Bag builder. Worker Placement. Dice Drafting. Press your Luck. Roll and Write.
The mechanism is the primary action that the player performs over the course of your game. A good way to understand a mechanism is to play other games! For example, if you are interested in worker placement, play several worker placement games. Learn what distinguishes a worker placement game from other types of games - research the systems and tropes found in these types of games. Then replicate it... And then start changing it to make your game different and unique from all of the other games.
A good way to do this is to combine a mechanism with two or three other mechanisms... there really is no limit to how many mechanisms you can combine, but remember, the more mechanisms you have in your game, the more complicated your game will end up being. Sometimes simple is better. There are literally dozens of types of mechanisms; a good list can be found here.
What is Genre? For those of you old enough to remember Blockbuster video stores, VCR rentals were always categorized by genre: Horror, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Super-Hero, Romance, Drama, Thriller. In my tabletop design class, I refer to this type of genre as "story genre" to differentiate it from "game genre" aka mechanisms. The great thing about starting with a genre is that there are many examples of each genre in movies, book, plays, comics, theater, etc. Just pick one and go!
Theme, on the other hand, is what the work (the game) says about the subject - "Crime never pays", "Greed is Good" or "Betrayal", "Love", "War" or "Revenge" can all be themes for a board game design. A theme can also be applied to any Genre so you can have a science-fiction game about betrayal like Who Goes There? or a fantasy game about the necessity for civilizations to evolve like Small World.
Wikipedia provides a great list of genres here while you can find a great list of themes here.
Designer Jerry Hawthorne was inspired to create Mice and Mystics after he told a bedtime story to his young daughter. Designers Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews wanted to tell the story of the Cold War in their game Twilight Struggle. Both of these games started with the story - whether they were fictional or factual. The good news is, games can be about almost anything!
Board games are wonderful storytelling devices; after all, they use all of the tools that a storybook does: words, images, characters, and conflict. The classic three act structure and the dramatic arc offer game designers a strong framework that can be used to start designing a game.
Some games tell a "fixed" story such as The 7th Continent, TIME Stories, and Fury of Dracula. Other games offer stories with multiple paths such as Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger, Tales of the Arabian Nights and Betrayal at the House on the Hill. What story will you tell?
Titles are very powerful tools for the game designer. They can capture the spirit of a game immediately. A good title quickly and effectively communicates the story, theme or mechanism to the player from the moment they pick up the box. Looking for more inspiration? Here are some ways you can choose the title of your game:
- Name it after a character or a place: The Batman Game, Merchant of Venus, Sagrada, Carcassone
- Name it after an activity in the game: Twister, Kill Doctor Lucky, Acquire, Roll for the Galaxy
- Give it a descriptive title: The Awful Green Things from Outer Space, Hey Pa! There's a Goat on the Roof!, Dead of Winter
- Give it a "cinematic" title: Fortress America, Through the Desert, Shadows over Camelot, Fury of Dracula
- Give it a purple cow* title: Qwirkle, Qwixx, Qwiddler, Farkle
*A purple cow is the marketing concept of choosing a name which "makes your audience stop in their tracks and wonder why the title was chosen."
When choosing a title, make sure you do your research first! Choose a title that hasn't been used before or isn't too close to the title of another published game. Don't worry, there are plenty of words (in many different languages) out there to use!
Components is the official board gaming term for the "bits", "parts" or "pieces" required to play a game. The good news is, you can make a board game from just about anything. I've seen designers create games using toy dinosaurs, magnets, foam guns, an actual bell, inflatable caveman clubs, dental dams and even lasers!
Using a component in a clever way can make for an appealing game. Interesting components will draw players in. Never underestimate the "toy factor" of a component. The shape, size and texture of a component can make a huge difference in how the component is used both in the game and by the player. The game Bootleggers uses standard wooden cubes to represent boxes of liquor - which look particularly thematic when they are placed in the backs of little plastic trucks!
Some games use unique versions of standard components to create new mechanisms and game play. The games Gloom and Mystic Vale both use transparent plastic cards but each in totally different ways. Try looking at an old component in a new way and perhaps you can invent something new!
Just like a comfy pair of slippers, game come in all sizes. Some are fast-paced party games that can accommodate a large amount of players like Pictonary, Pantone the Game and Cards Against Humanity. Other games work better with less players such as Ticket to Ride, Pandemic or Lords of Waterdeep.
But what happens if you have no one to play with at all? Then design a solo game! Solo games are very popular right now and more are coming out all of the time. Games designed for a single player include Friday, Lord of the Rings: The Card Game and Robinson Crusoe while multiplayer games like Mage Knight, Massive Darkness and Scythe offer robust solo play modes.
Game designer Eric Lang asks “What are some key moments that make the players feel awesome?.” Think of a moment that you want the player to experience while playing your game.
It can be the rush of pleasure from gaining a pile of resources, the thrill of the tide of a battle turning, a sense of dread from the inevitable appearance of a horrible monster or the sting of betrayal. Capturing these moments will help give players great memories long after they've finished playing your game.
Game designer Catherine Stippell had an uncle who is blind, but loved to play games. She asked herself "What if the tables were turned and we as sighted people had to adapt?" as she tried to capture that experience, she created the game Nyctophobia.
By focusing on creating an experience for the player - making them feel powerful or helpless or hunted - can be a great starting place for a game design. Then search out the mechanisms that will help you create those feelings within the players.
Designing a game is a lot of hard work and effort and you want to give your game the best opportunity to succeed. Rather than create a board game that will be a "hard sell" why not hedge your bets and find out what game publishers want?
On many game publisher websites you will find their submission guidelines. A publisher might list what genres of games they are looking for. They might ask for a game to be a specific player count or take a specific amount of time to play. They might even specify the size of the box required for the end product. By designing to the publisher's specifications, you might have a great chance of getting your game published!
Contests are similar way to start. They will give a criteria such as "design a two-player game" or "design a game that fits in a tin of mints". These design restrictions actually help a game designer focus and concentrate on the essentials of the game. You can find board game contests all over the internet: at sites like Board Game Geek, on Facebook pages like the Board Game Design Lab or even at printers like the Game Crafter. Good luck!
I hope that you have found these suggestions useful. The best advice I have is, no matter how you decide to design your game, the most important thing to do is START! All the best of luck to you with your new game design!