It might seem odd to think of board games as having modern improvements the way a technology does – after all we’re using chunks of wood and cardboard which are pretty old fashioned as materials go. But board games have matured rapidly over recent years, and games even only ten years old can feel dated. Just like the first manufacturer that put a camera or a fingerprint reader on a phone that has now become a standard, board game designers also develop new game design features that become accepted standards.
One of the things I aim to do as a designer is spot trends in other well designed games and try to understand where that can be applied, or at the very least broaden my understanding of why a good game is a good game. With that in mind I want to share three examples of modern game design that interest me:
- Worker Placement – Never Blocking
- Deck Builder – Quality of Life
- Table Presence
Worker Placement – Never Blocking
Raiders of the North Sea has a unique worker placement mechanism (something that other Garphill Games are also well known for), where the player takes two actions – placing a worker on an empty spot and then picking up a (different) worker from an occupied spot. Gugong is another game with a unique worker placement mechanism, where players take actions by placing a card (numbered from 1-9) from their hand with the caveat that the card placed must be a higher value than the one already on the space.
Both of these games are ones I would introduce to newer players as being more accessible than some other worker placement games. Often more accessible games coincides with lighter game experiences that don’t have as much to offer more serious gamers, yet these games also offer a decent depth of play .
Worker placement games tend to reward planning, sequencing, and taking advantage of opportunities (either in spotting ‘open’ strategies, or timing your actions before opponents). These things can be challenging for players that are newer to gaming, and even to experienced gamers that may be playing for the first time. As a lot of mental energy is going towards understanding what actions are possible (i.e. how to play the game), planning several turns in advance and then rapidly resequencing or restructuring that plan when an action gets blocked can be overwhelming.
This is where worker placement games that don’t (hard) block spaces come in. In Raiders, if that critical empty space you were planning on taking has a worker placed on it by another player, well now that space becomes your second action instead of your first. In Gugong, if another player plays a higher card on the space you wanted then you now have to play an even higher one perhaps than initially planned, or pay an additional cost to place a lower one.
Disrupting, but not blocking, a player’s plans improves the experience by still allowing the player to have agency in executing their plan. More importantly though it lowers the barrier for newer players, reducing cognitive load since plans can change in efficiency rather than being completely reworked.
Deck Builder – Quality of Life
Another area I see improvements in board game ‘technology’ is what I would call quality of life improvements to established game mechanics. Incremental changes that (should) become established norms.
Lost Ruins of Arnak is a deck builder combined with worker placement. Deck builders tend to follow a similar format, with cards (often 5) being played on a turn and then used to obtain more powerful cards. These new cards go into the discard pile to be later shuffled back into the draw pile when empty. Most deckbuilders work this way, but Lost Ruins of Arnak has you put the newly acquired card on the bottom of your draw pile instead. A small but very effective change.
Most deck builders that follow the discard and shuffle method of acquiring cards adds a negative experience in two ways. First player has to get through all the older, less interesting cards before shuffling the new one in, and secondly when they do shuffle it in it still may not show up for some time (or even at all in late game). When a player has obtained a new card for their deck that does something cool, they want to use it!
By placing the newly acquired card on the bottom of the deck, players have some level of reliability about when that card is coming, and they get to play with their new card sooner. Not only is this more fun for the player, it has an added effect of getting to the power quicker (without changing the raw power level of cards) and speeds up the game. This is more important in modern deck builder + ‘something’ type of games (Dune Imperium, Clank, etc.) , where decks are not recycled as quickly as in a pure deckbuilder. I can think of few deck builders that wouldn’t be made more enjoyable by this minor change.
You can’t mention table presence without mentioning the Everdell tree (pictured below). This was the thing that I saw, from the other side of the room, and made me say “what is this game? I want to play it!”. The thing about the Everdell tree is that it’s completely unnecessary for play, and the game could easily have just been a flat board. But it wasn’t, and the tree became an icon of the game. (See also the Tekhenu Obelisk, and the Viscounts of West Kingdom Castle).
I would have considered myself the type of gamer that cares more about the core mechanics than aesthetics, and yet even I am drawn to games that look good or look different. The models for Anachrony and Cerebria are similarly unnecessary to play the game, but after painting them and putting them on the board they really do improve the experience! Mindclash Games also does something really interesting with these models by providing them separately (or as part of an expansion) to the base game. This really speaks to me as I like to offer gamers a choice, catering to those that want to experience the game at a lower cost and to those fans that want to upgrade their experience.
Games with table presence are now much easier to design and produce. Thanks to improved design tools, easy prototyping with 3d printers, and the ability of manufacturers to produce more complex and detailed moulds and materials. I expect to see a lot of successful games in future with components that differentiate them and stand out on the table (more than just an army of miniatures).
With Micro Dojo, it would seem that I’ve had quite the opposite of table presence, and a core aspect of the game is about tactically blocking spaces! In fact, the game has a table presence all of it’s own, attracting attention by virtue of how small it is, and being a more tactical game (with very short turns and limited choices per turn) means that disruption of plans doesn’t lead to a negative play experience.
That said, improving the accessibility of games (whilst still having depth of play), adding quality of life features for a smoother experience, and making games with a unique table presence, are all important aspects that I want to be part of my design and I will be strongly considering how to include them in future.