How to make a boardgame, from one of the best designers in the world

Inside a classroom of a French games school twenty students are prototyping their boardgame projects. They are in the middle of a workshop given by Antoine Bauza, the renowned French boardgame designer behind games like 7 Wonders, Tokaido and Hanabi, which won the Spiel des Jahres—the boardgame world’s top honor—in 2013. The ideas behind the students’ games vary: from a gladiator combat defined by the actions and movements chosen in a previous phase, to a dining ceremony where country leaders need to stay away from their favorite meals to avoid going to the bathroom. Although the school focuses on videogames, everyone is excited to try a more tangible medium.

Boardgames aren’t new in Europe. There is a whole category of them, in fact, called eurogames, where strategy and skill are more important than luck and there is no elimination of players. People around the world are starting to love this style of tabletop play after decades of Monopoly or Risk. The support in Europe is huge, too. Essen, the most important boardgame event in the world, takes place in Germany each year, with more than 120,000 attendees. That’s around the same size of the San Diego Comic-Con. However, there are also lots of smaller events around the continent where people meet and play every weekend.

strategy and skill are more important than luck and there is no elimination of players

Another important characteristic of eurogames is that they show the name of the author directly on the box, putting emphasis on the role of the game designer. Antoine Bauza is one of the handful with a lot of recognition outside Europe. He started his career by trying lots of modern boardgames and prototyping his ideas. That was the key: start early with simple materials and testers. That’s how Chabyrinthe, his first game, got released in 2007.

The best word to describe Bauza’s process for making a board game is “iterative.” He usually writes up game ideas on his notebook and when he finds a theme that has potential, he starts a paper prototype. He then adds and changes rules and mechanics and starts thinking about the materials while trying it with his closest friends. Once he is more confident with the prototype, he starts making the graphic design more clear and tests the game with more people. He can spend months trying out new things. He says that it’s important to test new versions with small variations and not try lots of things at once. He also pays attention to the material that will be used in the game. He thinks it’s one of the pillars of the experience, something that differentiates boardgames from videogames.

There are not many French designers that can make a living only by creating boardgames. Even though it’s easier to publish a game, the authors just get a small part of the revenue. You need to have a hit to gain some stability. The hit for Antoine Bauza was 7 Wonders, a boardgame for up to seven players. The game has been been widely acclaimed and won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2011, the award that expands the Spiel des Jahres for more complex games. 7 Wonders, along with other eurogames like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico and Agricola have managed to get a lot of attention from other parts of the World, thus, acquiring more players to the whole genre.

Back in class, it’s time for final presentations. This is similar to what game designers do when they need to pitch a project to an editor and get his attention for a playtest. Bauza seems proud of the student’s work during the three-day workshop. Each pair of students has managed to create a paper prototype, a rules document and has made some playtests among them. They have gotten a taste of what it takes to make a career in the boardgame industry.