The Psychology of Board Game Design
The Psychology of Board Games has been studied for over one hundred years. Most of that research focused on why we play and how we play. It hasn’t been until relatively recent times that investigations in psychology have been applied to the design of tabletop games.
Let’s face it Psychology is a massive field. A person could choose a vast number of perspectives to operate from. We have to start somewhere! I believe that human motivation is a good place to start. Specifically, the theories of William Glasser. Glasser states that all human behavior (once our survival needs are met) is motivated by our need for Belonging, Power, Freedom, and Fun.
This need involves the desire to matter, make a difference, achieve, be competent, recognized and respected. It includes self-esteem and a desire to leave a legacy.* Oftentimes Power is seen to have a negative connotation, but that is not the intent here.
Love & Belonging
The need for Love & Belonging includes the drive to be connected with others, such as friends, family, intimate partners, co-workers, pets and the groups you affiliate with.*
The need for freedom is about having choices, being independent and autonomous. Freedom is about being able to move freely without restriction. Creativity is a part of this need, too.*
Fun – The Psychology of Board Game Design
This need encompasses pleasure, play, humor, relaxation, and relevant learning.*
This is the basis for all behavior. We are happiest when all of these needs are getting met. So, what does this have to do with tabletop game design? Wait for it… when all of these needs are being met, we are happiest. Therefore, the more you can build in devices that will help people to meet their needs, the more likely people are to love your game.
If I make a game for EVERYONE, don’t I make a game for NO ONE?
Absolutely! Even though we all have these needs, we don’t all have the same degree of need for all four of them. Some of us will value belonging more that power and on and on. To even complicate things further, we don’t all meet those needs in the same way. This is a framework for you to evaluate your design and hold it up against a well established psychological theory.
A game might be successful without hitting all these categories, but the deepest most satisfying games will hit on each one of these aspects.
For example, let’s take the one that we have ALL talked about in-game design (without even being aware that it was part of Glasser’s theory), fun. Is a game fun? Well, fun can be defined in so many ways. To make matters worse, something that you find fun might not be something that I find fun. So, in a lot of ways fun is actually one of the more difficult needs to apply to design. I’m not going to spend much time with fun in this post because it is something that designers talk about a lot. Bring your game to multiple testers and players and evaluate if they are having fun.
Let’s get into it.
Freedom: Does your game allow the players to make choices? Even better, can they be creative in their choices in an attempt to arrive at a solution? This is an area where RPG thrive. The more you can replicate that feeling the better. Imagine winning a game by combining actions in a unique way and pulling out the victory in the last second. Designers need to ask this question often in the design process. Freedom relates to Input Randomness (Roll then decide) and Output Randomness (Decide then Roll). The ABILITY to decide has more to do with this than the actual result of the decision. Ie. I have the choice to attack with slim odds of success is better that “you can’t do that”. Even if I fail, it is still better, as it relates to freedom, to have been given that option.
Power: Power relates to how much agency you have in the game. The more a player can feel like their decisions impact the outcome of the game, the more satisfied they are likely to be. As previously mentioned, people have differing levels of each of these needs. A player with a low power need might be perfectly happy playing a game full of random events.
Belonging: Like the other needs, people interpret this differently. Sometimes just being part of a group activity is enough. However, the more you can encourage people to participate (not necessarily verbally) in something larger together, the more likely it is to be successful. It would seem that cooperative games would be a natural at this, but quarterbacking can be a real problem. Even though the group has the same objective, they aren’t exactly working together is one player is dominating play.
Fun: I feel like this is the one that designers naturally talk about so I won’t spend much time on this. But it IS important that you are asking your playtesters and people that you are demoing to if your game is fun and why. My rule of thumb is that I want people to say to me “Where can I buy this game?” at the end of playing. There is a big difference between someone saying “That was fun” and separating them from their hard-earned money to buy your game.
Storytelling: I think Carl Jung’s archetypes have been talked about in literature for years. If you think of classic stories or movies, you will find archetypes. Having these characters in your story is more likely to engage your audience. Use the information below to examine your game and see if there is room to tie these archetypes into your game.
The 12 Jungian archetypes (from exploringyourmind)
- The Sage
The sage is a free thinker. Their intellect and knowledge are their reason for living, their essence. They seek to understand the world and their being by using their intelligence and analytical skills. They always have a fact, a quote, or a logical argument on the tip of their tongue.
- The Innocent
The innocent seems to have read and absorbed every self-help book in the world. They’re optimistic and always searching for happiness. The innocent sees the good in everything. They want to feel well-adjusted to the world around them. The innocent also wants to please others and feel like they belong.
- The Explorer
The explorer is a bold traveler. They set out without a clear path and are always open to novelty and adventure. The explorer has a deep love of discovering new places and new things about themselves. The downside of the explorer archetype is that they’re always searching for perfection and they’re never satisfied.
- The Ruler
The ruler is a classic leader. They believe they should be the ones to bring order to any situation. The ruler is stable, strives for excellence, and wants everyone to follow their lead. They tend to have plenty of reasons why everyone should listen to them. This is one of the 12 Jungian archetypes related to power. The ruler, in their desire to impose their will on others, can easily become a tyrant.
- The Creator
The creator has a profound desire for freedom because they love novelty. They love to transform things in order to make something completely new. The creator is clever, non-conformist, and self-sufficient. They’re imaginative and good-humored. However, they can also be inconsistent and spend more time thinking than actually doing.
- The Caregiver
The caregiver feels stronger than other people. Consequently, they offer maternal protection to those around them. They want to protect people from harm and try to prevent any danger or risk from threatening other people’s happiness. In extreme cases, the caregiver turns into a martyr who constantly reminds everyone of their sacrifices.
- The Magician
The magician is like a great revolutionary. They regenerate and renew not just for themselves, but for others as well. They’re constantly growing and transforming. The negative side of the magician archetype is that their mood can be contagious. They sometimes turn positive events into negative ones.
- The Hero
The axis of a hero’s life is power. The hero has an uncommon vitality and resistance that they use to fight for power or honor. They’ll do anything to avoid losing. In fact, they don’t lose because they never give up. The hero can be overly ambitious and controlling.
- The Rebel
The rebel is a transgressor. They provoke people and don’t care at all about other people’s opinions. As a result, they like going against the grain and thinking for themselves. They don’t like to be pressured or influenced. The negative side of the rebel archetype is that they can become self-destructive.
- The Lover
The lover is all heart and sensitivity. They love and love to lavish it on other people. Their greatest happiness is feeling loved. They enjoy everything that’s pleasing to the senses. They value beauty (in every sense of the word) above all.
- The Jester
The jester likes to laugh, even at themselves. They don’t wear any masks and tend to break down other people’s walls. They never take themselves seriously because their goal is to enjoy life. The negative side of the jester is that they can be lewd, lazy, and greedy.
- The Orphan
The orphan archetype walks around with open wounds. They feel betrayed and disappointed. They want other people to take charge of their life. When no one does, they feel disappointed. They tend to spend time with people who feel just like them. The orphan often plays the victim. They pretend to be innocent. The orphan has a cynical side and manipulative talent.
* – as written from Glasser Institute for Choice Theory.