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Producing a board game for your graphics GCSE

Dear Sir/Madam
I am a student at The xxx xxxxx School in xxxxxxxxx. I am studying graphics for one of my GCSE's. The course includes designing a board game. I would be much oblidged if you could send me some information regarding the production of board/card game and how/why they are successful.

Yours faithfully,


I must get about two e-mails of this sort per month from people lulled by our web site into thinking we are some sort of big time games company.  

Some, thankfully, ask some very specific questions about the games production business but most make a very general request for any information I think relevant.  Not having done a Graphics course of any sort it is very difficult for me to determine what might be relevant - do they want to know about the design of the game or the manufacturing process?

Ironically, since I wrote this article, my middle son has gone to University to study graphic design but wisely has steered clear of doing board games for his course work.

Anyway, like most children is extremely reluctant to tell me anything about his course work so the text below is my shot at satisfying the students' demands without knowing a damn about the subject. 

I don't suppose for a moment any of them will stumble across this article before sending me an e-mail but at least I will be able to direct them to this page in my reply.

Some general design concepts

The key ingredients to a good game are player interaction and decision making.

By player interaction I mean that decisions or actions taken by one player must have some impact on the decisions or actions taken by another player. 

Ways of encouraging player interaction include auctions, trading, territorial expansion or what is known in the games hobby as "Ha! Take that!" - which is usually achieved by Player One playing a card on Player Two (e.g. "You are too drunk to go to work today. Miss one turn." Player Two might have a "Hangover Cure" card in her hand which would enable her to negate the effects of Player One's card.)

If we take Monopoly as an example, the game achieves player interaction in three main ways.

Firstly, if a player lands on an property and declines to buy it, the property goes up for auction. All players, including the player who declined to buy it, then bid for the property. (Notice here that this gives the player a decision to make; will she get the property cheaper if she allows it to go for auction or would she be better off buying the property outright? If the other players are strapped for cash she would be better off allowing the property to go to auction).

Secondly, if players want to they may trade properties between each other. This encourages interaction in the form of negotiating the best deal.

Thirdly, there is a more passive form of interaction which occurs when Player A lands on Player B's property and has to pay rent.

In order to maintain interest in a game a player should be offered the opportunity to make decisions often. The game should offer the opportunity to analyse the current situation (i.e. look at the board, look at the other players' assets etc.) and make a decent guess at what would be the best decision to make. The decision may be right or wrong (perhaps through a misreading of another player's strategy) but ideally the game should be one where the quality of the decision is determined by the play of the players, not the roll of the dice or the turn of the card. 

In other words, try not to make your game too luck dependent.

If we take the game Snakes & Ladders, for instance, there is no decision making whatsoever in it, you just roll the dice and move the "dobber" (counter). However, what if instead of rolling the dice we gave the players a hand of cards numbered from 1 to 6 and allowed them to choose how many squares to move, playing 1 card each turn and only replenishing the hand when all 6 cards have been used? This adds a little more decision making but makes it quite easy to navigate up the board. 

So what if we introduced rules where players can play cards to move other players' dobbers if, say, their own dobber is on a square number that is divisible by 4 (when designing the board you would colour code these squares)? 

What if we also introduced rules which said only one dobber is allowed on a square? This would allow a certain amount of blocking, particularly if each player had 2 or more dobbers to navigate up the board.

You could take the basic idea behind Snakes & Ladders, include some of the ideas I have outlined above, and completely change the theme so that it becomes a game of exploring ancient ruins (lots of pits and ladders) or beating the rush hour (lots of road blocks and short cuts).

One other good design concept is to keep the game moving along at a brisk pace. Asking the player to make one agonising choice between two or three almost equally desirable options every three minutes is much more preferable than allowing the player to make seven or eight decisions out of a possible 25 every twenty minutes. 

In other words, as a player you are much more likely to have fun if your turn comes round often, even if you don't have much to do on your turn. If the game has a reasonable amount of interaction you'll be involved on other players' turns anyway.

Some manufacturing tips

When designing your game bear in mind the production process. How difficult will it be to produce the game you are designing? Will it need a big board? Will it need thousands of counters? Will it require lots of record keeping on the part of players? Will it require special counters?

In some ways it may be easier to look at what game components you can easily lay your hands on and use that as an inspiration for the game's theme. For instance, sea shells, toy soldiers, beads, pebbles and marbles are easy to get hold of. I've even thought of using cake decorations in my games. 

Whatever you choose, as a general rule it is better to have a few components than a lot. Believe me, I have designed a game that requires counting out six lots of 25 small counters, six lots of five medium-sized counters, six lots of four large counters and six lots of 12 pawns into six plastic bags for one of my games and it drives me nuts.

These days there is pretty good software available to draw the board for you (if you choose to have a board; not all "board" games do). Hopefully your school will have an A3 inkjet printer to use so you can print off a colour board. The ink will run if played on, however, so you'll need to get it laminated. This can be done at somewhere such as Ryman's. You won't be able to fold the board after folding it, but you will be able to roll it up.

If you need counters (of the tiddley-wink sort) I usually have some in stock or you can get small quantities from the Early Learning Centre, or even a Sunday morning car boot sale.

Your game will look better in a box with a cover on it. Again, we have blank (white) boxes available which we'll be happy to sell to you (about 70p plus postage). 

On to the blank box you can put a cover on the front, featuring eye catching colour artwork and a logo. The cover should contain the game's name, the designer (it is common practice in mainland Europe to credit the designer), how many players it is suitable for (e.g. 3 to 6), how long a typical game takes (e.g. 90 minutes) and what age group (e.g. 10 to 90).

On the back you can get by with black & white copy, although colour is better. Here you should give a brief description of the game and maybe showcase the components.

On the sides of the box you will need to put the name of the game and possibly how many players it is for etc. (e.g. "Saddle Up" - the game of pony trekking. For 3 to 6 players, aged 10 and up)

The game should also contain rules. This will possibly be the hardest bit if you actually have to design a playable game. Typically it takes me two years to design a game that works, which does not have any loopholes in it, which keeps everyone involved and which is actually enjoyable to play. In order to get it to that stage I have to invite people to play it over and over again, taking notes on what worked and what didn't. Finally I have to find a group of people who have never played it before and let them try the finished version without any assistance from me to see whether they can play the game properly. Given that half the world seems to play the wrong rules to Monopoly it is a lot easier than you think for players to get the wrong end of the stick with rules.

Hopefully, however, your game will only have to look the part, and not actually play well all the way through the finish. So long as the first two turns look OK when you demonstrate it, you should be all right; don't have a rule in the Pony Trekking game where the first player can hire all six available ponies on turn 1 and thereby prevent all the other players from doing anything useful on their turn.

When designing rules always include lots of examples, preferably with diagrams.

I'll finish off by answering a few specific queries I have received from other GCSE candidates.

1)   How do your games get from being designed to being produced for the market

We do two types of game. "Game kit" standard and "semi-pro" standard. "Game kit" is for a game which we think will sell to a small but dedicated following who won't mind doing a bit of DIY on the game components; this mainly means cutting out their own cards, sticking labels on to counters and so on. Typically the boards for these games are produced on our A3 high quality inkjet and laminated using a lamination pouch (which makes it difficult to fold the board). The artwork is typically done in-house by the lousy but dedicated Fiendish partners, using software such as Corel Draw, SmartDraw and Page Plus. 

The "semi-pro" games are done to a higher standard, which means employing a graphic artist to do the artwork, getting the board produced professionally by a printing company who will give it a laminate coating and fold the boards for us. In both the game kit and semi-pro versions our components are sourced from either Dice & Games   or Plastics for Games .

The "market" we are aiming at is the committed board gamer who plays at least once a week and who buys magazines on the subject. We do not sell to the "gift" market or the high street chains (chance would be a fine thing). The high street market is very different to the one we aim at; although none of the games companies would admit it, they do not expect the games they sell to be played more than once, if at all. Market research backs this up - a game purchased in Britain is, on average, played less than once.

2)    How many people does it take to produce a single game design?

How many people does it take to write a song? Really, it depends. Most game designs are solo efforts, although occasionally there are two-person collaborations. 

A game designed by committee would probably be a horrible concoction.

Having said that, although the design is usually a solo effort there is a lot of consultation and play-testing along the way, as alluded to above. Ideally I'd like to try my game out on at least three groups of four or five people, typically people who play a lot of games. These gamers have a lot of experience of games - they will almost certainly have played over 1,000 different board games in their life - so they know what works and will have ideas which can be borrowed and adapted from other games.

In addition, the graphic artist will have some input on the design process, not only in terms of coming up with interesting visuals but game aids too. Game aids are things like scoreboards, markers to show whose turn it is, crib sheets which outline the order of play and such like.

John Harrington




Games Designer's Notebook

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