What I wish I knew about board game design before I started making games 8 years ago

Hi everyone! I’m honored to have a guest on the blog today. Joe Slack is a renowned board game designer, a prolific writer, and the creator of the Board Game Design Course. He’s helped over 4,000 game designers get their ideas out of their heads and onto tables around the globe. Today he’s sharing some valuable insights into what he wishes he had known before he started making games. Welcome to the blog Joe!


Hey there!

This is Joe Slack from the Board Game Design Course. I recently discovered Fink & Fink games and I love how Nick is sharing his journey into board game design and transitioning to this full time. As a board game designer who has been making games for 8 years and who left my 17-year career in healthcare to pursue all things game design full-time about 3 and a half years ago, this got me thinking about all the things I wish I knew about game design before I started making games. Nick was kind enough to let me share my thoughts here on his blog. I hope you find this helpful in your own game design journey!

From ideas to design to Kickstarter, I’ve learned quite a few things over the past 8 years about designing board games. I’m going to share some of my biggest “a-ha” moments so that you can save yourself a lot of time and energy by not making the same mistakes I made.

Many of these thoughts are directly from my third book, The Top 10 Mistakes New Board Game Designers Make (And How to Avoid Them).

So, let’s jump right in!

Don’t worry about people stealing your idea

One of the biggest hang-ups I had early on as a game designer was around showing my game to other people outside of my circle of close friends and family. I thought that my game was so amazing and that everyone would want to steal the idea for themselves.

Boy was I wrong!

First of all, my game was okay, but it certainly wasn’t the best one ever created. It didn’t do anything groundbreaking and probably wasn’t even worth stealing.

Second, I didn’t comprehend the importance of showing my game to other people to get honest, unbiased feedback. This is such a crucial step in game design. Without hearing from other people what’s good and bad about your game, you can’t make the necessary improvements to turn it into the best game it can be. The only way to do that is to get over yourself and start showing it to others.

Third, playtesters and other game designers aren’t interested in stealing your game (especially if it’s at a very early stage and is just more of an idea). Other designers have their own games and don’t have the time or interest in taking yours. Besides, no one wants to earn the reputation of being a thief in such a small, tight-knit community.

Since execution is really the key element here, not your idea, this leads us very nicely into the next lesson…

Ideas alone are worthless

Every game begins as an idea. But like anything else, whether it’s a business idea, creative endeavor, or a New Year’s resolution, quite often that’s also where it ends.

Coming up with an idea is the easy part. Taking action and turning it into something is the hard part.

That’s why many of us keep a long list of ideas for things we want to do, but we rarely make a significant dent in it.

It’s so important to take the time and effort to turn that idea into something tangible. When it comes to a game idea, that means putting together the simplest prototype possible and testing it out.

The longer your idea just sits there in your head, the less chance you will actually do something with it. It’s even worse if you don’t write it down. If your memory is anything like mine, it will probably be forgotten by the next day (unless it’s an idea I just can’t stop thinking about!).

You have to execute on your idea. And here’s the fastest way I’ve found to do this…

Make your first prototype as quickly as you can

If you have a game idea that you think could be interesting, you must turn it into something tangible. You need to create a minimum viable prototype (MVP) and test out that idea. Try it by yourself, with friends and family, and when it gets to the point where it’s functioning well as a game, put it in front of strangers.

Just getting started is a huge hurdle. But if you can push yourself to create that first simple prototype and test it out, you’ll often become very invested in it and time will pass without you even noticing.

It doesn’t have to include everything you’ve had in your head. In fact, it’s best if you just keep this to the most basic version you can. Just make enough cards, boards, etc. you need, grab some dice, meeples, cubes, or anything else you need to get started. Don’t make an entire deck of 500 cards, just make 10 or 20 to see if the concept even works first.

If you want to be a prolific game designer, or even just create one game, you’re not going to be able to do this all in your head. You need to put something on paper, roll some dice, move some meeples, and see what’s working and what you need to change.

Put something simple together and try it out. See what works. See what doesn’t. There may be a lot of things not working initially, but that’s okay. This is where you work out the kinks and start to make early improvements.

Get your game in front of as many people as possible

Getting your game playtested by others is so crucial for getting valuable feedback to improve your game. This means getting it in front of as many people as possible, particularly other game designers and your core audience.

Try it out by yourself. But once you’ve worked out those initial kinks and know that it’s playable, you need to get it in front of other people.

You can start with family, friends, and anyone else willing to give it a try. As it develops, you’ll continue playtesting it with other designers, strangers, and anyone else who doesn’t run away when you pull out the box.

If you’re afraid to play your game with others, your game will not improve. At least not to the point where it’s going to be able to compete against all the other great games on the market.

Remember that games aren’t made in isolation. You need to share them with others who will help you make them better.

I’m about to give you some advice that will sound very counter-intuitive at first, but bear with me: If you’re still concerned in any way, the best thing you can do is play your game more, share images online, and show it to more people.

Here’s why: You’ll have a record. Proof that your game exists, and before anyone else had the idea. By making your game more public, you’ll be able to more easily prove your game existed first, as many people and archives will be able to support your claim. How’s that for a win-win solution?

Don’t waste time and money on things you don’t need

It’s really easy to fall into certain traps when you’re starting out in game design. Some of these will slow down your progress and waste time, others will cost you money, and some will cost you both time and money.

Unless you are self-publishing your game, there’s no need to spend any money at all on art or graphic design. If a publisher picks up your game, they will be the ones to choose which artist and graphic designer to work with (or will do this in-house) and will cover all the costs. If you spend money on this, it will almost definitely be completely wasted.

Another mistake is to get trademarks early on. This was my most costly mistake. It set me back $772, but it actually could have been much worse.

You see, I created my first game and was scared that someone else would try to take the clever name we had come up with. So, I started looking into how to protect myself. My co-designer and I even had a call with a lawyer. We decided we should protect what we had come up with.

Big mistake.

I discovered that every region has its own process and accompanying fee. To ensure full coverage, we would have had to apply and pay for a trademark in the US, Canada, China, regions in Europe, and the list goes on.

Fortunately, we settled for trademarks in Canada and the US. If we had considered going worldwide, we could have wasted a fortune!

Other things you may waste a lot of time and money on are finding the “perfect” sample art pieces online, making expensive, professional-looking prototypes when your game is at an early stage and will change a lot still, and searching for the exact components you want.

So, when you’re thinking about laying out a lot of money or spending a lot of time on something related to your game, ask yourself, “is this really necessary?”

Wrapping it up

I hope you can see how much time, money, and energy you can waste by focusing on the wrong things, worrying about people stealing your idea, and trying to make everything perfect.

I also hope that this article helps to prevent you from making many of the same mistakes I made early on in my game design journey. Knowledge is power!

I’ve also found that the best and fastest way to stay on track with your game is to develop a strong vision for what you want your game to be. That way you’ll always have something to look back on to keep you moving forward, as it’s really easy to veer off course with all the conflicting feedback and suggestions you receive.

So, if you want to increase your chances of seeing your game through to completion, check out my free 10 Minute Board Game Design Blueprint.

It will get you started fast and keep you on track. By downloading the blueprint, you’ll also receive my free weekly articles, filled with tricks and tips to make your games more awesome.

Thank you Nick for letting me share my thoughts on this guest post!

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