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FAQ #20:
BOARD GAME DESIGN

Originally written: October, 2002. Latest update: January, 2012


NOTE: these articles are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This article is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome. Some paid links which used to be in this article have been removed.


Designing a paper game can be an end in itself (to make a game you can enjoy among friends and family), a business venture (to create a product for sale), or even as a prototype for an electronic game. As to the latter, there's an excellent article on Gamasutra - http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20050913/sigman_01.shtml.

Whereas an electronic game usually requires a large team of creative people, board games and card games can be created by a solitary inventor. It's much easier to create a board game than a video game. But along with the enhanced ease go other challenges - nothing is ever as easy as we might wish.

Getting Started

Okay, so you have an idea for a new board game (or a card game, or a dice game, or a parlor game, whatever). You probably intuitively know that the first thing you need to do is make a very rough prototype so you can try out your idea. After you have made your first prototype, you will probably think of improvements or changes, so it's best not to spend a lot of time and money making the first rough prototype.

Let's assume (for the purposes of this article) that your concept is for a board game, and that your game requires a board, some playing tokens, some dice, and some cards. Your first board should be "quick and dirty." It just needs to be functional. For dice and tokens, you can just borrow parts from another board game.

Way back in 1977, I designed an original board game.

My final prototype was a thing of beauty, developed over many hours' worth of hard work. I certainly didn't go to all that trouble for the first prototype! For the board, I began by just using a big sheet of construction paper. I tried to do a reasonably neat job of laying out the playing area - since this concept involved a circular board, I used a compass, so it didn't look too crude. But I didn't worry too much about it looking professional at that point. I borrowed tokens and dice from a Risk game, and I used index cards for the cards. Then I invited friends to come over, told them how the game worked, and we played it.

The rules need to be written down, because a game inventor can all too easily forget what he'd intended, making up rules on the spot during test play. As you play in these early stages, keep notes of comments and suggestions made by the players. You'll also find that some rules aren't clearly enough spelled out, and need clarification.

That Was The Easy Part

Prototyping and tweaking the game is the easy part. Now things get a little more challenging... it's time to make a nicer prototype. But before you get started making your nicer prototype, it's important that you have your ultimate goal clearly defined. If your goal is to sell your invention to a game company, then the prototype just needs to clearly communicate the fun and innovative aspects of your game. If your goal is to self-manufacture the game, though, then you now need to determine the final desired look of the product and all its parts. You might even want to get professional help with that.

The Board

There are several different approaches you can take with your board prototype. The one I chose was to cannibalize a board from a Risk game, and spraymount a new face on it, showing my final desired board layout. Using today's home computer printing technology, you can print your board on sheets or on banner paper. You'd have to paste them together onto the board, and you'd have to make sure that your pieces line up properly. Re-positionable spraymount is a good thing.

If you don't want to use a cannibalized board, and you're handy with your hands, you can make a board out of foamcore or another stiff material that's easy to cut (that leaves plywood out of the picture, and linoleum...). After mounting your game board on the face of the foamcore, cut it apart in neat squares. Then you can put flexible cloth tape over the seams on the back (where you want the board to fold outwards) and long-lasting flexible clear tape over the seams on the front (where you want to fold the board inwards). I suppose if you don't like the look of the tape, you could print the seam on some full-sheet label stock, and have a printed seam.

You can also make a cheaper folding paper board, or roll it up like a poster. Nowadays we have Kinko's, which can take computer graphics and enlarge them professionally to a variety of sizes.

You should think about what you want, and explore various options to create it. Look for board games to cannibalize at toy stores and discovery stores. Visit arts/crafts stores, office supply, and plastic supply stores. See what kinds of materials are there, and picture working with them to make your particular project. Staff at arts/crafts and plastic supply stores are usually very helpful about what the materials are like to work with, so ask. Don't be afraid to try several things until you find a solution you like. Once you've finished making your prototype and are in the business phase of your project, you'll pine for this creative phase and all the fun you had. So while you're in it now, experiment and have fun!



The Cards

I didn't have today's computer capabilities, so I used rub-on letters to lay out the text for my cards, had them professionally photographed to reduce parallax distortion, had the photo lab print them on paper with no writing on the back, and silk-screened the back design. You don't need to go to that much trouble today! You can buy Avery business card stock (available at the local office supply store), and print the cards yourself on your printer. The resulting cards will be perfectly usable for a prototype, but if you want cards that are closer to the size of standard playing cards or CCG cards (Collectible Card Games like Magic the Gathering or Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh), you can print them on cover stock, cut them apart using the cutter at Kinko's, then insert them into card protectors. Or you can print labels, stick them on a deck of storebought playing cards, and insert those into card protectors. The card protectors will make your homemade cards uniform in size and protect the corners or labels during shuffling. See Lesson 38 (click here) for more about making your own cards (added March, 2004).

The Tokens or Pieces

Most of us envision special custom tokens for our original board game concepts. For my board game I wanted custom space ships - I fabricated originals, then made rubber molds from those, and poured epoxy into the molds. But it may not be necessary to go to all that much trouble, unless you are planning to self-manufacture. If you don't have the capability of making molds, and if you are just going to pitch the invention to game manufacturers (letting them go to the work of making custom tokens, if they choose to do so), perhaps you can just use checkers or chess pawns or the tokens from a Monopoly set.

The Dice

We usually want to have some kind of random number generator. Dice are fairly standard, as are spinners.

Another kind of random number generator is the dreidel. The dreidel is a game implement used in Jewish games. Usually 6-sided, it can be used as a substitute for dice.


A dreidel. Dreidels come in a variety of styles.
Photo courtesy Sidney Stetson.

If you want your dice to be special to your game, you can use Avery label stock (available at the local office supply store), and print your own designs, then stick them on regular dice (available at the local drugstore). I like to laminate the stickers so they don't get dirty, but sometimes the lamination can peel at the corners. Experiment with various techniques until you find something you like. There are also ready-made special dice available from Koplow (see Resources, below), if you don't just want regular dice with 1-6 spots, or if you want dice with more than 6 sides.

This Lesson is necessarily short on details. If you want to discuss alternative prototyping ideas with me or with other game designers, it is recommended that you ask questions, either on my Game Design Q&A Bulletin Board or on the newsgroup rec.games.design (if your computer isn't set up to access newsgroups, you can access them via http://groups.google.com).

All in all, making the preliminary prototype and the final prototype are the most fun aspects of designing an original non-electronic game.

Legal Considerations

Once you've worked out the details of your game, and before you pitch the product to industry pros, it's time to protect your intellectual property. Get a patent attorney. Learn about the differences between copyrights, patents, and trademarks. And file a patent application for your game. This Lesson was due in October of 2002 but I had several distractions get in the way. Not least of which was the first-ever World Championship in Mah-Jongg. But I digress. The point is, it's November 3rd as I write this, and in this morning's Los Angeles Times, I read a story you should read and take to heart. The story is entitled "Casino Boss Can't Cash In on Game He Developed" and it's available online at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-poker3nov03.story (the story should be available for a while to all for free; worst case, you might need to register with the L.A. Times to see it). Sam Torosian invented the game of Pai Gow Poker (or at the very least popularized it) but, because he did not file a patent application within one year, the game lapsed into the public domain, and Torosian cannot cash in on other casinos' use of his game.

Don't let that happen to you!

Now For The Hard Part

So you have worked out the details of your original game concept, you've secured legal protections for your intellectual property, and you have your prototype ready to show. You have two choices of ways to go at this point: And either way you choose to go, you will find even more branching choices have to be made.

Licensing Route

If you choose to license the game to a manufacturer, you have to decide between a couple of routes: It is strongly recommended that you go through an agent. If you were already a professional game inventor, and have already done this several times before, you probably wouldn't be reading this. Submitting it yourself is to enter a minefield without a map or a mine detector. There are too many things you don't know about the process, the market, the industry, or the legal aspects. Agents know all that stuff and are well worth the money. See Resources, below.

The rejection rate matrix in Lesson 11 doesn't exactly apply to non-electronic games, but if you haven't checked it out, you might want to click here and take a quick look. That matrix applies to the video game biz, where the timeframes and development costs are much higher than for non-electronic products. Nevertheless, there are substantial costs and risks involved in the manufacture and distribution of non-electronic games. So it's a tough sell in this world too, as it is in the digital game world.

Self-Manufacture Route

If you want to manufacture the game yourself, you have to choose between a couple of different distribution routes: Obviously, if you can get the big chains to carry your game, it will get broader exposure and sell in bigger numbers. And you don't have to go to quite as many store buyers to pitch your product. But it's very difficult to get shelf space with the big boys. An agent could help. Or it might well be that your best bet is to pitch the product to small specialty shops.

You can start locally, and if the product is selling well, eventually buy a booth in trade shows (Toy Fair, ASD/AMD - see Resources, below). Trade shows are a good way to meet specialty shop owners without having to live in your car.

Once your product is selling well in specialty outlets, it may well be that the chains will come to you and place orders - and it sometimes happens that successful self-published games are picked up by a major manufacturer who wants to get in on the success of the product.

Pros and Cons

As you might expect, there are pros and cons involved for each possible route you may take. If you succeed in having a major manufacturer license your game concept from you, then you are freed from having to do a huge amount of work (which you would have to take on if you self-manufactured and self-distributed), but you lose a lot of the creative and quality control, and any costs incurred by the manufacturer get deducted from your royalties, so your check is smaller in the end.

It's a huge investment in time, effort and money to self-manufacture and self-distribute, but you have total control over the quality of the product if you go this route.

Article 60 (February, 2006) discusses ways to distribute print-it-yourself paper games.

More on this topic, to clarify...

Note: in re-checking the lesson above, I see that I did mention all three options before. But it definitely needed clarifying. In fact, this point (the pros and cons of the three routes) needed clarifying so much that I made this bar chart:

As you can plainly see, there are tradeoffs, either way you go. My recommendation is still self-publishing. Yes, it's hard work, but your likelihood of succeeding at getting the game out in the market is higher, your creative control is greatest, and you stand to make the most money that way. Besides which, once the game has shown itself to be attractive to the market, game publishers are more likely to want to deal with you.

My #2 recommendation (should you decide not to self-publish) is getting an agent. I assume that your priority is to get the game into the marketplace as a finished product. If that's what you want, then the agent knows how to facilitate that. If, on the other hand, you're not going to self-publish (for whatever reason) and your priorities are profit and creative control, then go ahead, try becoming your own agent - if this is the route you take, then I hope you have a lot of time, energy, and a thick skin.

More Legal Considerations

Using Licensed Properties

It often happens that an inventor has an idea for a game that uses characters from an existing universe (movies, TV, comic books, novels). Be advised that if your game concept depends on the use of someone else's intellectual property, there will be costs involved, and legal restrictions. Let's say you want to make a board game about a TV show that you like called... I don't know, "Spacebar." And let's say the Spacebar rights belong to a company called Escape Enterprises.
Can you tell that I looked at my keyboard when I was trying to find inspiration for this example? (^_^)

If you license your Spacebar game to a game manufacturer:

Then the game manufacturer will have to split the royalties between you and Escape Enterprises. The bad news is that you'll get lower royalties - but it might be offset by (the good news) the fact that the instant name recognition of the Spacebar name will result in better sales numbers than if the game did not have the Spacebar name attached.

And you might find it difficult to get a game manufacturer to buy your game idea, if they have to go to the extra trouble of dealing with Escape Enterprises to get the board game rights (you might want to have preliminary discussions with Escape Enterprises yourself, before approaching board game manufacturers). Or (assuming that Spacebar is a "hot" show), the board game manufacturer might be all the more interested in your game concept, if they think that the TV show's name will help sell the game in big numbers.

If a particular board game manufacturer (let's call that company "GameCo") has already acquired the Spacebar board game rights from Escape Enterprises, then you should pitch your concept to GameCo only. No other company except GameCo is in a position to make use of your Spacebar game! If they don't want it, then you have no other recourse, and you should just think about getting another new original game idea entirely (and just forget about Spacebar altogether).

If you self-manufacture the licensed game:

You have to make sure you work out a deal with Escape Enterprises to get the board game rights before you spend a lot of money (it might all be wasted, if someone else already got those rights or if the company refuses to do a license with you). Have your agent handle this, unless you are already experienced with business deals.

For more about using other people's IP, see Article 39 and Article 61.

Lessons Learned at TGIF

Before 2002 I had never even heard of the Toy & Game Inventors Forum, but I went, and am I ever glad I did. It's an annual event that occurs in Orlando in September (the year I went, it was in Las Vegas). The website is www.tgifcon.com.


A couple of views of the main hall, showing attendees' exhibit tables, with conference area at the far end. There were also other rooms for presentations and meals where attending inventors could schmooze with industry pros.

TGIF is a fantastic opportunity to meet experts in toy and game design, patents, financing, manufacturing, law and more. You'll hear from VPs of the manufacturers as they tell of the submission process. You'll hear success stories. You'll get to pitch your concept to manufacturers and buyers, gaining a whole new perspective on your brainchild. You'll meet other inventors and you'll get valuable information about resources that will help you in getting your invention realized into a successful product.


They've just announced a panel is about to begin speaking. Gotta go get my notepad and get a good seat...

I learned some enlightening things about the industry. It's very difficult to get a new board game into the market, for a variety of reasons.

I learned a lot more than that, but I don't have the time to go into it all in this lesson. Please share your thoughts and questions with me, on the bulletin board, preferably, and I'll add to this lesson or write a follow-up lesson as seems most appropriate.


Here's my exhibit table. I had enough room to show my board game and my dice games, with a little extra space for my resume and brochure, and to show off my book too.


My board game. Sorry, I'm not ready to show my dice games here on the website just yet. (-_-)


The inventors enjoy checking out each others' inventions. A really interesting group of people.


Resources

Before you start following the links below, here is another GREAT article, "So you've invented a board game. Now what?" It's at http://www.amherstlodge.com/games/reference/gameinvented.htm (thanks to a guy who decided to go with an abstract moniker rather than a real name)



Name: Tom Sloper
Age-Ed-Occ:
Date: 26 May 2003

Comments

Thanks to Martin Samuel for emailing me the following, to supplement Lesson 20:


Our Books FAQ lists several books pertinent to board game design (not only video game design). They cover not only prototyping but also the business aspects (the hard part -- how to sell the game after you've done the easy part, making the game).

More Sloperama FAQs pertinent to aspiring board game designers: FAQ 38, FAQ 39, FAQ 60. You should also scroll through the article titles in the nav frame (at left) to see if more of the Sloperama articles could be of help to you.

Read FAQ 1 and FAQ 11 and FAQ 21, all about the realities of selling your video game concept - some of the same concepts apply equally to board games.

And check our Game Biz Links page. Links to more sites where you'll find useful info in your board game project - info on protecting your intellectual property, for instance.

Here's a link to a site where you can get tips about how to make game counters (little cardboard squares used in hex-map war games).

Article: Board Games and Video Games commingle in South Korea

Tabletop roleplaying games are a staple ingredient of modern video games. Check out this link and this link. If those links don't work, well, tough noogies. Let me know and I'll delete them.


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© 2002-2012 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.