Now Loading

Anyone who’s played a video game in the last decade and a half can attest to how irritating frequent loading screens can be. Though the loading time is often necessary for the tiny people in the video game box to craft the next segment, loading screens detract – sometimes severely – from the gameplay experience. Good thing we’re talking about tabletop game design and that isn’t something we have to worry about, right?

Wrong, strawman! Though board games are thankfully safe from having to worry about processing power and rendering and whatever else those video game people have to think about, our own version of loading screens – actions that aren’t gameplay but are necessary for the gameplay to be meaningful – creep into games, at their worst preventing an otherwise enjoyable game from ever hitting the table.

This article discusses the most common kinds of “loading screens,” how to minimize them, and why some are more insidious than others.

Polishing Mana Crystals

If you think about the times in a game when nobody gets to participate, the most obvious offenders are setup, rules explanations, and scoring. Of these, the rules are the most problematic: A long scoring period comes after players have already enjoyed most or all of the game, and a long setup is only a problem if the game is short enough to make it not worth it, while taking a long time to explain the rules sends many players running for the hills. Games with asymmetric mechanics, like Vast: The Crystal Caverns, especially suffer from this issue.

However, you don’t have a lot of tools to deal with long rules explanations because so many games require that all the rules be explained upfront. Nobody likes getting Columboed, but the only way the person who brought the game can stop that from happening is to explain even the rules that apply near the end of the game so nobody feels like they lost because of something they didn’t understand. Similarly, some gameplay elements might be excellent, but require long setup or scoring periods at their core to function.

There are also shorter actions that, if they happen too many times over the course of the game, add up to taking a lot of time. Public enemy number 1 here is shuffling a deck of cards; a 30-second process where everyone has to wait for the shuffler to finish can be aggravating if it happens too many times.

Reticulating Splines

Though having a “loading screen” in your game may be unavoidable, there are several methods that you can use to minimize them. How you solve this problem in your own design is usually on a case-by-case basis, but I have some scattered observations on problems that crop up most often.

There’s several ways to prevent a lengthy rules explanation from taking over the start of the game. In some games, it works best to attach fiddlier rules to cards or similar game components that the players accrue over the course of the game. Elysium, for example, has six or seven ways to use the variety of cards in it, but you don’t need to know how they work until they’re actually out on the board; thus, you don’t have to explain how they work up front.

Dungeon Lords has a very interesting way of handling this that I wanted to call particular attention to. At the halfway point of the game, a band of adventurers goes and attacks your dungeon. It’s important to know how this works so you can build defenses, but the invasion is complicated, with a lot of rules. But instead of just listening to whoever brought the game blabber about it, you actually run a short simulation of a combat phase. The simulation is actually fairly challenging, which gives players the sense that they’re accomplishing something when they efficiently defeat that rude cleric going around consecrating everything.

For smaller loading screens, you might want to fold them into periods where the player is otherwise not doing anything anyway. Deckbuilding games starting with Dominion made the excellent decision to shuffle your new deck at the end of your turn, meaning that you’ll be done by the time it’s important and you aren’t weighing down the other players. Elegant solutions lower the amount of brainpower needed to play and, more importantly, make you feel really good about yourself.

Spinning Violently Around The Y-Axis

 Something else that might help is creating an engagement graph, as discussed in The Arty Of Party, Part 2. In case you didn’t want to read two articles today, an engagement graph is a diagram that shows how much of a player’s time is spent actually participating in the game. You can note it mentally or write it down. This will give you a vaguely more objective way of measuring how much of the players’ time is spent waiting for something to happen than asking the players.

You’ll want to start making engagement graphs once you’ve moved on to the blind playtesting, where you observe as someone else reads over your rules and explains them to the other players. This should give you a better sense of how long your game takes to teach, especially without you there to give advice. Long periods of player inactivity, especially for every player combined, can be problematic.

Engagement graphs are pretty broad and don’t account for repeated small actions like shuffling, so you may want to make tally marks or something similar if you’re concerned about it.

Conclusion: Some Dumb Joke About Sonic ’06 And Its Numerous Loading Screens

One might think that attempting to keep players 100% engaged is a particular trait of games, or of those darned millennials. But in any creative medium, the deadliest thing that could happen is nothing. A slasher movie doesn’t improve with 15 additional minutes of idiot teenagers partying in the woods, a meal isn’t tastier if you have to eat a bowl of gruel in the middle, and for everyone except me, Snow Crash having pages and pages about the Sumerian linguistic system only dragged it down.

By grinding your game to a finely honed edge of engaging play, you can create something that’s better for your players and a better product in general. So start thinking about your loading screens!

A Real Experience

Modern game design operates on a set of assumptions that don’t work for every game. For example, asymmetric games are supposed to be balanced as closely as possible, but some Cosmic Encounter aliens shut down other aliens’ powers completely. Good games should have little to no luck involved, but Betrayal at House on the Hill is reliant almost entirely on dice rolls and good draws. And yet, Cosmic and Betrayal are generally considered good, fun games. How can this be true?

The secret is there are actually two kinds of game, each with their own standards of design: Strategic games and Experiential games. When creating a game, it’s important to think about which one you want, as designing using the wrong method could be fatal.

Are You Experienced?

 There’s different ways to define strategic vs. experiential, but the simplest way is as follows: Strategic games are a challenge, while experiential games are an experience.

In strategic games, the players are challenged to do their best under the infrastructure of the game rules. This will almost certainly create difficult situations which have to be resolved through the players’ wits and, rarely, dexterity. The winner in a strategic game should be someone who deserves it: Someone who was best able to solve the puzzles presented to them.

Examples of strategic games include Euros, wargames, most co-op games, abstract games, and anything with an organized play system.

In experiential games, the players use the framework of the game to create an engaging experience for themselves. Difficult choices are present, but simple choices that are fun or flavorful are also present en masse. Luck is much more acceptable. A player or players can technically win, and the threat of losing the game adds important stakes, but winning is less important than having played the game period.

Examples of experiential games include party games, social deduction games, RPGs, dungeon crawlers, and anything with “legacy” in the title.

Like every binary in the real world, the line between strategic and experiential is fluid, and some games, like Magic, hover in the middle ground. Players may also treat a game like it’s the opposite: Take, for example, someone who is very serious about Apples to Apples, or someone who decides to spend a game of Catan building a very long road and doing nothing else.

Gold Experience

It’s fairly easy to figure out whether you’re trying to design a strategic or experiential game by thinking about it. But if you’ve decided you’re creating an experiential game, how do you analyze and improve it?

(I’m not getting into the realm of strategic game design because many people who are smarter than me have covered it on many, many websites.)

Good experiential games should rile up your players’ emotions. Laughter is the best, as it means that the players are having fun even when they’re getting their butts kicked, but depending on the game, rage or shock can also be a good sign. Note that frustration is unacceptable, as it has a component of helplessness: Nobody enjoys being bound by the social contract of a game to twiddle their thumbs and do nothing.

When observing a playtest, make sure to write down when your players are reacting and how. Post-playtest discussion is also helpful, but sometimes people don’t remember what they felt, especially if the end of the game is weaker than the events preceding it.

This next part is more painful: You don’t need to care about strategy that much. As long as your game is engaging, it’s okay if a player wins mostly through luck or if certain abilities are moderately under/overpowered. Your responsibility as an experiential game designer is first to create something that lets your players have fun, and second to create something balanced.

Codenames is a great example of this principle. The shifting word grids make it so every game results in different prompts, but occasionally a team will luck out and get four words that are all animals or countries. In a more strategy-focused game, this would be unacceptable, but because Codenames is more about the experience of the spymaster and their field agents than one team winning, exacting balance is sacrificed in favor of a simpler game.

Though you don’t need to care about strategy as much, you don’t get off scott-free, as you now have to focus much harder on your game’s impact. This not only means thinking about more unique and memorable gameplay, but the illustrations, graphic design, and even writing of your tabletop game have to be clear, interesting, and cohesive. When creating an experiential game, you should be daydreaming about things you won’t even get to for months so you can design your skeleton in preparation for its flesh.

Ideally, all games should be challenging and impactful, but if you have to make a decision between one and the other, strategic games should make challenge more important and experiential games should make impact more important. Unimpactful strategy games like Hansa Teutonica are successful in their lane, as are strangely balanced experiential games like Arkham Horror.

Conclusion: The Word “Experience” Has Lost All Meaning To Me Now

Experiential game design is a topic I’ll most likely revisit in the future. These games are a very important component of modern tabletop gaming, but they frequently get swept under the table or, even worse, scoffed at by the kind of enfranchised gamer who most often writes about design. Hopefully, my writing will form the core of a new, more psychology-focused method of approaching tabletop design.

An Essay On Replay Value I Wrote At Three In The Morning

Board game design teaches that a game should be fun for a number of repeated plays. A realistic high number for the average game and the average group is 3-5, but every designer dreams of creating a game so addictive that the audience keeps playing for years.

This article isn’t meant to contradict the concept of replay value as a whole, but rather a particular idea attached to it: That randomizing mechanical elements of your game will automatically give it increased replay value. This is true on paper, but, very frequently, these changes aren’t enough to make repeated plays feel different from each other. So what’s the problem here, and how can a designer use randomization to make a game with true replay value? My thoughts are below.

This Jeremy guy’s a (net)hack!

To better understand the issue, let’s look at the roguelike, a popular genre of video game. Generally falling within the role-playing or action role-playing genres, roguelikes are defined by randomly creating a dungeon for you every time you play. The first time you play, you might run into a the boss room immediately; the second, you might encounter a special shop. Obviously, this means that you can play a roguelike forever and never get tired of it, right?

Wrong, strawman. The more you play, the less the randomization will mean anything to you. You’ll begin to notice certain rooms appearing over and over, and it’ll feel more and more like you’re simply playing the same game. And in the end, you’re doing essentially the same things: You’re just doing them in different orders.

In essence, a lot of games that claim to have endless replay value because the setups are randomized are like a roguelike. I’m going to use Kingdom Builder as an example because some of its printed appeal was that it was different every game: Every game has a new map, set of special powers, and series of victory conditions. However, by your third game of Kingdom Builder, everything’s sort of running together.

This is because, despite the randomized components, the core strategy of the game is still fairly similar for every playthrough. Whether you want to create one big clump of houses or build close to water, what’s most important is that you have the freedom to build in as many locations as possible. Thus, the universal strategy is to try to fill out areas and try to remain off as many terrain types for as long as possible.

The Obligatory Sandwich Analogy

To create real replay value, a game needs to offer truly different routes for winning the game. In the deckbuilding game Trains, players randomly select eight stacks of cards that can be purchased and added to decks over the course of the game. However, depending on the distribution of these cards, the optimal strategy for each playthrough differs wildly. Some setups might encourage wild expansion across the map; some support making huge purchases of costly but powerful buildings. One card in particular, the Mining Train from Trains: Rising Sun, encourages you to build on otherwise useless mountain spaces, flipping the game’s strategy on its head entirely.

Ideally, when someone plays your game for the second time, they should feel like they’re having an experience distinct from, but similar to, the game they played last time. The core of the game should be steady in order to reward skill development, but in order to generate replay value, the overall experience needs to feel less like taking a second bite of the same sandwich and more like you’re ordering a different sandwich at the same café.

In order to detect this in your prototypes, watch the people who think they know what they’re doing as they struggle with your random setup. Are they doing significantly different things each time, or are they following similar paths? If it’s the former, it’s likely that your audience is going to want to play your game multiple times.


Randomizing game elements is not the silver bullet answer to a game feeling stale: It is a tool that, with the use of some other tools, may provide you the solution if you do it correctly. Much like everything else in life, answers are not so cut and dry, but answering these challenges is what’s so satisfying about creation.


Keeping Your Game Focused (also, horrible puns)

I’m a big fan of ketchup.

I was raised by a Midwesterner and, for much of my childhood, ketchup was the only condiment I’d accept anywhere. Even to this day, when I go to gourmet burger establishments, I’ll dump a bunch of ketchup on everything after my carefully constructed order arrives.

This is a shocking opinion, but I’m also a big fan of ice cream. It’s delicious! Cookies and cream is my favorite flavor.

So given that I love ketchup, and that I love ice cream, obviously putting ketchup on my ice cream is a great idea, right?

Today’s article is about avoiding the design equivalent of putting ketchup on your ice cream.

One Game, 31 Flavors

It’s pretty easy to tell, during playtesting, that your game is bad. People get bored or frustrated, individual mechanisms are overpowered or useless, the game lasts for longer than it should. That’s because these are things that give you immediate feedback, the equivalent of a big siren going off.

When your game isn’t necessarily bad, but unfocused, it becomes a lot trickier to detect. The individual mechanics of your game might be excellent by themselves, but combined they create a confusing mess. This isn’t something that you can detect by examining final scores, and some players may even give you confusing feedback – depending on the person, they might not mind something unfocused if they had a fun time playing it.

The best example I can think of is TIME Stories, which combines an intriguing premise – co-op mystery solving as you play through the same story repeatedly in an attempt to unravel more of it – with dice-rolling mechanics. The thrill of advancing your group game by game conflicts with the issue that you can easily lose the game, even though you did everything right, through a series of poor dice rolls. In a different game, the dice-rolling would be acceptable, or even fun, but here the unfocused mechanics make the game less satisfying.

Games can also be thematically incoherent. The game El Grande was originally Troy-themed, with a big Trojan Horse that players could drop their cubes into to hide how many they’re going to puke onto the board at the end of the round. But during production, the publishers changed the name to the political conquest of Spain, with the incredibly thematic Horse changed to a generic “castillo”. El Grande is still one of the best territory control games ever made, but if it had stuck to its original theme the impact would have been dramatically improved.

Ketchup Mechanics

The best solution to focusing your game is to have a clear statement in your head of what you want the game to be. However, the problem is that humans aren’t computers, and we design as much on instinct as we do by writing down several paragraphs in a design document. Your “statement”, might be fuzzy daydreams about some players laughing and having a great time, or a looping gif (pronounced gife) of a character in your game doing something dramatic. In this way, it’s hard to keep a game focused when you don’t even know what to focus on.

There’s two ways to approach this, depending on how you’re constructing your game: “top-down” or “bottom-up”, to borrow terms from Magic design.

“Bottom-up” designs are created when the designer thinks of one or two interesting mechanics they’d like to explore. In this way, you develop these games by weaving supplementary mechanics and theme around your core concepts in a way that creates a complex, challenging design. The issue arrives when the supplementary mechanics are lifted from more popular genres – for instance, creating an interesting way of placing tiles on a board but deciding that the way to acquire them is through simple drafting because you can’t think of anything better.

The best way to keep your bottom-up game focused is to think about what the core mechanic wants. For instance, in our theoretical tile-laying game above, how would it be a challenge for you to get the arrangement that you want? What would generate a feeling of satisfaction when you arrange your tiles in just the right way to shoot past your opponents? What mirrors the core mechanic in a satisfying way? Once you’ve answered these questions, the focus of your game becomes clearer.

Ice Theme

“Top-down” designs are based primarily on theme. My Happy Daggers, for instance, was made as a way to capture the feel of melodramatic swordfights as you might see in The Three Musketeers or Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet. This makes focusing with your mechanics simultaneously easier and harder: You have a clearer statement of what you’d like to design, but because you’re starting from scratch mechanically it’s a lot easier to drift away from where you started.

The most important part of designing a top-down game is its “feel”: That is, making players feel the same when playing your game as they do while watching a movie or reading a book of the same genre. Mark Rosewater, Magic head designer, talked about this approach when designing for Innistrad, the game’s gothic horror/movie monster expansion. The primary feeling you get from a good horror movie isn’t necessarily shock, but dread – the creeping feeling that something’s wrong right before the skeleton pops out or whatever. So the mechanics of Innistrad were aimed at generating the same feelings: Humans which could turn into werewolves on the next turn, any creature’s death triggering a powerful “morbid” effect, spells which could return from the graveyard when you least want it. Innistrad is considered by many to be one of the best Magic sets ever made, which speaks to the power of this approach.

Heinzight is 20/20

Your game will be much better when everything – every tiny mechanic and every scrap of design – is all precisely focused on a core experience. By keeping this in mind while playtesting, the process will probably be more painful – you’ll have to throw out otherwise good concepts because they don’t jazz with the other things you’re doing – but will result in a clearer, more fun, and more impactful game for your players.

This article went on forever, so as a reward for sticking with the whole thing here’s a picture of Pikachu with a bottle of ketchup. See you in two weeks!

17 Weird Themes For Your Board Game

I’m tired of going to the game store and seeing the same three themes over and over again. Here are 17 weird themes. Feel free to use them!

  1. Assembly Guide/Warning Label. Featureless human shapes assembling/being attacked by geometric shapes in a stark, right-angle-aplenty abstract space. Great for light games!
  2. Vegetable Collage. Penguins made out of eggplants! Mighty warriors carved from, I don’t know, a carrot or something! A mountain range in a pumpkin!
  3. Fortune Teller Machine. Go to the nearest tacky fortune teller machine and get a fortune. Use the aesthetic of the card as the basis of everything in your favorite project.
  4. Yellow Submarine. Not the actual movie, but the same idea of a queasy psychedelic art style and weird critters.
  5. What People In The 19th Century Thought The 25th Century Would Be Like.
  6. The Everglades. There’s a bunch of cool animals there!
  7. 1930s Shanghai. Did you know that Shanghai in the 1930s is a rich setting for noir fiction and intrigue? Now you do.
  8. Antarctica. Either “cool ice science” or “blizzardy horror” could work here.
  9. Playstation-era 3D graphics. Enough 16-bit throwbacks! Blocky approximations of the human figure or bust!
  10. Content Aggregator Site. Collect sets to form an ad-sponsored slideshow! Or take the safe option and make a listicle.
  11. Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s a giant fish market with a bunch of loud auctions going on all the time. The potential here should be obvious.
  12. Marché Bastille. While I’m at it, how about the gigantic outdoor market in the middle of Paris?
  13. Interior Design. Take your tile-laying games to the small time as you passive-aggressively rearrange furniture in one or several houses!
  14. Ballet. There’s several theatre-themed games but ballet, IMO, lends itself to board games even better, as it’s easier to judge whether something is following the script.
  15. Protestant Reformation. The spread of Protestantism is fascinating, and could have design space for a COIN-style 2 player wargame.
  16. 1910s College. Back when football players wore stripy shirts, all professors wore caps and gowns all the time, and the Marx Brothers terrorized the land.
  17. Aaaaaaaaaand trains.

Design Spacespacespacespacespacespace

(For those of you wondering what the title joke’s about)

I spend a fair amount of my idle time reading/listening to the design philosophy of Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic: The Gathering. One topic he expounds on frequently is the concept of design space: How many viable cards* can be made using a certain mechanic or theme. For a long time, I thought this was one of those things that really only applies to a CCG model, where components are made constantly with no foreseeable end.

Then, several months ago, I began working on a board game with Cosmic Encounter-style powers and realized that if I wanted to be able to make as many powers as I want to, I had to think about how much design space I was creating using my core rules. It’s a surprisingly useful topic, but one that isn’t discussed by most tabletop designers, so I thought it appropriate to write about it here.

* Design space in Magic can also refer to things like card names, expansion symbol designs, and border colors, but I didn’t want to unnecessarily complicate things.



Creating design space in your game is, in a sense, the opposite of the principles of elegance and minimalism that have benefited a lot of modern board games. Having a lot of options to alter the core rules of your game must be preceded by having a lot of core rules to alter, and rules bloat is something to watch out for. However, there are three types of game that do nothing but benefit from having more design space:

  1. Games with a lot of cards/tiles. Games like Race For The Galaxy hide much of their complexity within the components. Cards and tiles can have special powers – meaning they don’t have to be taught up front – or otherwise provide you some kind of benefit.
  2. Games with a large number of asymmetric player powers. Fighting game simulators like Yomi and BattleCON are obvious examples.
  3. Party games. As I mentioned in The Arty of Party, one of the most important parts of designing a party game is having hundreds of prompts so players can play many games without encountering repeats.

So how do you ensure you have enough design space in your game to make it successful?


Clearing Some Space

After deciding to make a game with a lot of exception cases, as mentioned above, you will do a lot of good simply by thinking hard about your game. Look at each rule and say, “If this were replaced or enhanced by something else, but the rest of the rules remained intact, would the game be pretty much the same experience?” If a rule is so crucial that it can’t be altered in any way, it means there’s no design space available for it. The fewer of these present in your game, the more room you have to explore.

The previous paragraph is a little abstract, so to use an analogy, it’s like that tired meme about what counts as a sandwich. If you take the top slice of bread off a sandwich, it’s still arguably a sandwich (albeit an open-face one); take off both slices of bread and spread the contents on a bed of lettuce, now it’s a salad. Similarly, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how much you can alter your core game and have it give the same experience, but rather you have to keep iterating to see what keeps you comfortable. You’ll get better at it the more you keep designing for the game.

Finding design space for a party game is more about keeping your prompts diverse. While developing Stand Back, Citizen!, my superheroic pitch game, I found that if I wasn’t careful, I was including too many Noun cards about food and animals. While both food and animals are hilarious, because I wanted to retain a reasonable balance of cards I had to cut down to the funniest of them. In this way, even though I hadn’t technically run out of ideas, the demands of the game at large lowered my design space in these categories.


Expanding Your Mind

You’ll notice that one topic I haven’t touched on is clearing space for an expansion for your game. This is primarily because I don’t believe in designing anything under the assumption that it’ll do so well that it gets an expansion. With Kickstarter stretch goal content becoming more and more popular, it seems tempting, but creating a game that operates well if a player buys all the content is essentially creating half a game.

The other reason I didn’t talk about space for expansions is that most games can find something to add, no matter how rigid the design space. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar literally has no space on the board to put additional content, yet CGE managed to later release the expansion Tribes and Prophecies, which to my understanding was received fairly well. Design space is more important when you’re designing your core game.



Your main benefit over current Magic: The Gathering designers is that you don’t need to work in the design space boundaries set by someone else in 1993. You can now apply modern design sensibilities to actively create enough design space for your components to fit in comfortably. By looking ahead and responsibly adjusting the amount of space you have to work with, you’re going to save yourself a lot of hassle later.

Communication Breakdown (Get it? It’s a Led Zeppelin song? Get it? I’m cultured?)

I’ve seen a number of posts discussing the art of designing for specific genres, like worker placement games or deckbuilders, and find their information fairly useful. However, there is one genre of game I see little to no discussion about, yet its products – Codenames, Mysterium, Ugg-Tect, and Hanabi, for example – continue to be the talk of the town full of board game enthusiasts. If you couldn’t tell by now, these all fall into the fairly narrow category of communication games.

While I don’t have any personal experience designing a communication game, and therefore won’t be talking in terms of what you “should” do, I’m comfortable enough exploring the psychological side of game design that I feel I’m qualified to at least discuss the genre. Communication games are great, and I want to see more people working on them.


The core of every communication game is a giant “but.” Stop snickering.

Mysterium is “I want to tell these psychics what suspects to pick”

“I can only communicate with surreal illustrations.”

Codenames is “I want to tell my team what words to pick”

 “I can only give them a one-word clue.”

Ugg-Tect is “I want to tell my workers to assemble a shape using these blocks”


“I am a caveman and therefore can only talk via grunting.”

Because the vast majority of communication games are team games, they share a lot in common with co-op games like Pandemic. Both genres generate enjoyment from the fun frustration of watching helplessly as your carefully constructed plans fall apart. However, whereas most co-ops disrupt your plans through random effects, in communication games people most likely lose because someone at the table – not necessarily the person doing the communicating – beefed it. Being the spymaster in Codenames and watching helplessly as your well-intentioned clue sends your team into a death spiral of confusion is a special experience.

(10 years later) WHY DID YOU PICK THAT CARD

One of the guiding principles of my design is impact, which I wrote about here. In brief, impactful games are emotionally moving and memorable. The reason I bring this up is that communication games have a disproportionate level of impact compared to other genres. This is, in part, why the genre has met with such a high amount of acclaim – a good, impactful game is going to make more waves than one that’s only good.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons why communication games, as a whole, are very impactful. The first is the emotional ignition I mentioned in the last section. Oftentimes, the emotions communication games stir up are negative, but media – including games – are places to feel negative emotions in a safe environment, and the frustration is often balanced out by the rush of adrenaline you get when you give a brilliant clue to your Codenames team and they make a miracle rally to win the game.

Second, one of the major components of an impactful game is being able to use lateral thinking to win. People really like feeling smart, and the best way to feel smart is to feel like you outsmarted the game designer. Most communication games encourage this by design, giving players a pile of clues from which to construct a win. Comparing more conventional strategy games to communication games is like comparing a chair from IKEA to a big box of Legos.

Finally, most communication games are really easy to summarize in an elevator pitch. This reason isn’t as important than the other two, but being able to broadly recollect why a game was so interesting is part of what makes it stick in your mind. It also leads to a higher influx of more casual players, who are likelier to be interested in a game because of its hook than because it has a 7.8 on BoardGameGeek.

On a scale from 1 to 10, how confused were you, exactly?

As cool as communication games are, their biggest pitfall is that they’re very difficult to playtest. In a game with a more mathematical basis, it’s easier to make small adjustments when a particular strategy is too strong or weak. With communication games, it’s much harder to adjust the game’s difficulty because so much of it depends on human comprehension.

Probably the most effective technique is merely to brute-force playtests with a wide variety of players. After your game has been refined, you can also develop a sort of sixth sense for whether something is working or not and make an educated guess toward fixing it. It’s also feasible to simply give up on achieving the perfect level of challenge, especially when your game has high variance, and try to keep it within a reasonable range.

I’m keeping this section short because I don’t have any real solutions. Once I start working on a communication game – and I’m sure I’ll give it a shot at some point in my career – I’ll be able to come back to this topic with more confidence.


Because communication games have so many benefits, I hope to see more local designers trying their hand at creating them. The design process is fairly challenging, but the end result is something that cuts very close to the core of tabletop gaming’s purpose: Putting a unique experience in a box to be shared by other people. The genre is still very much in its infancy and I have high expectations of it in the future.


Here’s a fun experiment you can try at home. The next time you’re in the middle of a board game with your friends and nobody’s having any fun with it, suggest that you all quit and play something better. Nine times out of ten, everyone will refuse, citing that they “just want to finish it.” This isn’t borne out of some kind of dogged grit-your-teeth wish to push through it – it’s a board game, so there’s rarely any kind of stakes. Instead, it’s more like the game has some kind of hold on them, an unspoken contract that won’t be complete until the game ends.

My theory is this is the result of something I like to call “automatic mode,” a mental shift that some 95% of people, myself included, go through when they sit down to play a game. A lot of my game design stumbles have been because I don’t consider automatic mode, and keeping it in mind has made me go through iterations more quickly than before. It’s a very useful concept and one that will vastly improve the amount of information you get from watching playtests.


Automatic mode is essentially a single-minded desire to win. Once the rules have been explained to you, your mind immediately starts processing the best way for you to get the most points, or eliminate everyone else, or whatever. It pushes out thoughts of having fun, injokes with your friends, and what you had to eat for dinner that night. All you care about is winning.

There are a couple of exceptions to entering automatic mode. Once your group has played a game enough to get bored with the initial strategy, you start drifting away from winning into finding new strategies that might give you a chance to win. Party games de-emphasize victory enough to keep your brain thinking more about the “funniest” option, not the “best” one. And there is the uncommon person who is able to remain in manual mode in any game, mostly so they can do whatever weird goofy thing they prefer.

This behavior does share a few things with the concept of “flow” – a term referring to entering a blank state of mind when deeply engaged in a task at which one is skilled. But it’s a different concept for two reasons. First, people of any experience level can enter automatic mode, while flow is reserved for people who are reasonably good at the game. In fact, it’s the opposite – people with less skills are more likely to turn on automatic. Second, people still have conscious thoughts in auto mode – they’re just focused more on their goal.


The first feature of automatic mode that’s important to designers is that a player on automatic will try to win using as little effort as possible. If they can win without using a feature or two in the game, then they’ll go for it.

To illustrate my point, let’s talk about the game Condottiere. During each round, players play soldier cards of varying strengths in an attempt to control different parts of Italy. The gameplay of this is rich enough already (I discussed part of it in an older post about zugzwang), but buried in the rulebook is an interesting note: It says that players may talk and make deals freely.

This is interesting, because of the numerous games of Condottiere I’ve played with different friend groups, none of us made any deals with each other. We paid attention to who was about to win, of course, but nobody really ganged up on anyone else. Because each player saw a way to win that could be achieved without relying on the table talk aspect of the game, we ignored it and focused on having our knights flex their muscles as hard as possible.

If a mechanic in your game can be safely ignored by players looking to win, it might as well not exist in the first place. If you want players to do something in particular, make it absolutely fundamental to victory instead of a suggestion. This becomes more of a problem with “soft” mechanics like trading, negotation, and betrayal, as suggested above, but anything that seems extraneous could be a problem.


If there’s one thing an auto-mode player likes more than winning with as little effort as possible, it’s winning as surely as possible. Faced with a choice with higher risk/reward and a reasonably safe choice that could still help them win, they’ll choose the safe one almost every time.

My example for this comes from the playtesting process for my own Happy Daggers. In Happy Daggers, players attempt to push each other around a map, with more pushing being better for the player on offense. One of my defense cards in an early build of the final game allowed the defender to be pushed exactly 2 spaces. I figured this was a good idea, because other cards granted the ability to defend perfectly, but in playtests, players would always choose to be pushed 2 spaces. The card was quickly replaced with something better.

Designers of games that use variance in part to create a fun play experience should be careful not to offer a choice that’s too safe. That isn’t to say that some choices can’t be safer, but they should offer a small enough reward compared to shooting the moon that the choice should genuinely present some difficulty, even to players on automatic.


Sitting down to play a game is essentially handing your brain over to the game designer to have them take care of it for a while. This is where automatic mode comes from – we trust that we’ll have fun on the way to victory and don’t want to put any more effort than we have to. As game designers, instead of trying to fight this behavior, we should tailor our games for it and try to create experiences that players can discover easily. The next time you run a prototype, or even play someone else’s game, thinking about what your players – or you – are doing while on automatic has a lot of value.

The Arty of Party: Part 2: Playtesting Your Party Game

In The Arty of Party: Part 1 I wrote about the party game genre in general and described some of the subgenres. This week, I’ll go into the nitty-gritty of designing your party game, in particular running it through playtests. If you’ve primarily worked in strategy games or similar, you’ll find the experience to be fairly different. However, it doesn’t require any special skills – you just need to evaluate the game in a different way than you’re used to.

“Writer’s Room” Playtests

As I mentioned, the majority of your work in a party game will be coming up with funny prompts. The average game will only use a tiny fraction of these, so to make sure that the majority of your prompts are funny, you’ll want to have two kinds of playtests: Regular ones where you show your game to people you don’t know, and what I call a “writer’s room” playtest.

To do this, you’ll need a group of friends and/or interested people who want to help work on your game. First, run two or three games with them so they understand how it works. Then, read off the list of prompts you’ve developed and, with their help, sort them into “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No” piles. Throw out everything in the “No” pile and look at the “Maybe” prompts on a later date. Having a lot of people with different senses of humor is especially useful as you get more perspective on whether a prompt works or not.

For pitch games, it’s also important that all the cards flow grammatically with one another. Pick out five or so cards and, for each new one you create, briefly check to see if it sounds weird when combined with any of the other five. As you work alone and with your writer’s room, you’ll find yourself coming up with cards that meet the requirements more and more quickly as you get used to the constraints of your game.

It’s good to hold “writer’s room” playtests every couple of weeks as you continue to test your game and develop additional prompts.


When you do your regular playtests, the most important thing, obviously, is that everyone has fun. However, there’s a more scientific approach than constantly interviewing your players to see if they enjoyed it.Though it’s difficult to quantify fun, it’s much easier to quantify engagement, and if your game is good enough, engagement should be fun anyway.

Engagement is a concern for strategy games, as well – it’s no fun to wait helplessly for several minutes as Slow-Play Steve spends forever thinking about his turn – but even a short period of nonengagement in a party game can be fatal. The best way to tell how engaged players will be in your party game is to create a time diagram, mentally or on paper, of how a round passes.

Within this diagram, create three categories: Action, where the player makes a choice or otherwise does something; Entertaining Inaction, where the player isn’t doing anything but is being entertained by another player; and Inaction, where the player is just twiddling their thumbs and waiting for something to happen. Then, run your prototype for a few rounds and create a rough graph of how long a player spends in each state and when. Here’s an example graph for a round of a non-judge player playing Apples to Apples:

These graphs are inevitably very rough but they help you visualize how much each player gets to participate over the course of a round.

Also important is the number of players engaged at one time. As you can see from the graph, only the judge gets to be active for the majority of the round of Apples to Apples. However, in the game Quiplash, all but two players serve as the “judge” for each round, meaning that, although the selection/judgement flow is essentially the same, many more players are actively participating for the majority of the round. In this way, even though the engagement chart would look similar, the game overall is more engaging and fun.


Making sure your party game appeals to a wide audience is one of the best ways to ensure it’s a good game. Bring the game to places with a wide variety of age ranges, senses of humor, and experience levels with games to make sure everyone has a good time. This also applies to setting: A bar or a party is a different place than your weekly game night, and it will be more challenging for anyone to focus on a game there.

Even within your friend group, you can test for whether the game appeals to a diverse audience. Think about the shiest, most quiet person playing: Are they enjoying the game? Are they winning about as often as anyone else at the table? If the answer is yes, your game is essentially accomplishing what it’s supposed to by allowing everyone to participate in the generation of jokes.

As you test for wide outreach, you may find that parts of your game aren’t accessible to everyone. For example, when I tested Stand Back, Citizen!, I found that the real-time gameplay, which emphasized being able to put together a combination of cards as fast as possible, was difficult for people who didn’t fluently understand English. If there’s any way that the core concept of your game can expand to be more accessible, make it a priority.

It’s Time To Party

Even if you aren’t interested in creating a party game, I hope these two essays have at least convinced you that party games require just as much rigor as any other game design. If you’re mostly used to games that involve a lot of silent thinking, you might want to dip a toe into the pool of making your players laugh. A peek into player psychology can benefit anyone!

The Arty of Party: Part 1: Designing a Party Game

If you ask the average American what their image of a board game is, they’ll give you two examples: “Classic” strategy games like Monopoly, and the ever-present party game. Indeed, the party genre is among the most mainstream in a hobby only beginning to leave its niche, and the most popular games can be found lining the walls at big-box retail stores. While some designers ignore or disparage party games, others, including such stellar talents as Matt Leacock (Knitwit), Friedemann Friese (Terra), and Richard Garfield (Hive Mind), have combined the mass appeal of party games with the rigor of modern tabletop design.

Compared to more conventional hobbyist genres like deckbuilding and worker placement, there isn’t a lot written about designing or playtesting party games, so I wanted to venture into this uncharted territory. Much of this is based off the experience of playtesting my superheroic pitch game, Stand Back, Citizen!, which as of this writing is still looking for a place in the market. My prior experience as a script and comedy writer aided me greatly in that project, and provides me with the perspective necessary to discuss the topic.

 What is a party game?

 The definition of a party game is very easy.

Party games are comedy Legos.


Every single party game ever made is designed with the intention of making it easier to be funny. This is useful because there’s a lot of reasons someone might not be making other people laugh in a large social group: They might be shy, they might not know the others that well, or they might not have the ability to think up jokes on the fly. Party games even the playing field, allowing anyone, no matter who they are, to score some points with the rest of the people playing.

To accomplish this, party games give you individual components of jokes. all you have to do is click them together to create something that’s at worst recognizable as a joke and at best hilarious. It might sound like I’m overgeneralizing, but the comedy Legos come in all different shapes and sizes, depending on the game.

Pitch games like Cards Against Humanity, Snake Oil, and Stand Back, Citizen! have you inserting punchline tab A into setup slot B. Some of them require extra effort on your part to sell your joke, while others, like Say Anything or Quiplash, give you a blank space to write in the joke yourself.

“Know-your-friends” games, including Polemic, Scattergories, and Hive Mind, don’t make formal jokes per se but generate funny situations based on the table’s interactions with each other. It’s less the satisfaction of matching up two perfect cards and more the cosmic circumstance of everyone thinking of eighteen different ways to finish the phrase “Double ______”.

Trivia games are essentially a fun trivia book like Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader chopped up and placed within a game framework. The best trivia games don’t require anyone to know the exact answer but instead rely on approximate knowledge (Wits & Wagers) or being able to bluff something that sounds right (Balderdash).

There’s other games that don’t fit these rough categories, like charades-with-a-board Concept or hybrid party/strategy game Codenames, but surely by now you see what they all have in common.

Designing Your Party Game

 The biggest difference between designing a strategy game and designing a party game is the amount of time you spend on mechanics. The bulk of your time in strategy game design is spent refining and polishing your mechanics; however, you’ll only want to dedicate about 5% of your energy to mechanics in party games, spending the other 95% generating lots and lots of prompts.

At a rough estimate, I’d say that most party games have about 400-500 cards; some games will put up to 6 prompts on each one. The idea of having to write several thousand funny things seems daunting, but your prompts exist independently of one another, so you don’t need to worry about gradually increasing complexity like you might with a strategy game. You can also get your friends, family, and playtesters to help you out. Pitch games are a little different, as all of your setup cards need to work at least semi-well with your punchline cards. Creating prompts gets easier as you hammer out a system for them, which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Not all of your prompts will be winners, but try to keep your hit/miss ratio at least above 50%. The game Telestrations, a combination of Pictionary and Telephone, suffers from this problem: the mechanics are fun, and the good prompts are great to work with, but there’s so many mediocre and easy-to-guess prompts that the game kind of falls apart if your luck is bad. My play group tried using the highest level of Pictomania cards once instead and we had a great time.

Most party games arrive in small boxes and cost less than $40, so discuss with your printer/publisher how many cards you can fit in the box on a limited budget and aim for the highest number possible.

Now For That 5%

 All good party games share two qualities: They’re easy to learn, and they have tons of replay value.

The main way you add replay value is through massive amounts of prompts, as discussed above, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure that your system doesn’t encourage the repetition of the same joke over and over again. For example, in Cards Against Humanity the white cards have essentially self-contained jokes, which means that people who play it a lot (and most people do whether they want to or not) will end up getting bored as they see the same thing over and over. Meanwhile, Snake Oil creates jokes by combining two standalone nouns, meaning the same card can create a near-endless amount of comedy just by picking different partners.

What you need to concentrate on, primarily, is making your party game simple. Very simple. No, simpler than that. The average player of your game is at a distracting party and two drinks in. If you can’t explain how your game works in thirty seconds, you need to cut some rules. On the other side of this coin, think very hard if you want to add a new mechanic: It needs to revolutionize the way the game is played before it can justify another ten seconds of the game owner blabbering about how it works.

See you in two weeks for Part 2: Playtesting A Party Game!