How to Design a Boardgame: The Journey of “Unearth”

Powered by Geek & Sundry

Hang around your local game shop long enough and you’ll probably run into some gamers that have tried their hand at designing a game. It’s fairly common for people who love something to want to try to create that something and board games are no different; I have a pile of paper cards and bucket of cubes as an example of my own failed attempt. Still, getting a game published is a big deal and it’s something many people aspire to. I spoke with Matthew Ransom and Jason Harner-designers of the upcoming game Unearth-about their first published design and the process of designing it.

One of the first things I wanted to know was what made them decide to shift from gamers to designers. As it turns out, designing came first. “We had created impromptu games while growing up in grade school by using the games we were playing at the time as templates for new design– Magic the Gathering and  Warhammer Fantasy” said Jason. He began getting into hobby board games after a 2008 trip to GenCon but it wasn’t until 2013 that he pitched the idea of designing a publishable game to Matt.

They were excited, and both saw game design as a way to flex their creative muscles while contributing to a vibrant and exciting hobby. Matt is a classical musician and sees game design as “an art form with different parameters and goals than musical performance”. Jason, on the other hand, works as a chemist and has a lot of his work constrained by regulations and systems. For him game design is a “creative outlet…where [he] can create whatever [he’d] like with no need to worry about being constrained by regulations”. That being said, game design can have its own set of rules.

Taking the step from designing for friends and family to designing something a publisher would want to sell required giving up some creative freedom. “A game for publication needs to be as component efficient as possible. Everything in the box costs something to produce” wrote Jason. “Gamers have expectations about what different types of games should cost at retail–you don’t find very many $100 big box party games, for example. So as a designer, even though you don’t have to make the final decisions about the components in the game, it’s very important to have a sense of how this will work for the publisher that ultimately picks up your design” he went on. It’s something they experienced first-hand. Their original design of Dice Lords had many custom dice which was changed long before they showed it to Brotherwise, and wasn’t the only thing that would change.

Unearth is a dice-placement game of rediscovering and rebuilding a mystical lost civilization. However it did not start that way. It began life as a Dice Lords-a game of battling warlords-before being reworked into Petals, a game of bees and beehives. Brotherwise Games liked what they saw in Petals though they have since changed the setting to what we’ll see in Unearth. While that can often be a sticking point for first time designers, Matt and Jason expected it:

“We fully expected our publisher to ask us to re-theme the game. Interestingly, when we first pitched Dice Lords to publishers, we got feedback that we had a boring theme. We had deliberately given the game a minimal theme, assuming that a publisher would re-theme the game anyway. We were trying to create a blank slate for any publisher to put their own theme on. This didn’t work out like we thought it would–publishers still wanted to see an interesting theme even if they weren’t going to use it. We had a much more engaging theme with Petals and it was easier to draw the interest of publishers. While it still got reworked into Unearth, the Petals theme helped us get the game in front of the right people.”

I think it’s particularly interesting to hear that an engaging theme is helpful, even while being open to changing it. While every publisher is different, they all have various constraints. Chris of Brotherwise Games put it this way: “We thought Petals really had potential…we were eager to change the theme to be better slanted towards our already existing audience.” This was only one of many things Matt and Jason had to consider when they talked to publishers.

Of course, none of that matters if you don’t have a solid game. When asked to give some design tips, Jason really focused on core gameplay elements. “It’s critical to find what elements in the game are the most fun and engaging and to make sure that every mechanism in the game supports those elements” he said. “It can be frustrating sometimes…but the end reward of having a well-designed and creative game that has withstood hundreds of playtests is well worth it.”

We’re excited about Unearth which is currently scheduled for a GenCon release-appropriate given where Jason and Matt’s journey began!

Have you ever considered designing your game? What would it be about?

Featured Image Credits: Jason Harner/Brotherwise Games 

Image Credits: Jason Harner, b kunes 

In addition to Geek & Sundry, Raf Cordero writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. Chat with him on Twitter @captainraffi.

Top Stories
More by Raf Cordero
Trending Topics