4 Lessons from Root for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Leder Games really nailed it when they came out with their board game Root in 2018. It’s broken into and remained within the Board Game Geek top 50. Indeed, on the Pangea Games Facebook group where we regularly give away free board games, Root has by far the most popular prize we’ve ever given away (all three times we’ve done it)!

Clearly, they’re doing something right here 🙂

So what exactly is Root? In short, Root is a wargame wrapped in a theme about adorable animals. Marquise de Cat rules the woodlands with an iron paw, forcing the woodland creatures to team up and fight back. This both sets the stage for some really clever asymmetric strategic play and realistically portrays the diabolical scheming of cats.

Many games have come and gone on Kickstarter. It takes a lot to truly stand out and be remembered, and the vast majority have been forgotten. Yet Root stands apart because it’s been a sensation for months on end.

The gameplay has a lot to do with it. Let’s talk about what makes Root special and what you can learn from it.

 

1. Bringing grit to a wide audience? Wrap it in a cute theme!

Wargames have a tough reputation. It’s no surprise either, they’re hard and they’re hard on purpose. This is fantastic if your sole purpose in board gaming is an intellectual challenge. This is not fantastic, however, if you are trying to get a bunch of friends to play a board game with you.

Presentation matters more than most aspiring board gamers want to admit. If you want a complex game to be approachable to a wide variety of gamers, you have to take a few steps to smooth the rough edges. As an example, Root wisely keeps the games to 60 – 90 minutes.

Root is complex. There is no getting around that fact. However, the cute theme, the character names, the little cat meeples…all of it works for the common purpose of keeping first-timers engaged. There are people who would get into wargames if the right one came along. The sort of wargame that didn’t involve the American Revolution or a byzantine science fiction universe of warring factions with unpronounceable names. Root, in large part because of its theme, is that game.

 

2. Increase your game’s shelf life by having different victory conditions.

So often, games rely on common objectives. All players must attempt to maximize their victory points to win. Or perhaps they must be the first to complete some task. The point is, in many games, people are trying to do the same thing.

To drive this point home, here is an excerpt directly from the rule book:

The invading Marquise de Cat wishes to exploit the Woodland, using its vast resources to fuel her economic and military machine. She scores by constructing buildings in the Woodland.

The proud Eyrie Dynasties wish to reclaim the glory of their once-great aristocracy and retake the Woodland from the Marquise. They score each turn by building and protecting roosts in the Woodland.

The upstart Woodland Alliance wish to unite the creatures of the forest and rise up against their oppressors. They score by spreading sympathy for their cause across the Woodland.

The wily Vagabond wishes to gain fame-or infamy-in the midst of this brewing conflict. He scores by completing quests for the creatures of the Woodland and by aiding and harming the other factions.

Not only are they reinforcing the theme early on in the rule book, but each faction also has a different objective. This is pretty self-explanatory, but worth mentioning simply because I don’t think enough board games do this.

 

3. Highly asymmetrical design is underrated.

Different objectives is one way to add intrigue to a board game. Asymmetrical design takes it up to 11!

Asymmetry in board games basically means different players have different abilities. Variable player powers are frequently used to great effect to add light asymmetry to board games. Yet Root takes this to its logical extreme.

In Root, every faction has vastly different abilities. Along with their different objectives, the most effective strategies are wildly different. You can read about that in-depth in this great article on Sprites and Dice.

Seem like it wouldn’t work? Seem like a monster to balance? These are valid concerns, but consider the following reviews on Board Game Geek:

  • “Totally asymmetric but surprisingly balanced” – Patmol, 10/10
  • “Excellent design, asymmetric factions. Really enjoyed.” – sedlak87, 9/10
  • “Still, while there are a lot of four-player, asymmetrical games out there, I think this is the best.” – Salo sila, 9/10

As you scroll, you notice people write reviews in a way that implies the balanced nature of the asymmetrical design is surprising. To me, this sounds like a lot of people are craving asymmetry, but they don’t see it implemented well very often. For that reason, I think asymmetry is underrated in board gaming.

 

4. Give players the thrill of discovery.

When you have a game that engages players with a theme early on, they’re encouraged to learn for a longer period of time. With asymmetry in the design and unique objectives, gamers will find every game to play differently. Little nuances come out over time.

What does this result in? A thrill of discovery! Not just of unique plays and maneuvers, though that is important on its own. I think Root leads players to realize that they like game styles that they wouldn’t normally play, namely wargames.

There are tons of great games. I’ve name-checked too many to count on this blog. But how many great games help players realize they like an entire genre of games they had not previously considered?

 

Final Thoughts

Root is a sensation among board gamers for good reason. By playing it and studying it, we can learn more about effectively implementing asymmetrical game design. It’s also great at teaching us how to use theme to introduce gamers to much grittier games than they would normally play. Not bad for a game about woodland creatures!

A Crash Course in Board Game Development

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Last week, I posted A Crash Course in Games, where I acted as a tour guide to the board game industry, covering much of the contextual information you’ll need to make games. Let’s pick up from there and talk about what specifically goes into making a game. What is board game development all about?

I tend to use the word game development as a catch-all term for everything that is associated with making a game – that includes game design, product development, marketing, promotion, Kickstarter/crowdfunding, fulfillment, and selling. I use “game development” to describe “the entire creative process of creating a game from start to finish” the same way people say “the White House” to refer to “the United States government.”

So what goes into game development? Let’s break it down…

 

Board Game Development: Game Design

When people think of board game development, they’re probably thinking of board game design. The processes associated with creating the actual game itself – the way it plays and feels – fall under the purview of game design. Game design involves creating a game with a core engine that drives the gameplay at a fundamental level. It involves creating mechanics that determine how players interact with the game. It involves creating rules which define objectives and constraints that keep the player focused on certain goals and make it difficult for them to reach them.

 

 

One of my games, Tasty Humans, on Tabletop Simulator.

 

Game design also involves a lot of play-testing. Throughout the game design process, you’ll be playing versions of your game, most of which will be horribly broken. You’ll start out playing your game by yourself, simulating other players. Then you’ll start play-testing within a close circle of associates. Once you confirm that your game is reasonably well polished, you’ll be able to play with disinterested strangers. When it’s almost ready to go, you’ll give your game to people who have never played it before and who do not have any help from you. That’s called blind play-testing.

This whole time, you’ll be making tweaks, improving your game here and there. Bear in mind, game design only covers aspects related to the game itself.

 

Related articles:

 

Board Game Development: Game Production

Game production is the process of making sure that your freshly designed game becomes a physical product which is perceived well by others. This involves creating or buying art, doing accessibility testing, doing play-testing for factors not directly related to gameplay per se, buying samples, preparing the game for manufacturing, and manufacturing itself. The utopian ideal here is that your game will be beautiful, easy-to-use, physically attractive, and – most important – an actual thing that actually exists in the actual world (and not just your mind). Production is what takes a game design from pen and paper to the print shop. It’s also what makes a game design sell-able.

 

Related articles:

 

Board Game Development: Game Marketing & Promotion

Of course, games very seldom sell themselves. You’ll hear every once in a while about a game that flies off the shelf. You probably won’t be that person. (But please call me if you wind up being that person.)

Marketing and promotion is hard work, and you’ll want to start laying the groundwork as soon as you can. It involves creating a strategy, getting web traffic, using social media, using email newsletters, getting game reviews, going to conventions, doing live-streams, issuing press releases, and – most of all – networking. Marketing is about building relationships with people and you need lots of time to do this right. Talking to people is often the difference between selling a game and not selling a game.

 

Related articles:

 

Board Game Development: Kickstarter

A lot of board game developers choose to go through Kickstarter for funding these days. Considering that you have a roughly 50/50 shot of success on the platform, that’s a pretty good idea. Kickstarter has become a de facto testing ground for new board game ideas. If you choose to use Kickstarter for board game development, there’s a lot that comes with that territory as well.

 

This is about HALF of the War Co. packages shipped in the USA. It was a small campaign.

 

First, you need to spread the word early. Kickstarter is not square one. It is a loud rallying cry that is only useful if you already have an audience who is listening to you. Marketers would refer to it as a “call to action” – something that gets all the wallflowers in your audience to join the party (by throwing money at you online).

Of course, you need to put on your vanity glasses to deal with some preparation in addition to just schmoozing. You have to account for Kickstarter math (fees, taxes, and shipping). There is also the complex matter of making a great campaign page. Completing a Kickstarter requires fulfillment network, as well as creating timetables and coming up with a way to keep your promises. Planning the launch day is critical. You need to set stretch goals if you exceed your goal and come up with a back-up plan if you fall short. Expect to make regular updates. Some people opt to set up a pre-order system after their campaigns.

 

Related articles:

 

Board Game Development: Selling

Let’s assume you create a great game, people like it, you Kickstart successfully, and people know your name. That still won’t sell your game. Trust me, I’ve learned this in the school of hard knocks! Selling involves creating a game that has something about it that makes people want to click Add to Cart or grab it off the game store shelf. That links back to production and marketing. There is also the matter of setting a price point that works for folks. You’ll probably find yourself thinking about advertising, conventions, selling to distributors, and direct selling to customers.

Then there is, of course, the matter of keeping momentum after your game’s release. This isn’t easy! It requires an ongoing effort that links back to your game’s design, production, and marketing.

 

Related articles:

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve just dropped so, so much information here that it would be easy to get intimidated, close the tab, and quit. However, it’s this great complexity that I feel compelled to detangle throughout the course of Start to Finish. Every single subject I’ve mentioned above – game design, production, marketing and promotion, Kickstarter, and selling – is something I feel comfortable talking about at length. We’ll walk through this together and go into all the details. We’ll get really into the weeds.

With an idea of what’s to come, you’ve already got a much better start than I ever had.

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 🙂