Board games are for lovers (of design): why rules documents are pure game design

Video games have taken the world by storm and it is easy to understand why, they are engaging, immersive, at times visually stunning, and grow more magnificent with each new digital technology introduced.

However, gaming has a long history in analogue form dating back to the earliest days of mankind. What are the strengths of games in a physical form that simply can’t be replaced with a digital representation, and what can players learn about the nature of games from playing analogue games?

For starters we must understand that when a video game is developed, presentation and usability; UI, tutorials, and menus, are equally as important as the creation of cinematic moments, dialogue systems, sound design, to the overall user experience.

With the amount of things going on in a video game many players simply focuses on the mechanics they are in control of, the times in between gameplay, when the game is teaching them about the game or its systems may be of little relevance to the player, whose thumb taps the skip button to return to gameplay.


(Prompt for skipping a cutscene, Prisoner of War)

Replayability: ease vs depth

A well designed board game can be played time and time again, chess for example is a board game which has stood the test of time, due to its elegant simplicity and strategic depth.

Whereas Monopoly, which has found its own niche in gaming history through its ease of play, stands as a testament to poor design.  The anecdote told time and time again about playing Monopoly is how unfair it is once a player gains a slight advantage above the rest.  This imbalance within the game makes true competition impossible, and the element of player elimination actually makes the game less fun to play over the long course of the game, since there are less and less people actually participating in the game.


(A funny illustration of before and after a game of Monopoly, you can see more at

Systems: running code vs reading rules

Within analogue games the game doesn’t run without the players’ knowledge of its systems.  The “programming” is the rules document, and the game engine is the player’s mind.   A well written rules document can pull the players in and engage them in all of the systems of a game, and a poorly written or exampled rules document can make games unimaginably difficult to play, to the point where players can’t even start a game because of the amount of things they need to remember.

Alas, the beauty of board games as a study of design lies in their inability to hide design; sure, beautiful board or card art may make the game pretty to look at, and interesting figures or pawns may provide toys for children to animate with their imaginations, but the majority of what makes board games fun spawns from their design.

Have you had a truly awesome or truly awful board game experience?  How would you equate the feeling of playing a board game versus a video game?  What do you like best about each experience?  Do you feel that one is better than another? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please do so in the comments below, or write in to

Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on FacebookInstagramand Youtube.


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