In this week’s blog Dr Tim Somers, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University, discusses his experience of designing historical board games and offers advice to budding game designers:
In early September I put on a board game open day at QUB’s Graduate Centre. It was an opportunity to showcase a couple of the games I’ve produced, based on my historical research, as part of a Northern Bridge Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship. The gameplay has been designed through a process of play-testing with members of the public and drawing upon the expertise of published board game designers – especially Nigel and Sarah Kennington at One Free Elephant, without whose support this project would not have been possible.
The central idea behind the project was that ‘playing’ with our research can provide fresh ways of thinking about the past and create engaging teaching and public history opportunities. Board games get people sat around a table together, taking part in a shared experience. And in contrast to digital games, players remain engaged throughout the experience because they have to learn and regulate the rules of a board game together. Board games are also an accessible place to start exploring game design, as they do not require advanced digital skills or vast resources (see below).
At the open day visitors took part in a 6-player game of ‘The Royal Society’. In the game players are late-seventeenth-century curiosity collectors attending meetings of the Royal Society. This newly-formed society provided a venue for the production of scientific and antiquarian knowledge through the empirical study of objects. The game consists of a 90-card deck divided into 6 curiosity categories: flora, fauna, wondrous oddities, antiquities & exotica, prints & drawings, and rare books. Players takes turns presenting objects to the Royal Society, arguing why they are ‘curious’ enough to be admitted to the institution repository for posterity and further study; other players take turns voting on whether they accept these donations. The ‘President’ acts as the master of ceremonies and has special powers to influence other players’ decisions and votes.
It was enjoyable to watch the game being played without intervening. It’s structured to encourage a lot of discussion about the odd variety of objects that people collected in the past: from unicorn horns, to busts of Roman emperors. Players learnt about the blurred boundaries between art and science in the early modern period, the role of the ‘amateur’ and sociable clubs during the ‘Scientific Revolution’, and the influence of interpersonal and social relationships on the creation of knowledge.
One thing I took away from the session was that, if this game was played in a seminar setting, it would be a good idea to give the students a handful of cards beforehand and ask them to research their objects. The game would become a series of mini-student presentations. Aside from getting students to learn from one another, the game would provide its own amusing ice-breaker moments given the incongruous objects and the goal of puffing up the importance of objects such as ‘Henry VIII’s hawking glove’.
If you want to try the game out yourself, I’ve provided a download link for the cards and rules. Or you can email me and I’d be happy to create a deck for you.
I would, however, strongly encourage giving game design a go yourself. Below I’ve attached a few tips (tailored for historians) to get you started.
Finding a Theme
Academics are often challenged to distill their research into a few pithy sentences (‘Elevator Pitches’). Making games is a similar process of abstraction. Pick out some key areas of your research to focus on and eliminate the unnecessary. In the Royal Society game, for example, I focused on emphasising the variety of artificial and natural objects in collections, and the role networks and social relations played in circulation and valuation of these objects.
Theme and Experience
Once settled on a theme, you need to craft the gameplay experience around it. In the best-selling game Pandemic, panic is caused by the sudden spread of viruses. Something similar occurs in The Great Fire of London 1666 (2010), as fire spreads unpredictably towards the players’ properties. My collecting game, on the other hand, encourages collaborative discussion. If, hypothetically, your game is about the underground radicals of the London Corresponding Society during the 1790s, you might want to create an air of suspicion between the players. “Are you the informer? How can I trust you?!”
The Mechanic is the Meaning
With these rough ideas, you can start identifying mechanics to help convey your theme and intended experience. For Pandemic, this involves adding ‘epidemic’ cards into the main deck to occur randomly. In my collecting game, I added the voting system. And for the informing game, you might give players ‘secret objectives’ that set one person against the group – as seen in the semi-cooperative game, Dead of Winter, for example.
Without going into too much detail, mechanics can be defined as an ‘interactive mathematical system’ that influences the flow of play (turn order, types of decisions), components (cards, dice, tokens), and ‘winning’ objectives (collecting sets of cards; player elimination, etc.), amongst other things. There are many mechanics to choose from. You can search games by mechanic on boardgamegeek.com and filter to see the highest-rated examples. While these ratings should be taken with a pinch of salt, they can help you learn about different types of mechanics (worker placement, card drafting, dexterity, etc.) and games that have used them successfully.
Ultimately there is no ‘correct’ mechanic; rather they are tools to aid the designer. As the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design (2012) discusses, well-utilised mechanics should do the following:
– allow players to tackle creatively situations based on clearly defined choices
– be intuitive enough to make the rules obvious without players frequently returning to the rulebook
– provide a sense of uncertainty over who’s going to win
– be informed by the theme
– make people want to play again
In my experience mechanics are by far the hardest aspect of game design. Thankfully, no-one expects you to reinvent the wheel. Play a variety of games and borrow the mechanics from the ones you’ve enjoyed. Reworking mechanics into a new theme is a perfectly acceptable way to make a game – like changing up the chords of a pop song! The V&A’s videogames resident, Matteo Menapace, has even made a helpful guide to ‘hacking’ classic games: picking them apart and piecing them together into something new. The familiarity of these mechanics has the added benefit of making your game easier to teach in a limited time-frame. One a version of my coffeehouse debate game thus drew upon two popular games, Blackjack (1700) and Braggart (2010).
Prototype & Playtest
All first drafts are terrible. The sooner you translate your ideas into physical components, the sooner you’ll spot problems and opportunities. Impose your games on friends, and then friends of friends. When you’re ready, look up a Playtest UK event on Meetup.com. At these events designers bring along their prototypes, often in the very early stages of development, for feedback. It might seem daunting to present your game to published designers, but these events are always welcoming – just make sure you test plenty of other people’s games too! The feedback is honest and informed by years of experience, which is something that cannot be replicated by playing with friends. Ideally, get other people to play the game while you watch. Make notes during gameplay and prepare some questions for feedback afterwards. Don’t act on feedback straight away, though. Often testers will point out problems and may come up with helpful solutions, but ultimately how you respond to the feedback should be dictated by your core motivation: engaging players with your research.
A note of caution: don’t spend too long on the graphic design during the early prototyping (of which I am guilty). Work smarter not harder! Save time and money by cutting out cards from paper and raiding other games for their pieces. There’s no point designing your final components right away, because you’ll inevitably make changes as you start playtesting. Having said that, the process of making things is inherently satisfying and can help you to visualise what you want to do.
Basic Design Tips
Designing and making prototypes is relatively straightforward. All it requires are the following:
– an inkjet printer
– A4-sized sticky label paper
– blank (or old) playing cards
– Affinity Designer (or Photoshop)
With regards to cards, at first follow the conventions of typical card layouts. This is important because players have expectations of what a card should look like based on past experiences. Sticking to those conventions will make your game more intuitive and easier to teach.
To design a card on Affinity Designer, I created a template with 64×89mm dimensions and added 2.5mm bordering to make cutting and sticking easier. I chose textures and typeface that were thematically consistent. In the card above, I used ‘JSL Ancient’ and ‘English Towne’ – both free online – to imitate Roman and Gothic types used on prints at the same. Such prints were read in messy drinking settings, so I also used ‘coffee stain’ vectors to further communicate this coffeehouse theme (little touches matter!).
I can only speak for early modern history, but these websites are useful for finding high-res images:
– The British Museum Collections online
– The Welcome Trust [https://wellcomecollection.org/works]
– English Broadside Ballads Online (their new high-res images provide a variety of woodcuts to illustrate all facets of early modern life)
– the National Portrait Gallery collections online
– for symbols, search free-of-charge ‘Vector’ websites
When printing out your cards, add your card designs onto an A4 document, fitting 9 per page. Print these cards onto A4 label paper. You can then cut-out and stick these designs onto cards of your choosing. The same process can be done when making boards. Create a template with the same dimensions as your board. Then, fragment this design into A4 pieces that can be printed on the A4 label paper. I used the ‘slice’ tool in Affinity Designer to do this.
If you intend to go further and get your cards produced by a manufacturer, note that cards are produced in multiples of 18 and therefore you might want to create decks in multiples of 18.
And finally, a few basic but essentials points. First, make sure your text is legible and large enough. Don’t make players squint! Second, if you’re using ‘flavour text’ to explain your historical content, be sparing. The rule-book might be a better place to add contextual information.
And finally, if you have cards doing different things make them look entirely different. This could be as simple as orientating one type of card as landscape rather than portrait. These unspoken visual cues help prevent unnecessary lags in gameplay. Often these issues come up during playtesting.
For example, feedback from the open day led to more specific colour-coding for each of the six curiosity categories, rather than two colours (blue or green) for artificial and natural objects. This two-colour design decision was inspired by the historical theme, but it created unnecessary confusion and had to go.
We are seeing a greater diversity of games being produced than ever before. This year’s biggest hit has been a game about a goose causing havoc in a chocolate-box village (‘Untitled Goose Game’). But it’s still the case that a lot of historical knowledge learnt by students and the public comes from video games. Historians should therefore work towards shaping this influential gaming culture, pushing the boundaries of what types of history are represented in games beyond warfare or grand narratives of ‘civilization’. This is something that was stressed at a recent Edinburgh University workshop, ‘History, Medievalism and the Games Industry’. I hope this guide has been of some use in encouraging such activity, and please get in touch with any questions, suggestions or requests.
Dr Tim Somers is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University. His book, Preserving the Ephemeral in Early Modern England: Sociable Collecting, Political Identity and Cheap Print, is forthcoming with Boydell & Brewer.
 One Free Elephant is an Edinburgh-based independent game design and publishing business. Their latest game, Microbrew, is a travel-sized, 2-player game about brewing and selling craft beer. It won “Best Overall Design” and “Most Innovative Mechanic” in a 2017 design contest hosted by boardgamegeek.com. Check it out here! [https://www.onefreeelephant.co.uk/Microbrew]
 For further useful resources I recommend the Ludology podcast [http://www.ludology.libsyn.com]; Mark Rosewater, ‘Magic: the Gathering: Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned’ [https://youtu.be/QHHg99hwQGY]; and [http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/building-your-game-mechanics-tips-from-the-league-of-gamemakers].