Board game design The Apprentice way

The Apprentice, for me, has always been a bizarre programme. Contestants are split into teams and forced to rush through business projects in an attempt to out sell their opponents, all for the opportunity to become partners with Lord Sugar himself in a new venture, along with £250000 investment dosh. It all seems a bit of a farce, with big personality clashes abounding and folks making calls on subjects of which they often have no prior knowledge.

However, this week I had to tune in, as the task given was to design, prototype, print and sell a board game. As an aspiring designer myself, I hoped to maybe learn a few things about the industry, or at least some insights into other people’s processes.

From the get go, the two teams were sent to separate rooms and given stacks of games as the start of their market research. This included games such as Battleship, Scrabble, Monopoly and Cluedo, staples of the board game industry aimed at the family rather than the ‘hard core’ games many of the people I know play. This in itself made perfect sense; these contestants only had 48 hours to go from concept to market, and the simplest way to achieve this would be a game of the same ilk as the aforementioned titles.

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GeoKnow was basic, but playable

Now, the first team (led by James) saw this immediately and started their design from the family angle, choosing the simple and accessible concept of a game where players are given a card headed with a country, then a list of clues they can give their team (either speaking or drawing the clues) to help them guess the name of the country. The second team however (led by Pamela) looked for the niche, and eventually settled on a game about relationships and dating, a sort of a ‘battle of the sexes’ board game.

The next step was market research, and here the first cracks began to appear. James’ team chose to visit a focus group involving families with children of different ages; in short their target market, and the feedback was relatively positive. Pamela’s team took a very different approach by instead visiting a group of board game enthusiasts. As you can probably guess, this group immediately poked holes in the relationship game idea, listing the lack of appeal to their playgroup and the potential for the game to be considered ‘sleazy’. Now firstly, why would they visit a group who are not considered their target market? You wouldn’t ask a group of 70 retired women their opinion on the latest Lynx aftershave, the feedback would just be skewed so badly you couldn’t put any stock in it. Secondly, Pamela proceeded to ignore the feedback received and pushed ahead with the dubious dating game. To me, this made a twisted kind of sense; the kind of games that would appeal to board game enthusiasts tend to need extensive design, playtesting, tweaking and high quality components. All of this would take far too long and cost far too much for a 48 hour challenge, and would be heavily restrictive in terms of the type of clients they could eventually sell to. The dating game however could at least be thrown together quickly and hopefully have enough ‘mass appeal’ to allow it to be sold quickly.

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This game made no sense, whatsoever

Following the market research, the teams proceeded to put pen to paper and design their new concept. For James’ team the design was relatively simple and clean, without any changes to the design I mentioned earlier. The single square board was uncluttered and only needed generic pawns for the players to move around. The play testing was carried out at a school and was overwhelmingly positive with players being engaged throughout. What was also clever is that James’ team had included ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ cards to make the game accessible for younger players whilst giving some challenge to the more experienced gamers. It’s a basic idea, but one that showed some forethought for the game’s longevity and was pretty neat for folks who hadn’t designed anything like this before.

For Pamela’s team, the story was very different. Gameplay again used a simple board and basic pawns, with cards to provide the challenge. On each card was a question, such as ‘A women likes to be asked out by…’ followed by three possible answers. Each answer had a score next to it, assigned arbitrarily by the designer which in turn made the whole game incredibly subjective. This coupled with the stereotypes and often sexist questions made it less a game and more a ‘guess your way to victory for as long as you can stomach the content’. Pamela’s team again used play testers who were board game enthusiasts and the response was predictably negative, with one player even saying ‘If I was at a party and this game got pulled out, I’d probably leave’.

As you can already guess, Pamela’s team lost the challenge. They repeatedly met resistance from clients on the content of the cards used in the game and the poor quality of the gameplay. They’d chosen a potentially controversial topic and implemented it terribly. James’ team on the other hand went simple, safe and for the broader market. I wouldn’t normally advocate a lack of innovation in your design ideas, but under the unique conditions imposed by the challenge this was, in my opinion, the right call to make.

One comment I would have in Pamela’s defence however would be the feedback groups she used. Board game enthusiasts are a naturally discerning lot and don’t tend to play the games found at Toys’R’Us or Tesco. If Pamela had no choice in her focus group, she may have been inadvertently sabotaged as the difficulty of the challenge would have been far greater in appealing to these hardcore board gamers.

Quick link to the episode: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04pl2j2

If you managed to catch this episode of the Apprentice, or found anything in this article useful then we’d love to hear from you. Have any thoughts on the designs? Did you think Pamela was right or wrong in her choices? Do you think you could have improved on the ‘dating and relationship’ game? Let us know what you think!

This episode was also discussed on an episode of our podcast Talking Tinkerbots. You can listen to that episode by clicking here.

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