Published on August 13, 2018. Last Updated on May 8, 2023.
While far from a complete list of books about game design, these are all books I have read and appreciated. Let’s call this a curated collection of books about game design.
Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms – Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev
Consider this the reference guide that changed the industry. The 2nd edition expands on the 1st edition (as you’d expect), and creates a taxonomy for board game mechanics. That taxonomy was adapted by Board Game Geek in September 2019. While the Board Game Geek site organizes things in the same, the book goes into greater detail with plenty of examples.
Who is it for: Pretty much any board game designer.
Board Game Design Advice – Gabe Barrett
This tome isn’t so much written by the Board Game Design Lab podcast’s host as it is edited by him. Essentially Gabe reached out to dozens of successful game designers and asked them all the same set of questions. This book is the collection of their answers. With time you’re going to know several patterns within their answers — you’ll get that when you look at so many different paths to success, but there are some pretty critical things to do right.
Who is it for: The questions themselves are geared towards designers who have already designed and playtested at least one game, or who are in the middle of the design / playtesting cycle. If you’re newer to game design, this might get you into some good habits early on, or it might feel a little premature.
The Board Game Designer’s Guide – Joe Slack
Offering an ‘easy 4 step process to create amazing games; Joe’s book comes with a foreword by Jamey Stegmaier (another name whose blog is required reading for game designers), and is a complete step-by-step guide. It’s complete with a glossary of terms used, a partial list of publishers, and a healthy dose of reality seen all the way through the book.
Who is it for: New designers will get the most out of it, but experienced designers may also glean some insights they haven’t read elsewhere.
A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide – Jamey Stegmaier
Jamey Stegmaier probably needs no introduction, but just in case: he’s the founding partner behind Stonemeier Games, which is behind Viticulture, Scythe, and Charterstone, and his games have collectively raised seven figures in funding. His resources for game designers — especially those looking to crowdfund their game — should be required reading. That task is made a lot easier by this book, since a lot of the blog’s material is also in the book.
“It doesn’t read as a cohesive whole. It doesn’t tell a story,” Jamey correctly noted about the blog in the foreword. ‘Putting your backers first’ is perhaps the most persistent wisdom to be found, and when decisions are made based on what’s best for them, many other decisions are a lot easier to make. I also really appreciate Jamey’s attention to detail, especially with things like checklists, when to do certain things, and technical details about game manufacturing too often fraught with pitfalls. My only quibble here is that the book dates from 2015, and a fast-moving industry like crowdfunding might mean the book’s advice may be supplanted by current wisdom. That the book contains principles, not tactics, means the book is pretty future-proofed.
Who is it for: Any game designer planning to crowdfund their game — ideally, the earlier you’re at in this process.
Characteristics of Games – George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, K. Robert Gutschera
A “meticulous book about the design of games”, this MIT-published textbook based on a college-level course makes the case that “games are valuable because are a fundamental form of human expression”. The focus here is on “looking critically at games” and “as a framework for game analysis”. The fact it’s co-written by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic the Gathering and a few other games you’ve probably heard of, should give it all the credibility it needs.
Who is it for: anyone ready for an academic overview written by one of the foremost designers.
Girls on Games — Elisa Teague
Subtitled ‘A Look at the Fairer Side of the Tabletop Industry’, the best way to start this short preview is like this: You need to buy this book. With the exception of the foreword, every piece in this anthology is written by a woman. They write — frankly and openly — about their struggles in a male-dominated, post-Gamergate industry. Kickstarted in 2014 and funding almost eight times its goal, it’s as clear an eye-opener as you’re going to find, short of a face-to-face conversation with any of the writers. Whether you’re ready to make a more welcoming gaming environment, pitch your game, or considering the differences between styles of play (or which types of games are more appealing to women), the entire book is a great read. I may not need to know how to be a female GM (Game Master), but Satine Phoenix spells it out — and like most good reads, it informs my worldview and game design. At 125 pages, it’s also one of the breezier reads in the list.
Who should read this: humans currently breathing oxygen.
Everybody Wins: Four Decades of the Greatest Board Games Ever Made – James Wallis
Everybody Wins is an effort to track the Spiel Des Jahres award, it’s mindset, its impact on the board industry, and the parallel track that board games have run alongside over the past four decades. Even before Catan put board games on the map in the 90’s, the German game of the year award was given to games that have sadly fallen out of print and mostly out of memory. There are still lessons to be learned, both from these older games and more recent ones. For anyone newer to the world of board games, this is a history lesson, albeit a history that may not stretch much before your birth.
Who is it for: anyone wanting a reminder of how far board games have come… or anyone that wants a beautiful coffee-table book.
Think Like a Game Designer — Justin Gary
Presented as a ‘step-by-step guide to unlocking your creative potential’, five major parts focus primarily on design and building great games, with the final part focused on making money. In case the name is unfamiliar, Justin is the guy behind Ascension and is a Magic the Gathering Pro Tour champion.
“There is a simple, learnable process for becoming a great game designer,” he argues in the introduction, and though the first 38 pages of the excerpt doesn’t get into a ton of details, I look forward to reading the rest of the story once it’s released.
Who is it for: New game designers or people thinking about designing a game. More experienced designers might find words of wisdom as well.
Board Game Publisher – Better Than a Real Job – Eric Hanuise
If you’ve ever wanted to collect the insights from a publisher’s point of view into a single book, here it is! Eric Hanuise is the man behind Flatlined Games, is here to walk you through his own lived experience to help you avoid any number of mistakes and pitfalls.
While quite complete on its own, there are plenty of linked resources to do an even deeper dive. The links to videos on manufacturing techniques were a highlight, if only because I had no idea how some of these things were actually made.
Who is this for: designers or board game players that are curious as to the sausage gets made (or don’t yet know the value a publisher brings to your game).
Ticket to Carcassonne – Steve Dee
If you didn’t immediately grok the title of the book amalgamated Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, this book is for you. It rambles a bit in places, but helps to give the reader an overview of board gaming’s recent history. The book focuses on the games themselves, along with their strategies to play. It’s perhaps a way of appreciating the games if you haven’t yet played them for yourself, much like watching a playthrough is a decent substitution for playing it yourself. Personally, it’s a reminder to put yourself in the player’s shoes — what strategies are they using, and how they aren’t necessarily the ones you might have envisioned.
Who is it for: Very new designers who need to catch up on recent board game history, or designers that haven’t played a lot of the modern classics.
Eurogames – The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Board Games – Stewart Woods
With its more academic language and background, Eurogames is not as easy a read as some of the other books here. It aims at offering a formal look at the world of games. The copyright date is 2012, and references a Board Game Geek survey done in 2007, so it’s not exactly an up-to-date sort of thing. As mentioned before, it doesn’t need to be, and it’s recommended here as a thorough background to the industry.
Who is it for: Anyone interested in the background of the gaming world or the academic language of games.
Theory of Fun for Game Design – Raph Koster
The version of the book I’m talking about is the 10th anniversary edition, and it’s written by a veteran of the video game industry. I can hear you now — what are you trying to pull here, Chris? — and I feel the need to remind you that game design for video games is in many ways similar to board games. It’s focus is not on meeples and dice, but starts with that classic game, tic-tac-toe, and spends an entire chapter on “How the Brain Works”. In other words, this isn’t a book about how to make a game. It’s so much more important than that. You will feel like some concepts aren’t as important, or that some elements of the book have nothing to do with your brilliant idea. Great games — and the designers that created them — take into account much more than the cards and dice and meeples, and this book gets you thinking about them.
Who is it for: Any board game designer, from budding to veteran.
The Game Inventor’s Guidebook – Brian Tinsman
One part anthology and one part guide, the book focuses on the making and pitching of mass-market games along with the companies that sell them. It’s from 2008 and doesn’t mention the concept of crowdfunding, and as such you might dismiss it as being almost a relic of a different time. I recommend it here as some lighter reading that starts off by telling the stories of games you’ve heard of, which nicely traditions into some interviews with people you’ve heard of (Reiner Knizia) and some 10,000-meter-level-thoughts into the processes to getting published.
Who is it for: Newer designers interested in a casual history and info on pitching.
Challenges for Game Designers – Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber
When a book is formatted and sold as a textbook, it usually means you’re being set up for a pretty dry time. I’m happy (relieved, actually) to say this is different. Yes, it’s structured as an academic textbook, which means the exercises in the back may become part of your homework if you’re taking this academic class somewhere. The subtitle here is ‘Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers’, so if board games are your first choice of games to make, you’re not quite the target audience. That said, I choose to use whatever materials and resources that help me get where I’m going, and this is another excellent overview of most things game design. The highlights are the challenges themselves at the end of each chapter — designed to engage you on the stuff you’ve been learning about, they’re creative and well-thought-out.
Who is it for: Newer game designers seeking a more structured approach to learning, and game designers of all levels looking for some academically sound exercises.
The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design – Mike Selinker
Call this one an anthology by over a dozen accomplished designers, or just a glimpse into some of the best minds of gaming, if you like. Each piece is easily read in a matter of minutes, and offers a different insight into some aspect of game design. One snippet talks about how to developing a game (which is different from designing a game), a hilarious entry on ‘Amazing Errors in Prototyping’ by Steve Jackson gives you a chance to laugh at another’s anonymous misfortune.
Who is it for: Designers who are gearing up to pitch publishers, or really any designer looking to make a game that a publisher will eventually pick up.