Game design is a complex process. As a tabletop game designer, you’re challenged with putting together a set of pieces with rules and art and creating an experience for players. The levels of design that go into this process can be overwhelming. Personally, when looking at the process of game design, I like to think of as a hierarchical structure where design happens at the levels: component, mechanic, and experience.
At the lowest level of design, we have components. They’re one of the most defining features of Tabletop games. Generally speaking, they’re small (can fit on a table), manipulatable, and often have little-to-no digital elements. Component design is becoming a larger element of game design, as players are enamored by games with 3D elements, minis, and a strong table presence. Still, many designers are extremely successful never designing a single one. They rely on existing pieces to design their games. Components are the cards, the dice, the meeples, and the boards. They are anything physical that players interact with.
But to put this at the lowest level is not to say that components aren’t important – in fact, high or low-quality pieces can make or break a game – but generally speaking, component design is not the focus of most game designers.
Mechanic design is where most people gravitate when they think of board game design. In my experience in working with new designers, there’s a huge focus on this. Mechanics are the rules of your game, the way you manipulate the components to achieve your goals. They are what tells you when to play that card, which prompts you to roll that die and move your meeple that many spots on the board.
Many designers get wrapped up in mechanic design. There’s an obsession with balance and choice that are created through the mechanics. Designers spend hours poring over the interplay of hit points, card abilities, and a multitude of if-then statements. In fact, many designers consider themselves a “mechanics-first” designer, someone who starts every design with a core mechanism (or ten) and lets that guide their decisions.
But while extremely important in game design, mechanics can be limiting. It’s not uncommon to see designers fall in love with mechanics, get married to them, and refuse to change (or eliminate) them when they’re working against the game. But mechanics are, well, mechanical. They’re utilitarian. They tell you what to do, but not why you do it. Enter experience design.
Ask most veteran game designers what they design and they’ll tell you the same thing: experiences. A game is just that, an experience that a player has. And if that experience is pleasant, the player will come back for more. Experience is the top level of game design, which should impact and inform a design the most.
But of course, experience is the most complicated kind of design and the most difficult to control – in fact, some aspects can’t be controlled. Experience takes into account both components and mechanics. High-quality components make players feel good as they shuffle them around, and good mechanics can reinforce player choice and interaction. But experience design takes into account more than just components and mechanics – it looks at theme, art, graphic (UI) design, locus of control, player interaction, flow, pacing, game length, etc.
In our example above, we played a card that caused us to roll a die, which moved a meeple on a board. But looking at it from an experience perspective, we see that it’s much more than that. An experience designer asks why the card was played. Did the player herself choose to play the card, or was it a random draw? Was there a strategic decision to playing the card? Was there a choice not to play the card or any card at all? These choices all affect the experience that the player has with the game.
An experience designer also asks what this sequence of events means. Does moving on the board symbolize the player getting closer to a treasure chest full of gold? Or is the player getting closer to sending puppies to the meat grinder? Again, this thematic choice affects the experience of the player.
An experience designer also asks how this sequence of events affects the other players. Is this a co-op game where getting closer to that treasure chest helps the team? Or is this a competitive game where getting closer to the treasure creates tension between players? How much tension? What is the nature of that tension? What can her opponents do to mitigate it? This player dynamic affects the experience of the player.
An experience designer also looks the result of the events. Does landing on the final space give the player an advantage in the game? Does it put them closer to their end goal? Does it create overwhelming or unnecessary frustration? Does it prompt an in-game pop culture reference that makes all players laugh? Again, this result affects the experience of the player.
It’s also important to know, though, that designers cannot control everything about experience design. The experience a player has with a game takes into account other factors, as well, including who their opponents are, the environment they’re in, and other personal factors (i.e. Is the player sick or tired? Did they just hear bad news?). These types of factors are ones that I hear designers worry about, but this worry is unnecessary. Part of game design is realizing that not all players will experience your game in the same way. Some will play with strangers at a loud convention, others will play with coworkers at a busy coffee shop, and some will play with close, gamer friends in the comfort of their own home. And each of these players will have a different experience with the game. However, the aspects that a designer can control are what should be focused on.
Complicated, yes, that’s what experience design is. And the only way to gauge player experience is to actually play the game, a process we call “playtesting.” Experience designers know not only to record the outcomes of the playtest but the feelings that players went through while playing, the frustrations and satisfaction that they had during the game. And in the end, if a player had a positive experience, that’s what’s going to bring them back for more.
Tim is a staple in the Boston game design community. He has made a number of games, including the recently released Bumuntu by WidKids! In addition to being a designer, Tim is a Vice President and serves on the board for BostonFIG, the president of the Game Makers Guild, has judged for many other game design contests, has appeared on multiple podcasts, and has published many other articles related to game design and breaking into the industry.