Designing Elegant Board Games

1 Introduction

Elegant – adj. – Pleasingly ingenious and simple.

When gaming, a player uses two types of thinking: Fun thinking and work thinking. Fun thinking, the type we love using when playing games, includes; planning strategies, solving puzzles, and basically trying our best to win.  Work thinking, which is the kind of thinking that takes away from the gaming experience, includes; remembering complex rules, maintaining the functions of the game, and tracking the elements of the game so it works.

Fun thinking is what draws us into games. Work thinking is the barrier to entry that must be overcome. If the work is greater than the fun, players will not feel the game is worth the effort. If the work is minimal enough and the fun great enough you have achieved elegance.

So how can we minimize work thinking in games and let players get to the fun more easily? The following are things to think about during design, development, and production to make your games more elegant.

2 Graphic Design

Listen to the podcast episode about this section here, featuring Adrienne Ezell, Jamey Stegmaier, and Geoff Engelstein.

Graphic design is possibly the area of a game that can help the most with achieving elegance. Graphic design includes all visual elements of the game except the illustration. The goal of graphic design is to present information. The better the graphic design, the easier it is for the player to understand that information.


Icons can add style and theme to a game and help make it language independent, which can save production costs for international markets. However, icons are only useful if the players know what they represent.

Icons need to be clear and distinct from one another. If players need to spend time figuring out which of two or more similar icons they are looking at, you have defeated the purpose of the icons. Limit the number of icons in your game and make sure they are visually and conceptually clear. Ideally a player should be able to look at an icon from your game, with no context or rules, and know what it means.

Don’t use an icon to represent something that doesn’t come up in your game often. Learning the icon will be more effort than it’s worth. The more often an icon can be used the more useful it is and the meaning will be more strongly enforced.

Color can be a useful way to add information to icons. There are some long established conventions of colors representing certain concepts. For example, red is commonly associated with health, blue with mana, and green with poison. Going against these conventions can be unnecessarily confusing to players. However, you should never rely on color alone to present information.


The arrangement of the elements of your game can make a big difference. Some layout will be dictated by the game’s mechanisms. If you want pieces to move from one area to another, those areas should be adjacent. Other elements, like information on cards, may have more freedom in how they are arranged. For these elements, present the information in the clearest way possible.

Think of how the information will be used. Does it interact with other information in the game? Would placing the character’s health on the left of the card work better so it lines up with a health bonus on another card?

Think of how players will use the components. If players hold a hand of cards, most of the information is hidden behind other cards. If cards are placed on the table, players can see the entire card, unless they are building overlapping rows or columns of cards, in which case import information should all be on the same edge.

Put Rules on Components

Whenever possible, put graphic rule reminders where they affect the game. If you have a phase where all the cubes in zone A move to zone B, have an arrow showing that. If every resource in your game scores differently at the end of the game, have a reference chart on the board. Whenever possible, take the work of remembering rules away from the player and put it on the components.

Visual Accessibility

Make sure all of the information you want your players to see is as clear as possible. Use high contrast for all text and icons. Don’t use color alone to show information. Be sure that your graphic design is visually distinct from your illustrations so it doesn’t get lost. If possible, your illustrations should further enforce any graphic design. If there is a map with distinct regions, the lines separating those regions should be easily distinguishable from the illustration of the map. You can go a step further and use geographic elements such as rivers and mountain ranges to further enforce the separation of regions.

Let Players Take Small Bites

Avoid large blocks of text or overly complex iconography. Keep the information separated into easily digestible parts. This makes things less daunting when a player first approaches the game and makes it easier to reference specific information later.

Don’t Fight the Player

Making your game intuitive to players will help minimize the learning curve and increase rules retention. Players are used to certain conventions for the display of information. Some of these vary by region like the direction text is read. If you go against these basic conventions, it can slow down the understanding of the game and increase the likelihood of mistakes.

There is a wealth of research on user experience design and the psychology of how people learn and process information. Make your game fit the way people want to use it and it will be much more enjoyable for them and easier for you.

What are some games that you feel use graphic design to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design with graphic design? What are some examples of graphic design making a game less elegant?

3 Theme & Illustration

Listen to the podcast episode about this section here, featuring Heather Vaughan and Jon Gilmour.

Theme and illustration are both very important for building engagement with your game. They can often be the first thing that attracts a player to your game. Before a player reads your rules or sees a play through, they see the box cover, the board, the cards. They have already started to form opinions. This can be a crucial step in making an elegant game.

First Impression

Theme and illustration are where you first create players’ expectations. If the gameplay matches those expectations they will reinforce each other and make the game flow more easily and feel more thematic. If the gameplay is at odds with those expectations it can be confusing. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

If a player is enticed by a box that gives the impression of an epic, 3 hour, space empire, battle, but the game is a 30 minute, push your luck, card game, they will be disappointed and looking for more. Even if they end up liking the game, it can slow down learning of the mechanisms if they are always expecting more.

If a mismatch of theme and illustration with gameplay is large enough, it can contribute to negative reviews of your game because you didn’t attract the right audience.


If engaged in a game, players pay more attention and learn more easily. If elements of the theme or illustration do not fit with the rest of the game or are offensive, it can be distracting and disengage players.

Diversity of characters in a game can increase player engagement. If a player has characters in a game that are more representative of themselves, they can more easily become part of the game instead of just observing the game.

Theme as Heuristics

Heuristics are rules of thumb to help you know how to do something. Players will learn heuristics for your game as they play, or adapt heuristics they already know from similar games. This can factor into what I said in part two about not fighting the players. If players come into your deck building game with an established heuristic of how to play a deck building game, going against that can make teaching the game more difficult.

People use heuristics for all sorts of different things outside of games. Your theme is a way to bring heuristics from other aspects of life into your game. Done correctly, you can simplify teaching some mechanisms because the players already know how that works. If the goal of your game is to harvest crops and one of the game resources is seeds players already know they need to plant those seeds to grow crops so they can harvest them.

These heuristics can also work against you if you don’t design around them. If the seeds in your game having nothing to do with growing the crops, your players will constantly have to correct their already established heuristic.

Illustration Should Be Functional

Illustration can be used to reinforce information from graphic design. Or, in some cases, make additional graphics unnecessary. Illustrations can also be a helpful way for players to quickly differentiate components. If your game has a unique illustration on each card, once players have learned the cards, they can quickly see that illustration and know what card it is. This is especially good if the illustration is representative of the card’s ability.

If different cards have identical or similar illustrations, they can be easily confused. Or, if the illustration is not representative of the card’s ability players can easily mistake the card’s ability.

What are some games that you feel use theme or illustration to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design with theme or illustration? What are some examples of theme or illustration making a game less elegant?

4 Physical Design

Listen to the podcast about this section here, featuring Catherine Stippell, Kathleen Mercury, and Sen-Foong Lim.

The physical design of game components works similarly to, and in conjunction with, graphic design. If you have multiple types of tokens in your game that function differently, but are all one inch squares, it is harder to figure out what is what. But if you give tokens different shapes based on their function, it becomes intuitive to separate them. If all of the resources are squares and all of the money are circles, players will know they function differently.

Encode Rules into the Game

You can take this further and encode rules into your game either with physical design, so pieces fit into the area they interact with. Or with graphic design, so icons match the shape of components that interact with that area. If you use shapes without any kind of symmetry, you can easily show how a piece should be oriented, if that is important to gameplay.

Many people have made a puzzle at some point in their life. They know if a piece doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong there. This is especially useful with physical design, like a cutout to fit a component. If the component does not fit into the cutout, it is a clear indication that it doesn’t belong there.

If you use physical design and graphic design clues, players will need to reference the rules less often. This can prevent interruptions to the game flow and reduce setup time.


In a board game, the game state must physically change. If there is no change, there can be no interaction, and therefore no game. Changes to the physical game state are a direct result of the interaction of the game’s rules and mechanisms. How these changes happen, though, can add to or detract from the game’s elegance.

Many changes are very straightforward. If your character moves into the next room, you will move the representation of that character on the board into the next room. If done poorly the physical design of that character’s representation can make this action inelegant. If the character is represented by a card lying flat, it is much harder to pick up and move than if it was a standee, miniature, or block of wood. Think about the physicality of your game components. Is it better if components can stack? Do players need to identify components from multiple angles? The colors of a stack of wooden cubes can be seen while stacked, but a stack of cardboard chits will only show the top.

Making necessary movement easy is only the first step to elegance in upkeep. Using everything mentioned above to get the maximum value out of the movement is what separates an elegant game from a game that merely isn’t annoying to play.

Where the component starts should be obvious from the physical and graphic design. Where the component moves to should also be obvious. When it moves it can reveal and/or hide information. The piece itself can represent multiple bits of information.

Eclipse is a great example of this. Players have a row of wooden discs (easy to move) on their player board. These discs represent an available action. To perform an action a player moves a disc from their row onto the action spot. This shows what action they took and, when removed from the row, it reveals a number which is the amount of money the player must pay for their empire at the end of the round.

With one movement the player selects an action and changes their empires upkeep cost. This is already more elegant than having to deal with a separate upkeep cost track, but they took this system a step further. You also use these discs to claim territory on the board. Discs used to perform actions will return to the row at the end of the round, representing temporary costs of those actions. But discs used to claim territory stay on the territory. This represents the growing continuous cost of a larger empire. It also lowers the number of actions that empire can perform because their resources are already used to maintain control of the territory.

With one simple movement the player makes several changes to the game state, and they don’t have to think about it. They choose to take an action and the rising cost is automatic. This removes the chance for making a mistake that could happen if the cost was tracked separately.

What are some games that you feel use physical design to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design with physical design? What are some examples of physical design making a game less elegant?

5 Time

Listen to the podcast about this section here, featuring Kathleen Mercury, Sen-Foong Lim, and Geoff Engelstein.

Time is a strange thing. It comes up in many aspects of a board game. There is the actual time it takes to learn, teach, setup, play, and clean up your game. But there is also the more nebulous feeling of time. There is no target time that a game needs to be to achieve elegance. The feeling of time is very important though. This is largely connected to engagement and excitement.


Downtime is generally regarded as a bad thing in a game. Downtime is when players are not doing anything, usually on another player’s turn. You must sit and wait for your turn, while someone else has all the fun. There are a few ways to lessen or remove downtime.

Non-real time simultaneous play allows all players to be acting at the same time. You can still run into downtime issues if one player takes longer to finish in any given turn or round. If players don’t need to interact with each other much, this can be a big time saver. The use of simultaneous play in 7 Wonders allows a 7 player game to take about as long as a 3 player game. However, if players must pay attention to other players actions or those actions interact in ways that need to be performed in an order, simultaneous play can be a problem.

Real time play can be done simultaneously or in turns. It either has a timer or ends at a predetermined event. Real time games tend to be more hectic and can bother some players. For this reason they are usually short, light games. A real time phase in a game can force players to act quickly during an action that could otherwise drag the game down. For example, open trading could take all night if players keep haggling. If you give them a 3 minute limit, it will only take 3 minutes. Be aware that this will fundamentally change the feeling of your game.

If your game has individual turns that are not time limited you can keep the interest of non-active players by giving them something to do when it’s not their turn. If they have any ability to interact with the active player it makes it worthwhile to pay attention and stay engaged. Perhaps they will gain a benefit if another player performs a certain action or they can spend resources to follow the action of the active player. You should be careful with these off turn abilities though. If a player has too many things to pay attention to when it’s not their turn, it can be overwhelming. With multiple players you can also run into issues with the order of actions and risk slowing the game down.

Another option is to just make everyone’s turn short. If each player’s turn is only one action, things will move more quickly than if they have to perform 3 actions. This will affect the amount of control a player has though. One action per turn allows other players a chance to interfere with a plan that takes multiple actions.

While it’s important to be aware of your game’s downtime, not all downtime is bad. It’s nice for a player to be able to relax a little after thinking through a complex turn. And in longer games, having a moment to step away from the game, without slowing it down, can be helpful. Your goal for downtime should be that a player’s downtime ends right when they are ready to start playing again. So no one is left waiting impatiently and no one is unprepared for their turn.


Beyond maximizing the value of every movement you should also consider when things happen. If you have to pause the game to go through a lot of game upkeep, it can disengage players and ruin the flow of play. If everything happens during a player’s turn this can increase the downtime for other players. First, determine if an upkeep action is really necessary. If it is, can it be incorporated into some other action? If not, when can it be performed to minimize interruption of the game?

In Scythe, every player action spot is split into two sections. The top portion is interactive and affects other players, but the bottom portion is not interactive. This was intentionally designed so players could do the bottom actions after the next player has already started their turn. Splitting actions up this way significantly reduces downtime and overall game length.

Any game upkeep should also require the minimum amount of thought from the players. If any upkeep information changes over the game, it is helpful to have a clear tracker for that information, even if it is available elsewhere. Players should not have to count things every round or remember how many of something was out last upkeep.

Control of Game Time

With the exception of strictly timed games, you do not have complete control over the time it takes to play your game. Things like analysis paralysis and stopping for conversations are dependent on the players. You can work to manage this though.

Don’t give players too much to think about at once. Start your game with a limited number of options. You can then add options as the game proceeds so players only need to learn a few new options at a time. You can also remove older options so the total number of options doesn’t become overwhelming.

If you do have multiple strategies players could use, it is helpful to have some setup to help direct players. This doesn’t have to be a restriction, but an obvious short term goal will make those early turns less daunting.

Start at the Beginning and Stop at the End

This may seem obvious, but many times games miss the mark. If the first play of the game is so obvious that players always make the same move, the game should start after that. If each player goes and grabs the 2 wheat, just start the game with each player having 2 wheat. This can also be an issue even if players choose different actions, but there is an ideal action based on play order. The same thing is true for the end of the game. If the last round becomes a series of obvious moves each player must take, the game should end before that.

This can sometimes get overlooked in a design through multiple iterations. At one point it was a really strategic choice, but one option was removed to fix something else and now the first turn is boring.

While an unnecessary first turn can be boring, eventually players will get into the fun of the game, an unnecessary ending can really have a negative effect on how your game is perceived. If your game ends with the exciting part, players will be excited to play again and have positive feelings of the overall game experience. If the exciting part passes and players still have to do a bunch of work, they will be tired of it and remember how tedious it was.

No Exceptions

If you are writing your rules and see yourself using the word “except”, you may just be wasting people’s time. An exception is a rule that doesn’t usually come up in your game. Learning and remembering a rule that likely will not be used is unnecessary. Often, exceptions are used to patch up corner cases in a game. It is much better to remove the corner case. If everything works consistently there is less to learn and less of a chance of messing something up. This helps create a smoother more engaging game.

What are some games that you feel manage time to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design by managing time? What are some examples of time making a game less elegant?

 6 Pulling It All Together

Elegance is more of a gradient than a specific thing. Your game can be more or less elegant and different players will have a different tolerance for things. But ideally you want to do everything you can to remove barriers from the players’ enjoyment of your game. Here is a list of things to do to improve your game’s elegance.

  1. Remove the not fun work from the players.
  2. Everything should be clear, both visually and conceptually.
  3. The more systems in your game are interconnected the more cohesive it will feel.
  4. Incorporate the rules of the game on the components that use them.
  5. Don’t let the game flow be interrupted.
  6. Cut the boring parts.

In short, elegance is a player always knowing how to do what they want to do, and being excited to do it.

Final Tip

Remember that you (meaning all people working on the game) are in complete control of your game design. You can solve problems from multiple angles. If a rule is really hard to explain within the constraints of the design, you have a few options. You can do your best to explain it. You can change the constraints of the design. Or, you can change or remove the rule. The primary goal should be to make a complete game that works together as effortlessly as possible.

Good luck designing.