It’s not that hard to have an idea, but it’s definitely not easy to take the idea and create something real. Thankfully, we live in a time where it is easy to learn from people that have made the jump and made their ideas into reality.
Which leads me to The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design. After a lifetime of playing tabletop games, I’ve started toying with the dangerous idea of creating my own game. After all, Eurogames are taking over amid increasing interest and sales in the US, and the barriers for indie game designers to enter the market are lower than ever. Tabletop games are killing it on Kickstarter.
Rather than just start hacking away at some cardboard to make a game board and putting stickers on some playing cards to build my own game from the jump, I decided to do a little homework on board game design. Kobold kept coming up as an authoritative source on game design during my research, and after reading the book, it isn’t difficult to see why.
The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is one of several books by Kobold Press on creating games. The guide is authored by Mike Selinker (famous for creating Betrayal at House on the Hill), but features a collection of essays from Richard Garfield (King of Tokyo), Andrew Looney (Fluxx), Dale Yu (Dominion), Steve Jackson (Munchkin) and many others. The short essay format breaks the topics into chunks that are easy for the mind to digest, while also offering different voices and perspectives on why some games work so well and what to think about as the reader designs their own game. At 138 pages, the guide is just long enough to provide some real meat, but not so long that it taxes the mind.
The guide is organized into four sections: Concepting, Design, Development, and Presentation. Reading the book with the hint of an idea for a game I’d like to create showed me just how helpful thinking through all four of those phases could be. Each section was effective at providing food for thought as well as pragmatic advice on how to apply the lessons introduced to the reader. Considering that I read the guide while nurturing the seed of an idea, it was honestly one of the coolest reading experiences of my life.
For example, the section on Concepting helped me to understand that my game design idea was centered around a cool metaphor, or what the game is about and its story, but lacked the mechanics, or hard and fast rules that make the game tick, to offer anything new to players that would be more fun than any other board game. Forcing me to recognize the initial limitations of the game’s intended mechanics helped me to envision different ways to give players the chance to make more choices, and ultimately have more fun.
Each section just layers on the goodness. Reading about Design helped me to imagine a playing experienced enriched by color clues that are engaging and intuitive. I would never have thought of that on my own. The section on Development offered the mind-blowing suggestion to attempt to rig the game as you playtest it to discover imbalances in strategy, and intentionally devise every type of insane way a person might try to win in order to make sure the game doesn’t break down in the face of the unexpected. The Design section also included an amazing essay by Dave Howell (the influential creative mind behind Magic: The Gathering) that introduces the concept that a game is not fun unless a player believes they have some reasonable chance to win until the moment the game ends. That principle is something I’ve noticed in many games but never would have articulated so well. To top it off, Howell then continues to list specific recommendations on how to make a game fun and how to avoid detracting from the fun, which further expanded my thinking on how my game could work.
By the time I was through being inspired by the Conception, Design and Development sections I was all kinds of fired up to make my game idea real, and the Presentation section was right there waiting for me. Chock full of tips on creating a prototype in a way that’s both affordable and artistic enough to make the game fun, the guide concludes with just the right information to leave the reader with a plan of action to give their game some bones and make some playtests happen to see what it can become.
It might be an exaggeration to say The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design changed my life, but that might not be far from the truth. I’ve had many creative ideas that never materialized. Thanks to Kobold, my ideas were challenged in a productive way that instilled the discipline in my thinking to establish a better plan. I’ve never felt more ready to hack away at some cardboard to make a game board and put stickers on some playing cards. If you have a great idea for a game and have stalled or just need some hints about what to do next, The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is for you.
- Diversity of ideas and voices
- Practical application
- Easy and quick read
- Game creators
- People that want to grok "fun"
- Creative wannabes like me