Discovering Your Game Design Biases

Many design disciplines have a history of neutrality and universality. Typography, industrial design, and so on value the designer being able to put aside their own biases and create things that communicate a similar message to as many people as possible. This is noble, especially for things like signage that really do need this sense of universality, but it can also be stifling to always put the needs of your audience ahead of what you want to create. Luckily, as low-budget tabletop game designers, we can fully give in to our preferences, and indeed, the games we produce that appeal to us will often be more fun and higher quality than those that don’t.

Discovering your game design biases will help you grow as a designer, whether that means sticking to your wheelhouse and refining your skills to make what you want or actively fighting against what you’re used to to leave your comfort zone and grow in a more well-rounded way. Here’s a few tools that you can use to gauge them.

What Do You Respect?

Everyone has games that they love, but most people don’t really put that much thought into the reasons why they like those games. After all, working too hard to define an undefinable feeling often feels like a pointless exercise, and at worst it can sap some of the delight away from the game. (It’s why explaining a joke ruins the joke.) That said, it’s an excellent first step towards discovering your game design biases, especially if you’re early in your game design journey and haven’t worked on that many projects.

There’s a couple of ways to figure out your biases in game preference. Pick whichever of these seems the most appealing to you.

  • Make a top 10 list of your favorite board games. See if you can find things most or all of those games have in common. Play time? Player count? How complex or simple they are? How serious or silly the tone is? Are there particular emotional states common to these games that you might not feel in more mainstream games?
  •  Pretend you have to convince a skeptic to get into board games by describing one game to them. Which game would you choose to talk about? What in particular would you describe about the game?
  • Think about the best times you’ve ever had playing games with your friends. This doesn’t even have to be about games you like normally – perhaps the group you were with, or the atmosphere might have contributed. But what about the game triggered such fondness in you? Why does this playthrough stick out in your mind more than any of the numerous others you might have played up until that point.

What Kind of Games Do You Design?

I didn’t realize that I had game design biases at all until I overheard a friend who ran a monthly prototype night mention to someone else that he had never seen a prototype of mine that took over half an hour to play. It so happened that, unconsciously, I ended up creating short, relatively rules-light games over anything else.

It can help your process to define what your “regular” kind of game is. Look back over all of your previous prototypes and perhaps subject them to the same exercises you did in the above section.Perhaps talk to someone you work with a lot on games – a favorite playtester or similar – and see what they have to say about your games. It can be surprisingly hard to figure out your preferences and design biases when you’re on the inside looking out.

It’s also possible that you might have a fairly broad range to what you design. Some designers, like Vlaada Chvátil, seem to bounce from ultra-heavy strategy games to party games with relative ease, while others, like Uwe Rosenberg, find a niche and settle within it. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, identifying that rut is the first step towards climbing out of it. Perhaps consider making a game longer or shorter than you normally do, or with sillier or more serious mechanics.

What’s Your General Philosophy of Games?

Game design has a lot of big questions that don’t have one objectively correct answer. These include things like:

  • What is a game? What makes it different from an activity, contest, or sport, or are those things subsets of games?
  • What makes a game, or anything else, fun? Is there one answer to what fun is, multiple answers, or none at all?
  • What emotions should a game generate? Excitement? Anger? Patient thought? Perhaps a combination of these, or all of them?

Sitting down and asking yourself these questions, possibly with examples of games that meet or don’t meet these criteria, is an excellent way to figure out your philosophy of game design.

What Else Do You Like?

Fantasy authors who only draw from other fantasy novels, directors who only draw from movies, and game designers who only draw from other games almost inevitably end up one step beyond mediocrity, because they don’t add more to the medium. The only way any creative field escapes stagnation is through people who are able to unite it with their other interests and passions.Thinking about your other interests and how they influence your games, both thematically and mechanically, is a great way to understand your game design biases.

To use myself as an example, I am personally heavily influenced by schlock and camp of all kinds. Happy Daggers is based off of the unrealistic but flashy swordfights you might see in classic swashbuckling movies, while my prototype The Monster Dimension is themed after low-budget, poorly acted monster movies. Your interests don’t even need to line up well with the medium – my very boring and mundane passion for hotels and convention spaces inspired my other prototype, Con Season.

Even other kinds of game can inform your design process. David Sirlin was a former professional Street Fighter player, and his tabletop work all relates to fighting games or related media like Puzzle Fighter – not just in its mechanical trappings, but also in the heavy emphasis placed on reading the opponent and asymmetric player powers. “Game” can also refer to things like bridge and other traditional games, sports (played, coached, or spectated), and even game shows and reality competition shows.


Knowing your game design biases has two broad benefits. The first is as I’ve mentioned previously – it gives you a sense of how you design, so you can refine it and/or try to break free of it for something you find more creative.

The second is that being “the X designer” can give you courage and strength, particularly if you’re a new designer. For the first year or so of my design work, I felt very unsure about what I was designing and if I was actually making something worthwhile. After defining myself as someone who makes shorter games with strong stories and emotional impact, I feel like I’m a legitimate member of the design community with something meaningful to say. If you struggle with the same issues, I greatly recommend this process.

Retheming Incan Gold and Caylus

I’m a very strong believer in the importance of a fitting, unique theme for your tabletop game. While some of this is personal preference, I also think that having a good theme will make your game much more memorable and exciting. However, some “bottom-up” games, which are designed with mechanics first, are difficult to dress in a theme.

In order to better train my theming abilities, and because I can only think about so many of my own games at a time, I’ve started performing a thought exercise where I update the themes of preëxisting board games to something either more suitable, more unique, or both. It’s fun to do and is a useful way of thinking about games, so I thought I’d share it on this blog. This post will go through two examples: The games Incan Gold and Caylus.

The Process

My “retheming” exercise consists of asking the following questions, then finding a theme that matches the answers.

What is the core mechanic of this game? Most games, particularly “bottom-up” games, have a single mechanic or gameplay loop at its core. Examples include Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar‘s rotating wheels and Azul‘s tile grabbing rules.

Are there unique submechanics? Other mechanics in a game might be less prominent but distinctive enough that it’s worth building a theme around them. Libertalia giving every player the same hand of cards at the start of each round is one example.

What are some of the game’s overarching mechanical themes? In many board games, you end up taking several actions that all fit a general theme. This might be “economics”, where you buy, sell, and trade resources to the bank, “politics”, where you negotiate with other players to accomplish your goals, or “planning,” where you set up actions to pay off later in the game.

How serious or silly is the game? Some games are longer, more cerebral, and trickier than other games, and they usually want a more serious theme to match. Other games are faster and emotionally charged and often want sillier themes. I write more about the subject in this post.

Once I’ve answered these questions, I try to come up with a theme that doesn’t see a lot of space on shelves and that connects with the game’s mechanics in a satisfying way.

Example 1: Incan Gold

Why Choose Incan Gold? Incan Gold‘s theme is mostly appropriate for the mechanics, but it’s also really colonialist, considering it’s a game about robbing an indigenous temple in South America that doesn’t even dress itself up with an “archaeological dig” disguise. This can be done better.

Core Mechanic: Incan Gold is a press-your-luck game. Each turn, a card is turned over; these cards can have gems, hazards, or artifacts. Gems are split evenly among all remaining players, with the gems that can’t be split evenly being left on the card. There are five different kinds of hazards, with three cards of each in the deck; if two hazards turn up, the round abruptly ends and everyone left in the temple loses all gems they had collected up til that point. After a card is turned over, each player secretly decides to stay for another card or run away. If they run, they collect all the leftover gems from prior gem cards, but if more than one player runs away in the same turn, the leftover gems are also split evenly.

Unique Submechanics:  Artifact cards provide an incentive to leave the temple early. The first person to leave the temple alone grabs the artifact, which is worth a lot of points. However, if multiple people leave at once, the artifact stays out.

Overarching Themes: Risk: Is it worth staying in the round so I can get larger shares of gems after the other players run away, or should I leave before the second identical hazard card turns up? Mind-Reading: Do I bail and grab the artifact, or will someone else be doing that first? How risk-averse are my friends?

Seriousness: On the silly side, as press-your-luck games mostly are.

Analysis: Splitting gems evenly with the remaining players, but having to run away by yourself with an artifact, implies that the players are allies of convenience who would turn on each other in a heartbeat. Because you need two identical hazard cards, the first one of each type could be considered a “warning” of some sort instead of an actual representation of danger.

Therefore, Incan Gold is now a game about a gang of thieves breaking into a bank vault and grabbing as much as they can before running out. This helps promote the game’s hectic, stressful nature. Gems can be gold bars or stay gems, since gem components are pretty and fun to play with. Hazard cards can be cameras, lasers, guards, dogs, etc, and the first one of each type can be flavored as the lookout noticing it but nobody actually setting off the security system yet. Artifacts are big paintings that, obviously, cannot be split between people. (They can also have funny pictures on them.)

Example 2: Caylus

Why choose CaylusCaylus has a really cool core mechanic that could be the basis of an interesting theme, but the publisher went with a “medieval Europe” theme, which is the tabletop design equivalent of bunting.

Core Mechanic: The heart of Caylus‘ board is a long road with spaces on either side to put buildings. Players build along these roads and then place their workers onto the buildings to activate their abilities.

Notably, not every building will get activated every round. After players have placed their workers, each player then has the opportunity to bribe the “provost” pawn to move forwards or backwards. Only buildings the provost has moved to or pass actually activate on that turn.

Unique Submechanics: Weak buildings can later be renovated into residential buildings that earn passive money income. All players have the opportunity to contribute to a large castle by spending resource cubes, with players who contribute more and earlier getting further rewarded. “Royal favors” can be cashed in to advance on a track that gives progressively more rewards.

Overarching Themes: Selfishness vs Selflessness: Do I contribute to the group project of the castle or do I act selfishly and build buildings for myself? Do I bribe the provost to move forward to activate more of my own buildings, knowing that this will help other players as well?  Resource Management: I only get so much money and resource cubes at a time. Do I pass early and hold onto them, or spend them all at once?

Seriousness: This is a medium-heavy game that’s much more cerebral than it is emotionally stimulating. The theme should be somewhat serious.

Analysis: The road and corresponding Provost token make Caylus a unique worker placement game. This simulates a boom-and-bust economy – sometimes every building on the road is going to get activated, and sometimes only a few will. So an ideal theme for this game would be something centered on a notable road that’s had up and down times.

Naturally, the perfect choice is America’s historic Route 66, once a bustling transit center and now a niche tourist journey.

The buildings along the road can be production-focused, like farms, and then can be converted into residential buildings or tourist spaces that give passive monetary income to the players. Players can also contribute the resources they gain to a major city (the castle), with the dungeon, walls, and towers replaced by the inner city, suburbs, and exurbs perhaps. This helps create a separation between the lonely highway and the bustling cities it connects.

The provost, instead of representing an authority figure, more represents the economic status of Route 66 at the time. Perhaps it could be a bus or similar vehicle carrying people along the road, or perhaps more of an abstract “fortune” figure.

The resource cubes are likely the most difficult thing to convert to this theme, as the more modern you get, the less sense it makes to have individual units of “food” or “cloth”. Food still makes kind of sense, and stone can be replaced with steel, but I’d have to do a lot more thinking to come up with alternatives I’m satisfied with.


Many of my games are designed with a theme first, so I don’t often do this exercise for my own games. However, even if you’re just doing this to pass the time and have no intention of applying it to your designs, having a deeper understanding of the connection between theme and mechanic is a valuable exercise for any designer. I hope you’re able to get as much or more out of this than I did.