Design space, or why video games don’t always make a good inspiration for board games

Many board game enthusiasts, and, among them, many first time designers, are also video games players. With the incredible advancements of video games for the past two decades, they have become an amazing source of inspiration for board game designers, especially newbie in our industry. That is both good and bad.

Let’s start by defining the titular design space: I call design space the totality of physical components present in a board game, together with all the theme, the mechanisms and the flavor associated with a board game. The design space of any board game is finite. Everything coming in the game box, all resources provided by the publisher as digital contents and all the expansions can only cover that much ground. For a game like Star Wars: Imperial Assault one can argue that its design space is much wider as it stretches into the Star Wars universe and that is a valid point.

Now, let’s take a look at a game like Europa Universalis, a grand civilization game: it takes a nation over hundreds of years, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of mechanisms in the game, all controlled to some extent by players, and the depth and complexity exceed by a several orders of magnitude any empire building board game. Its design space is huge as it is only limited by the imagination and resources of the creators, the computing power of players and the overall length of the game.

Translating such a video game on tabletop is a very difficult endeavor, due to the limited design space of a board game. It is not impossible however, it just comes with some major compromises in terms of game mechanisms and complexity reduction. I would definitely encourage first time designers to stay away from such attempts as they require design experience and a deep understanding of current trends in modern board games as well as a long and usually painful process of agreement with the IP holders of the franchise.

The core work of “putting” a video game in a board game box is less that of a designer and more that of a developer. Complex mechanics need to be simplified, without losing the core ideas, large maps have to be reduced and made modular. An almost infinite variety of items have to be stripped down to their core, selected and adapted to cardboard and the feeling of the original game must be kept. Might & Magic Heroes is an example of an adaptation from video game to tabletop and while I loved the way the core ideas of the computer game have been kept or adjusted, the game take a lot of time to play even solo and it takes a lot of dedication to learn.

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