Game Design

The Board Game Design Lab (BGDL) Community Design Sprint

A few weeks ago I put out a poll to the Board Game Design Lab Facebook group to see if we could develop a game from nothing to a working prototype in just over 2 weeks. Thanks to an overwhelming positive result (and no recounts) I’ll be starting this up on November 19th.

I’ll be documenting the results of the polls and game updates here. Follow along and add your contributions as the days go on, or join the BGDL Facebook Group and vote directly.

Here’s a rough timeline of events, from concept to prototype.

Game Design

Theme First or Mechanics First?

When creating a game, designers tend to follow one of two approaches. Starting with a theme, and building the game mechanics around that theme, or starting with mechanics and layering a theme on top of that.

I have designed games both theme first and mechanics first and both have different advantages and challenges (see if you can guess which approach I used for Micro Dojo). To get a balanced (hah) look at both approaches, I also spoke to Daniel Bishop of Tiger Crab Studios about his approach in creating the Nevera line of games.

Should I start with Theme or Mechanics?

Yes. Sorry, it’s cliché I know but there really is no one best approach, and the one you take will likely be a natural extension of what your first ‘big idea’ for the game is.

Theme communicates to your audience what the game is about, and helps frame the actions that they are taking in the context of the world or setting. Importantly for a designer it also helps to determine what kind of story your players will tell afterwards. Players love to share stories of how they managed to slay the monster with their last attack and save the day! They rarely tell stories of the time they rolled a 4 and then a 6. Theme also helps with ‘shortcutting’ a lot of the learning and decision making process, when it is clear that certain actions (or keywords) translate to the game world.

Mechanics are the things you do to actually play the game, and they have an incremental effect on the players experience every time they present themselves. The mechanics can communicate the overall pace and emotional experience of the game through the things they incentivise players to do – is the game grindy, fast paced, manipulative, whimsical, oppressive, or hectic.

Whichever approach you take, the theme and mechanics have to mesh together seamlessly, or else the game feels disconnected and leaves players feeling uneasy.

Theme First

With theme first design, the essence of what the game is trying to present is established early, and this informs the rest of the design. The theme could be saving the world from deadly viruses, uncovering the secret identities of spies, establishing a colony on a planet, or guessing the identity of an imposter. Theme first designers tend to be working on ‘one big idea’ and so the theme is likely to stay consistent even though the game itself could go through many wildly different iterations.

One of the benefits of designing theme first is that it gives a solid core to work everything else around. This not only keeps the game consistent in it’s presentation but also limits scope creep (or bloat). In Nevera, the core theme is one of monster collection with necromancers summoning undead creatures to do their bidding and battle each other. Many ideas appeared during the development process but the ultimate test of each idea was ‘does this fit with the core theme?’. If not, it was much easier to discard.

Theme first games also give a consistent base to design future games and spin-offs, and fans of that theme will likely be fans of other products (even non-board games) that are produced. Novels, merchandise, video games, comics, and movies are all products of a theme (not mechanics). Creating this additional content is far less time consuming than starting from scratch, as the world already exists (in a sense) and is only enriched further by spin-offs. Back to Nevera, the board game developed as a way of introducing players to the world on the journey to a much more ambitious project which is the Nevera video game – fans of one are likely to be interested in the other, but also allows Daniel to bring both video gamers and board gamers into a shared world.

The challenge of designing theme first is that you can be tied to the theme so strongly that it restricts the ability to create good mechanics (or sometimes actively contradicts them). If your game is trying to accurately portray a realistic theme in excruciating detail then at some point the game will just break down in either complexity or balance. The alternative however is some level of abstraction, and when that happens it (temporarily) disconnects the players from the experience (“…well that wouldn’t happen like that in real life”) or adds additional mental load when rules cannot be easily incepted by the theme (“…but that doesn’t make sense”).

Mechanics First

For a game to be successful it is going to have to have a unique hook – in either its theme or its mechanics. Starting with mechanics first is a good way to showcase a unique mechanism that will hook players (which by the way is really easy to do in a micro game format). Raiders of the North Sea has a fairly unique take on traditional worker placement games by taking an action when you both place and subsequently pickup a worker. Though commanding vikings to pillage and plunder isn’t exactly a unique theme, the game certainly had a unique mechanic that as able to draw players in.

Mechanics are much quicker to develop and test (as well as discard) than a theme. Building a rich and storied world (or, at least, researching in detail an existing theme) is time consuming. Mechanics can be tweaked, tested in isolation or focused playtests, and tweaked again until there is a certainty that the game ‘works’. In essence, good mechanics tend to be simple and elegant whereas good theming tends to be rich and deep.

Starting mechanics first is also great for designers that plan to approach publishers. If the game is not tied too closely to the theme (at least initially) then the theme that is layered on top can be flexed to fit the market without requiring huge changes to the game. To illustrate – I have a friend who refuses to play Caverna because he hates farming games, and I’ve always wanted try and re-skin it as a space exploration game (without telling him) to see if he will enjoy it.

The downside of designing mechanics first is that a game can feel like it does a lot cool things that just don’t translate into the world that’s been created. I have had this particular challenge with Micro Dojo – the mechanical movement is well represented by the sparring in a dojo, but the traditional euro game concepts of gaining resources, building buildings, and obtaining victory points is quite abstract and detached from that theme. An alternative approach is to change the theme entirely (including the name), which then has a knock on effect on some of the other mechanics that have been designed. Watch this space to see whether Micro Dojo becomes Micro Daimyo, or something completely different…


Choosing to start Theme First or Mechanics First is likely not a choice that is actively made, but stems from the core idea that the original game develops from. It is certainly possible to change tack partway through the development process, but understanding the benefits and limitations to your approach will help focus the design.

As a theme first designer I suggest that you start work on mechanics (or spin offs) much earlier on in the process, so that you don’t fall into the trap of having a lush and vibrant setting that is inaccessible to the players.

As a mechanics first designer, I suggest cementing a theme early on (even a vague one) to centre the design around. This will aid in the creative process of fleshing out mechanics by asking yourself how the theme translates into the mechanical framework you’ve put in place.

Finally, whichever approach you take, make sure that the theme and the mechanics work seamlessly together for a great player experience.

Game Design

Why Create a 2-Player Game

Following on from the previous articles on Why Create a Micro Game, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned developing a two-player game.

Two-player games have a unique dynamic not often found in higher (or lower) player counts. Though a lot of games support 2-6 players, the two-player version of those games feels like quite a different experience than with 3+ (and in my experience, is usually a bit disappointing). I believe that games that are designed exclusively for two-players deliver a much better two-player experience, and it’s those games that I’m focusing on here. Though two-player cooperative games exist, I’m looking primarily at head-to-head two player games.

Why create a two-player game?

Accessibility. Getting together with a group of people for board game night is great, but the higher the (optimal) player count the more challenging actually getting your game to the table becomes. Two-player games are far more likely to come off the shelf for an evening in playing games with a partner, friend, or housemate. At busier board game nights the same is also true, where two-player games can be played as ‘fillers’ (just watch the length) whilst waiting for a group game to start.

Rewards Skill. One of the things I love about well designed two player games is that they tend to reward the person that played better. Simple. You may think that is true of all games, but larger and more interactive games can allow players much less individual agency over the end result (for example, the Kingmaker effect). Whilst taking advantage of these the social elements might be considered part of ‘playing well’ in larger games, in a two-player game this is stripped down to the purest form of competition against your opponent.

Competitive Environment. Some of the most popular long running games (or franchises) are those that are played competitively. Card games like Magic: The Gathering or wargames like Warhammer are great examples. Their primary mode of (competitive) play is one-on-one. A game that supports competitive play, with an active tournament or organised play scene, can have huge longevity through regular updates and content-tweaks. This scene tends to promote lots of online discussion and social communities, as well as in-store presence, that drives more growth for your game.

Easier Playtesting. For higher player count games it can be a real challenge to find enough people to test (or even play) the game, and gets exponentially harder the higher up the numbers you go. With two-player games you only need to find one other person at least (and only one more after that at most) and you have a game! I’d be willing to bet that there’s a pretty strong link between the number of playtests completed and the final quality of a game, and so the easier you can get the playtesting sessions the quicker you can bring a higher quality game to market.

Why (not to) create a two-player game?

Creating a two-player game also comes with some challenges you’ll need to overcome:

Balance. In multi-player games the players themselves will provide a good amount of balance. This is much stronger when the level of interaction in the game is very high, or when the players are closely matched in skill. In two-player games, all of the balance has to be provided by your game. More interactivity doesn’t necessarily add balance like it does with higher player count games since the game is effectively zero-sum – a gain of one point is the same as the loss of one point for the opponent.
Solution: Playtesting over and over is good advice for any game designer, but especially so with lower player count games. Luckily, see above how much easier it is to playtest two-player games. A good exercise for balancing, and understanding, a two-player game is to change the perspective of the actions you have and see how it affects the game (e.g. instead of ‘Gain 1 item’ what if your opponent loses 1 item?).

Value for Money. Simply put, a game that only plays two players provides less value for money than a similarly priced game that seats more players. That’s not to say that you can’t provide great value, but you’ll find fewer customers willing to invest in a $100 game that will only provide entertainment for themselves and one other.
Solution: Starting with the end goal in mind can help focus your design, if you plan to create a sub-$40 instead of a $100+ game from the outset. If your design is already large, it could potentially be grown to accommodate extra players in a way that doesn’t disrupt the two-player dynamic (Cerebria by Mindclash Games does an excellent job of this and is a favourite of mine from a design perspective). A final option is to increase the player count but create a separate, smaller two-player version that captures the spirit of the original (such as Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small).

Timing. A counter to the point above about accessibility is that, though it is much easier to get a two-player game to the table, a lengthier (60min+) two-player game is likely to be less successful than a shorter one. Two-player games are great as ‘fillers’ at group game nights whilst waiting for the next game, with a companion whilst travelling, or for spending an evening in at home. Though lengthier two-player games do exist, it is more common for a small group to commit time to a lengthy game than it is for two individuals to do so. Like the Value for Money challenge above, a lengthy two-player game will have to be that much better to attract a large audience.
Solution: Again, starting with the end in mind consider whether your game can be 1 hour or less. If your epic two-player game clocks in at 2-3+ hours and can’t be shortened without compromising the design, it may be worth examining the player count and turning it into a multiplayer game.

Games to check out

Two-player games offer a unique experience to higher player count games. Designing a good one also has some unique challenges, but when a game does this right it is extremely satisfying to play. If you’d like to check out some of what I think are great examples of two-player game design check out the following:

Onitama – Pure elegance of design. When I hear ‘easy to learn but hard to master’ I think of this.
Province– A micro game that was a big inspiration to Micro Dojo
Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small – Captures the spirit of Agricola in a two-player package
Android: Netrunner – Asymmetric game that incorporates multiple facets of play, and a good competitive format CCG to look at that isn’t Magic: The Gathering.
Cerebria (honorable mention) – Not strictly a two-player game, but increasing the count to 4 players adds more bodies at the table without changing the two-player dynamic

Game Design

Why Create a Micro Game (Part 2)

This article is the second in a two part series where I explore the development and design of a micro game. I am currently creating Micro Dojo, a micro game which I will self-publish on Kickstarter, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you. In this article I’ll talk about some of the challenges you’ll face in creating a Micro Game. I still heartily recommend you try creating one though!

Why (not to) Create a Micro Game

Value Expectation. Micro Games have a particular challenge in perception of value in two areas. First is the depth of the game experience itself – the general assumption is that micro games are simple and quick without much deep play. Secondly is the perception of value for money – when it comes to retail, a game in a smaller box will find it more difficult to command a higher price.
Solution: A low price point can make a micro game appealing during a campaign period where you want to lower the barrier to entry, but when it comes to retail your game might need some shelf presence. A decent sized box, larger cards, or deluxe tokens, can double or triple the retail price of your micro game whilst adding only some extra production costs.

Less Return on Marketing. Since micro games are generally low in cost, marketing efforts (both paid for and organic) will have less of an impact. A paid for ad costs the same to run whether it converts a customer into a $5 sale or a $100 sale. Similarly your organic marketing efforts will need to reach many more customers to hit a particular funding goal.
Solution: Focusing more on developing organic growth will mean that you won’t be losing a lot of money, but you are probably losing something more important – time. Though every game would like to have viral marketing, a micro game is usually much more accessible to the Print-n-Play audience than a big box game would be. Take advantage of this exposure and get your game out in PnP format as early as possible.

Less Return on Time. Just like with your marketing spend, the amount of time spent on creating a micro game does not scale as well as with a larger game. Yes, you will need to design less components, and create less artwork, and produce less print diagrams for manufacturing. You will also have a lot of activities that don’t necessarily scale with game size – finding playtesters, finding an artist, finding a manufacturer, handling fulfilment etc. You might also find that creating new content can actually be more time consuming than with a larger game, since that content has to be an even more perfect fit (for example in an 18 card game compared to a 200 card game).
Solution: There is no easy solution for this one, unless you decide that your micro game really isn’t a micro game anymore and you can flip this one by spending a little more development time for a lot more product. Micro games can have a surprising amount of content to them, so be sure you are not actually overdelivering on a budget product.

Quality of Life. With very limited space, you can end up making decisions that allow your game to function mechanically but impact the so-called ‘Quality of Life’ of that game. Pieces may have to be shared between players, tokens may be smaller (or harder to read), and visual reminders or instructions that are usually shown on boards or reference cards might not be possible to include in the space available. These Quality of Life issues can make a fun game become a frustrating experience.
Solution: Cutting down to the absolute minimum needed for your game to function is a useful exercise in game design itself. It is particularly useful in identifying quality of life issues, as without making any functional changes to the game you can identify through playtesting which parts are detracting from the experience – fixing those really does make your game better even if nothing has functionally changed.

Balancing. The last thing any designer wants is for a game to be solved, meaning there is a single optimal way to play which effectively eliminates player choice. Though no game can be perfectly balanced, it is quicker to find imbalances in shorter games with less complexity than it is in longer larger games. Micro games may also have less levers to pull to get to that balanced state – if an item that costs 1 resource is too cheap and 2 resources is too expensive, something elsewhere must be changed.
Solution: One solution to balance is to include more player interactivity, which can add an additional balancing mechanism directly via player skill or indirectly via social interaction. On the same topic above of overdelivering, consider how many games you think

How does this apply to Micro Dojo?

Value Expectation. One of the questions I asked myself during Micro Dojo’s development was “Is this a great game, or is this a great game for 5?”. In asking that question I realised that I wanted to provide exceptional value at that price point, by adding lots variability and replayability, but that Micro Dojo was not competing with a game like Agricola or Scythe. This helped focus the design process to identify ways to provide better value rather than just making it larger or more complex.

Less Return on Marketing. I am ignoring my own solution here by self publishing and choosing not to pitch to a publisher. I am working hard on marketing, made harder still as it is not my strong suit, and I will lose a lot of time and money marketing a micro game. So why do this? Because for me, Micro Dojo is marketing. I mentioned in the first article that Micro Dojo is an investment in both myself and my fan base, and so it is providing value beyond the return of the project alone. The effort and cost in marketing Micro Dojo, is also marketing for Prometheus Game Labs and future games.

Less Return on Time. The more I developed Micro Dojo the more ‘space’ I found to add things. Double sided tokens, a second board, a single-player player mode. Though Micro Dojo already has a lot of variability there’s still lots more that would physically fit. Maximising this content has diminishing returns (and was taking a lot more playtesting) so instead I’ve started to pare back some ideas to just the best ones. I now have a log of ideas for expansion content that can keep on building the game later in it’s life and to re-release the game for those that missed the first campaign.

Quality of Life. One change I made in the middle of development was to reduce the number of resource tokens available to the minimum required – three 3x tokens and four 1x tokens (making 13 total). Changing those three 1x tokens into a single 3x token allowed the game to function and saved 52mm of space on the punchboard (which doesn’t sound like much but believe me, it’s a lot). Though there were technically enough tokens, players kept having to trade denominations and it was becoming fiddly. Over the course of the game, having to change up or down 10 to 15 times quickly would go from being an inconvenience to irritating. This was a quality of life issue that I believed to be big enough that I chose to lose that extra token space( that could have been devoted to more functionality), and make the experience smoother for the players.

Balancing. As a two-player game, Micro Dojo relies on the game to provide balance much more than a multiplayer game. However Micro Dojo also has a huge advantage – both players are playing with the same board state. The objectives, and available buildings, are completely known to players at the start of the game and there is no randomness from the initial setup. This means that the game rewards the player who planned and strategised better, not the player that “got lucky” with a particular opportunity. The main concern for balance was to make sure that there was no particular building that became a “must-have” or “auto-win” which would detract from the main goal. After 52 games, the winning count of Player 1 vs Player 2 stands at 27-25. I’m OK with those numbers.

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Game Design

Why Create a Micro Game (Part 1)

This article is the first in a two part series where I explore the development and design of a micro game. I am currently creating Micro Dojo, a micro game which I will self-publish on Kickstarter, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you. First I’ll tell you why developing a micro game is a great idea. Then in the next article I’ll tell you why creating a micro game is really difficult and all of the challenges. You didn’t think it would be that simple did you?

What is a Micro Game?

A micro game is small, usually in both the number of components and the size of those components. There are small card games like Love Letter; mint tin games like Mint Works; board games like Province; dice games like Zombie Dice. They are often quick (sometimes known as filler games), and often cheap (due to limited components), but their small size need not present a lack of complexity or variability. So what makes it such a good idea to create one?

Why create a Micro Game?

Restrictions Breed Creativity. It seems counter-intuitive that we would want to have restrictions, yet having to solve a unique problem forces us to come up with unique solutions that we might not have otherwise. Printing lots of resource tokens of different types and denominations is fine for a heavyweight euro game , but what about a micro game where printing space is at a premium? A sliding track for counting resources might not only save space, but lead to a smoother player experience than using piles and piles of fiddly tokens.

Lower Risk. Micro games not only cost less to manufacture (due to their small size and limited components) but also require less artwork and have lower shipping costs than larger or more complex games. For first time designers this is a great way to build credibility, as well as minimise potential problems, without a huge investment of time and money that a big box game can bring.

Showcase Unique Mechanics. A micro game arguably has less room to impart a theme than larger games, but the mechanics can be a much stronger hook. A micro game can lean more heavily on a single novel mechanic where a larger game can dilute it. Refining these mechanics to perfection can be easier in a more limited context, where they can then be implanted in future designs.

End to End Experience. Designing a Micro Game requires you to have some knowledge of the entire process of bringing a game to life. Not only game design but manufacturing, logistics, distribution, financing and more. Knowing these limitations makes you a more effective designer even if you don’t self-publish. There is a reason a lot of micro card games are balanced around 18 cards instead of 19 (hint: 18 cards fit in a single sheet print run) or why micro games have lightweight components (who wants to pay $10 shipping for an $8 game).

Drives Quality. Micro games have to be very tightly designed, where every component matters. This can lead to only the best parts of the game being in place, and ultimately a more polished product. You may have a concern that a micro game doesn’t have enough content and variability, but can then fall into a psychological trap. Consumers will actually perceive a high quality basic product as more valuable overall than that same high quality basic product with additional poor quality content.

How does this apply to Micro Dojo?

Restrictions Breed Creativity. Minimising components whilst still having variability in play experiences (and ultimately longevity) was a key goal for Micro Dojo. One of the best ways to do this was to utilise table space! The board and pieces needed to be small enough to fit in a pocket, but arranging the objectives and buildings on the table around the edge of the board means the game can display more information whilst in use and stops it getting cramped.

Lower Risk. Micro Dojo was created as an investment. Firstly as an investment in myself – to see if I had what it takes to be a successful game designer, but also to see if after this adventure did I still really want to be a game designer. Secondly, Micro Dojo was an investment in Prometheus Game Labs’ place in the community – demonstrating the ability to deliver a high quality experience (not just a product) will build fans and build trust for future games. Starting small not only makes it easier to succeed by enabling a smaller funding goal, it also means any mistakes and errors (of which there will some) are minimised and less likely to be catastrophic for me or the project.

Showcase Unique Mechanics. Micro Dojo came with its mechanics in place first, and at it’s core is a game of tactical movement – taking opportunities for yourself whilst blocking your opponent. Though the objective of the game is to gain resources, grow in power, and score points, this is really vehicle to allow the player to experience the unique part of the game which is that branching decision making process.

End to End Experience. Micro Dojo has been designed to fit entirely onto a single token punchboard. This means low production costs, only a single production item (and manufacturer) to worry about, and less chance for lost components and mispacks. That token punchboard will fit perfectly into a C5 sized envelope, which is the largest envelope that can be shipped and still classify as a ‘Letter’ for shipping from the UK (lowering shipping costs). The rulebook will print on a standard A4 sized page, which means the rules can wrap around the punchboard as a cover, as well as a reference. All of these things have a very real impact on space and costs, and where both those things are in short supply I have found myself getting excited over every mm and every penny saved. due to the better design.

Drives Quality. Initially I had wanted to pack as much content as possible into Micro Dojo. I wanted it to present supreme value for money as a way of driving buyers, but also to ensure that there was enough replayability that the game wasn’t easily ‘solved’. Even before I considered making tokens double sided (twice the content!) the first iteration had 48 billion setup combinations. To put that in perspective if each one was a grain of rice, it would weigh the same as 5 jumbo jets. Some of the more quirky buildings and objectives became part of the advanced game mode, since I thought why not add as much as possible to the game. The more I tested the more I found that people really enjoyed playing the basic game and my worries about the game becoming boring or ‘solved’ were unfounded. Cutting components really let me pick out the best parts of the game.

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