Book Review – The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design

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
138 pages
ISBN 978-1-936781-04-1

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.

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10 Responses to Book Review – The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    I’ve read through most of the book myself and have to concur with what Joe writes here. It’s a nice collection of essays, worth the price of a download for me. However, the essays are not exactly cohesive and some seem out of place in the sections in which they are placed.

    I think the reason why Steenson’s essay doesn’t seem right is that I find her definition of a gateway game all wrong: that being a game with enough luck to allow anyone to win, regardless of how they played the game. Those kinds of games may be popular in the mass market (LCR, for example) but that does not make them “gateway games.” In fact, those types of games are really targeted at people who do not usually play games, and will never like the wider spectrum of games, and they will have the reverse affect of turning off potential gamers to modern board games.

    I agree that Rob Daviau, Jeff Tidball and James Ernest had the most interesting things to say, but then, like Joe, I don’t really need any advice on building prototypes or most of the practical information. Unsurprisingly, I found the essays on the theory and analysis of what makes a good game far more interesting and useful…even inspiring.

    All in all, the work has the feel of a well-edited game design journal, something that could be produced quarterly or bi-annually. It may not be the “definitive guide to game design,” but there is something there for everyone, and that’s not something we can say about very many games.

  2. Ryan B. says:

    I haven’t read the book but a comment Jeff made stands out:

    “I think the reason why Steenson’s essay doesn’t seem right is that I find her definition of a gateway game all wrong: that being a game with enough luck to allow anyone to win, regardless of how they played the game.”

    I would agree with Jeff and would submit the definition be amended thusly:

    An effective “Gateway Game” often balances some smaller element of luck while maintaining an emphasis on skill. This gives more players a chance to win, keeping them better involved with the game, while satisfying the desire that victory was attained because they played the game well.

  3. Ryan B. says:

    I might add that the reason I like “Gateway Games” is in part due to the fact that they are usually deigned with some luck element in mind. To me, “perfect strategy” or “perfect information” games seem like chess derivatives with a theme attached.

    Having a luck element in the game allows you to introduce “probabilities” and “risk management” to the equation and can also better geared more to player interaction to manage that.

    This is because how “risk” is played out can (sometimes) be left undefined. When that happens, the people playing the game can be brought in to fill that role. Syd Sackson was a wonderful game designer at allowing for a strong people dynamic to infuse his games with extra flavor by keeping a strong balance between luck and skill.

    I also like that the uncertain variables which have to be accounted for when games have some luck element to them. This helps to keep the game design “fresh” so that people can’t readily find “optimum path” solutions to win… a problem which can pervade “perfect strategy” games.

    However, when too much luck is introduced, the you do wind up with some mindless games, like LCR (an always excellent example). Those are never fun for anyone who enjoys having a critical thinking element in their boardgames.

    At any rate, my best example of a well rendered “Gateway Game” is still Ticket to Ride.

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    James Ernest writes about this (as do others in the book) and uses Bobby Fischer as one example. Apparantly Fischer hated the memorized opening moves of Chess, as it removed creativity from the first part of the game (making Chess a “partially solved” game). His solution was to invent Chess 960, which always started with a random setup of pieces in the back row (the same for both players, however).

    As I am usually playing games with a mixed group including people who are not “hobby gamers,” so-called “gateway games” are a mainstay in my collection. These are the games that have simple rules, some random elements (so that even when one must guess, it is, at least, an educated guess), but still leave room for interesting (if not mind-melting) decisions and creative play. Some people come away from those games with an interest in deeper games, and some will still never buy one themselves, but usually everyone comes away from the experience having had a fun time.

  5. Ryan B. says:

    Jeff Allers Quote:

    “As I am usually playing games with a mixed group including people who are not “hobby gamers,” so-called “gateway games” are a mainstay in my collection. These are the games that have simple rules, some random elements (so that even when one must guess, it is, at least, an educated guess), but still leave room for interesting (if not mind-melting) decisions and creative play. Some people come away from those games with an interest in deeper games, and some will still never buy one themselves, but usually everyone comes away from the experience having had a fun time.”

    So VERY well said. Jeff Allers for President! Or at least give him a page in this book…

  6. Mark Johnson says:

    Is this only available in a Kindle edition? That’s all I saw on Amazon.

  7. Joe Huber says:

    The copy I reviewed was a physical book…

  8. jeffinberlin says:

    Mark, I ordered the pdf version from the Kobold webpage.

    Also, Ryan, I just added a list on my blog, Berlin Game Design, of 53 of the most popular “Gateway Games” played at the game nights I’ve hosted over the years (see link to the right).

    And there is no way I’d want to be president these days, although I might be able to get the country’s mind off of its problems by declaring, “There will be bread and games!”

  9. Ryan B. says:

    Wow Jeff, just took a look at it. You and I might have some slightly different ideas on what to introduce but it is a very good list in many respects. The main difference is I won’t introduce games with odd names or themes. And I won’t introduce games where the theme doesn’t come through in the gameplay.

    But I look at your blog in more detail. Very well done. In fact, I did something fairly rare for me. I liked your page so much, that I bookmarked it. But you really had some excellent material and it was thoughtfully presented.

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