Category Archives: Lessons Learned

Game Design Philosophy

After killing Brooklyn Bridge I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about who I am as a designer and what I want to design. So I sat down last night and examined the top 50 games on BGG to see what elements they had in common. My goal was to understand which elements are enjoyable to me and to understand how they are incorporated into some of the best games in the world.

What I ended up with was a list of five things that I feel are important to my game designs. Please note that this article discusses the things that I personally feel are important to good game designs. Your opinions will likely vary. I urge you to create a similar list that you can use as a tool to help you make sure your game design is going down a path that is acceptable to you.

I now realize that had I had this list before working on Brooklyn Bridge, it probably would have turned out to be a better game. I may attempt to re-design it now that I have this list to use as a design tool.

My previous design philosophy was simply to make fun games. That’s not a good philosophy because it is extremely difficult to measure or quantify.

What follows are 5 elements or guidelines that I will seek to follow when designing games. For each I will demonstrate how they exist in both the immensely popular Ticket to Ride and the soon-to-be immensely popular Scoville. Using these as a guideline will provide a measurable way to know whether or not what I am designing has the potential to be an enjoyable game.

1: Quick to Teach / Easy to Understand

This DOES NOT mean the game is simple or light.

This DOES mean that it can generally be set up in 5 minutes and taught in about another 5. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes setting up a game and then another 15 trying to teach it to people.

Ticket to Ride Example: TtR (or perhaps T2R to you) can be set up and explained in about 5 minutes total.

Scoville Example: Scoville requires a little more setup than this guideline but it can be taught in 5 minutes for sure.

Other successful games like The Settlers of Catan are relatively simple to set up and teach. Of course there are very successful games that do not quite meet these criteria. There’s nothing wrong with that. Remember, this is MY design philosophy. So the games I will design will likely meet these things.

2: Minimal “Exception” Rules

“Exception” rules are those that require an individual point of emphasis when teaching. The fewer of these types of rules in a game the “Quicker” and “Easier” it is to teach and understand. This guideline ties into the first one. I will not be designing games that have a long list of FAQs or “exception” rules.

Ticket to Ride Example: There are on the order of two exception rules. 1) You can’t draw two locomotives from the face up pile. 2) If there are ever three locomotives in the face up set then you replace all face up cards.

Scoville Example: There are slightly more than than TtR, but they apply during two phases. 1) You can bid zero and ties are broken from previous turn order. 2) Harvesting: No doubling back, No sharing or going through another player.

The idea here is that the rulebook should be streamlined and straight forward. If your game has a bunch of singular exceptions that need to be covered, I recommend putting that information on a player guide for each player. Then when teaching the game you can simply point out that there are some exceptions and that players should reference the guide.

3: Limited Actions or Choices Per Turn

One easy way to add tension in a game is to limit what players can do. Agricola does this with great success. Most Stefan Feld games do this very well. The idea is that while you may not have a lot of different choices to make, there is some tension in trying to choose the optimal choice.  Similarly you may have a lot of options but can only choose 1 or 2 per turn.

Limiting the number of actions or the number of choices a player has on their turn also has two notably positive effects:

  1. Downtime is minimized
  2. Analysis Paralysis is limited

Downtime decreases if a player only has a few options to choose from. Analysis paralysis, or a player’s inability to make a decision, is limited since there are only so many combinations of things to work through.

Ticket to Ride Example: On your turn you only have three options. 1) Draw train cards. 2) Draw Destination Tickets. 3) Play trains to the board. That’s it. It’s so simple. But the depth of the game comes from decisions like, “Should I draw train cards one more time or should I burn a locomotive card this turn?”

Scoville Example: Each round has four phases, each of which are simple. Bid, Plant, Harvest, Fulfill. Each phase is simple enough that you have a limited number of options. Choices include how much to bid, which pepper to plant, how to harvest, and what to fulfill.

This philosophy guideline was greatly influenced by my recent play of Attika. In Attika you have two choices: Draw tiles or build. That limitation is so stupidly simple and yet the game builds up as it moves along and is quite enjoyable. Which leads me to the next guideline.

4: Include a Natural Buildup

The idea here is that the decisions you are making during a game accelerate and either feel more tense or more important or hopefully both. Games do this differently. Some games build up because you have access to better/more resources. Other games build up because the game presents better scoring opportunities or something of the sort.

When a game builds up naturally it turns it into an emotional experience where you are drawn into the game. When you make a decision early in a game you don’t want a bad choice to destroy your chances. But when you make a decision late in the game you want a good choice to be able to greatly help you out.

Ticket to Ride Example: As the map fills up the decisions become more tense. You might begin to worry that a player will fill up a connection that you needed. Or you might worry that there are not enough turns left to complete all your destination tickets.

Scoville Example: As the fields are planted each round there are more/different cross-breeding opportunities. Your decision space opens up. As you get better peppers there is the sometimes tense choice of whether to plant it for the bonus points or save it and fulfill a recipe to prevent someone else from getting it.

Brooklyn Bridge had no build up at all. I think that good games should include some sort of build up or acceleration. If it fits naturally into the game, that’s even better. What I desire from fun games is that as the game builds up and things get more tense and exciting, that I am getting some sort of increased emotions from my gaming experience. Without a build up I feel like my game designs would lack that emotional aspect.

5: Players Should Be Rewarded

Continuing with the “emotion” idea, I feel it is important that players be able to be rewarded for the actions they take during the game. Point salad games, like several Feld games, do this on just about every turn. When every choice you make gives you points there is a natural positive emotion attached to that. On the other hand if the choices you make never reward you then you’ll likely not have a natural positive emotion during the game. There is something to the idea of moving your scoring marker around the board and seeing yourself jump past other players.

Ticket to Ride Example: A positive emotion and rewarding moment in TtR comes each time you complete a route. This is a secret positive emotion but it is present and it feels awesome.

Scoville Example: When players plant a better pepper and earn an award plaque from the Town Mayor there is a positive emotion and rewarding moment. They know that their action just earned them points that no other player will be able to match.

These types of rewards that provoke positive emotions will likely result in players enjoying the game more than an equivalent game that is void of rewards. I want to design games that will provoke positive emotions and one way to do that is by rewarding players.

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I wish I had written this article a long time ago. Having these guidelines in place will allow me to check off whether or not my current designs are meeting the criteria. That should be easy enough to recognize. If they don’t meet the criteria I’ll be able to tell and hopefully it will allow me to come up with design tweaks that turn my designs into awesome games.

What’s your design philosophy? I’d love to hear how yours differs from mine. Feel free to share in the comments. Thanks for reading!

When to Fold ’em – Quitting on your Designs

I am calling it quits for now with the Brooklyn Bridge game design. This is the inspiration for this article.

So this begs the question: When do you quit on a game design?

You might think that would be as easy as asking if the game is any fun. But it’s not that simple. You see, there is this thing called “passion.” A lot of game designers utilize it when create their designs. I know I do. But let’s step back even further and discuss a designer’s philosophy.

Why do I design games?

This is an important question designers should ask themselves. Answers could be all over the map:

  • You want to earn bazillions of dollars
  • You like games
  • You want to win the Spiel des Jahres
  • You’re creative
  • You want people to like you because of your design
  • You’ve got some great game ideas
  • It’s what you love to do

Whatever the reason, it’s important that you understand the answer to the question of why you design games.

Once you’ve got that figured out, the answer to the first question, when to quit on a game design, can be more easily answered. Often it is important to remove the emotional side of game design before you can truly quit on a design. People put a lot of effort and time and money into their game designs. So to just quit on a design is like throwing all of that effort, time, and money out of the window. Sure, there are usually some takeaways from that design, but ultimately it’s a big loss.

Here is the reason I design games: it’s a fun hobby.

Therefore, if designing a game stops being fun, I dump it.

Why did I Quit on Brooklyn Bridge?

I was originally inspired to design a Brooklyn Bridge game when I was watching a BBC documentary about its construction. The discussion about the caissons was fascinating and I immediately had thoughts about a risk vs. reward mechanic built around how long workers would stay in the caisson. Sweet!

So I made a time based worker placement game about the Brooklyn Bridge. Workers could get sent to work in several different locations (Caissons, Brickyard, Cableyard, Training Office). Each turn the workers would advance some distance in those locations. The longer they advanced, the better the rewards when they would be removed. This is not dissimilar to riding the gears in Tzolk’in. But there was a big change… other players could help you advance even faster if you placed your workers correctly. That’s awesome!

That sounds great. But it didn’t work. That’s not to say it couldn’t work. I’m definitely keeping the mechanic for another design. It just didn’t all work for this design.

The game took too long. It felt same-y (meaning there wasn’t enough variability/replayability). And ultimately the decisions you made throughout the game didn’t get more tense or more interesting. That’s not good.

I got through about 15 playtests and after the final one I realized I just wasn’t enjoying working on this design. It was at that point that I detached emotionally from the game and felt at peace to let it go. I quit on the design.

I believe it has potential. I believe that are good elements in there. If a publisher wants it and is willing to develop it I would happily work with them. But I quit because I was no longer enjoying it.

Why do You Quit on your Game Designs?

I urge you to go back to my question of “Why Do You Design Games?”. Knowing the answer to that can greatly help you know when to quit on a design.

Most designs won’t succeed. As a designer it’s important to know when to give up on one and start on the next. If you spend too long on a design that doesn’t have a future or that isn’t enjoyable or that is unpublishable then maybe you should consider breaking up with the game. I’ve met a whole bunch of designers with tons of games that never made it. Some have been working on the same games for years. Others have thrown away games that are only a few days old. There is a level of recognition where they realized the game wasn’t worth it.

The sooner you can realize that a game isn’t deserving of your time, the sooner you can design one that is!

Building a Crokinole Board

How to Teach Games

Teaching games is like an upside down pyramid. Photo Credit: ©hassansagheer via DeviantArt, Inverse Pyramid, Louvre Museum. I do not own this material.

I’ve had several friends tell me that I am good at teaching games. So I sat down for a while with a nice brew and thought about why they might have said that, and about what makes someone good at teaching games. So I’ve postulated and hypothesized some ideas that I want to lay out for you today.

There are some rules and some guidelines. But the overall idea of how to teach games can be summarized in this upside down pyramid table with the idea being that you teach from the top down:

TeachingPyramidBefore we get into those concepts I want to address Rule #1 of teaching games…

RULE #1: Know How To Play!

That seems pretty straightforward, right? It is really annoying when someone is all excited to teach you a game and then they keep looking through the rules for all the weird little oddities. Don’t be that person.

Learn the game. Read the rules. Watch videos about how to play the game. Set the game up. Pretend to play it solo. Do whatever you need to do to know the game before you attempt to teach it to others. Don’t waste their time.

Ok… glad I got that off my chest. Now let’s hop on top of that inverted pyramid!

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I always like to start at the beginning. Tell the players what the game is about. Tell them about the theme. Tell them the overall idea of the game. Players will want to know what is exciting about the game. They will want to somehow relate to the theme, if at all possible. At a bare minimum, players will want to understand what the theme is so that they can try to immerse themselves in it.

Games are supposed to be fun and it is often more fun if you can immerse yourself in the theme*.

* Does not apply to abstract games.

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Now that your players know what the game is about, they’ll want to know how to win or at least how/when the game ends.

I think this is very important to know early on. I dislike when someone is teaching a game and they have told you about 30 different rules and then someone says, “How do you win?” That’s annoying.

So after I explain what the game is about, I tell them how they win the game.

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3) Explain the MECHANICS

Players should now know the victory conditions. It is now time to explain how they can reach those victory conditions.

At this point you will teach the mechanics of the game. You will be teaching the actual things that you will be doing during the game. This is the most time-intensive portion of teaching a game. Also, there are a few guidelines during this portion of teaching that I like to follow:

  1. Teach along the flow of the game
  2. Teach the basics of each portion of the game… save the details for later.
  3. As you teach, remind the players how the mechanics relate to the victory condition.
  4. Give examples of how one decision can help you make the next.

Teaching along the flow of the game means don’t skip around. If the game follows a progression of things, teach them in order.

Teaching the basics means telling players the overall idea of what is happening. The details can come later on.

Remember to relate the different phases of the game to the victory conditions whenever possible. That way players can quickly learn which mechanics are the most helpful along their path to victory.

And giving examples of how decisions affect future decisions can be really helpful.

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4) Explain the “necessary” DETAILS

Once you have taught the basics of the mechanics, go back and fill in the details. Once players know the overall flow of the game, then revisit each of the portions of the game and dive deep enough where people aren’t lacking anything that they will need to know.

These are the sorts of things players will need to know, but don’t need to know until after they have learned the general flow of the game.

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Got all that? Here’s an example…

I’ll attempt to “teach” you how to play Compounded from designer Darrell Louder and publisher Dice Hate Me Games. I love this game and it is a great example for this article. If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. Let’s start with step 1) Concept/Theme.

1) CONCEPT/THEME: You are a lab manager working on the greatest compounds known to man. Your objective in the game is to manage your lab workbench better than your opponents. To do that you will have to complete compounds, increase your experiment levels, and gain the most atomic points.

It’s that easy and quick. Give the players the basic idea of why they are playing the game, and what their overall objective is while playing.

2) VICTORY CONDITION: To win the game you will have to score the most Atomic Points. To earn Atomic Points you will have to complete compounds. To complete compounds you will have to place elements on these cards (*points to cards). Once you have completed a compound you will earn points and bonuses, which I’ll explain in a moment. The game ends when someone reaches 50 Atomic Points (or condition A, or condition B, etc.).

Okay, in that portion I started from the top and worked my way down. Score Points. How? Complete Compounds. How? Place elements on compounds. Start at the top and then fill in the details. It allows players to understand the grand scheme of things.

3) MECHANICS: Now that you know how to earn points, let’s discuss how we actually play. Each round is made up of a few different phases. (*points to top of player mats where the phases are listed). First is the Discovery phase where we will draw elements from the bag and possibly trade with other players. After Discovery is the Study phase where we will claim compounds by placing our discs on them. After the Study phase is the Research phase where we can place elements on compounds and try to complete them. After the Research phase comes the Lab Managing phase where we check for completed compounds and restock the lab with new compounds.

So when I teach Compounded I like to run quickly through the four phases of a round before I give too much detail about any one of them. This way players will become familiar that each round of the game has four phases where you are doing certain things. Once players understand the flow of the game, then I get into the details.

3) DETAILS: Those are the different phases. Let’s discuss each one. So in the Discovery phase players will draw a number of elements shown by their DISCOVERY research level. Each player starts the game at “2.” Also during the discovery phase players will have the opportunity to trade things. You can trade anything EXCEPT Atomic Points and research levels. No future trades are necessarily binding. That depends on your real life integrity. Then in the Study phase you each have one disc to place on a compound. …

I could go on and on, but the idea here is that for each phase of a game you should be mentioning the details. Like during the explanation of the Lab Managing phase of Compounded you should point out the little symbols on the corners of the cards that either give you a bonus or start a lab fire or whatever they may be. Players will want to know those things.

So that’s the basic way that I teach a game of Compounded to new players. I follow the four major steps shown in the inverted pyramid.

I want to point out that Dice Hate Me did an awesome thing by listing the phases of the round right on each player mat. Here is a picture showing how Dice Hate Me incorporated my Steps 3 & 4 onto the player mat to help players learn and play the game:


Having the overview of the game flow and the details where all players can see it serves as a constant reminder throughout the game. It also helps to prevent players from asking the same questions over and over again.

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I know that not everyone will agree with how I think games should be taught. If you don’t agree, let me know about your way. I’d love to hear how others teach games. If you have a way that works really well, post it in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Prototyping Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

One topic that seems to come up a lot is how to make board game prototypes. I’m not talking about coming up with a design. I’m talking about physically creating prototype game components. Game designers are constantly trying to make their components so that they can get right to the playtesting phase of game design.

Today I want to discuss the tools I use to create my prototypes. At this point you should already have your prototype artwork created if you’re going to be printing anything. Let’s assume it’s already been printed. Now it’s time to make it awesome!


One common component that is particularly easy to make for prototypes are chits. These are typically just printed artwork glued onto matte board. But matte board can prove to be difficult to cut.

There’s two ways that I’ll cut my chits out of the matte board.

  1. Straight edge and utility or X-acto knife (not ideal)
  2. Rotary cutter (ideal)

What we are doing here is separating the chits from one another. When creating your artwork you should line up the edges of the components so that you only need to make one cut between them.

This will help you keep your fingertips!

The straight edge and knife approach is definitely NOT my approved method and I would never recommend it. However, a lot of people use that approach so I needed to mention it. One recommendation is to use a safety straightedge like the one shown here. You only have 10 fingertips so why not spend a few extra dollars and get a straightedge like this and make sure to not lose any fingertips!

I don’t like this method for a few reasons. The first is that you need a cutting mat to go underneath so you don’t scratch your table. The second is that the blade doesn’t always stay straight as you are cutting the matte board. And that can be really annoying.

Just get this thing instead!

My preferred method is to use a rotary cutter like this Fiskars 12″ Scrapbooking version. It is super easy to use, relatively cheap (especially compared to the $40 safety straightedge), and very reliable. And since most of us don’t have printers that print on anything other than 8.5×11 paper anyway, the 12″ Fiskars tool is perfect!

So I will print my prototype artwork on photo paper, adhere it to matte board, and then cut out the individual components using the rotary cutter. Just a heads up when using matte board though: you’ll likely have to roll the cutter back and forth a few times to cut all the way through. That’s still an easier process than trying to run a blade along the straightedge.

On the topic of matte board, I recently went to Hobby Lobby and purchase two huge packs of “matboard” for $6 each. I got a pack of 12″x12″ and a pack of 11″x14″. These are so cheap that I almost felt like I was stealing. They are just the leftovers from the framing department that were cut out from the boards used to mat pictures/paintings for customers. What a great way for Hobby Lobby to reduce their waste and provide a useful product. Here’s what I got for $12:

So cheap!

So cheap!

The other key tool of my trade is a glue stick. Some people will use standard glue, some will use spray adhesive. I prefer the glue stick to standard glue since it is simple to apply evenly. This is very helpful when trying to make sure that your components are completely glued down.

Now you know a great method for producing chits. If possible, keep them as rectangles rather than circles of hexes. But since we’re on the topic of circles and hexes let’s move on to another excellent tool…


There are times when you don’t want rectangular components. Perhaps your game is a map building game with hex tiles. Or perhaps you require special discs for your game. If that’s the case, then I strongly urge you consider purchasing a punch.

The hex punches from Fiskars work great!

One thing to keep in mind when purchasing a punch is how thick of paper/board are you wanting to punch. Often these sorts of punches are used by scrapbookers who are only punching paper. That means they may not be able to punch through matte board. Sometimes you can only find out after you’ve bought the punch. Bummer.

Here are some recommendations, keeping in mind that I don’t know specifically how thick they can punch. OR you can just do a search for “hobby punch” and find one you’d like.

These can come in really handy. I use a circle punch when creating prototype coins. I have used a hex punch to create stickers for hex tiles. And here is my little tip for punching, which I mentioned in a prototyping article a long while back, but which is worth repeating.

When punching, flip the punch over so you can visually align the part that you want cut.

So now you’ve got the tools to cut out chits and punch out little bits of awesomeness! What about cards?


Many game designers come across the need for cards in their game designs. I have made cards numerous times. Early on I would buy 60lb. paper and just cut out rectangles. But there is a problem with that. The edges of the rectangles can be slightly bent from cutting, which leads to great difficulty in shuffling the cards.

Mayday sleeves are convenient and cost effective!

The way to prevent that while also protecting the cards is to purchase card sleeves. These inexpensive beauties will be a little lifesaver by removing anguish from your prototypes. Plus, you can get awesome one’s like the one shown here with a kitten running through a field!

If you want a good go-to source for sleeves then look no further than Mayday Games. Here is a series of links to the sizes you may be looking for:

Those should offer some help. They definitely help with being able to shuffle your cards. The only downside is that when stacked they can be really slippery and your stack may tumble over.

Speaking of tumbling…


Sometimes it becomes necessary for a game designer to create their own set of dice. Sure, you could always just make a cheat-sheet conversion table, but that can be a huge burden for your playtesters who would constantly have to recheck the sheet. So one of the tools of the trade is to purchase blank, sticker-able dice.

Just think of the potential here!

Look no further than Indented Blank Dice. The best part of their site is that they have labels that you can purchase and print on rather than having to buy blank label paper and try to cut/punch out your own labels and then peel them off.

Don’t buy blank label paper. Don’t cut/punch out stickers. Don’t try to peel them.

Just buy the sticker label paper and save yourself from the frustration.

So this concludes my little article about Prototyping Tools of the Trade. Next week I will be posting a follow-up article on Sourcing Components for Prototyping. It will cover where to purchase boards, bits, and more. So stay tuned!

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