The 4 pillars of a great game
Making a board game is pretty easy, you can grab some paper, a pen, and some scissors, and within a few hours you can have something that’s playable. It is one of the reasons I love designing board games as it is such an accessible process.
Designing games however is only part of the process, as a publisher it is our job to take a game to the next level.
I do this by focussing on 4 pillars, each pillar is of equal value and to produce a great game, I need all 4 pillars to be perfect.
Pillar 1: Game design
The game itself has to be great, there needs to either be a new stand out mechanism that will get people excited, or a combination of existing mechanisms that work in a new and exciting way.
The game needs to be accessible, supporting at least 1 – 4 players and where possible a 5th player is desirable. Ideally the game will take 60-90 minutes to play and should take no longer than 15 minutes to teach.
Every component must add enough value to the game that it earns its right to exist, as setup time, component management, and take down times should all be minimal.
Pillar 2: Aesthetics
I prefer to think of the overall aesthetics of a game rather than the artwork alone.
The artwork needs to be great, the style should match the theme, gameplay, audience, and should get people excited.
The graphic design has to be perfect, with clear iconography, smart use of space and clear fonts. Consideration should also be given for people sitting around a table, making sure everything that needs to be visible is visible, regardless of how far away you sit.
There should be a standout component, something more exciting than just paper and cardboard that makes the game shine. For The Isle of Cats this was the coloured cat meeples that add a 3d aspect to the game and bring photos to life.
Every component should have the perfect materials, this might be the thickness of the box, the finish on cards, or the paper in a booklet.
I don’t just want the game to look good, I want it to feel good.
Pillar 3: Writing
Writing helps bring the game design and aesthetics together, it draws the reader in and brings cardboard to life.
There are 2 different types of writing, the rules and the story.
Rules must be well written, they have to cover all situations and help people learn to play the game as quickly as possible.
Story however is just as important. While often you’ll only have small amounts of story (unless you’re creating a story driven game), it is how you use this story, where you place it, and what it says, that will take people to the next stage.
For a game to be great, the story should bring people into the world, it should connect the artwork to the game design, and it should replace mechanisms with thematic reasoning.
If you can’t explain something in your game thematically, then it probably shouldn’t be in the game at all.
Pillar 4: User experience
The final pillar is perhaps the most important and can be the difference between a successful game and a game exploding.
By user experience I am talking about how a person uses and interacts with the game. From the moment they first see it on the shelf and look at the box, how does the box excite the user? Is the information on the back of the box going to make them want to open it.
When they open the box, do they see a mess of components dumped in without consideration, or is the first view appealing? Is there a thought out process, or are they going to dig around trying to work out how to get started?
Is there an exciting moment in the box, something that will make them want to show it to a friend?
The components are out of the box, how quickly can they get playing? Are the setup and getting started instructions clear and simple? Is there a quick way to start playing or must they spend 2 hours reading a long rulebook before going any further?
As they play the game will they experience different emotions, joy, excitement, laughter? Or will they have frustrations, anger, or confusion?
Once the game is over is it easy to pack away or is it going to be a hassle to get things back into the box?
When it comes to buying and playing a game there are thousands of moments which can either be good, bad, or neutral, and as a publisher it’s our job to remove the bad and introduce the good. The perfect moments are ones that players will never even think about, but just help them have a better time.
The 4 pillars
These are my personal rules, the things I consider when producing a game. Some of them are easier than others and some will take a lot of experience to get right.
I’m still learning with every game I produce, and I hope to keep learning for years to come. There’s no such thing as a perfect game but hopefully, if I keep focussing on all 4 pillars I’ll be able to make better and better games with the goal of creating something great.
Frank West is a gamer and designer based in Bristol, UK. He published his first board game, The City of Kings, in 2018 and now works on other games and organising events in the local area. His goal? To design and publish games focusing on immersive themes, fun mechanics and beautiful components. If you have any questions or would just like a chat, feel free to get in touch at any time!