I enjoy playing board games. One of these days, I’d like to make one, and possibly even publish it. I’ve tried to do so a few times now, but every attempt has fallen apart pretty early in the process. I have plenty of ideas, but I don’t have the skills to turn those ideas into something fun to play. I don’t even really have a good idea of what those skills are, or how to develop them.
I’ve long thought that part of the reason for this is that I don’t spend time thinking about board games the way I think about RPGs. I’ve spent the last 7 years of my life writing this blog; using it to tinker with D&D, and to build an understanding of RPG design. Before the blog, I wrote and ran adventures for my friends, made up new rules, new classes, and even attempted a couple entirely new games. With board games, by contrast, I just…play them.
That’s why, every few years, a post about board games sneaks its way onto this site. Those are my attempts to use the blog as a way of learning about board games. But, it’s a tricky thing. My bread and butter is writing about tweaks and extra content for D&D. That’s easy to do, because everybody who reads this blog either plays the same game I do, or they play a game similar enough that whatever I write could be easily converted.
If I do the same sort of tinkering with a board game, how interesting will that be to someone who hasn’t played that game? I could easily write some new races for Smallworld, or some new scenarios for Damage Report, but if you’re not familiar with the game I’m writing about, those posts will just be dead air to you.
That leads me to try writing about the games in a more generally accessible sense, avoiding the technical gobldygook that would only be interesting to someone who had played it. Realistically, that means I just end up writing reviews.
I don’t want to write reviews. They’re not interesting, they’re explicitly against the rules I’ve set for myself as a writer, and they don’t help me accomplish my goal. I want to learn how to make board games by tinkering with existing ones. Reviews don’t accomplish that.
I’d sincerely be curious to hear what other people think about this. On the one hand, part of me thinks “Fuck it! It’s my blog, it should serve whatever function is most valuable to me!” On the other hand, though, I put immense value in the readership I’ve built here. If posts where I tinker with board games would drive some portion of that readership away–(which would be totally fair)–I don’t think I want to do that. Perhaps the answer is a kind of reverse Joesky Tax. If I want to write some mini supplement for a board game, I first have to write a little review of the game to give context to people who haven’t played it.
Also, holy shit! This started as the opening to another post, but it has kade turned into a whole huge…thing all its own. I suppose I’ve been bottling up these thoughts of awhile. Now that I’ve put them into words, I feel obligated to share these thoughts, but this is too bloated to serve as an introduction to another post, and too skimpy to really stand on its own.
How about a practical experiment with that reverse Joesky Tax idea? Lets talk about Kingdom Builder!
Kingdom builder is one of my favorite board games. The base gameplay is very simple: you’ve got a hex map with various terrains on it. Every turn, you draw a card which specifies one of the types of terrain. You then place 3 settlements on that terrain type, trying to maximize your points within whatever limitations you’re dealing with.
That simplicity makes it easy to pull out and play, even if you have to teach new players, or if it’s been awhile since you played it yourself. But it’s not so simple that it’s ever boring. Indeed, I often have to study the board carefully for a good few minutes before I know where to place my pieces.
My favorite thing about the game is that it is incredibly modular. Everything can be swapped in and out with different pieces to change up the experience. The board is made up of 4 hex maps, placed next to each other in any arrangement you like. My set (The “big box,” which contains the base game and 3 expansions) has a total of 16 boards. Considering all the ways they could be arranged and flipped, you’ve got more possible layouts than I know how to calculate. And each board allows players to earn different special abilities, so that your moveset will change depending on how you set up the game.
Best of all is the game’s deck of 13 “Kingdom Builder” cards, which each have a different scoring mechanism on them. At the start of each game, the players draw 3 of these, which determine what their goals will be for that playthrough. So every time you play, you have to adapt to a new set of goals, finding synergies between them on-the-fly.
Given the modular nature of the game, it seems like a perfect place for me to start my tinkering.
Rules as Written: In some places, the art depicts bridges crossing over water hexes. These are never mentioned in the rules, so they seem to have no purpose aside from being decorative.
House Rule: Any hex which shares a side with a water bridge hex may be considered adjacent to any other hex the water bridge shares a side with. This works both for settlement placement, and for scoring.
If the rule is in play, using the water bridges is an option for players. They may choose to exercise it or not on any given turn. This rule does not extend to bridges over canyons, since it is possible to build settlements there.
Rules as Written: Each board has two identical location icons on it. During setup, four tokens matching the location are placed on the board, divided betwixt the two spaces. Players who build settlements adjacent to a location may take the token, granting them the corresponding special ability on subsequent turns.
House Rule: During set up, all location tiles the players wish to use should be set aside in a bowl, or small bag.
The first two players to build settlements adjacent to any location hex may draw a random token from this supply, gaining its ability on their subsequent turn as normal. If a duplicate ability is drawn, the player may replace it and draw again.
Kingdom Builder Cards
Fortified – Builds settlements around location, castle, or nomad spaces. At the end of the game, players earn 6 gold for any such space which only they are adjacent to.
Highly Specialized – At the end of the game, each player should determine which of the 5 terrain types (Grass, Forest, Canyon, Desert, and Flower Fields) they have the fewest settlements placed in.
Start with 20 gold, and subtract 1 for each settlement on that terrain type the player has. The remainder is added to the player’s final score.
Wide Ranging – Each contiguous set of hexes which share an identical terrain type is counted as a single biome. This includes cross-quadrant adjacent hexes.
At the end of the game, players earn 2 gold for each biome they have a settlement in.
Guardians of the Land- At the start of play, each player draws a terrain card, and places it face-up in front of them for all to see. At the end of the game, they will receive 1 gold for each settlement that is adjacent to, but not on that terrain type.
Part of the difficulty with modifying board games is making a physical artifact that is suitable to play with, This is particularly important for any component that needs to be part of a random choice, but even ignoring that, the physical artifact plays a substantial role in making a board game engaging and fun.
On the back of each of the 16 game boards, there is a scoring track printed. This is very nice, but the game hardly needs 16 different scoring tracks. It might be possible to use Hex Kit to make a board with a unique layout, print it out, and glue it over the top of some of the scoring tracks, making the boards double sided.
They’re slightly larger than an 8.5 by 11″ printer sheet, but using multiple sheets it could be possible to make a reasonably attractive play surface.