Is there any difference when learning the designing of a physical board-game and digital board game, meaning if I watch a tutorial about a physical board-game design is it applicable on a digital one?

Note: I'm focusing only on design process, not the art-design, only on the gameplay-design (rules, levels, obstacles, etc).


2 Answers 2


One big difference between physical board games and digital ones is how they deal with complexity. If players forget about rules in a physical board game, then they're playing a different game. So you have to work hard to make each rule count, to make it both intuitive and easy to use. If there is a conflict, inconsistency, or just confusion the rule system, then that can bring the game to a screeching halt as the players argue about which way it works.

Digital board games have a final arbiter for rules: the game itself. Videogames do not forget rules. You're not allowed to make illegal moves. And so forth. This allows you to have lots more rules in a videogame than you could in a physical one. If there is a conflict, then you either code a solution or the game works itself out (or crashes).

But complexity goes farther than that.

In a physical board game, players are often required to keep track of certain things. Some board games give units stats, for example. But players have to keep track of such stats as they change throughout the game. That's hard; it requires upkeep and effort.

For a videogame, it's trivial. Oh sure, you need to present this information to the player in a digestible form. But the player's focus is not on remembering to track the HP of all of their units; they don't have to do math and subtract numbers during combat. They just have to know what the current value is.

By some measurements, Civilization and its ilk are "digital board games". You could make a physical board game equivalent. But it would be pretty much unplayable due to the sheer amount of stuff you have to keep track of. Harvesting your food and leveling up cities. Counting up how much production each city made and finishing any construction projects that it completed. And so forth.

What a computer does instantly when you press "End Turn" would require minutes or hours of mindless grunt-work by each player.

So there are entire design spaces that physical board games would never enter which digital ones can. While needless complexity is generally bad design for any kind of game, videogames can handle greater levels of mechanical and rules complexity without breaking down than physical board games.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Right, board game designs are a subset of computer game designs. \$\endgroup\$
    – House
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 21:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Totally agree about the differences in complexity and would add that board games usually can only focus on one core mechanic (trading, bluffing, etc.) without getting too complex while digital games can get away with multiple core mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – tyjkenn
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 17:51

The principles of design are the same, but there is one crucial difference for digital versions of board games: the lack of physical pieces.

As Quintin Smith argues in this Kotaku article from 2013: (emphasis added)

The game as physical object is a pleasing thing. Working with your friends to set up a game brings a happy psychological bookending, like opening a brand new book.


The appeal of table games' physical presence isn't to do with the luxury of the objects themselves. Play is how we form emotional connections. The purpose of the game-as-object is to make it easiest to foster those connections, allowing everybody to invest in what's on the table, right down to building it up and breaking it down, and in doing so, it gives you the path of least resistance to connect to each other. Put another way, that tiny plastic man isn't a toy. He's an emotional power adaptor.

Think about the feel of a cool glass token in your hand, the way it sparkles in the light, the feeling of running your fingers through a pile of them in front of you.

Those small physical interactions mean a lot, and have a huge impact on how the game feels to play. In the absence of real physicality, you'll have to pay extra attention to game feel and juice to ensure your game retains that emotional resonance and doesn't feel "flat" on the screen.

Also watch out for things that you get automatically with physical games, but are easy to overlook for digital versions:

  • Take care to show the transitions between game states, pieces moving from here to there. This is impossible to miss when the player has to literally haul them through space, but can vanish invisibly in a digital state transition, especially if you automate any of the book-keeping-type mechanics.

  • Showing other players' pieces - even if I can't see the fronts of an opponent's cards / the contents of their resource pile in detail, just knowing how many items they have in front of them or the way they've arranged them can be an important tell. Combined with the point above, you need to carefully message how the remote players are taking their actions on the shared game state, otherwise it can feel like playing against a mysterious phantom presence instead of another human being. ;)

  • Messaging why a particular game action is taking place. In person, I can tell you, "My basilisk attacks you for three damage, but since I have the orb of serpents it actually does five." Your interface design has to be able to communicate that story instead.


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