Tales from the Dev Side: Why Boardgames are a Great First Game by Sean Colombo

Why Boardgames are a Great First-Game

by Sean Colombo of BlueLine Game Studios

After Indie Gamer Chick said that our game, Hive, was the best game since Tetris (okay, I’m seriously over-exaggerating heavily paraphrasing here), she brought up that there seem to be a decent number of game developers starting out by making video versions of board games.

It was no accident that I chose to start with our first major offering being a board game. There are quite a few advantages of starting your game company with board games, and today I’m going to share some of them because it’s IGC’s anniversary and I’m an Indie Game Developer so I’m too cheap/skinflint to buy her team a real gift.

Faster to Market

Probably the single biggest obstacle that I’ve seen keeping people out of the game industry is that they can’t finish their game. We all love games and tend to have big visions (eyes) and finite amounts of time (stomaches). So it’s really a race to finish a game before we lose motivation or come up with a more distracting idea to pull us away.

Acknowledging this tendency, we should set ourselves up for success by choosing projects where the total amount of work is smaller. Starting with an existing engine (eg: Unity) or releasing a very simple game are good strategies. Similarly, you can cut down the scope of your game drastically by choosing something – such as board games – where thousands of hours of playtesting have already been done on the concept.

Many people forget to bake this into their time-estimates for the game, but the playtesting needed to make a game actually fun and with high replayability, is far trivial. For some examples, I was playing a paper-prototype of Chess: The Gathering around a year ago and I think Tim has been playing it every time I’ve seen him since then. It was a little awkward that one time during yoga class, but let’s just all be thankful that using Warrior Pose to summon pieces didn’t make it in the game. Similarly, I played Cannon Brawl about a year ago and the gameplay was what many would call “done”, but Pete and his testers kept at that thing and now there’s awesome new units that are like magic missiles and ba-bombs!

We certainly had to do a bunch of playtesting of our interface for Hive, but the literally-thousands of games of gameplay playtesting by John Yianni (the developer of the Hive board game), made it so that we could spend a decent chunk of time polishing visuals and AI while still being able to complete the game before we died of old age, went broke, gave up, etc..

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Market Recognition

Additionally, when you’re starting out nobody knows/cares who you are. If you start with a board game, all of its fans already know what your game is about! On our very first blog post where we announced Hive, we almost immediately had a commenter (who was a complete stranger as far as I know) telling us that they were looking forward to it! That kind of instant fanbase doesn’t happen on its own.

This is probably the point where someone digs up that quote from one of the Team Meat guys that goes something like ‘if you have a good game, the internet will make sure everyone finds it’. Those meaty fellows are wrong. They make great games and I love them to itty bitty pieces, but they built up a following from about a decade of games prior to Super Meat Boy and even had a specific MB following from their flash game “Meat Boy”. If they didn’t have their presence built up, SMB would not have sold as well. This buildup is the same for many of the indies that we think of as overnight successes: Behemoth cranked on several Alien Hominid releases before the (mainstream) world learned their name from Castle Crashers, Rovio released around 35 games before they ‘launched’ (ba-dum-cha) Angry Birds, and Notch (Minecraft) has been making games since the mid-80s.

Are you still not convinced? Wow, you’re stubborn. Allow me to predict the future! Ian Stocker made Escape Goat which Indie Gamer Chick reviewed as the best XBLIG of all time (no joke) and currently reigns #1 as the king-goat of the Leaderboard. He’s also released Soul Caster I & II and is finishing up Escape Goat 2 with Waking Mars artist Randy O’Connor, at the time of this writing. My prediction: even though EG1 was critically acclaimed, the reputation-snowball is going to make EG2 sell more than twice as much as EG1. I’m so confident that if it doesn’t, I’ll give out all of my remaining free-codes to Coagulate on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Now that I’ve beaten this dead-horse back into stardust… we all agree that your sales suck until people know you. Here’s where boardgames come in: board game fans will buy your game without knowing who you are. Now, you won’t get all “board game fans” but fans of Hive didn’t need to hear of BlueLine Games before they bought our first game. After 100 repetitions of our splash-screen, now they’re fully borgified and will probably buy our next title, Khet 2.0, even if they haven’t played that specific board game.

Attainable IP

Other than the very mainstream board games whose rights have been bought up by Mattel and Hasbro, many board games creators are still willing to deal with indie developers. The board game industry itself is parallel to the video game industry in many ways and most of their developers are “indies”. One of the larger challenges in working with these developers is that most of them aren’t going to want to put an up-front financial investment in. You’ll have to be prepared to eat through your savings just to take the gamble at releasing another game to market that may or may not be successful. That’s just part of the job though.

In addition to indie IP, there are a ton of games that don’t even require a license. For example, BoardGameGeek lists of over 600 public domain board games. These come with their own challenges too, of course; every platform seems to have 3 versions of Chess, Checkers and Go within a week of launch.

Spectrangle360 was another Chick-Approved board game based on an existing property.

Spectrangle360 was another Chick-Approved board game based on an existing property.

Reusable Code

Board games have a lot of re-usable concepts in them. Players, pieces, boards, plies, AI based on Minimax, etc.. If you do it right, you can make your second game far more quickly than your first. We had hoped we could make our second game in half the time of the first. So far, it looks like Khet 2.0 will take one-quarter of the dev-time that Hive took.

One huge caveat here is that making reusable code is a huge difference from writing a general-purpose board-game engine. If you want to start your project by making the most universal, extensible board game engine in the world, then you’re almost certainly never going to finish your project (see the first section of this post!). However, as you create things you need, it’s fairly easy to plan ahead and make sure that anything general you’re writing (such as Minimax AI), is made in a reusable way.

Now, Step Off!

If you’re looking to make a game to break into the industry, board games can be a great way to start! However, if you try to knock off Hive or Khet, I may have to go all Dr. Karate on you!

But seriously, have fun making games and whatever game you decide to make – best of luck finishing it!
– Sean Colombo

If you like board games or indie game development, please follow our twitter @BlueLineGames, or our Facebook page to see behind the scenes!

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About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

4 Responses to Tales from the Dev Side: Why Boardgames are a Great First Game by Sean Colombo

  1. Board games looks cool, but doing the AI was intimidating and I gave up on doing board games because of this.

  2. Pingback: Hive | Midnight Corner

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