3D Elements in Board Games: Or All About Taking Your Game Designs to New Heights

Steven takes game design into another dimension. He examines using vertical space in game design.

The Indie Jungle has grown a lot since the early days of the industry, spreading its vines in new creative directions like never before. One of the most intriguing directions? Up, of course.

When it comes to components in board games, there has been a growing trend of going beyond the flat Earth thinking of the past.

Oh sure, while there are a handful of games from yesteryear that embrace a 3D approach (from “Mousetrap” to “Battleship” to “Connect 4”), most games back in the day tended to stick to a board, cards and low profile components.

Today, however, if you walk through a convention or game store you’re likely to see more and more towering structures, custom cardboard creations and 3D gizmos than ever before.

One of the most popular contraptions that has been around for a long time is the dice tower. A dice tower is a box used by gamers to aid with rolling dice. Dice are dropped into the top of the tower, bouncing off of various platforms inside it and spitting out of an opening at the bottom of the tower. Dice towers are basically a nifty way to keep dice rolling fair and random.

Some games, such as “Amerigo” and “Shogun,” have taken the dice tower concept and incorporated it more into game play, with players dropping resource cubes instead of dice in the top so that a different mix of cubes will tumble out at the base.

A few titles even build their mechanics specifically around the 3D components, such as “Colt Express,” a game in which each player uses programmed actions to rob a train. Some of those actions involve moving forward and back through the train or even hopping up to the roof of the train, thus intertwining theme with components to create a richer experience.

“Pagoda” by White Goblin Games, photo from BoardGameGeek.com by Henk Rolleman

Games like “Colt Express” and “The Dragon & Flagon” allow players to interact with 3D elements on the table, as though their characters are living in that environment. Other games let players explore the third dimension in even more creative ways. “Santorini,” for example, is a chess-like game where players strategically create the city around them, trying to navigate their character to the top floor. “Takenoko” encourages players to grow bamboo to various heights to score points. And games like “Rampage,” “Pagoda” and “Saloon Tycoon” reward players for stacking cardboard tiles level by level to create 3D structures that simulate buildings.

Some classic games – “Jenga” comes to mind – introduce a dexterity element to play, in which the real enemy in the game is gravity itself, threatening to crumble your structure and cause you to lose the game. This has inspired many other 3D dexterity games with similar ideas such as “Wonky” that has players stacking wonky-shaped blocks, “Rhino Hero” where you stack cards (and a heroic rhinoceros, of course), and “Garbage Day” that makes players balance cards onto an ever-filling garbage can.

“Pyramix” by Gamewright, photo from BoardGameGeek.com by Joseph Peterson

Games like “Pyramix” take gravity and turn its inescapable power into an advantage. In this game, you must pull a die from a pyramid-shaped structure, which in turn drops dice above it into the vacant slot. Players must strategize the best dice to pull to garner the most points, while preventing their opponents from scoring big.

So, as a game designer, how can you bring 3D thinking into your games…and why should you do it at all? The easy answer is, “Because it’s cool.” The smart answer is, “Because it brings more attention to your game and just might make the experience of playing it even better.”

Games with 3D elements, although growing in popularity, are still a bit of a novelty in the game industry. Therefore if your game stands out (and up) in a positive way, it will probably catch the eyes of gamers at conventions, shops and game nights. More interest means players are more likely to play it, take pictures of it and post it on social media, which in turn will grab the attention of your friends and followers.

Thinking in 3D is really simple on one level. If you are in the midst of the game design process, just ask yourself, “Is there a way to incorporate some sort of 3D element into this game that feels appropriate to both the mechanics and theme?”

In my upcoming game “Groves” by Letiman Games (launching via Kickstarter on June 6th), one aspect of the game involves sending your workers (called Spirits) to other players’ realms after you’ve built a portal. Originally, each portal was a flat cardboard token. Players would place the portal and then flip it to open it. However, Michael Cofer, who is working on Graphic Design for the game, came up with the brilliant idea of creating 3D chipboard mirrors. The player first acquires the base and then “opens” the portal by building the mirror. Now, it makes for a much more interesting component and suddenly the action of opening a portal feels much less abstract than it once did. Players can now peer through the mirror at their opponent’s realm and, if they wish, send Spirits “through” it.

Another set of 3D components that have made it into a game of mine are found in “Barker’s Row,” a title by Overworld Games that is entering its final days on Kickstarter (the “Barker’s Row” campaign ends, today, on May 25th). The original game, when pitched to Overworld, included flat player mats to represent each player’s sideshow tent and a track that also laid flat to mark players’ scoring levels.

“Barker’s Row” by Overworld Games, photo by Brian Henk

Overworld saw an opportunity to immerse players in the carnival theme by creating 3D chipboard components that would bring the carnival to life on your table. Now the game comes with 3D grandstands where custom-designed meeples go to watch your attractions. And perhaps the coolest element of all is the Strongman Tower, which transforms the flat track into a tall structure on the table that is both highly thematic and better for gameplay, as all players now have an easy view of where their marker is located on the tower (an essential aspect of game play).

While 3D components could be seen as frivolous or “overproduced,” I see them as largely enhancing the game experience. In the case of “Barker’s Row,” I have no doubt that the components that Overworld is creating for the campaign have exposed many more players to the game. Could it have functioned with flat pieces? Absolutely! But given the choice, who wouldn’t want to fill their own actual grandstands with unique show-goers rather than put cubes on a mat? And with today’s printing innovations, it is now feasible for even indie game publishers to incorporate 3D elements into their games.

Does that mean every game can or should have 3D elements? Certainly not. Just like in game design, if a mechanic or step isn’t necessary or adding to game play, lose it. But if the experience is enhanced, it is definitely an avenue worth exploring!

Ultimately, whether 3D components are a major part of game play or “just for show,” they almost certainly will enhance the theme and the experience of being part of a world that feels larger than life.


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