“But only Jedi have principles!”

Whoa settle down bro, I haven’t even gotten started yet. This might be the most important thing you learn about designing your board game.

Very early on in development I had an idea of what Mothership was about and how I wanted it to be played. These are referred to as your principles, guidelines, foundation. Once you decide on these for your game, every decision you make from that point onward should fit those principles and influence your design choices. What were mine?

Mothership was to:

  1. Not feel like the game was dragging.
  2. Be fun (this is a good one duh)
  3. Allow a measure of randomness but not at the expense of tactics.

These three principles came directly from many years of playing tabletop war games.

Game Drag

Tabletop war-game ‘Brikwars’ played with LEGO bricks.

As much fun as dice-based war-games are, at the 3 to 4 hour mark my friends and I started to get sick of playing. We’d usually give up and go play smash brothers, which is a shame because war-games take a lot of effort to setup and an entire night would have to be set aside to at least have a chance of finishing.

Ask specific questions during play-testing: Are you having fun? Are you thinking of strategy? Or are you thinking about what’s on TV?

Throughout the entire play testing period for Mothership I kept asking players “How are you feeling? It’s been 1 hour, are you still engaged? Are you still excited to play?” Most would say “Yeah, I guess so?” That’s a crappy answer. I wanted enthusiasm!  That’s what you want too. This isn’t Yahtzee. This is a game you’re investing serious time into. At the 1 hour mark, I wanted my players to say “Hell yeah this is fun! I’m trying to bait my opponent out of that asteroid field so I can surround him…” or something to that effect. In other words, I wanted to make a game that was…


Flamethrowers make everything fun.

This seems like a no-brainer right? The entire purpose of making games is so we can have fun. But designers constantly make decisions that lower a game’s fun. Here’s an example:

In my game there was a card that resurrected your most powerful ship, the Mothership. This was an ability I thought necessary. Play-testing revealed the opposite of fun. The player that invested the time and effort in destroying their opponent’s ship was devastated that their hard work was all undone in an instant.

Blue shell of punch your sibling in the face.But something happened I couldn’t predict: Now that everyone knew there was a card with that ability, that’s all everyone cared about, getting that card. As a result the most powerful ship in the game was devalued. Then, no one took risks to kill anyone’s Mothership because, “oh what’s the point they might have a card to bring it back.”

Wild generalization: No game needs blue shells

I took a leaf out of PC roguelike games. When you die, that’s it. There are no miracles.  You might think that sounds boring, but consider what the player thinks: “This is all I have for the entire game, I must plan carefully.” Therefore they get more satisfaction when they make a kill or they survive someone else’s tactics. It’s a psychological thing too. No competitive person likes playing Mario Kart because when coming first, at any time, you could be hit with a blue shell. That’s not fun, that’s annoying.

A commenter over at reddit, 3kindofsalt, had a great reply to this section and I think if you’re a budding designer you need to consider it as well:

The card that resurrects the Mothership didn’t break the game because it was a Blue Shell, it broke the game because it was way north of the power curve. Blue Shells are fun, because they provide tension for the player in first place (who is at risk of simply getting bored, as he is now playing alone) and hope for the player in last place(who is at risk of feeling hopeless). Of course getting hit by one isn’t fun, but you’re in first place. It can also be said that it sucks for the guy in last place because you have no control over whether or not you get one.

This brings me to my last principle:

Allow a measure of randomness but not at the expense of tactics.

Play-testing really gave this one a work out.


Concepts and sketches for Mothership.

Mothership features two ways of upgrading your fleet: A technology tree or random chance cards. Both are viable options to pursue. Both cost in-game money.

The bulk of play-testing was balancing the tech tree and making sure the chance cards weren’t too powerful. The end result? Well, the late game didn’t drag if you were winning because you had to stay on your toes. If you were losing you weren’t depressed because with your remaining money and chance cards you could potentially do a lot of damage to your opponent.

It was a fluke to make a game that was fun to win and fun to lose. But it was all because of the above principles. They guided my game’s development from start to finish. They aided me when I had to make the tough decisions. I cut an entire feature from the game because it made the game go longer every time we played and added nothing the experience.

So, look at your game. What are your design principles? Cut and add stuff based on that foundation, your game will be better off for it.



  1. I agree. The card that resurrects the Mothership didn’t break the game because it was a Blue Shell, it broke the game because it was way north of the power curve.
    If you create a game for competitive players that want to win because of their strategy, dont put in a card that leapfrogs strategy with chance.
    Ive take some action cards out of exisitng games I play with friends becaue they are “north of the power curve”.
    eg. “Sabotage” in Twilight Imperium. A nice idea but… it Just stops ANY other action, so it negates the value of an action card, devaluing them all. If someone is diligently planning on using an action, let them!
    eg. “JustSayNO!” in Monopoly Deal. Again cancels any action including stops the most powerful Deal-Breaker card, so the game ends up being whoever has “JustSayNO!”card wins. We took it out. More fun.

    A technology tree or random chance cards. Both are viable options to pursue.
    Great if these are well balanced, But not to all players, some players like random chance, as it speeds up & lightens the game, Strategists and Euro-gamers especially, prefer the technology tree, and will get upset if a random chance card negates all their hard work.
    I do hope this helps. Ive been a playtester in RL and online for several years. Let me know what you think.
    Mothership seems like a game I’d like to try.

    1. Avatar photo Peter says:

      Great point Lawrence! I guess it all comes down to the kind of game you’re designing. Also…I know exactly the card your referring to in Twilight as I’ve had that used exactly against me before and it is very frustrating.

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