Design Constraints for a Commercial Version of Catchup

design constraints

If you happen to follow the activities of yours truly, an obscure game designer in the hidden recess of the game world where abstract games lurk with suspicious eyes, you may know I’ve wondered a lot about how to publish abstract games. In general I think it’s a bad idea (abstract game publishing is hard), but I still want to think about it. In this post I’m trying to imagine what a physical version of one of my games, Catchup, would look like.

Designing a good game is way less than half the battle when it comes to publishing. There are many requirements, and one of them is product design. Abstract games, especially, are sure to fail without absolutely brilliant product design.

The golden rule of selling tabletop games is that no one buys games they haven’t played, so you’ve got to get a lot of people to try before buying. That begs the question: how do you get folks to play? For strategy games, besides a lot of hustle, the answer is: you attract folks to play with a compelling theme. But abstract games don’t have theme, so then what?

I feel the design of abstract games should be approached with the kind of thoughtfulness and attention to detail Apple or Dyson bring to their products. The designers at those companies excel at creating tactile, visually beautiful, and beautifully functional products with a minimalist vibe, exactly what I think abstract games need to be viable products.

How to achieve that for Catchup?

To think through details, I’ve created a list of design constraints, and I’m posting them here for those interested in the physical design of games.

Some of the constraints below may seem minor, but you have to go deep on the little things if you want to create an exceptional experience. The little things add up.

Catchup design constraints:

Embossed Board – The board should be embossed or otherwise have some way to hold the pieces snugly in an ordered grid. An example of game with this kind of board is Blokus – though the board for my game should feel more substantial and warmer than that of Blokus. I’ve noticed many bestselling abstract games have this feature (Blokus, Othello); the resulting order of the pieces makes for extra visual appeal, and makes placing a piece more satisfying. It would be great if such ridging could somehow be superimposed on cardboard, because cardboard allows for graphic design, is inexpensive, can be folded to allow for a large board, and doesn’t make a hollow/unpleasant sound when you place a piece on it.

One subtlety here, however, is it should be easy to remove pieces from the board at games’ end. It’s messy/noisy when you have to flip the board and dump the pieces into the box top to get them out. For this reason, perhaps the embossing/ridging should be shallow (as is the case for Blokus).

Close-Proximity Hexagons – The pieces must be hexagons which fit neatly onto the board in tight proximity, to make it easier to perceive contiguity between adjacent pieces. In Catchup, the individual pieces on the board don’t matter as much as the shapes of groups they form. Therefore, the pieces should be designed so you don’t so see individual pieces but instead see groups. To do that, the pieces should be as visually contiguous as possible. Look at the picture below. The group of elements on the left looks like one contiguous thing, whereas the group on the right looks more like a collection of individuals (I also think the group on the left just looks better)


Not only does this aid players in strategizing, but by making the pieces as large as the can be, we’ll make the game feel substantial and generous, another important constraint I discuss below.

This requirement also constrains how the “ridges” that hold the pieces in place should designed: they can’t be too wide, because the wider they are, the less contiguous the pieces will be. Here again, Blokus is a good example: its ridges are very small and the pieces themselves have “overhanging” edges that extend above the ridges, to create even more contiguity.

Stone-like Pieces – The pieces should feel smooth and heavy-ish, like stones. There’s something subconsciously satisfying, therapeutic even, about holding pieces that feel smooth and stoney, as any Go player will attest. This is why I’m interested in urea or similar substances, because the board games whose pieces come closest to having the feel I want use the stuff. Examples: Hive and Dvonn. However: I’ve read the Urea manufacturing process is toxic, so Urea itself may be disqualified thanks to the environmental friendliness constraint (below). Nonetheless I mention it to be clear about the kind of feel I want the material to have.

Matte Board + Matte Pieces – Sometimes during a game, a player will ask either to adjust the board or adjust the light because a reflection off the board is making it hard for her to see. When the problem isn’t severe, a little reflection can increase eye-strain and make a game subconsciously less satisfying to play. Matte finishes prevent this.

No Sharp Edges – The pieces should have no sharp edges. Same goes for the board. Everything should be just a little rounded, to contribute to the organic, stoney feel described above, and to counterbalance the mathy minimalism of the hex grid. The tops of the pieces should be convex for the same reasons (meaning the picture above doesn’t get the shapes right – edges all over the place)

Satisfying Sounds – When a piece is placed on the board, it should make a pleasant sound, for example a substantial “clack”, or no sound. Anything but the hollow, abrasive “tink” of cheap plastic (here again, see Blokus) which is so common for abstract games. There’s something subconsciously satisfying/therapeutic about a nice sound, and again, see Go. This is challenging because it seems hard to hit the price point (below) with boards consisting of high quality materials. For example, ideally I’d like the board to be made out of the same stoney stuff the pieces are made from, but that’s likely cost-prohibitive. Other possibilities:

  • thick, embossed, linen finish cardboard (is that even possible? UPDATE: maybe! I’ve read Space Hulk (third edition) has an embossed board)
  • silicone? I’ve never seen a game board made of silicone, but I’ve seen it look/feel really good in various kitchen utensils. Could *all* the components be made from silicone? I’m out of my depth here. One potential drawback of silicone: it has a sticky feel, which might make it hard to slide the pieces effortlessly into place on the board during play.
  • a hybrid: cardboard board with some kind of polymer ridges applied neatly on top. Example: the most recent edition of Blockers?
  • a double-layer board: two sheets of card board, one on top of the other, where the top layer has holes for the pieces (see Colorama for an example). I have doubts about whether the ridges holding the pieces in place can be sufficiently thin in this case. On the other hand, the pieces can have lips which overhang the ridges, to keep adjacent pieces fully contiguous.
  • If the board is to be folded, the ridges on the board could conceivably interfere with the folding. Perhaps there can be board sections that assemble like giant puzzle pieces to avoid this problem? Examples of games which use this technique: Rampage, Carcassonne: The Castle.
  • molded paper pulp?

Sense of Bigness/Thickness – The design should convey a sense of substance – of “bigness” and/or “thickness”. As the table game hobby has grown, many game publishers have discovered that big, luxurious boards and components are a huge turn-on for players (no doubt some have known it all along – Fantasy Flight Games, for example). In contrast, abstract games publishers often publish cramped games. I don’t know why, but it makes abstract games seem insubstantial. There’s no pleasure in huddling over a tiny board, struggling with your sausage fingers. Note: this constraint doesn’t require that the game be physically large, as long as ergonomics/design make the game *feel* generously proportioned.

Amazing Color Design – it should be tastefully eye-catching. It should also be deployed to make the game feel warm and organic and “different”. Non-abstract games publishers have gotten better at this recently. Look at the board pictured below, for example. Look at the way the dark perimeter makes the central yellow hexes look like they’re radiating light. Abstract games generally still have comparatively thoughtless color design (which isn’t to say Catchup should replicate the color design of the game below or any other particular game – I’m simply arguing for more thoughtful and professional color design in general).


A second requirement for the color design is that both players’ pieces should be easily distinguishable from each other, and, just as important, equally distinguishable against the background of the board. Take a look at this image of a published version of my game Produto:


The light-colored pieces are much less distinguishable against the background of the board than the dark-colored pieces are. This both looks very imbalanced to me, and in practice I can feel extra strain in trying to comprehend the light player’s position, regardless of whether I’m playing as the light-player or the dark player. I want to avoid this.

Low Environmental Impact – This one is tough because I don’t know game manufacturers who take this issue seriously, but I believe we must improve how we use resources, and I want to foment that change. Therefore, the manufacture of the game must be sustainable, mustn’t involve toxic processes or materials, the components must be easy to reprocess, and the game’s embodied carbon footprint should be low.

The Coffee Shop Test! – Bottom-line constraint: it should pass the coffeeshop test: i.e. set it up in a coffee shop with a sign that says “play me” and patrons start playing it. This strikes me as hard and the reason I need a great designer. Actually carrying out this test could get expensive if early versions don’t pass, because a new prototype is needed for each test and prototypes are expensive. Still contemplating how to do it.

Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price – MSRP somewhere between $30-40, acknowledging it depends on the size of the print run.

Help! – If there’s anything here you think could be improved, PLEASE argue your case in the comments. I want to have a fierce discussion about how to make the project amazing. Who knows if I’ll have another opportunity to do this if the first attempt fails, so I want to scrap for every possible advantage. I’m much obliged.

[Update] There’s a discussion thread over at BGG about what I’ve written here, if you’re interested commenting on it.

color-design photo courtesy mikko saari

5 thoughts on “Design Constraints for a Commercial Version of Catchup

  1. A couple of thoughts (sorry to be spamming your blog tonight!):

    * Have you seen Tantrix? I don’t know what material the pieces are made out of, but they have that heavy/substantial feel to them, at least to me. They look to me kinda like bakelite, which I guess urea evolved out of, so maybe they’re urea for all I know. Anyway, the pieces are hexagons with rounded edges. I think they’re somewhat similar to Hive pieces, but I’ve only seen Hive pieces once so I’m not sure.

    * I like what you’re saying about close-proximity hexagons, but that goal/constraint seems like it’s at odds with the goal of being able to remove them from the board easily. (Also the goal of being able to place them on the board easily.) So you could consider variations on hexagons. For example:

    A circle with six spokes radiating out from it.

    A hexagon with thumb indentations in the perimeter on two, or all six, of the edges. Or with thumb indentations in the perimeter on two or more of the corners–which is much like a circle with very very wide spokes.

    A large circle, larger than in your circles-vs-hexagons image, almost the radius of the hexagonal board spaces.

    And so on. My point here is that it doesn’t have to be a solid hexagon to give that visual-proximity look.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful reply. Responses:

      I have seen Tantrix, and it is indeed made of urea. The pieces are very similar to Hive pieces except not as thick.

      I agree that the pieces don’t have to be solid hexagons, even if solid hexagons help for perceptual grouping. I have actually tried a number of the suggestions you’ve made here because, as you say, with solid hexagons you have to worry about how to get them off the board easily. But I’m back in favor of solid hexagons now because, with the help of an industrial designer, we’ve found a way to make them solid AND easily removable.

      But even this may be on hold for the moment because a game publisher is considering publishing Catchup, and if they publish it they’ll produce the set as they see fit, and it may not conform to the constraints I’ve outlined here.

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