Thursday, April 20, 2006


Game Design Thoughts

On Saturday night I had some friends over for some board games. Together we managed to track Dracula across Europe and (after a couple of close calls), finally managed to corner and destroy him. After that, we managed to successfully defend Camelot from the forces of darkness and destruction. All in all, an excellent evening.

On Tuesday, one of the podcasts I normally listen to (Have Games, Will Travel) talked a bit about the idea of board games being designed like software, and it's something I've been thinking about a bit ever since.

It's an approach that really seems to make sense. A board game is really just a simple program - it's got some set rules (you can only move forward, you move a number of squares equal to a dice roll, etc), a limited number of pieces and definite conditions for winning. In fact, converting a board game to a computer program is a fairly simple task. In fact, there are many parts of board games (reshuffleing decks, rolling dice, etc) that if automated, would make the game run much smoother.

So why are most computer games different from board games? Well, the mechanics in a board game need to be reasonably simple and quick for a person to do, otherwise you'd spend more time looking up on accounting tables and in tax-packs than you would passing go. But a computer can quite happily calculate how often everyone's landed on a certain square, factor in the amount of cash in the game, reasonably guess where each player will be in a couple of turns, adjust for compound interest and still be finished before animated dice stop rolling. Take Tetris - it's basically just a board game that couldn't exist in the real world because it's mechanics would be too hard for people to deal with. So why stop there? Instead of moving your piece around the board one square at a time, you can have different speeds, power ups, terrain, even real physics. And suddenly it's looking a lot more like Mario Cart than Monopoly.

But board games are still fun - even when played on a computer (leaving aside when they're played against a computer, which generally tends to suck). Why? I think that's because people don't actually care about the level of abstraction - it's just as much fun to throw down a couple of cards and roll a die to see if my knight beat the siege engine as it would be to see through his eyes as he maneuvers around the war machine, attacking vulnerable parts while defending himself - provided it fits with the rest of the game.

People often complain that there's nothing new in computer games - they're all just variations on each other. Sure, this one might look pretty, and this one might have this smart feature. But really, every first person shooter is pretty much the same. What occurred to me after all of the above is that while maybe you need to approach board game design like software design, maybe they also need to start approaching computer game design like board game design.

Edit: Oh, and I'd love to get feedback about this. If you've got some thoughts, post a comment!

Honestly, I think many board games are based on previous board game concepts. I'm sure we've all played Monopoly and probably at least a handful of games where you moved your game piece around the board in a similar style. It's good and bad that we have games that are similar to others that we know. It's nice because we can understand a method that's being used. This makes it easier to bring in new players. Of course, the downside is that we get so many bad copycat ideas that get put on the market. (It's just like ____, but it's better because ___.)

Anyway, could you clarify a little more of the idea of designing a board game like a video game? Did they mention any key points to this method?
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