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Once per Long Rest

Building your own board games

A process only marginally worse than lighting your hand on fire

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Editor’s note: Once per Long Rest is a biweekly column chronicling the art of Tabletop Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) with reviews, recommendations, and coverage of anything nerd-related.

There’s nothing more painful than producing your own content.

Getting the wind knocked out of you? No big deal. Taking a soccer ball to the face and getting your shit absolutely rocked? I didn’t even care that my eye was swollen shut for the rest of the game. Accidently lighting your hand on fire during senior year of high school? Let me tell you, from personal experience, it’s not that bad.

I’d have to argue, however, that making your own content is far more arduous. While not physically painful, living with your creative decisions can suck. So, if you’re daring enough to attempt making your own board or card games, let this article be your creative ibuprofen.

You’re going to have to start with an idea. This is commonly thought of as the hardest part in any creative process, but Jamey Stegmaier, president of Stonemaier Games and designer of popular board games like “Scythe,” thinks otherwise. In November 2016, Stegmaier wrote a blog post about evaluating the worth of ideas. 

“I hate to break it to you, but your idea — any idea, really — is worthless,” Stegmaier wrote. “An idea only has value when it is executed, and it only has a lot of value when it’s executed well.” 

Don’t get caught up on trying to find the perfect idea. If you have thoughts for a card or board game, start working and designing. Your initial idea will naturally flesh itself out as you continue to build your own mechanics for the game. 

Keep in mind that the feeling of your game is just as important as game mechanics. Your game’s tone, overall feel, and inspiration shouldn’t be thrown to the wayside when you start building its skeleton. Try to find a good balance between mechanics and experience. 

If you focus too much on tone and mood, though, you could end up with a game like Cthulhu’s Vault,” a collaborative storytelling game based on the eldritch horror genre, published by Jolly Roger Games. This game is fun, but only if you play with the right group — specifically, people who are capable of improvisation. 

The art and overall concept of “Cthulhu’s Vault” are amazing. The point of the game isn’t to win, but to resolve a story that the players create as the game continues. The game shifts between the storytelling “Mystery” stage and “Battle” stage, but not graciously. The game’s mechanics are clunky and poorly designed. Players are dealt a role when the game transitions into the fighting phase, but some roles are just worse than others in every possible way. 

For example, the Reporter investigator card has average health and hand size, and its ability states that they cannot use magic (a rule that’s universal for all characters unless stated otherwise on their card). While making a creative choice is respectable to achieve a specific mood, it may not be worth it if it’s at the expense of the playability of your game.

More importantly, make sure that the scope of the game you’re trying to create is appropriate. Don’t expect to make the next Settlers of Catan on your first try. I wouldn’t even recommend making your first game from scratch.

Start with a deck of cards or two dice. I personally like using a deck of cards as my basis for a new game because it feels like a simple system with tons of possibilities. If you want to keep things simple, though, use a set of dice and take inspiration from systems that already exist, like Powered by the Apocalypse,” a roleplaying system that’s intended to have its rules expanded.

I also highly recommend you check out Extra Credits’ series on game design. While their series focuses more on video games, many of the same principles apply. 

I wish you all good luck in your board game ventures. Make sure you torture your friends by making them playtest your games. Ask for their feedback, and don’t be afraid to tweak the game as you go.

Reach Development Editor Kyle Bender at Twitter: @avatar_kyle 

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