Part of making the future of board games means knowing where the industry has been.
I’m of the firm belief that each and every game you can play can teach you something, no matter how old it is, whether it’s a game you like or not, and so on. All 10 of these games are old and in the public domain, and there are plenty of other ‘classic’ games out there. My goal here isn’t to name them all, just a selection that have something to teach us.
(Note: all pictures are from the Nintendo Switch title Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics. If you have a Switch, this is a solid title, great for 1 or 2 players sitting on the same couch, and has a number of other games to boot.)
Lesson #1: Avoid tacking stuff on to fix fundamental issues
The timeless game of chess has a ridiculously high skill ceiling. What it lacks in luck it more than makes up for in perfect-information strategy.
While loved by many, the modern board game designer has to consider just how high a skill ceiling they want their game to have. If the more skilled player always wins, less-skilled players won’t be as keen to give it another go. Consider why ELO ratings and chess clocks were both tacked on by modern players – they’re necessary to ensure competitive play and a reasonable game length, respectively.
Lesson #2: find the right balance of strategy and luck for your game
OK, confession time: until I played it on the Switch, I had never played backgammon before. We had plenty of other board games growing up, just not this one.
Backgammon does a great job of creating interesting decisions from little more than a couple of dice, some markers, and a simple set of rules. With several clusters of pieces scattered across the board, you’ll usually have a lot of moves available to you, but depending on who you’re playing, leaving a piece vulnerable is rarely a good idea.
If chess is pure strategy, and something like War or Candyland is pure luck, Backgammon is just about perfectly placed in the middle of that spectrum. The more strategic player will often win, but the luckier player also has a pretty heavy thumb on the scale.
For designers, it’s worth asking where your game fits on the ‘Strategy / Luck’ spectrum, and what could be done to push it one way or the other. It might just be a variant worth testing, or it might become the better version of the game.
Lesson #3: more pieces ≠ more interesting choices
Known as Ludo or Parcheesi, the notion of rolling a die and moving a pawn has been well established in many games such as this one. It was one dominant mechanic for a long time and a lot of games, and even now is a mechanic to avoid for that very reason.
Ludo asks the question ‘What happens when you get more than one pawn to choose from?’ Back when a game’s main job was to pass the time, sure, this worked. You even got the choice (occasionally) to capture an opponent’s piece or form a block (in some rulesets, if two of your pieces were on the same space, they formed a ‘block’, which wouldn’t allow any players pieces to pass.)
The caution here: adding more pieces may mean you’re adding more choices, but not necessarily more interesting choices. Whenever there’s one and only one goal to a game, with only one path to get there, it’s usually just a matter of who can find the objectively best play. That’s not strategy, that’s just puzzle solving.
Lesson #4: one clever mechanic is often enough
It’s not Chinese, but ‘Chinese Checkers’ is the name that stuck. This is the game, of course, that teaches you jumping over lots of pieces is a good thing even if they’re not removed from the board. (Worth noting: the Switch version shrinks the board and uses 6 pieces per player, presumably to keep game length short; the version I played growing up had a larger board and 10 pieces per player)
Beyond being one of the few that scales to 6 players on this list, it ticks the boxes of player interaction (especially as all the pieces move to the middle) and interesting decisions (once pieces start meeting, the choice of playing offense or defense becomes a careful consideration). Being another perfect information with no luck means there are ideal starting moves and the capacity to mirror, although I’ve come to appreciate the arc of the game. Develop your pieces, get past the middle clusters as efficiently as possible, then look for the best ways to get the stragglers.
Lesson #5: using a game to teach another game’s basics
Think of Gomoku as the little cousin of Go (AKA baduk or Weichi). Gomoku is basically ‘five in a row’ using a Go board and pieces, and isn’t about controlling or surrounding pieces as you might in Go. Still, it’s much more than the kid’s game it’s often treated as (and a special tournament rule exists to nerf the first-player advantage). There’s nothing special about this versus other ‘get five in a row’ games, but understanding the relationships between pieces and being able to play multiple games with the same pieces could be a value add for some people.
Lesson #6: know your audience
Described in a 1963 article in Scientific American as a game that “combines extreme simplicity with extraordinary strategic subtlety”, Hare and Hounds was a parlour game found in northern Europe that went by many names. One board found in Latvia supposedly dates to 1300 AD, and according to Board Game Geek, “became popular with French military officers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.”
In other words, the basic gameplay allowed the presentation of the offering to be whichever theme the publisher thought would sell the best. To well-off people seeking a parlour game, hare and hounds made for an elegant theme, and I’m sure the metal pieces and wooden board gave someone a chance to show off their crafting skills or expensive tastes. For the 19th century French military officers, the pieces became more pedestrian, but the story changes: one soldier tries to evade capture versus three enemy soldiers or hunters.
While it’s considered a solved game today, the basic mechanics of many games can be adapted to work for lots of different audiences and with lots of different themes. Thematic justifications can be found (or invented) in lots of cases, if it even matters.
Lesson #7: getting the rules right matters
OK, so this one’s more a personal story than a game design lesson, but there is a game design lesson here. The rules of Checkers (or Draughts, if you prefer) require you to capture an opponent’s piece if a capture is available, even if you don’t want to capture. It can be used lure opponent’s pieces off the back line, and a clever player can let their opponent capture one piece, only to set you up for a double jump…
As kids, we didn’t know that rule. Or we didn’t understand it. Couldn’t tell you either way, but we played it wrong as kids. There was never any forced capturing – if you didn’t want to capture a piece, you didn’t have to. I vaguely recall playing with someone that tried to use the ‘huffing’ rule – if you don’t capture an opponent’s piece when a capture is available to you, the piece that could made the capture is ‘huffed’ or removed from the board…
Games can always be played ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrectly’ – heck, jump on any Facebook or Board Game Geek group and you’ll discover this happens in plenty of modern board games. As designers, our job to ensure correct play might involve reference cards, clearly defined rules made clearer through unguided playtesting, or setting things up such that any ‘wrong’ play will make the game feel wrong / broken / short / long. If they’re playing it wrong accidentally, the game state can lead them to an unsatisfying place that can force them to look up the rules.
Lesson #8: remember the catch-up mechanic and why it exists
This is Nine Men’s Morris, a solved, perfect information game with lots of strategy. Before I get any further into gameplay, I need to emphasize the fact that this is a 2,000 year old game that has been played by many generations between then and now. Inscriptions marking the board are carved in Roman-era stone. Clay tiles found in Greece have had the boards carved into them. Boards were carved into wooden cloister seats at Westminster Abbey. Titania references this game in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The rules have unquestionably changed over time, but some versions have included a catch-up mechanic for at least a couple of centuries.
In the first phase, you’ll take turns placing a piece onto an empty space. In the second phase, take turns moving pieces along the lines. Your goal is to capture opponent’s pieces by getting your own pieces into a ‘mill’ – three in a row along any combined lines. When you do that, you get to remove an opponent’s piece from the game. First to remove all but two of their opponent’s pieces win.
It’s here where the third phase of the game offers up the catch-up mechanic. Called ‘Flying Time’, it starts when a player only has three pieces left (and losing one more would lose them the game). This player (and not the other) may move one of their pieces to any empty spot rather than an adjacent spot. This gives them a pretty big advantage in making a mill with their limited pieces, though it becomes harder to play offense and defense. You’re still down, but you’re not out.
A catch-up mechanic isn’t just a thing a game should have. It’s not just a box to check once it’s been added. Along with other factors, a catch-up mechanic is a way to ensure players feel like they have a shot at catching up or coming from behind. It pairs nicely with a scoring system that isn’t fully known until the end of the game.
Lesson #9: Avoid runaway victories
Another game I didn’t play much of as a kid, Dots and Boxes is one of those games you move on from and rarely play as an adult. Each turn, draw a line connecting two orthogonal dots (the exact size of the grid isn’t normally defined, just based on what’s available). If you draw the final line to form a square, color it in as a point for you and take another turn.
Even as a kid, it wouldn’t take long to find the fundamental issue: drawing the third line gives your opponent an opportunity to score the square before you can. Perfect play (never drawing the third line) simply results in one player being forced to draw a third line at some point (depending on the grid size) and the other player running away with it. To put it mildly, this is… not fun.
To be sure, almost any moment I can make a player feel clever is a moment worth keeping. That moment can’t and shouldn’t come at the expense of swinging the entire game.
Lesson #10: keep mechanics simple to let the strategy shine
For whatever reason, Mancala Kalah remains an underrated game. (‘Mancala’ is the type of game, not the name of the game. Kalah is the name of the game ). It’s strategic and perfect information, but feels more approachable (and therefore with a lower skill ceiling) than chess because the mechanics are much simpler.
Each turn in Kalah, you’ll choose all the pieces in one pod on your side (hole) and drop one in each hole counter-clockwise until you run out. If the last piece is dropped in your pod (the big one to your right), take another turn. If the last piece is dropped into an empty space, you capture the pieces in your opponent’s row above you. Most pieces in your pod or on your side when the game ends wins.
For such a simple game mechanically, the strategy is surprisingly deep. You have to watch out for what your opponent might be setting up, among many other things. You’re able to focus on that strategy because the central mechanic is very simple, and gets out of the way as quick as it can. You’re doing the same thing mechanically, but how you do it and where you do it changes every round.
Over to you
What are some design things you’ve learned from classic board games?