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How to Design a Board Game, with Dave Beck

Dave Beck MA’06, MFA’07 turned a childhood passion for game-playing into a career. Now this professor of design at UW–Stout shares how to turn your ideas into board games.

Nicole Heiman
December 06, 2021

What originally began as a childhood passion has evolved into a dream career for Dave Beck MA’06, MFA’07. He is an ardent creator of games, including the award-winning Tombeaux, an interactive historical experience set in the early Midwest, and Distilled, a brand-new board game. Like many of us, Beck grew up playing games. His father worked for IBM and brought home old computers. Beck and his brother enjoyed floppy-disc classics like Kings Quest and Myst. But it was Christmas of 1988 that changed everything — Beck received his first Nintendo. He would lose himself for hours in the pixelated fantasy world of the Legend of Zelda. Over time, he found himself drawn to combining technology and fine art, which ultimately led him to game design.

Beck designed his first board game in elementary school (he still has it!), and he soon fell into the deep end of the game design pool. Years later, the University of Wisconsin–Stout hired him to create and lead the game-design bachelor of fine arts program, now ranked as one of the best of its kind in the country. When he’s not inventing interactive experiences, Beck serves as UW–Stout’s interim associate provost for partner and student engagement. 

“I am a social gamer, through and through. I absolutely love having friends around a table playing a board game. And while I definitely try to win and savor the moment when I do come out victorious, it isn’t about that as much as it is the overall experience.”

Dave Beck

With Distilled, Beck developed a strategic card game based on the business of and science behind crafting alcoholic spirits. The idea began during a serendipitous sabbatical in Scotland in the fall of 2019. While there, he toured local distilleries, played games (of course), and drank his fair share of whiskey. One evening, the idea for a thematic game presented itself. Beck drafted the rules for Distilled that very night and began making prototypes while he was still overseas. Once he returned to Wisconsin, COVID-19 was in full swing, so he took his playtesting mission online. All his hard work led to a tremendous Kickstarter campaign in July 2021 that raised more than $500,000, providing him with the necessary funding to move forward.

Here, with his many years of hands-on experience, Beck offers what it takes to design an entertaining and successful board game.

The steps are many, and they are steep.

From conception to distribution, this quest can (and likely will) take years to create a game for the public sphere. Patience and persistence are key.

Dave Beck
Dave Beck MA'06, MFA'07
  1. Once an idea sparks, begin pairing mechanics (puzzles, rules, systems, and constraints) with an overarching experience for the game. Much like inventing a new recipe, you’ll triumph by using flavors and foundations from other games to form something innovative and unique. Perhaps you’ll want to weave in thematic elements. Should it be set in a certain time period? Or align with a particular genre? You decide!
  2. When you have a system that seems to be working, it’s time to bring in the lengthiest and most challenging step: playtesting. First, you play with and against yourself. Then you play with your family and friends. “This phase can go on for months — even years — before you feel it’s complete. As a point of reference, I’ve playtested Distilled roughly 250 times over two years.”
  3. At this point, you can begin to incorporate artistic elements into your game. This includes both illustrative art and graphic elements. These are necessary pieces that help players to better navigate the game’s challenges so that playing is an enjoyable experience.
  4. Additional (and final) steps include writing a rule book, editing, further playtesting, and contemplating future expansions that might not fit well into the original game. “The best part of inventing games is the opportunity to see players experience a sense of awe and wonderment, to hear them exclaim or discuss things you never considered, and to witness their excitement over something you’ve put so much time and effort into.”

Interested in preordering Distilled? Click here!

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