Review: Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design

“There is no better time to be a tabletop board gamer.” ~ Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev, Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design

Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design by Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev
461 pages
CRC Press, 2020
Genre: Nonfiction, game design
Re-readability: I will definitely be referencing this one over the years
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Pete

I have been searching for a comprehensive book of board game mechanisms and ideas for years, and this is the first book I’ve gotten ahold of that fits the bill. 

Engelstein (known for the Space Cadets games and for co-hosting the podcast Ludology) and Shalev (who designed Seikatsu and co-hosts the podcast On Board Games) divide tabletop games into several concepts, which make up the categories of this book: 

  • Game structure
  • Turn order and structure
  • Actions
  • Resolution
  • Game end and victory
  • Uncertainty
  • Economics
  • Auctions
  • Worker Placement
  • Movement
  • Area control
  • Set collection
  • Card mechanisms

As someone who has been avidly consuming board game design podcasts in the past several years, these concepts are familiar and do a great job of breaking down the field into digestible parts. 

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how concise each chapter is—usually no more than three pages describing a concept and noting a few examples of games that employ it (sometimes well, sometimes poorly). Most of the time, the separate game mechanics were fairly familiar, but in several chapters (especially in the auction section), I was introduced to mechanics I had never heard of before that have several interesting applications. 

I do wish the book included more concrete examples with illustrations. While Engelstein and Shalev describe mechanics well, there were a few instances where I just couldn’t visualize what was being described. However, Daniel Solis’ illustrations at the beginning of each chapter were helpful and entertaining. 

One useful aspect of this book that I hadn’t anticipated is its compilation of games that use certain mechanics. There were a few times in which I learned that an idea I was working on had already been implemented in another game, which was depressing but helpful.

This book appeals to a niche group of readers—those who enjoy thinking about game design and create games of their own. I recently published my first game (Tiny Towns) and am always working on new designs, so this will be a go-to resource for me for years to come.

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