The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Design Considerations

Greg Aleknevicus

June, 2003

One of the things I really enjoy about games is their physical presentation. I'm much more likely to enjoy one that has had a lot of thought put into the design of its box, rules and components. Often there will be a clever idea or method used that makes you wonder why all publishers don't do it that way. With this in mind I present the following list of ideas and suggestions that I think greatly increase a game's appeal.

When deciding what to include here, I've limited myself to ideas and concerns that do not (for the most part) require extra expense beyond time. Using hand carved wooden pieces would be great but the cost could hardly be justified. Similarly, advice along the lines of "use only fabulous artwork" is not all that helpful. Rather, the points I'm trying to state fall into the category of things that cost exactly the same to do the "right" way as they do the "wrong" way.

Further to this, it's not my intention to make a definitive set of "rules" for good design. There are some suggestions made here that will not be practical for all games. For example, Murder at the Abbey contains a lot of information on its Monk cards and it would be impractical to index it on all four corners. Instead, I think it best to view this as a check list, either implementing the suggestion or deciding why it would be impractical to do so.


The design of components can go a long way in determining how much a game is enjoyed. A good game does not necessarily require good components but they certainly don't hurt. Imagine playing Chess with flat, cardboard counters. It's still the same game but would it be as enjoyable an experience?

  • Tigris & Euphrates tilesMake tiles smaller than the spaces they're placed upon. If your game includes placing tiles onto spaces such that they're next to each other, it's better if the tiles are slightly smaller than the spaces they're placed upon. This means that they can be slightly bumped and moved without disturbing all the others. Good: Tigris & Euphrates (Hans im Glück); Bad: Streetcar (Mayfair Games).
  • Use highly contrasting/distinguishable colours for player pieces. This is a bit tricky as many people suffer from (one of several forms of) colour blindness. So, there's no list of colours that will be guaranteed to be easily distinguishable for everybody. Further, the particular colours available to you (as determined by your parts manufacturer) can vary widely so it's a really good idea to ask for samples to determine that the blue and green are not identical (as an example). With this in mind, it's almost never a good idea to include both orange and red as player colours.
  • Use shape as well as colour to distinguish pieces. A fair percentage of the population have trouble distinguishing certain colours, even colours that many other people see with a high degree of contrast. Adding different shapes or graphics can help tremendously, even for those of us who do not suffer from colour blindness. For example, every city in TransAmerica has a unique shape corresponding to the five colours. Ursuppe is another example that uses different shapes in addition to colour to distinguish the players' amoebae. It's also important to use graphics in a way that helps differentiate colours. An example of a poor design is Schotten-Totten in which there are nine cards in each of six colours. Each card has a picture of a Scotsman, from a feeble codger for the 1s to a great strapping lad for the 9s. It might seem that pairing the picture with the value to be the natural choice, however, it does nothing to help those who have difficulty differentiating colours. A superior method would be to pair the picture with the suit (so that all the red cards show the strapping lad for example). This would allow a colour blind individual to distinguish the suits from each another. Zirkus Flohcati employs just such a method and is far more useful as a result.
  • Schotten-Totten cards
    Zirkus Flohcati cards
    Consider the cards for Schotten-Totten (top) and Zirkus Flohcati (bottom). They're presented here in grayscale to simulate how a colour blind individual might see them. Since they use the same graphic, the suits in Schotten-Totten are almost indistinguishable from each other. However, the different suits in Zirkus Flohcati are easy to tell apart since each shows a different picture.

  • Use different components for different functions. It's easier for players to separate the different functions of components if they have different forms. Look at Monopoly—the money is different from the property cards and so it's easy to tell that they serve two entirely different functions. Merchant of Venus uses cardboard counters for almost everything and so the difference between an IOU, a good, an asteroid or a space port is not immediately obvious. If you use paper for money, wooden cubes for victory points and tiles for armies, it becomes much easier for players to instinctively know that each is different.
  • Make sure indices/icons are distinct from each other. Icons are great for "summarizing" important information in a quick, easy to read format. However, if you use a lot of them and they are not distinguishable from each other, confusion can arise. For example, Drakon has icons for a coin and a magical vortex that are very similar in colour and shape and are often mistaken for each other. If the magical vortex had been a different colour, it would have been much easier to differentiate the two.
Drakon's Coin icon Drakon's Magical Vortex icon
  • Starting tiles should be backprinted in a different colour. This bit of advice should be pretty self explanatory—if you've got a set of starting tiles, print the backs in a different colour so that they can more easily be separated at the conclusion of play. Good: Carcassonne (Rio Grande); Bad: Drakon, first edition (Fantasy Flight).
  • Samurai tilesUse a legible and distinguishable font. It's very annoying to have to deal with cards or other components that are hard to read. Make sure to pick a font that does not have this problem, particularly when used with card indices. It's sometimes better to choose a simpler font than a highly stylized one. Of special note, 6's and 9's should use a bar or a dot to make them more distinct. Also note that 1's and 7's can appear very similar. Europeans have a tendency to write 1's with a long "brow" which is often confused for a 7 by North Americans (who do not generally "cross" their 7's. A specific example is Samurai (see photo). Clarity should always be the most important attribute.
  • Avoid clutter. This is a difficult concept to quantify but it's the general idea that you do not want to crowd too much visual information into too small an area. For example, you may have some wonderfully detailed tiles for a "dungeon crawl" game with decorative creatures and what-not adorning the artwork. This is a definite plus but only if it doesn't interfere with the important information that tile contains. If you can't tell that a tile features an exit because there are all sorts of decorative spider webs all over it then the design is a failure no matter how attractive it is.

The Box

For the most part, the design of the box has nothing to do with how the game plays but there are still issues to consider. Most first impressions of a game come from the box and so a good design will go a long way to actually selling it.

  • List the name of the game on the side of the box. This may seem like a simple thing but it's amazing that some companies forget. It's also vitally important that the title is distinct and can be read easily from several feet away—attracting the attention of a buyer is a must.
Compare the Mare Nostrum box side with five other games. Which ones are people more likely to notice on store shelves?
  • Make sure any "back of the box" photo shows a legal game position. Players will often use any clue they can to determine the proper way to play, even consulting the photo on the back of the box. Generally speaking, this is a bad idea as often the picture will have been arranged by a photographer who knows nothing of how the game is played. I think it would be far more useful if some attention was paid so that any "in progress" position shown was actually a legal situation.
  • Alea gamesPrint opposite sides of the box horizontally and vertically. Check out the picture of Alea games to the right—one side has the name vertically, the opposite side horizontally. This means that the store owner/purchaser has the option of storing the game on its side or edge. This may not be a big deal to the consumer but having greater visibility in a store is a definite advantage.


You might think that designing cards would be one of the easiest tasks but there are a lot of stumbling points. This probably explains why there are so many cards that are (in my opinion) poorly designed. The main consideration is in knowing how the cards are to be used—most will be held fanned in a player's hand. This means that she'll normally only be able to see a small corner of each card and therefore "indexing" is paramount. Of course, not every card is held in a hand and so the design considerations are different for such cards. I also feel compelled to mention Collectible Card Games such as Magic, et al. To my mind these cards are generally poorly designed but I'm hardly an expert in that field. (The astonishing numbers sold suggest that people are not concerned with any flaw in the cards' design. It also seems that the artwork on these cards, which takes up an enormous amount of "real estate", is much more of a selling feature than for other types of games.) In their defence I must say that since these cards usually feature rules unique to a particular card, it is more difficult to design a user-friendly presentation.

  • Pico 2 cardsIndex cards on all four corners. Nothing is more aggravating than having to rotate cards in your hand so that you can read their indices when fanned. Placing an index on both the top and bottom solves this problem. Since some people fan their cards from left to right rather than right to left, having the indices on both sides ensures that they'll be visible either way. It's also important that these be placed as near to the corners as possible. The Avalanche Press version of Res Publica has the indices printed very low which means that the cards have to be fanned much more widely to be visible. This is awkward, especially when you often have hands of 10 or more cards.
  • Use large indices. There's a real balance to be had here as you want to make the indices small enough that the cards need only a moderate fan to be visible and yet large enough to be clear. Often the appropriate size will depend on how many cards the players will hold at a particular time. In Schotten-Totten, the players have a hand of six cards and so large indices work well.
  • Use a white border. Cards suffer from a lot of handling and can easily become quite worn, particularly around their edges. Nicks and scratches are to be expected but by using a white border imperfections will be hidden and greatly reduce the chance that the deck will become "marked".
Cards from Bohnanza and Verräter.
Which card is more likely to be marked by nicks and scratches on its edges?
  • Include extra cards as replacements. Most printing companies require that cards be printed in decks of exactly 55 or 60 cards. If the game does not require this many, companies will often print advertisements on the "extras". A far better use would be to include extra "blanks" to replace damaged or lost cards. Days of Wonder (Fist of Dragonstones) and GMT Games (Santa Fe Rails) are companies that are doing this right.


  • Have the theme work with the rules rather than against them. This is best described with an example: In Fantasy Flight's Cave Troll, players will occasionally place monsters on the board. These all follow certain patterns—they start out in the center of the board (emerging from a pit), travel from room to room and interact with the players' pieces. Fair enough but there's one creature, the cave troll, that works differently—he enters anywhere on the board, once placed cannot move and nobody may enter that room for the rest of the game. The problem is that, thematically, there's very little difference between an orc, a wraith and the cave troll and so the differing rules cause confusion. It's almost guaranteed that a new player will ask how to kill the cave troll, or try to move it or place it in the pit. The original concept was that the cave troll was actually a cave-in, that is, the room collapsing and this works so much better as a way of explaining how it works. Suddenly the rule differences all make sense and behave in a "natural" way—it's easily understood why you can't "move" a cave-in, or move through a caved-in room or "attack" a cave-in. In short, the way the item is themed reinforces the rules associated with it. Proper matching of a theme to the rules makes the game easier to understand.


Writing clear, concise rules to a game seems like it should be an easy task... until you actually try it! In fact, it's a very difficult procedure and one of the hardest things to get right. Complicating matters is the fact that no matter how good a job you do, somewhere, somebody is going to misinterpret them. With this in mind there are some general principles that can help minimize problems.

  • Blind test the rules. This is absolutely critical! I have very little patience for a rulebook that fails to answer fundamental questions about how the game is played. I believe that the main cause of this is a failure to "blind-test". Blind-testing is when a game is sent to a group who are forced to learn how to play by reading the rules alone. (i.e. without the designer or developer there to explain it.) Quite often people who have experience with a game will make assumptions that others will not and blind-testing will reveal this. For example, consider a "world domination" game which has the following setup instruction: "The players each take turns placing an army onto a territory on the map." Seem simple right? Well, what happens when Bob places his army onto a territory already occupied by Carol? The designer and playtesters may be dumbstruck by this as it seems obvious to them that such a placement is illegal. Blind-testing will likely reveal this and the rule can be rewritten more clearly as "The players take turns placing an army onto an unoccupied territory on the map."
  • Do not write intentionally vague rules. I've occasionally heard the excuse that rules were left intentionally vague "so that the players could decide for themselves how they want to play". Never, never, never do this. Players are fully aware that if they want to change the rules, they're free to do so. However, having to come up with the rules in the first place is a demonstration that the game was not fully developed.
  • Include a detailed list of components. This is a very simple and welcome addition to any game. Let's face it, almost everyone has lost a piece or two to a game. Knowing exactly what's missing can be very helpful in acquiring or creating a replacement. (See the point below about including replacements.) The old wargame publisher SPI was probably the best in this department as they usually included a printed copy of all the counters included in each game. There are undoubtedly more playable copies of those games in existence because of that policy.

  • Include many examples. Making rules absolutely clear and unambiguous is a difficult (sometimes impossible) job. Including examples of play is a very easy way to address this issue. Of course, extreme diligence is necessary to make sure that the examples actually agree with the written rules.

The above points address the general concept of writing rules. In addition to this, there's the issue of whether the rules actually state all the information necessary to play the game. There are an amazing number of very common questions that many games fail to answer:

  • Are a player's holdings private or public? The question is raised ad nauseam, very often for the game Acquire. There are advantages to playing either way and more recent rules state explicitly that the players are free to choose their preferred method. This is a great way to address the problem whereas ignoring it completely is very, very bad.
  • Are money/victory points public or private? Very similar to the above. If private, it should also be stated if these may be hidden from view (ie. in a pocket, beneath a player screen, etc.).
  • Are the number of cards in a player's hand public information? Not the exact composition of cards but simply the number held. In Adel Verpflichtet for example, knowing the number of artifacts owned can greatly affect whether a player puts on an exhibit. When the exact number of cards is not public knowledge, it's common that the cards must be held in plain view but stacked so as to conceal their number. Whether this is the case or not should also be specified.
  • When exactly does the game end? Most games are pretty clear on this but not always. What happens if the ending conditions occur midway through a players' turn? Does he complete his actions or does the game end immediately? If it ends when the draw deck is empty, can that last card be played?
  • Are fractions rounded up or down? This should be very obvious and yet is often missed.
  • What if a player has no legal move? Is that player allowed to "pass" or is a special action allowed?
  • Who starts subsequent rounds? Does the game continue around the table as it does during the round or does a specific player start?
  • Are ties broken? How? I don't think there's anything wrong with having games end in a tie but it's preferable if the rules explicitly state this.
  • When do you reshuffle cards? Are the cards reshuffled when the last card is drawn or when someone needs to draw a card? This may not seem to make a difference but it can affect the game if further cards are added to the discard pile prior to a re-shuffle.
  • Is the component mix an intentional limit? Some games use the number of components included as an intentional limit. In Mare Nostrum, for example, there are only 28 caravan tokens and this limit forces players to compete for these scarce resources. Risk provides 60 armies for each player but it's possible for the players to have more than this.
  • Is a player allowed to bid more money than she has? If the answer is yes, what penalties are incurred if that player wins the bid?
  • What happens if a player runs out of money during the game? Can the player take out a loan or is he removed from the game? If a loan is allowed, must it be re-paid immediately or at any time?


I'm sure there are many other ideas and tricks involved in publishing a game, but this article is a start. There are also things that a publisher can do to improve a game that does involve spending a money may be worthwhile. I'll finish by listing the three that I'd like to see every company employ:

  • Support your game online. Let's face it, mistakes are bound to happen and questions will undoubtedly arise. Having a simple web page with a current FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) will go a long way to keeping your customers happy. Providing replacement record sheets is another great idea that can very easily be implemented on a web page.
  • Make replacement parts available. Lost or damaged parts are simply a fact of life but it's a shame if a game becomes unplayable when a single part goes missing. For years Avalon Hill provided a list of replacement parts for every game they published, a brilliant service.
  • Include extra components as replacements. I really like it when a company will include one or two extra pieces in a game in the event one is lost. How feasible this is is going to depend on how many pieces the game already comes with—including two extra spaceships when there are only four to begin with may be too much to ask. However, if there are already 95 colonists then adding a couple extra shouldn't be a problem. (If you do include extra components and have an intentional limit [see above] then make sure to note what that limit is.)

- Greg Aleknevicus

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