As a new board game designer, it can seem daunting to enter an unfamiliar creative space of any kind. However, one of the most attractive things about the tabletop game design space is how accessible it is. Compared hobbies that require an extensive technical knowledge (e.g video game design), or hobbies with heavy financial burdens (e.g. car racing, sailing, etc.), designing a tabletop game is relatively newcomer-friendly. If you’ve got pens, paper, scissors, and glue, you are pretty much good to go.
However, I think there are still several barriers that both newcomers and long-time designers might consider when designing a board or card game. For newcomers, understanding potential barriers can help you overcome them, and for more experienced designers, there always ways to minimize or remove barriers for others.
5. There Are So Many Games
I repeat — there are so many board games, card games, and RPGs being released each year, and there are different and interesting mechanisms in the vast majority of them. In an industry where innovation is a necessity, and novelty often imperative to drive sales, the only way to prevent yourself from designing something unoriginal is to research a lot of games. When I started playing board games, I almost immediately started designing my own. However, my design vocabulary was limited to the things I’d played before. As you play more games, watch more Youtube reviews, read more rule books, and listen to more podcasts, you are building a greater tool box of ideas. This research takes a lot of time though, and this is the same reason you hear about so many first time designers making Monopoly spin-offs. Like many creative endeavors, if you want to get better, you have to spend the time to learn what’s been created before in order to add to the field.
4. Board Games Are Expensive
So now we know that it’s important to have a broad sense of board game design. You’ll probably want to dig in and start playing more. It’s pretty common for board game players (and especially designers) to conservatively pick up a new game a month, maybe more. At $30-$70 a game, you can see how personal expenses can rise quickly. This is certainly not a rule, and there are a lot of ways to work around this, but being in touch with new games is super important. I personally offset these costs by immediately flipping games on eBay that aren’t for me (and by flipping I mean losing 10-30% a game’s value). You can also let your friends get the hot new game while you pine for your own copy, even though you no longer truly need it.
Also, the hobby to some extent centers around game conventions, of which their are many, and all have a host of costs attached to them. This is directly relevant, because many designers and publishers recommend pitching games in one-on-one meetings or through speed dating events at conventions.
3. The Hobby Can Feel Like It’s Not For You
How do you think a non-gamer would describe a D & D or board game player?
I’d wager many people not familiar with the hobby would describe a D&D player or board game player in terms of common stereotypes. Derogatory terms such as neckbeard point to a cultural perception of tabletop gaming as a space for people of a certain age, ethnicity, set of interests, weight, and more. The reality is that gaming is and can be for everyone. BUT if someone doesn’t think that tabletop gaming is for them, it’s not likely they’ll start playing and designing their own games.
It’s also important to consider that who designs a game, what the game looks like, what the theme of that game is, and how a game is advertised all affect consumers’ perceptions of the hobby. As a librarian, I am against censorship; people should be able to purchase and play the games they want. That being said, publishers, designers, and artists can make conscious choices to make their games more inclusive. Why? First, in the long run, it will probably make them more money (i.e. more people will be interested/less people will be turned away). Two, inclusivity communicates to new designers and new gamers that gaming is for everyone, thus promoting the hobby. Three, adding varied characters and settings often makes for more realistic and interesting stories. For positive examples, look at Fantasy Flight, Plaid Hat Games, and Asmodee’s games.
Finally, as a community, there are a lot of great people, online and IRL, who are working to make gaming as friendly and accessible as possible. For examples, check out the group Contessa and the OrcaCon gaming convention. If you’re interested in improving your DM’ing, check out these tips from Geek and Sundry. You can also read more about the economic difficulties marginalized groups experience when pursuing game design in a 2015 Shut Up and Sit Down article about the (now-inactive) group Different Play.
2. Location, Location, Location
If you live in a major metropolitan area, you’re in luck! Most major cities have high quality board game stores, design groups, and meetups. If you live a small town, rural area, or in Honduras like Gabe Newell from the Board Game Design Lab, this can make playtesting and even playing new games more difficult. Size isn’t everything though; I’m routinely in Rockford, IL (population 148k) and I’ve only been able to find Warhammer stores there.
The reason that this barrier is so high on the list is because there’s not much a designer can do about where they live. Eric Lang actually moved to be closer to a gaming community during his early days, but most new designers do not have the income or flexibility to pick up and move to a new location for their passion.
1. Caution to Introverts
So I’m not trying to dissuade introverts from game design, as I consider myself an Ambivert, but playing games is a social activity. Designing means you’ll want as many opinions on your work as possible, and this means talking to strangers. As you move through the design process, you may also pursue pitching your game to publishers or Kickstarter backers.
The solution? Well first, practice makes perfect. The more you game, go to conventions, and playtest, the more likely you will start to feel comfortable in those situations. Second, you may be able to offload some of the pitching and playtesting onto someone more comfortable meeting strangers, like a friend or family member. Third, you may not need to change. All-star designer Matt Leacock recommends avoiding direct interaction during playtest settings as a way to better judge the experience of the game. Instead, take notes quietly from a safe distance!
Are there any barriers that you’ve had to overcome to start designing tabletop games? Let me know in the comments. Also, please subscribe if you’d like to get quarterly newsletters filled with great content, game design resources, and updates on my current designs!