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10 ways to come up with brilliant game ideas

This article originally appeared on the Board Game Design Course site about two and a half years ago, and I have to say, my advice here still stands up. However, there’s always room to improve, so I have added a few more notes, along with a couple of bonus ideas at the end of the article. Enjoy!

Everyone loves a good top 10 list, so I thought I would put together a list of my 10 favourite (actually, 12 now!) ways to come up with new board game ideas.

I’ve also mentioned some of these methods in my first book, The Board Game Designer’s Guide, but I’m also going to add some new ideas here.

1. Play lots of games!

This might seem like an obvious step, but there are several game designers I’ve met who have played very few modern board games. If your knowledge of games is limited to Monopoly and Checkers, you won’t have as good an understanding of what type of game will do well in today’s market.

But remember: play all types of games. New ones, old ones, good ones, bad ones. You’ll quickly learn many different mechanics and be able to recognize what works in a game and what doesn’t.

Perhaps there is a specific part of a game you really enjoy. Maybe you could expand this to make a game based completely around this idea.

Or try mashing 2 of your favourite games together and see what you come up with!

10 ways to come up with brilliant game ideas 1
10 ways to come up with brilliant game ideas 3

2. Look for gaps in the market

It can be helpful to look at what games currently exist and begin to question what is missing.

What audiences or groups are being left out of the board game hobby? What group sizes

or dynamics don’t have a great representation of games available?

Is there a demand for more solo games? Games for groups of 10 or more people? What about games for kids with learning disabilities?

Try to think outside the (game) box.

3. Look at other markets and industries

You can also get many ideas and learn lessons from other markets. You could look at different entertainment genres such as video games, music, and movies for example.

Video games often have save points, power meters, inventories, different difficulty levels, and end bosses. Many successful games spawn sequels.

DVD movies have chapters, extras, and other features.

Perhaps there are other industries we can learn from and apply some of their great aspects to board games.

4. See things from a different perspective

Games are also a great opportunity to allow players to take on roles they normally wouldn’t dream of. Allow players to take on the role of a villain or monster, instead of the typical knight in shining armour.

A great example of this is Burgle Bros. This is a cooperative game where all players take on the role of thieves working together to rob a bank. This takes players out of reality and into a fantasy world where they can act out in ways that they would never normally even consider in the real world. This can be really exciting and appealing to a lot of players.

5. Check out game design contests

Keep your eyes open for board game design contests. You’ll occasionally see publishers or board game websites announce contests for specific types of games. Maybe one of these will really speak to you and you’ll decide to design a game and compete in the contest. This may get your game a lot of attention, or possibly even get your game published!

I was inspired by a podcast with Jason Tagmire, who runs Button Shy Games, to create my first 18-card game. He only publishes games of this size and sometimes runs contests. While I didn’t end up submitting the game I created to this contest, I did submit it to another contest, and a publisher who judged the game took a lot of interest in the game and we’re currently working out a contract. So, it was well worth the small entrance fee.

If you’re looking for a list of current game design contests, check out https://cardboardedison.com/contests.

6. Look for inspiration wherever you are

Ideas can come from anywhere. You have to be ready to pluck them from the air wherever you find them.

While board games are typically played indoors, you may find a lot of interesting ideas waiting for you outside, in nature. Animals interacting with each other; the way a tree blows in the wind; or anything else you can imagine.

You can’t just sit by your computer or game table and expect great ideas to rush to you. You have to get out and walk around. Do something different. What do you notice? Talk to others, notice people’s conversations, and explore the world around you. Be open to any suggestions that come to mind.

Once you’ve got your idea, let me show you how to turn this into a game quickly:

Download my 10 Minute Board Game Design Blueprint

7. Brainstorm

There are plenty of brainstorming techniques that you can use to come up with lots of ideas.

Here are a few you can try:

  • Write down everything you can think of
  • Write down each letter of the alphabet and come up with an idea for each letter
  • Think of the worst possible board game ideas you can think of. Now flip this and see if any ideas opposite to these might work.

Just remember that when it comes to brainstorming, write down everything. There are no bad ideas. Even the craziest idea can lead to something interesting.

8. “That could be a game”

Sometimes when I’m talking to someone else, they will say something and I’ll comment “that could be a game”.

Just about any idea might make a reasonable game concept.

I jot down these ideas whenever I have them. While many of them will never see the light of day, I may just come back to the odd one that later develops into something special.

9. Use a board game idea randomizer

If all else fails and you really can’t come up with an idea, here is the fastest way I know.

Check out http://www.boardgamizer.com/, the board game design idea generator.

It will give you suggestions for mechanics, theme, victory condition, and constraints.

Don’t like the idea it generated? Just click the button to get a new set of ideas!

If you’re part of the Board Game Design Lab’s BGDL+ community, there is a similar randomizer available inside as well.

10 ways to come up with brilliant game ideas 2
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10. Stop thinking about board games!

What? I know this goes completely against all my other suggestions above.

But sometimes, just taking a break from what you’re doing and not thinking about it for a while will allow your brain to relax and not be under the pressure to perform.

This can lead to solutions for problems you’ve identified in your existing games as well as ideas for new games.

BONUS IDEAS:

I’ve thought about a couple more ideas and added them to the original list here…

11. Learn More Mechanics

Read Geoff Engelstein and Isaac Shalev’s excellent book, Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms. It’s a very comprehensive guide to game mechanics, breaking them down into types and subtypes, and includes examples of games in which they are used.

I read this book from cover to cover and had several great game ideas come from this. I know that even more will evolve the next time I leaf through it.

12. What If?

Think “what if?” What if Earth had no gravity. What if our legs were where our arms are and vice-versa? What if we were the pets and animals ruled the world?

Think of your own “what ifs.” What if you turned one of these scenarios into a game? What would that look like?

This is another great way to really think outside the box.

When and where do you come up with your best board game ideas? What are your favourite techniques to come up with ideas?

What’s Next?

Now that you have an awesome game idea, it’s time to make it a reality. The best and fastest way I’ve found to do this is to develop the vision for your game so that you always have something to look back on to keep you on track, as it’s really easy to veer off course with all the feedback and suggestions you receive. 

So, if you want to increase your chances of seeing your game through to completion, check out my free 10 Minute Board Game Design Blueprint.

It will get you started fast and keep you on track. By downloading the blueprint, you’ll also receive my free weekly articles, filled with tricks and tips to make your games more awesome.

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    Thanks for some great ideas! For me, I like to think about the things my closest friends and I are into. I try to think, ‘hmmm, what would they really enjoy playing?’

    That’s another great approach! Thanks for sharing this, Joseph.

    It’s funny. I was watching Wonderpark with my son the other day, not even thinking about games. But wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the movie I had 3 new game ideas. They’re not at all specific to the movie, just things I saw that made me think “that could be a game”.

    I like this list because it had a few things that I hadn’t thought of. I would add to number 1 though. Listening to podcasts, and watching game videos can help as well. In my current spot I don’t always get to play new games. However, watching game reviews, or listening to podcast lets me here about what others thought of the game, if there was a mechanic they really liked, or if there was something that I could improve on in my own design.

    I’m glad you found this helpful, Wayne.

    Thanks for sharing your suggestions as well. Podcasts and game review videos are more great ways to learn about other games and get inspired. I’ve definitely benefited from these myself.

    […] I hadn’t specifically written one in-depth article on how to make a board game. I’ve gone into how to come up with game ideas, creating prototypes, playtesting (including blind playtesting), and a whole lot more, but I […]