12 Steps to Design Your Own Board Game (and Sell It)

This guide takes beginners through the 12 necessary steps to a working board game, from getting an idea to publishing the finished product

Design Your Own Board Game

Photo by NCI on Unsplash

In this quick guide, we’ll take you through the 12 steps needed to design a board game. Board game design is a lot of fun, for sure, but it can also be challenging. While you should enjoy it, there’s still a lot of creative thinking and — let’s face it — hard work involved. You can’t jump from a cool idea to a fabulous game all boxed up and ready to go in a single, giant leap. But these steps will take you logically and intelligently through the process from idea generation to promoting your finished game. Let’s get started!

Step one: the big idea

How do you get an idea for a board game?

Even if you already have an idea for a board game — or several ideas! — don’t skip this step. It’s still worth thinking about where ideas for board games can come from. As you read through these suggestions, you may find that it sparks new inspirations or that you discover an approach you hadn’t thought of before. If you haven’t settled on an idea for your game, yet, don’t worry. Try out these was of getting an idea and you’ll soon be on your way.

  1. Think about games you’ve played and enjoyed. While you don’t want to plagiarize someone else’s game, it can be a good starting point for generating your own ideas. Ask yourself how that game could be different? What do you enjoy about it? Could think of other themes, goals, and mechanics which might produce similar effects in different contexts? Spin it out in new directions, changing a mechanic here, or making a new ‘win condition’ and see where the process leads you.
  2.  Think about books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen. You could take ideas for the ‘story’ or ‘theme’ of a game from a favorite novel or movie and start thinking about how you would make it into a board game.
  3. Play a lot of games! Just playing as many games as you can and of as many different varieties as you can will spark all sorts of ideas of your own. Just remember to keep notes!
  4. Try taking two or three popular games and ‘mashing’ them together to see what new ideas emerge.
  5.  Think of the worst game you ever played. Now imagine that you’ve been given the task of transforming it from a garbage game into a golden game. Go for it!
  6.  Keep a notebook handy — or an app on your phone, or whatever you prefer — everywhere you go, to jot down ideas and inspirations that come to you when you’re waiting in line in the store, riding the bus to work, or dozing off in front of the TV in the evening. Ideas can pop up anytime — especially once you start looking for them — so don’t let them slip away!
  7. Invite your friends around to play a few of your favorite games and then have a brainstorming session to see how many ideas you can all come up with. Often, collaborating and sparking ideas off of each other can get the creative juices flowing.

There may be a zillion other ways that good ideas for new board games get discovered. But these should get you started. Once you’ve got an idea, move on to the next step.

Step two: a working title

Now you have an idea — and, yes, not much else — it’s time to flesh it out into an engaging, fun-to-play game that people will love. But before you do, give it a name. Now, you might think it’s a bit too soon to name it. But there’s a good reason to give it a working title. It’ll help you focus and remember what the core idea is as you go through all the messy, iterative, shape-shifting processes of game design that follow. Remember, it’s just a ‘working title’ so you can always change it later.

Step three: define the player experience

A good game is one that focuses on what the players will get out of it. And what most players want from a board game is a positive emotional experience. They want intrigue, excitement, laughter, tension; they want to feel smart, brave, quick-witted, lucky, victorious; they want, in short, to feel good in one way or another. So, before you go further, ask yourself what kind of experience your board game is going to give to your players. Then write it down. Try to sum it up in no more than one or two sentences and pick out a key emotion-word that best sums up what you’re aiming for.

Step four: hit on a theme

Theme is vitally important to a good board game. It’s what turns the mechanics — dice rolling, taking turns, picking and discarding cards, moving meeples, that sort of thing — into an immersive imaginative experience. If you think about your favorite board games, you’ll soon see that they have themes, often expressed in the kind of world in which they’re set, who the players (or their avatars) are, and what everyone’s trying to achieve. So, a theme could be medieval, say, or 1930s noir, or space age, supernatural, urban crime, wild west, renaissance court intrigue, cold war spies, set on a farm, or…anything that gives the game a setting, an imaginative context, and its distinct mood and ‘feel’.

Step five: who will the players be?

This will depend on your theme, but you need to know. Will your players be house guests at a mansion investigating a murder? (Clue) Will they be dueling wizards? (Magic: The Gathering) Maybe they’ll be imperial powers seeking world domination (Risk) or just themselves trying to be smart (Trivial Pursuit). Either way, give your players something to be that makes sense within the context of your game idea and the theme which embodies it.

Step six: choose your mechanics and components

This — like all the steps here — you’ll come back to and change and tweak throughout the design process, so don’t get too hung up on it. But you’ll need to start somewhere. So, choose how the game will work. Will players take it in turns? Will they roll dice or draw cards to decide what they can do in a turn? Will play be competitive (as in a race game) Or co-operative (as in many role-playing games)?

Give this some thought. Your mechanics will dictate what components you’ll need (a board, cards, meeples, dice, score sheets, etc.) But you can develop them later as the structure and play-style develops

Step seven: put limits on player actions (make some rules!)

The purpose of rules in a board game is twofold and kinda contradictory. The rules should make playing the game possible and make it hard to win. So, you need to decide what rules you need to make it possible for each player to have a real chance at winning, but impose restrictions (waiting your turn, only moving X number of spaces in a round, setbacks and penalties, etc.) This can get really complex. But for now, as with the mechanics — rules and mechanics are closely related, by the way — don’t get bogged down. Think up a few rules you guess might work and run with them. You can — and almost certainly, will — change them later.

Step eight: set the ‘win condition’

What a player — or players — must do to win the game is called the ‘win condition’. This is super-important. It must be achievable (or your players will be mighty pissed with you!) and it must be unequivocal (so that no-one can argue with it when someone wins). Typical win conditions are being the first to get to a location, collect a set (of cards, gems, points), eliminate other players, occupy a territory, and more. The win condition you choose will come out of your idea, theme, mechanics and rules. And this, too, might change as the game design develops.

Step nine: player interactions

In many games, players don’t really interact with each other; they take their turns, but the actions and choices they take and make don’t have a direct impact on the other players. In other games, players interact a lot and can push each other forward, set each other back, collaborate and form alliances, or otherwise influence each other’s game experience. There are pros and cons to each kind of player interaction and there’s a range from zero-interaction (Ludo) to 100% interaction (Dungeons & Dragons).

Step ten: game length and player numbers

Is this going to be a fun, fast-moving game that’s over in less than half an hour, or a massive campaign-style game that could go on for hours or even days? Will it be one player against the rules (Solitaire) a couple of players against each other (Chess) or multiple players either competing (Monopoly) or co-operating (most role-playing games). Only you can decide; but decide, you must.

Step eleven: play-testing

Once you have your roughed out sketch of a game together with all the basic elements at least represented: an idea, a theme, a few mechanics, basic components, some rules; it’s time to start testing it all to see if it works. This is where the fun — and most of the work — really starts.

You can begin by play testing alone, then with a handful of friends and family members, then take it along to your game night or club, then conventions. All the time, make sure you’re asking questions, listening to suggestions, making changes and improvements as you go. This can be a long process. But you can’t play-test too much; especially if you want to sell your game. Which brings us to the final step.

Step twelve: bring your game to the world

There are two ways to ‘get your game out there’. You can make a prototype and hawk it around game publishers or you can self-publish it (which usually involves setting up and running a Kickstarter campaign). Both are potentially viable, neither is easy. Which way you go will depend on your personality, your ambitions, and how much work and money you want to invest. It’s worth taking plenty of time to evaluate the pros and cons as they relate to your personal situation. Talk to people who’ve done both. Pick their brains. And if one doesn’t work for you, you can always switch and try the other.

Ready to build your prototype?

Once you’ve made and tested a great game and you’re ready to build your professional-level prototype, talk to us. We’ve been in the industry for decades and have helped lots of game designers to deliver a great board game product to the market. We’re friendly, knowledgeable, and have the latest whizz-bang printing and manufacturing tech at our fingertips. Get in touch to talk through your idea or for a no-obligation quote. We’ll be happy to help.