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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Pete and Repeat Sat on a Fence: Iterative Design in Board Gaming

by | published Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Logo: Made from 100% recycled material

The year is 2001. February, to be exact. Snowbird, Utah. 17 technological thinkers gathered to discuss and shape a whole new school of thought around software design: Agile. Prior to this committee, the driving philosophy of software design was to use a system of rigid, sequential steps to get a system built: gather its requirements and requests, design it, implement it, verify its function through debugging, and commit to maintenance. This old school philosophy was colloquially called the “Waterfall Method”. While this process was quite solid and is still used to this day, its rigidity leads to long development cycles where businesses will go years without seeing any new piece of software.

Agile, on the other hand, takes the Waterfall ideology and turns it on its head. What if developers took this solid philosophy and instead of going through that process once, they went through it again? And again? And instead of waiting until the very end for the users to get their hands on the new software, what if they can have the first iteration in their hands within a few months? By using the tested mindset of Waterfall but applying it over and over again, the customer could have an even more refined and revered final product, and by implementing that process in smaller chunks, the users could start integration much sooner than before. 

Agile was so popular that within the following decade it became the prominent school of thought for software development. Its ideas of iterating quickly, letting the customer provide more meaningful and frequent feedback, was the major driving factor in its success. If the customer whose requirements need to be met can have them met in more nuanced and precise ways, then their productivity (and thus, profits) will skyrocket.

While I’m professionally invested in having an opinion on Agile, I’m personally invested in dissecting how iterative design philosophies have changed the board gaming landscape. But I’m not going to be looking at this from the perspective of before a game is published, but after a game is published. I want to dissect games, designers, and publishers that release these iterative designs as their own titles instead of keeping them as prototypes, and dissect areas where these published iterations and fitting, and where they are predatory. 

Iteration is Good, Actually

Sidelong view of Trailblazers boardgame with tiles in forground and bottom of box cover in background

Ryan Courtney loves line puzzles.Three of his first four games all have line puzzles as a central mechanic: Pipeline, Curious Cargo, and Trailblazers. Pipeline is a quite-heavy economic game where players are laying out oil pipes to become the most profitable oil barren.. Its main difficulty lies from the tight action and money economies, with the line puzzle definitely being present, but not the driving force of the game. Curious Cargo is a frenetic, confrontational, two-player factory building game where the line puzzle pieces are your conveyor systems from your production machinery to your shipping trucks. Ship the most products of different colors before your opponent can ship more (or intercept your shipments!!). Trailblazers is a light, Sunday breeze of a game, similar in nature to Sprawlopolis: get a few objectives on how to lay out your campground (the line puzzle this time dictates certain features like hiking trails or rivers), score more points than your opponent to win, and then play again because that game only took twenty minutes. 

This reuse of ideas, this iterative design, was not by accident. In a Twitter thread, Courtney admitted to the fact these three games were designed around the same time with the explicit purpose of being able to build off of one another: 

  • Designing games in sets allows you to explore multiple avenues in the space while avoiding the temptation to throw all the ideas into a single game.
  • You can test mechanisms in the more streamlined games to ensure the mechanism at its core works and when reintroducing it in the heavier game you just need to focus on integration of proven mechanisms.
  • Games can take a long time from creation to actually being shipped. 
  • Trailblazers was way more challenging, had the most significant changes, and took me way longer to design than the other two. In many ways designing a successful light game is harder than designing a successful heavy game. 

Courtney purposefully used iteration to make three entirely different games, for entirely different markets, with entirely different themes. Sure, the main mechanism of all three involves line puzzles, but the fact remains that if he can design one focused, highly developed mechanism like that and stretch it out into many games, that’s not some lazy or predatory practice, that’s brilliant

What’s beautiful about our hobby is that this phenomenon of systems borrowing is highly prevalent, and usually quite transparent, even across multiple designers, and sometimes even genres. Take Card Driven Games, or CDGs. In 1993, famed wargame designer Mark Herman wanted to design a new way for wargames to be played where the usual hex-and-counter design would be thrown out and replaced with a simpler, more lively abstraction of that idea through card play. We the People did just that. 

Box cover for We The People boardgame

Since then, the most popular and prominent wargames released, ranging from Twilight Struggle to Votes for Women, have utilized this system. The system has become so popular that most of the wargames published by GMT Games are now CDGs over hex-and-counter games. It seems like it was eons ago, but there was a time where the #1 game on BoardGameGeek was Twilight Struggle! But none of these iterative titles are 1-to-1 clones: heck, even Mark Herman doesn’t think We the People holds up that well, because in 2010, he re-designed it himself in Washington’s War

Being able to take tight, polished, renowned systems and placing them in new themes, in new genres, and at new price points, can accomplish three things: it brings in new players both into that system; it can lead to some wild crossover within the hobby itself; and it can act as an introduction into the hobby for outsiders. 

Take Gloomhaven as a prime example. The 2017 phenom caught the hobby by surprise and captured the hearts of many, including those who generally would not be interested in genre fare like it. But as the product stood, it was quite difficult to take the fervor for the title and spread it out to non-hobbyists: the box was wickedly ginormous and very, very expensive. Thus, Isaac Childres designed Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. This new title was able to compress nearly all of the gargantuan ideas of the original game into a box 1/6th of the size at 1/4th the price, and stick it into Target all across the United States. 

Without being able to release that similar-but-different title, then there would be less people in the hobby. Without being able to take the CDG model and apply it to an underexplored topic like the Women’s Suffrage Movement like Brown did for Votes for Women, then the people that flocked to that title who had never played a wargame before wouldn’t get to experience the sheer delight of them. Without Courtney being able to use his devious line puzzles in three completely otherwise unrelated titles, we wouldn’t all get to be tortured by his evil little brain. 

The key takeaway here is that iteration leads to expansion. New ideas can come to light in well-carved out areas of the market. Loved tropes in one genre can jump to others to bring new life to another one. But it’s this expansion and regurgitation is where this positivity can turn predatory.

Iteration is Bad, Actually

Optimists in the hobby like to view games entirely as art, as pieces of contemplative media where players can actively engage with thought-provoking material in a safe, social space with some of the people they cherish most in their life.

Pessimists realize that this hobby has some of the most money hungry practices out there.. 

Don’t get me wrong. Not every horrible instance of this phenomenon in the hobby is purposefully awful. Take the COIN (COunter INsurgency) Series from GMT, starting with Andean Abyss. First released over 11 years ago now, the COIN Series is easily one of the most popular series to ever exist in wargaming. Including spin-offs and sequels, there are over 25 titles announced for the series. 

Kallax bookshelf filled with GMT COIN games.

In this series’ case, this saturation of titles is entirely community-driven. People freakin’ love COIN Games. One of the most popular Discord servers in all of board gaming is all about these games, with channels devoted to everything from individual titles, to designing scenarios for those existing titles, to fans creating their own titles. And there’s a good reason for this iteration: the system is quite flexible and easy to apply to most time periods and settings, while being rigid and defined enough for the serie’s veterans to be able to learn new titles in 10-15 minutes. Joe Dewhurst is a fine example of this fandom-turned-designer with his upcoming title The Pure Land, a COIN Game about Medieval Japan. 

There is real passion in these titles. And these are fully developed, released games. But it still feels like there’s too much. It feels like GMT Games, the publisher of the series, is greenlighting too many projects because it makes so much money. The average player is going to play each title one or two times before it sits on their shelf for years, mainly because A.) these games often have tight player restrictions of exactly four players, and B.) these games are long, with the BoardGameGeek stated times ranging from three hours to six hours for completion of one game. 

And it’s not really even GMT Games’ fault. I am not suggesting that they stop publishing and supporting games that are in such high demand to both be bought and be made. Their market for these games exist because of the psychological fallacies that us board gamers in the hobby are privy to falling into: collecting for completion’s sake, and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

I’ve seen many, many discussions in the COIN Discord about “I need to complete the set, but I want to keep playing [Insert Favorite Title Here].” Or sentiments like “[Title] is nearly Out-Of-Print, should I get it before it’s gone?” GMT Games is easily one of the most transparent and responsive publishers when it comes to transparency about their reprints and the timing of them. However, for a game to be reprinted, the demand needs to hit 500 copies, and GMT Games shows that number in real time on their site, so fixated gamers will see not only how many copies need to be pre-ordered before a title gets reprinted, but the rate at which people are doing the pre-ordering. 

So board gamers are collectors and impatient, that’s on them, right?

Well, sadly it’s not that simple.

While GMT Games is transparent and does their best to avoid players from falling into these psychological traps (within their abilities), there are other publishers that use this trap to take advantage of their customers. 

Enter frequent villains of my pieces, CMON.

Instead of looking at one of their worst Kickstarter campaigns, I want to look at one of their campaigns that was looked upon with neutral to even positive reception: Zombicide: Undead or Alive. I am not intimately familiar with every game in the Zombicide series, but what I can tell you is that this game doesn’t seem to be reinventing the wheel in any way. This was the first title after Zombicide: 2nd Edition came out and the system was tweaked, so if anything, this is a “proof of concept” for the series as to what these changes could bring to the series. In the context of this article, all we need to know is this: Undead or Alive is an iteration of Zombicide in theme with a few changes to the system to accommodate said setting.

Cover of Zombicide: Undead or Alive game.

On launch, the campaign for Undead or Alive seemed pretty straightforward: Three pledge levels with some stretch goals to come. By the end of the campaign, there were still three pledge levels, but a total of 10 new add-ons. This is not new to CMON, but a practice that I find abhorrent: adding hundreds of dollars of items onto a campaign as it goes on. Why is this so bad? Well, first, by having a small, simple, and cheap (relatively, my God) campaign at the start, the initial narrative of the campaign is that it won’t be as messy as other campaigns, getting people to pledge. More importantly, though, this taps into both of the awful habits of board gamers.

By adding more items to their Kickstarters after they’ve begun, CMON takes advantage of people with sunken cost fallacy and the urge to complete their collection. “I’ve already pledged for the game, what’s $25 more?” or “Well if I’m going to get it, I may as well get it all!” Of course the cherry on top for all of this is how CMON has Kickstarter-only items, meaning that if I backed the base game only and loved the game, several of the add-ons and expansion content is going to be either impossible or overpriced to get ahold of. FOMO is real, and CMON is the GOAT at utilizing it. 

Ok, so that may seem like a side rant about CMON. But my point is that these massive, oversized campaigns like this, whether it is a Zombicide game or a combat skirmish game of a similar ilk, are iterative games that sell well. Oftentimes they do sell well because they have positive reviews; however, they have as positive of reviews as the nearly-identical Kickstarter skirmish game that everyone bought three months ago. It’s almost like gamers have been trained to make these purchases over and over again, when they have games that fit the bill at home already. 

And this is where iteration can be really harmful to the consumer: comfortability and trust. If you’re trying to sell me a $300 game that’s about tax evasion from an unknown designer, chances are even I may be turned off by that campaign. If you told me Knizia, Mark Herman, Martin Wallace, etc. were designing it, I would be in though because I love their other work. Now let’s apply this logic to Zombicide. Why do people buy such a similar game again? Because they trust it will be good because they liked the first, whether or not there’s any meaningful changes.

Iteration is Neutral, Actually

I wanted to write about this topic because I think there are a lot of heated topics about it online. People discussing if New Hotness replaces Old Hotness in your collection forever, or if it’s worth keeping two semi-related games in their collection, devoid of all other context: it’s exhausting. Because whether it’s about the concept of iterative design as a whole, or whether you should keep two different titles, it can’t be solved by anyone but you. You have to come to these conclusions.

I’ve drawn my own lines in the sand. As harsh as I was to Zombicide, I do enjoy the system (as long as I don’t have to buy it). And I have my own iterative titles I blindly hoard: 18xx games. I can’t get my partner to play any of the titles with me unless I pull out the special sad eyes, and yet I insist on keeping 6 titles in my ~75 game collection. Yet I see one macguffin in a new title and I’m all in, ready to spend $100 on a new train game to collect dust. And I also trim down my collection to not have games that feel incredibly similar: I have and love Pipeline and eventually got rid of Curious Cargo because there has never been a time where my partner and I would rather play it over Pipeline

And to make others feel better about their mental barriers or completionism habits in the hobby, I have a depressing fact to bear: I no longer own a COIN Game. I absolutely adore the series, but the series takes up so much room, and my dumb brain is not comfortable with the idea of me owning just one title: it’s all or nothing for me, and I chose nothing. 

Iterative designs are not inherently good or bad. Predatory business practices are bad, but the designs are not. If you seek similar designs of cherished games to see how those cherished games can be massively tweaked over one rule change, go for it! If you want wildly different mechanics in your games so that you can see every possible combination of systems and themes, that’s not wrong either.

Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m going to form a 17 person committee in Utah to discuss where you land on the topic.


  • Bailey D

    Bailey is a long-time board gamer, short-time writer. She’s been playing board games all her life, “hobby” board games for a decade, and “crusty grognard cardboard war simulators” for the last two or three years. When she’s not obsessing over the next indie 18xx release, she can often be found refreshing online games stores and publishers’ sites for new releases. Her top games include Age of Steam, Power Grid, the COIN Series, and Camel Up.

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