The Board Game Design Course

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Game Design

How to create an innovative board game (and why this is so important to gamers and publishers)

It’s very easy to create a game that feels like some other game. But if you’re only making one little change or just re-theming it, why would anyone choose to play (or buy) your game rather than that other super popular one they already know and probably already own?

At the same time, if you create something so off-the-wall that people can’t really understand it or it just feels way too different, you can alienate potential fans as well.

Rather, you need to look at innovation.

Meriam-Webster defines innovation as 1. a new idea, device, or method; 2. the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.

Innovation is different from invention, which by definition is creating something entirely new. Innovation is really about using new ideas to change an existing thing – in this case, a board game.

Why innovation is the way to go

People like familiarity. But they also like to see things that are new and different. This is where innovation comes in.

Replication will have people asking why they should buy this rather than an existing game, whereas a wacky new invention may be too different or strange for many people to fully get behind.

If you can create a game that has elements that are familiar and add in some new and innovative twists, you’ll greatly increase the chances that players and publishers alike will really take to this.

Century Spice Road is an engine-building game that I have heard referred to as the “Splendor killer”, as it incorporates some similar mechanics to the elegant gem collecting game but adds some interesting twists. Both games are fantastic in my mind but Century Spice Road may have never come to be if it weren’t for Splendor being introduced first, much like Dominion and any other deck-builder that has followed.

It’s important to understand and appreciate that innovation takes place in stages. A new mechanic or different way of playing may be introduced, then other games will come along, use that mechanic or system, and do something new and innovative with it. But if that drastically different game came first, it very likely would have flopped because it was too far ahead of its time.

The truth is that coming up with an all-new mechanic is hard. Very few completely new mechanics are introduced to the gaming world over time, as so many have already been done before.

It’s like music in some ways. There are lots of different chords you can play, but just try to come up with a new one that no one has heard before.

Yet, music has been around forever and probably always will be. Musicians will just play those chords in different patterns and experiment to make their songs and their sound different, sometimes combining different genres, or adding new elements, sounds, and samples.

Rather than trying to create a completely new mechanic, you’re in a better position to combine mechanics in a new way or introduce unused or underused themes to make your game stand out.

How to create an innovative board game

There are many ways you can incorporate innovation into your game. I’ll walk through some methods and include examples as well.

If you can take something familiar, say deck building or card drafting, and add some kind of innovative twist to it, you could have people saying, “Wow, that’s really cool!”

Seven Wonders and Sushi Go both use a pick-and-pass drafting mechanic that feels quite different from many other games. This allows people the choice of picking something they want or denying other players what they are collecting (commonly referred to as “hate drafting”). But it also adds an element of surprise, as you don’t know what will be passed to you or which cards in your hand that you’ve just passed will come back around to you.

Or you could find a way to combine existing mechanics from different games in a way that’s never been done before.

Clank!, for example, builds on the deck-building mechanism by adding a board that allows you to make point-to-point movements and collect treasures from different paths. While deck-building is often the main mechanic in a game (Dominion, Star Realms), it is not completely at the forefront in Clank!, rather just one part of the game.

Isle of Cats, which is one of my favourites, incorporates a pick-and-pass style draft with an innovative twist: You pick multiple cards most of the rounds rather than just one but you have to pay for whichever of the 7 cards in your hand at the end of the round you’d like to keep. If you don’t want them or can’t afford them, you have to discard these. But Isle of Cats also combines this with drafting of the polyomino cats you must rescue, along with a spatial puzzle for placing your cats on your boat. Your placements dictate which rewards and points you will score, both immediately and at the end of the game.

I talk more about Isle of Cats as a great example of polyomino game design in this article as well.

You could even look at an innovative theme that hasn’t been done before or at least not in the way that your game has incorporated this theme.

An obvious example that comes to mind is Wingspan. There have been many other engine-building games before this one, but the theme of birds, along with the beautiful artwork and approachable gameplay has led to this becoming an incredibly successful game.

Another example I want to share is Exploding Kittens. Whether this game is your cup of tea or not, you can’t argue with its success. It was one of the highest funding Kickstarter games ever and continues to sell like bonkers. What they did was essentially take the game of Russian Roulette and turned it into a (much safer to play) card game. Combining this with the art of the famous internet comic creator The Oatmeal, it became a hit.

The publisher, also known by the name Exploding Kittens, has gone on to create many other innovative games, such as Throw Throw Burrito, which basically turns a card game into dodgeball.

Wrapping it up

There are so many ways you can use innovation to create an amazing game. I hope this article has helped you to realize the benefit of making a game that is a bit different through innovation and has provided you with some good examples of how you can incorporate innovation into your own games.

What makes the game you’re currently working on really innovative?

Please leave a comment and let me know!

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    Innovation (in boardgames) is sometimes hard to spot, although it might be there. Unfortunately for designers publishers (sometimes) do not see this “new hook” you have created.
    But I also agree that it needs to stand out and shows its “uniqueness”, although publishers don’t like it when you use that word right in the beginning of your pitch….

    What you are sharing here Joe, is indeed what I try to do with two of my latest game ideas.
    And without revealing any details -sorry- I have huge confidence in at least one of them being innovative!
    When the prototype has made a little bit more progress I could probably shine a little light on it 😉

    Hey Jan! Yes, it can sometimes be difficult to convey what is innovative about your game. I find that getting it down to a 30-second elevator pitch, doing a comparison to another game or mechanic and contrasting this to how my game plays usually works and sets off a lightbulb.

    I can’t wait to hear more about your game in the future!

    What would I do if someone copied my ideas when I still had a permit or something?

    Hi Naeem! Do you mean when you have a trademark or patent? If so, I wouldn’t worry about that. There’s such little chance that someone would steal your idea that it’s not worth the cost, time, or effort to pursue a trademark (and games can’t be patented). Having records for your game would be the best thing you can do. If you can show that someone saw your game and then took your idea (which again is highly unlikely) and you have proof of existence first, you’d be well covered.