So you have an idea for a board game. You know what its theme will be, how players win, and what happens on a player’s turn. So what happens between making a first prototype and deciding the game is complete? Quite a lot.
Prototyping… Again and Again
A common adage in board game design is: prototype early. The sooner you put your game idea on the table, the sooner you will see its glaring issues—and its successes. There are some things that you can’t test in your head, and you’ll be surprised at how much you learn in your first playtest.
Your first prototype
Make it fast, but also make it ugly—and don’t spend any money on it if you can help it! Why? Because you’ll be putting it in a closet or throwing it out. If you put a lot of time and money into your first prototype, you’ll be reluctant to make changes to it, and that can keep your game from evolving and making much needed changes.
The easier (and cheaper) it is to update and tweak your prototype, the more flexible your design will be. And at the early stages, that’s exactly what you need.
Making your prototype functional and appealing
Once your design is coming together and you aren’t making major changes after each playtest, it can be a good idea to make your prototype more attractive. This doesn’t mean buying fancy components, necessarily—but using stock images or clipart as a placeholder for artwork can help players take information from images rather than text. It’s not a necessary upgrade, but it can make gameplay smoother and give your game a facelift.
Knowing When to Iterate
It’s tempting to make constant tweaks and adjustments or even add and cut out entire mechanics and rules from game to game. But as any designer knows, each playtest is different from the next, and just because something didn’t work (or did work) one game doesn’t mean it won’t work (or will work) in the next. Sometimes letting a change simmer can be informative and worthwhile.
If you’re fortunate enough to have playtesters who offer feedback, you’ll want to take notes and maybe even record some playtests. It’s important to know what feedback is most valuable and when not to take things to heart.
People will often correctly identify issues with your game, but their fixes are rarely the right solutions. However, if you continue to hear the same advice from playtesters, they are likely onto something. You won’t be there to defend your game when it makes its way to game nights, and if most people have the same criticisms, they will wonder why certain changes weren’t made.
Use your discretion—not all feedback is valuable or even justified. But you should listen to feedback while you have it, as it can be your most valuable game design tool.
Preserving the Core Experience
At times, board game design can feel like shaping a lump of clay. After several rounds of playtesting, tweaking, balancing, and iterating, it’s easy to end up quite far from where you started out. This may not be a bad thing, but you might find that the core of your game has been left behind.
Throughout the whole design process, keep the core of your game in mind. Know what type of game you want to create, and understand what experience you hope to elicit in players. If you don’t preserve the core, you may end up with a game that is balance and streamlined but lacks excitement, clear goals, and a strong tie between theme and mechanics.
Designing a board game is a careful balance of knowing when to implement feedback and when to tweak. There’s something to learn from every stage of the process, and whether your game succeeds or fails, you’ll walk away with more knowledge than you started.