Boards. They put the board in board game.
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
My favorite game boards are always the ones that represent a physical space for the player's avatar to move around in. There are some great abstract boards out there, don't get me wrong, but to really immerse myself in a game I need to feel like I'm looking in on a miniaturized world with its own occupants and events going on. This is why I've always loved the game of Life more than Monopoly. Those sweet green hills. Of course, it's not always easy to design a board that perfectly maps onto a physical space. Real world structures, while subject to all kinds of building codes, are not constructed to be balanced, enjoyable components within a tabletop game. Some fudging is usually necessary, but the less fudging a designer has to do, the more immersive the experience can be.
Dance Card! is one of those rare designs wherein the theme and mechanics compliment each other so well that nearly any mechanics-related problem can be solved by appealing to its theme. The game centers on teenagers attending a high school dance, and if 90's-era TV shows and movies taught me one thing, it's that high school dances always take place in the school gym. The moment the idea for Dance Card! came to me, I knew what the board would look like. But what would it play like? Let's talk design.
The main action of the game was always going to take place on the dance floor, but I needed players to move around the board or there'd be nothing to the game. There are eight locations in Dance Card!, but only three location types. Each location type corresponds to a specific action that a player can take on their turn, and these actions are Dance, Chat, and Nerve. The win condition of the game is to complete three successful Dance actions, success or failure being determined by a die roll, and a Dance action can only be performed on one of the four dance floor locations. To motivate players to leave the center of the board, I had to convince them that moving off of the dance floor now for a bonus that can make their Dance action more likely to succeed in the future was a good idea. But what form would this bonus take?
Appealing to the theme, as always, solved this problem. An important element of any dance party is the socializing that goes on around it (like I know). Dance floors can be really loud, and so it's best to step away if you want to talk to someone. What if you could chat up the friends of your dance partner to get advice on how best to impress them? In game play terms, this means gaining a permanent bonus to your dance roll with a particular partner, which is the kind of bonus players will need to succeed at tougher dance rolls.
By placing a location on either side of the dance floor where players can perform Chat actions (the Refreshments on the left and the Bleachers on the right), I introduce an incentive for players to move around in a way that makes sense within the given theme and that reinforces the immersive experience of that theme within the game.
Similarly, the furthest locations on the board (the Restrooms on the left and the Janitor's Office on the right) are locations that the player would want to avoid, as they are the furthest from where the player can win the game. Conveniently, these are also locations that a student can retreat to for some alone time, allowing them to get their Nerve up and recover from bad dance rolls. No board design will ever fully replicate the experience of being in a physical space, as even the most thematic board is ultimately an abstraction. The board in Dance Card! is not really the Sackson High gymnasium; it's a collection of eight designated spaces, each of which only lets the player take one specific action. When we use the terms like theme or abstraction in tabletop games, what we're really talking about are degrees of abstraction. When we call something thematic, what we're really saying is that this abstract thing does a good job of making us forget that it's nothing more than a collection of rules that we are asked by a rule book to impose upon ourselves. That's the key to immersion. - Michael Melkonian