An idea that I have been presented with quite a bit recently is how to bring the feeling, tactile experiences, and play of tabletop gaming into UX Design. What can be pulled from one to the other? I feel like there is a wealth of ideas and inspiration in tabletop games, especially their visual design and sense of play. Tabletop games make a product out of experience and storytelling, and that’s just good UX.
Let’s take the idea of a board game. It’s physical, tactile, interactive, and promotes community.
Tabletop gaming has become a part of most of our lives since an early age, so it has that history with users that is our touch memory. There are any number of things that might trigger our tactile memories in tabletop gaming, like the feeling of dice in our hands, moving our Meeple (player tokens representing people) around a board, the crackle of unfolded cardboard, and the sound of placing your token in triumph over your friends.
All of these speak to some part of us, that we just know what it means from having done it so much in our youth. These tactile experiences are heavy with nostalgia, and I feel that as designers, we should be tugging at these experiences more than we do.
A board game, tabletop game, is essentially a UX problem in and of itself. In tabletop game design there are three major areas you have to develop; Objective, Mechanics, and Play.
With Objective, you have a user flow’s end goal, the steps and stages to reaching this goal, and the clarity of reaching it.
In Mechanics, you have your constraints, interactivity, surprise, and pacing. With play being all about the feel of the whole thing.
With Play you have your strategy, fun, feel, and flash. Play is what makes the experience read as a game. It is the portion we are going to talk about the most, with a bit of mechanics thrown in there.
When we think of strategy in gaming, we almost always think of the genre of games. Games that take big picture problems and create an experience around it, war strategy, civilization games, etc. We think of having to build and plan out an entire era’s worth of decisions, making sure that for each step we have contingency plans and alternates for it.
I personally enjoy some strategy games, like Stone Age and Photosynthesis, but what I want to bring up is the idea of strategy in gaming and how we plan and move accordingly to what we always think is going to give us the best outcome. I have one for learning games, where I basically pick one player, and I do everything I can to prevent them from winning. If they don’t win, then I’ve won, regardless of the actual game winner. I just learn best this way.
In design, we want to think about that point the most when talking about strategy. How best can we teach the user through the experience? We need to anticipate the user’s strategy for completing their objective, and then facilitate it. If the principle point of a game is to amass the most gold, then everything built around that objective should relate to that question. “How do I get more gold?” This could be true for any user flow we design out.
Take for instance, a car insurance app meant to expedite claims. We want the user to find a clear strategy and path to reaching that objective. We want them to play the game so to speak, and our constrictions, tools, designs, and flows should all give them a clear and poignant path.
Fun. What’s fun? How do we pinpoint the idea of fun?
It’s different for everyone in every experience. The idea of attempting to hammer down what it means to add fun to experience is seriously, unfun.
Now play, play is almost universal. Play is a language in itself. It helps us learn, he helps us stay sane, and it helps us through the mundanity that is living. Play can almost always improve a task and its appeal to the user. It doesn’t need to be in your face either, play can be subtle.
Tabletop games take the idea of fun and play, and inject it into the game itself. It can be over the top and ridiculous like King of Tokyo, or it can be subtle and quiet like opening and closing a menu in a banking app.
Play in a tabletop game is only then limited by the games mechanics, its constraints and rules.
Each experience we design out as UX Designers has mechanics, or constraints. They all have directions and limitations. There wouldn’t be much point in making someone go through a labyrinth against other players, just to binge a Netflix show, like maybe High Score for example. This would demand we use a more subtle sense of play in our design, like say a smooth and dynamic transition from the show list to the show’s details, maybe even switching the selection and play click to an 8 bit coin ding, just for that show. These give us a fun and enjoyable bonus to our experience that we otherwise wouldn’t find. They surprise us (another game mechanic) without taking away from our task or objective, they only enhance it.
I think we can guess what the flash is about in tabletop games. Put flash in your designs, tastefully, it adds to feel and play. It just makes things pop and stay in the user’s mind. You shouldn’t need some odd pink haired and nerdy product designer like myself to tell you why user retention is important. NEXT!!
This brings us to our last subject that parallels tabletop gaming and UX Design, feel. The feel of a design or experience, in games or in digital media, is vastly more important than the other things we’ve talked about. Only, it’s also entirely composed of all those things and more.
Feel is everything. If it feels wrong we won’t play it or use it. If it feels good, we will always come back to it. Tabletop games make a wonderful art of expressing the feel of an experience in the design of the game. Sometimes they do miss the mark on the box. Box art can be massively deceiving, but that’s gotta be someone else’s article on marketing or whatever. Feel in games is what we were talking about, and games like Mysterium and Alien Frontiers have their feel down completely.
Take Alien Frontiers for example. It is bright and exciting, sci-fi illustrations and authors adorn the board and all of its components, and it reaches into every geek’s sense of nostalgia and nerdiness. It gives you a feeling of a journey, of the idea of adventure and risk, going out there to a new place.
Every bit of visual design attached to the game speaks to the experience and enriches it. They even have these little colony tokens that are encased in a bubble. They didn’t just cop out and give us a single mold piece, they essentially doubled the work, just to add to that feeling that we are out here building a colony on some alien planet.
Putting this much attention into the feel of the experience is not only rewarding to its user’s but respectful. It shows that we as designers value their emotional attachment to a product, the feel of the product.
UX and Visual Designers could do a lot more for the feel of who and what their designing for. We all have our practical constraints to what we make, but having something like booking a medical appointment feel easier and more pleasant would go worlds above what we have to endure in many cases currently.
I like to think that playing and experiencing through tabletop gaming has made me a better designer in so many ways. I think it could benefit many designers out there in the same ways, and these were just a few of the ideas that I felt were important in gaining influence from.
Go out there and play a game, play with people, collaborate or thwart. Just say its research if you think it’s too nerdy or a waste of time. Have fun, play hard, it’ll make you a better designer.