Sometimes I come across a game that intrigues me because it’s not immediately clear why it’s fun, even though it hooks me. Board Kings from Israeli company Jelly Button is one of these games. As many other players, I’m sensitive to ever-increasing numbers combined with repeated juicy rewards. I’ve Clicked many Cookies, Tapped many Titans and Adventured lots of Capital in my day, but even though it hooks me all the same, Board Kings is a little different. If you want to know why, keep reading!
The main principle of the games mentioned earlier is idling. This means setting up your game’s progress in a way that it will generate value over the time you’re not playing. While Board Kings is an incremental game like the others, it’s not an idle game. Not playing means no progress. In fact, you might even be losing some progress, but I’ll get to that later.
The game’s core is childishly simple. Players have a board (which resembles Monopoly a little) two dice and a pawn (called an Idol) and that’s it. By rolling, the pawn moves around the board, collecting coins every step on each tile with a building. With these coins, players upgrade their building tiles so they generate… exactly, more coins! So incremental. After having upgraded all buildings on a board, players move on to the next board. Each board has a different layout and theme. Currently the game contains 32 boards. Rolls are finite, limited and replenish by time.
Is that it?
No. That would be too simple, right? So a board also has some special tiles. Since there are not that many different special tiles I’ll quickly explain what each of them does.
Train: When landed on, the train lets the player visit another player’s (Facebook friends, if connected) board. Walking over a another player’s board generates a multitude of coins per step. (these are not the other player’s coins) While visiting, players can also ‘own’ or break the other player’s building tiles, making them unable to be upgraded and decreasing the other player’s income when they walk their own board. That player has to land on their building’s tile to repair it. The interactive social banter created can be one of the biggest reasons for new players to be hooked into coming back to the game in the earlier stages of their life-cycle.
Piggy bank: This tile generates a multitude of coins when landed on and can be broken by a visiting player to steal coins.
Steal: When landed on, the player has a chance to steal the majority of another player’s current coin balance. This can become a significant amount of coins.
Cops: A little cop car moves onto a random building tile on the player’s board. When other players visit the board and land on these tiles, they are caught and have to leave or pay up.
Chance: This tile triggers a Monopoly-like card draw from the middle stack. Chance cards can reward coins, extra rolls, gems or a move to another specific special tile.
Gem: This tile generates gems when stepped or landed on.
Idol machine: When landed on, the idol machine provides the opportunity to buy or sometimes receive a different Idol skin. A purely cosmetic collection system.
Last but not least, the player can buy landmarks and place them on their board to replace a normal building tile. Now here is where it becomes interesting. I will illustrate this with an example from another game that everyone knows: Monopoly.
In Monopoly, the best streets are the orange ones. This is because the chance to land on the jail tile is higher than any other tile since some chance cards or the police tile make players go there. When rolling with 2 dice, calculated probability give the orange streets (6, 8 and 9 tiles after the jail) the highest chances to be landed on.
In Board Kings, some landmarks give bonuses (extra rolls, cops or gems) when landed on.
Since some chance cards make the player visit the police station, the train or the steal tile, the same logic as illustrated in the Monopoly example can be applied to the placement of landmarks. Landmarks are more likely to be landed on when placed ~7 tiles after one of these special tiles.
Having introduced this game to some people around me usually resulted in one of the following questions: People who like it ask themselves “Why do I like this so much?” and people who don’t like it ask “Why would I play this?”.
The reasoning behind the question of the players who are enjoying Board Kings makes sense; they are simply walking around a board, there is “nothing to do” and yet they continue doing it. They acknowledge there is no core gameplay, it’s all meta! Well, here are the reasons why I believe Board Kings is so enticing:
Although hidden, the player does have some agency in how they play Board Kings. After having mentioned the tactical landmark placement earlier, I can now illustrate the most tactical feature in Board Kings. For that we need to stay in probability land for a bit longer.
The game features a Rolls Booster, which consumes twice, thrice or even five times as many rolls, but also multiplies all rewards with the same factor.
The brilliant part about this feature is that it introduces a gambling mechanic! Players who are aware of the earlier mentioned die roll probability (and anyone who has ever played the Settlers of Catan board game should be) can now choose how high their stakes are for every roll they do. If players have placed all landmarks next to each other, and if their pawn is about 7 tiles away from that cluster of landmarks, they can increase their multiplier to try and optimise their winnings. This simple feature adds lots of tactical choice to a game that seems to practically have no player agency at first glance.
The game builds on an almost eternally attractive principle we’ve known for almost 5000 years; the journey on a game board. On top of that, Board Kings uses Skinner Box principles to keep people engaged. It gives randomised rewards as positive reinforcement at variable intervals. In turn it uses social aggravation when a “friend” screws around on a player’s board as negative reinforcement or plain punishment.
We all know screwing with a friend’s game is fun, especially if it’s done in the lighthearted way Board Kings does. Having a couple of buildings trashed is simply a reason to retaliate to get back at that annoying friend of yours. The game’s designers know this and even made it possible to sort the list of friends that can be visited (read: raided) by train on “revenge”.
And then there is what I believe to be one of the biggest reasons why this game makes the respectable pile of revenue it does every day: players can steal each other’s coins.
It’s not very difficult to find out the easiest way to counteract this is making sure to have an as low as possible coin balance at the end of each play session.
Usually this is a possibility, but not always. There are times the player is gated by another resource; bricks. When needed, bricks spawn randomly on about 10% of all tiles and are collected when landing there.
Bricks are needed to move on to the next board but can only be gathered during the last moments on the current board. The game is balanced in a way that at this point, all buildings are already upgraded maximally, removing the player’s only option to spend their coins. Players now find themselves ending their sessions with huge amounts of coins they can’t spend, quite similar to how Jeff Bezos must feel in real life.
Of course, the grind for bricks can be bypassed by spending some gems, purchasable for real money. The choice is simple, yield or let your coins be taken by your loved ones! (again very similar to the choice Jeff had to made recently)
The last reason why I think Board Kings captivates lots of players is the fact that it purposely doesn’t explain many of its inner workings and details. It’s for example not immediately clear where all these generated coins come from when visiting another player’s board. Finding out these things is part of the fun, and additionally creates a pretty solid mouth-to-mouth marketing strategy.
All in all this game is an interesting example to look at when trying to create your own simple yet very engrossing mobile game.