Game Design

What I’ve Learned so far About Tabletop Design (Part I)

Full disclosure, I’ve been working on this game for a year and a half at this point and I’m still only about halfway finished. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not an experienced or veteran designer. I do not have the wise wealth of any published games under my belt.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to let my inner critic ask me questions for a multi-part article series as I divulge the major challenges I’ve faced so far as I navigate this odyssey of tabletop game design—take it away!

It’s a war of attrition

This is first and foremost for a reason. When you’re in it, you’re in it for the long haul. Remember up there where I stated that I’ve been working on this game for a year and some change and I’m still only about halfway through? I’m aware (albeit vaguely) of the challenges in store for me and I’m rushing to meet them.

What happens when you feel burnout?

It’s going to happen. It’s happened to me loads of times. It’ll happen to you. The worst that you can do when you feel burnout is feel like you’ve failed. Your mind will flood with harsh statements about your project—

Like that time I told you that your stories are lamer than your game?

Yes, that’s a great example of—

What about the time I said that experienced publishers actually somehow feel physical pain whenever you print a new prototype?

Yeah OK, I think—

Oh, and that time I mentioned that fact that you’re allowed to design a game is proof that there’s no god?

We get it! The point is that you might beat yourself up in order to make yourself hate your current game so that any other idea seems attractive. When that happens, take a short break and then set a time to come back. Make yourself come back to your game no later than two weeks from your break. Even if it’s just to look at your game and playtest.

Game Design

Importance of a Graphic Designer’s Eye in Tabletop Design

I’m back! I’ve been hard at work these past few weeks: I wrote a short story and submitted it to Visions Magazine (wish me luck); I tweak mechanics and balanced my tabletop game a bit more; and I—

Can you stop bragging and get to it already?

I’ve started experimenting with different designs for the various assets of the game. I may expand this topic out to a small series as there’s a lot to consider when weighing how your game looks. What I find is important to understand is that above all, your UI of your game (meaning the iconography, text, and layout of it all) should come first and foremost before your artwork. My high-level design phases and the order in which I tackle them are somewhat like this:

  1. Player interactions (genre, vibe, and allegiance that I want between players)
  2. Mechanics and rules (including the rulebook)
  3. Theme (story that I’d like to tell, emotions that I’d like to stir)
  4. Player UI (assets, icons, formatting, layout—everything that isn’t artwork)
  5. Artwork (the finish touches here, artwork should sell the above 4 phases)

These aren’t necessarily all completed in a consecutive fashion—there’s major overlap as I move on to new phases. Regardless, I think it’s more difficult to be restricted by some theme that you set when you need to fiddle with mechanics. It’s weird to have a set UI when you haven’t settled on the theme and the mechanics aren’t at least 75% solid. (Now, you should have a messy version of your game for playtesting, but the Player UI phase is when you should be making the semi-final decisions.)

But you’re wrong about 90% of your decisions

Wait are you asking me or telling me?

All of these phases can be playtested in their own way. You can perform UI tests with players to see if they understand icons with minimal or no assistance. You can poll to see how exciting the theme of your game is. And, even the artwork can and should be open to playtest criticism. What if a piece of artwork is good, but doesn’t make since with that card or token? What if the art style is just not fun enough for a lot people to get jazzed about your game?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m tweaking some mechanical aspects of my game…I’m also still working on some aspects of the theme of the game. (I’ve more or less settled on a rococo inspired theme with anthropomorphized animal kingdoms.) But that’s not stopping me from revamping my icons.

Here are a few examples of some vote token icons that I’ve been working on:

Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 2.14.29 PM
Left is the old icon that I’ve been using as a placeholder. Right is a version I’m considering for the game. (Currency in the game is called acorns.) 
Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 2.14.22 PM
Left is the placeholder, right is a close to final version.

The icons on the left are placeholders that I’ve found on which I’ve just been using for playtests.

The ones on the right I’ve designed myself. The one that I’m designing for Economy needs more contrast between the foreground icon and the background, but I think it’s almost there!

That’s all for now—I’m planning on pairing something to drink with a few games in the not-too-distant future and I have a lot more content on UI design that I’m planning on showing everyone soon.

Until next time!

Game Design

The White Box Essays: A Recommended Buy

Jeremy Holcomb is a professor of game design any the DigiPen Institute of Technology. He has a wealth of experience with the full spectrum of idea-to-publish tabletop design. His insight is as paramount to the industry as the likes of the founders of “indie-giants” like Stonemaier and Leder Games. Enter The White Box Essays: a collection of pieces that shine a light on every aspect of game design.

You mean, “step 1” make game “step 2” play game?

It’s a little more complicated than that. From ideation to prototyping and playtesting cycles, to how you might go about settling on theme, complexity, mechanics, and most importantly: the emotional charge of the player interactions that you want to cultivate in your game—The White Box Essays has think pieces on most of the facets of critical thought on making your tabletop game strong.

Sounds like you forked over money for things that you could google

This book is also critical on some of the more controversial topics in board games, like inclusion and diversity. It invites designers to think about who they might be inadvertently excluding from their game.

  • Is the artwork diverse and inclusive of all peoples of the world?
  • Could the theme of your game potentially be offensive to some people?
  • How accessible is your game for people (e.g. the hard of seeing, hearing, or colorblind people who might want to play)?

These are questions that I weigh heavily as I develop my game. These are also all topics that most of the other big names in game design (some of whom I’ve mentioned above) are library volume levels of quiet on.

Taking no stance on encouraging more diversity in your community is, in my opinion, just as bad as opposing it.

Even doing simple things, like following people on twitter who are of a different race, sexual orientation, gender, and who are in a different geographical location than you are can help you understand a different voice. This makes your thematic storytelling more interesting at the least, at the most it helps welcome other intelligent people into a community that desperately needs it. (Can we not have another “middle eastern traveling merchant” themed market game?)

So you’re recommending that I buy a book, that’s the worst board game ever!

You also do get some generic assets which may come in handy when designing your game. I’d like this point, though:

Don’t buy The White Box for the assets, buy it for the White Box Essays it contains.

You can find almost all of these assets for a lot better price point and in greater bulk at your neighborhood board game store or on amazon.

Regardless, here’s what you get in the white box:

  • The White Box Essays, a book of 25 essays on game design and production
  • 3 counter sheets with 71 pre-printed and 49 blank counters (chits)
  • 150 small wooden cubes in six colors
  • 36 wooden meeples in six colors
  • 6 giant wooden cubes in six colors (this one’s actually a little harder to find)
  • 12 six-sided dice in six colors
  • 110 plastic disks in eight colors

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Jeremy Holcomb, Atlas Games, Gameplaywright, or any other company or individual responsible for creating The White Box or any associated product to it.

Link to purchase The White Box.

Game Design

Plan it! Keep Your Game Development on Track

A short one today, sorry!

Don’t apologize, this is the best day of my life

Now that I finally have a build of my tabletop game that can be played from start to finish, I’ve decided to double-down on an Agile-based development cycle. Here’s my development project plan, in a nutshell:

  • Two weeks of play testing and collecting feedback.
  • Two weeks of adjusting game mechanics and UI based on said feedback.

I’m going to try and work in some minor concept sketches for artwork.

Four week cycles?


Divided into two weeks?

That’s right.

Sounds stupid.


Anyway, this is a staple of the Agile method. Put tasks into two week “sprints.” If you can’t do something, move it into the following sprint. It’s a great way to keep yourself on track while not feeling horrible for not getting everything done in a two week period.

You can also break your tasks out into manageable chunks. Nothing fancy:

  • Fix icons
  • Balance character X so they’re less powerful
  • Fix this crisis, it’s too hard for players to beat!

That’s all folks! as a reward for reading this, please enjoy these concept sketches of my characters with little context as to their thematic and mechanical relevance to my game! (I know, I drew the frog general a lot.)


Game Design

Nurture Your Playtest Feedback, Ask Questions

I recently had my first playtest of the latest build of my game with three players. Not only was it the first playtest that I’ve had with this recent build, which includes mechanical and UI changes (all based on a prior feedback session), this was the first time playing the game with more than two players.

Don’t have that many friends, do you?

The feedback that I got from this playtest was essential. It confirmed that the parts of the game which I thought were sluggish, were indeed sluggish. Why go through a playtest when you know what the problems are, you might ask?

No, I didn’t ask

For one, I don’t want to trick myself into thinking that I know every flaw in my game.

For two, it’s good to see your game in action, mainly so you can have physical evidence to confirm your suspicions. (Sometimes, what you thought was an issue really isn’t a problem.)

For three, you can spitball ideas with people who play tabletop games and figure out what they think would be fun to see in a game.

So you basically get people to design your game for you? Genius!

Not necessarily. Well actually, yes—kinda. Everyone wrote feedback down during the game and then shared it at the end. The sentiments that stuck out for me the most were:

    It was difficult to get started and understand at the beginning.
    Toward the middle, it really hit its stride and became fun.
    The social deduction aspect is good, but difficult to work with from a strategic perspective.
    There isn’t a great way to thwart other players who are getting ahead. Partially because you don’t know that they’re getting ahead, and partially because there isn’t much you can do to stop or delay a player.
    There was no need to actually vote, players discussed which tokens they were going to buy, bought them, then placed them down.
    The idea of the Chaos Tracker was great, but the execution was a little anti-climatic. A player brought up the idea of making the penalty be something lasting that occurs when the last unresolved crisis is of a specific type. I like that idea!
  • Other things that I noticed during the game that weren’t vocalized by the players were:
    • Players had a difficult time moving from round to round. (They kept forgetting that to start a new round, you draw a new Crisis Card, so they just stared at the board for a while.) I had previously removed the Speaker role who’s job was to draw the Crisis, I think I’ll bring it back.
    • Players rarely wanted to try and veto tokens.
    • Players never tried to add a bunch of tokens to the vote in order to try and win their path over their opponent’s potential paths.
    • Players mostly hoarded money toward the middle and end.
    • In general, players were not in direct conflict with one another. I need to figure out how to make people vote against other’s interests and how to get people to veto more often.
    • Abilities were rarely used.

    Sounds like you’re game’s pretty broken!

    It is, but that’s what playtesting is for. This information was key, but what was even more helpful to me was when I asked what players would like to see or what they think could help fix that issue. It’s easy for me to say, “maybe you just start with more coins.” But when a player makes other suggestions like, “maybe you start with specific tokens” then you realize what’s truly missing from your game.

    What’s your point?

    It’s this: don’t feel like you have to solve everything yourself. Spitball ideas with your play testers during feedback. Doing so saves you way more time over thinking of a few ways that could potentially work and then A/B testing them over and over again.

    I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who has play tested the game so far. I’m lucky to know these people. You know who you are!