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Creating a board game is more complicated than you think. Here's how it's done

A player places one of their game pieces on the board in CATAN. (Britta Pedersen / dpa / AP via CNN Newsource) A player places one of their game pieces on the board in CATAN. (Britta Pedersen / dpa / AP via CNN Newsource)
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When Guido and Benjamin Teuer were young, their father would sit them down at a table in their small family home in Hessia, Germany on Sundays — the only day he wasn’t working 12 hours as a master dental technician — to play board games.

It was more than fun between father and sons: Klaus Teuer, who passed away last year, became a renowned board game creator.

In 1995, Klaus Teuer released CATAN (then called The Settlers of Catan) in Germany. The game would go on to become one of the most popular in the world. The brothers recall a day around 10 years ago when they tested out an early version of a CATAN expansion with their parents. It was so unplayable that their mother left the table to go do the laundry.

Such visions of family and friends huddled around a board game are universal. Everyone has their version — maybe it involves Parcheesi, or one of the hundreds of versions of Monopoly, or a raucous round of Cards Against Humanity at a party.

With 19 per cent of people worldwide playing board games as a hobby and the global board game market reaching almost US$17 billion in 2023, it’s an industry that’s hard to ignore. Big box retailers and bookstores have shelves dedicated to games, and you can even find board game cafes in cities around the world.

Tabletop games, such as Risk and Clue, are the most popular segment of board games, closely followed by card and dice games like Uno and Pandemic: The Cure. Tabletop games also encompass role-playing games like the iconic Dungeons & Dragons.

Whether you’re a dedicated hobby player or a casual board gamer, have you ever stopped to wonder what, exactly, it takes to create one of the beautiful board games you see everywhere?

For National Board Game Day on April 11, CNN spoke with designers, artists, marketers and publishers of some of the most popular board games in the world to understand what it takes to build a game from scratch.

Building the story of a board game

Like a board game itself, developing a game requires both creativity and strategy at every stage — from ideation to playtesting to picking out the components, finding vendors and shipping the game.

Patience, according to Benjamin Teuber, is key.

After working with their father at the company for many years, Benjamin and his brother Guido now run CATAN GmbH, as the managing director and CEO, respectively.

Since its release in 1995, the strategy game about collecting resources such as lumber, ore and grain, and using them to build empires has spawned numerous expansions and alternate versions. Tiles of the various resources form the game board, along with resource cards and models of roads, towns and cities in each player’s colour. To date, CATAN has sold over 45 million copies worldwide.

For Benjamin Teuber, who worked closely on the development of games with his father Klaus for over 10 years, the first step is writing down ideas for a new game.

Then he takes about a month to think about these ideas, the story he wants to tell, and what some of the mechanics could be.

“The story is always the core,” says Benjamin Teuber. “If the story is well reflected in the mechanics, that is the point when you start making notes, then off the notes maybe some sketches on the computer in a graphic program.”

From there, he prints the first prototype on paper to play the game himself.

Klaus Teuber, a dental technician from Darmstadt, presents his game 'The Settlers of Catan', Friday, Sept. 29, 1995, in Frankfurt, Germany. (Bernd Kammerer / AP via CNN Newsource)

Bringing the story to life

The development process for Wyrmspan, which was released on March 29 by Stonemaier Games, was slightly different to that of CATAN.

Wyrmspan is a spinoff of the award-winning Wingspan (also by Stonemaier), but instead of enticing birds to habitats on your board (with each bird represented on individual cards), you’re building caves with various types of dragons.

A dragon variation was one of the most requested spinoffs of the original, says Connie Vogelmann, Wyrmspan’s designer.

When Jamey Stegmaier, a co-founder of Stonemaier, approached Vogelmann to design the game in early 2022, the first step was to get approval from Wingspan designer Elizabeth Hargrave, who signed on as a developer for Wyrmspan.

Because Vogelmann had a pre-existing game system, the development process for Wyrmspan was a bit faster than average.

“It took about a year, or 15 months, to get the core of the game locked in,” says Vogelmann. For context, the idea for CATAN New Energies, which is set to release in May, was in development around 10 years ago before getting shelved. During the pandemic, they revisited the idea and have been working on it since.

The biggest design challenge, Vogelmann says, was paying homage to Wingspan while making Wyrmspan unique. “In some ways it was easier, because it provided some constraints for the game, but in some ways it was much, much harder.”

Vogelmann and Hargrave went through many iterations for Wyrmspan — for a while it was actually a bag-building game, where players’ actions are affected by tokens added to or removed from a bag. Then, “mid to late in the process,” Vogelmann says they imported the Wingspan player mats into Wyrmspan, which is when the game clicked. “That was kind of the missing secret sauce.”

Playing, testing and playing again

Once the designer has an initial prototype for a board game, they usually go straight into playtesting mode.

For Jane Hoffacker, CEO of game studio Incredible Dream, this also includes printing the game on paper.

Prior to co-founding Incredible Dream in 2020, Hoffacker worked in production and video games. They started at Activision with Guitar Hero before moving on to Riot Games, where they becme an executive producer for the Emmy award-winning Netflix animated series “Arcane,” based on League of Legends.

“I came in (to board games) with much more of a video game mindset,” says Hoffacker. “Which was like, ‘we need to go through 1,000 steps to get to whatever.’”

They quickly realized this was not the case. “I could literally print it out on my printer and take it to a local game cafe and sit down with strangers who were very willing to just test with me in person,” Hoffacker says. These paper prototypes are used to test the game before the specific mechanics are set.

Aside from game cafes, Hoffacker and the Incredible Dream team also take prototypes to game conventions where “there’s lines of people waiting to play a paper prototype.”

These playtesting sessions, where people will play through a prototype of a game to give their feedback, will often result in a series of adjustments — or, in some cases, scrapping a game completely and going back to the ideation and development phase.

Vogelmann, the designer of Wyrmspan, says she’s very much a mechanism-first designer but that playtesting is really where a game’s mechanics become clear.

“I tend to iterate and prototype very, very, very quickly,” Vogelmann says. Her philosophy is to print it out and get it onto a paper page as soon as possible — no matter how ugly the prototype is.

“It’s really hard to envision how things are gonna play out — they play out one way in your head, they were perfect in your head, then you get to the table and it falls apart.”

From there, it’s clear what works and what doesn’t, and Vogelmann can try again.

For Benjamin Teuber, the iteration process for CATAN looks very similar, although the playtesting is quite different from most board game studios.

When doing the first playtest with another person, he says it “normally completely fails.” After this, he already knows whether it makes sense to continue developing or not.

“In some cases, you will also have to say at some point, it just didn’t work. It doesn’t draw the people to the table — and you have to let it go.”

A Target customer looks at a display of board games while shopping at a Target store on December 15, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Making the game a physical reality

Game development doesn’t end once the mechanics and design are set. From there, developers work to get a finished game into the hands of players.

This includes everything from finalizing the art and finding vendors to manufacture the game’s parts, to deciding on what physical elements can be included — and in what form — based on the target demographic and price point.

“We spent a lot of time trying to get the components right,” Hoffacker says.

Often, this has included working with a publisher (like Stonemaier) to finalize the elements and try to keep costs down through existing relationships. Increasingly, indie board game studios are using crowdfunding platforms to launch their games — offering stretch goals to upgrade certain elements to a premium look or feel.

It’s not just about the art — it’s also about something as simple as font size, or how each element feels in someone’s hand.

For Incredible Dream’s upcoming title A Gentle Rain, which it describes as a “cozy tile placement game,” each tile has a soft velvet feeling, with UV spot treatments on the back that look like a drop of water.

“When you touch it, you can actually feel all the ripples and it kind of feels nice as you’re placing the tiles down,” says Hoffacker. “Then you’re also supposed to place these tokens which are made out of wood, so it kind of mixes up the tactile feel between components.”

Another version of the game is being produced specifically for the mass consumer market, with 3D-sculpted plastic flowers instead of the wooden tokens. This version will be sent to big box stores such as Target, says Hoffacker.

The quick turn for Wyrmspan was, in part, due to having Clementine Campardou, an artist from France, work at the same time as the development for the game — a process that usually happens after the core mechanics are locked in.

Campardou hand-painted everything for Wyrmspan in watercolor, from the game’s box to the backgrounds of the boards and the cards themselves — 75 unique cave cards and 183 unique dragons, which she also named and built the lore for.

This in itself was a challenge, with the team having to be pragmatic. “When doing 200 of anything, if each takes 1 day or 5 days, that’s the difference between a 2024 or a 2026 release date,” Campardou told CNN via email.

The entire process took Campardou a year and a half, with the first few months spent researching dragons, nature and weird animals.

“Even though I took no part in the game design itself, I had to understand how the pieces all fit together,” Campardou says. “For the dragons, Connie and I worked closely so the classification would somehow match the designs, whether their dominant colour, their size, their family.”

One thing that many players don’t think about, says Benjamin Teuber, is the actual cost of each individual element.

“You have the final price of a game, which is so much higher than people think,” he says. “This little token, or this dice, would make the game 50 cents more expensive … we always have to try to find the balance between nice and appealing material which is still affordable.”

If the game is for a mass consumer market, developers have to be a lot more conscious of the price.

These players are often just looking for a fun diversion, says Kelli Schmitz, Director of Brand Development at Catan Studio, who works on CATAN’s marketing strategy for the English-speaking world.

“Your hobby gamer is a lot less price sensitive,” she says. They understand that the cost isn’t just about the physical components themselves, but also the expertise of the developers and the time it took to create the game.

Once the vendors are picked, the parts manufactured, and the boxes compiled, the shipping of the games globally can take anywhere from six to eight months, depending on where the vendors are and the freight company that is chosen.

The first print run of CATAN in the US was 5,000 units out of a garage in Skokie, Illinois, near the airport, says Guido Teuber.

Reflecting on Klaus Teuber’s process for game design and development, Guido Teuber says that his dad always believed in having beautiful prototypes.

“He invested so much time and money into creating these amazing prototypes,” he says. “We gave our dad a really hard time if it didn’t pan out. We had to be immersed, and he knew it.”

Otherwise, Benjamin would read his Mickey Mouse magazines, Guido would play the guitar and their mom would start talking about everything she had to do that day — like two loads of laundry.

“The Mickey Mouse magazine — this is how the urban legend goes — was his (Klaus’) test to see what was more interesting to me – the game or the MM magazine?” Benjamin Teuber says. “If I started looking into it (the magazine) while playing, he knew he needed to get back to the basement and continue.”

The expansion game the family played that day 10 years ago did end up becoming something, says Benjamin Teuber — but it took multiple iterations to get there.

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