My First Foray into Board Game Design

The Doughnut, by Kate Raworth at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute

The Inspiration

Climate change affects the planet in many ways and is known to have been caused by human activity. In 2012 Kate Raworth, a scientist at Oxfam, published a way to graphically show both the environmental ceiling that defines an habitable planet and a social foundation that supports a just living space for humanity.

She created a visual framework shaped like “A Doughnut.” On the outer periphery there were nine environmental conditions, such as limiting greenhouse gases and air pollution, that are relative to, and are sometimes exceeding, an environmental ceiling. Her model showed eleven conditions such as everyone having enough food and clean water, that form the social foundation of basic human needs in a just space.

Now, I’d been working in the climate modelling field for a decade. We were trying to predict some of those environmental conditions using computer models. I was working on better predicting how soon after a cloud forms the rain starts falling.

At some point, I realized that making these models more accurate wasn’t really helping our situation, and we needed to make the current scientific knowledge more accessible to the everyday people. Raworth’s model inspired me to create a board game to make this information accessible to non-scientists.

The Bonne Projection, via Wikipedia

The Execution

I started out with a Bonne projection of the Earth as a playing board for a board game I was developing. I spent most of the year developing content, and reading scientific articles from a wide variety of academic journals. Articles about equality and wealth distribution, measures of how democratic a country is, and all sorts of studies on adapting to the consequences of extreme weather conditions.

This very first board game of mine got quite involved and intricate. When I was looking in to how to market it, I ran across the suggestion to have the first game that goes to market be a game that is very simple and inexpensive to manufacture.

So, I started on a very basic card game, a cooperative one. Soon, I had my very first play test. Wow, was that eye opening. I sure had rose coloured glasses on. Get a focus of activity. Connect the earlier rounds with the later rounds. Have unique player-character abilities. Create more and meaningful player interactions. These several play tests were all done with three players.

Then came the opportunity to have a play test with four players. And they crushed it without even glancing back, a cake-walk. It wasn’t even close, and didn’t have any tension like the three player games did. I needed to scale some player mechanics.

An early play test. The current version looks a bit different.

The Balance

The main player mechanic is a dice role at the end of each round. That dice role has the potential to dramatically change the collective adversarial position of the players, and do so for the worse.

The cooperative game was balanced when there were three players fighting to combat climate change in the 2020’s. When there were four players, it was a cake walk. I needed to up the difficulty level and balance the play when there were four players.

In addition to difficulty and balance, I needed to make sure the game was fun. How do I know if it was fun? How do I know if the game ended fairly, given the randomness and the player choices? Well, the play testers tell me whether it was fun. Being a mathematician, I can analyze the randomness, which I’ll do in a future post.

But until then, my take-aways this week are

  • Inspiration was at the cross-roads of searching for meaningful work and finding an unfulfilled need.
  • The idea was at it’s most pristine in my mind before I gave it form and shape in the physical world.
  • The path to balance the complex starts with balancing the most simple.

How do you manage expectations when you bring your ideas to life?

Preliminary Game Box Cover

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