Tag Archives: Board Game Design

The 30 Second Pitch

The instruction booklet is important, but unfortunately even the best board game teacher and the best written instructions aren’t enough to bring a brand new board game to the table. Before you can even get to the rules of a game, you need to make sure your players are interested enough in the game to come to the table and sit through the instructions. This is especially true for games that have a large learning curve and a lot of front loaded explanations.

The first obstacle a board game meets is getting it into a new players’ hands. Whether this is at a Friendly Local Game Store, an online storefront, a Kickstarter project page, or a convention, the core problem is the same: you need to hook a new player as quickly as possible and entice them to sit through the learning curve.  This is where “The 30 Second Pitch” comes into play.

Ever wonder why Billy Mays was so successful and memorable? Ever wonder why those infomercials he yells through are full of ridiculous incompetence and overacting? Billy Mays is a professional pitch man, and his job is getting his viewers to buy a product in 30 seconds. He can get millions of people to spend $20 in only 30 seconds time, no questions asked. While his unique methods won’t necessarily work in the world of board games, there is still a lot you can learn from the idea of The 30 Second Pitch. If you can’t convince someone to try out your game in the first 30 seconds, you’ve already lost them.

The 30 Second Pitch needs to tell a brand new player everything they need to know about your game in the shortest amount of time possible while ignoring everything that isn’t completely necessary to understand unless they are actually playing. The pitch needs to be the first thing that a potential player hears, sees, or reads when learning about your game. It should be on the back of the box, in the product description on web stores, the beginning of the instruction booklet, and the first thing a potential backer sees on a Kickstarter project page. This pitch should include the goal, how that goal is accomplished, the mechanics involved, and what makes the game special and stand out from the crowd. Most importantly it should not include too much on the story and flavor of the game, no matter how cool, unique, and interesting that flavor is.

Let’s break down each aspect of The 30 Second Pitch and go into detail about why it is important and how to make the most of the few seconds it should cover.

1) What is the goal of the game?

First and foremost the players need to know the core object of the game. Try to keep this to one sentence, and only include the bare necessities of the game’s flavor in order to set the theme and mood. For example, the goal of Cosmic Encounter is to be the first player to create 5 colonies on opposing payers’ planets.

2) How that goal is accomplished?

Cover only the quickest and most straightforward method of winning the game. Only add the game’s flavor and theme if it is actually necessary to understand the “how”, and avoid mentioning actual mechanics. Using Cosmic Encounter again, the goal is accomplished by having encounters with other players.

3) What mechanics are involved?

Only cover the core mechanics of the game, not how those mechanics are used or how mechanics might interact with one another. In Cosmic Encounter, the mechanics are simply that players choose cards from their hand and play them face down, as well as negotiation and bluffing. Making and breaking alliances are also an important aspect to the game that should be covered.

4) What makes your game unique?

The last part needs to really sell your game. It’s the punch that turns an eyebrow raise into an open wallet and a fist full of cash. In Cosmic Encounter, the selling point is that every player gets one of dozens of unique races, each with a completely game changing ability that needs to be abused to it’s fullest in order to win the game.


Besides including the core concepts that will make a player want to sit down and learn a game, the 30 second pitch needs to avoid several pitfalls that can easily lose a players’ interest.

1) Be careful not to overload the player with flavor text, background story, and theme

No matter how important you might think the theme and story of your game is, that isn’t what ultimately makes a game worth playing. Far too often a Kickstarter project’s promotional video will spend the first 2-3 minutes of a 10 minute long pitch detailing in depth story and plot about a game before they even mention a single game play mechanic. The game itself should be what is front and center, while the flavor can fill in the gaps and be used to help explain why the mechanics of the game are designed the way they are. You do not want to alienate a new player that might dislike the theme, but would otherwise love the actual game play and mechanics.

2) Never assume that your players have played previous or similar games

If your game is a deck builder, do not start by saying it is like another possibly similar game. As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve soiled the players’ experience with possibly detrimental expectations. If they are familiar with the game you’ve mentioned, at worst they will wonder why they should bother with your game rather than just playing the other instead and at best you’ve forced them to compare your game with another instead of taking it on it’s own merits. If a player doesn’t like the game you tried to compare it with, you’ll lose them before they can even give your own game a fair chance.

3) Avoid “gamer vocabulary”

While many hardcore and dedicated board game fans will know immediately what you are referring to, newer players may feel alienated and immediately lose interest. Instead of saying your game is a “deck builder” explain that you start with a deck of basic cards, and take turns purchasing new cards to specialize your deck. Instead of saying your game is a worker placement, explain that players take turns taking actions, and that actions can only be used once by a single player per round.


Here’s what I would consider a good 30 second pitch, taken from the BoardGameGeek description of Terra Mystica:

In the land of Terra Mystica dwell 14 different peoples in seven landscapes, and each group is bound to its own home environment, so to develop and grow, they must terraform neighboring landscapes into their home environments in competition with the other groups.

Terra Mystica is a game with very little luck that rewards strategic planning. Each player governs one of the 14 groups. With subtlety and craft, the player must attempt to rule as great an area as possible and to develop that group’s skills. There are also four religious cults in which you can progress. To do all that, each group has special skills and abilities.

Taking turns, the players execute their actions on the resources they have at their disposal. Different buildings allow players to develop different resources. Dwellings allow for more workers. Trading houses allow players to make money. Strongholds unlock a group’s special ability, and temples allow you to develop religion and your terraforming and seafaring skills. Buildings can be upgraded: Dwellings can be developed into trading houses; trading houses can be developed into strongholds or temples; one temple can be upgraded to become a sanctuary. Each group must also develop its terraforming skill and its skill with boats to use the rivers. The groups in question, along with their home landscape, are:

Desert (Fakirs, Nomads)
Plains (Halflings, Cultists)
Swamp (Alchemists, Darklings)
Lake (Mermaids, Swarmlings)
Forest (Witches, Auren)
Mountain (Dwarves, Engineers)
Wasteland (Giants, Chaos Magicians)

Proximity to other groups is a double-edged sword in Terra Mystica. Being close to other groups gives you extra power, but it also means that expanding is more difficult…

You’ll notice that very little time is spent on theme and story. It explains that the goal of the game is to control the biggest area as well as progress in the four religions. The goal is accomplished by taking actions to terraform, build, and upgrade using resources they collect. Different buildings and upgrades provide different resources and benefits.

From this a prospective player knows all that they need to know about the basics of the game to help decide whether they should look more into the game. The core mechanics are resource management and area control. It’s heavy in strategy and low in luck. It has unique player abilities.

What makes a good rule book?

For most gamers, the rule book will be their first experience with a brand new board game. If they can’t make it through the rules, your board game is as good as having never been sold in the first place. It doesn’t matter how good the game might be, or how fun and unique the mechanics are.

It’s one thing to blind play test the rule book once it’s made, but that only helps after the rule book has been already been written. Just writing the rules down on a piece of paper isn’t good enough. Just telling the player what they do on their turn isn’t going to be good enough either. So what is it exactly that makes one rule book stand out above all the others? How do you know if your rule book is even ready to be tested?

Rule books have three primary jobs.  First and foremost a good rule book should be able to teach someone who knows nothing about the game in question to play the game as well as teach others to do the same. The second job is to act as a reference when questions inevitably come up during a play session. A good rule book needs to be able to do both jobs, and it needs to do both jobs well. Far too many games will do one or the other well, but few and far between can manage both. Lastly, a rule book should act as a player’s first introduction to the game. It should never be assumed that the player has any familiarity with the game, mechanics, or theme. The rule book should market the game to the player reading it just as much if not more than anything on the box.

That being said, here is a list of rules that every good rule book should follow:

1) Treat every player as if they are brand new to the world of board games

That isn’t to say that the rule book should be talking down to the player, but simply that the rule book should not assume that a player will be familiar with mechanics or themes within the game. If the game is a deck builder, never assume that the player is familiar with Dominion. It shouldn’t even be assumed that a player is familiar with what a “deck builder” is. Any term used in a rule book should be clearly defined in a way that a brand new player will understand.

2) Never make assumptions about who your target demographic might be

Just because a game was designed with a very specific type of person in mind does not mean that type of person is actually who will be playing the game. Obviously a game centered around the HP Lovecraft mythos will be attracting fans of HP Lovecraft, but assuming that every player will know about the mythos is the first mistake a rule book is likely to make. Once again it is important to remember that the rule book shouldn’t be talking down to players. The theme and flavor of the game can be introduced in a way that doesn’t alienate new players, while also keeping those familiar with the themes interested in what is being explained.

3) Use non-gender specific pronouns

This really should be included alongside, rule #2, but honestly it needs to be clarified on it’s own terms. It may be a surprise to some, but not all people who play board games are men! Whenever possible, rule books should use the singular they. A rule book that exclusively uses “he” to refer to its players is automatically ignoring at least half of a game’s potential players. It doesn’t matter if your game is the most brotastic brofest ever made. Use gender-less pronouns.

That being said, if the singular they is too formal sounding and the rule book in question is setting the mood for the players, there are plenty of alternatives to using “he” to refer to everyone. Rule books that choose to use in-character examples can easily alternate between using “he” and “she” to refer to different players at different times by using varying characters within the game. Saying “once the first player has taken his turn, pass the dice to the second player to start her turn” is perfectly acceptable. This method still has the downside in that it focuses on gender binaries, but it’s still better than using male pronouns for everything.

4) Include a clear list of contents

One of the best things about buying a brand new board game, is going through all the bits and pieces. Punching out cardboard tokens, sorting through decks of cards, and sorting out plastic figures will always be one of the first things that a player will do upon opening the box. Often this will even be done prior to turning the first page of the rule book. Every rule book should have a clear and concise list of included components. Ideally every component should be named and have a photo or illustration of what that component is for easy identification. A new player should be able to go through everything in the box and confirm that everything they need to play is present and accounted for. It’s also important to help the player understand what each piece is, so that when the rules refer to those pieces later on the player will already know what they are.

5) Create a consistent vocabulary

Every major aspect of your game should have a clearly defined word or words that can easily be referenced. Components should be clearly named, and when mentioned in later portions of the rule book those names should be consistently used. If a game has multiple decks then each deck should have a unique name. Avoid using colors for names as those players who are colorblind could have difficulty picking out the correct pieces. Every phase of the game should have unique names. Specific actions should be broken down into a concise set of named actions.  Whenever using a vocabulary term in the rule book it is useful to use bold fonts to further clarify that the term being used is important and repeated throughout the rule book.

6) Break down setup into specific steps

Far too few games will spend very little time on the process of setting a game up for the first time. It is easy for anyone familiar with a game to set it up, and for that reason designers and rule writers tend to underestimate the importance of setting a game up for the first time. Setting the game up should not require players to flip haphazardly through the rule book. If a game has specific things that need done only for the first time playing the game, a first time setup section should be included separate of the standard game setup. If setup changes depending on the number of players, include those changes in each setup step. Setting up a game should require no knowledge of how to play the game except for an understanding of components, which should have been clearly defined before reaching the setup portion of the rule book.

7) Clearly state the goal of the game

Without going into complicated details of the mechanics of the game, players should have a very clear idea of what the goal of the game. The easiest and most straightforward way of winning should be considered the goal of the game. In a game based on victory points, the goal of the game should not be stated as “get the most victory points” as victory points will mean nothing to a player that doesn’t understand how you get them within the confines of the game. For example, in Terra Mystica the goal of the game is to have the biggest connected city and the most devout followers. Only after the generic goal of the game is stated, should the specifics of how you complete that goal be described, or in Terra Mystica’s case: the player with the most victory points.

8) Break down everything players will do on their turn into specific steps

The most important thing that players need to know in order to successfully play a board game is what they can and can’t do on their turn. If turns are broken up into multiple phases, each phase should be specific and each step within that phase clearly defined. This needs to be the most easily understood section of the rules, and when testing the rule book the players’ actions during their turn should get the most attention.

9) Slowly add new concepts, always starting with the simplest rules before adding complications

It is best to think of a rule book as a series of transparency sheets layered on top one another. Start with a very simplistic understanding of the game as a whole. Each time you add a layer, it should enhance and clarify the layers below.  Using the player turn for an example, if a turn is broken into phases which each have their own actions that players can choose to take, the rule book should give an overview of the phases and what they entail on a basic level. Only after the phases are explained in basic terms should each phase be given finer detail. Adding another layer, if a phase has multiple actions a player can take, those actions should be listed in a concise fashion first, before going into specific details with the rules of each individual action.

10) Never repeat rules

The rule book should never talk down to players, and should instead assume that players have understood everything covered previously. If the rule book repeats itself, it creates confusion on the player by making it harder to find the specific rule for reference later in the game. It can also have the adverse side effect of insulting the player’s intelligence.

11) Include an index

Once players have learned to play the game, inevitably issues will come up that require referencing the rule book for clarification. Even the best rule books will require a quick look up every now and then. Once a vocabulary has been created for use throughout  the rule book, it should be simple to include an index on the last page to make it easier to find where those keywords are discussed in detail. For games with larger rule books, breaking the rule book into two parts, one for reference and one for core rules can be extremely useful. However, if this method is taken it needs to be done very carefully. The reference book should be the only book experienced players need to open. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find one specific rule between two different rule books.

12) If all else fails, include a FAQ and/or commonly missed rules section

During blind play test sessions it should become very obvious what rules and concepts are most often missed or questioned by players. In many cases it may not be possible to better clarify those issues by better organizing or wording the rule book.  An easy solution is to include a frequently asked questions section at the end of the rule book. Alternatively, having a commonly missed rules section can be incredibly useful. Both of these options are good ways to be sure that the most important and possibly confusing concepts are clearly covered, and possibly worded in a way that players will make sense of after having finished the rest of the rule book.

13) Never underestimate the power of quick reference sheets

The back of the rule book is a great place to put things that players will have to reference often. For example, including the phase order for a turn or the steps to complete an encounter can make the players’ life much easier in their first few games. If the game relies on a lot of iconography, having those in an easily accessible place that doesn’t require flipping through pages of the rule book is a requirement. Including several reference sheets so that players do not have to pass around a huge rule book constantly can be a huge benefit as well.

Dear Designers: Please have your rule books play tested

One thing I have noticed since I started playing board games, is that it becomes painfully obvious how few rule books are play tested. So many designers will show off their games at conventions on anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to try it out. They’ll go to their friendly local game store and introduce the regulars to their game, and show them how it works. Play testing is often done with close contact to the designer, as questions are clarified and the game is polished even while playing the game.

By the time the game is officially published and finally out, everyone involved in the play testing and design process has already played the game by being taught to play it by the designer, or at least by players who learned to play from the designer. When the final rule book is made, no one seems to bother actually learning the game from nothing but the rule book. This is a huge mistake that so many designers are making, because the huge majority of your audience isn’t going to have you around to help them once your game is published. You’re not going to be there when the first Kickstarter backers receive their brand new limited edition copies of the game.  Don’t let a player’s first experience with your game be soiled for no reason other than a poorly made and tested rule book.

I’m not even just talking about “learning” a game from the rule book, because equally important is using the rule book as a reference when a question comes up. Players need to both be able to learn the game from the rule book, as well as find answers to complicated questions that may come up during play, without having to spend too much time away from the game looking for those answers. When the designer is sitting next to a new play testing group, neither learning or reference is important, because within seconds the designer can make sure everything is running smoothly, and if a game breaking issue is found they can quickly correct the trouble.

One great example of what I’m referring to is a game I got from Miniature Market’s black Friday sale: Guilds of Cadwallon. As it turns out, Guilds was a Kickstarter game. Having not heard anything about it besides seeing it for cheap on Miniature Market’s website, I dug into the rule book. There are some rather egregious typos that make the “simple” process of counting components and setting up the game confusing. The numbers in the book don’t add up, and don’t match what your “District Deck” will actually have after setting up! Beyond obvious typos, there are rules that make no sense at all until you’ve finished reading the entire rule book, and even then there are ambiguities that I couldn’t make sense of. It tells you to optionally play action cards, but not how you get them. After a round and you finish finding out who won each district, the game doesn’t even tell you what you’re supposed to do from that point! It says determine who won the cards, and pass the first player token. It doesn’t say what you do with cards you won, if they go into a hand, face down, face up, who knows?

Of course, if you watch the 10 minute long “how to play” video on their Kickstarter page, you learn how to play really quickly. It’s a surprisingly easy game, but the rule book is utterly worthless. It’s obvious they’ve never sat someone down with their game, and played it purely by reading and learning from the rule book and no outside help.

All a designer has to do is take the “final draft” of the rule book, find a group of players who have never played before and know absolutely nothing about the game, and watch what happens. This is what I call the “Blind Play Test” and it is a type of play testing that needs to be done for every single game in addition to the play testing that designers are already doing.  The main rule in blind play testing is that the designer can’t talk or aid the players in any way. The second the designer interferes with the game being played, they’ve already ruined the experiment. Instead, the designer should take notes on everything the players find themselves confused about, and especially note everything that the players do “wrong” in the game.

After the game is over, the designer should sit down with those players, and find out what they thought was confusing, and what could have made the learning process better. Any time that the game was played wrong, the designer should also question why they played that way. It is important to note that the designer needs to carefully word this question so that it isn’t accusing the players of playing wrong, but more that the designer is trying to find out what made the players make that decision. Specifically, what about the rules made it seem like that was the correct way to play, because clearly the rules didn’t cover that case clearly enough.

Using what was learned in the “blind play test”, the rule book should be revised and this process needs to be repeated until a play group (or several play groups!) makes it through a game with no major issues.

Lastly, I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Guilds of Cadwallon specifically because this is a huge problem for a huge majority of board games. Guilds just happened to be the game I most recently ran into this problem with. The game itself seems to be quite good and I look forward to playing it for the first time. The fact of the matter is that tons of games have rule book issues, and all of them could have been solved by play testing the rule book itself.

So, as someone who learns games almost entirely from reading the rule book and rarely gets a chance to be taught a game directly from the designers, please have your rule books play tested. Resist the urge to teach new players, and help them in their first games.