Design Article Jul 11, 2013

For today’s Thursday Design Article I thought we might take a look what makes for elegant design. What makes for an elegant game?

Is board game design an art? This seems to be a heated question with good arguments on both sides. I’m not planning to get into that discussion here, but board game design is certainly a form of creative expression. Anything that requires creativity can be evaluated for its form and beauty. Beauty is somewhat a matter of personal taste and culture. It is objective and not easy to measure. Yet there is some measure of agreement on what is beautiful or elegant and what is not. Take auto design for example – few would disagree that a Ferrari far outshines a Ford Pinto on the elegance scale. So, let’s take a look at what might make a game more beautiful and elegant – working from the most obvious to the least.

Presentation

The presentation of a game plays a big part in making it elegant. A game with a eye-catching image on the box and excellent artwork evokes emotions that make players want to investigate and play the game. But presentation goes far beyond artwork. Custom component choices and packaging can be part of a game’s presentation in elegance. VivaJava and VivaJava Dice are great examples of the use of packaging and custom components to accent the beauty of the game.

Marketing methods are another way to add or detract from the elegance of a game. Advertise with a flashing bright red ad-banner and you will cause repulsion among a large portion of potential players!

Theme

Poor selection or execution of theme can greatly detract from a game’s elegance. This is not to say that games with darker themes can not be elegant – but failing to match the theme to the game’s style and intended audience is like wearing a pink polka-dotted shirt with brown and green striped shorts and purple shoes (or so my daughter tells me – I lack basic fashion sense). It sends a message – but usually not the message you want to send.

Artistic style is an important decision point. Choosing light cartoony artwork for a heavy strategy game with a darker theme isn’t going to convey elegance. Matching artistic style to theme and audience will. Jason Slingerland’s Water Baloon Washout captures this well: a light fun artistic style paired with light fun filler-game mechanics appealing to a family audience.

Components

Component choices can greatly effect elegance. Fiddly bits or poorly functioning pieces can greatly reduce a game’s elegance. Monopoly could double it’s elegance by switching out paper money for high-grade poker chips (though double still isn’t saying much). Conversely, well selected or designed components can greatly increase a game’s overall beauty. Something as simple as the cutouts in Clash of Cultures player boards greatly enhance the elegance of that game.

Mechanics

Some mechanics are certainly more elegant than others. Take deckbuilding for an example: forcing players to shuffle cards on a regular basis is an inelegant mechanic. Sometimes using an inelegant mechanic as this can be necessary to avoid over complication, but often there can be creative ways around using these mechanics. For example, Puzzle Strike avoids the deckbuilding shuffle by using chips instead of cards and drawing from a bag.

In an early iteration of First Colony players were required to draw cards from the Reserve deck each round until they drew one card of each card type, then discard any extras. While this mechanic fulfilled the intended function well with 8 different card types it led to a lot of frustration as players dug through half the deck looking for a full set – and this detracted greatly from the game’s elegance.

Mechanics that allow players to harm or destroy the creations of other players and player elimination can cause great distaste among potential players if not matched well to the theme and style of the game. Episode 59 of the Ludology Podcast deals with this at length in their discussion of Loss Aversion.

Wrap-Up

As you work on your designs it is important to keep in mind how the decisions you make will affect the overall elegance of your game. Be sure to consider your mechanics, components, theme, and presentation and how they are directly tied to the beauty of your game. Your game should evoke an emotional response from those who see and play it – make sure you are evoking the right responses!

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