Benefits of the Board

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A friend Tweeted about designing a game with a board and I immediately began thinking about what it means to include a board with your game. I recently went from Farmageddon (cards only) to Empire of York (Cards, Board, Player Reference Boards) and it was a big step up as far as design challenge.

This led me to think about the benefits of the board, the downsides, and the features one should lean into when designing with a board. As it's been a fairly slow few weeks, this seemed like a good topic for a column.

One of the best advantages of having a board is that it's a great platform with which to present information and reinforce rules. Arguably the biggest advantage digital games have over print games is that digital games can strictly enforce the game's rules (If pressing a button isn't allowed, you can't press it!) and calculate all math needed. Forcing players to remember rules and conduct all calculations mentally are big reasons board games are so imposing for new players.

Therefore, USE the board to help with these things. Graphics on the board can reinforce the rules for players. You can detail the potential actions for players, you can remind them when and what to score, and you can remind them whose turn it is. These seem like small, obvious things, but they improve a player's experience immensely. The easier you make learning and playing a game for your players, the more fun they will have.

You can overwhelm players with information. Or, you may think that because it's all out, it allows you to add more to the game. No! One of my biggest problems with Seasons is that the game is chock full of information and it overwhelms people constantly. Time after time I have put this game on the table to watch people's faces melt. Use the board to present info, leverage it, but don't go overboard.

Game boards naturally allow you to introduce spatial relationships into your game. If you have a map, you can have distance traveled or territory control. You can observe the location of armies. And so forth! You also give players a chance to shape this space and have permanence. In a game like Vinhos, the board might literally be a massive reference board.

Or, you can use the board to let players place houses (Monopoly or Kingdom Builder), move massive Armies (Risk or Axis and Allies) and so forth. People love to own things, to see their kingdoms before them, and to move physical pieces and tokens. Boards really let you do this in a way a simple card game really doesn't.

Board games tend to have more public information. After all, there's a board, in the middle of the table, with a lot of visible and public...information. If bluffing and trickery is for you, then be sure to have cards or some way to hide things. Public information is good and allows players to make informed decisions. However, public information can also lend itself to analysis paralysis. For some players, the more information they have means the deeper their analysis. They will think longer and consider every outcome and possibility. Therefore, your task is to present information that's needed, but do so in a simple and easily digestible fashion. Also, find ways to condense these decisions. Really, this is an argument for scoping and focusing your design appropriately.

Games with boards are more expensive. The board is a very expensive component to manufacture. Furthermore, it presents a significant piece of graphic design and illustrator work. In addition to laying out cards, rules, etc. you must now lay out the main board and then fill it with pretty pictures. As a designer this may not quite be a concern for you, but it will be a concern for your publisher who must foot the bill. Make sure you take great advantage of the board to justify the cost.

Boards are also not very portable. The come in bigger boxes and weigh more. They take up more space on the table and may intimidate more casual gamers. Furthermore, people without a great deal of time my think twice before pulling out a game with a board because the time to setup is greater. Every step of the way you must remember your target audience, how they are playing, and when they are playing. If you're making a really light, incredibly casual game intended for a lunch break or late night session, a board may be more than you desire. Is there another component that'll solve the trick?

What else should one consider when pondering board versus no board? What did I miss?