Book Review: The Kobold Guide To Board Game Design

Prolific game designer Bruno Faidutti is quoted on the cover of The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design: “I wish I had a book like this twenty years ago.” That’s a great recommendation from one of the more accomplished game designers in the world, but does this slim book really give burgeoning board game designers what they need to create a successful game? More importantly, can it?

I first read this book over a year ago. I found a list of recommended resources for board game design, and it was both recommended and cheap. I remember being somewhat disappointed with it the first time through because a lot of the information was redundant to me–I knew nearly all of this already from my research online and generally being part of the board game community. So I put it away, a bit saddened that there wasn’t more to learn.

When I decided to read the book again for this review, I fully expected to be even more disappointed by its simplicity, since I’m even more learned now and have read more generally about board game design. What I found, however, is that while this certainly isn’t a step by step guide for how to design a game (how could it be?), it is a decent resource for those interested in understanding how modern game design and production works. More significantly, for me, it’s a grounding device. It’s a book I’ll value for its ability to remind me of important, fundamental principles.

Kobold is a collection of essays gathered by Mike Selinker, a veteran in the board game world. He and his frequent design partner, James Ernest, provide 3 essays each, with the rest written by a truly impressive lineup of designers, developers, and publishers.

I think Ernest provides some of the best essays of the bunch, and his that opens the book might be the highlight. Titled “The Game Is Not The Rules”, this essay correctly dismisses the reductionistic approach of many who write about games of dividing games into separate elements–mechanisms, art, production, etc. Ernest instead argues that the game is the whole package, and therefore you can’t create a game by breaking apart other games into pieces and re-building them. Instead, he argues for a dual approach–your “child mind” should be allowed to roam free and make the game of your imagination. Only after determining what makes that game fun and engaging can your “adult mind” come back in and do the work of critiquing and refining.(1) This is an excellent point and a good reminder for me to give my ideas a try before I demolish them with my critical mind.

“Design Intuitively” by Rob Daviau is another one of my favorites. It’s a well-needed plea to game designers to make sure their games are simple and intuitive to understand. “Rules shouldn’t define the game; they should only confirm what the rest of the game tells you.”, he says, and then provides a lot of helpful advice for how to make that happen, complete with a generous number of examples.

Examples and anecdotes help two other essays: “The Most Beautiful Game Mechanics” by Selinker and “Amazing Errors In Prototyping” by Steve Jackson. The former is simply a list of Selinker’s favorite, most elegant mechanisms in all of games. I think it provides an interesting peek into the way he thinks and designs. The latter is a collection of often hilarious stories from aspiring game designers and the prototypes they’ve sent to Jackson. From these stories you’ll learn to, for instance, never send a publisher the rulebook to your game marked up with indecipherable handwriting.

Some of the others, like Teeuwynn Woodruff’s guide to playtesting, and Michelle Nephew’s look into the nuts and bolts of publishing, are to-the-point, practical advice for people at that stage of game development.

Overall, the essays are generally helpful and interesting to varying degrees. I didn’t find Richard Garfield’s “Play More Games” to provide much more insight beyond what’s communicated in the title. Similarly, Paul Peterson’s essay on how to balance (and imbalance) CCG’s didn’t say anything particularly interesting on the topic. The rest are fine, and cover the entire game design process from concept through production.

The problem is that so much of this information can be found online by anyone seriously looking for game design advice. This book isn’t going to give you any revelations about the design process, nor is it going to go into much depth. What it will do is give you some practical, common-sense advice. Aspiring game designers will find it interesting, but not essential.

1. A point made by another book I’m in the process of reading and reviewing: Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman


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