The Board Game Design Course

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Game Design

Games I’m playing right now (and what makes them so good)

I’ve been playing a lot of board games lately. That might not be surprising, considering I’m a board game designer myself, however, I have heard others say that when you start designing games as a profession, you actually end up spending less time playing other published board games than you did before. Sure, you’ll play lots of prototypes, your own and others, but you’ll often find less time to play the games on your shelf. I have to say this can certainly become true if you allow this to happen.

I got into designing board games because I loved playing them so much and wanted to create my own. So, I’ve been making the time to play more games, both for pure enjoyment and for inspiration.

Most of the games I’ve been playing have some differences from each other but also some similarities. I tend to enjoy shorter games with some puzzle-y element to them but I also enjoy variety.

So, let’s talk about some of the games I’ve been playing and what makes them great.


First off is Calico. It’s a puzzle-y tile placement game for one to four players, where you create a quilt using hexagonal tiles of different colors and patterns. The goal is to complete specific patterns and color combinations to earn the most points.

It’s very easy to learn but also allows you to try a bunch of different strategies, which I really appreciate.

What I love about Calico is trying to figure out how to best complete as many of the possible goals as I can. Of course, it’s not possible to complete all of them, so you must make some sacrifices.

Do you try to complete both the color and pattern combinations on the board, attract more cats by creating specific pattern groupings, or go for the color bonus by getting groupings of three for each of the six different colors? You’ll have to aim for some combination of these things, but how you do so will be dependent on what tiles are available and when.

Calico is great as a multiplayer game but also as a solo experience. The solo game gives you 10 different scenarios where you have to get different combinations of cats, colors, and patterns that get increasingly more difficult. It’s a great challenge and it keeps you thinking!

Under Falling Skies

Next up is the purely solo game Under Falling Skies. This game reminds me of the old Atari classic Space Invaders, as well as the movie Independence Day.

It’s a dice placement game where you roll dice and place them on your board to complete research, open up new abilities, build up energy to use your abilities, and shoot down alien invaders.

But the coolest thing about this game from a game design perspective is the multiple effects that each die will have when you place it. Wherever you place a die, you will gain that ability with the value of what is on the die but you will also advance an alien spaceship that many spaces in that same column.

Each die must be placed in a different column, so you’re constantly under threat from the alien invaders advancing down 5 paths. However, unlike many games where a low die roll is bad, it can actually be good in this game, as it can prevent an alien invader from approaching your city and possibly doing damage.

There’s a lot of planning you’ll have to do, and the mothership advances every round, putting increased pressure on you. If it gets too close to your city or you take too much damage before you can get to the top of the research track, it’s game over.

Under Falling Skies also comes with a number of scenarios you can play in addition to the base game, along with different cities and difficulty levels. It can be played in only 20 minutes or so, which often leads to multiple games in a row.

7 Wonders Architects

I have to admit, I have played both 7 Wonders and 7 Wonders Duel, but wasn’t the biggest fan. They were both OK in my opinion, but just didn’t stand out for me. So, when a friend tried to introduce me to 7 Wonders Architects, I was a bit hesitant. He assured me that it was different from the other two games and much more straightforward, so I gave it a chance. And I’m glad I did.

The rules for 7 Wonders Architects are about as simple as they can get. On your turn, you draw one card from either the face-up pile on your left, the face-up pile on your right, or from the facedown deck in the center of the table. That’s it.

However, these cards will help to determine your strategy and will hopefully bring you closer to victory. There are grey cards with building materials which will allow you to construct your wonders (along with a yellow wild card), red military cards that lead to war, blue point cards, and green science cards which will give you more abilities and points. You’re mostly matching cards from the same set with same or different symbols to make progress.

The structure you choose to build also gives you specific powers that can help guide your strategy. One benefits more from science, one is military-based, etc.

It’s quick, easy to teach, and allows you to take different strategies every game.

Azul: Queen’s Garden

I had played all three previous games in the Azul series and owned both the original and the third game, Summer Pavilion, so I was excited to try the latest release, Azul: Queen’s Garden.

Reviews and playthrough videos showed that this game was definitely a step up in complexity from the previous three. I definitely found this to be the case. There’s a whole lot more to think about in this latest edition. There is a similar element of spending tiles to place one of a particular value, reminiscent of Summer Pavilion, however, there are additional placement rules and new addition pieces on top of tile drafting.

I’ve only played Azul: Queen’s Garden once so far and it definitely was a “learning game.” That is to say that we were just getting the feel for the game, not necessarily putting together optimal strategies yet.

It’s definitely a step up in complexity from the others in the series but I’m looking forward to trying this game again in the near future and diving deeper into this 4th game of the series.

Lost Cities

The last game I’m going to mention here is the modern classic by Reiner Knizia called Lost Cities.

This is a two-player game that I first played a few years back at Origins Game Fair. I enjoyed it at the time but sort of forgot about it until I recently discovered it was available for play on the wonderful digital platform Board Game Arena (BGA). I started playing it a bunch of times there and decided it would be a great one to add to our collection. It’s not the first game I’ve bought after playing it there (thanks, BGA!).

Lost Cities has a simple premise: you are competing with another adventurer by going on expeditions. You have a handful of cards in up to five different colors in denominations of 2 through 10, along with multiplier cards. You play one card and then you draw one card on your turn. Dead simple. Although it’s not really that simple, because you have to decide if you are adding a card to your expedition or discarding you to the center and then whether to take a discarded card or a facedown card from the deck.

Cards in your expedition must be placed in sequence from lowest to highest. So, if you draw a card that is lower than the ones you’ve already played in that expedition (that color), it becomes useless to you… but may be valuable to your opponent! So, you end up holding onto cards that your opponent may want, which clogs up your hand, but prevents your opponent from scoring more points.

There are also multiplier cards that double, triple, or even quadruple your score.

So, why not just go on all expeditions and try to score the most points that way? Well, here comes the genius of the game: each expedition that you begin starts with a score of minus 20. So, you must be able to accumulate more than 20 points if you want to score positive points on that expedition.

So, you may only want to go on 3 or 4 of the available expeditions.

If you commit too early, you may end up with negative points on an expedition. If you have a multiplier card placed first, this will only make things worse.

This really makes you think before you play any of your cards!

What games have you been playing lately and what makes them so good?

Please leave a comment and let me know.



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    I can undertsand why the original 7 wonders just didn’t stand out for you, or for me, so surprised a sequel woudl be any better. I feel its a shame so many existing games are repackaged with nothing new, (clue: million re-themes of Monopoly) while so many great games never seem the limelight, but its true some sequels can be better than the original.

    Thanks for your comment, Lawrence! Architects feels very different from the original. Turns are quick and it’s a much lighter game. It just happened to fit better with me and others that I game with.

    I have been playing 7 wonders in BGA. I’m not surprised you didn’t like 7w if you played a small number of games, but it is a classic for a reason and until you have a dozen games under your belt it’s hard to see all the tactical options available to you. Playing on BGA gives an additional layer of strategy and that you can see all the cards available at that player count so you have a rough idea of how many are going around and if people start playing them you can count how many are left. I highly recommend playing on board game arena to play a bunch of games really quickly because you can play in about 7 minutes. Seven Wonders architects is unplayable for me because it’s far too simple, has a play range that’s not nearly as good as seven Wonders, and got old before I played a dozen games so the opposite of 7 wonders.

    On the other hand I have been enjoying Cascadia which is a bit less brutal than calico but still scratches the same itch.

    Thanks for your comment, Zafri! There’s certainly nothing wrong with 7 Wonders and it has definitely done well and spawned multiple other games. It just didn’t do it for me like some games do. For some games, right after the first play, I’ll say, “That was so much fun! I’d definitely buy that.” Others may take a few more plays, but I find I have a pretty good feel for whether a game is right for me after one or two plays. I can also see that some 7 Wonders fans will find Architects too light and not overly similar, and that’s ok. There are plenty of games for everyone out there!