Family Project: Make Your Own Board Game

One of the best things about being a game designer is seeing the kids I test with get inspired to make their own games. Designing a game uses so many parts of your brain and can keep kids’ math, reading, writing, creative, and critical thinking skills sharp throughout the summer. Plus, it’s a ton of fun and can be a project that the whole family can enjoy. You could spread the steps out over the whole summer, dipping in and out as you’d like, or just follow them in one day or afternoon.


Step 1: Get Inspired
Pop some popcorn and play a few of your favorite games or borrow some new ones from your friends and neighbors. Try to play a variety of types of games and talk about the answers to these questions after you play:

*What kind of game is this?
*What makes this game fun?
*What is the theme of the game? Note that some games are “abstract” and do not have a theme.
*What are the components or pieces of the game?
*What role does luck have in the game?
*What kind of choices do players make in the game?
*How would you change this game to make it better?

Step 2: Decide on a Theme
There are a lot of ways to start making a board game, but, I think that starting with a theme is one of the easiest (especially for kids). The theme of your game is the story of your game. What is your game about? Work together to brainstorm a big list of themes that might make a fun board game. Keep it on your fridge so that you can capture ideas as your family has them. You can draw inspiration from the things you’re doing this summer, like a trip to the beach or a family reunion, or think of something outrageous and wacky like teddy bear ninjas searching for treasure. Sometimes it’s fun to create a game around a book your family is reading or something you know very well. My daughter’s latest game idea is called “The Very Messy Room,” which is about, you guessed it, her very messy bedroom. At the end of the week, pick your favorite theme.

Step 3: Decide on a Mechanic
What type of game are you going to make? Is it a card game, a roll-and-move game, an up-and-active game where you run around the room? What type of actions does the theme suggest? Would it make sense to move along a path? Or trade cards? In “The Very Messy Room,” for instance, I hope players will be picking things up. Are those cards on the table? Or items on a board? If the game is cooperative, you’ll need to decide on an antagonist or the person or thing you’re working against. You can use this list of mechanics to help you decide what type of game would best fit your theme.

Step 4: Talk About Your Concept
Now it’s time to work out the details of your game! The best games combine both strategy (meaningful decisions made by players to affect the outcome of the game) and luck, but you can certainly have a totally luck-based game. Decide on the answer to these questions and use a pencil and paper to sketch out the board, the cards, or other components in the game.

*What do you do on a turn? Are there different parts to a turn or is it just one action?
*What decisions will players have to make and when and how will they interact with each other?
*What are the components or pieces in the game?
*How does the game end and how do you win?

Step 5: Make a Prototype
Your first prototype of your game should be fast and easy. Use markers, paper, and existing pieces from other games. I’ll often go to the thrift store and buy games just to use the pieces or the board, which I cover in blank paper to make a new game. The prototype should be playable but not fancy since there will be plenty of things you’ll want to change after you play your game the first time. You don’t need to use thematic artwork, and you can ask your first testers to use their imaginations. For now, players can imagine that the movers from Sorry are teddy bears and that the beads from a broken necklace are jewels that the bears are collecting. Be sure to jot down a quick set of rules.

Step 6: Play Together!
Take the game for a test drive. Play as a family or with neighbors and friends. Don’t worry if the game doesn’t work like you thought it would -- early prototypes rarely, if ever, do! That’s what playtesting is for. Make notes when you play about what is good and what can be improved. Ask other players what they think.

Step 7: What’s Next?
Now it’s time to think and talk about what you’ve learned and make a plan. What was broken about the game? How would you fix it? How could you make it more fun? Does the game need to be shorter? Do the players not land on the spaces they need? Is there anything that’s confusing about the game? How could you make changes to improve the game? Once you feel good about your game, you can make a fancier version and spend more time on the board and pieces. You can make custom pieces from Sculpey or movers out of wooden pegs and paint. You can make sturdy, uniform card backs by printing them on full-sheet label paper and adhering them to the card fronts (printed on card stock). You can “laminate” your board with clear Contact paper.

Most of all, have fun and let your imaginations run wild. And if you create something you want to share, send me a picture at!