Board games are having a bit of a revival these days and you can find many wonderful and creative games to buy in most hobby shops or online. Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that someone was paid to design these board games? Why shouldn’t you make a fortune designing the world’s next smash-hit board game?
The answer is that nothing is stopping you from being the next Martin Wallace. In fact, this may be the easiest time in history to get into the board game business – mostly thanks to the internet and a wider acceptance of gaming in all its forms.
Although it might seem like a rather big dream, I’m going to outline the broad phases and processes you can follow to create a board game of your own. Based on my research it seems there are some universal parts to making a board game, starting with the basic concept.
Get a Basic Concept Down
All creative projects start with some sort of inspirational spark. It doesn’t really matter what part of the game comes to you first, as long as you have a corner of the puzzle to start with. Perhaps you want to make a game that fits a particular theme, such as steam punk or fantasy. That can help you formulate the object of the game or various game mechanics.
You could have first come up with a game mechanic. Perhaps it’s a game where people have to lie to each other or have to capture land on the board. Once you have a point of departure for your board game, write it down.
Brainstorm the Concept
The next thing you can try is taking your core concept and brainstorming it. The process of brainstorming is essentially coming up with as many ideas as possible around a specific problem or theme. You aren’t concerned with the quality of the ideas, just the process of coming up with them until you run dry. You can separate the wheat from the chaff later. For now, be as creative as possible and don’t judge the ideas. Just write them down.
The only thing that really unites all board games is the use of a game board. Apart from that, just about anything goes. However, all games have certain elements in common.
All games must have a main objective. In chess, for example, the main objective is to capture the other player’s king. In Monopoly it’s to, well, hold a monopoly on property and money while making other players bankrupt. Games need rules and procedures. Players have to know what they can and cannot do to reach the objective. Players have to know what to do when at an impasse. That sort of thing.
Other elements include things like game tokens, points, objectives, leaderboards, and so on. If you Google “game elements” you’ll find plenty of lists that comprehensively collect all the different parts of game-building. Use these as inspiration for your game.
One of the core decisions you have to make about your board game is how its fundamental design will work. In our example of chess, it involves two players who directly compete against each other in an antagonistic way. In other words, the players stand in each others way when it comes to winning. That’s different from a game where two players are in a race to a finish line but can’t affect each others chances of winning. These are only two possibilities.
There are games like Monopoly where you have more than two players all competing for a single spot on top and they can actively screw each other over. Some games have one player against a group of other players, or perhaps two or more teams competing with each other. Games can be cooperative too. The list goes on and on.
What the base design of your game will be depends on many things, but mainly how well the core concept speaks to that design. You don’t have to slavishly stick to the templates either. There’s something to be said for doing fresh and original things.
Prototype and Playtest It
Once you have at least the bare bones of a playable game, you need to test it. While a game might work well on paper, once play actually starts problems or new opportunities might present themselves. You must also never underestimate the ability of players to find loopholes and other exploits that will unbalance the game and make it no fun to play.
An iterative cycle of playtesting is a fundamental part of building the final ruleset. Many of the rules you see in a board game’s ruleset are a result of playtesting. The feedback and observation of play sessions highlight a lot of things that can and should influence the final product.
At the early prototype stage you are most likely to be testing the game yourself or with friends, family, and other people working on the game with you. In other words, internal testing. Ask your testers what parts of the game they enjoyed the most and the least. Was there anything confusing?
The prototype phase is where you are looking for obvious problems with the main game concept and design. The question is: does it fundamentally work?
Flesh It Out
Prototypes should be pretty crude. There’s no point in spending time and money on things like artwork and expensive materials when you have no idea if the core game works at all. Once your internal testing has defined and proven the basic concept, you can start fleshing out details such as lore and visual design.
The good news is that these days you can make or commission great designs and writing for very little. Whatever you can’t (or don’t want to) do yourself you can give to talented online freelancers. If you do it all yourself, but (for example) can’t do graphics design, there’s lots of easy software to help design everything from board layout to 3D models meant for 3D printing.
Speaking of which, 3D printing is a great way to create game pieces for testing purposes. However, 3D printers are still expensive. You don’t need to own one to have the use of this technology, though. Just as there are traditional print shops, there are now 3D printing shops that will produce your designs at a very competitive price.
External Testing and Determining Game Balance
At some point you are going to need people who are not a part of your inner circle to test your game. This is where you’ll really come to know where your blind spots are and encounter the devious mind of the gamer. The most important thing to get is detailed player feedback and comprehensive recordings of all sessions. This is your chance to catch all the game-breaking issues before producing a product.
Game “balance” is about a few things. For one, it has to do with the correct use of probability. In other words, are the numbers unfairly stacked against some players because of things like turn order? In chess, being black has a statistical disadvantage. In Hold’em poker, being later in the turn is an advantage, which is why the buck moves every round.
In some games, you might also find some strategies or combos that players come up with that can’t be defended against. A game where your opponent can become invincible is not fun, so these sorts of balance problems have to be adjusted until they become acceptable. Remember, the main point is to create something fun. If an aspect of the game makes it less fun, then you should drop it or change it.
If you want to sell your game to a mass market, you need many different things to fall in place. A traditional approach would be to take your prototype board game to a game publisher, hoping they’ll buy it from you or work out a royalty deal. This is a path that doesn’t have too many headaches if you actually make the grade. The publisher is already set up make, distribute, and market the game. You don’t have to provide money out of your own pocket.
The downside of this approach, apart from the high rate of rejection, is that you will no longer have full creative control of the game. This is not always a bad thing, since the experts can make your game better, but it is something you will have to make peace with.
If you have deep pockets, you can try to self-publish your game and sell it on your own. You can use platforms such as Amazon or Etsy to handle the storefront aspect of the business, but you have to source and pay for the entire manufacturing process.
While anyone with enough money can self-publish, few people have the sort of cash lying around to do so. Lucky for you, this is the age of crowdfunding. If you get a truly killer pitch on something like Kickstarter you might find out that board game fans from around the world are willing to fund your dream. It will still cost some money to make a compelling pitch, but the potential payoff is phenomenal.
There is obviously a lot more to making your own board game than what I can put into a few pages of an internet article. The good news is that there are plenty of fantastic resources out there that will guide you all the way in immense detail. Game design blogs are a good place to find tips and tricks. Following the social media accounts of other people who are documenting their creation process is fascinating. You can also do paid online courses in game design on sites such as Udemy.
There is literally nothing you can’t learn on the internet about making your own board game. Really, the only thing stopping you is time and dedication. If you’ve always dreamed about making a board game that will bring joy to others, then go for it. Even if it doesn’t bring you fame and fortune, it will always be an achievement to be proud of.
This is the age of niche interests being viable. This website itself is a testament to that. If you make a board game only 100 people in the world will absolutely love, well, modern communications technology means you can find and reach all of them!