Book Review: The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design by Mike Selinker and Others from Open Design

Games. We all play them. It’s what makes us “gamers,” right? Whether you enjoy the occasional card, board, or roleplaying game, the one constant for me has been the “fun factor.” If I’m not having fun playing a game, it’s probably not worth playing. But until I started writing my own game materials more than a decade ago and started reviewing game materials over the last few years, I really hadn’t broken the experience down into what makes the games I play most often “fun.” It’s kind of like art and the old adage “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”

Well, the Kobolds have managed to virtually corral some of the world’s best game designers together and convince them that they should share some of their secrets with the rest of us. The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is the result and let me tell you, there’s an amazing array of talent talking about their shared passion in this book. In twenty different essays, these folks manage to cover the process of game design from coming up with a concept and designing it, to honing that design and the rules for others, and then presenting it to potential publishers. Soup to nuts, it’s covered here. This is an amazing glimpse
behind the curtain at what goes into getting a design from concept to store shelf.

Though I’ve had it here to peruse for a while, when I finally got to it the whole book took less than a couple of days to get through – but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a quick read. I strongly suspect that I could re-read this tome multiple times and glean different tips and techniques each time.

And what I absolutely love is that there is reinforcement of key points all through the book. For instance, in “Play More Games”, Richard Garfield (invented a small game called Magic: The Gathering) suggests that anyone who wants to design games should play lots of them – all types too, not just the kind you want to create. And then in “Whose Game Is It Anyway?” Mike Selinker (who has been involved with everything from Pirates of the Spanish Main, Axis & Allies Revised Edition, the Harry Potter Trading Card Game, and D&D 3E) shows why you need to play all sorts of games. Submitting your games to publishers that don’t really “fit” what you’re trying to do isn’t going to get you far. And how do you learn more about different publishers? By playing their games!

Other designers who contributed essays include:

  • James Ernest, owner and lead designer for Cheapass Games
  • Jeff Tidball, freelance writer and game designer who built Pieces of Eight, was involved in developing the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game and much much more
  • Matt Forbeck, game designer and writer who has worked with Pinnacle Entertainment Group (as president), Human Head Studios (as director of adventure games), plus Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, Mattel and many others
  • Andrew Looney, creator of games like Fluxx and Icehouse
  • Rob Daviao, Hasbro designer on projects like Risk: Black Ops and Heroscape
  • plus Lisa Steenson (Gut Bustin’ Games), Dale Yu (creator of Dominion, Paul Peterson (master of Magic: The Gathering, Dave Howell (The Primal Order), Teeuwynn Woodruff (Lone Shark Games, Magic: the Gathering, Vampire: The Masquerade), Steve Jackson (Munchkin, GURPS), Richard C. Levy (Warstone, Adverteasing), and Michelle Nephew (Atlas Games)

When you stop to consider the sheer amount of game design experience in this collection of people it’s insane.

Even as a reviewer, The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is going to be in my collection of go-to resources for years to come. The next time I try to explain why a particular game lacks the “Fun Factor” I’m going to dive back into this book to figure out why it didn’t work for me. This book should definitely be on any game designer’s bookshelf, but it will most likely offer some insights into some of today’s favorite designers for players as well!

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