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Kobold Guide to Board Game Design (2011)
Book Reviews

Kobold Guide to Board Game Design (2011)

Those seeking advice on success from the successful, or just a curious fan, will find this guide is worth the time.

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Zombies, time travelers, stoners, mobsters, werewolves, penguins, squirrels, rock bands, exploding cows, and competitive sushi chefs have taken over my game shelf, leaving little room for Cthulhu and the warrior mice. They’re all metaphors, of course. If games are “interactive mathematical systems,” as one writer in this essay collection puts it, the metaphor is what turns the math into a story.

For example, everything in the board game DEADWOOD STUDIOS USA – the dice rolls, the money, the fame points, the pips representing “rank” – is pure math, but the story, about third-rate actors desperately competing to earn money and status at the world’s worst movie studio, is pure entertainment. The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is a book about the elements of good game design by professional designers, developers, and publishers, addressing the thousands of fans and wanna-be’s who aspire to join them.

Let’s clarify something: we’re talking about the $200-400 million dollar hobby game industry (games usually played with cards, a board, or both), a very different beast from the $66 billion dollar video game industry that gets all the attention. For one thing, it’s hard to determine just how much money the hobby game industry actually makes each year. My guesstimate is based on someone else’s guesstimate from 2007, and most of that income would’ve gone to giants like Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, not the unregulated private companies that don’t have to issue financial statements. For another, tabletop gaming is a relentlessly social activity; you simply can’t play these games without inviting some real, live people over to play with.

According to internet news sources, the last five years have seen declining video game sales and rising hobby game sales (except for roleplaying games and historical wargames; interest in both continues to plummet). It’s clear, though, that tabletop gaming is a niche business, and that board games are the epitome of boutique manufacturing. Game designers aren’t faceless inventors anymore: they’re auteurs who get their names prominently displayed on the box and who are now likely to have their own fan base. The designers sharing their advice in these pages are superstars of the American gaming world, including James Ernest (founder of Cheapass Games), Richard Garfield (inventor of MAGIC: THE GATHERING), Mike Selinker (former creative director of Wizards of the Coast), Steve Jackson (MUNCHKIN), Andrew Looney (FLUXX), and Paul Peterson (SMASH UP), among others.

Eurogames, stereotypically strategy-heavy, economics-themed exercises in cooperative playing (that is, the players band together to defeat the game itself), are what these American designers are reacting against, but not above learning from, in creating games that appeal to our traditional taste for conflict, destruction, and the role of sheer luck. They’ll explain what you can learn from MONOPOLY, a game that modern designers love to hate because it violates every rule of good game design but fulfills the Prime Directive (it’s fun to play).

They’ll teach you how to write precise rules and how to create prototypes that won’t leave publishers doubting your intelligence and/or sanity. They’ll tell you, over and over again, that your idea of clarity and simplicity is never clear and simple enough. You need game developers, and editors, and lots of playtesters, including people who aren’t your relatives and friends, to whip your game into shape.

The Kobold Guide’s four sections cover concepting, design, development, and presentation. Each essay is pithy, educational, and well written, but it’s interesting to note that the business model these writers advocate is selling your game to a publisher, not self-publishing. It could be that a lot of people are worried for their jobs; it could also be that what separates a professional designer from an amateur is the understanding that collaboration is what turns good ideas into good games. Truth is, a lot of things separate pros from amateurs. Pros speak math and statistics, have an expert-level knowledge of all kinds of games, and are prolific inventors. They know a game that grabbed a publisher’s attention has a better chance of surviving in a crowded marketplace than one that didn’t. I think that’s why Kickstarter, an increasingly important part of game creation, isn’t even mentioned in this book. If your game’s not ready for prime time, all Kickstarter can do is help you rush an inadequate game into print.

Everyone has a good idea for a game, but few of those games get made, and fewer still make money. Whether you’re seeking advice on success from the successful, or just a fan curious to learn how the sausage is made, the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design will be worth your time.

About the Author: CK Penchant