Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Trying to learn new concepts from textbooks can be difficult - so why not try learning them intuitively through making your own board game?
Following on from my blog about educational board games, I started thinking about the other possibilities that board games have for students. There are plenty of fantastic games which can teach you new skills, but they can often be a little abstracted from the curriculum. Take chess, for instance. This classic game of strategy can help improve a student's problem solving and decision-making abilities, but it's hard to see how this will directly help them pass their maths exams.
The solution? Design a board game from scratch! Not only can you tailor it directly to your subject, but you'll also learn plenty about the concept you're trying to learn because to make a functioning game, you'll need to have a solid grasp of the game's subject matter. With that said, here's my four step guide to help you design an educational board game!
1. Identify what the game will be about
This is probably the most important step of the lot! Picking a great subject for your educational game will help you come up with a core idea which you can build your game around. The key here is to not be too broad or super ambitious. You might want to design a History game which teaches students about World War II, but you'll need to focus on a specific aspect of the war otherwise you simply won't know where to start and you could end up trying to include too many ideas making your game uncomfortably complicated.
This might surprise my friends (who know I have a copy of the nightmarishly difficult 'Twilight Imperium' on my board game shelf), but I really dislike complex games! There's nothing worse than sitting down with your mates to play a new game and having to spend over 30 minutes explaining how the game works. The hallmark of a great game is that the rules are intuitive (not necessarily simple) and players can actually compete on their first play. The best way to get clean and easy to grasp rules? Focus on a highly specific subject or concept, and then build the game with that single idea at the heart of it.
For instance, if you wanted to design an Economics game about the market economy, perhaps you could solely work with the mechanisms of supply and demand. Don't be afraid to branch out slightly, but maintaining one concept is a great starting point for keeping your design simple and easy to build.
2. Work out the game mechanics
Okay, now for some technical stuff. Once you've worked what your game is going to be about, you're then going to need to work out one or two game mechanics which will help bring your game to life.
A game mechanic is simply a system which is deployed by the designer to help the players interact with their game. An example you might recognise with is 'area control'. Used in war games such as 'Risk', area control games typically revolve around players trying to take rule different sections of the game board using their playing pieces. If you've ever played the card game 'Mafia', you'll probably be familiar with 'hidden role' games, where one or more players has a secret role within the group and players will sometimes have to deduce who has what role.
Got that? I haven't got the time to explain every mechanic out there, but I don't have to either as you can use this handy introductory guide from Zatu Games. The most important decision you have to make now is marrying your subject matter to the game's mechanics. A great pairing between theme and mechanics helps make a game's rules intuitive and easy to grasp. The opposite? Let's not go there.
You might love the idea of an auction-based game, but is that really an appropriate mechanic if your game is about biological evolution? For a game about evolution, a much smarter choice might be a deck-building game where players gradually accumulate more cards, mimicking the evolution process.
3. Set up the win conditions
So, you've got your theme and your mechanics - now what? The next step is work out how your players are going to win and what their turn structure will look like. In the process, you'll also need to start thinking about what components your game will need to help it function. A quick note on game pieces: less is always more, and you should always try to make your pieces as helpful as possible to your players. By that, I mean they need to convey the rules of the game and act as a useful player-aid. If you're not sure what I mean, take a look at the player boards for 'Root', one of the most acclaimed games of 2018. The game's designer Cole Wehrle has designed them immaculately so players know the critical rules and their options are on their turn, helping make what is quite a complex game far more accessible. Bring this philosophy to all your components (particularly cards!) and you'll be on the right track.
Taking the step from an idea and a set of mechanics to a fully fledged game can be difficult, so don't be afraid to look to existing board games for inspiration. Indeed, many successful games are often a hybrid of different gaming experiences. For example, 'The Resistance' is a highly popular hidden role board game which draws heavy influence from the acclaimed 'Werewolf' games (similar to 'Mafia'), they differ significantly in their win conditions which keep both games unique despite having similar mechanics. The key to designing good win conditions is always keeping the theme in mind. While it's perfectly fine to keep things arbitrary (e.g. 'I win after I gain 10 points') and in some contexts very necessary, it can certainly make your game much more exciting if the way you win is tied in with what you're trying to teach. Going back to my game about supply and demand, the game could be about competing firms in a market, so the winner is the player who makes the most money at the end of X number of rounds.
If you're still stuck for ideas, why not take a game you already know and then 're-skin' it with your subject of choice? Even better, why not add some elements of your own? Taking this approach can help you understand why the original board game's design works so well and by adding and taking away different mechanics, you can eventually end up creating something unique!
4. Testing, testing, testing...
By now you've probably got the basic shell of a functioning board game, congratulations! This next phase will require some hard graft on your part but it'll be worth it! Play-testing your design will probably reveal lots of things about your game: Is it too fast? Is it balanced? Do the rules make sense? Is there enough strategy? The most important thing to do is make changes one at a time and carefully test their impact, adding in 3-4 changes can make it difficult to identify what aspects of the design are working and what aren't. One tip is to try and play the game with yourself and do the first few rounds of testing alone. Although this seems quite lonely, you'll probably not want to waste your friends' time as those first few play-throughs could be quite choppy!
Once you've had the chance to try it out a few times, go back and ask yourself whether the game actually achieves what you set out to do. Do the mechanics help you get across the key concepts and ideas? Is there an information overload? Or perhaps an underload? Don't fear going back to the drawing board if your game doesn't work quite how you want to - changing one of your mechanics can have a drastic impact on how you convey the subject through the game.
The best piece of advice I can give anyone is that a board game is a constant work-in-progress. Even if you put a lid on your design and feel like you've completed it, there are almost certainly people who will put 'house rules' onto your game to switch things up. This is the beauty of board games! Unlike video games where you need specific coding skills to drastically change the player's experience by modding the actual game, you can just grab a spare sheet of paper, maybe some extra tokens or cards using whatever you can find, and you can totally re-write the rules to a game to create a unique experience for you and your friends.
So there you have it, my 4 step guide to designing an educational board game from scratch! Has this inspired you make your own game? I'd love to hear about anything you design, so do reach out us on the Titanium Tutors Facebook or Twitter accounts and share your ideas - happy gaming!
Blog Post Crafted by Oscar
Oscar studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick.
When he's not studying or tutoring GCSE Maths and Science, Oscar plays saxophone and co-ordinates the Small Band division of the University of Warwick Big Band.