The Clockwork Game Design Podcast: Episode 5 – The Limitations of Boardgames


While it’s tempting to think otherwise, computers are the best tool we have for pursuing great game designs. In this episode, I also talk about how “abstract” games are problematic due to low information density, the information horizon, and a lot about the medium of board games.


Some relevant links: – all game designers should make an attempt to get as familiar with as many of the top ~300 or so boardgames as they can. – Yet another link to this article!

Nethack Wiki – Just hit “random page” a few times to see what an insane amount of content there is in this game.

2013 NYU Practice talk – Art of Strategy


As always, please visit my Patreon page to support the show. Thanks for listening!

  • Rob Seater

    I often find myself defending board games precisely because of their limitations — very much in the manner you describe. I see board games as a perfect case of necessity being the mother of invention. Apart from some elements of physicality (only a small appeal for me, barring dexterity games), a board game should be strictly inferior to a computer game because of the host of limitations — both what can be done, and the requirement that the players execute (and know) all the rules. But I generally observe quite the opposite — board games are a constant flow of new ideas and deep strategy whereas computer games have a very low rate of new ideas being introduced. Some of that may simply be culture emerging from historical accidents, but I think the real difference is the necessity part of the equation. With a board game, you cannot get away with a messy hidden solution to a problem; you _have_ to find a clean solution just to survive and make the game function. Applying those principles back to computer games should, in theory, produce the best games of all…but it is extremely hard to resist the temptation to abuse the freedom a computer provides you.

  • Agreed. Kind of a more succinct way to say a lot of what I said in the episode. đŸ˜€

  • mzo

    Enjoyed the episode. The lead-in time to the meat of the discussion took a little long, but was good once it got going.

    One major area you didn’t really touch on much was the difference between board games and video games in terms of single and multiplayer. Board games can’t really do single player as it pretty much just ends up being a procedural puzzle, and video games can do single player really well. The multiplayer/social aspect is such a big part of board games that it seems worth including in thoughts about comparing the two mediums. Video games also can do multiplayer in ways that board games can’t really handle well like asynchronous and MMO kind of play. While I totally agree with the constraint of players needing to keep a mental model of games state and rules in their heads to make proper decisions, video games can do a more consistent job of applying those rules, especially across multiple participants. The big downside of course is that video games can’t handle any fuzziness in the rules.

    Keep up the podcast, I feel like your points can come across a little clearer in it than in your blog posts, although a little rambley at times!

  • I disagree that 1 player board games “end up being a procedural puzzle”. I think you would be forgiven for thinking that, given that there are very few 1-player boardgames that even get made, but I think it’s false. Some examples I would give are Agricola, which you can play 1 player (and I actually prefer 1-player). Also Pandemic, which is “co-operative” (which really just means 1 player, but playing by committee).

    Finally, I think there is no difference between a 1 player and a 2+ player game, fundamentally. Other players are a source of randomness. You can instead substitute those players with other sources of randomness and it’s fundamentally the same.

  • mzo

    1 player Agricola has no variations outside of which turn a particular card will come out, and is otherwise deterministic. Even this variation is highly constrained, letting you easily somewhat solve which actions to take within a specific range of turns. As the turns within a specific range go on this gets even easier as you know which cards are left. A good chunk of the variation in Agricola comes specifically from other players blocking your actions. Perhaps we have a different idea of what makes up a procedural puzzle, but that seems like a pretty good example of one to me. I suppose if you define a puzzle specifically as having only one possible solution, but I see endgame scoring as just a puzzle with a rated solution. It’s just about the same level of puzzle as Minesweeper and Solitaire where randomness acts as variation, but it’s still fundamentally about solving it. I’ll give you that Pandemic has enough randomness to disrupt puzzle solving.

    I don’t see that a player is fundamentally a source of randomness as players can actively work to disrupt your play while randomness is neutral, so unless the randomness actually takes your activities into account, it’s pretty different in practice. How much this is a factor of course depends on the game. I could easily see something like Dominion replace other players with randomness as the base game has very little interactivity.

  • 1P agricola has the order of cards that come out, but also starting condition randomness. I agree that that’s not really quite enough but it’s still not a puzzle; you’re not trying to “find the solution” (i.e. literally optimal play), you’re trying to beat a certain score (measurement, a contest feature). It’s not about randomness.