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The Road to Gen Con, part 2

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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.

Prototype

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.

Gameplay

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.

Video

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. 🙂

Website

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.

featured

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:

sock-puppet
robo-shark
hypno-cat

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!

measuring-pt1

Measuring Successful Game Design (part 2)

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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-pt1

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!

featured

Why Shawnahoma?

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Diabolical! is loosely based on a variant of poker called Shawnahoma. It’s a stud variant where players are dealt seven down cards and they discard two of them, then players reveal each card one at a time between rounds of betting and high and low hands split the pot. What makes this variant interesting is that players are essentially telling a story to all of their opponents as an unreliable narrator. One could argue that this is essentially all forms of poker with the way bluffing is implemented, but what makes Shawnahoma unique is that the true narrative of the story (the actual hand) is always known to its owner, but is revealed in parallel with the implied narrative (the player’s betting behaviors) instead of all at once. As each card is revealed, the player’s prior betting behaviors are either supported or unsupported by the newly broadcasted information. This gives players additional layers of information as a hand progresses, starting with very little information apart from the player’s betting behaviors and ending with seeing basically their whole hand.

Additionally, the high / low nature of this variant creates even more interest, as the last card revealed in the hand makes for a climactic finale which ultimately reveals which players told a truthful narrative and which didn’t. For example, if I have an off-suit hand of 2-3-4-5-7 – the lowest possible hand in poker – I can construct that narrative in a way that makes it look as though I have a straight, a reasonably strong hand. By revealing what appears to be a straight one card at a time, players with hands slightly higher than mine – say a 10-high – are baited into staying in, thinking they’ll get half the pot for the lowest hand. This can be further reinforced by my betting behavior, primarily looking at and reacting to other players who appear to be going for a high hand. However, when the last card is revealed, that player learns that what appeared to be a high hand is actually exceptionally low.

It was the constantly shifting nature of information in this poker variant – along with the exciting way in which hands typically finished – which attracted me to it. I felt that by taking that core chassis and modifying it to play more like a modern board game, I would leave players with a compelling, strategic experience.

The game as it stands today shares little resemblance with Shawnahoma. The “draw seven, discard two” hand-style has been replaced with a drafting mechanic, the suits and numbers have been replaced with minions and commands, and betting is replaced with another form of resource management. However, the core elements – slowly gaining more information about the strength of a player’s position, along with a dramatic finale – keeps Diabolical! true to its heritage.

You can learn more about how Diabolical! is played on our “Gameplay” page.

accessibility

Usability and Accessibility in Board Games

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We as game designers make games because we want people to play them. However, many people have limitations of perception and / or mobility which can prevent them from enjoying many games. It’s important for us as game designers (or any kind of designer, really) to put ourselves in the shoes of those players who may face these limitations to ensure our games can be enjoyed by everyone. Like any other form of design, this requires that we balance aesthetics (e.g., theme, illustrations, etc.) with usability and accessibility. In this article, I’ll cover three of the most salient usability and accessibility issues I’ve noticed in many popular games – including a failure to account for colorblindness, poor typography, and inadequate ergonomics – and what you can do about them.

Accounting for colorblindness

Failure to account for colorblindness is the most common accessibility issue I see in modern board games. Dealing with it effectively isn’t that challenging, and it will drastically improve the experience of those players who are colorblind.

Approximately 5% of people have some form of colorblindness. While that may not seem like much, 1 in 20 gamers is in fact quite a large chunk of people. It’s worth noting here that colorblindness does not refer to black-and-white vision as some would assume, but rather a color deficiency in one primary area. There are three types of colorblindness:

  • Deuteranopia: green deficiency (this is the most common form of colorblindness)
  • Protanopia: red deficiency (this is a rare form, accounting for about 2.5% of males)
  • Tritanopia: blue deficiency (this is very rare, affecting about 1 in 200 males)

The first two forms – deuteranopia and protanopia – are of particular importance, not only because they are the most common, but also because they have similar effects, resulting in some form of red-green colorblindness. For people with red-green colorblindness, it is very challenging to perceive differences between red, green, and similar or derivative colors.

Use of color is a popular way to differentiate different elements in a game. Most commonly, we see color used to indicate which units or markers belong to a specific player (e.g., Player 1 is “blue” and all blue colored tokens on the board belong to that player). In many games, having a quick understanding of each player’s board presence is critical to make effective strategic decisions. The importance of this understanding means that using only solid colors to represent a player’s position on the board carries with it a high risk of limiting ability of a colorblind player to play the game well.

Here we see meeples (common colored player indicators) from the game Carcassonne [top] as well as from the game Tokaido [bottom]. Paying particular attention to the third and fourth meeples from Carcassonne, we can see that – when seen as a player affected by Deuteranopia – they are nearly identical. The meeples from Tokaido, conversely use a color palette more friendly to colorblind players. While the first and fourth meeples from its set are pretty similar when seen from the perspective of a Deuteranope, they are still enough difference to differentiate them. It also helps that in Tokaido each player only ever has one meeple on the board, while in Carcassone, players have many.

Here we see meeples – commonly used colored player indicators – from the game Carcassonne [top] as well as from the game Tokaido [bottom]. Paying particular attention to the third and fourth meeples from Carcassonne, we can see that – when seen as a player affected by Deuteranopia – they are nearly identical. The meeples from Tokaido, conversely, use a color palette more friendly to colorblind players. While the first and fourth meeples from Tokaido are pretty similar when seen from the perspective of a Deuteranope, there is still enough variance to differentiate them. It also helps that in Tokaido each player only ever has one meeple on the board, while in Carcassone players have many.

 

There are ways of circumventing game play issues when accounting for colorblind players. One is to use a more colorblind-friendly palette (such as the one seen in the Tokaido meeples above). Even more powerful is to use colors alongside some kind of icon, text, or other visual indicator. In the picture of the map from Ticket to Ride, below, we can see that while the colors become very difficult to discern when seen from the perspective of a colorblind player, the reinforcement of the iconography makes it very easy to tell which paths are which.

On the board for the game Ticket to Ride, we see that the colored tracks are additionally indicated with an icon to reinforce which tracks require which cards. This iconography is also carried forward into the cards you need to claim a track in the game, allowing colorblind players to easily associate the cards to the board, just as color perceiving players can.

On the board for the game Ticket to Ride, we see that the colored tracks are additionally indicated with an icon to reinforce which tracks require which cards. This iconography is also carried forward into the cards you need to claim a track in the game, allowing colorblind players to easily associate the cards to the board, just as color perceiving players can.

 

The simplest thing you can do to help with this is simply avoid using both red and green player markers in your game. While it won’t address the whole situation, it will get you a long way there.

Typography

Poor typography is a usability issue plaguing many tabletop games. When so much information for your game is communicated via text, it’s important that you make that text as easy to read as possible.

Good typography starts with a good font selection. Make sure when you’re choosing a font, you find one that is highly readable for your primary game elements. Choosing a font with large, open counters (i.e., spaces within a letter like the hole in an “o”) makes them easier to read from further distances. Display fonts – those with a lot of “character” including unusual treatments or decoration, skewed letterforms, or manipulation of the baseline – should be used sparingly if at all. It is acceptable to use fun, exaggerated fonts to fit your theme and make the game feel more “alive,” but those fonts should be used with caution. Your logo, character names, and some headers are all areas where you can inject some whimsy into your type choice, but be sure to use highly readable typefaces for body copy on elements like cards and instruction booklets.

When working with such limited space as is provided in standard game elements like playing cards, it can be tempting to make type very, very small. However, using small type can adversely affect the playability of your game. The average reading distance for something like a book is about 16 inches away from your face. Standard print metrics for this distance call for type between 10 and 12 points. However, when playing a board game, a player’s distance from the elements he or she wants to read is often much further.

If a player has cards in their hand, they will likely fit into that standard 16 inch distance. However, if a card is down on the table that distance becomes much further. Doubly so if it’s on the table in front of an opponent. When designing your game materials, consider how far a player may be from a game element when they want to read it. Ensure that the text is legible from that distance. As a rule of thumb, I would recommend going no smaller than 12—14 point type on elements you expect to be read by players from any further than in their hand. This larger font size can make it difficult to fit all of your content on your card, which is why it’s always a good idea to be as brief (yet clear) as possible in your wording.

Additionally, it’s important to ensure that your body copy is of sufficiently high contrast to its background to ensure legibility. Text is easiest to read as black characters on a solid white background. While this type treatment can feel overly stark for many themes and art styles, ensure you’re choosing text colors that have a high contrast ratio to the background color to ensure readability. However, avoid using complementary colors (e.g., blue and orange) as a foreground / background combination. Despite having a very high contrast ratio, they have a tendency to “buzz” when put next to each other which is distracting and challenging to read.

Finally, when people read, they rely on the forms created by the words more-so than reading individual letters. Word forms in this sense refers to the shape or outline created by the unique combination of letters which make up a word. For this reason, using all-caps should be avoided whenever possible, as word forms created from all-caps are all the same blocky, rectangular shape, which makes them more difficult to differentiate from each other. Like display fonts, all-caps are acceptable in some scenarios, such as logos and headers.

Ergonomics

Another failure I’ve noticed in many modern board games is ineffective ergonomics. When designing a board game, it is critical to consider the physicality of the game’s elements and their intended uses. Ask yourself how an object in your game is intended to be moved, shuffled, slid, stacked, etc., and ensure that the form of the object lends itself to that purpose. For example, if you intend an object to be picked up and moved frequently, it must be big enough to be easily picked up by a player. However, if that object only needs to be slid, it can be smaller.

Here are two damage counters next to a quarter for scale. The first token [left] is from Last Night on Earth, where each time a player is injured, they get a wound counter. This interaction involves frequent picking up and distributing of the wound counters as players are damaged throughout the course of the game. The second token [right] is from Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and is much smaller. If this object were intended to be picked up, it would likely be challenging for players to easily pick up and place where it needs to go on a regular basis. Luckily, in this game, the token is slid along a numbered track which represents a players remaining life points, making it an acceptable size.

Here are two damage counters next to a quarter for scale. The first token [left] is from Last Night on Earth, where each time a player is injured, they get a wound counter. This interaction involves frequent picking up and distributing of the wound counters as players are damaged throughout the course of the game. The second token [right] is from Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and is much smaller. If this object were intended to be picked up, it would likely be challenging for players to do so on a regular basis. Fortunately, in this game the token is slid along a numbered track which represents a players remaining life points, making it an acceptable size.

 

Another great example is miniature playing cards. Mini-cards are very difficult to shuffle because of their size, and therefore are not ideal for many circumstances. However, also because of their size, it’s much easier to hold many of them in your hand at once. If you have a game where you need to hold a lot of cards but you don’t need to shuffle them very frequently – say Ticket to Ride for example – then mini-cards may be an ideal choice.

When thinking about the ergonomics of your game, it’s also worth considering the how efficiency is affected by the type and number of components in your game. If your game takes as long to set up as it does to play, there is likely a significant ergonomics problem that needs addressing. This doesn’t mean your game can’t be complex, but it’s important not to put undue burden on your players.

Wrapping Up

There are many more elements than these three to consider when attempting to create a usable and accessible playing experience for tabletop gamers. However, by accounting for colorblindness, making good typography choices, and ensuring your game is an ergonomic experience, you will go a long way to ensuring the widest possible audience will have the opportunity to enjoy your game.

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5 key design lessons I learned while making my first board game

By | Game Design | No Comments

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

By day, I’m an interaction designer for medical software. It’s a challenging environment with complex, important problems to solve and one where usability is of critical importance. I find it to be a very rewarding yet demanding career. By night, I get to follow one of my biggest passions, board games.

When I decided to start making my first board game, Diabolical!, I learned things about experience design that I never would have expected. Here are the five key lessons I’ve learned so far.

1. Every worthwhile product sits on a rock solid foundation

When I first started working on Diabolical!, I had more ideas than I could count. As is so often the case when we start creating a new product, it seemed like there was no end to the inspiration for what I could do with the game.

After finally managing to put a cork on my ideation process, I strung together several of the elements I had come up with and created my first prototype. When I took it through play testing, it was terrible. It was exceedingly slow, hard to learn, and poorly balanced. What’s worse, there were many situations where a player couldn’t do anything for large portions of the game (which doesn’t make for a very enjoyable experience).

“No problem,” I thought. “This is the first version of the game and there are bound to be issues like these. I’ll just figure out what’s causing the problem and fix it. Then, it’ll be golden.”

What I didn’t realize however, was that in my rush to put all of these features into the game, I made it nearly impossible to identify what was causing the problems within the flow of the system. This was due in large part to the complexity of the system I had created, resulting in emergent effects, where different elements of the game were interacting with each other in unexpected ways.

After flailing around trying to adjust various elements of the game with little success, I came to the realization that I had put in too many features too quickly, and that the only way to address the issues within the game would be to strip it back to its core and build from there.

When working with a complex system (which these days is just about everything), it is vitally important to identify and refine the core of that system before layering anything on top of it. If you don’t get that key infrastructure right, throwing additional features at the product will only create more problems and a worse experience overall.

By stripping the game back to its most basic elements and testing those, I’ve been able to identify and resolve its most significant problems and put the game on a much stronger path toward completion. Now, the core mechanics of the game are far more effective, resulting in a more engaging playing experience.

2. Let go of your less-polished skills and allow your strengths to shine

Like many designers, I can be a bit of a control freak. Sometimes I feel like the only way to make sure things are done to my standards is to do them myself. When I decided to create my own game, I looked at is as an opportunity to do something the way I wanted it done. I was excited at the prospect of having control over every little element.

However, it was that same fussiness that slowed the progress of the game to a snail’s pace. One area in particular was a huge sticking point: the art. Despite being a designer, and despite having an art degree, visual design and illustration are not my strongest suits. I am much more of a conceptual designer, using my design skills to create solid information structures and interaction patterns. Knowing this, I resolved to improve my illustration skills so I could do the art for the game to the level of refinement that I wanted. So I proceeded to spend months, and months, and months?—?nearly a year in fact?—?working on a single illustration for the game, and it still wasn’t what I wanted it to be.

Needless to say, this was a frustrating process for me, and I knew the game wasn’t going to go anywhere if I continued to rely only on myself. Fortunately, I know James, who happens to be an incredible artist and someone who I have immense respect for. With a little convincing, he agreed to sign on and do the art and visual design for Diabolical!

Ultimately, we decided that he would have the final say in anything related to the art or visual design of the game. By letting go of control in that area, I’ve been able to focus my time much more effectively on the design of the game itself, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Not only am I able to work on the parts of the game that my strengths are most apt to handle, but I’m also free from the burden of making decisions in areas of the game where there is someone more competent than myself to handle it.

3. Learn when to defend your design… and when to shut up

One of the most important skills you need to know as a designer is how to defend your designs. If someone asks you why you made a specific design decision, the answer should never be “I don’t know.” There should be a reason for every element of a design from layout and interactions, to typefaces and colors. No matter the project, you will have stakeholders who do not have as much design experience as you do, and it will be up to you to explain to them why you do the things you do. Being able to explain yourself will give them confidence in your expertise and will get you through a project much more smoothly.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know when to shut that skill off.

When I started testing Diabolical!, I did so with close friends and colleagues, many of whom are also designers. At first, when they tried to give me feedback, I found myself interpreting their critiques as questions about why I made a certain decision. If they said something like, “I didn’t like how that card worked in the game,” what I would hear was more along the lines of “Why did you make that card work that way?” And I would respond with my reasons for making such-and-such decision within the context of the game. This method of internally rephrasing statements is very effective when working with stakeholders, but can be harmful when working with end-users.

It took one of my friends pulling me aside and telling me that he thought I was being defensive for me to realize my mistake. There is an important difference between defending your designs and being defensive, and it’s a subtle distinction every designer needs to learn. In the context of a stakeholder relationship where you are guiding a team through the design process, defending your design work is a necessary step to creating the best product possible. However, in the context of gathering end-user feedback, defending your design is at the expense of gathering the information needed to do good work.

Being defensive makes people feel uncomfortable giving you feedback. It belittles their experience and can make them feel unnecessarily inferior. When working with end-users, avoid talking about why you made a decision and ask them more questions about why they feel the way they do about your product. Shut your mouth and open your ears, because that information is worth more than gold.

James and I decided to implement an anonymous survey for people to relay their playing experience. This allowed testers to freely speak their minds and also created a consistent format for us to measure our progress against. The information gathered has been integral to our ongoing success.

4. Your ideas are not your children; killing them is not a crime

While working on the board game, I was inspired by many of my favorite games I’ve played throughout my life. I wanted to include elements from many of those games, plus some of my own. However, when it came time to test the game, many elements simply didn’t work together the way I imagined they would. At first, I was very attached to my original ideas, and I was very reluctant to let them go as I iterated on the game. It’s incredibly easy to get attached to an idea like I did.

At face value, ideas can seem a lot like children. They start inside of us, we nurture them, and we work to bring them into the world. With that comes an innate sense of pride and attachment. We even use words like “conceive” to refer to the generation of an idea. Our minds are like a womb, in that an idea that is still in your mind is protected from the onslaught of uncontrolled variables introduced by the real world. Sure, you can take some of those variables into account when you’re coming up with your idea, but ultimately it’s impossible to fully understand and account for every possible thing that could go wrong.

While ideas can seem like children, once you start bringing them into the world, it’s much healthier to think of them as part of a herd. As with any herd, the smaller, weaker ideas will be eliminated through natural selection as the real world exerts its influence. Overall, the herd is better off for it, as the stronger ideas left are more capable of surviving.

When bringing an idea into the real world, there are two key factors that will determine your success:

  1. Your ability to render the idea as it exists in your mind
  2. Your ability to respond the forces exerted on the idea by the real world

Jared Spool?—?one of my design idols?—?defines design as “the rendering of intent.” While I feel that this is a solid definition of design, I believe it fails to consider the impact of reality on that intent. Contrast this definition with a quote from Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” While Jared’s definition of design starts with the designer’s intent, Michelangelo’s quote implies the opposite: that the potential statue already exists and expresses itself through the sculptor’s hands.

The truth I believe is somewhere in the middle. Design is a reciprocal process between the designer and the forces of reality. As a designer, you must allow the real world to help shape your creations and to allow your original intent to reshape itself using your hands.

Ultimately, the forces of the real world may say that part or even all of your idea must die. It will be up to you to listen and to cull the herd. When I listened to what the game was telling me through testing and allowed my intent to reshape itself, the game ended up going in a much better direction overall.

5. Slow progress is still progress, but deadlines are mandatory

I’ve been working on this game as a side project for quite some time now. At times, I’ve been disheartened by the fact that it’s taken me years to get where I’m at now (and I’m still far from “done”). However, when I consider that my progress has occurred almost entirely on evenings and weekends, and that I’ve gotten where I have in addition to succeeding in a demanding full time job, while still maintaining strong relationships with my friends and loved ones, I am proud that I’ve been able to continuously move the bar forward in the way I have.

In the US, we have a tendency to worship work. Sometimes, I’ve felt guilty going out for a nice dinner with my girlfriend instead of sitting at my desk, plugging away at the game. This is not a healthy relationship with work, and it leads to burnout and resentment. It’s important for us to remember that there is life outside of what we do for a living, even if we’re lucky enough that our work and passion align.

In our day-to-day lives, we only have so much time. To stay happy and healthy, some of that time must go to rest and being around the people we care about. However, it is equally important that we do not allow ourselves to stagnate. Maybe you have a novel that you’re working on in your spare time, or you have a cool app in mind that you want to develop. Make it a priority and trim the fat in your life. You’re not going to get there by watching three hours of Netflix every night. Nor are you going to get there by working on it every spare minute of the day, ignoring rest and family.

For any side project, it’s important that you set small, frequent deadlines for yourself to keep things moving. James and I use a sprint model for the game, where we have a checkpoint every two weeks where we review our progress from the previous two weeks and set goals for the next two. Having someone else involved to keep me honest has also been extraordinarily helpful. We’re finding that in order to get to the level of refinement that we want, we’re going to have to move a bit more slowly than we originally intended. Be that as it may, if the alternative is burnout and resentment, moving our timeline is an easy choice.