If the words board game bring to your mind the tried and true games of yesteryear—Monopoly, Clue, Risk—you may be unaware that we are now living through a veritable board game renaissance. Thanks in part to Kickstarter, which has allowed board game designers to produce games without the backing of a Milton Bradley-sized corporation, and to BoardGameGeek, a thriving online community that rates games in addition to hosting several annual conventions and awards ceremonies, and perhaps to a somewhat nostalgic yearning to get off the phone and engage with other physically present people, there are thousands of new, beautifully designed games on the market.
But however pretty the box and board, it is ultimately the mechanics of a game that make it a thing worth playing. So it’s no surprise that a large percentage of board game designers are or have been engineers. Are they drawn to the puzzle-like nature of constructing gaming challenges for the player? Do they use the same part of the mind that solves engineering problems to solve the problems of developing an engaging game? Eight board game engineers weigh in on these questions.
1. Scott Almes: Tiny Epic series, Best Treehouse Ever, Martian Dice
“My mechanical engineering background has had no small part in my success as a game designer,” Scott Almes said. He’s a product development engineer by day and a board game designer by night, as his blog puts it. For Almes, designing a game is just like designing any other product. Both have phases of research and market, as well as prototyping and development. Experience with this process is what can give an engineer an edge in the game business.
2. Adam Wyse: Masque of the Red Death, Poetry Slam, Head of Mousehold
Adam Wyse was once a software engineer who worked for a mechanical and civil engineering firm and, later, an energy billing company. Then he found games.
“Being able to separate out use cases or game states and evaluate the probability of these things occurring, or being able to figure out how many of a certain card or component are required, can often be very mathy,” Wyse said. “Some designers will go by feel, try what seems right, test it, and see how it works. The problem is there is just not enough testing that can possibly be done. I feel that a math background is so important to making good games.”
3. Phil Eklund: Neanderthal, Bios series, Pax series
“Of what objective merit is a board game?” asks Phil Eklund. “The engineering problems of building bridges, vehicles, power networks, etc. have obvious consequences to help man command the resources of nature and the problems of social living. But of what survival value or human advancement does a board game represent?”
The question is an important one for Eklund, who, after working for 32 years as an aerospace engineer for Hughes Aircraft segued into fulltime gaming with his company Sierra Madre Games.
For Eklund, games—like all art—mirror the world. Crucial to that mirroring are the rules, as important to games as they are to engineering. “Games and engineering are similar because they both require a grasp of rules,” Eklund said. “Perhaps even more than in engineering, the users of your product will be poring over the nuances and interpretations of every word, seeking a literal interpretation that will give them a competitive advantage.”
4. Tunca Zeki Berkkurt: İttihat, İhtilâl
Tunca Zeki Berkkurt is currently working on his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Istanbul Technical University. He designs games in his spare time. İhtilâl, or Revolution, and İttihat, or the Union, are strategy games that recreate events in Turkish history. “But my methodology is based on engineering design rather than historical research,” he said.
After breaking down a piece of history into manageable components, he develops a mathematical model that captures the relationships that produced the historical occurrences. “I always define a ‘fundamental rule’ that players’ winning strategies will focus on,” Berkkurt said.
This conceptual process takes about a week. “But fine tuning and end design takes almost a year.”
5. Joan Wendland: X-Machina, Counting Zzzzs, Evil Vendetta Pie Fight
Joan Wendland is the owner, operator, game designer, and Queen of Cards—as her website puts it—of Blood and Cardstock Games. She’s also an engineer. “Game design doesn’t pay the bills,” she said. For 25 years she’s been an engineering consultant, which has included gigs as a systems engineer, a technical trainer, a test engineer, a requirements manager, and a data liaison. She also writes novels.
When creating her quirky games, Wendland largely leaves her engineering self behind. “I do know a lot of technical people will use statistics to balance a game, but I lean more heavily to reproducing the feel of the theme,” she said.
But her engineer returns when it comes to testing and writing the rules: “If there's a way for the players to break the game, your product will fail. If someone can’t teach themselves to play from the instructions, the product will fail.”
6. Geoffrey Engelstein: Space Cadets, The Fog of War, The Ares Project
“Game design, like all design, is about solving problems,” Geoffrey Engelstein said. Engelstein should know: he’s solved a lot of problems. As a junior and senior at MIT he was president of the Strategic Gaming Society. Now he runs Mars International, an engineering design and manufacturing firm in New Jersey, while simultaneously creating games. He also teaches board game design at NYU.
“One of the first things I talk about are the strong analogs between game design and engineering,” he said. “Game design is, in many ways, a type of engineering. Engineering is about dealing with constraints. And tabletop games in particular have tremendous constraints—the physical nature of the components, shelf cost, playing time, the ability of players to comprehend and remember the rules, and more—all of these need to be considered and juggled by the designer, and you have to balance them against each other."
7. Haim Shafir: Piraten kapern, Speed Cups, Halli Galli
“Games are products. They are a special kind of product,” Haim Shafir said. “They are distinct from industrial products in which the functionality is the paramount issue to consider in order to make a decision on whether to buy them or not. Games are meant to fulfill personal satisfaction. Industrial products are meant to fulfill functions.”
Trained as a mechanical engineer at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Shafir found his own personal satisfaction in the world of play. “After several years I found myself attracted by social and humanistic questions which led me to be involved in toys and games,” he said.
8. Bruno Cathala: 7 Wonders Duel, Five Tribes, Kingdomino
For 18 years, Bruno Cathala created Tungsten alloys for the medical, aeronautic, and military industries. To create a new material, he always went through the same stages. As he puts it: First there is a sparkling idea. This requires the design of an experimental plan for validation. During this stage, you adapt, correct, modify, cancel, and validate to reach the final answer you are looking for. Then, when you have exactly what you want, you have to write the process with very precise and simple sentences so that anybody on the production line can understand all the instructions.
“The development of a game follows exactly the same path,” he said. “So, today, I’m doing the same job. It’s only the field which is different.”
Engineers hoping to develop any board game ideas of their own—wherever they come from—can check out the Board Game Design Lab. There, board game designers from all walks of life get into the minutia of just how an idea becomes something anyone can sit down with and play.
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
Read more about these engineers and game designers on ASME.org
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