Think, make and reflect like a board game designer

When we construct sessions for learners we should borrow ideas from a wide range of different creative industries. Harnessing the skills, tools and practices from a completely new field gives a group new perspectives and helps them make new connections between ideas.  

In this post I want to describe the process I have used and provide some resources to support thinking like a board game designer.

We are going to have our learners design board games and both the outcomes and process can be powerful experiences if we describe the task properly and provide enough time for them to try out different ideas and work together to make the end result.  This activity works equally well for a group of young learners and senior people in a group training context; they simply work at different levels.

Our games are going to be “about something”; indeed they will be game making around a brief or a problem domain.  This an ideal project for a group already exploring a particular topic.  I have incorporated games design into my own teaching: from children’s fiction (turn a children’s book of your choice into a game) to bus transport management (design a game to help a city plan better transport).

Other areas you might consider include exploring leadership in companies, marketing, data exploration, scenario planning, smart cities, future finance and social media governance (moderation and fake news).  You can allow groups to select their own topic but the conversations are more interesting afterwards if everyone has worked on the same general area.

There are five components to designing a game: research and ideation. the game mechanics, the world of your game, prototyping, testing and refinement.  There is no ideal sequence and iterating several times is the way to achieve the best result.  This is a powerful lesson in itself. 

I recommend that groups spend time in 45-60 min blocks to make progress on all of these components and that at least 3 iterations are necessary with a bit more time being allocated to the final round.  This means this is an ideal activity for a full or multi day “course” or if squeezed (with perhaps just one iteration) for a longish half day.  Make sure that you allocate at least 60 mins at the end of a show and tell and some discussions.

It is possible to compress the process into two hours for a small group: 30 mins set up and research, 45 mins for a single attempt to design and prototype (with a very limited number of game mechanics), 15 mins for rapid presentations and 30 mins for reflection, but this is really rushed and won’t achieve the levels of insights that will be possible for a full day or long half day experience.

Research and ideation

This component focusses on selecting the overall theme of your game and discussing how it might turn into a board game.  Groups should be encouraged to think widely without spending time finding reasons why something won’t work.   Come up with 3-4 different ideas.  Search for materials, images or characters from your topic.  

Get them thinking about what players really enjoy such as autonomy, puzzles, challenges, competition, mastery, complexity, visibility of their progress, surprise, immersion and completion.  

Game mechanics

The group needs to realise that there are an infinite number of possible games out there many of which reuse combinations of the  same basic game mechanics (units of action, game play or turn taking).  They will know some well (throwing dice and moving around a board) and can be reminded of others (collecting, trading, bluffing, solving puzzles etc).  Their goal is to select a few simple ideas and combine with their research to allow them to converge their ideas on a single game.

Game Mechanics

World building

This is an extension of the ideation component but continues beyond decisions of the basic mechanics that will be used.  It is at the core of a successful game where players become immersed in a rich world of landscape, characters, actions and consequences.  Designers will design every piece of the game to fit this imagined world; whether the world is a bus company or quest in a fantasy world.

Make a prototype

The previous three components need to happen side-by-side as they inform each other.  Now the game must be visualised and this should be a quick sketch that gets improved over multiple versions.  There are likely to be multiple components that need to be created including action cards and a board itself.  Consider how the board, the cards, currency, tokens and the game play are all connected.  Early prototypes will not bring the full world to life but later versions can embellish and add depth as ideas develop.

Test and refine

Notice that prototyping forces groups to take decisions; a decision about the richness of the world will suggest a piece of game play that would improve the game, and exploring possibilities of game mechanics will throw new light on how a topic can be tackled.  Take care if time is short to keep the groups moving forward and suggest that they progress with an idea rather than starting a better one.

If you are running this activity over several sessions then getting other people to actually play the emerging prototypes will greatly improve the quality of the games being developed.  

Things to encourage and things to avoid

  • Encourage teams to write down the rules of the game they are creating even if these appear obvious.  What is the goal of the game and when does it end?  
  • How does the game explore the topic that it sets out to explore.  Take care that players are not simply collecting facts or objects but are solving puzzles, trading, evaluating ideas and having fun.
  • Avoid games that are purely “throw dice and move” without confronting players with choices and dilemmas.  Games that encourage rivalry, alliances and negotiation are much more interesting.
  • Simpler games will come to life much more quickly than those with Byzantine complexity.  Encourage teams to simplify their initial thoughts and then add back components if their game is becoming boring.
  • Remind them that it is ok to copy ideas from an existing game into a new context or combine ideas from multiple games.
  • If you are working with professionals inside a company then encourage them to explore dilemmas, tasks and obstacles inside their own work or industry.  Designing the session around “the worst project in the world” or “launching the new product in time for Christmas” can be highly rewarding.

Reflecting on learning

At the end of the session it is important to sit down with the group and capture was has been learned or gained from the experience.  Most of the participants will not design games in their futures (although some might) but the creative process they have been through will be highly relevant to their studies or jobs.

Here are some questions you might ask?

  1. How did designing a game help you think differently about the topic we chose?
  2. What was different about the way you ran this project from the way you normally do projects?  How could you adapt this to benefit your own work?
  3. How did the needs of the players (what they would enjoy) inform your decisions?  How similar is this to the needs of consumers (in business), learners (in education) or team members (at work)? 
  4. How well did you work together as a team and how could that have been improved? How can you be more creative in your own work?
  5. How are “game mechanics” similar to “ways we do things”?
  6. How might we incorporate more play into our lives and jobs?

I hope this is useful to some of you who are designing new learning sessions in education or in training.  Let me have feedback or ideas to make sessions even stronger.

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