Playing as an exploration of roles.

What if I say there’s a way to feel like a pirate storming the seven seas, or like a race car driver making split second decisions, or even like a galactic emperor plotting against a rival, and have a lot of fun while doing it. That’s what games can do, and it’s really interesting to understand how simple stuff like cardboard and dice — with the help of - can provide such elaborate representations of outlandish -or even quite common- experiences.

I’ve been a gamer most of my life, I still enjoy games even though the realities of adult life don’t leave much time for them. And as such designing a game was something I’ve always wanted to do. Some time ago I decided to start dabbling in Board Game Design. Not surprisingly, what I found was that the design process is very, very similar to what I already do as an Industrial Designer.

Board Game Design in general terms rests on a triad of Mechanics — Theme — Components. The first being the rules and interactions between the game and the players and the game with itself; theme deals with aesthetic values and narrative, how the game is framed, what it is about and how it is presented to the player; components on itself are just the physical elements that compose the game, cards, dice and rulebooks for example. Formally trained designers might notice the direct correlation with the good ol’ triad of Industrial Design: Function (mechanics) — Form (Theme) — Technology (Components). What’s interesting of this correlation is that it’s existence also means we can also apply other design philosphies and approach game design from other angles like the emotional side of design, human centered processes and understanding a product as a holistic .

And if we understand board games as a system that allows for the exploration of roles, we can start to see ways to integrate all these elements into crafting an experience that replicates a portion what that role feels like, what are the challenges and satisfactions involved, which kind of decisions have to be made and how those decisions impact the person and influence -and are being influenced in return- by the context in which the role develops. I’ve seen fantastic board game ideas that approach such varied subjects like being a scientist in the internal political battle to push your research forward to being a game show host having to lure the participants into choosing the wrong prize door. All of these use simple elements and systems to craft an idea of what it would be like to become someone we’re not. And game designers even make them fun in the process!

Shut up and sit down playing Doctor Panic.

Is not a great leap of logic then to see that Board Games are great empathic tools. Obviously for the players experiencing the game and thus the roles, but even more for the designers that have really to understand and assimilate what they’re trying to replicate.

This empathy is not achieved by a literal translation of the elements, but by dissecting what are the key components of the experience and distilling them into game mechanics that emulate the feeling even if they are abstractions. Let’s take for example the game Formula D that uses different sided dice (from a 3 sided dice up to a 30 sided one) to represent the change of gears in a race car, providing the choices of gearing up or down with all the benefits and complications this decision has in a race and communicating this feeling of split second choices even if the game is turn based.

This seems like a fantastic example of experience design as you, as a designer are trying to convey the experience of becoming someone else by combining different elements like cards, dice, and tokens and framing them with rules. And while this might imply that a Game Designer is only creating rules and components, what the process is really about is designing interactions between players, understanding these elements as just part of a system, which is the actual product being designed. And since we’re not talking about a static product, is understandable that board game design is heavily reliant on an iterative process as there are many unpredictable variables that can influence how a game develops during a play session. It’s very hard to get the design right without exhaustive testing, much like the kinds of products and systems being designed today with Human Centred Design methods that are also heavily reliant on an iterative process.

The nice thing about board games is that they’re self-contained and heavily abstracted, so it’s very easy to make a simple prototype and test it thoroughly, make some changes on the fly and try again.

Brenda Romero’s Train is a brilliant board game exploring complicity within systems.

Another interesting thing about board game design is that is ripe for social commentary. Taking advantage of the empathy inherent to board games a good designer can put the player in a position or moral uncertainty, make them experience different sides of an argument, challenge political and cultural positions and even spike interest in cultural heritage. In fact Monopoly was based on the Landlord’s game, a game that looked to educate people on the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies, and it’s not the only example in the medium.

While I approached it as a hobby, I found that designing Board Games is a very interesting practice that requires a great understanding of abstraction and how to translate complex interactions into simple rules using only the most basic elements. At a first glance it would seem that they’re just a simple trifle but in reality, they can be extremely smart and a great tool to engage and challenge people.

Recommended reading:

Venture Beat: Brenda Romero’s Train board game will make you ponder.

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