Board Silly (Tabletop Game Design)

Do you happen to be one of those people who does not know his C# from his JavaScript? Are you someone who has nightmares and cold sweats about looping structures and syntax errors? Does the thought of having to figure out how to get your game objects not to implode spontaneously keep you awake at night? Or are you simply a smart-ass looking to try his hand and something new?

Board games, card games, and games involving dice have been around for longer than you’re probably capable of imagining. That’s a Cthulhu-damned long time – like before-Buddha-was-around long. And today, while most people assume that the monopoly on board and card games belongs to Texas hold ‘em and Cluedo, there’s a huge variety available for those that are willing to look.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t always space for new designs. And such a challenge never goes unnoticed by our wildly talented Dev.Mag crew.

During 2010, both dammit (Megan Hughes) and Chippit (Claudio de Sa) took up arms and paintbrushes and created their very own board games, each of which involved at least one deck of cards. Dammit’s game is called TF2 Tabletop and Chippit’s is called Flip. In the following discussion, they each share their different journeys from an idea to a physical game board, playtesting, and beyond.

Where it started

Flip: For me, it began with the design. Dispensing with the constraints of having a pre-existing theme in mind and having nothing but an idea for how the game should feel, I set about conceptualising the gameplay rules for a tactical, territory-control-based game played on a modular hexagonal grid.

From square one, I knew what I wanted:

  • hexagons, because they solve all the weird issues diagonal movement and distance measurement has in square grids;
  • modular boards so that it can scale properly with multiple players, as a territorial game should do;
  • globally visible timers for player rewards that each and every player can affect; cards for wildcard resources to turn the tides in difficult circumstances; and
  • simple dice-based conflict for control resolution.

I also had a general idea (retrospectively, incredibly inaccurate) of how player counts would affect the dynamics, and how I’d compensate.

TF2 Tabletop: My focus from the very beginning was not so much about what the result would look like, nor the specifics of the board, but rather the simplicity of the gameplay itself. I had felt that although the original TF2 game is complex, it’s relatively simple to play: you simply pick a weapon, shoot at an enemy, and capture points. The complexity of the game is in the dynamics of the team. And so, it was imperative for me to design a game that was easy to pick up and play, but that involved a lot of strategizing with your teammates and planning future moves.

Design, test, repeat

TF2 Tabletop: Keeping my core gameplay goals in mind, I went with a simple square-grid board design and tested out a few sizes (printing them out and using coins for tokens). The original turned out to be far too large, making the game tedious and dull, so I soon settled on a smaller one. The board is designed to be capable of holding two different game play modes, namely ‘Capture the Flag’ and ‘Control Point Capture’. I felt it was necessary to make a game that wouldn’t be the same every time that you play it, and a variety in the use of the board seemed to create this.

Part of designing the board was designing the gameplay. The two cannot be thought of separately. If you want your game to play in a certain way, you’ll need the space for that kind of dynamic to take place.

With the focus, again, being on simplicity, I decided to have a game where the tokens represent the class characters and the deck represents the weapons for each class. In the original TF2, choosing and shooting a weapon is very quick, and the results of those actions are also quick to calculate. With this in mind, I decided that all battle encounters on the board – in my mind, the most important element of the interactions of the tokens – had to be like a Snap game. Players pick their weapons and play those cards simultaneously. To work out who has won, players look at the values assigned to each weapon (a visible number on the card), plus bonuses for the location of certain tokens in relation to each other on the board.

image3

Playtesting this seemed to work to a degree, but the game felt a little too definite, and I wanted a game that allowed for more strategy. Sometimes, owing to skill or luck, a scout with a pistol really could kill a soldier with a rocket launcher, but the board game never allowed for this. In future designs, then, the plan is to involve more chance by incorporating the idea of critical hits with a roll of the ten-sided dice.

While I did write up a long document with all the rules, special moves, special rules for the special moves, a list of what the deck contained, the values attached to each card, and so on, I could never predict all the situations that the players managed to create in the game. This meant that I had to change the rules regularly, with some sections being overhauled completely when they seemed unfair to the players.

I had to test out various methods of play before settling on one that was fair, not tedious, and actually fun. Setting the rules out clearly from the start, however, is incredibly useful, even if they change. It gives you a strong starting point and a good idea of how you want the game to feel for the players.

Flip: With the core design in place, I designed the layout of the individual board pieces. The layout design was complicated by my intention to have each segment fit together in numerous possible orientations and layouts. The designs needed to be flexible enough to allow for that, taking into account the intended gameplay dynamics.

For the tactical depth that I wanted in the combat, I decided that the board should have multiple terrain features that give players room to strategize their positions from multiple aspects, in addition to their facing direction. One-way ledges gave me a higher-ground–like concept, and, together with impassable tiles, allowed me to create choke points on the map to allow players to concentrate their defences.

Giving players some sort of control over their defensive situation was important, because attacking players had very little to risk from attempting to attack and were, therefore, at an advantage. With all this in mind, I then brainstormed ideas for cards that would allow players to bend the static rules subtly in their favour, allowing for what seemed like interesting twists.

Afterwards, with hastily printed paper cards and board, unit token substitutes (in the form of chess pieces), and a handful of popcorn (to serve as all-purpose counters) in hand, I set up a board for playtesting.

Knowing that easy, fast testing is an immense advantage that board games have over video games, I expected to go through a lot of subtle iterations as I went along. Mechanics can be changed on the fly, new concepts can be introduced immediately, and using cheap materials that are near at hand means that changes cost little or nothing. This is very much in contrast to the more tangible code, time, and asset investments that are evolved, improved, or dropped completely as video games move through prototype phases. And it’s a very welcome change that encourages experimentation.

The game rules changed numerous times as this happened, even before I’d ever played the game with anyone but myself. This is also important to note because, especially with games high in strategy, like both games discussed in this article, playing against people who think differently from you lends important insights to alternative playing styles and tactics that you perhaps had not considered in your initial design. This arguably makes playtesting with different players even more important than it is for single player games. It also gives you a far better idea of the pace of a natural game, something that I also predicted woefully incorrectly. Most of the major changes that came out of the playtesting involved (significantly) adjusting the pacing and duration of the game and making adjustments to many mechanics and cards to address exploits and other balance issues.

TF2 Tabletop: For me, playtesting and rule theorizing can be rather tedious. I spent a good deal of time talking to people about their ideas for my game – discussions that occasionally became heated owing to my own hard-headedness – and digesting vast amounts of information on possible changes. Once I had finally settled on a game with rules and board and deck that I was happy with and that seemed to please the average playtester, I had to get my hands dirty creating the pretty stuff.

Getting our hands dirty

TF2 Tabletop: I’m no digital image wizard, so I employed a friend to design the deck and board images to suit the game and my printing budget. I’d say that he did a fantastic job of it too.

board2

Once the board and deck were printed, I set about creating the tokens. I found a hardware store that would sell me what is essentially a wooden pole (and apparently called a dowel rod) and slice it up into 20 two-centimetre-long pieces. I first checked that the diameter of the pole was less than the width of the square grid blocks of the board before laying down any cash. I also got the hardware store to cut six one-centimetre pieces. Then it was a case of buying paint and brushes, modge podge and sponges and printing out some very small images of the different classes from the original TF2.

All the pieces were painted either red or blue to represent the two different teams from the original game, with the smaller pieces representing the flags for the ‘Capture the Flag’ mode of play. Two layers of paint later and the process of decopaging the class images onto the larger pieces began. This involves gluing the image onto the wood with many layers of modge podge. It’s sticky and messy and time consuming, but the clean effect is well worth the effort.

pieces_cc

Flip: The physical production of the boardgame was a time-intensive affair. Because I had a lot of holiday time to spare and I wanted to keep the budget as low as possible – in case I had more changes to make later – I endeavoured to create as much of the necessary items as my (limited) skill, (even more limited) equipment, (almost limitless) patience and (completely limitless) stubbornness would allow. Inspired by dammit’s use of wooden tokens, I did something similar for my game. This was complicated slightly because of my need for units to have a way to represent their facing direction, but I eventually settled for dowel rods that had been cut lengthwise into quarters, usually used for skirtings and the like. Other tokens were made from 1 cm pieces cut out of a normal dowel. Each was then specifically painted, often with a different colour on either side, because it made them simpler to use and because it allowed me to have fewer tokens – again, something I underestimated.

The board was more complicated: My initial paper prototype proved that printed boards could not work: Each piece was shaped awkwardly, and because they needed to be stiff enough to hold their shape when slotted together, it ruled out anything standard printers could manufacture. I experimented with the idea of having them laser-cut from polystyrene, but discussions with local businesses evaporated, and I had to seek alternates. Eventually, I fell back to the time-honoured, low-cost, time-intensive solution again, and simply cannibalized the packaging of a recent unrelated purchase for its stiff cardboard, painstakingly cutting and painting each piece.

image6

The effort was rewarding though. The product was of an acceptable quality, and playing on the board worked well (when I wasn’t running out of control tokens).

Where to next?

Flip: Having a tendency to overcomplicate rules and designs, I suspect that the game still needs to be adjusted and trimmed to be consistently enjoyable for everyone, so that’ll be the major focus from here on, if I decide to continue working on the game. I’ve had suggestions that could potentially simplify some aspects, and I am going to investigate them thoroughly. I also feel the game would benefit greatly by having a theme that ties the concepts together – if nothing else, the game will feel less abstract.

The endeavour also taught me a valuable lesson about scope. Things are always bigger than they seem to be at the outset, and this is no less true for board games. I had grossly underestimated almost all of the requirements for the production in particular. This may potentially be a sign of a bloated design, but I suspect my limited exposure to anything more than a small number of board games didn’t help the matter. However, I still see the game as admirably successful for my first project of this type. I’ll probably venture into card-game territory before I work on another board game though.

TF2 Tabletop: It’s now a year down the line, and the game is still a work in progress. I underestimated the number of changes the entire game would go through and probably went into final print stage far too early. Future games will definitely see much more playtesting before final prints, just as a way to keep costs down. That is the one real downside of making this type of game. You can’t simply code in a change and ship it out over the net the next day. If a change affects the board, rules, deck, or tokens, it can be costly and time consuming to keep replacing or changing the elements of the game. I know this from experience. Wise designers need to budget for changes and only make final prints when the game is really completely ready.

The entire process of making a board game of your own, from conceptualising to final printing and playing, is a really refreshing experience. It’s great to hold your creation in your hands and be able to unpack it on a dining-room table for anyone to try out. It also doesn’t hurt to have people commend you on your skill with a paintbrush or printing machine. I have developed a particular fondness for boardgames now, regularly seeking out new and interesting games that are available to try out with friends, and I plan to continue to contribute my creative energy into this field of game design. Look out for a House M.D. themed card/board game in the near future.

clip_image013