Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 4

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

This series concludes today with conversions between board games and roleplaying games.


Roleplaying Games and Their Connection to Legacy Games

RPGs share a striking connection with their tabletop brethren; RPGs are the original Legacy games.

“Legacy games” according to Boardgamegeek “are board games that change over time based on the outcome of each game and the various choices made by players. … The changes made in a Legacy game are always permanent, so what is done can not be undone.”  

In an RPG, the actions your character takes have similarly lasting effects on the game world.   Your character–and therefore your starting position in the game–changes regularly each time you play the game.  

If your character saves a town from a dragon, your character has earned a lasting reputation in that game.  If your character fails to prevent the assassination of the star emperor, that character is dead in every future session of that game.  Knights of the Dinner Table is one of the great gamer comics, centered on the the ongoing chaos of the eponymous group and their beleaguered DM.  Throughout the comic, we see the game world this group plays evolving in response to their actions.  When Knuckles the Thief–of the Knights–murdered a beggar, he was sentenced having his leg hacked off at the knee.  Another lasting (if not permanent) effect on the game.


When you design a conversion between board game and roleplaying game, consider ways to include legacy in the game.

Converting a Roleplaying Game Into a Board Game

Converting in this direction might require zooming out to let each player control a group of characters.  Lords of Waterdeep takes this approach by having players control both a lord and his agents rather than a single character in D&D.

Lords of Waterdeep Set

RPG to boardgame conversion cold also be a lateral move as in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game which keeps players focused on a single character just as in its parent game.

Manage the perspective of your game to make a successful boardgame conversion of a roleplaying game.

Consider using your game to expose players to their game world in a new way.  Zoom out to condense epic sequences to a scale players can take in.  Embed players in a world in motion to give them a broader perspective than they could ever get by playing as a single character.  

Or keep the scale personal but cast them as villains rather than the heroes.  Or change their perspective again by casting them not as the heroes who rescue the town but instead as town elders who must recruit heroes.

computer-hacker-alertBoardgames are also good at moving sequences from the RPG’s metaspace into literal space.  Imagine a cyberpunk RPG which includes rules for hacking a company’s datafortress.  The rules of the RPG might have the player make a sequence of skill checks and have the referee use these results to arbitrate the hack.  Your board game might replace these simple skill checks with elaborated card play and introduce a game board to represent the company’s network map.  Your game has taken metaspace–a few die rolls simulating the hack–and made it literal–getting the hacker’s pawn to the key data packet and back out undetected.

Converting a Board Game Into a Roleplaying Game

There aren’t many conversion from board game to roleplaying but one stole many hours which might have spent better outside in the sun. The 1997 title Sid Meier’s Magic: the Gathering shows us many ways this game expanded on its tabletop source material.  The game casts you as a planeswalker–the metagame identity of every player in the M:tG card game–with a starting deck of game cards.  Game world terrain comes in five types, representing the five colors of magic in the game.  Cities in the game world also appear in these colors.  Monsters in the game come from monsters in the card game and each monster’s deck will be built around that monster’s color.  Battle is handled by playing of the card game.  Your life total begins lower than the 20 you may be accustomed to, but rises as your character levels up.  Battles are played for ante–a random card is drawn from each deck, set aside, and the winner keeps both cards.  As you gain levels and build increasingly stronger decks, you can take on stronger monsters until finally defeating the game’s boss for victory.  The game certainly had a number of shortcomings and wasn’t loved by most fans but still gives a look into how we might convert a board game into a roleplaying game.

SId Meier MtG

One More Example

Since there aren’t many examples of roleplaying games based on board games, I’m going create one.  Stop by next time to see which game I would choose and how I would approach it.

Final Thoughts

To write a good conversion, understand the strengths of the original medium and the new.  Understand the best complexity for each medium and its best scope. Among the three, miniatures games are the best for modeling action and combat, roleplaying games are the best for exploring personal experience and emotion, board games are best if you want to simulate a grand scope.  

Choose wisely and give your players a great gaming experience.


What do you think of boardgame: roleplaying game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.



Triggered Effects, Part 4

The Story So Far…

Triggered card effects all fit under a general “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” template. They can make a card situationally powerful.  They can give cardsets a mechanical theme.  They can create opportunities for counterplay.

We have taken a look at several categories of trigger and effect, including several from our insightful readers.


Putting Them Together

We have put quite a few tools into our designer toolbox over the last two weeks.  Having tools is great.  Using them is better.  We need to try combining some triggers with events and take a look at which combinations best fit which games.

Triggered Effects in Columns

This list has nine categories of trigger and an equal number of event categories.  Multiplying those 81 combinations by the huge number of game categories out there and my mind became overwhelmed.  There were too many options pick a starting place.  Then I remembered A Whack on the Side of the Head and the power randomness can offer to driving creativity.  Rather than trying to take each combination on in turn, I elected to let pick one from each column and discover what those combinations inspire.  Here we go…!


Combination 01: B + C

Trigger (B): Receives Damage

Event (C): Endurance

This combination evokes images of firefighters in me.  Starting from there, How might a game which includes a triggered effect like this one look…?

Sally JoIn towns of the American frontier era, volunteer fire departments competed for the honor of being the ones to put out the fire.  So extreme was their enthusiasm that this rivalry sometimes devolved into fisticuffs, even as the building burned down beside them.  

For a game set in this era, players draft firefighters, then fight fires with their teams.  Firefighters are represented by cards which have two attributes–Bravery, Fortitude.

This a triggered event of this type in this setting suggests a character with low Bravery but high Fortitude.  Let’s make it our mascot–the classic dalmatian–and name her Sally Jo.



Combination 02: D + D

Trigger (D): Revelation

Event (D): Cards

CoachThis is a combination quickly found its way into Duel. Playtesting has shown that in many decks, certain cards are better at some times than others.  This means that an important element of play is dealing with cards that arrive at better or worse times.  This is on its face not a major issue.  Card games like Magic: the Gathering, Sentinels of the Multiverse card game, and Cheat (Bullshit) all present exactly this challenge to players.  

Since players may place cards face up or face down, revelation effects fit perfectly into Duel. I’ve been experimenting with quite a few of them. What if one of the Duel decks emphasized card combinations but also included a way to exert control over your hand?  One of the decks I’ve been developing has a Sport/Athletics theme and this sounds like a perfect job for a coach.

The Coach card was given low strength but I think his ability text is a solid match for a Revelation + Cards combination.


Combination 03: C + B

Trigger (C): Deal Damage

Event (B): Currency

Sylvan Sea SerpentMany of the people in my design group play M:tG regularly.  It’s only natural then that discussions about its design should occur around the design table quite often.  Apart from the occasional draft match, I haven’t really played M:tG since the 1990s but looking at this combination immediately made me think of Mr. Garfield’s game.

Will generate currency–mana–green and blue seem like natural colors for the job.  Playing with a few combinations gave me the Sylvan Sea Serpent shown here.



Combination 04: E + G

Trigger (E): Acquisition

Event (G): Component Condition

Let’s try applying one to a pure eurogame–something which would easily sit alongside Princes of Florence on any gamer’s shelves.  Each player gets a play mat with a grid of squares.  Each player is working to fill his grid with buildings in order to achieve the best (highest scoring) town.  

A number of resources appear each round according to the roll of four dice–one for each resource type.  The particulars of these dice is not terribly important to this exercise but let’s say that these are averaging dice which show 2-3-3-4-4-5 on their faces (eager shoppers can find them here).

BayardAt the heart of the game will be card drafting/play mechanisms to navigate.  Cards collect resources, spend resources for build buildings and the like.  At the beginning of each round, a number of cards equal to the number of players is revealed from the deck.  These cards generally generate labor to construct buildings, make certain buildings cheaper to acquire or award endgame bonus points for building types.

Into this game, we bring Bayard the Stevedore.  He contributes little to your labor pool but offsets this with his particular ability to manipulate the resource supply.



Your Weekend Project

August means back to school season and what better way to gear up than with a nice homework assignment?  Try this combination out for yourself.  See what you can think up and submit your ideas to our comment section.

Trigger (E): Receives Damage

Event (G): Component Condition


These were my first four examples of the “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” formula.  Next time, I will attempts to take on four more.  How will I do?  Come by Tuesday and find out!

What combination did you find most interesting?  What made you like it so much?  Which one did you like least?  What keeps it from being more enjoyable?   Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Triggered Effects, Part 3

The Story So Far…

Triggered card effects all fit under a general “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” template. They can make a card situationally powerful.  They can give cardsets a mechanical theme.  They can create opportunities for counterplay.

We have identified eight categories of trigger so far–Entrance, Tap/Untap, Exit, Acquisition, Revelation, Damage to the Card, Damage by the Card, Critical Mass.  I also pointed out that any of these effects could use the opponent as the trigger rather than the card holder.

We have addressed five categories of effect so far–Victory Points, Currency, Endurance, Cards, and Additional Cardplay.

I also challenged readers to identify any triggers I missed and to predict what other effects I would list.


Another Awesome Reader

Reader Jayson took on my challenge to identify missing triggers, suggesting four AND a modifier.  Jayson’s triggers were

(a)  “Play immediately when this card is drawn…”

(b)  “When you are forced to discard this card…”

(c)  “If X on this card is greater than Y…”

(d)  “When randomizer is X…”

There are all interesting triggers and each certainly has its place in design.  I find (b) particularly interesting and have been mulling that one over quite a bit since reading Jayson’s comment.

Jayson went on to point out that many triggers could be modified in the negative case “If X does not…” which may be seen as a special case of the Critical Mass trigger discussed in the last column but is certainly worth keeping in mind nonetheless.


More Effects

Triggered card effects fit under the “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” umbrella.  We have addressed five categories of effect so far.  Today’s blog expands our list to include game component effects and internal effects.


Game Component Effects

Obviously, card effects can be used heavily in card games.  But cardplay mechanisms can also be used as part of a larger game.  This opens up a world of card effect opportunities for the intrepid designer to explore.

Glittercats correctly anticipated this area with the comment “A lot of games use card effects to control non-card mechanics. So the card’s effect may be to move tokens on the board, or re-roll dice, or some other interaction with non-card components.”  Let’s take a closer look at the options this gives us.


Component Quantity

Card effects in a  board game could direct us to add components, remove components, move components, or swap component locations.  These effects will say things like

“…place a control marker in your weakest area.”

“…remove 2 voters from the most populated area.”

“…you may move all of your workers from the defeated area.”

“…swap the position of two adjacent racers.”



Component Condition

Card effects in a  board game could direct us to alter the components themselves.  These effects might say things like

“…advance the toxicity marker one level.”

“…you may immediately reroll one of your dice.”

“…refill an empty farm.”

“…flip a die over to its opposite face.”


Game State

Similar to component condition, our effects could change the overall state of the game.  We could achieve this by altering the topology of the game board, exhausting areas, refreshing areas, or even changing the odds.  These effects might look like

“…add +1 to all die rolls for the rest of your turn.”

“…add a map tile from the supply.”

“…remove a depleted mine from the board.”

“…open one gate.”


Internal Effects

BerzerkerUp to now, we’re focused entirely on outwardly-directed effects.  But what about triggered effects which target the card itself?  This ground has been well-trod by constructed deck games but what about applying these effects to other types of games?  These effects could have our players

“…give this card +1/+1.”

“…remove a timing stone from this card.”

“…untap this card.”

“…remove all enemies from this card.”

These were my other categories in the “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” formula.  Next time, we begin combining triggers with events.  Which which games use which combinations best?  Come by Friday and find out!

What effects did I leave out?  If so, what were they?  What game trigger do you find most interesting?  What made you like it so much?  What game triggers do you dislike?  What keeps it from being more enjoyable?   Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Icons vs Text, Part 3

This series of articles is all about our icons and text in game components.  Our design group has had extensive conversations on the topic and I’m sharing our conclusions with you.  Last time, we looked at the merits and limitations of icons. Today looks at some alternate approaches to icons.  What can we convey without using a conventional icon?


Component Color

Many games use color to indicate association.  Cards may have different color borders, figurines may have different color schemes.  This is an asset to the game so long as color is an indicator but not the only indicator.  Relying on color solely can be a tragic oversight–one bad decision leading to the game’s downfall.  My goal as a designer is to put joy on tables.  Closing off a portion of my potential audience by relying on color defeats that purpose.

My group encountered this situation only a few weeks ago.  I purchased a game on its excellent buzz.  We unpacked the components and John meekly declared the red and green tiles completely indistinguishable.  We packed the game back up and I haven’t reached for it since.

A similar issue arises if component color and player color overlap.  It becomes easy to mistake a community component for one belonging to a specific player.  This happened to me at a recent playtest.  I was playing green (as I often do) and one of the game regions was green.  The designer would ask from time to time, “how many green cubes do you have?” and I mistakenly answered with the number I had remaining in my supply when he actually meant “how many cubes do you have in the green region?” Oh the laughs we had over that one…


Component Art

In many cases, component art is sufficient for a player to know what the component represents.  Much as with color, this approach works fine so long as all components with the same art have the same attributes.  This works particularly well in miniatures games, where a squad of identical units can be represented with several identical minis.

Foreign CardCollectible card games like Magic: the Gathering are particularly good at this. When I was playing regularly in the late 1990s, it was vogue to fill your deck with foreign-language cards, if only to demonstrate your memorization prowess. Returning to the card I’ve been using regularly for examples in this series, several readers told me at a glance that this card is Necromancy and that it brings creatures from graveyards into play.



Some games games use keywords to represent blocks of text.  Keywords do not in and of themselves constitute component text.  They must be interpreted. They are not self-contained in the way that full text is.  Keywords are a useful design element but always remember that they have more in common with icons than with component text.

My frequent design partner Luther Bell Hendricks V is a particular fan of using keywords alongside reminder text.  In this way, the keyword is sufficient for any player who has memorized its meaning but the reminder text remains for players who haven’t.  At his suggestion, we have been exploring this as a way of handling recurring character abilities like flight in Sentinel Tactics (kickstarter campaign running now!)


How about you?  How do you feel about icons on game components?  If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Next time we get together, we will look at several more published games to see how effectively each one used icons and/or text.  I will then offer my own advice on each.  Have a great week and I’ll see you Friday!


Icons vs Text, Part 2

This series is all about our design group’s conclusions regarding the place of icons and text in game components. Last time, we looked at the merits and limitations of text. Today is all about icons.  Let’s see how they stand up.



By the mid-2000s, almost every European game publisher had switched away from game text. They detextified their components like a neo-emo throwing clearing his room of pony posters and embedded icons onto each component. A key to each icon’s meaning appeared in the rulebook, frequently near the end of the rules.


Icons tend to excel where game text fails.

Icons eliminate issues of rule space on the component.  Since a single icon represents game effects found in the rulebook, it can represent a virtually unlimited amount of text without taking up any significant room on the component.  Glancing at an icon is equivalent to clicking here.  This feature frees designers to label each component with as many abilities and effects as desired.


Icons bring language independence to your game components.  To publish an icon-reliant game in multiple countries, the publisher only has to create a different rulebook for each nation’s language.  This was already needed; using icons allows a publisher to bring a games to new markets without changing any components.  Furthermore, several players can enjoy your game at the same time even if none of them speak a common language.  The components are clear to everyone.

Sadly, Icons are not perfect either. They tend to fail where game text excels.

Icons are not truly language independent.  Each game’s icons are a new hieroglyphic language all players must learn.  When actions are reasonably straightforward and game icons have been well-designed, this is a language gamers become fluent with almost immediately. Foreign CardConsider for instance this card from Magic: the Gathering.  It served as an illustration of language-dependent components in the last column.  But notice that it utilizes icons as well.  It has been so long since I played Magic with any frequency that I cannot honestly recall the name of this card or its effects.  Because I am fluent in M:tG icons, I have no trouble whatsoever telling that it costs 2 colorless + 1 black manna to cast however.

Icons lack immediacy.  Players must first consult the rules to translate each icon as it comes up.  This can be particularly irritating for your players if these icons represent complex actions or are poorly designed. I can think of several games with icons so poorly designed that they shared no relation to the gameplay they were meant to represent.  I’ll bet you can too.

When teaching a new Eurogame to friends, I generally find it wise to walk them through all event card icons before we begin.  This easily adds five or more minutes to the learning time of the game and at the worst possible time–when the player is
already trying to process the game’s rules.   The alternative is to let players look icons up as they go. This can wreck the pace of your game, jar players out of flow, and cause disengagement.

Icons frequently sacrifice portability.  If a game component can only express itself through icons, rulebooks and reference sheets are needed to clarify what the component does.  This may not be a problem for a big-box game that already includes a large number of components but what about small games that are meant to be portable?  Icons have their limits.

How about you?  How do you feel about icons on game components?

If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Next time we get together, we will take a look at the role of color and keywords.  We then begin looking at examples of published games.  Let’s see what their graphic designers used and how well it worked. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you Tuesday!