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Box Design: What’s in the box vs. What’s *in* the box

By | Art | No Comments

The humble box is one of the most crucial graphical elements to any board game. In many cases, the box is the first experience a potential player will have with the game, and that experience can have a strong influence on whether that game gets opened up and played or remains on the shelf. The box has no small job in the board game world. Here are but a few of the questions the box needs to answer for a potential buyer or player:

  • What is the name of this game?
    This is probably the most obvious one. However, the treatment of the game’s title is also an opportunity to answer other questions as well.
  • What is the theme of this game?
    This is also fairly obvious. If your game is themed around techno-goblins trying to escape a burning builing or street performers trying to pickpocket passers by, you probably want to communicate that. However, less important than the type of characters in your game is the story they’re trying to convey. Your theme should help to communicate what it’s like to play the game. Speaking of which…
  • What is it like to play this game?
    This is one of the most crucial elements of your box design. If your potential player thinks they’re in for a lighthearted chaotic romp through board game land and you serve them with a high strategy euro-style game, they will be less-than-pleased. Even if your game is objectively great, people get grumpy when reality doesn’t match their expectations.
  • Why should I buy this game?
    A game is much better off in a gamer’s collection than on a game shop’s shelf, but to get it there you’ll need to convince someone to buy it first. There’s a lot of competition in that game shop, and your box needs to confidently convey what differentiates this game enough to warrant someone spending their hard-earned money on it.
  • What am I in for when I open the box?
    Am I going to be sitting down with this game for 3 hours or 20 minutes? Will there be a million miniatures, tokens, and tiles I need to deal with or is it going to be a straight-shooting card game? This is related to but distinct from the “feel,” as it is more reliant on the physical interactions with the game rather than the emotional or cognitive ones.

We’re currently working on designing the box for Diabolical!, so we wanted to make sure we do our due diligence and research what’s out there today. Below you’ll find some of our favorite box designs and why we think they’re so successful.



Holy moly that box is beautiful. Their use of saturation to create depth was very intelligent, with the close buildings being super vibrant and the further ones less-so. The way the title is broken up by the buildings also creates visual interest.

At a glance, the quality and attention paid to the illustration on the outside of the box tells the player quite a lot about the quality of the game inside the box. Right off the bat, it’s pretty clear that these large and wondrous buildings will play some central role in the game that’s about to take place.

A closer look at the people, however, shows that it doesn’t end there. Each of these characters is very unique and there is definitely some kind of story going on here. Take a look under the bridge. What are those two nefarious characters up to? Is some noble paying off an assassin to off the king perhaps? What about the person subtly listening in to their conversation? Is he loyal to the king and going to warn him that there’s a plot afoot?

This box does a fabulous job communicating that there will likely be some backstabbing player interaction as a theme within the game. The bright colors help to convey that this game isn’t too heavy. The one mark against this game is that the size of the box overstates what’s on the inside. This box is not small: 10 inches on each side and 2 inches deep. However, the game in reality is just a few tokens and some cards, which could’ve been achieved in a much smaller space.

That said, the illustration is so gorgeous I don’t even care.



Of all the game boxes I’ve seen, this is among the best uses of color. The vibrant colors of the sugar skull contrast beautifully with the dark purple background. The simple vector shapes and the small size of the box (about 5 inches square by 2 inches deep, or about a quarter the size of the Citadels box), help to convey that this is a quick, simple game. The hypnotic, wide open eyes of the skull help convey the bluffing element of this game.

One of the things I really like about this box is that it differentiates itself effectively on a store shelf compared to what’s around it. Big boxes with super detailed (and generally somewhat serious) illustrations currently dominate the broader hobby gaming market, and this little box is definitely zigging while most others are zagging.

It’s a great example of doing something simple and doing it extremely well.

Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre


If there’s anything this box communicates it’s “pandemonium.” There’s tons of movement: the swirling lines of energy from the different wizards, the flying chicken, the fire breathing dragon, the green slime from the alien, and the lava-vomiting volcano are all in motion. Even the skeleton’s eyes are popping out of its head.

The fact that they’re all locked in some kind of conflict also helps communicate what it’s like playing this game. Very direct player interaction is one of the key elements of this game, and showing what is essentially a magical pub-brawl really gets that point across.

Finally, the smaller, thinner box with the wacky/cartoony characters helps communicate the weight of this game. At about 9”x6”x2”, or roughly half the size of Citadels, this box shows that this is no heavy-duty worker-placement euro game we’re playing here. When you open this box, you’ll find about what you expect, simple elements with wacky artwork that doesn’t take too long (or too much thought) to play.

Sheriff of Nottingham


Of all the games in this list, I think this one does possibly the most effective job at telling the game’s story. For the uninitiated, in Sheriff of Nottingham players take turns playing one of two roles: the Sheriff, who inspects merchants’ wares for contraband (or maybe looks the other way if they give him enough coin), or one of the Merchants, who bring goods into the town to sell (or maybe try smuggling contraband past the sheriff to sell for extra profit).

The Sheriff is front and center, looking down skeptically at the viewer, framed by a pile of coins and writs from Prince John. Behind him, the sly merchants seem to be plotting some ruse and stay out of sight of the Sheriff. One of the things I like about this approach is that by putting the merchants smaller and in shadow behind the sheriff, they don’t compete visually and it creates more depth. In addition, it helps to tell the story of the merchants trying to sneak past the sheriff. They also frame the title of the game really effectively.

Finally, the quality of the illustration and attention to detail give the viewer a lot of faith as to the quality of what’s in the box. When opened, they will find nice materials as well, including player mats, snapping bags for hiding their materials, and a nice little standee to mark the sheriff.

Sneak Peek!


Thanks for reading. I wanted to share a sneak peek of the box we’re working on for our game, Diabolical! In this game, players are wacky super villains trying to take over the world. The game is very tongue-in-cheek and players spend a lot of effort trying to hamstring their opponents’ plans as they all are competing for the same objectives.

We wanted to communicate this by having each of the villains focused on the same area of the box, in this case the globe in the center of our logo. We plan to reinforce this by having each villain bound up in one another, not only progressing towards the globe but also pulling another villain back.

Obviously, this artwork is still very much in progress, but we’d love to hear your initial feedback. Tell us what you think!


We’re Baaaaaaack…

By | Progress Updates | No Comments

Hey everyone! After laying low for awhile post-Gen Con and recharging our batteries, we’re back and at it again. We’re ready to push Diabolical! to completion.

Very soon, we’ll be looking for play testers to expand our feedback opportunities and put some final refinements in. If you’re interested in being a play tester, please send us a Facebook message (our contact form is temporarily broken).

We look forward to sharing more of our progress as we keep moving forward on the game. As always, email updates will only be used for big announcements like conference appearances or when we go live on Kickstarter. If you’d like to follow along more closely and see what we’re working on behind the scenes, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

In the meantime, thanks so much for following along and your interest in our little indie game. We wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as we have without the help of folks like you!


Thanks for a Fantastic Gen Con

By | GenCon 2016, Progress Updates | No Comments

GEN CON. WAS. AMAZING. Thanks very much to the fantastic attendees as well as the wonderful work of the planners and organizers of the event! We wanted to share a brief write-up of our favorite experiences and some of our main takeaways from the event.


Connecting with the tabletop gaming community

Obviously, our favorite part of Gen Con was the opportunity we had to connect with the amazing people in the broader gaming community. It was so great to see people outside of our local community in Kansas City be as excited about Diabolical! as we are. We got the opportunity to talk to thousands of people over the course of the four day event, and it was astounding the degree of kindness and enthusiasm we saw among the attendees we spoke with. It was so much fun y’all. Thanks for that.


Gaining insight on what it means to be an indie game company

Gen Con represented for us a pretty significant shift towards making this game a reality. When we started work on this project, we were just a couple of passionate hobbyists wanting to contribute to an area which adds a lot of joy to our lives. While we’re still fundamentally those same passionate hobbyists, this event caused us to open our eyes to some of the realities of what it means to work in this industry. Having an opportunity to learn from folks in the industry – including other designers, shop owners, publishers, manufacturers, and bloggers – was inspiring and will surely prove invaluable as we continue our journey.


Meeting other fantastic exhibitors

Along these same lines, we made great connections with other exhibitors at the event. I left the event with a wallet stuffed to the brim with business cards of interesting folks. While we didn’t have as much time as we would’ve liked to walk the convention center floor, it was so cool to see all the neat things that everyone is working on, including gaming goliaths like Asmodee and Paizo, as well as small-timers like us. Some of the smaller companies that stood out were the fine folks over at Heroic Games, Devious Devices, and God Hates Games (NSFW-ish). You should check them out! 🙂


Gaining valuable feedback from playtesters

At Gen Con, we had the opportunity to participate in the First Exposure Playtesting Hall. It was an incredible experience getting to watch people check out the game first hand and to see how they reacted to it. We’ve been testing the game for quite some time now, but the opportunity to test with the Gen Con attendees proved particularly insightful. Generally, people reacted very positively to the game. One group even said that Diabolical! was one of the best games they’ve ever tested, and they’ve been testing games at Gen Con for several years! Playtesting overall definitely confirms that we’re on the right track (although there’s definitely some issues to be resolved yet).


What’s next?

You’ve probably noticed that this post is coming a week or so later than many of the other Gen Con write-ups out there. That’s because we’ve decided to take a brief break from the game to focus on our lives and to recharge a bit. For the two of us, working on Diabolical! is a wonderful and exciting experience, but it’s also in addition to our daily lives and full-time jobs (boo, adulthood!).
That said, we walked away from the event with so much inspiration that it’s been hard not to dig up our designs and keep working on them! We have a million ideas on where to go from here and it’ll take us some time to synthesize those and narrow them down into concrete next steps. Soon, we’ll be looking to send copies of the game out to testers to play with their friends and let us hear about their experiences, so be on the lookout for that!


Thanks again to everybody who stopped by our booth to chat with us, who signed up for our email list, and to those who tested our game. We really enjoyed our time at Gen Con and look forward to seeing you at another convention near you!


Exhibit hall on the day before Gen Con

Exhibit hall on the day before Gen Con

Giant Pikachu being set up over Pokemon booth

Giant Pikachu being set up over Pokemon booth

Our booth after being set up

Our booth after being set up

Our set up at the League of Xtraordinary Programmers

Our set up at the League of Xtraordinary Programmers

The massive group of people waiting to get in on Saturday

The massive group of people waiting to get in on Saturday

GenCon 3 header

The Road to Gen Con, part 3

By | GenCon 2016, Progress Updates | No Comments

Well, Gen Con is only two weeks away, and it’s really coming down to crunch time. Right now we’re working on tying up all the loose ends needed to make sure we have everything in place in time for the convention. Remember to come say hi at booth 3040 under the name Idea Wall Games!


Our first high-quality prototypes have arrived from The Game Crafter! We couldn’t be happier. The print quality is great and being able to see how all the components come together is a really satisfying feeling. Here is a picture of the box. If you want to see all the individual bits-and-bobs, be sure to watch our gameplay video coming out early next month!

Box Front
Box Back

First Exposure Playtest Hall

Have you been dying to play Diabolical! in person? Well, now you can! We’re excited to announce that we’ll be participating in the First Exposure Playtest Hall organized by Double Exposure, Inc. Come participate in the event to get a chance to see Diabolical! in action. We’ll be testing our game on Friday from noon—2pm, and on Saturday from 10am—noon, 2pm‚—4pm, and 6pm—8pm.

League of Xtraordinary Programmers

No new developments here per se, just wanted to remind you that we’re excited to be an on-site sponsor of the event and we’ll be demoing Diabolical! there as well. If you miss us at the First Exposure Playtesting Hall, be sure to check us out at the League of Xtraordinary Programmers, Friday, August 5 from 7—9pm. Early bird tickets are only 12 buckeroos if you register by July 31st. With that, you’ll get to enjoy some hors d’oeuvres (I can never spell that word) as well as craft beers and cocktails, AND you’ll get to check out various games, including the illustrious iOS game King Rabbit, made by RareSloth!

Printed Items

With just two weeks before the convention, anything custom we want has to go out the door for printing this week. We’ve ordered all kinds of fun stuff, including banners, art prints of each of the villains, as well as some beautiful large canvas prints to have available as giveaways. Remember, booth 3040. Below is a sneak peak at a couple of our handouts.

Captain Villainy handout
Cthu-Loo-Loo handout
Gorlok handout


Recording for the gameplay video is underway! We brought in some volunteers to help us play the game on camera and now we’re moving into editing and motion graphics. Below are a couple behind-the-scenes photos of some of our recording time.

Video Recording 2

Wrapping Up

Well, we’ve covered a lot over the last couple weeks as we continue trucking along to get ready for the convention. This has been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life so far and we’re not even there yet!

The Road to Gen Con, part 2

By | Art, Game Design, GenCon 2016, Progress Updates | No Comments

It’s just a little over a month before the curtains raise on Gen Con 2016, and even with that much time to prepare we can definitely feel our deadlines looming. Here’s what we’ve been up to over the last two weeks!

League of Xtraordinary Programmers

We’re excited to announce that we’ll be an onsite featured sponsor for the upcoming League of Xtraordinary Programmers (LXP) event hosted by Techpoint! This annual event is organized alongside Gen Con for attendees to extend their Gen Con experience and get a chance to see what’s going on in Indianapolis’ tech scene, play yet-to-be-released games (like ours), and rub elbows with other tech enthusiasts.

We’ll have a table set up with Diabolical! running so you can get an opportunity to try out the game if you missed us at the convention. If you’re a tech-type person planning to attend Gen Con, stop by the LXP and say hi! Tickets are $12 and come with two drink tickets as well as light hors d’oeuvres. No promises, but I heard rumors they would have those little quiche things there. Show up early before I eat them all.


At Gen Con this year, we will have several high-quality prototypes for attendees to look at, interact with, and hopefully try themselves! We’ve been hard at work tying up some loose ends in our gameplay and with our artwork to get the prototypes ready to roll. We just sent our first one to print last Friday and will be ordering more a little bit later this month. James has been hard at work nailing down our card layouts and they look great!

A Minion card. This one is the Orakill.

A Minion card. This one is the Orakill.

The backs of our Minion cards.

The backs of our Minion cards.

A Scheme card.

A Scheme card.

I think James has done a really great job visually capturing the essence of the feel of the game. The bright colors really pop and make it feel like the chaotic, lighthearted rampage we’re going for!

We’re really excited to see how these prototypes turn out.


We’re continuing to test, refine, and polish our gameplay for the prototype to ensure players are having the best time possible. We’ve really ramped up our iterations on the game and think that things are really moving in the right direction. We’re getting very positive feedback from our play testers which is really great to see! It’s amazing to see how far it’s come from the broken, unplayable mess I forced friends to endure in my first play test almost two years ago.


We’re moving forward with the video and filming will start July 7th. So far, we’ve created storyboards and reviewed them with our videographer, the illustrious Maria Brenny. From there, we will be starting to script out some portions of the video (namely introductions and such). Don’t worry, none of the gameplay will be scripted. 🙂


In preparation for our trip to Gen Con, we’ve been working to transition our site from a super-cheap shared server to a big hoss server that will make it perform much better under pressure. The transition just completed last week. This will mean faster loading time, less down time, and just general all around reliability. All of these things are good things.

Whelp, that’s about it for now. We’re continuing to push forward but there’s still so much to do. Next, we’ll be working on t-shirts, swag, banners, signage, and all kinds of other stuff to get ready for the convention. We hope to see you there!

Check in next week for our next installment of The Road to Gen Con.


The Road to Gen Con, part 1

By | Art, Game Design, GenCon 2016, Progress Updates | No Comments

We’re on our way to prepping for this year’s Gen Con, and it’s safe to say it’s a lot of work for just two people. Being a small operation definitely has its advantages, but prepping for a large event definitely isn’t one of them :).

Booth number!

We have received our booth number from the folks over at Gen Con. Come by and see us at booth 3040 (highlighted on the map below)! Be aware that we’re listed as Idea Wall Games, which is our game design business working to create Diabolical!

We're booth 3040!

Click the image to see Gen Con’s full, interactive booth map. Remember, we’re listed as Idea Wall Games.

Great googly-moogly that’s a huge (and full) convention center!

Game updates

After returning from a trip in May, I decided to take stock in where the game was at currently versus where I wanted it to be. The time away really helped clear my mind and I was able to reconsider some of the issues that the game was facing in a new light. What the game was missing was a solid narrative structure to help tie the whole experience together. We also found that players didn’t really “feel” like villains trying to take over the world (which, it turns out, is an issue when the theme is “villains trying to take over the world”). Ultimately, it felt more like a game of Civilization than the lighthearted rampage we wanted it to be.

After considering these issues, I decided to start trying to address them by writing a brief synopsis of the “story” I wanted players to experience while playing this game. This exercise really helped me to frame the game around the aesthetics of play (the intended experience of the players), rather than the mechanics of the game. Here is a great video on mechanics vs. aesthetics in game design if you’ve got 10 minutes to spare. With the gameplay narrative in-hand, I set about restructuring the elements of the game to allow that story to come through. This is one of several transformations the game has gone through as we’ve worked on it, but changing it significantly at this point was a bit of a gamble as Gen Con is fast-approaching and we don’t have a ton of time to throw at revamping the game if we’re going to have nice prototypes to show off at the convention.

Since the restructure, players have been much more engaged and excited about the game which is great to see. One tester even went so far as to call the game a “masterpiece!” It’s really exciting to have players so enthusiastic about this newer version of the game, and now that this core structure is in place, mechanical and balance adjustments are far easier to test. It’s a win, win!

We’re really stoked that we get to share this new and improved Diabolical! with you at Gen Con.

Art updates

James has been kicking butt on pushing through the mountain of artwork we need for the game in time for the convention. He’s worked through a bunch of different minions, including evil sock puppets, robo-sharks, and our old friend hypno-cat! Here’s a few examples of his in-progress work below:


In addition to the minion art, he’s also working on art for our evil scheme cards. After that, we’ll move on to card layouts, box art, tokens, and all the other stuff that’s easy to lose track of when working on game assets.

Other updates

We’ve been hearing for awhile that people really want to see the gameplay of Diabolical! We do play testing each Thursday at TableTop Game and Hobby in Overland Park, KS which we’d love for you to stop by and join us to experience first hand. However, we do understand that schedules and location don’t always allow for folks to be there in person, so we’ve begun planning for a gameplay video which we plan to have up and available while we’re at Gen Con. This will give interested folks an opportunity to see the game when they otherwise couldn’t, which we see as huge!

Finally, if you are on the fence about wether or not to attend Gen Con this year, they have a great deal going on until tomorrow, June 19 to get $30 off your 4-day pass. Get your ticket here.

See you next week for our next update!


See You at Gen Con!

By | GenCon 2016, Progress Updates | No Comments

Hello friends of Diabolical! We are extremely excited to announce that we will be exhibiting at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana!

Stop by our booth at “The Best Four Days in Gaming” from August 4th–7th to meet us, buy some fantastic art, enter to win cool prizes, and to see (and possibly play) Diabolical! in person. We will have special promotional materials available only at Gen Con, so be sure to come by the booth and say hi! We will update here when we are informed of our booth number.

As part of this process, we will also be starting a blog series called The Road to Gen Con where we’ll talk about the things we’re working on to get ready for the conference.

We are honored to have been selected to exhibit at this convention, and we look forward to meeting you!

See you then!


Play Testing Goes Public!

By | Progress Updates | No Comments

Exciting news from the world of Diabolical! Recently, our testing has become available to the public!

Come join us at TableTop Game and Hobby in Overland Park, Kansas on Thursday nights starting at 6:00 pm to give it a whirl. If you’ve been out there recently, you may have already seen us testing. We decided to hold off on a formal announcement until we knew more about what to expect and worked out a couple of kinks, but we’re ready now!

testersTwo of our testers – Eric and Jill – enjoying some nefarious chicanery! 

Interested in hearing more about our progress or playtesting opportunities? Sign up for email alerts.

Keep an eye out for a very special announcement coming within the next week!


Measuring Successful Game Design (part 2)

By | Game Design | No Comments

Note: This is the second and final part to “Measuring Successful Game Design.” If you haven’t already, check out part one here. This series is also available on Medium, so if you prefer that reading experience, you can start with part 1 or jump straight to part 2.

In the first part of “Measuring Successful Game Design,” I discussed why understanding whether or not you’ve been successful as a designer can be challenging. I also talked about putting on a researcher hat when observing play tests, and how to get your money’s worth when doing so. In part two, I’ll be focusing on surveys as a method to better understand what is or isn’t working with your design, with particular attention paid to the survey I use when play testing the game I’m working on, Diabolical! At the end of the article, I will also provide a copy of the survey for your personal or professional use.

Surveying play testers

While observing play tests is the best way to understand what is or isn’t working with your game, it has one key limitation. Observing a play test cannot directly tell you what a player’s perceptions of your game are. Though some players may tell you their thoughts without needing to be asked, for the most part players will not offer criticism naturally. And those who do offer criticism may not know how to do so in a way that is constructive to what you’re trying to make.

There are two real ways to get at this information: interviews and surveys. While interviews have a lot of benefits?—?namely the ability to ask why a respondent feels a certain way?—?I have opted to use primarily surveys both in the interest of time for my play testers as well as my own time. Interviews are a much more time-intensive way of gathering data, as you have to meet and converse with each respondent. Also, since interviews tend to be less structured than surveys, you frequently will want to take the feedback through qualitative coding analysis to get more structured, analyzable data.

While surveys do have some limitations, they are a great way of better understanding what’s going on in someone’s head as they interact with a system. In order to get the most out of it, though, you must understand how to write effective survey questions. There are a million guides out there to writing good questions for a survey, so if you’re interested in crafting your own survey I recommend taking a look at those. Here, I will be going over the survey I use, and will be discussing in some depth why I chose to put on there the questions I did. When referencing a specific question on the survey, the question itself will be in bold, and the available answers will be in [brackets].

The survey I use when play testing Diabolical! is made up of 5 general sections:

  1. Basic information about the player’s familiarity and experience playing the game, as well as their general board game playing habits
  2. A modified version of the System Usability Scale (SUS)
  3. Questions relating to the player’s perceptions of their choices while playing the game
  4. Free-form feedback
  5. Basic 1—10 rating of the game overall

I will go over each section as well as the questions in it to describe the survey in more detail.

Basic information about the player’s familiarity and experience playing the game, as well as their general board game playing habits

This section?—?which makes up 4 of the 10 questions in this survey?—?helps me understand the respondent a little bit better and gives me some information that I can use to interpret some of the other sections more effectively.

1. How many times have you play tested this game? [1–3 times; 4–6 times; 7–9 times; 10 or more times]

Knowing a player’s familiarity with what is being tested is important for a couple of reasons. First, people tend to like things more as they become more acquainted with them. This is known as the Familiarity Heuristic. As such, I can expect players’ responses to skew a little more towards the positive as they test the game more. This will also help me understand a bit more about the depth of the game. For example, if I were to slice the data to separate out the veteran players and find that they were reporting significantly more boredom while playing, I could interpret that to mean that?—?while the game may be fun for newer players?—?it may not have enough depth to keep people interested for longer.

2. How often do you play board games (including card games and tabletop games)? Exclude play testing this game. [Very rarely; Rarely; Every so often; Frequently; Very frequently]

This question helps me comprehend how much of a “gamer” this respondent is. This question helps me interpret the curb appeal the game has to those who don’t play games as often, and can also help me ensure I am keeping the rules simple and easy to understand. For example, let’s say I were to single out respondents who said they play board games “Rarely” or “Very Rarely.” When I do that, I find that they are rating the game as far more confusing than those who are more familiar with board games. Knowing this, I can take a number of actions to make the game less confusing to new players. For instance, I could provide cheat sheets for how a turn goes, or I could revisit the verbiage in the rulebook to make sure I’m not using language that relies on a player’s preexisting familiarity with terms used in other games.

3. Did you win the game? [Yes; No; We didn’t finish]

It can be much easier to have a good time with a game when you’re on the winning side of things. To me, the mark of a great game is one that you can still have a great time playing even if you don’t win. By knowing whether or not the respondent won, I can see if there are any significant response differences from those who win a game compared to those who lose it. I can also keep an eye out for any game-breaking strategies a player may use in future play tests or in their free-form responses.

4. How quickly did the game move during this play test? [The game went by very quickly; The game went by quickly; The game was neither fast nor slow; The game went by slowly; The game went by very slowly]

This question is specifically looking at a player’s perception of time while playing the game, not the actual time. I time the length of every play test, so I already know that. A person’s perception of time, however, can say a lot of interesting things. The adage “time flies when you’re having fun” is relevant here. If the game doesn’t take long to play, yet feels slow, then there’s likely to be a significant amount of down time or boring moments for players.

A modified version of the System Usability Scale (SUS)

The SUS is a quick, 10 question survey which pertains to a user’s perceptions of the usability of a system. It has been in constant use?—?mostly in software usability research?—?since 1986. The SUS gives respondents a series of statements and asks them to rate their level of agreement from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). Since it was designed for digital purposes, I modified some of the language so that it relates better to the context of playing board games (mostly by replacing instances of “use” with “play” and “system” with “game”). These questions give me insight into how confident players feel in their ability to understand and interact with the game.

5. Please indicate your level of agreement with the following statements. [Strongly Disagree; Disagree; Neutral; Agree; Strongly Agree]

  • I think that I would like to play this game frequently
  • I found the game to be unnecessarily complex
  • I thought the game was easy to play
  • I think that I would need the support of an experienced player to play the game
  • I found the various elements of the game well integrated
  • I thought the game was too disjointed
  • I would imagine that most people would learn to play this game very quickly
  • I found the game very cumbersome to play
  • I felt very confident playing the game
  • I needed to learn a lot of rules before I could get going with this game

I decided to use the SUS because I was aiming to create a game that was not super complex at face value. While some players enjoy extremely complex games with tome-like rule books (such as Warhammer 40k), the goal of Diabolical! is to be accessible to a wide variety of gamers. Diabolical! is intended to have a forgiving learning curve that can be enjoyed by hardcore gamers and casual gamers alike.

Questions relating to the player’s perceptions of their choices while playing the game

The element of choice is one of the foundational pieces of good game design. A good game seeks to present players with enough viable choices at any point in the game that they don’t feel stuck, while not presenting so many options that they feel overwhelmed. Furthermore, the choices a player makes must have clear enough feedback so that they can quickly understand whether their choices are bringing them closer to victory or further from it. Like the SUS, this section gives respondents 10 statements and asks them to rate their level of agreement.

6. Please indicate your level of agreement with the following statements. [Strongly Disagree; Disagree; Neutral; Agree; Strongly Agree]

  • I thought my choices as a player affected the outcome of the game
  • I felt overwhelmed with options
  • I felt there were enough options from turn to turn
  • I thought it was obvious what choice I had to make at any point in the game
  • I felt like I could catch my opponents off guard
  • I think it’s difficult for players to catch up if they are losing
  • I felt I could adjust my strategy effectively
  • I feel there are not enough winning strategies
  • I felt I could easily anticipate my opponents’ moves
  • I think this game is boring

Each of these statements has implications for how the element of choice is being portrayed in the game. By analyzing these statements, I can learn if a player had too many or too few options, if the “right” option was too obvious, and if the choices a player was making seemed to do anything useful.

Free-form feedback

While the survey to this point has been fairly extensive, it is by no means exhaustive of all the types of things a respondent may want to tell me about their experience playing the game. To make sure I had an avenue to collect any information I wasn’t gathering in the more structured portions of the survey, I included three free-form questions for respondents.

7. Was there anything about the game that stood out to you in a positive way?

8. Was there anything about the game that stood out to you in a negative way?

9. Do you have any additional comments or feedback that you’d like to provide at this time?

These questions allow players to more freely and openly express their thoughts. As I gather more data, I can analyze it in aggregate and look for recurring themes across responses. This data can give me valuable information about things I should be capturing but currently aren’t, or changes I should make to the game that I hadn’t considered.

Basic 1–10 rating of the game overall

10. On a scale of 1–10, how likely is it that you would recommend this game to a friend?

The final question wraps up the whole package of the players’ overall experiences into a single number. While this number may or may not have a strong correlation with the more specific feedback I’m gathering in other sections, it gives me a solid number that I can look back on and (hopefully) see grow over time.

Wrapping up

Surveys are a great way to understand how play testers are reacting to your game. By asking the right questions in the right way, you can gain a treasure trove of information to help drive your decisions as a designer.

However, even though surveys are a great way to get information, they shouldn’t be the only way you get that information. It’s best to use a mixture of different information gathering techniques as each has its own unique plusses and minuses. I mainly use direct observation and surveys, as well as interviews to a lesser extent.

By using research methods to effectively grasp the state of your current game, you will be far more able to address the game’s issues and create something that will be enjoyed by gamers everywhere!

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed. If you’d like to download a copy of this survey for your personal or professional use, you can do so here. Special thanks to my friend and researcher Saul for helping to edit the survey and keeping my questions on point.


Measuring Successful Game Design (part 1)

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Note: This is a cross-post of an article I wrote for Medium.

When creating a design, it can be difficult to ascertain how well you’re doing or where you might be having issues. Often, our goals in design rely on concepts which are notoriously hard to measure. How does one measure that they’ve created an “enjoyable experience?” Or that they’ve made a game feel “smoother?” Contrast this with something like sales, where you have several concrete and measurable factors. Number of sales made, profits, and expenditures are all easily-measured things one can look at to determine whether sales have been successful or unsuccessful.

The key determining difference between these two factors is the existence of reliable numbers. In the former group, you must rely on identifying the qualities of something (e.g., “enjoyable,” or “smooth”), where in the latter you derive meaning by looking at various quantities (e.g., dollars, distance, or time). In research, there are methodologies for distilling information through each of these lenses, known as qualitative methods and quantitative methods, respectively.

To gain an effective understanding of your design, you’ll often have to apply a mixture of both methods to get the best results. Regardless of the methods you use, measuring your design through research is critical to creating a successful game.

As I’ve been designing the gameplay for Diabolical!, I’ve used two primary methods to gather data to help me determine how well the design is working. Both methods are primarily qualitative in nature, though I do have some quantitative measurements thrown in for me to benchmark against. Using qualitative methods does not preclude you from gathering quantitative data as well. The two forms of research I use are:

  1. Direct observation of play testers
  2. Surveying play testers

Together, these create a potent (and cheap!) combo for me to understand both what players are doing in the game as well as players’ perceptions about what they were doing in the game. As a designer, it’s important for me to understand both to better inform my decision-making. In this post, I’ll cover how I gather information through observing a play test. In a future post, I’ll cover more about the survey I use after a test.

Direct observation through play testing

Play testing is the most crucial method to creating a successful game (unless you’re the maker of We Didn’t Playtest This At All). Observing a play test is a great way to understand how people less familiar with the rules will interpret them and make decisions.

As far as tools go, I typically only use a prototype of the game, a printed rulebook, and a notebook with a pen or pencil. In the notebook, I annotate where players struggle, what went well, or anything I else I think is worth remembering later. After the test, I transfer all of my notes into Evernote, where they are more consolidated, searchable, and I can easily share them with James.

When running a play test, I try to say no more than what is necessary and leave as much of the talking as possible up to the players. I do this because it allows me to extract the maximum amount of information possible from a test. If a player asks me a question, I frequently ask them what they would do if I weren’t there or ask the other players what they think. Hearing the players confer over the meaning of a specific rule gives me valuable insight into how they are considering the given problem. Maybe the rule needs a slight verbiage tweak to be more clear, or perhaps it’s being significantly misinterpreted and needs to be rewritten entirely. In reality, players won’t have the designer of the game sitting next to them ready to answer whatever questions they have. In order to emulate this environment successfully, it’s important I avoid over-explaining things in the context of a test.

Along these same lines, I always have a printed rule book for the players to learn the rules from and to reference while playing. By having a printed rule book, there is a consistent, controlled way to explain the rules from test to test, which reduces variance. If I try to describe the rules to each testing group, I might forget something important or I might use an example that is less successful than an example I used in a different test. This variance makes it more challenging to assess what isn’t working well. Is it the rules? Or the way I described them? Eliminating unnecessary variance in the a test will help keep the data cleaner and easier to interpret.

I also always time how long each test takes, which is a quantitative measure. Timing the play tests gives me an understanding of how long the game is taking for new players versus how long I want it to take. Ideally Diabolical! will take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. When I first began testing, it was taking much longer – closer to 2 hours or more. By timing the tests, I knew I had to streamline and adjust the structure of the game to reduce its length.

Also while observing, I keep track of how many times players make errors and whether or not those errors are caught by other players. Keeping track of this helps me to identify areas of the game where the rules may need to be made more clear. For example, in early tests I found that often times when players were supposed to “remove a token” from a card, they interpreted that to mean that they should “remove a token and keep it,” rather than “remove a token and discard it,” which was my intention. After this came up in my notes a few times, it was clear that I needed to describe my intent more clearly in the rules.

By saying as little as possible, keeping printed rules on hand, timing tests, and keeping good notes, I ensure that I get as much as I can out of a play test. These methods help me stay on the right track as I develop the rules to Diabolical! In the future, I plan to start recording play tests. This will allow me to share them on the website as well as more closely observe where players are succeeding or having issues.

Thanks for reading! Keep an eye out for part 2, where I’ll discuss the survey I use as well as provide a copy of it for you to use in your testing!