Why game jams are great for board game design

All of my board game designs started out as game jam projects. All of them. What makes game jams such excellent breeding grounds for board game design?

Board game prototyping materials

Take a few dozen game enthusiasts, cram them into a room, throw a theme at them and then give them eight hours to create something from scratch. You have yourself a game jam.

Some people might find it stressful, staring at a blank page, wondering how they should manage.

I love them! The clash of absolute freedom (“You can create anything … or nothing.”) with tight time and theme constraints creates this wonderful space for design.

We all once had this free day on which we really wanted to get going on that passion project of ours. After an extended breakfast, cleaning the apartment, running some errands and meeting a friend for a coffee, we postponed it to another day.

Our lives are full of distractions, fun ones, pleasant ones for sure, but nonetheless they tend to get into the way of us achieving what we want. This is particular true for creative work, which requires intense focus and a clear mind.

In comes the game jam.

It starts with the setting: often a co-working or office space (i.e. clearly not your living room) void of distractions.

Then there are the other participants. Many of them you meet here for the first time. Your common denominator is you both came to a game jam to create something. This is the starting point of your conversations.

But if you prefer to work alone on your personal twine adventure, no one will bother you. They will respect your choice.

When creating board games at a game jam I try to team up with at least one other person. You can bounce ideas of one and another but even more important: you can immediately test your crazy ideas by playing!

You can ponder ideas in your head forever but nothing gives you a better reality check then throwing down a quick and dirty paper prototype and play a couple of rounds.

A team of two to three works best for me. There is only so much to do in the design process (coming up with mechanics, testing them, and, if your are lucky, create some beautiful art) that with more persons you are getting close to the design by committee danger zone (I should probably write an extra article about this).

Ghosts of Global Game Jam
Ghosts of Global Game Jam (cardgame for the global game jam 2016)

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: eight hours (or 24h/48h/…)? This cannot be enough time to create something interesting and meaningful? Right!

On the contrary!

It is the perfect amount of time … for one idea.

Sure, you will not be able to create a new Caverna (a complex, well balanced board game with many intertwined systems) in eight hours.

You want to find that one interesting idea and explore it. Think of it as a scientific expedition cartographing the idea’s wildlife and boundaries. Even if it falls through in the end you will have learned so much in the process.

Last but not least: the theme.

The theme (or themes) might sound random at first. It is easy to dismiss it, it is a suggestion after all, and continue working on that idea you came with to the jam.

Don’t do that.

Embrace the theme!

Embracing the theme will open your mind for new (crazy) ideas. It will help create a levelled playing field among your team members: Everyone starts their idea finding process with the same (minimal) set of information. And, if everything goes well, it will lead to a densely thematic game.

But why would you choose to do something as old fashioned as board games when there are virtual reality helmets and full body motion tracker around?

I have three answers for you:

  1. Board game design is the purest exercise in game design and player interaction you can get. You can’t hide behind peripherals or particle effects. You will see if players are having fun with your game.
  2. Eight hours is plenty of time to design a small board game. Sure, it won’t be perfectly balanced, and yes, maybe some of the systems won’t really work, but you will have something playable. And if you really like it you can take it further after the jam.
  3. You will have the most fun at the jam. Instead of staring at a computer screen for eight hours wrestling with a game engine you can spend your time playing and discussing games with your friends. What could be better!