Get on Board!

Copyright © 2003 Andy Krouwel

Article originally appeared as 'All Aboard' in Issue 33 of Develop magazine, in October 2003


Clearly this was a good few years ago, before the revival of board games in this country and at a time before mobile app development had completely changed the economics of the market. Fortunately that kind of backs up everything that I said. 

Which is nice. 

Even sort-of prefigure the XCom revival, although Catan on the Playstation did rather sink.

I was also playing a lot of Laser Squad Nemesis at the time. You can probably tell.

Still, when I finish faffing around at the start and get on with it (a common problem with my early writing) there's some good design meat here that still applies.


ll we hear these days is rising budgets, increasing team sizes, licensing deals and sequels. Unless you’ve got a triple-A title with a million in marketing you can forget breaking even, let alone turning a profit. Games are the new movies, baby, and we need Hollywood techniques for ever more spectacular sights and sounds.

There is another option. No fanfare. No flash graphics. No big budgets. Just gameplay, killer addictiveness, incredible replay value, a shelf life measured in years and a cult following. Want a game as successful as Advance Wars, Civilisation, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or even Pokémon? Stop trying to be a movie director, get back to your gaming roots. 

Go and have a rummage in the loft. Boardgames are the new black.

That’s what strategy masters Julian and Nick Gollop did. In early 2001 they were developing the ‘spiritual successor’ to UFO: Enemy Unknown, the highly anticipated Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge. 
This was a typical next step for the X-COM successful series. New generation consoles demanded the move to 3D, with glorious special effects, a realtime physics system and fully deformable terrain. It would be like playing Aliens, or Independence Day. It was also expensive. Way too expensive as it turned out. After wrangling with publishers and rumours of development moving to Eastern Europe the money ran out. The game was shelved and with it Mythos ceased to exist. Disillusioned with the demands of the publishing system the Gollops went back to basics and their boardgaming roots. The result? Less than twelve months of development later Codo Technologies released Laser Squad Nemesis, to immediate popular and critical acclaim. This intelligent, turn-based, play by email tactical combat game has been going from strength to strength ever since, with regular awards and updates. Email play has improved the player experience than moving to 3D ever could. It’s coming up to two years old, and getting stronger. 

Will anyone remember your title next year, let alone still be buying it?

Boardgame based design isn’t just appealing to Indies, the mainstream successes are pretty impressive. Nintendo’s Pokémon and Advance Wars are both heavily influenced by the style, and both have been top sellers. Square haven't suffered for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The approach needn’t be confined to the limited power of handhelds either, Playstation 2 owners are about to get a taste of one of the most successful board games of the last decade, Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan. This online-only title has been snapped up by Capcom as a free download. Revenue will be entirely driven by subscription charges.

Boardgame influenced titles attract a wide range of players, including non-gamers, are quick to develop, have a long shelf life and don’t require powerful hardware or the latest graphics card to run. So if this sounds tempting, here are some of the things you’ll need to consider.

Boardgames are an inherently social activity. Pokémon probably sold more link cables than all other Gameboy titles combined. Players like to get together and chat about tactics, games they’ve had, ideas for rules and board variations. One of the delights of Laser Squad Nemesis is the lively forum discussion. If you’re not playing face to face then a chat facility is crucial. Your players can be your greatest asset. More often than not they’re going to discover new tactics you hadn’t thought of, make constructive suggestions for expansions and be able to alert you to game imbalances and problems.

The design of your rules is the key to success. Ideal rules are simple enough for the player to rapidly grasp, but with enough interactions to allow a wide range of strategies. Tutorials and practice games help, of course. The computer is an excellent book-keeper and can add elements such as hidden movement and fog-of-war that are very difficult on paper, but there’s a temptation to let it calculate dozens of influencing factors in every combat. Don’t do it! Advance Wars and Pokémon both succeed because the player can easily work out the consequences of an action. Too many factors result in confusion and frustration. If providing opponent AI its also tempting to let the computer cheat, but boardgames depend on sticking to the rules. If the computer starts seeing invisible units, constructing units they don’t have the prerequisites / technology / resources for, moving at lightning speeds, teleporting or having mysteriously and consistently good luck this will sabotage players’ strategies, and alienate them. If you need to give the computer an advantage give them better units, a terrain advantage or at least explain beforehand that they are exempt from certain rules.

In an ideal game the player faces an interesting and tactically meaningful decision every turn. Pointless or automatic decisions should be kept to a minimum. Unlike some genres, boardgames do not value repeating pointless activities, or making the player wander about large areas. You don’t need to pad the experience. Your game will be played many times over, so make each thing the player does directly relevant and cut the fluff. If you’ve got an ambitious title then micromanagement is likely to be a problem. The Civilisation and Master Of Orion series have wrestled with this for years with varying success, but powerful task automation as found in Crisium’s Stars! can help to reduce the problem. If possible, design the padding out. One of the aims of Laser Squad Nemesis was that both sides should come into contact on turn 2, and not spend a large amount of time wandering around trying to find each other. Don’t unnecessarily draw out the ending either. Most players would rather get on to their next game. Give them an incentive to surrender or go-for-broke in a hopeless situation. This applies to the AI too. Nothing is more annoying than having to mop up that one remaining unarmed enemy unit hiding in a cupboard on the far side of the board. Your game will have to stand up to many, many repeated plays without getting tired.

This may sound like a tall order, but most sports manage it, and they usually don’t have the freedom to vary the units, the terrain and the objectives. The rules must allow many different approaches, and the ideal game leaves the player with a head full of ideas for how they are going to play next time. One of the biggest factors in Settlers of Catan’s phenomenal success is the wide range of different ways you can win. You should be able to fill your strategy guide with genuinely different approaches, not just provide a walkthrough.

As in sport, a fixed or limited duration can be useful. It gives players something to plan towards and builds tension towards the end. It also lets the player control their level of commitment. Finishing Final Fantasy X is a far more daunting prospect than the odd game of Advance Wars. A duration of between 10 to 40 turns is fairly normal. For an email game it may take from 15 minutes to half an hour to enter your orders. All these things that are manageable for the casual player, but scale well for the enthusiast. After all, you can play several games at once, or start a new one when the last one’s finished. You’ll need to design the length of each turn to the type of game being played too. In a hotseat or all-players present game such as Cosmic Encounter Online you don’t want players sitting around getting bored. That’s too much like a family Christmas.

So there you have it. Don’t be dazzled by Hollywood glamour, let the trusty boardgame give you inspiration. Your players, and your accountant, will love you for it.

Mini Bio

Andy Krouwel is currently developing a play-by-email espionage game for Sockmonsters, and co-authoring a book on the history of British computer games. His Hollywood-avoiding credentials are marred by his work on software for teaching aspiring directors, and distant descendents of his physically modelled characters will shortly be appearing in a cinema near you.


There are some ambitious paper-based Solitaire board games. Victory Games’ 1984 squad based wargame Ambush! Used a few sliding bits of cardboard and a booklet of numbered paragraphs to provide a full Finite State Machine AI system.

In the early 1980s MB looked to cash in on the video game craze by producing a range of board games based on arcade machines. Frogger, Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, Q-Bert and Pac-Man were among those to get the board game treatment. The games themselves were fairly pedestrian but had some cunning props. Pac Man for example involved actual plastic Pac-Men gobbling up marbles.

Civilisation has also been converted into paper form with Eagle Games’ recent Sid Meier’s Civilisation: The Boardgame. Ironically Civilisation was originally inspired by Francis Tresham’s boardgame of the same name…

You’d never know it from a visit to the high street, but there’s a thriving world board game scene, mostly driven from Germany. Look out for top titles such as Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, and Carcassonne and Spiele des Jahres awards. Settlers has sold over 6 million copies worldwide but is almost unknown in the UK.