Designing a Social Game – Part 1


I love rules, I love new mechanics, and I love designing new games and giving life to old mechanics. My google drive is filled with pages and pages of partially written rulebooks, new mechanics, or just goals and concepts. My gaming shelf has boxes of prototypes, blank cards, stickers, beads, and other supplies. Most of my games take one simple idea, and polish it as much as I can. I dislike games that try to be too many things at once, and end up being a headache to teach. This brings me to my current venture, a social game I call Cliques.

Making something I want to play

Why a social/party game? Because I need something to play at my parties… and I think I can do better than what’s out there. I understand that games which can accommodate a large number of players are usually social deduction games like Resistance or Werewolf. Those games can be fun with the right group, but can also be exceedingly frustrating. I want to make a game that is just as strategic, but something that everyone can have a good time with all the time.

I’m just not very good a lying…

Brain storming

I set out to list out my requirements for the game. Initially, they are

  • Must play 12 or more players
  • No downtime at all for any player
  • Logic, strategy, and tactics must be involved
  • Does not focus on lying until your pants are on fire
  • Encourages conversation and jokes
  • Creates lasting experience

That’s it, I don’t have any mechanics in mind, and definitely no theme.


The page remained the same for weeks. I look at it with a blank face every few days, hoping to type something else. A theme, a revelation, a fresh mechanic, anything really. Until one day, I saw the trailer for “Wonder” (When I went to watch “Daddy’s Home 2” at Christmas time…). Just like every other movie involving an elementary or high school, there was a scene with the main character holding the lunch tray in a cafeteria. He doesn’t know where to sit, no one wants him. All the other kids already have friends and groups they belong to. Something clicked in my head that made me pull out my phone in the theater (I’m sorry!!!) and wrote the word “cliques” on that page.

Overused teenage movie trope to the rescue!

I got home, and over the next few weeks I fleshed out more and more of the game. I combined my favorite mechanics from games such as “2 Rooms and a Boom”, “Spyfall”, and “Codenames”, added a little dash of flavor, and began writing the rules.


Pretty soon after I wrote the rules I came across a major problem. To explain the problem I need to explain a little about the game. Cliques is a party game where players try to group up with their own team, which is determined by a card they are dealt. How do they know who has what card? Each player also has a secret word, which is shared among members of their team. Each team member has the same secret word (eg. Jocks, Nerds, etc…). In my head this mechanic is perfect. There can be so many different types of cliques, and they are all secret, and every game is different. In practice though…

Even before making a prototype, I was worried about printing cost… thanks Mom…

I spent weeks mulling this over. I almost gave up on the idea. Let me tell you why this doesn’t work. Say you are playing a game with 4 cliques, and 4 people per clique. Each person in the clique will have the same word. So I need 4 cards for every single word. If the game has just 20 words, that is 80 cards dedicated to just words. And that’s not even considering the insane amount of time it would take to set up and organize. I need to totally rethink this. I posted this question on Reddit, and got suggestions like using smaller cards to cut cost, sharing cards, using a sheet of paper with all the words etc.

The solution

Those ideas were helpful, but not exactly what I needed. I took the idea for a table of words and went with that. So in my head I had a codename style table, with teams on the columns and a number from 1-5 as rows. Instead of getting a card with the word on there, the player would get a card with a number. They would then refer to the column and row on the table to find their word. What I thought would be a limiting factor (all players can see the word options) became a logical puzzle that actually lowered randomness and increased strategy. So problem solved, it is time to make a prototype.

Is there a plugin for this?

Sooooo… I got really lazy and didn’t want to write a bunch of words on cards. I decided in my big head that I want to make an app to generate the table instead. This is fine, except that I have never written an app before. This wordpress site is my only foray into HTML and CSS, and I was scared to touch Javascript. I buckled down and decided to do some tutorials and lessons online. Going at a snails pace, I managed to create a functioning table that makes a new random array of words each time. I bet if a web developer came to read the code, they would throw up in their mouth. The code is pieced together from snippets copied from stack exchange. The important thing though, is that it works.

Probably would’ve been faster to just write the words on cards

To further prove my laziness, I’ve also made it so that I can playtest it with just a regular deck of cards. The suits would be the teams, and the numbers A to 5 would be the rows on the table. Time to playtest, except a second hurdle comes into play

Hurdle #2

I did not know how to set up the game. There, I think that’s a pretty big problem. I need to deal out the same numbered cards to the same team cards. The players also cannot know what number went with which team, and who has what card. It took a few days before I realized that all I needed to do is to use clips. I would clip all the same numbers together, mix them up face down. Lay out all the team cards on the table, and deal a clipped set of numbers to each team. I would then clip the pairs (number and team) together, and shuffle those. I would then finally deal one clipped pair per player. The idea then evolved to using card sleeves, putting multiple cards in the same sleeve, making things easier to shuffle. Finally I am ready to playtest.

Game night

The weekend comes. This time there were 7 of us. We played a few published boardgames before I announced “Hey, would you guys mind playtesting a game I designed?”. Thankfully the group agreed. I went ahead and started explaining the game while I did the setup. It’s a simple game, and didn’t take long to teach. We soon got started playing. There were a lot of laughs and lots of talking and conversation, which was good. There were also a lot of confusion, which was bad. After the first round, people weren’t sure what to do anymore. There was almost no carry over to the second round. We played the game a few more times and the results were the same. The conversation part was great fun, but too short. I needed to make a lot of rule changes to make the win mean more meaningful.

“Who here likes Bingo??” “Me! Oh, and my wife is dead… I think” – Actual quote from game night

Back to the drawing board

I need something that carries over to the 2nd round. The obvious thing would be points, but that would be too easy. I also don’t want players to keep track of points, especially when this game is supposed to play 10+ players. I also need a way to take away some of the confusion. Increase structure, reduce randomness. I want to try and solve both of these problems together. I came up with a little “point” system I call influence. When you win in round 1, you gain influence, which makes your actions more powerful in round 2. Hopefully with the more powerful action in round 2 you can win round 2 as well, and gain more influence. Finally in round 3 you use those influence to achieve your objective and win the game.

That’s the idea anyways, I also made a timer in the app to limit the amount of time available for conversation based on player number.

Game night #2

There’s a couple more people for the second playtest. As usual, I set up the game, pulled out the tablet and generated a new array of words. I explained the new rules to a lot of head nodding from the veteran playtesters, and off we went. The game went a lot more smoothly this time. People liked the structure the new voting phase provided, and they like being given a chance to cast an extra vote or to veto someone out using their influence. The constructive feedback from this session was that the win condition still seemed very sudden and anticlimatic. Also, people that never earned influence felt like they didn’t have a choice. People still loved the core mechanic of the game, which was the conversation portion. I was very optimistic after this playtest, as I feel I’ve finally got a winner here.

“I like it dirty, do you?” “Sometimes, but I also like vanilla” – Actual quote from game night

To be continued…

Game mechanics – dice vs cards

Dice header

One of the most asked question in game design for beginners, “should I use cards or dice in my game?”. Today I’m going to try and give my own take on this subject.

It’s all about the choices

Most board games, when you boil it down to the most basic form, involves players picking options from a limited pool. This can be deterministic in cases like worker placement or moving a unit according to a rule set. It can also be random, most commonly done by drawing a card or rolling dice. I’m going to approach this article from the point of view of the dice, and next time we’ll look at cards as a mechanism for random choices.

The underdog

Everything a dice can do can be done by drawing a card from a shuffled face down deck of 6. They are far more expensive to produce, especially if they contain more than just the usual 1 to 6 pips. If you want more choices than 6, you need to use the much more expensive exotic dice. So why would anyone want to use dice?


If your game involves very few random choices, but they are always the same choices done frequently, then the dice is your friend. It is much faster to roll a die than shuffle 6 cards. One example is “Survive Escape from Atlantis”. At the end of each turn the player rolls a 6 sided die to decide which one of the 3 creatures to move. If you want to have the same chance of drawing each monster every time, you could either have the player draw from a deck of 3, replace and reshuffle each time, or use a die.

What the dice really excels at is when there are multiples of these simple random choices. It takes the same amount of time to roll 10 dice as 1 die, but it will take 10 times longer to shuffle cards if cards are used instead. Instead, cards are usually drawn into a hand and choices are made from the hand instead, giving players more control. If you  want to take control away from the players however, dice is the way to go. Some dice game versions of card games such as Bang and Roll for the Galaxy takes advantage of this. They offer players limited control over their choices in the form of rerolls and limited amounts of reassignments. They are however much more random than their card game counterparts.

Dice as pieces

Another thing that dice can do better than cards is they can act as pieces on the board. Sure you can place cards on the board, but they take up much more space or risk being covered. A dice can convey more information than a meeple on a game board, but less information than a card. A meeple is a good choice when it does not need to change states during the game. If your board pieces needs to change between a few states, a dice is a good option. However, if your piece has more than a few states, potentially a standee plus cards on your own tableau to track states is better.


The information most often determined by dice is numbers. We’ve talked about dice offering random choices, but it does not have to be. When you roll dice containing pips and use them together, you are making variations of one choice. It can be the attack power, currency, and a plethora of other options that involve numbers. In this case, the number that comes out is certainly not random, but follows a very specific pattern of distribution that holds true for any number of dice.

dice frequency

If this distribution is something you would like in your game, then it is much easily achieved with rolling multiple dice than having a deck of cards that follow this pattern directly. The distribution can also be adjusted by simply removing or adding dice into the roll, instead of needing a whole new deck of cards.

In conclusion

This article isn’t to argue importance of dice in gaming, because it has certainly earned its place. It is often frowned upon in modern games due to its random nature. I feel that it is making a comeback as designers use new mechanics to counter the randomness. Games such as Through the Ages and Roll for the Galaxy are seen as strategic games even though they use dice. There is a right place to use dice, and hopefully this article gives you some cases where dice is better than cards. Lastly, it’s a lot more fun blowing into a handful of dice and wishing on the results than drawing a bunch of cards.

Video game mechanics in board games

video game mechanic

We often see a lot of board game mechanics being used in video games, especially in the RPG, puzzle games, and real time strategy games genre. What about some mechanics that are common in video games but not often seen in board games? In this article I’m going to go over some popular video game mechanics and how they might be utilized.

Physics based destruction

As computers get more powerful, we can build more realistic physics based destruction that will actually affect game play. In the board game world, the only games off the top of my head are simple kids games “Rampage/Terror in Meeple City” and “Jenga”. I think this is an interesting mechanic that can be utilized even in heavier strategy games. One idea would be to build buildings out of different colored bricks during set up. As different colors are knocked into different areas on the board, special effects would be triggered. Buildings can be knocked over flicking, a small spring powered gun or cannon, dropping “bombs”, or a small swinging heavy ball.

The main draw back of destruction in board game is the added randomness that is undesired in heavier games. However, plenty of heavier game uses dice, but they have ways of adjusting dice values, or using the same dice face for multiple purposes. This randomness of destruction can also be attenuated by allowing limited removal fallen pieces, or moving the pieces. (One idea would be to “bulldoze” through the destruction, spreading the pieces to either side).

Real time competitive play

When I say real time, i mean the play is non-stop, not just simultaneous. Lots of games do simultaneous game, taking pauses in between turns for resolution. The game that comes to mind for actual real time is Captain Sonar. I think the reason we don’t see this mechanic more often is because of the ease of cheating when all players are so focused on their own choices and actions. Computer games can do real time gameplay easily because there is an omniscient third party that make sure all players are following the rules. Captain Sonar does this beautifully by forcing players to monitor each other in their own team, performing checks after every movement. It is much less likely that the whole team cheats to ruin the game.

There are solutions to this, allowing players to be independent while playing simultaneous real time. The easiest way to reduce cheating would be to increase the time it takes to perform an action. In the board game world, this can be done by rolling dice or drawing cards. These two simple mechanics requires physical movement from the player while giving uncertain results. Lets do cards as an example. Player can be required to draw a certain card out of a deck before they can perform an action. Frequency of the card will determine how fast the player can play, while checks can simply be done by requiring players to place that card in the middle of the table for all players to see.

I would love to see more of these mechanics being utilized, and if you know games at the moment that do them well, let me know!


Classical mechanics in modern games – Go


As board games become more and more popular, inspiring new designers with fresh ideas to take action and publish their own games, I feel that some mechanics are being left behind. We see a lot of the same tried and tested mechanics being utilized in thematic modern games, but I feel some mechanics in classical abstract games have been forgotten. In this article I’m going to talk about the area enclosure mechanic of Go, and how they might be implemented with a modern theme. If you know a modern game that uses this mechanic, please let me know!


The easy to learn, impossible to master game that has become one of the tests for machine learning and AI. It is widely touted by the gaming community as one of the most elegant and best designed game of all time. Why is it then that mechanics like card drafting, worker placement are used until they are tired out and this beautiful mechanic is left in the dust in the gaming world?

I think the main reason this mechanic has not been used is that it is very hard to make a competitive area enclosure game that can accommodate more than 2 players. This seems almost like a requirement for modern games nowadays. Obviously there are exceptions, but the vast majority of the market, especially if it’s a new designer, is to play it safe and design for at least 4-5 players. Games that can play so many people while being strategic will need methods to limit player interaction, simultaneous game play, or a large array of meaningful choices every turn. Go in its most basic form has none of those. You can play a piece, and your plan can be ruined three times over before you can play another piece. There exists a multiplayer version of Go itself, but it has not really caught on.

Area enclosure games in general has this issue due to the incredible amount of player interaction. Every move is played to block another player from achieving their goal, while also furthering your own plan. I think the best way to implement this mechanic into the modern world would be to limit the number of choices, and limit the player interactions involved.

To do this, rules can be created to limit placement. Perhaps instead of a piece at a time, players can play tiles of different shapes, or even multiple pieces at a time. This shortens the game considerably while keeping the general idea of the game intact. Another method is to create rules such as one can only block under certain circumstances, or cards need to be played to directly interact with another player. Another direction to go is to allow the use of opponent’s pieces to aid in your own conquest. Perhaps a limited amount of special markers can be used to temporarily take over a chain of opponent’s pieces in order to capture area occupied by a second opponent? The possibilities are obviously endless, and I would love to see a game that can do area enclosure well while playing multiple players.