The Board Game Design Course

Where great games begin

Game Design

Applying restrictions in your game the right way

Unless you’re creating an open sandbox-style game like Minecraft, you’ll want to consider what types of restrictions players must play within during your game. Still, even with a game like Minecraft, players are still restricted by the height, width, and depth of the world and other rules that still apply.

There are times when you’ll want to constrict players and other times when you’ll want to open up more options for them. A lot depends on the game, the stage of development, and what you’re trying to achieve.

In today’s article, we’ll look at when it’s a good idea to add more restrictions and when it’s a better idea to relax those restrictions.

Adding restrictions

There are so many games that I can think of that impose restrictions on players that make the game more challenging, but at the same time, are completely necessary and definitely make the game better.

For example, in Azul, when you take all the tiles of one colour and need to place them on your board, they must all be placed in the same row. You’re also unable to place tiles in a row where you’ve already completed a row of that colour previously.

This can definitely make for some interesting decisions. Also, without such a restriction, players could easily complete one row and start another on the same turn, which might make decisions rather obvious. Instead, you have to decide whether to complete that row you’ve already started, while taking a penalty, or start an entirely new row, running the risk that you may not complete this either. This definitely makes for a more compelling game.

Allowing players complete free range of movement, placement, and scoring can make it far too easy for players to do whatever they want without having to consider the consequences or other options. It might be fun the first time you play, but you may not return for a second game.

Another good example is Century Spice Road. In this engine-building game, once you play a card, it is laid face-down. In order to pick up any cards you’ve already played, you must take the rest action. You are essentially passing on the opportunity to gain more cards, cubes or score an achievement. If you were able to play the same cards over and over again, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun or interesting.

In my co-designed game 14 Frantic Minutes, I could tell from a very early stage that I needed to add a restriction to avoid the alpha player problem that is so prevalent in many co-op games. 14 Frantic Minutes is a real-time cooperative puzzle-solving game in which players have polyomino pieces they use to connect circuits. The problem that arose very early in playtesting was that one player could take control or at least leave a quieter player off to the side. We very much wanted all players to be involved in the game, so we made a change so that each player gets exactly five pieces and only they are allowed to touch them. This ensures that all players contribute and along with the real-time component of the game didn’t allow for one player to take over and ruin the fun.

When you want to relax restrictions

At the same time, sometimes you can impose too many constraints in your game. If players complain that they’re not able to do everything they’d like to and are feeling too restricted, it might be a good time to take a look at the restrictions you’ve imposed and see if there are ways to relax them a bit. As long as the changes improve your game, you’re heading in the right direction.

I ran into this situation on two different games recently.

I’ve been working on a game called Reef Mates. This is a game in which players take turns swapping the shark and another creature on the board and then capturing all creatures surrounding the shark that are unprotected. The creatures are laid out randomly at the start of the game, which sometimes results in clumps of creatures of one colour on the board. Since one of the protection conditions is colour, sometimes it would be difficult to break up these groups. Players were feeling restricted and suggested that rather than creatures of the same colour protecting each other orthogonally and diagonally they should only provide orthogonal protection. I adapted this suggestion and this one tiny rule change improved the game immensely and left players with more interesting options on every turn.

I’m also co-designing a game called Squirrel Quarrel. It’s a pick-up and deliver game in which you play as a team of squirrels collecting food for the winter. Squirrels take food back to different nests, each with its own reward, but you must keep one of your squirrels on the nest in order to avoid another team’s squirrel from taking it over.

The problem was, once you’re late in the game, all the squirrels are busy protecting nests and your movement becomes way too restricted. Players end up moving away from the nest to gather something close and then immediately returning on the same turn. They really wanted to free up the squirrels so they had more choice. So, for my next playtest any filled nests were scored and placed in front of the player, freeing up that squirrel to help its teammates. I felt that this really opened up gameplay and strategies a lot, making this a much better player experience.

Final thoughts

If you’re finding that players have a little too much freedom in your game to do whatever they want and/or choices are too obvious, try implementing some restrictions. Something as simple as a hand limit, a placement rule, or a limit on resources available could take your game from functioning to fantastic.

If you find that players are feeling too constrained and can’t do nearly as much as they would like to do and that this is leaving them feeling frustrated rather than having fun, look at ways to open things up a bit. Allow a bit more freedom of movement or a larger hand size and see if this improves the player experience.

What restriction did you add or remove from your game that made it a whole lot better?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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