I play a lot of board games, and I make a specific effort to target both breadth and depth in my game selection. That is, I try to play a lot of new games (breadth), but still have a smaller collection of games that I own that I really try to explore through repeated play (depth). Besides the fact that I enjoy games as a player, I also feel that these two approaches are very important for my growth as a game designer. There is so much that you can learn by playing a lot of highly regarded game designs, and also taking the time to deep dive specific designs that you find yourself drawn to.
In this post, I want to focus in on the “breadth” approach, and how I find playing new designs very inspiring and educational. Specifically, I compiled a list of all the new games that I played in 2018, and ranked them by how much I felt they inspired me as a designer. Note that this ranked list is not a couple of things:
- It is not simply a ranking of my favorite games. Certainly there will be some correlation between games I enjoy more and ones that get me excited as a designer, but the list is ranked far differently than my ratings of the games from my perspective as a player.
- It is not a ranking of which games I feel are the most “innovative,” though once again there is some correlation. It is cool to see designers really think outside of the box and create things that haven’t been done before, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a shoe-in for resonating as strongly with me as a designer.
Rather, I would define the criteria for my ranking this way: These are the games with the design decisions that I appreciated the most, and that got me the most excited about the landscape of board game design that is available for me and others to explore. I played a total of 34 new board games in 2018; here are the five that rose to the top of my “inspirational” list!
5. Terraforming Mars
Terraforming Mars has quickly become one of my favorite games to play, and there are several aspects of its design that I really appreciate. First off, I love how the mechanics and theme are so well-integrated with various design decisions originating from either side. My brain tends to initially focus on mechanics when designing, and I think Terraforming Mars is a great example of how exploring theme first can lead you to some really unique mechanics that you wouldn’t have arrived at without the thematic connection (another good example of this is Great Western Trail, which just missed my list at #6).
Terraforming Mars also does a great job of developing a nice rhythm of gameplay. The repetition of the core “Research/Actions/Production” loop provides a satisfying pacing during the game, and it is hard to describe why it feels more natural than other round-based games that I have played. It has caused me to think more about the importance of rhythm and pacing in the context of a game design, which I think is something that is easy to overlook.
Gloomhaven has been one of the most successful board games in recent years, and it is largely because it was able to bring the dungeon-crawl experience to an audience that prefers more emphasis on strategy than luck, compared to similarly themed games. Where most popular games in the genre resort to using dice to resolve attacks and other gameplay elements, Gloomhaven uses cards to provide a more controlled (yet not entirely predictable) system that gives players many opportunities to affect their chances at success through clever and strategic play.
While there are many small design decisions in Gloomhaven that I find inspiring as a designer, I especially appreciate the way creator Isaac Childres had such strong clarity of the audience he was trying to reach, and how he used that as a compass for every aspect of the design. It is a good reminder that designers shouldn’t aim for their game to have a wide appeal that results in a lot of players liking it, but rather they should have in mind some very specific types of people that they want to love the game. No game is going to be a hit with everyone (or even a majority of gamers), so it is much more worthwhile to focus in on what is going to provide the best experience to a specific target audience, and I think Gloomhaven is an excellent example of that.
3. Sidereal Confluence
Of all of the games on this list, Sidereal Confluence is the most unlike any other game I have played. A game that is based on building a resource-conversion engine that is reminiscent of modern Eurogames, but supports up to 9 players? With the primary gameplay mechanic being negotiation and trading in real-time? With all players wielding asymmetric alien powers? What sounds like a mess of ideas actually comes together very effectively into an experience that you simply cannot get from any other game on the market.
The only way that Sidereal Confluence can achieve its desired player experience is if the trading between players is frequent, interesting, and strategically rewarding. It is to this point that I admire some of the decisions the designer made. First, the design ensures that every player has resources that are not useful to them (or simply too much of a resource that is useful), but that may be very useful to other players. This helps o open up obvious opportunities for trading, because I would rather get something I can work with than a horde of resources that just sit around. Second, not only are resources tradable, but also cards such as the alien race’s conversion engines (the central pieces of each player’s strategy) and planets that they acquire throughout the game. This creates opportunities for big interesting trades that are more nuanced than “three of these cubes for two of those.” Sidereal Confluence‘s designer knew that trading was the heart of the game, and many subtle design decisions are evidence of how much care was taken in perfecting that most important piece; an example that I hope to follow in my approach to tweaking my own designs.
2. Yellow & Yangtze
Reiner Knizia is without a doubt one of the most prolific designers in modern board gaming, with hundreds of published designs attributed to him over the past 30 years. While I’ve never had the chance to try what many regard as his masterpiece, Tigris & Euphrates, this year I pulled the trigger on acquiring Yellow & Yangtze, Knizia’s new spin on the Tigris & Euphrates system. Needless to say, I have been extremely impressed by this design and how it achieves a high depth of emergent tactical and strategic interest from such a simple ruleset.
Yellow & Yangtze has an organic beauty comparable to games like the abstract classic Go. The board state in like a living organism that shifts over the course of the game, quickly morphing into formations that are different from previous games, asking players to evaluate situations that they have never encountered before. It is one of those games that feels less like Knizia “invented” it, and more like he discovered a system that had existed all along. I admire how he was not only able to stumble upon such an original concept, but also provide players with such elegant “inputs” for playing in the game’s sandbox as they attempt to nudge the board state in their favor. Throw in the clever “only your lowest category counts” scoring system, and you have a design that is still fresh 20 years after its inception, and I find the discovery of such timeless mechanisms very inspiring as a designer.
KeyForge sits atop many lists for the most innovative games released in the past year, mainly due to its unique (pun intended) distribution model. A game where every single deck you can buy is guaranteed to be one-of-a-kind and even has procedurally generated card backs and names to ensure that deck-building is impossible? Honestly, it is astounding that it was even possible for a game like this to be produced, but surely it is just a gimmick, right? An example of innovation in components and production being pursued regardless of how well it supports the design?
The amazing thing is that the unique aspect of the game is entirely in support of the design vision, not originating as a cash grab as many are quick to claim. Richard Garfield, who birthed the genre of collectable card games over 20 years ago with Magic: The Gathering, set out to create a game that avoided some of the problems introduced by deck-building; a game where players need to “work with what they have” using imperfect decks, and where no card is left behind as an inferior building block that no one chooses to include. The unique and immutable decks of KeyForge provide a fascinating (and no doubt innovative) solution. I love how it shifts the design space for the cards in the game, because not only can “weaker” cards find an opportunity to shine, but the designers also have the freedom to make cards that seem too powerful, because those powerful cards cannot be plucked out into a “perfect” deck. Rather, they are always tied and held in balance with the other cards that fill out the rest of the deck.
But believe it or not, the unique distribution model actually isn’t where I find myself most inspired by KeyForge. It is easy to focus on that one element, and miss all of the clever innovations that Garfield worked into the actual gameplay that make KeyForge an entirely different beast than other card games. Primarily, the mechanic of declaring one of three “houses” and only being able to play, activate, and discard cards of the declared house. What a simple but brilliant idea! Every turn now carries the fascinating question of, “which house should I call?” I may have just played a bunch of strong creatures, but I can only use them by calling the same house again, which may lock up my hand that is likely to contain more of my other two houses. There is this tension between pushing your board state and keeping a steady flow of new cards to your hand, and I am amazed at the interesting dynamics that emerge from such a seemingly simple design choice.
Garfield challenges other assumptions that designers tend to make in this style of game as well. Do you lose if you run out of cards? No, just shuffle your deck and continue, which is a common occurrence with just 36 total cards. Do you get to draw a single card each turn? No, you always draw up to six, encouraging you to play as many cards as possible, and making that choice of house even more agonizing. Do creatures have the standard attack, defense, and health stats? No, their attack and health are actually a single value, and both creatures deal simultaneous damage when fighting. Are you trying to attack your opponent’s “life points”? No, the game is all about acquiring Æmber, which any creature can produce by reaping, creating a new tug-of-war between “attack to weaken my opponent’s board state” and “push forward toward the victory condition.” My point is this: Richard Garfield was willing to challenge the “dueling card game” genre (one he pretty much invented) in ways that I haven’t seen from most designers. The result is fresh, and one that has tickled my brain as a designer. The gameplay implications of the exotic distribution model, paired with a slew of clever twists on an established genre, make KeyForge rise to the top of my inspirational list for 2018.
It was fun to make this list, and hopefully I was able to express why the games listed above get me excited about designing games. It is remarkable the quantity of amazing games that come out of every year; we truly are living in a golden age of board game design!