The Board Game Design Process Part 1 - Brainstorming and Prototyping (feat. Phil Walker-Harding)

The wilderness of the unknown is vast

From an idea to the table, the process of creating a board game can be vast and intimidating at first glance. Every piece on the board, every card, the board itself, the rule book, the box, even the little baggies are all deliberate in their design, material, and function. The process is definitely more complex than starting a Kickstarter page and hoping for the best, but when it is laid out step by step in detail, the journey starts to feel more tangible. All you need is an inspired idea, the perseverance to face challenges head on, and lots of luck. This series of articles will walk through the steps designers take to turn a simple thought into an experience that is shared with potentially thousands of people. 

So let's start from the very beginning. The first piece of knowledge I will share with you is:

The beginning can be the hardest part.

However, Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of games such as Sushi Go!, Gizmos, and Imhotep, has given us some advice which can help guide you as you take these first steps.


Why are you making this game. What kind of game do you want to make. What experience do you want to take players on? What innovative game mechanic do you want to share? A good game is built on a solid core foundation. If you don't have an idea that you think other people would genuinely enjoy or find interesting, it will be much more difficult to create, pitch, and market in the future. If you don't think it sounds fun, other people probably won't either. 

It may be hard to come up with an awesome game concept out of thin air, so finding inspiration from outside of your own brain can be helpful. When asked, where do you find inspiration for the games you design? Where have been some places you have found inspiration for games you have designed in the past, Phil Walker-Harding answered:

"The most common inspiration for me comes from playing other games. Finding something in a game that is fresh or exciting often gets my brain going in new directions. Sometimes something I don’t like in a game can be the trigger. I will ask myself, how could that have been better? Or what could fix that element of the game? In terms of themes, I try to pick settings for my games that are things I really enjoy and know a little bit about - whether that be sushi or Egyptology!"
A LOT of board games

It may sound simple, but through playing a wide variety of board games with different themes and game mechanics, you can discover new aspects that you can incorporate into your own games. Through playing other games you also can get a grasp on what has already been done and make sure your great ideas haven't already been created. It also gives you the opportunity to observe how different player counts affects games and can help you find what type of games you personally like playing and why. If you know what makes games fun, it'll be easier for you to make a fun game yourself.

In terms of starting the game design process, we asked Phil, When brainstorming, what exactly is the first thing you try to come up with? In short, what is the first goal of your brainstorming process? He told us:

"My main goal at this early stage of design is to get the game to a first playable prototype, so my early brainstorming is usually about figuring out whatever details are required to get to that point. I like to write and draw out ideas in a notebook when I begin work on a new game concept. I might sketch some components, write out a possible turn structure, things like that. I guess I am trying to visualize how the game might play out in various ways to put the idea through its first paces. Sometimes the concept can fall apart right here - it already seems too derivative or uninteresting. If not, then when I have the details of a first version mapped out on paper I will use these notes to make the first prototype."

Finding a Core

Board games usually stem from a central idea of either a theme or game mechanicsIn his article, Themes and Mechanics 1.0 that was originally published in the Des Jeux Sur un Plateau magazine in 2005, French historian and sociologist Bruno Faidutti explores the difference in the games where designers start with themes or mechanics. 

When designers start with a theme, the rules, game mechanics, look, setting, and almost every aspect of the game is created to reflect the theme with the "purpose of reproducing (sometimes with maniacal detail) a historic or literary situation." For example, if you wanted to make a game with the theme of baking pies (I'm hungry), the goal of the game could possibly be collecting the necessary ingredients to bake the most pies or as many different pies as you can or to score different combos with certain types of pies. Mechanically, the game probably wouldn't involve grid movement or or area control (though it could!) because people don't usually think of a games like Risk or Zombicide when baking a pie (or they could! I don't know). Instead, the game could use mechanics that can easily incorporate baking, such as card drafting or hand management. As Faidutti phrases it, "the theme is not only the starting point, but is also firmly imbedded in the centers of the play."

However, when games are centered around mechanics, "the theme is almost a decorative element." The focus is put more on how the game is played, rather than how it feels. "Their success relies upon the simplicity of the game rules and the internal coherence of their mechanisms." For example, games like Munchkin and Exploding Kittens rely heavily on the different effects on each of their cards, and if every cards' name and art were changed, the games would work basically the same way. Since Munchkin's mechanics can work in so many different contexts, the game has created a wide range of different variants and expansions, such as Munchkin FuMunchkin CthulhuMunchkin Steampunk, and Munchkin: Harry Potter.

We asked Phil, there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to what the core of board games should be: Theme or mechanics. When you design games, do you find yourself leaning more towards one over the other? Do you see one having more benefits than the other? He answered: 

"Because most of my games are relatively simple and low on mechanical detail, multiple themes can usually work to present the gameplay. For example, the prototype for Bärenpark was actually about building an amusement park. So the choice of theme is usually a bit less crucial for me than for someone designing multiple-hour narrative-driven games. I think both theme or mechanism can be the starting point for developing a game idea. Usually, it is a novel mechanism that gets me inspired, although more and more I find myself thinking about player experience as a first broad step, and then finding both mechanisms and a theme that can generate that."

As Phil and Bruno Faidutti pointed out, a good game is able to "create a synergy between theme and mechanics, whose universe sticks to its rules, and whose rules stick to its universe." If a game has interesting mechanics, but the theme seems last minute and awkwardly stuck on, the players' immersion can be ruined and the game can lose its effect. If the game has a super interesting world and concept, but isn't fun to play, it will just stay on people's shelves and look pretty. Games should feel like the rules and gameplay make sense in the context of a compelling and interesting theme.

Once you have the core and the beginnings to a game, Phil tell us:

"Once I have the initial idea for a game I usually start writing about it in a notebook. I’ll jot down possible mechanisms as they pop into my head, sketch out ideas for cards or pieces, and write out how I want the players to feel or react to certain things. The few times I have collaborated with other designers discussion plays a similar role. Bouncing ideas around to see what sticks."


So once you have the core idea in mind, it's time to come up with how the game actually works. This process will be different for each individual game, but the knowledge of other games you have played before can provide points of reference. If your game is based on a mechanic, come up with the factors that mediates the mechanic. You will need to come up with basic information, such as playtime and number of players, and test what works best with your game. Some materials that may be helpful are a blank deck of cards (if your game includes cards), sharpies (the fat ones so you are forced to write less and be more concise), and cardboard (if your game includes a board). We asked Phil if there are materials that are absolutely essential for him when creating prototypes for games and if he had any suggestions for people who have no idea how to make a prototype. He said: 

"I think first prototypes should be as simple as possible so you can figure out quickly if the core idea of the game is going to work. So I often use 200 gsm card stock which I cut up, and thick colored markers. If there’s more complexity to the components I’ll mock up something quickly on the computer and print it out. You can use a basic word processor to make simple cards and a board without too much know-how. And then of course I have a stash of wooden cubes and other components ready to use. But my advice would be to just get something to the table and worry about making it attractive later on in the process."

One method by which to start turning an idea into a prototype that Jamey Stegmaier, the designer of games such as Viticulture, Euphoria, and Scythe, suggests is rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping is a process where you create as many variants of your game as you can and playtest them right away. It is a good idea to playtest these early prototypes against yourself so you can understand both sides of the gameplay and not have to ask anyone to play half thought out possibilities. Through going through countless variations of rules and game styles you can start to understand how you want your game to work as well as the different limitations and rules you have to set to keep the game balanced and well paced. Writing out all the rules for these prototypes can help you check if everything actually makes sense or if anything is overly complicated.

After going through early prototypes until you find a set of rules and mechanics that are actually fun and you feel comfortable with, invite other humans that are close to you to playtest it with you. The advice of other people is the most valuable thing you can receive as you continue to refine your prototype. They may discover flaws in the rules that you have overlooked, suggest ways to make the game more interesting, or let you know if things do not make sense. It's a good idea to start out with people who you trust and care about you so that their advice is with your best interests in mind. Through playing the game with these people, receiving their feedback, and adjusting the game accordingly, the next step is to create a more refined prototype that includes how the game will look visually and how every aspect comes together. You don't need to worry about art yet, but you should start thinking about how you want the game to look graphically. If cards are involved, how are they formatted? What about the board? Once this prototype gets to the point where you are willing to show strangers.

The last part of prototyping should be seeking out blind playtesters. Blind playtesters are complete strangers who you have just met or never met before who are not afraid to hurt your feelings and give you honest criticism. They are the most valuable source of feedback because they are essentially the real world consumers you are making the game for in the first place. If they don't understand your game or find it fun, that's the tough reality. It is beneficial to let the rule book teach them the game, as in don't explain the game to them at all. This will allow you to identify any flaws in the way the rules are written and refine them until new players can understand the game by reading them alone. To make the game better and better, have as many people as you can playtest your game and address every issue or problem players report. There are many places to find strangers, a few being college campuses, libraries, and online on websites like Board Game Geek and the board game subreddit. College campuses are great because there are a multitude of students who are bored and would enjoy taking a break from studying (I can attest), coffee shops may let you put up posters asking if people would like to play a new board game, and community centers, such as churches, are also places you can find people to ask.

How can you translate gameplay to improvements? We asked Phil, when observing people playtest your prototypes, what are the things you are looking for and paying attention to? How do you translate these observations into revisions? His answer was: 

"I usually get more out of watching people play rather than the discussion after. For example, you can usually tell how engaged someone is by watching their body language and how excited they are to take each of their turns. Which parts of the game are frustrating the players is also usually pretty clear to see. This usually doesn’t result in specific revisions, but more a sense of where more work needs to be done, or where the system just isn’t generating the response you intended. Of course, sometimes playtesters have specific suggestions too. These are obviously much easier to action, but it is a good skill to learn which suggestions are worth testing. I think over time you develop a gut instinct about whether a new proposal might solve a problem, or if the playtester hasn’t quite grasped something about the overall design."

As Phil said, the most valuable information you can receive from playtesters is their body language and their first reaction to the game. However, it is also a good idea to ask questions and have a discussion afterwards. You should try to be absolutely silent throughout the playtesters' whole entire gaming experience, whether they play with a wrong understanding of the rules or not, so after they finish is a good time to have conversations. A few questions that can help guide these discussions are:

  • Did you have fun? 
  • What did you enjoy about the game? What didn't you like about the game? 
  • How many stars would you rate this game on Amazon? 
  • How difficult was the setup? 
  • Were you able to navigate and understand the rule book easily? 
  • Is this a game you see yourself playing frequently? Why or why not? 
  • To what extent did you feel like you were in control of the outcome of the game? 
  • Would you pay $XX to buy this game right now?

Keep playtesting the game until almost everyone who plays it has a good time. Keep refining the rules until they are concise and understandable, keep modifying different aspects until every part of the game feels balanced, and keep asking for as much feedback as you can. Basically, the more you playtest, the more problems you can solve about the game which will in turn make your game better and better.

What Next?

So you have a refined prototype you are proud of and has been playtested thousands of times. Now, the obstacle you face is how you are going to turn this simple prototype into a beautiful final project that consumers will insta-buy on Amazon. How you ask? Stay tuned for the next article in this series!

You're already on your way. Perseverance is the key!

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14 months ago

Great article! I always start with a theme in mind, but that's probably due to my background as a writer. Good tips on multiple versions of prototypes--I'll have to try that next time, rather than starting with just one. If I've learned anything from writing, it's that the first choice isn't necessarily the best choice. So, coming up with multiple types of prototypes could be beneficial in fleshing things out.