Zeussical’s Occasional Game Design Thing – Boards

I’m back! I’m back and there still is no one stopping me from inflicting my weird obsessions upon all of you. Especially you. Last time, I talked about dice and people read it for some reason, so now I’m here once more to ramble on about game design again, even though I’m pretty sure that it’s not as interesting to anyone else as it is to me, and I’m definitely sure that nobody asked me to do it.

But no one asked me to stop, so here we are.

Also I probably wouldn’t listen if someone did tell me to stop.

…Hey look over there, the content is starting!


If there is a component of board games that is more necessary than boards, it’s games. It’s right there in the name. But boards are also in the name, so I guess they’re important too. How’s this introduction going so far? This [TIME PERIOD]’s topic is Game Boards.

Game. Board.
Fig. A. – This [TIME PERIOD]’s Topic
The oldest game board was likely a big flat rock or the ground or something, but boards that weren’t just literally whatever surface was nearby have been around for thousands of years, with some of the oldest known boards being found in Egypt, buried alongside the dead. The concept of a board is fairly obvious – a game needs to define the space it is played in, or boundaries within that space, and thus, you create a board. Note that since a board is so basic and integral to games, we will be touching on a few topics that I plan to cover in greater detail in the future. Try to guess which ones and you could win absolutely nothing!

What could go wrong indeed?
Fig. B. – An Ordinary Game Board

Game Board Basics

There are as many boards as there are games. While many game boards share elements,  boards will often use any number of combinations of these elements, and each game board serves the purposes of its game in a unique way. Categorizing game boards can be difficult and imprecise, and it would be foolhardy to attempt to list them in any definitive way. So here’s my definitive list of the basic categories of game boards:

Discrete vs. Continuous

When one thinks of a board, normally they are thinking of a discrete board – a board where there are discrete spaces (often squares) that are clearly defined. But you also have continuous boards where instead of spaces, the actual position of a piece is what matters. This is often used in war-gaming or dexterity type games, but other types exist. You also can have a combination of the two – an example of this is Fireball Island, which uses discrete spaces for movement, but the embers/fireballs function continuously, and when a pawn falls over, its continuous position defines which discrete space it can stand up in.

Explicit vs. Implicit

An “Implicit” board, which is a term that I just made up, is a board that doesn’t need to exist. Many times, you will have a game that doesn’t necessarily need a board, but comes with one anyway for reasons as trivial as “To make the game not look like a box full of weird junk.” Many card-based board games have Implicit boards that merely tell you where to put different piles of cards. You could just as easily throw the board for Ascension out forever and you’d still be basically fine. This category also covers (since I just made it up) games like Hive or Carcassonne, which don’t have boards, but are played on an imaginary (implicit) infinite grid.

“Explicit” boards are everything else, ok? We’re done here.

…Fine, fine, this distinction does actually get fuzzy at times, especially if you really really don’t care about pretty, well-thought-out, intuitive board design. We call these people “monsters”.


Games that use this element are often very simple – there is a one-dimensional path or track that pawns travel upon, racing to reach some “Destination” or “Home” space first. Many games designed for very young children will use this, since it teaches many of the skills and ideas that a child will use throughout their life, most of which will be spent playing more games. More complex games might build on this, adding hazards, branches or multiple goals, but generally, you are either moving forwards or backwards. You also could remove the goal altogether, and have a track that forms a circuit, as in Monopoly, in which pawns simply move around the track forever1. Many track/race games will have some kind of effect that happens if two players are in the same space. Usually, this is a penalty to one of the players (often the one who occupied the space previously), as in games like Sorry or Trouble, but some games, such as Tokaido, choosing to occupy the same spot as another player is an important strategic decision.

Home can often be the destination in a game
Fig. C. – Home can often be the destination in a game


Spatial boards add another dimension (or several) to the one-dimensional track boards. In games that use this kind of board, the relative position of different spaces is usually a key element of the game. Many boards of this type will use a grid2, but you can represent spatial relationships in any number of ways – a map in Risk, a floor plan in Clue, or more irregularly connected areas, like in Ben Hurt or …and then, we held hands. Games of this type often feature mechanics like movement or area-control, where a pawn will have a certain zone-of-effect around it that it can move to or affect, respectively.


Sometimes the actual positions of places on the board don’t actually matter. This can be for a variety of reasons – there may be no relationship between different board areas, or movement may not be a core mechanic of the game. Boards of this type can look very similar to Spatial boards – Ethnos, for example, uses a map similar to the one that Risk uses, but the adjacency of the regions isn’t actually relevant to the game. This type of board is often used in placement games, where players will claim resources or take actions by placing their pawns in an area designated for that resource or action. With less of a focus on spatial relationships, this kind of board can sometimes be unnecessary, and provided only for reference.


There are also boards that are only used for keeping track of other things. This might be scores, as in Dixit, or it could be to store resources or information, as in Sagrada‘s round tracker. These kinds of boards can seem even more redundant than the disjoint boards, as they could easily be replaced with a pen and paper. But then you wouldn’t be playing a board game, you’d be playing a paper game and that doesn’t sound nearly as fun. Scoreboards can be arranged in any one of the above forms – most commonly Track or Disjoint, for practical reasons.

Also Every Freaking Other Kind of Board

There’s a bunch of them.

Common Variations

You can play games such as this while stuck at home
Fig. D. – Variable board

Theming and Flavor

The most obvious way that boards will differ is that they look different. Shocking, I know. But a board can be the best way for a game to communicate just what it is About. This is where you have your fantasy twirls or your steampunk gears or your sci-fi glowing hexagons. Since players are going to be looking at this basically for the whole game, you kind of want it to look good. This doesn’t necessarily have any particular influence on game design, but a well-designed board can make complex games easier to follow and can add evocative elements to the mechanics.

Tiles and Modular boards

If a board remains the same every game, it stands a chance of becoming repetitive and predictable. One way this can be solved is through increasing variance, which I will cover in the future, but another way is to use modular boards – boards that fit together and can make combinatorically different boards in every game. Usually these are square-shaped, as in RoboRally, but sometimes you get more interesting tesselations. I particularly like Inis, Spirit Island, and Clank! In Space for their more interesting modular boards. A popular subset of modular boards is tile-placement games, where players get to choose where individual pieces of the board go as the key mechanic of the game.

There's no joke in this one, I promise
Fig E. – A surprisingly not facetious image and caption for the board game Inis

Communal vs. Personal

Some boards are shared among all the players, like in Monopoly, Sorry, and The Captain is Dead. Communal boards like this often have only minimal text, since they might be viewed from any angle, and will feature large, bold spaces, since they might need to be seen and recognized from farther away. On the other hand, some games will give each player personal boards, either for asymmetrical gameplay or to separate players’ symmetrical boards. Boards in character-driven games will often use assymetrical boards to represent a character’s special abilities, whereas in many strategic games, like Puerto Rico, all of the players’ boards are all symmetrical, so everyone has their own parallel universe version of the island of Puerto Rico just like in real life, in order to create what some people3 call “Passive-Aggressive Interaction”.

Function and Design

What does it mean when you see a board in game design?

It means you’re playing a board game. The end go home bye. But as to the actual function of a board, there are many reasons to use a board and functions that boards can play:

Physicality & Tracking

One of the most obvious reasons is because we like to touch things. There’s something magical about unfolding a game board, and I’m not just referring to the ones that have like 8 folds and seem to need to be folded and unfolded a couple times before Euclidean space sets in. But also, that physicality gives us an easy way to see and understand what’s happening. Sure, you could keep score in your head or on paper, but moving a tiny wooden man around a spiral is much more fun.

Relationships between Locations

Ah, Graph Theory. The topic that people always tell me not to call “The Kind of Math That Doesn’t Use Numbers.” Boards are used to show how different areas relate to each other, for movement or for area of effect. Usually this is shown through the use of adjacent regions, but when you simplify everything down to its bland, flavorless skeleton, almost every board can be represented by some sort of graph (which in mathematical terms is a network of vertices connected by edges and shut up I spent tens of thousands of dollars learning this and I’m going to pretend it’s useful). While it’s not always relevant to the game at hand, that underlying graph can tell you things about how the game was designed, how connected the board is, where the most “distant” regions are, and other cool math things that no one cares about except me.


When things are connected, sometimes you want to move other things from one thing to a different thing. Boards (and Graph Theory) enable this and define where you are and where you can move to. Distances can be counted in various ways, from simple 1-to-1 adjacency like in Risk, to weighted distances between nodes/areas, as in Ticket to Ride, to dynamic or asymmetrical distances, like in Empire Builder.

Area Control

Boards also can help to show players’ or pawns’ area of influence. In games like Risk, you can tell at a glance how spread out a player’s strength is by the color of their pawns and how they are literally spread out. Or in Go or Chess, where area of influence is more subtle, boards can define a coordinate system by which moves can be described, noted, and more easily remembered. Other games may want you to have a certain number of pawns in an area, or more than any other player, such as Ethnos.

Worker Placement/Claiming

Boards may also have specific areas that one or more players can claim before another one can. One type of such game is Worker Placement, where players will place their pawns on the board in different areas in order to be able to perform different actions. Areas have limited capacity, so a player may need to prioritize claiming an area over losing another. Often this type of “Claiming” game uses a disjoint board, but not always – Tokaido, for example, uses a connected board that is also a track, with each space on the track having an action and a capacity.

Advanced Topics

Three Dimensional Chess
Fig. F. – A game board which exhibits three-dimensional thinking

Complex Boards

Some boards are more than simply representational. Some classic games with boards that do more interesting things include cute mechanical contraptions, like Mouse Trap and 13 Dead End Drive. Now, with advancing (and cheaper) production technology, more and more different tools are available to board designers. Many modern games will have interesting twists, like 3-D boards, as in AlderQuest, or extremely important props, as in Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre


A board does not always need to stay the same throughout the game. Sometimes you will have dynamic boards, that change from turn-to-turn or phase-to-phase to keep strategies shifting and adapting. 

Tile Placement

Giving players tiles and the opportunity to place them during the game to change the board as they see fit is a simple way of making a dynamic board. Sometimes this is the primary mechanic of the game, as in Tsuro or Carcassonne or Betrayal at House on the Hill, but it can also be a sub-mechanic within a larger game, like in Terraforming Mars or Takenoko.

Board as Pieces

Some games let players move the board around themselves, changing the connections between areas, and sometimes moving pawns or resources with it. Sometimes this is automatic, like in Forbidden Desert, but other times it is tactical and controlled by players, like in Sorcerer & Stones.

Yeah I don't know why it does that but I'm leaving it in because it's funny
Fig. G. – A dynamic game board

Hidden Information

For various reasons, players may not be supposed to know the layout of the entire board or the position of the pieces all at once. This can be done using secret movement, like in Letters From Whitechapel, or literally blinding players, as in Nyctophobia. A particularly clever version of this appears in Princess Jing, where the board is made up of walls and mirrors which obscure or reveal information based on the actual players’ sight lines, so a player needs to understand and control what their opponent knows.

Expansion boards

Eventually, many popular games receive expansions. A common thing to do for some expansions is to add a new board to the game. If your game is modular, like RoboRally, the board can simply fit in with the rest of the modules and expand the pool, but even non-modular games can add new boards, usually by adding new mechanics for moving to or using the new board. Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus adds a new board for the Battlestar Pegasus, which players can now move to, for example. Expansions also could add new boards that don’t connect to the original, adding another separate element that players will need to account for in order to win, such as the Venus board in Terraforming Mars: Venus Next.

Fancy Custom Boards

While not necessarily an element of game design, you can also get fancy custom versions of boards for many games. Settlers of Catan had a Collector’s Edition version, with molded plastic tiles in the shape of the landscape that they represented. There are also online stores that I won’t name that make fancy laser-cut wooden boards that are meant to replace the plain cardboard ones. Herable and I may or may not have spent altogether too much time and money on one of these for one of our favorite games, but I’m not going to tell you that it was Terraforming Mars and that it is fantastic.

Game Design Corner

This time I have a much less complete game in design – more of a theme and mechanic than a game, really. A game that I really liked growing up was RoboRally, a game where you had to program robots to traverse a dangerous factory whilst avoiding (or not) other players’ robots who want to shoot yours. Movement in that game happens by selecting a “program” of cards every round, and then all players execute their programs at the same time, hopefully resulting in mayhem and destruction. It is a game that I deeply enjoy, despite its many flaws and many remakes that don’t quite fix those flaws. No comment on how much this influenced me into eventually studying Computer Science and then ending up staving off boredom with said field by writing goddamn thousands of words about games that no one will read.

The idea that I want to flesh out is a backwards version of that – there are still robots in a unconscionably dangerous factory, but instead of players controlling the robots, players control the factory itself:

RallyRobo, a Totally Original Concept

Board setup

Randomly choose a set of tiles that will make up the board during this game. Each tile is a small(3x3ish)  grid with a hazard or two on it. Hazards can be conveyor belts, pit traps, lasers, saw blades, etc, and are either red, green or yellow. The tiles are placed at random in a 3×3 grid.

Add a bunch of robots to the center tile. They can be facing various directions or whatever I guess.

Generate a program for the robots

From a shuffled deck of movement cards, draw more cards than players, then starting with a rotating first player, draft 5 or so movement cards in order, so the first player drafts a card that becomes the first movement card, then the second player drafts the second movement card and so on. Cards are drafted face-up. Movements can be moving forwards and backwards at various speeds, turning, and firing weapons, or combinations of these.

Programming Phase

Players draw some number of Factory cards. Factory cards are split into two – the top of the card is an action and the bottom of the card is a color (or colors). Players program the factory by playing cards in pairs face-down in front of them in two rows, a top row for actions and a bottom row for color. Actions can rotate tiles in place, move tiles to new locations, activate hazards, etc. and colors define which tiles this will affect. Robots are moved along with whatever tile they happen to be on.

Action Phase

Starting with each player’s first pair of cards, cards are revealed simultaneously. Then, players perform the action of their action card on one or more tiles/hazards of the associated color card.

Ending the Game

Points are scored by destroying robots with your hazard activations or collecting robots by making them drive off your side of the board.

The game ends somehow I guess? I dunno. You win? and/or lose? Sure. Get out of my house.