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Video (screencast): Characteristics of Game Boards

This video has many more graphics in it (of boards, of course) than is typical of my screencasts.

Text of the slides (please don't comment on the slide text alone, that would be like commenting on a book based only on its table of contents)

Game Design: Discussing “The Board”

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Describing, not Defining

Because as soon as someone says “definition”, someone else will nitpick it

Given the loosey-goosey nature of English, absolutely clear definitions are nearly impossible

So, I’m just going to talk about game boards, not “define”

Why Boards?

A board is a natural way to depict maneuver and geospatial relationships

Which are virtually required for wargames

Cards don’t naturally do this

Yes, you can use a “board” as a status indicator without any reference to spatial relationships

As in some Eurogames

We’re interested in boards as fields for maneuver that depict geospatial relationships

Is there a formula for designing a board?

I’ve seen novice designers ask for a formula, as though everything in game design can be reduced to rote, to always-correct solutions

In short: NO!

Game design is about critical thinking, the opposite of rote learning

But we can see common characteristics in many “classic” game boards

And common ways to make boards

Square Grid

Chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe, Stratego, many others (even the video game Civilization (I through IV, V went to hexes)

Easy to see, easy to make a prototype, easy for players to understand

But movement diagonally is very distorted (1.41 times as far, per square)

Adjacency is a problem: is it four

squares adjacent, or eight?

But if you’re depicting walls or a city

road grid, squares are very useful

Areas (like a map)

Looks most natural of all boards

Diplomacy, Risk, Axis & Allies, Britannia, a great many games that cover a large geographical area

Often used when more than one piece can be in a location (though Diplomacy allows only one per area)

Provides room for “individuality”, avoiding the geometric precision of squares and hexes

Hexagons (“hexes”)

Hex means six

Adjacency is clear – six adjacent vice 8

The typical wargame grid

Do hexes put people off?

Not uniform

Looked at one way, there are two ways forward

Look at it 90 degrees from that, there are three ways forward

Less distance distortion than squares (but contrary to popular belief, there IS distortion)

Not good for straight lines (such as walls or city roads)

(Illustration is a hand-drawn prototype board for my game Dragon Rage (1982, 2011)


The illustration (a space empires game prototype) is for outer space, but most are for land areas

Allows easy representation of routes, paths, bridges, chokepoints, impassable terrain

All grids are ways of showing connectivity

Here’s a connectivity diagram of the FFG Britannia map

The relationships between areas are exactly the same

But notice lines crossing in a few places

Other Grids

Circular (IMM prototype board)

Spiral (Four Elements prototype board)

And many variations

Not always Maneuver . . .

Some games only provide for placement, not maneuver, such as Ingenious, my prototype Law & Chaos (Mayfair someday)

These are hex boards, but it’s not always hexes for placement – tic-tac-toe for example

Go, of course, is placement-only, and uses the intersections of a square grid

What do they have in Common?

Number of areas in many classic games doesn’t differ wildly from chess’s 64

When it does, it’s often a hex board

Diplomacy 70-some (IIRC), Risk 42, Britannia 37 +6 seas

This also depends on number of pieces

Tends to be fairly high in games with lots of hexes, such as wargames

Piece count: Diplomacy 34, Risk “a lot”, Britannia about 55

Number of Connections?

If we want to analyze boards further, we’d count number of connections to each area (which I actually did with that space wargame)

Hex board, this is always 6. Square board, always either 4 or 8, depending on whether diagonals are counted

Examples of Pacific Convoy and DS – number of connections does matter

And we’d relate number of areas and number of connections to typical number of pieces

But you can overthink anything in games. Try actually playing on a board and you’ll find out a lot, if you pay attention

Think of a board as a connectivity diagram for maneuver (or placement), and go from there to choose the grid that works best for your game.



For most games hex or area movement is superior.

Squares are for squares.

It depends

This is a knee-jerk remark. No, "it depends". If you have lots of walls (e.g. a dungeon) or a city road grid, squares make the most sense. If you're making a mass-market game, squares are "comfortable" for people, where hexes may not be.

And if you count 1.5 movement when you move diagonally - if that's allowed at all - there's no more distortion than with hexes.

As someone who has researched

As someone who has researched squares and hexagons (and lets not forget triangles and random sizes). I have to say, Lewpuls has a point in that one. It is just a matter of taste.

Depending on the mechanics, sometimes squares are even perfect.

Then again, a random terrain like in Risk can do wonders too.

Still, the most used is hexagons because they have the most reliability in ("war")games.

Each grid has its own usefullness.

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