How to Design a Board Game: One Mechanic at a Time

Learn how to design a board game one mechanic at a time. I call this Slicing, but there’s probably a better name for it – the act of separating a mechanic from the game itself so that you can test it with your group. This level of focus prevents you and your fellow testers from worrying about ramifications that our outside this mechanic. This level of focus helps determine if this part of your game deserves to stay or if you should cut it. It also can reaffirm that you have something fun to build on. That’s not to say that you can take this approach by itself, you certainly want to think of the big picture, but just like working on a car, sometimes it’s helpful to examine the engine without the wheels.

Hero card mechanic test.

Step 1: Identify the mechanic you want to test.

I recommend you start with your core mechanic but this method can be used for all of your game’s components if desired. This may seem like a simple step, but not all aspects of your game will have clear start and stop points that clearly delineate a ‘ mechanic’. The word ‘mechanic’ is also a bit of a misnomer, you may end up testing a section of your game that contains two or three mechanics. What’s important is that you hone a section while the rest of the game fades away.

I recently used this technique with our upcoming super hero game. I sliced out the Villain Fight deck system to test how it responded to Heroes attacking it. The deck not only needed to defend itself but also needs to evolve based on the Heroes’ actions.

Leo “Chop” Tetrazini has his Villain deck looked at by our playtest.

Step 2: Prepare your components for the Mechanic playtest.

Think about the bare minimum you need to get the playtest to succeed. For me it was just the Villain deck, Heroes’ decks, tokens and a notepad to capture my findings. If you bring the extraneous materials for the rest of the game, don’t show them to your playtesters – it will only distract from the goal of this test. You want your players to focus on the mechanic system itself.

Like any playtest – but especially when slicing – it’s very important to set expectations with your testers. They need to know the purpose of this test, what feedback is helpful and what aspects of the test to ignore.

It’s always easier to test your mechanic with playtesters on hand, but if you don’t have any, you can muddle through on your own.

Villain deck takes out the heroes on playtest 6 – success!

Step 3: Observe and analyze the playtest.

If you are fortunate enough to have a group to test your system then try to get multiple plays in to capture as much data as possible. You want to look for:

  • Broken or overpowered effects (Try halving their values to quickly see a change to your system. Don’t try micro changes to game stats as it will mask whether you are isolating the correct aspect of your mechanic.)
  • Slow or underpowered effects (Try doubling the values.)
  • Look for signs of frustration and confusion from the players. What do they get stuck on?
  • What aspects of the mechanic are enjoyable to the players?

For my Superhero game the feedback I got was immediate and very telling – The Villain was way underpowered. I reset the Villain’s deck with new additions and tested again, and again. After about six short tests the Villain was able to hold his own against the Heroes – even defeating them at one point. There was fun in the unexpected coordination of Villain attacks that would randomly resolve – so that was a positive observation. A nice side effect from the test was some inspiration I received for the Hero cards. A number of refinements made the layouts easier to read and more intuitive.

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