Engineers on the Mechanics of Designing Board Games
Apr 25, 2019
by Michael Abrams
If the words board game bring to your mind the tried and true games of yesteryear—Monopoly, Clue, Risk—you may be unaware that we are now living through a veritable board game renaissance. Thanks in part to Kickstarter, which has allowed board game designers to produce games without the backing of a Milton Bradley-sized corporation, and to BoardGameGeek, a thriving online community that rates games in addition to hosting several annual conventions and awards ceremonies, and perhaps to a somewhat nostalgic yearning to get off the phone and engage with other physically present people, there are thousands of new, beautifully designed games on the market.
But however pretty the box and board, it is ultimately the mechanics of a game that make it a thing worth playing. So it’s no surprise that a large percentage of board game designers are or have been engineers. Are they drawn to the puzzle-like nature of constructing gaming challenges for the player? Do they use the same part of the mind that solves engineering problems to solve the problems of developing an engaging game? Nine board game engineers weigh in on these questions.
1. Scott Almes: Tiny Epic series, Best Treehouse Ever, Martian Dice
“My mechanical engineering background has had no small part in my success as a game designer,” Scott Almes said. He’s a product development engineer by day and a board game designer by night, as his blog puts it. For Almes, designing a game is just like designing any other product. Both have phases of research and market, as well as prototyping and development.
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Experience with this process is what can give an engineer an edge in the game business. “Many designers come in thinking of their games as an art piece that can't be touched, and will be resistant to further iterations, outside input, or even customer feedback,” Almes said. “As a mechanical designer, I was already used to the process.”
But that doesn’t mean the engineering process and board game development are the same. “When you are designing a mechanical product, your goals can be very detailed and technical,” Almes said. “You might need a pump that cannot weigh more than X pounds, must move at least Y gallons of water a minute, and should cost less than Z. For games, you might have some hard data points—such as price, game length, or player count—but most of your goals are going to be softer. You want players to get a certain feeling, or you want to set the game in a certain fictional world, or you want the players to laugh while playing. These soft goals can not only be hard to define, but hard to test.”
2. Adam Wyse: Masque of the Red Death, Poetry Slam, Head of Mousehold
Adam Wyse was once a software engineer who worked for a mechanical and civil engineering firm and, later, an energy billing company. Then he found games.
“Playing my first modern board games and seeing the kinds of mechanics and experiences that games were now providing blew my mind,” he said. “Owing partly to my engineering background, I wanted to start getting into the innards of the games . . . and wondered if I could make one myself.”
Soon that’s all he was doing. In addition to creating games he now works full time in logistics and development for Roxley Games in Calgary.
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For Wyse, the embryonic stages of a game have little to do with anything engineering. “When I first start a game design it can at times feel like an artist sitting down in front of a blank canvas,” he said. “It is more about exploration and creativity than I found with engineering.”
But once a game has taken form and needs revision and refinement, the engineer in him kicks in.
“Being able to separate out use cases or game states and evaluate the probability of these things occurring, or being able to figure out how many of a certain card or component are required, can often be very mathy,” Wyse said. “Some designers will go by feel, try what seems right, test it, and see how it works. The problem is there is just not enough testing that can possibly be done.I feel that a math background is so important to making good games.”
That’s not to say that after the initial stages a board is just another engineered product. With most engineered items, the mechanics are the means to an end. “When it comes to game design, the mechanics are the game,” he said. And the ends to which a game is the means is a nebulous, subjective concept called fun. “It was definitely a skill I’ve had to learn (and continue to try to learn): to ‘find the fun.’”
3. Phil Eklund: Neanderthal, Bios series, Pax series
“Of what objective merit is a board game?” asks Phil Eklund. “The engineering problems of building bridges, vehicles, power networks, etc. have obvious consequences to help man command the resources of nature and the problems of social living. But of what survival value or human advancement does a board game represent?”
The question is an important one for Eklund, who, after working for 32 years as an aerospace engineer for Hughes Aircraft segued into fulltime gaming with his company Sierra Madre Games. He’s produced many games including a trilogy of Bios games which encompass “the entire history of Earth as a habitable planet.”
For Eklund, games—like all art—mirror the world. Crucial to that mirroring are the rules, as important to games as they are to engineering. “Games and engineering are similar because they both require a grasp of rules,” Eklund said. “Perhaps even more than in engineering, the users of your product will be poring over the nuances and interpretations of every word, seeking a literal interpretation that will give them a competitive advantage.”
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This “need to organize and record” our world is Eklund’s answer to his existential question. “Man, who is a uniquely conceptual being, finds use for art, which I define as the recreation of reality according to the artist’s value judgements,” he said. “Obviously, board games fall under such a definition. My board games are simulations of reality according to value judgements, which I take the effort to identify in footnotes in each game.”
4. Tunca Zeki Berkkurt: İttihat, İhtilâl
Tunca Zeki Berkkurt is currently working on his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Istanbul Technical University. He designs games in his spare time. İhtilâl, or Revolution, and İttihat, or the Union, are strategy games that recreate events in Turkish history. “But my methodology is based on engineering design rather than historical research,” he said.
After breaking down a piece of history into manageable components, he develops a mathematical model that captures the relationships that produced the historical occurrences. “I always define a ‘fundamental rule’ that players’ winning strategies will focus on,” Berkkurt said.
This conceptual process takes about a week. “But fine tuning and end design takes almost a year.” Tweaking rules, actions, come-back mechanisms and winning conditions—all of which need to be tested in play—contribute to the long gestation. Berkkurt uses analytical and numerical testing to supplement what he learns from humans at the game table.
Of course, after the game has been properly calibrated, it becomes a product like any other. “So when I Kickstart a board game, I find retailers and printing presses, I choose the materials that the game’s components will be made of, and I even check the tools and workers,” he said. “All this work is the manufacturing engineering process and should be taken carefully.”
5. Joan Wendland: X-Machina, Counting Zzzzs, Evil Vendetta Pie Fight
Joan Wendland is the owner, operator, game designer, and Queen of Cards—as her website puts it—of Blood and Cardstock Games. She’s also an engineer. “Game design doesn’t pay the bills,” she said. For 25 years she’s been an engineering consultant, which has included gigs as a systems engineer, a technical trainer, a test engineer, a requirements manager, and a data liaison. She also writes novels.
When creating her quirky games, Wendland largely leaves her engineering self behind. “I do know a lot of technical people will use statistics to balance a game, but I lean more heavily to reproducing the feel of the theme,” she said.
Her Counting Zzzzs game is “so close to the actual mechanics of sleep there is a sleep doctor in Portugal that uses it to talk to children about their sleep disorders.”
But her engineer returns when it comes to testing and writing the rules: “If there's a way for the players to break the game, your product will fail. If someone can’t teach themselves to play from the instructions, the product will fail.”
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And the problem-solving part of her brain works to keep gameplay well oiled. For instance, in her Pie Fight game she found that certain dice rolls could land all the pies on a single limb “which would not hurt that player any more than one pie,” she said. “So I decided after a second pie, the third pie would be able to slide to another body part because the first two pies made that limb toogooey for the third pie to stick. This did the trick.”
6. Geoffrey Engelstein: Space Cadets, The Fog of War, The Ares Project
“Game design, like all design, is about solving problems,” Geoffrey Engelstein said. Engelstein should know: he’s solved a lot of problems. As a junior and senior at MIT he was president of the Strategic Gaming Society. Now he runs Mars International, an engineering design and manufacturing firmin New Jersey, while simultaneously creating games. He also teaches board game design at NYU.
“One of the first things I talk about are the strong analogs between game design and engineering,” he said. “Game design is, in many ways, a type of engineering. Engineering is about dealing with constraints. And tabletop games in particular have tremendous constraints—the physical nature of the components, shelf cost, playing time, the ability of players to comprehend and remember the rules, and more—all of these need to be considered and juggled by the designer, and you have to balance them against each other.
The ability to test a game with iterations of a mathematical model can give an engineer an advantage in making board games. “You can get a much quicker understanding of the behavior of your design by doing simulations, similar to finite-element modeling for structural strength,” Engelstein said.
But the advantages are not just limited to testing and product development:
“In product design, mechanical engineers and industrial designers build affordances and signifiers into designs so that users know what to push and what to pull, and how different features may interact with each other,” he said. “The best products are intuitive to use. The same holds true for board games. Using iconography and other features can make it a lot simpler for players to understand what is happening, and what their options are.”
There are elements of game design that require a shift in the engineering mindset. “The biggest eye-opener I had taking my engineering skills and applying them to game design was in writing the rules,” he said.
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Engelstein had first thought of writing rules the way he wrote code, breaking structures into small chunks and giving specific steps for each piece: “Well, my first rule book was completely incomprehensible to the vast majority of players,” he said. “A rulebook is a teaching guide, not a flow chart that should be memorized.”
7. Haim Shafir: Piraten kapern, Speed Cups, Halli Galli
“Games are products. They are a special kind of product,” Haim Shafir said. “They are distinct from industrial products in which the functionality is the paramount issue to consider in order to make a decision on whether to buy them or not. Games are meant to fulfill personal satisfaction. Industrial products are meant to fulfill functions.”
Trained as a mechanical engineer at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Shafir found his own personal satisfaction in the world of play. “After several years I found myself attracted by social and humanistic questions which led me to be involved in toys and games,” he said. “On the one hand, one may say it is far away from engineering—almost the opposite—but I disagree. All my training as an engineer is still useful as a game inventor.”
For four decades now Shafir has put that training to creating games for his company Shafir Games.
“The skills one need to become a successful game designer depend on the type of games one is focused on—but mathematics is certainly important,” he said. “But above all creativity is paramount. Creativity starts with curiosity.”
And Shafir is curious about what’s fun. “I am the kind of designer that focuses on social and fun games, so I learn and research fun and the roots of fun. This is as far as one can think of from mechanical engineering but any successful creative career is always surprising, transformational, and combiningmany disciplines.”
8. Bruno Cathala: 7 Wonders Duel, Five Tribes, Kingdomino
For 18 years, Bruno Cathala created Tungsten alloys for the medical, aeronautic, and military industries. To create a new material, he always went through the same stages. As he puts it: First there is a sparkling idea.This requires the design of an experimental plan for validation. During this stage, you adapt, correct, modify, cancel, and validate to reach the final answer you are looking for. Then, when you have exactly what you want, you have to write the process with very precise and simple sentences so that anybody on the production line can understand all the instructions.
“The development of a game follows exactly the same path,” he said. “So, today, I’m doing the same job. It’s only the field which is different.”
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Same job or not, Cathala’s path has produced some very popular games. 7 Wonders Duel is owned by over 60 thousand registered users at BoardGameGeek and is ranked 14th most popular game.
Do Cathala’s sparkling board game ideas come from the same place that his engineering ideas come from? “Well, it’s quite impossible for me to know if ideas for games or products come from the same place,” he said. “Because I just don’t know where my ideas come from, never mind if it’s game ideas, or metallurgical development ideas in my former job, or music ideas (I’m trying to play guitar).”
But he does know when he gets his ideas. “Ideas come when I’m not focused on searching for ideas”—and maybe even what they’re made of—“They’re generated by a lot of different influences: Papers, movies, and discussions. But it’s always unconscious. That means that my brain has digested a lot of different data and, at one point, generates something which seems unique to me, but is for sure the result of this digestion. Then the works begins to try to know if this idea deserves some development or not.”
Engineers hoping to develop any board game ideas of their own—wherever they come from—can check out the Board Game Design Lab. There, board game designers from all walks of life get into the minutia of just how an idea becomes something anyone can sit down with and play.
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
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When it comes to game design, the mechanics are the game.Adam Wyse