The Board Game Design Course

Where great games begin

Game Design

How to surprise your players (and why you want to do this)

When you’re designing a game, you’ll want to come up with something new and innovative. Something players haven’t seen done before. If you can find a way to surprise your players, you’ll increase the interest, curiosity, and replay value of your game.

If you can find a way to make your players say, “Wow, that’s cool!” then you know you’ve hit on something special.

There are many ways to implement the element of surprise in your game, so in today’s article will delve into a number of these reasons along with why it’s a good idea to find ways to surprise your players.

Why you want to surprise your players

There are definitely some great benefits to creating familiarity in your game. Most players are familiar with tiling, set collection, worker placement, deck building, and various other mechanics in board games. Recognizing something that you already know makes it much easier to get into the game and understand it faster. Understanding a game faster means there’s more chance your game will get played.

But at the same time, your game can’t just be a reskin of another popular game. Otherwise, why wouldn’t players just play that other game that they’re already familiar with and probably already own?

That’s where innovation comes in. Blending something familiar with another aspect that is innovative and new is a great approach to designing a game and increasing its chance of success.

You want players to react to your game with joy, enthusiasm, and if possible, amazement.

If players feel there will always be something new and interesting they will discover in your game or another strategy they can try, this will keep players coming back for more, showing this game to their friends, and having more people discover your game. It will add to the replay value of your game so that not only more people will buy your game, but they will also play it a whole lot more.

I call that a win-win.

Give players something to look forward to

There are plenty of ways to make players want to come back to your game again and again.

One of those ways is to create multiple paths to victory. If you allow (and hopefully also encourage) players to take various strategies, each having some chance of success, it will allow players to more fully explore your game and try different things every time they play.

If you have a large deck of cards and only a small number of them will be revealed each game, it allows for a feeling of surprise when a new card is drawn and/or played, especially if it is something that players haven’t seen done before. Every card in the deck doesn’t need to be like this, but the role of discovery in finding these few really cool cards can make for some magic moments in your game. If there are still plenty of cards that haven’t been seen yet, this gives players more curiosity, as they want to see what’s coming next.

If your game is more of a campaign-style or legacy game, there are plenty of ways to introduce new parts of the story, new components, new mechanics, and variations in gameplay as players move from one stage of the game to the next. You don’t want to overwhelm players by giving them too many new things to learn, so introducing one cool new thing every time they advance to a certain level can be a fun experience for players.

Everybody loves a good combo

Maybe you’ve created cards or powers in your game that synergize really well. Players won’t know this going into the game, but as they play it more and draw different combinations every time they play, they may discover some cool combos they can pull off.

Everybody loves a good combo. Whether it’s a fighting game, engine building game, or other styles of game, you feel really smart when you put two and two together and discover that combining different cards or effects can make you that much more powerful. Finding ways to make players feel clever is always a positive step for your game.

Surprise your players in other ways

Have you ever opened up a board game box and been delightfully surprised by the quality of the components, a nice concise rule book, or a beautiful layout with just the right insert?

You can and absolutely should try to surprise your players with something amazing related to the gameplay but you can also include interesting and high-quality components there will also surprise and delight players.

If you self-published your game through crowdfunding, you may even want to include a surprise extra component or promo card or even some sort of personalized message to your backer.

Final thoughts

Think about what would surprise and delight you when you open your game. Then aim to

include something of this nature in your game.

Remember back to the days of opening a new game you were really excited about and discovering something that made it an even better experience. This may have been related to the components, something extra, or the gameplay itself. Use these ideas and lessons and incorporate something similar into your game.

What game surprised and delighted you?

Please click the button below and leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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    It’s interesting because even though my shelf of opportunity keeps growing I still always hope that a game will have a huge amount of replayability. It doesn’t make a lot of sense given the fact that I seem to just continue buying new games no matter what and it’s rare to replay any of my newer games more than 10 times. I think it stems from what happened at the start of my collecting or I just played the games I own over and over and over. Seven Wonders I probably have 700 plays at least. Carcassonne I have a bunch contain I have a bunch a stone age I have a bunch blockus I have a bunch etc etc.

    Thanks for your comment, Zafri. The cult of the new is very real. There’s always a bright, shiny new game coming out, but we do need to appreciate what we already have, including what got us into the hobby in the first place.

    Great article, Joe. Super suggestions about bringing surprise to our games…I’m printing out your article and putting it beside my game design table for inspiration.