Better Digital Board Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In my professional life I'm a producer/designer of iOS and Android games. Prior to that, I worked on PC games. As a consumer, I spend a great deal of time and money playing mobile and board games, which is why it's often so frustrating that many of the digital versions of print games don't turn out so well. 

I wanted to provide some high level suggestions to any designers and publishers interested in this space in the hopes it helps you create better games. Truly, my motives are purely selfish; I want to buy better games!

It should come as no surprise that many of the elements that make a great game, scratch that, great product, are the same elements that lead to a great mobile experience. Before I provide specific tips, it helps to frame this discussion under one overarching piece of advice, which is to understand the customer need you're fulfilling. Stated another way, you need to understand what customers are looking for in a mobile game. Here's a hint: It's different than other games.

With a board game, you have a captive audience who have set aside time to play the game, learn the rules, and interact with friends. On the other hand, players experiencing your game on a mobile device are probably walking somewhere, on a bus, using the restroom, waiting for a meeting to start, are in a meeting, and so forth. They are distracted and don't have a great deal of time. Sometimes they only have 60 seconds at the most!

Mobile gamers are looking for satisfaction in a bite-sized package. Once you understand and accept this, your job will be far easier. Let's go through some tips!

Respect your players' time: This is a continuation of the comment just before this, but you must respect your players' time. They are busy and distracted. A game that does this really well is Ascension: It takes me literally 30 seconds to load into a game, take a turn, and turn the game off. A game that does this very poorly is Hero Academy. It often takes 2 minutes just to load into a game, let alone finish my turn, then another 10+ seconds to submit my choice.

That's tedious! As a result, I always pick other games over Hero Academy when I'm on the go. I pretty much only play Hero Academy when I'm at home and have plenty of time and a TV to watch. You never want somebody avoiding your game because it takes to long to have fun.

In addition to game loading wasting a player's time, you should also think twice before adding animations and lengthy transition sequences. Think back to playing a Japanese RPG on your Super Nintendo. The first 20 times you cast the elaborate fire spell it was cool. Then you cast it 200 more times and the 5 second animation that you could not skip became the bane of your existence.

The Elder Sign app grew really tedious over time for me as every move came with a transition and a flourish. It's stylish, sure, but it doesn't add to the experience beyond the third time. In fact, it detracts from my enjoyment.

Avoid the flash. Simplicity is king: No, I don't mean Flash as in Adobe Flash (though you cannot use it without building a pipeline for it on the iOS platform). It's important to remember that the iPhone's screen isn't much bigger than a playing card. You're trying to cram an entire game onto this one screen!

Every animation, cool effect, and wacky color you add is distracting. It becomes harder to see the numbers I need to see, read card text, or shift my card to the precise space. Function before flash must be your guiding principle.

Furthermore, use fonts that are easy to read, avoid unnecessary flavor text, and orient your screen in a way that's easy to process. By this, I mean you should avoid arcs and strange orientations. Left to right, up and down. Keep. It. Simple.

You have incredibly limited space on such a small screen. Use it wisely and only fill it with things that mater.

Teach me to play: The tutorial is one of the most difficult things in all of gaming to implement. Bad tutorials are sadly not particular to digital versions of board games. However, I think a bad tutorial on a board game is worse as the games are often more complex and reading a rule booklet on a mobile device is less than ideal. Remember: I'm distracted, don't have a lot of time, and want to have fun NOW.

It's essential that you teach people how to play your game, unless you are completely uninterested in acquiring new customers.

A good tutorial is interactive and lets me learn how to do something. Focus on the word interactive, as it's what separates games from other mediums. If you can engage a new player as early as the tutorial you're on the right path!

Don't preach to me and force me to read long rows of text! I can tell you from personal experience that mobile gamers routinely skip sentences as short as 5 words! It's maddening as a designer, but it's also reality. Use arrows to draw a player's attention to the important element, highlight things, and make them animate and pulse.

Introduce new elements in layers: Teach me how to control the game, then teach me about what everything is on screen(health is here, cards are here, etc.), then teach me how to use things.

Throughout the experience, pop up a game tip in specific situations. For example, in the introductory tutorial you may not need to explain a particular card strategy. However, the first time I draw a particularly interesting card or encounter a specific situation in a future game (which the code can do!), tell me about it. Explain it. "Did you know you can do X, Y, or Z with this card? Try it!"

Most importantly, keep the tutorial brief. When designing tutorials for games, I write out every step and the text I intend to use. I count the number of steps. I then tweak and edit the tutorial until I strip away every unnecessary step and every unnecessary word.

You must test your tutorial. Show it to random people on the street or friends. Don't assume that because YOU, person who knows the game inside and out, think it's good, it's good. It's so easy to quickly test someone with a mobile device, so do it.

Use the code to enforce rules and provide useful information: A key way to simplify the tutorial and reduce the complexity of the overall game experience is to use the game code to enforce edge cases and more difficult rules. If your game lets me spend currency to buy things, highlight my purchasing options. When I click on something I cannot afford, tell me I cannot afford it. A ha! I learned something AND I cannot cheat.

If your game has multiple phases, perhaps tell me the phase I'm in. Another great dynamic teaching tool is seen in Hero Academy. The player can tap the "?" symbol then tap anything on the board for a brief explanation. I use this ALL the time and I wish a similar feature were in many other games.

Pick the right revenue strategy for your game: Just because everyone seems to be charging $4.99 for a board game on the iPhone doesn't necessarily mean that's the right strategy. But it might be!

Are you catering to your existing fan base? If so, $4.99 is a steep price for people who already bought the physical version of your game. $4.99 may not seem like much, but on mobile it's a small fortune relative to the 50,000 free games. Consider lowering the price so that they play your game on every platform. Or, if they're on your mailing list or show a proof of purchase, let them unlock the game for free.

Are you trying to grow your player base? If so, charging anything up front is going to be very prohibitive to this strategy. Again, consider the thousands of apps on mobile. It is incredibly difficult to be discovered on mobile unless you're a huge company (you aren't) or get ridiculously lucky (you probably won't).

There are ways to make money with a free game! For example, let everyone download the game for free and play against the easiest AI level. If the player likes the game, they can spend $1.99 within the app to unlock online multiplayer, more difficult AI, and additional factions or scenarios. Or, give the players a limited demo or limited turns. Check out Triple Town. I get a lengthy demo, after which time I must wait for new turns to generate OR I can permanently unlock the game for a few dollars.

With either of these free options you have far more people downloading your app (which helps your stats on the iTunes charts) and you can still generate revenue. Plus, you can push players to your print games from within the app and drive them towards your main money maker.

Don't waste time with expensive technology! I'm going to make the assumption that you aren't an experienced software development company. Seeing as how board games are a low margin business, you probably don't have the resources or expertise to go about becoming one. No problem!

There are TONS of free, high quality software solutions for your games. Seeing as how board games are low on animations and complex 3D modeling (you should just have 2D cards!), these tools are outstanding. Hell, Angry Birds was built with  free, open source physics middleware.

Check out Cocos2D for your game engine. Use Apple's GameCenter for player login, leaderboards, achievements, and multiplayer. On Android, use OpenFeint. If you want analytics to track player behavior, look into Apsalar or Flurry. Quickly build interactive mock ups for your UI using Balsamiq, then test it out on the device using LiveMockups.

You don't need to start from scratch as there are tons of great tools readily available.

If you have specific questions for me, put them in comments below and I'll answer them to the best of my abilities. I hope this helps!