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Design Differently: Video Games vs. Board Games

What is different about designing a video game compared to designing a board game?

I was challenged to answer this last week and as I began to answer I was further challenged to avoid anecdotes about specific generations of hardware or specific IP (Intellectual Property). Anyone who has spoken to me for a little while knows I can spin a tale about turn-of-the-millennium hardware limitations and software quirks in a heartbeat. And I’m fond of using these odd bits of historical context to frame my answers, and perhaps pad for time while I think of a really good answer to a question.

So, pushed out of my comfort zone and out to face this question boldly:
…But there are so many similarities. Both kinds of gaming have built in genres that appeal to specific markets within the gaming “community”. Both have rules to learn, art and (hopefully) user-friendly iconography. Many of the best have characters, backstory, heroic deeds, ramping up the players’ powers and abilities, and finally a climactic ending. Okay. I’ve digressed enough.

Answer 1: Creating Rules for a Game Experience

In a video game, the “rules” have the advantage of being integral to the program: The player can be prevented from falling off cliffs, using too many resources, or forgetting to gather important upkeep bonuses. Players also expect interactions to be context sensitive: Tap X to pick up a bottle; tap X to ask the bartender a question; tap X to kick the chicken. The game does not allow players to break the rules, and by extension the game is considered broken if they do. Designing these systems and interactions involves specialists and experts from multiple departments working in tandem.

For board games, the “rules” have to be taught to the player: The cliffs of insanity are a heartbeat away. Players of board games routinely break the rules, through misunderstanding or forgetfulness, or by intentionally making up their own house rules. One of the ironies of board games is that players can change the rules and thus make the experience more personal and enjoyable for themselves. While folks on YouTube can often be depended upon to lighten the burden of making rules comprehensible, there is no escaping this core responsibility. The “teach” is a consideration in board game development. When a 45-minute game requires a 30-minute teach… Well, that might be a problem.

Answer 2: Scale of Collaboration “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”

A video game is built within the confines of software and hardware capabilities.
The technical demands for producing a digital experience require a somewhat large team of artists and programmers to create assets and render them on screen in an entertaining manner. “Artists” include musicians, sound designers, foley artists, movement capture performers, lighting specialists and technical artists who generate surface “materials” using procedural programming. If you want to work in video games, you must be a good collaborator.

For many board games, collaboration begins with the publisher considering the costs of a printer and their duplication reliability and the likely marketability of a physical product that will have to be stored somewhere until it can be shipped into the hands of a happy gamer. A smaller team of specialists is required here. Beyond the designer, many board games are supported by just one or two principal artists and a graphic designer. “Sound” is an issue for the promotional videos, but not the principal product (with notable exceptions). A board game can be designed by one person with a few sheets of paper. While collaboration is still part of the process, there is a much better chance of a board game creator’s grand idea to remain in the published product.

A board game designer can say, “That’s my game.” Whereas, a video game designer will often say, “I worked on that game.”

Answer 3: Scale of Market

[This answer is subject to change without notice. In fact, no part of it may be true or correct at any given point of time. This is a broad brush that is being re-made as I sit here.]
It was amazing to be making video games in an era when the video game market grew and recently overtook the movie market in scope. Over $130 billion was a global number from 2018. That was shattered in 2020.

The market for board games is growing, however the tabletop market has yet to break the $10 billion mark. Video games have been organ-harvesting designs from board games at a staggering rate over the last decade. Sometimes this leads to increased sales of the original board game, and sometimes the video version is more popular than the board version. Setting aside such blurred lines, the board game market is a narrow slice compared to the size of the video game market pie.

Current market info is hard to come by these days. Around 2005, a video game with a niche market footprint in major stores could sell 10K units; a modest success would sell 100K; a game was deemed “gold” at 500K units and a huge game would sell north of 5 million copies.

Today, a tabletop board game that moves more than 5K units on Kickstarter sets the world on fire. In brick-and-mortar stores, a board game that sells out of 20K units is a modest success, and 250K units is aspirational, probably not reality for most games that don’t involve cards with wizards or that feature the number one.

Market scale has an impact. The number of skilled artists and creatives is limited by budget constraints. Video games are a virtual product. The cost of production is in the large number of collaborators involved.
The cost of manufacturing a board game is a huge consideration, frequently limiting the scope of a design. For board games, the physical limitations of stock management, shipping box size & weight, distribution, retail shelf space and shelf cost, missing parts and damage during shipping, the margin of profitability gets claustrophobic quickly. Video games used to have this issue to a more limited extent. Emphasis on “used to”.

In spite of having smaller budgets, I know of board games that spent several years being refined and improved by dedicated teams of skilled game designers and developers. Games are played well over 100 times to verify the integrity of the mechanics to provide gamers with a reasonably consistent experience. The laws of chance can’t be set aside, so order of operations, hidden information, trigger events and other catch-up mechanics are built into a modern board game to keep all players engaged.
Video games can crush this rate of testing each week with a bank of dedicated Quality Assurance testers playing a game on repeat and filling out bug list forms.

All games have to grab and keep eyeballs. The elixir of art, theme and genre has to invade a potential player’s subconscious and send an urgent telegram to the forebrain to memorize the name of this product so that it can be searched and found on an online retailer’s list. Ideally, a significant portion of the folks who buy a game actually play it, and then – and this is maybe the most important part – they reach out through social media to gab about the great time they had in this game experience.

Design that, and you’re good to go.