The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design
By Mike Selinker, with James Ernest, Richard Garfield, Steve Jackson, and a dozen more of the world’s best game designers
Published by Open Design LLC, 2011
Disclaimer – I received a review copy of this book. This was provided courtesy of Dale Yu, one of the “world’s best game designers” listed on the cover.
I have read a number of books on board game design, and most have followed the same formula, helping the aspiring game designer through the process from inspiration to game to sale, often offering anecdotal tales of the trials and tribulations other designers have face. Selinker – a notable game designer himself – takes a very different approach, with twenty different essays, divided into four sections. As a result, the book doesn’t feel as cohesive as other books on the subject – but it does offer a broader set of advice.
The first section, Concepting, contains essays by some of the best known designers, in Ernest, Garfield, and Selinker – but the advice is the least well tied to the subject. A bigger issue is that the essays are simply too short. Ernest’s essay leads off the section, and at least does manage to touch on the subject of concept, pushing designers to think of a game as being something more than the rules. Garfield gives good advice in suggesting that designers play many other games – but the essay is only about three pages long. My favorite essay in this section is from Jeff Tidball, a name I wasn’t previously aware of – but again, it’s only very loosely tied to coming up with the concept for a game.
The second section, Design, contains what I feel is easily the strongest piece in the whole book, an essay by Rob Daviau which I believe has useful information for every reader – and further is fun to read. I’m not sure if it’s worth buying the book for Daviau’s essay alone – but if he ever decides to write a full book on game design, I’ll definitely pick it up. Andrew Looney’s essay doesn’t offer much new, but does put together a lot of good ideas in a coherent piece. I wasn’t nearly as impressed by the contribution form Lisa Steenson, a designer who I had never heard of, who has designed games I’ve never heard of. The subject – designing gateway games – just doesn’t fit with the author for me. Steenson has apparently been very successful in getting her games into the mass market – and an essay on that subject might have been very enlightening. But when I think “gateway game”, I think of games which all gamers know and many non-gamers know. I don’t think of games that have fewer than 200 ratings on boardgamegeek.
Development, the third section of the book, contains five fine, but unspectacular, essays. Dale’s essay on the development of Dominion is well written, but not particularly exciting. I really wish he had mentioned the title suggested by his brother Brian – Sir Shuffles-a-Lot – and other fun elements of the development process, and not simply stuck to the facts. Paul Peterson provides a fine article, but one very specific to collectible games. The section is closed by a very good essay on playtesting by Teeuwynn Woodruff. Much as with Peterson’s piece, there are sections which are only narrowly applicable – but even those offer useful insight.
The book concludes with essays on Presentation. Steve Jackson opens the section with a list of advice for submitting prototypes, and a few stories to accentuate the points; it’s a good article, but again it’s too short; an enjoyable book could be written about the mistakes game designers have made when submitting, and this piece only whets the appetite. Dale’s second essay in the book feels out of place, having more to do with the things to have on hand for prototyping than with the final presentation. Richard Levy’s article on pitching games is strong; much of the advice is familiar, but there are a number of useful tidbits throughout. Michelle Nephew closes the section with an excellent “publisher’s perspective” on game submissions.
I’m not really the ideal audience for this book, having been fortunate enough to have already had multiple game designs published. But I had hoped to find some useful advice, and the book came through on that. I’d also hoped for an amusing read, and there are sections which qualify, but I really wish there were more. And more importantly, I wish the authors had been given more space to write, as many of the essays could have been improved by being expanded.
Still, overall the book does succeed. I’m not convinced that it’s _the_ book on game design to seek out. Bruno Faidutti’s cover blurb: “I wish I had a book like this twenty years ago.”, is spot on; it’s a fine choice for someone looking to get started in game design, even if it’s not a clear choice. Good alternatives to consider are Brian Tinsman’s “The Game Inventor’s Guidebook” and Keith Myers’ “Paid to Play”. I would recommend “The Kobold guide to Board Game Design” as the best choice for those considering collectible game design or design for the mass market.