Board Kings - Cute but Sneaky

Thursday, 12th of December 2019, 22:55 +01:00
This article was originally written on the 10th of February, 2019 but has been updated in the end of 2019.

Having played lots of incremental games, I was intrigued by the looks of Board Kings, but didn't expect anything new. Boy was I wrong! Looking at the amount of mechanics an average game on the App Store usually takes from other games, this game from Israeli company Jelly Button is truly unique.

There's something behind this cute exterior...

It uses the board game theme to its fullest, giving the player that nostalgic feeling of playing Risk or Monopoly with family during Christmas, and all the frustration this brings with it.

The player's board at game start.

The game's core is childishly simple. Players have a board (which resembles Monopoly a little) two dice and a pawn (called an Idol). 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 over 40 boards. Rolls are finite, limited and replenish by time passing.

Board Kings' progression

Game Features

A board has some special tiles. Each board has a different layout so that changing levels provides the needed variation to keep the game from becoming stale.

A typical Board Kings Board

Train: When landed on, the train lets the player visit another player's (Facebook friends, if connected) board. Walking 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.

Landmarks can provide specific bonuses

Last but not least, the player can buy landmarks and place them on their board to replace a normal building tile of their choice. Now here is where it becomes interesting. Let's 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.

Buy these for the best chance of winning Monopoly


Probabilities of rolling a number between 2 and 12 with two dice.

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.

...but why?

Introducing this game to people around you usually results 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 Board Kings is so enticing:

Tactical gameplay

Although hidden, the player does have some agency in how they play Board Kings. After having mentioned the tactical landmark placement earlier, it's possible to 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.

More like: How to gamble?

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 have practically no player agency at first glance.

Operant Conditioning

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.

This makes me want to watch 'Lost' again.

Social play

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".

Sort your friends list on "Revenge"

And then there is what is estimated to be the biggest reason 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 when 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.

Bricks, the golden, money-making gates of Board Kings

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 "friends".

Exploration

The last reason why 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.

Missed Opportunities

Even though this game is performing well, there are definitely things that can be improved, both in its core gameplay and live-ops. Rolls Booster Onboarding & Transparency

Seeing how friends play, together with video research on YouTube, it can be concluded that the Rolls Booster isn't explained properly. Lots of players (myself included for a long time) think the multiplier doesn't work on specific tiles like the train and steal tiles, but this is simply not the case.

The inconspicuous Rolls Booster?

The booster multiplies all income generated. It's specifically stated, but not shown. One more issue with this booster is that it's not clear when the game has the x5 Booster enabled. Sometimes the maximum multiplier that can be selected is x3, other times it's x5 but there is no clear pattern to recognise here. It turns out Jelly Button configures this as part of their Live Ops, but this is impossible for players to figure out.

As mentioned earlier, given how much tactical depth this mechanic adds, it would be a pity if players wouldn't want to use it out of fear of lost value or due to its unpredictability.

Live Ops

Most successful mobile games have their live ops organised in a way its events create a nice-looking sawtooth shape, and Board Kings is no different.

Board Kings' revenue, able to take down trees.

These spikes are attributed to the events and sales Jelly Button runs inside the game on a very regular basis.

Even though within the last year the revenue has been very stable, there has been no increase. This can (at least partially) be attributed to blindness the game creates towards their time-limited features. Every time a player opens the game, they get multiple pop-ups thrown at them. Given there is no context, and the player has just started up their game, the chances are extremely high they don't care about the information that's being presented.

Board Kings' miserable start game experience.

I've found myself being at the ready to close 3+ screens during loading time for Board Kings, which is the mobile gaming equivalent of banner blindness. A better way of incorporating these specific sales can be done by changing the context of some specific buttons, like for example the out-of-rolls button. Where this normally leads to the standard screen where rolls can be purchased, instead one of these sales pop-ups can be shown after the player taps the roll button without having any left.

Another way of promoting sales is the way Seriously does with their Best Fiends hit game by adding them to existing screens.

Best Fiends adds sales to existing, frequently visited screens.

In this day and age, it's safe to say that being creative with sale placements is a must for every profitable game. Players are very much familiar with the Free-to-Play model and won't fall for forceful attempts like these. An offer only makes sense when it has context.

Playing with Anticipation

In an industry that's so focused on creating smooth and rewarding experiences, the devil is often in the details. Board Kings borrows a lot of its visualisations from slot machines to make it feel as appealing as it does but there are cracks in its exterior to be found when looking more closely.

Bunnies spoiling the entire idol's landing anticipation

When the player rolls the dice, they seem to have a nice and slow feel. Unlike solid, regular ones, the dice in Board Kings seem like they are made out of foam or another soft material, they sometimes land on one of their edges, only to slowly tip over and show the value on top.

This all works very well, but when the dice end up having a value that will make the player's idol land on a 'chance' tile, the little bunnies that hop around spoil this immediately! Small 'chance' cards appear above their heads even before the dice have stopped moving, confusing the player and getting rid of all anticipation in one fell swoop.

This might seem like a trivial thing to nitpick about but things like these can have a great impact. The same can be said about the highlighting of the tiles the idol will visit after every die roll. It's detrimental to the player's dopamine-fueled anticipation.

Where will my idol end up? No surprises here!

Conclusion

Board Kings has had a very stable 2019 and can surely be called a profitable product for Jelly Button, having reached about $50M in IAP last year alone. There are games like Moon Active's Coin Master which have performed a lot better ($324M). Regardless, Board Kings is a great piece of craftsmanship that keeps players hooked, even while some of them consciously wonder why! We now know why; studying Board Kings is a great class about keeping players pressing that 'roll' button.

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This article is an individual's own professional view on the subject. No corporations are affiliated with this assessment in any way.