Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture

(first appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture)

barefootliam's five ivory dice
image from barefootliam at deviant art!

I’m going to make two statements (interleaved with ideas) that converge later.

What Is Better Game Culture?

One is that, as we argue for better game culture, I think we’re basically arguing for more critical and reflective consumers, creators, and scholars of games and gaming practice. “More” in the sense that we just need proportionally more people who do think critically and reflectively about games and gaming. But also “more” in the sense that who we do have are continually learning and making connections and generally becoming better at what they do.

Use Game Design to Understand Games Better

And one of the best ways to learn how to think about games, their structures, and experiences is to make them. By making games and thinking through player experiences as they navigate rules and systems, a designer really starts to pay attention to cohesiveness and the internal logics of a game’s space. Equipped with this experience, the designer starts to also see other games differently, understanding that sometimes intent just doesn’t match up with underlying mechanics whether that’s due to technical limitations or something inherently flawed with the design structure. When the narrative or theme is supported by the game’s rules (sometimes in place as a holdover from whatever genre tradition the game is following), it can be an extremely beautiful experience, such as with the case for some players of Depression Quest or Lim.


Speaking of LimMerritt’s previous article speaks to a diversification and inclusion of gaming (which really can’t happen fast enough… and I don’t think is going to happen unless we continually fight for it), and something that should be stressed is how relatively low the barriers to making small digital games are these days (once you get past the initial barriers of social structure and disparate everyday experience, as Merritt aptly points out). Indeed, the hardest part of making interactive fiction games in Twine or Inklewriter, is the writing! Even 2D platformers, top-down JRPGs, and point-n-click adventure games can be made pretty easily these days with GameMakerConstructRPGMaker, and Adventure Game Studio.

The Rise of Tabletop Gaming

The second statement is that tabletop gaming (i.e., gaming with and around board and card games) is experiencing a massive growth and golden age right now, and, just as with digital games, a lot of community and culture around tabletop games is supported and afforded by the net. It’d be very easy to get lost in the forums of BoardGameGeek (BGG).


In fact, BoardGameGeek has a crazy extensive database of tabletop games. If a game is played on a flat surface with printed physical material and had some sort of distribution (as in, it’s not just a game cousin Jane made up and shared with her brother), it’s in BGG’s database. Each game has its own set of forums that cover reviews, strategies, house rules, clarifications, news, issues, etc. Then there are non-game specific forums, such as regional ones to help people meet up with other players, general boardgame news, reviews of iOS and Android ports of favorite games, etc. (A whole bunch could be said here about affinity groups and literature on digital media and learning.)

The High Fashion Phenomenon

Toshiyuki Hashitani's wooden board by Wolfgangs SpeileParadies for Settlers of Catan
Toshiyuki Hashitani’s wooden board by Wolfgangs SpeileParadies for Settlers of Catan

And yet BGG is only a small part of tabletop gaming. It may seem that the tabletop community is pretty monolithic given how much a one-stop site BGG is, but, outside of the net, tabletop gaming is surprisingly scattered. I’m reminded of this every week as I attend meetings of a local board game Meetup group. The regular attendees come from all walks of life. Among others, there’s techie people (which could just be because we’re in Seattle, though there is an interesting intermingling between tech and board games), a lawyer, and a bunch of service industry folks. Very few are academics, and most of them don’t really know BGG exists.

Still, I suspect the movements and fervor found on BGG trickles down. It’s like high fashion setting certain trends that eventually trickle down to Walmart shoppers. The games that become popular were popular on BGG first. Maybe another analogy is with digital gamers who buy AAA games and new hardware every season: They push (perhaps too uncritically) the industry in certain directions and generally make it grow, which then allows for a whole slew of other players to follow in their wake (who may not even know there’s a wake they’re following).

A Disconnect?

Most of these players also don’t know about the recent rise of games journalism, criticism, and activism (<3 Ligman’s TWIVGB). For all the work we’ve seen in the last couple of years pushing for inclusivity in gaming and examining games deeply, none of it is hitting on-the-ground gamers… Wait. Is that true? Admittedly, most of the work being done is on the digital gaming front, so looking at local tabletop meetup groups and saying something about the work with digital games’ reach is probably not fair. Okay, so I’ll just say this: Tabletop criticism and journalism is massively threadbare, and I hope places like Shut Up & Sit Down herald a new trend in rectifying this. Hopefully, more academic research will also look to tabletop gaming.

Serious Leisure and DIY Gamers

Jared's Magic Realm build using carthaginian's redesign
Jared’s Magic Realm build using carthaginian’s redesign

One of the most fascinating pockets of community on BGG are the hobbyists (<- huge “serious leisure” literature repository that everyone should learn about) who make their own versions of out-of-print games. Take a look at all the cool remakes of Magic Realm (MR), for example. It’s a game with a cult following for its intricate simulation of a fantasy setting and its detailed and nuanced combat system. What’s really cool about MR is that a BGG user, Karim “carthaginian” Chakroun, wanted to try the game but discovered that he’d have to make the game first. It turns out, he’s a graphic designer and he decided to produce a set of PDFs with new artwork that anyone can download to make their own copy of MR! (Game rules can’t be copyrighted, but artwork is protected, so, to recreate a game, players have to change up the art.) As it happens, carthaginian has made lots of custom artwork for out-of-print games *and* he’s moved onto professional graphic design for games, such as Alien Frontiers!

Alien Frontiers
Alien Frontiers

Carthaginian and other BGG users who engage in this DIY practice represent an interesting intersection between tabletop gaming and crafting/making. They share tips and tricks and how-to guides, much like what you’d find on Instructables. There’s also a number of BGG users who are amateur designers, releasing their own “print and play” games through BGG as PDFs.

Use Tabletop Game Design to Understand Games Better

This, then, represents a different way games scholars and critics can get into making games. Tabletop design can be a more approachable pathway for non-techie people. It’s easy to grab a deck of cards and think through new game mechanics or to grab a used game from a thrift store and mod the rules or write new rules using the same components. It becomes more important to think about the manual for a designed game (something which is often absent for digital games), and this forces a different kind of dialog between the designer and players. I believe this difference pushes the designer to think about the boundaries of the game and cohesiveness of theme to rules in a different way than what’s afforded by digital game design.

Three lucky meeples - from game Survive: Escape from Atlantis!
Three lucky meeples – from game Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

So, yeah, (if you’ll allow me to switch to 2nd person…) make your own games! Make both digital and tabletop games! And, yes, the first game will likely suck. Learning is most effective through failure. This is as true in designing games as in playing games.


3 thoughts on “Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture”

  1. One of the most fun ways I have experienced making board games is at a board game jam. We took a bunch of old games, mashed them up, auctioned off the pieces to groups, and went about infusing an ethical issue into the game we were making over the next few hours.

    Great way to spend an afternoon at a festival/conference.

  2. I love tabletop gamejams since they’re so accessible and a much shorter time commitment than a traditional digital gamejam over a weekend. I’ve been to and run ones that only take an hour, and that *includes* a round of playtesting!

  3. One thing I forgot to mention in the article is what I see as one of the key differences between digital and tabletop games… I think digital games can be made to express specific narratives and experiences that are dictated by a story unfolding more easily than with tabletop games. It’s not impossible though (like with Will Robinson’s Gets It Better game about schoolyard bullying and suicide). Whereas a tabletop game gives a designer easier access to mechanics and rule structures, since they have to be very careful about writing down instructions to the players.

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