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What you can learn from tabletop design

Video game designers should consider looking at tabletop games. There is so much to learn from our big brother, an industry where each design decision directly translates to player experience.

Cliff Kamarga, Blogger

January 4, 2016

7 Min Read

After having a go at developing video games and tabletop games, I thought I'd share what I've learned with everyone. Since both industries essentially deal with player experience, lessons learned from one industry can be applied onto the other and vice versa.

Personally, I find tabletop design more challenging and engaging than video game design due to its restrictions and the fact that every design decision you make directly translates to player experience, no matter how big or small that decision is.

However, I just like to note that this article is more focused on applying what I've learned in tabletop design and applying it to video game design.

Author's Related History

Before I begin, I thought I'd share a small history about myself since it's rather related to this article. Feel free to skip this part of course.

I started playing video games at a very early age, around 4 or 5 years old. In the later years when I was reaching 11 years, I was exposed to the global phenomenon that was and is Pokemon. I loved Pokemon so much that not only did I became my school's official Pokemaniac, but it resulted in me creating my first game.

It was a simple 2-player card game consisting of a deck of hand-drawn Pokemon cards. Each player had a hand of 5 cards. A random card is drawn from the top of the deck to placed face up to form a pile. Taking turns, each player must place down a card whose element is stronger than the top most card of the pile (replenishing their hand up to 5 afterwards). If a player can't, they lose the game. Simple.

From there, I found the joy of creating games and continued to make simple tabletop games until I finally learned how to code when I was studying Game Design. From then on, tabletop games began to fade away from my life. But around 5 years later after graduating and landing a career in Game Design, I played Settlers of Catan with some colleagues. Playing it not only made me miss tabletop games, but I saw interesting and elegant designs in the game. From then on, I decided to pursue an interest in both industries.


Communication between the designer and the players is very important, especially in tabletop games where the players are only given the game's components and then left to their own devices.

Therefore, the rulebook is the most important piece of a tabletop game and must cover various topics and explanations, such as the following:

  • List of components.

  • The functionality of each component.

  • How to set up the game.

  • How to play the game.

  • The game's winning and losing conditions.

Some rulebooks also have a FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) section for special situations that are not covered in the main rules or for issues that are found late in the development where sometimes there is no time to rewrite sections of the rulebook.

Remember that unlike video games, tabletop games require the players to do everything. If players don't know what to do, they can't simply try things and wait for the game to respond. Co-operative games such as Pandemic or Eldritch Horror even require the players to do the enemy's actions for them.

As such, rulebooks must flow logically from one rule to the next as players read it from beginning to end. You want to avoid the players jumping around your rulebook as much as possible. In addition, you will need to be not only consistent, but crystal clear when explaining anything in order for your players to be able to understand and play the game without trouble or confusion. Because of this, you will develop certain habits that are useful when communicating not only to your players, but to your team as well, such as the following:

  • When using words specific to your game for the first time, you will automatically explain what it means or what it refers to.

  • You become consistent regarding terms, keywords, and so forth.

  • You avoid making assumptions and therefore avoid leaving out small details that your designer brain tends to do.

  • You create a tidier and more logical flow from one topic to the next.

Graphic Design

Communication is also not restricted to text as you can also communicate to your players visually.

During my time playing tabletop games and watching reviews, as well as working on my own, I've learned more and more about graphic design and the do's and don'ts of it. This may not seem as important since this is sometimes left to the UI/UX Designer, but as a Game Designer, I feel that knowing graphic design can help with the design decisions you make.

Sometimes, you may add a mechanic or feature to your game that you feel makes sense or adds to the game's theme. But if you find it difficult to communicate it to the player regarding not only its functionality as well as its importance in the game, you may consider changing it or even removing it altogether.

One of my favourite game designers is Antoine Bauza. I have yet to play all his games, but 2 of them have become one of my favourites - Ghost Stories, and Tokaido. Antoine is known for heavily using iconography in his games to avoid the language barrier. I highly recommend playing his games if you want to see not only great graphic design, but elegant game design.

Meaningful and Intuitive Design

Due to the physical limitations of tabletop games (and the fact that the players must do everything), you will begin to gain the habit of designing the mechanics and the game's flow more meaningful and sometimes more intuitive for the players.

In addition, when possible, you want to reduce not only the size of your rulebook but the number of components that come with your game (which in turn reduces the cost of production). I've heard several times from reviewers where they say that the designer could have combined two components together, or that they could have simplified a mechanic, or whether a certain feature of the game is needed or not.

Because of this, as you design your game, you'll automatically ask yourself questions like:

  • "What is the purpose of this?"

  • "Will adding/removing this improve my game?"

  • "Will players easily understand this?"

  • "Does this unnecessary complicate the game?"

  • "Is there a way to achieve the same thing but in a simpler way?"

Lateral Thinking

There's another benefit that comes from tabletop games having physical limitations and that's you being forced to exercise lateral thinking. It pushes you to find creative and elegant solutions to your problems. Sometimes, you can find interesting mechanics along the way.

In video games, due to its inherent nature, you can sometimes fall in the trap of coming up with lazy designs and simply have the game make up for it. This is something I personally try to avoid.

Remember that creativity flourishes in small spaces. Now I'm not saying that video games don't have limitations and restrictions of their own. But compared to tabletop games, they have an immense amount of freedom.

Pitching Your Game and Your Game's Purpose

This last part is not related to the rest of the this article, but thought it may be of some interest.

I was watching a video where a panel of very talented game designers were being interviewed about various things such as their background, how they come up with ideas, what inspires them, and so forth. It was a very interesting talk but there were two points that stood out for me personally.

The first is about tips on how to pitch your game. This is regarding to, as some people call it, the 5-minute Pitch or the Elevator Pitch. Zev Shlasinger, the president of Z-Man Games, Inc. boils it down to 3 questions that you should answer to your publisher:

  • "Who are you?"

  • "What do you do?"

  • "How do you win?"

The second is about finding the purpose for your game. The panel was basically asked about how early in the development process do the designers find out whether an idea is worth exploring or not. Mike Fitzgerald revealed that when he comes up with game ideas, he would ask himself "is there a reason for this game to be published?". If he can't answer that, it makes it hard for him to develop the idea further.


Well, I hope that this article gives you some insight and I encourage everyone, especially Game Designers, to not only look into tabletop games, but have a go at creating one. I'm confident that you will learn new things that will undoubtedly be both insightful and helpful to you.

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