parts every time you make a substantial change, you can simply update the image files on your Tabletop Sim demo. It’s pretty straightforward.

3. You can play-test online.

This means you can find play-testers all over the world, which allows you to see how well your game communicates with people from different cultures or who don’t speak your language as well. Not to mention, it’s easier for many people to find others online than in person.

4. It’s great for publicity.

Because you can play online, you get the tremendous opportunity to livestream your game with people who have a good size audience on Twitch or YouTube. This is one of the most underrated marketing opportunities around for board game dev. I could easily make two or three articles on livestreaming board games.

5. It makes it easier to build an audience before you have a physical copy of the game.

This goes hand in hand with benefit #4 but bears mention on its own. Until you have something to show people, it’s really hard to get them interested in your board game. Because high-quality physical prototypes can be expensive, Tabletop Simulator gives you the ability to show potential fans what your game is all about without committing to expensive physical prototypes.

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

Step One: Create Images of Your Board, Cards, and Components

For the purposes of this guide, let’s assume your game involves a board, some cards, and some two-dimensional pieces. If it involves 3D models or other complex pieces, see the knowledge base that the development studio put together.

First, you’ll want to create JPG images of your board and each unique component. If you have duplicates of components, just create a single JPG – you can copy and paste the piece multiple times once you’ve loaded into Tabletop Simulator. This is pretty straightforward – all you need are some files that show what they actually look like. The Tabletop Simulator software will automatically size the board and pieces around your images.

Cards are more complicated. You’ll need to use this template or one similar to it. You’ll need to place the front of each card on one of these numbered slots, starting with 1 and working your way up from there. If you have 50 cards, you’ll fill up the first 50 slots and no others. If you have more than 69 cards, you’ll need to make multiple decks. Once you have all cards placed, save the whole grid as a JPG.

If your cards are a different dimension than the template linked above, you’ll need to create a template that is 10 times the width of a card and 7 times its height. Then you’ll place several gridlines so you get a similar template with different dimensions.

As for the card back, you’ll just need to save that as a JPG. If you have multiple card backs per deck, you’ll need to make another grid based on the template. Card back 1 needs to correspond to card front 1, card back 2 needs to correspond to card front 2, and so on.

Step Two: Upload Your Images to the Internet

Once you have your board, cards, and other pieces ready as JPG files, you need to upload them to the internet. When you’re creating a Tabletop Simulator demo, you’ll need to reference the URL of each image. I suggest you upload files to your own web server, if you have a website. If you don’t have your own web servers, Imgur will do the job.

Step Three: Create a Workshop Item on Tabletop Simulator
  • Start Tabletop Simulator.
  • In this order, click CreateSingleClassic, then Custom.
  • Delete everything from the table by right-clicking each object and clicking Delete. (You can use the default stuff, but I want to show you how to do this the long way.)
  • In the top middle of the screen, click Objects.
  • Click Table on the menu.
  • You should now see a screen similar to the one below where it shows a list of tabletops. Pick one you like.

Now that you have a table, let’s get a board on it.

  • Click Objects in the top middle of the screen.
  • On the menu that shows up on the right, click Components.
  • Click Boards and then Custom.
  • You should see a screen similar to the one below. Copy and paste the URL of your board’s image.
  • Click Import.

Next, let’s add some cards.

  • In this order, click ObjectsComponents, Cards, then Custom Deck.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Face – enter the URL of your card fronts template
    • Unique Backs – check only if each card has a different back
    • Back – enter the URL of your single card back OR the unique card backs  template
    • Width – 10
    • Height – 7
    • Number – number of cards in the deck
    • Sideways – check only if your cards are meant to be used sideways
    • Back is Hidden – check
  • Click Import.

To add a custom component, follow these instructions.

  • In this order, click Objects, Components, then Custom.
  • Click Tile for flat pieces or Figurine for stand-up pieces.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Type – Box for square, Hex for hexagon, Circle for circle, Rounded for rounded square
    • Top Image – enter URL
    • Bottom Image – enter URL
    • Thickness – 0.20
    • Stackable – (your choice)
    • Stretch to Aspect Ratio – (checked)
  • Click Import.

At this point, you can hover over any individual piece and press the plus or minus key to increase or decrease its size. You can also highlight any pieces you wish to copy and use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to make copies.

Well, let’s not go overboard with copy-paste…
Step Four: Release the Workshop Item

Once you’re done, click Upload > Workshop Upload. Fill out all the information, and click Upload. It will upload it to Steam and then give you a Workshop ID. Any time you want to update your workshop item, pull up this same window and click the Update Workshop tab. Then type in the Workshop ID, fill out the information, and click Update.

Step Five: Get Noticed

If you plan on using Tabletop Simulator for anything other than rapid prototyping, it’s not enough to simply create a Tabletop Simulator demo. After you create the demo, you’ll need to go looking for people who will want to play your game. This can be tricky because not everybody has Tabletop Simulator and oftentimes people are not willing to spend the $19.99 to get it. Think about how you spread your message. Consider reaching out to people who like Tabletop Simulator and play-testing new games on Twitter or in Facebook groups.

Need More Help with Tabletop Simulator?

As you can imagine, with software as sophisticated as Tabletop Simulator, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of its true abilities in this article. You can create incredibly complex board games with 3D models and Lua scripting. The possibilities are immense.

For that reason, if you need help with Tabletop Simulator, I recommend you check out Overboard Games. The guy behind this company runs the Pangea Games social media, and he’s become really, really talented with Tabletop Simulator. He and his team have even made demos for big publishers such as Stronghold Games, Garphill Games, and Portal Games. He’s worth your time!

Final Thoughts

There you have it! This is a quick and dirty guide on getting started in Tabletop Simulator. Once you understand the basics, you can learn more of the nuanced aspects of creating a demo. I’m just here to help you get started 🙂

How We Printed the Tasty Humans Board Game Kickstarter

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Tasty Humans is the latest, and in my opinion, the greatest creation of Pangea Games. It’s a tile-placement, puzzle-solving board game for 1-4 players about villagers attacking monsters. Except it’s from the monsters’ point of view! The Tasty Humans Kickstarter went on to raise $20,536 and then several thousand more on BackerKit for a total of $28,000 and counting.

It’s been an extraordinary privilege of mine to work with Ryan Langewisch, the designer of the game as well as Tyson Mertlich, the developer who helped make the magic happen so early on. They were the creative force behind the game, and really, the soul of it.

But my role? I took their work, which they had so painstakingly and lovingly created, and marketed it before printing it and sending it around the world. I talked about fulfillment already. Today, I’m going to talk about how we got this game printed.

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What goes into printing a board game?

I’ve written before about the surprising amount of responsibility that goes into printing a board game. You can read more about that by clicking on any of these articles.

To make a long story short, though, it’s not just about finding a good printer. You have to create files which your printer, which is likely overseas, can use to start creating a physical product. You have to painstakingly describe every detail of how you want the game crafted. Failure to do so will lead to misprints on a massive scale. Needless to say, the process is intense.

How’d we find our printer?

Early on in the manufacturing of War Co., and then as part of the research stage for the ill-fated Highways & Byways, I became personally familiar with the work of at least half a dozen different board game printers.

For Tasty Humans, we created a detail spec document and requested a quote from each printer. For those whose quotes were reasonable, we ordered samples and then went with the highest quality. That turned out to be a relatively small shop in Hong Kong called BangWee whose quality and price both turned out to be shockingly good.

It was initially the recommendation of Jesse Bergman from a long time ago that made me first aware of BangWee. He used them when printing Battle for Sularia. For whatever reason, I remembered the name, looked them up, and the rest was history!

How did we make the game specs?

As I discussed in How to Create Board Game Specs and Files for Your Printer, your role in printing, as a game developer, is to create specs and files. Specs are how you request quotes and describe the game that you want to create. Files are what you give to the printer so that they can create it.

The specs for the Tasty Humans base game were as follows:

Box290 mm x 220 mm x 40 mm4C/0Chigh density mounted cardboardMatte lamination1N/A
Board254 x 190 mm4C/0C2mm high density mounted cardboardMatte linen6each board is unique, no fold
Punchout Board237 mm x 211 mm4C/4C2mm high density mounted cardboardGloss372 tiles, each 20mm square, 1 die-cut pattern
CardsPoker size4C/4C300gsm bluecore (standard)Matte542 backs
Rule BookA54C/4C128 gsm gloss paper112 pages
Plastic Disc18 mm diaYellowN/AN/A1N/A

When then had to make a few modifications to accommodate stretch goals and a last-minute change in materials, but this at least gives you an idea of what specs look like.

How did we make the game files?

When then had to start creating the files themselves. Empty files are simple. You have lines for “margin”, “trim”, and “bleed.” All the text and important stuff that absolutely must not be cut off must be placed in the margin. The trim line is where a card, board, or other component is intended to be trimmed by a machine. The bleed gives you a little bit of room for error if the machine cuts a bit too far in one direction.

Using the above as an example, BangWee gave us files containing nothing but the lines you see above. We then paste our art into their files and make sure everything lines up. So, as you can see, everything important on the card is within the margin. We want a thin blue border on every card, so the trim line means a perfectly cut card has 3 mm of blue on all sides. The bleed area makes sure you still see blue even if the cutting machine is off by 1 or mm.

So we followed this basic process for the box, boards, rules, cards, and tiles.

The only component in the game that did not require full color print files was the king piece. That required a simple vector graphic which BangWee would then use to carve tiny pieces into wood, which would then be later painted yellow.

A minor hiccup in quality control

One of the difficult things about printing board games is that you almost inevitably end up outsourcing outside of the country. Most companies you work with online have customer service based in the US to reduce the possibility of errors in communication. Unfortunately, this drives up cost.

What happened in our case is that we initially requested that BangWee use a certain kind of material for the boards. It was different than what we expected, so when we received a sample of the material, everything except for the boards looked good.

In truth, we just asked for the wrong material. We then requested that they switch the board material to match that of one of the samples (of other board games) they sent us. This then required us to recreate board files based on different specs after the conclusion of the campaign. We were under a time crunch and had to turn around new boards very quickly.

Again, this was our fault and we fixed the issue in about two weeks’ time. BangWee then delivered early, meaning that the project was not delayed because we changed board materials.

If we had to do this again, we would have requested a sample specifically of Tasty Humans from BangWee after the game funded but before the campaign concluded. That way, we could have fixed these issues before the funds cleared.

Another minor issue that we resolved shortly after receiving our first Tasty Humans prototype was ink oversaturation on the box and the rules. That was a quick fix on Photoshop. PrintNinja has a good tutorial to explain what we changed.

What did we do well?

BangWee did a phenomenal job with the printing. We could not be happier with the way the games turned out. For that reason, we are very glad with our choice in printer and for our good research and sampling process. If we had to do this 10 times over, we’d print with BangWee every time.

What would we have done differently?

If we had to do one thing differently with the printing of Tasty Humans, it would be ordering a prototype of the game with all stretch goals after it funded but before the campaign ended or the funds cleared. In short, this would make sure we didn’t pay unnecessary sampling costs while giving us the time we needed to fix problems.

As a rule of thumb, I highly recommend anyone who is printing a board game to assume that you will need to sample your game twice. The first time is to give you a chance to correct issues and the second time is to make sure your fixes turn out the way you wanted them to.

Final Thoughts on Printing the Tasty Humans Kickstarter

Overall, we were very happy with how the printing process turned out! Our files were pretty close to print-ready without changes and BangWee did excellent work. If we had to go back and time and do this again, we would do just one thing differently: give ourselves a little more time to sample and prototype!