This weekend, Boston Game Jams ran Cardboard Jam, a game jam where everyone made board or card games instead of making digital games. I have to say, I think I had way more fun at this game jam than at almost any other digital jam I’ve been a part of for a few reasons.
First, there’s no tech choices or learning curve. At digital Game Jams, the first thing you have to do (once you have a game you want to create) is decide what technology you want to work in. This can be tough when you have multiple people who all come with different tech backgrounds and make them try to work together. Either you end up choosing teams based on tech that people know, or a few people end up working in tech they are unfamiliar with. This can make many digital game jam more about overcoming technical challenges, rather than overcoming design challenges in the game.
Second, other than the theme of the materials, there was no theme for this Jam. Though originally I thought this was a detriment, I am beginning to think that the lack of theme contributed to making this Jam awesome. In every game jam I’ve participated in, the themes have been aesthetic. They’re themes like “immigration,” “extinction,” or “deception,” and although they offer a good constraint on the Jam (and place everyone on equal footing for implementing an idea), they force most Jammers to think in terms of aesthetic first, mechanic last. This is why most Jammers can’t “finish,” because they’re actually pushing for an aesthetic, rather than mechanical goal.
Last, jamming in board games meant that iteration cycles were really, really fast, which meant that you could focus on and tune the game and the mechanics quickly, which resulted in better games across the board. The game I worked on took about 10 minutes to play, and after initial discussion, we did nothing but play it, with short discussions in between. We probably play tested the game 50 times, each time with slightly tweaked rules to attempt to address problems we were seeing in the previous play through. Iteration times like this not only let you learn more about the game you’re creating, but more about game design in general, since you see the results of you actions quickly. This speed of iteration and learning would have been impossible in a digital game jam, since implementing rule changes requires too many cycles. In digital game jams, if you get two to three full playtests in before time is up you’re lucky, and that’s including for teams that use prebuilt engines like Unity.
So in closing, if you get a chance to participate in a board game jam, you absolutely should. There’s less stress, more learning, and way more collaboration. That, and you end up with an actually complete board game at the end, which is super awesome.