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Why modding video games is easier than designing board games?

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larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008

Note: By video game design in this thread, I imply mainly turn based strategy video games which is similar somehow to board games.

Note 2: In case you have not noticed, it's a long post.

I recently bought "Warlock 2: the exiled" during the steam sale (a 4X fantasy game), and I decided to start making a mod. In fact, I bought the game for only modding reasons. The goal is of course to make a mod similar to master of magic (of course). I am really revamping everything, not just adding a few stuff. Basically, the mod should feature:

  • Replace everything: Spell, race, unit, perks, etc. Little thing from the original game will remain as it is.
  • Better resource flow: Better control on maintenance and production cost for consistency and avoiding bugs.
  • Better balance of units: Some units are too weak while other are impossible to defeat. The game suffer of "Give only minor enhancement to make sure no game abuse we have not thought is possible". Its a cheap way of balancing a game.
  • Accelerate the game: Near the end, there is a lot of useless management to do making larger empire more annoying than enjoyable to manage.
  • Add more structure: To everything in the game. Unit design, building design, spell design.

The list above is just to give you an idea, that it's not a simple mod like "Here is a new race and a new map". Now I have started modding since the beginning of the month, which means approximately 3 weeks, while doing painting in the house, and doing a lot of gardening, so it's not a full 3 weeks. I have a dozen pages of notes, and at this point I have a very good idea of how it's going to work with little need to play test. There are a few decisions left to take, that will be done later. Most of the work is simply to code the mod. The game offer some restriction that I had to deal with, but it was not much a issue to find a compromise or a work around to my initial design idea.

On the other hand I also have in development a master of magic board game project that I have been working on it for 8 years. The paper file is so big that I need a pendaflex for that file only, and I also have a 2nd file for prototype components. Even at that point, I have no clue how the game could work.

So the question is:

"Why it seems like a breeze to me to design a video game mod but it's very hard to design a board game".

Yes video games and board games are different while still being similar. I imagine that if I have some skills at designing turn based strategy video games, It should be transferable to board. But that does not seem to be the case, at least not entirely. There seems to be something in Board game Design incompatible with me that gives me an hard time with it.

So let's analyze a few differences:

Constants VS Variables: Video games has more variables while board game has more constants since stuff printed on cards remains. It does add a layer of flexibility to video games that board games don't have.

Single player VS Multiplayer: Single player game seems to be slightly easier to design because the balance of the game is not the same. The goal is to give a good experience to the player, not to make the game fair for all players.

Video games design brings new mechanics, but it's mostly adjusting variables. It's more like a mathematical operation which I could be more comfortable with. While board game design is more about finding the right mechanics, so you can't just use new combinations of numbers, you must test and search for a mechanic that fit to your needs. While in video games, you only change how the number behaves.

In board game, information need to be contained in physical components. Maybe that is the element that is blocking me. While in a video game, you can have as many entity and variables as you want. It's often an issue in some video games when there is too much information to manage. I always said that board games felt like trying to fit an elephant in a shoe box, maybe this is what I was referring to.

Many of the differences above seems to make video games more predictable, reducing the need for play testing compared to a board game where you play test a lot just to have a working game, and then additional testing to balance the game.

In board games pieces moves around the board, maybe that is a concept that is harder to grasp for me than only seeing how numbers interact with each other.

Some might say, modding a game is like designing variant, it should be easier to make that designing a complete game from scratch. Which is true, but even if I think about new games ideas, try to implement the same idea as a board game or as a video game, the BG version has more creative mechanics ideas to overcome certain problems, but I can still not make the game work. While the video game version simply works right from the start and It seems I have much less play testing to do than in a board game. Of course adjustments needs to be made, but the game works on the first draft. While board games, it never works on the first draft.

Maybe I cannot create new mechanics, I need to resign myself in designing variants or Clones. But variant often offend people, or players don't want to play variants when you bring your game, while for clone as a user already said "We don't need stinking clones!". So I don't think those route are an option either.

So this is why I am thinking of quitting Board game design. Yes you have heard me right. As discussed in other threads, people design games for various reasons, but it seem all those reasons does not work for me:

1- Make other people have fun!: Nobody want to play my games, in 7 years, fallen kingdom got played at most 12 times with real players. That is less than 2 games per year. There are also so many new games out there that people prefer to play than your prototype.

2- Make it for yourself: After solo testing the game more than a 100 times, how can I enjoy myself playing it? It's boring to me now. Even games that I love and can enjoy playing 3 times in a row (ex: catan), I have not played it as many times in my life.

3- Game design is a fun experience: While modding warlock, I have a lot of fun. Trying to design new units, and spells. See how they are structured, which number sequence I am going to use, etc. Very creative and interesting, and I am always excited to see the changes in action. For board games, you try something and it fails. Search for another mechanics. Try new mechanics and fails again. Repeat the process until you find one that works. It just lead to frustration after every iteration. In modding design, I know where I ham going, in BG design I don't.

When making board games, I seems that the only thing I am doing is compressing, compressing and compressing again. Like the elephant in the shoe box. While in video game design, it feel like implementing. Anything can be implemented, they are ways to refine and optimize the implementation, but it can always work. In board games, there are mechanics or concepts combinations that will never work.

I would only design a board game if it has the following criteria:

  • Short: Playable in 30-60min. To increase testing iteration I can do, to convince more easily players to try the game "We have a 30 min hole! want to play my game!".
  • Simple: To reduce the number of modification and mechanic searching I need to do. Probably games based on 2 or 3 mechanics only that exists already or know that it works.
  • Small: To make it easy to build, distribute, transport and make it more attractive to convince people to play locally or online (less printing).
  • Social: The game must require a social element in order to make the game enjoyable or work making it impossible to make as a video game. For example, trading, negotiation, trash talking, acting, etc. It gives a reason to be a board game and nothing else.

With those criteria, I probably have cut like 95% of my game ideas.

I don't regret having jumped in the world of board games, it had opened my mind in many ways, and I think many video game designers should do the same. I'll continue to play board games once a while, but I might buy less games.

All my youth, I was raised with turn based strategy video games like those make by KOEI (R3K, PTO, Gemfire, etc). I seem be to capable to easily modify those game to reach different design objectives and fix bugs. I thought this skill was transferable to board games since Turn based strategy games should work like board games right? Even some games like conflict, dai senryaku and advance wars looks like board game. But they are still not entirely board game, a tiny difference that seems to make a huge difference for me when designing.

When I first decided to design board games for good near 2006, I had a choice between making video games or board games. At that time, it was impossible to get published as a video game maker, and it seem faster to develop board games since no programming was required since many assets like music and sounds was not required (artwork still remains). It took me 4 years to make my first board game, and refined it in the next 3 years, I think it's actually more years than I though it would take. In that time, I could have the time to make a video game. For example, megaman unlimited took 5 years, solo designed (art and everything). So the time issue is not different from one model to another. And now it's much more easier to get published as an indie designer with all the new platforms available. Tools and libraries are more powerful making it easier to develop than before. Touch device open new game design possibilities.

So maybe this is where my future lies. I cannot really stop designing because I am cursed and always be thinking about it. The idea is to focus the time I have to invest it somewhere it will worth it for me and for the product I am working on. I might work a 4th day, instead of 3 days per week which should reduce my free time and will ask for better investment of my time. I could do a couple of mods, but it's harder to find a game that fit your needs for modding. I might have 2 games I would want to mod, but after that it will be over.

Else I was thinking making turn based strategy video game that I call "database games" like those games made by KOEI in the past. With probably a more attractive interface that could be similar to board games. In fact, I think board games players will be in the target audience for such kind of games. If I could make an engine to manage database games, it could simplify and speed up the development of future games I make. Not sure if it will take less time, but one thing for sure the game will be ready to play and published once finished. Which is not the case of Print and play games. For sure, if time requirements are the same, it won't be for searching a mechanic I don't know that exists yet. So I should more easily know where I am going.

I guess I'll only know if it was worth the jump after finishing my first game. I think my mind is somewhat set about ending board game design, one thing for sure, I am working on a mod right now, and if I am more interested doing that, I'll be thinking about board game design much less and eventually I'll stop. So the progression should be natural.

That does not mean I am not going to lurk on the forum anymore, as I am still playing board games and still like strategy games what ever their medium. So there will always be a need to come back. I might buy less game and become more a "casual gamer", who know.

Let me know what you think.

DifferentName's picture
Joined: 09/08/2013
That was a really long post!

That was a really long post! I saw it yesterday and was really intrigued by the title, then realized I had to set it aside until I had more time. haha.

I'm wondering a little about this myself. To focus on video games or board games. Lately I'm finding it really fun to start new board games, exploring new game mechanics to see

Also, the production and distribution of board games is so much more complicated than just throwing a game up on an online store for people to download.

larienna wrote:
I would only design a board game if it has the following criteria:

- Short: Playable in 30-60min. To increase testing iteration I can do, to convince more easily players to try the game "We have a 30 min hole! want to play my game!".
- Simple: To reduce the number of modification and mechanic searching I need to do. Probably games based on 2 or 3 mechanics only that exists already or know that it works.
- Small: To make it easy to build, distribute, transport and make it more attractive to convince people to play locally or online (less printing).
- Social: The game must require a social element in order to make the game enjoyable or work making it impossible to make as a video game. For example, trading, negotiation, trash talking, acting, etc. It gives a reason to be a board game and nothing else.

With those criteria, I probably have cut like 95% of my game ideas.

Those sound like a good goal. Maybe that's the kind of board game you should design. Setting aside 95% of your ideas isn't necessarily bad for the game.

Joined: 07/26/2008
I think it would help your

I think it would help your board game designs (should you choose to continue) to learn to think within constraints. Ultimately that will help with videogame design as well, but its much more obvious with board games.

Correct me if I'm wrong but, it sounds like you don't put any limitations on your designs when you start them. I think you'll find you work faster if you start with limitations. That is not to say you shouldn't shoot for the moon. But then the moon is the constraint, and not the open space beyond it.

I always work within limitations for my designs. With board games, that is usually a component limitation. i.e. no more than 50 cards, or whatever. Sometimes the constraints are the first thing I come up with, sometimes I have my pie in the sky brainstorm first, but I always set constraints early. This gives me context I can use as a filter for my ideas. As a result I rarely have large paper files for my games. It also results in me generally making smaller games, but I have a few bigger games on the horizon as well.

I'm not saying my constraints are never tweaked a bit later (especially if something comes up in testing), but having them focuses my decision making process.

Anyway, just my two cents. I hope everything works out for you and your future designs. Whatever form they take.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Sorry for the late reply, I

Sorry for the late reply, I replied to both forums at the same time, and the too many game thread got popular again laugh.


I think it would help your board game designs (should you choose to continue) to learn to think within constraints.

In fact I think that is the problem, board games impose me too many constraints, see below.


I always work within limitations for my designs. With board games, that is usually a component limitation. i.e. no more than 50 cards

The problem is how do you know that a 50 card restriction is the right restriction for your game. Why not 10 cards and 20 tokens. There needs to be a logical reason for restrictions. Sure restriction helps, for example, when I wanted to make a pacific WW2 game where the map fit on a legal page, it does add many restrictions to deal with. Sometimes it does stimulate creativity, but it also mean that you will be struggling a lot to find a solution. Sometime you struggle so much that you realize that there is no solution and need to make a different kind of game.

There are 5 elements that seems to differ between turn based strategy video games and board games:

1- Physical components. Being forced to put information in to physical components is one of the biggest restriction of all that I might have a hard time dealing with.

2- Finite Component: Having a finite number of components is a minor restriction, but you still need to consider it. You cannot make a game with 10000 cards for example.

3- Quantity of Information: In theory, video games can hold more information, but I think BG can be similar depending on the pieces. Card can hold much more information compared to a token. But a token can be placed well on a battlefield made of an hex grid. With cards, it would takes much larger hexes.

4- Variability of Information: Many information on board games will not be variable since once they are printed, they cannot be changed, while in video games, you can have many variable information. Sometimes too much.

5- Range of information: Board games seems to reduce range of values due to the limited way to keep track of variable information. For example, instead of giving 10 HP to each unit like VG does it, you give 2 HP to each unit and flip the token to keep track of wounds.

Now I always said that video games designers should learn from board game design. If I were to make video games instead, what would be the heritage I should bring to video games. I think point 3, 4 and 5 would be the key. The advantage of video game is that it makes it easier to design by breaking restriction from point 1 and 2. But sometimes it just becomes too complicated because there is too much variable information. By restriction point 3, 4, and 5. It should give a board game feeling while not adding a physical restriction.

3- Quantity of Information: Less information makes it easier for the player to remember and browse. The game is easier to learn, and requires less space to display on the screen.

4- variability of information: Make it possible for player to memorize information instead of constantly looking if the information has been updated. It could make it easier to analyze the board or plan ahead what could happen, thus increasing strategy

5- range of information: make it easier to analyze the game and could improve computation or the planning of strategies.

So if I make video games, I'll keep that in mind to constrain information (which I am unconsciously doing right now in my mod), but at last I'll have less physical restrictions. Those 3 restriction are subjective to the designer, so I am not forced to compress, I compress only if necessary.


Also, even if you're not designing board games anymore, do try to pop into the board game design fora from time to time to help out struggling fledgling designers with their posted woes. It scratches two itches at once: the joy of helping others, and game design brainstorming while leaving the bothersome filtering to someone else! [/quote]

I might be less active, but I might not be inactive. Well see.

For example, when you are making a mod of an already-working game, then everything "works by default", so anything that it does not occur to you to change is taken care of automatically.

Have you considered making board game variants? Lots of board game designers start by making variants rather than entire games. It may help you capture that "just plugging in numbers" feel, and if you choose a game your friends already like that may help persuade them to try it.

Yes I agree with that, even if I change everything, there is a basic structure that remains. I already made a good load of variant in the past. That is one thing I could continue doing, the problems is that they are never really well received. Some are, but some other people would cut my head for doing it (ex: adding dices to LOTR confrontation). It seems to work if it offers a new way to play the game, or if everybody agrees that the game is flawed and need to be fixed (rarely the case).

I also have been blamed many times that I should make my own games instead of modifying other peoples game. So yes not everybody likes variants.

You speak as if you have created several different video games that are not variants and that you developed to the point where someone could theoretically download and play them

I have compared some of my design ideas as video games or as board games. As video games you are basically implementing a game a bit like you when design a computer system. There is no system that cannot be implemented with modules and an database. It might not be the most optimized work flow or interface but it will work. For example, I wanted to make a game that could be summarized as a mix of pacific WW2 and piracy in the Caribbeans. So as a video game, you know you have ships, base/cities, commodities, etc. You can easily set up variables for each of these properties, and in the end you'll have a working program. You might end up with a game too long, or with too much management to do forcing you to simplify a few things. But at the base, the game works.

But as a board game, it does not work, because for example, if you have 50 bases on the pacific map that hold information like goods for trade, left over military forces, etc, you will not have enough space on your table to hold, maintain and update that much information. So a solution that was found was to use a trail system like fury of dracula, where only the 5 last place you have visited will be recorded, and when a place get kicked out of the trail, it got reset to it's initial value (got reinforced and supplied). Now if I did not stumble on that mechanic by either playing other games, or having a struck of genius, I would still be stuck with a game that does not work.

Have they given any feedback on why they don't want to play? Do they say what works and what doesn't work?

Well first, I am not really a good seller, second when at the prototype phase, it's hard to convince people to play an unfinished game where there are tons of other finished games competing with yours. Again, the too many games syndrome. Finally, I know that I do not have a very social personality, so I don't meet a lot of people so I have less opportunity to make my game be played by others. This is why I was thinking of making solitaire board games.

Have you thought about a pnp or a prototype that you could send to others?

My game was only PnP. I think review copies were sent after the first publication.

Don't try to force pound a square peg into a round hole. if it doesn't work, ask the question, "why doesn't mechanic might work?" The only way to learn is by discovering what does not work.

Maybe that is the problem, I know something does not work but I cannot easily identify it because it could depend on many other factors. It can range from conflicting special abilities to a bad shape of card.

4) All board games are as social as the people playing it want to be.

True, board games implies a social aspect, but some kind of games MUST be social in order to work. Either directly, for example negotiation games (playing dune express without talking is impossible), or indirectly like in St0ck T!ck3r which for example is pretty boring unless you have all that trash talking and teasing around the table. So in order to make my design worth it, it would need to have a social aspect.

Okay, I looked at the Fallen Kingdom's Demo and I think it's to parts heavy and mechanics heavy. Reading the rules made me feel like i was working, which usually means that it's going to be heavy. Perhaps that was your initial goal, but heavy war games that don't scratch a specific itch make me feel like I'm playing a long version of Civ...without the tech upgrades.

First, which version did you read, the latest is the 2nd revision which has many simplifications:

Second, I don't know what is your definition of heavy, if it's for the play time (around 3 hours) then yes. If it's for the decisions to make, then it's not heavy at all. In fact it's inspired on Britania, but with no historical aspect.

On the other hand, you could probably significantly reduce your enjoyment of modding by deleting a script that handles combat or map generation and rewriting it from scratch (No notes!).

Unfortunately, there is not much script to change in the game. A map generation script is indeed boring to make because it has little relation with the rules of the games. It's basically using fractal algorithm to make the computer generate what you want. So it's like making a path finding algorithm, it's just and algorithm, it's not game rule design.

Modding video games is probably easier than designing board games, but it's an uneven comparison.

I agree that a mod is more like a variant, but that made me realize that the thinking I was doing behind both type of design were different.

but equally that can be a trap that leads you to expect that a heavy-maths simulation approach to the underlying mechanisms will automatically result in a fun game

Yes I know that trap, most strategy video games fall into it, and I fall into it too with my first "Wizardry Legacy" rule design. This is why I previously talked about restricting variables which should make me avoid those traps. I think I am looking for some sort of hybrid games that use the best of both worlds.

(And for what it's worth, we've found that your (OP's) Alliances variant for Dune Express is definitely a benefit to the game.)

Like I said, some variants I make really works. If I continue to do so, I might have to set myself some criteria to make sure they get accepted. Or probably design variant for game I love to play as they are (ex: rune age), so that I don't offend people by changing their game. We will see. At least, I am not adding more games to the list :laugh:

Fundamentally, this. Having written several video games from scratch and designed and created several board games from scratch (both in a hobby capacity, since I value my salary and free time equally and therefore have a 'normal' job), I'd say that overall, they're more or less equal in terms of difficulty.

They both have their pro and cons. I just suspect that one could be easier than the other for myself. I imagine the only way I could know is to actually give it a try. Like I said in the "Too many games is like not enough" thread, the huge amount of games available make me think twice before jumping in the waggon. Does it really worth it? Do I really get something in return?

That what as discussed in the "too many games thread", OK I'll link it:

EDIT- a further consideration- it takes less DESIGN effort to create (add or modify) content for an existing game engine/framework than it does to create that engine/framework. Of course, the content might still require more TOTAL effort, e.g. when it requires much research or is rich in artwork.

It I am taking the video game route, I could be aiming for Java with LIBGDX framework. If I stick to turn based strategy games, I could design a specialized framework over libgdx. First I wanted to manage board games, but now I would design something more hybrid. Once that added layer is complete, additional games should be easier to implement ... in theory. But without trying it, I'll never know.

Joined: 12/31/1969
Rapid prototyping

I think that a lot of this comes form the fact that video games, at least when modding and not needing to write any new code, have a much faster iteration process due to the fact that you've got very rapid prototyping. You tweak the variables and you're ready to test.

BGs have a much longer prototyping time, you need to work out new components, print them, draw them, cut them etc. Even if you've got everything you still need to pull it out, put it on a table, arrange it etc. etc. With video games you're up and ready to go.

Also, in video game design you can translate algorithms directly into action. No need to figure out all the individual cards, just describe them with an algorithm and the computer will generate everything for you. Thus you're dealing with more "pure" math, which is easier to evaluate than an "obfuscated" math that you can get in BGs.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Hmm interesting! Well math

Hmm interesting! Well math based modification are indeed easy to change on the fly. No need to design and print new cards. But modification to the rules that would require new feature demand more coding.


I am still continuing to think about it, trying to find what bugs me in board game design. One thing that I did notice, is that I seem having an hard time abstracting concepts. Which is realated to the idea of compressing multiple elements in a more abstracted elements.

I think for me, I would have to keep things detailed, and add or cut details I want but not abstract or shrink them. In order to compensate for the increase of detail, changing the scale of the game would be necessary. For example, in my pacific ww2 pirate game idea, it might be very hard to keep track of all bases variables, but if I shrink down the map and reduce the number of bases it could be possible. This technique was somewhat used with the new FFG civ game, where a player can only control 3 cities at a time.

So a solution could be to design lower scale and more detailed games, but it's not a sharp criteria easy to control.

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