Making a Minecraft Board Game
How Mojang and Ravensberger crafted Minecraft: Builders & Biomes
Hey Minecrafters, I’m Marc Watson, and I worked as a producer at Mojang on Minecraft: Builders and Biomes, our new board game. For a few months, I had the pleasure of working on a team that created an entirely new Minecraft experience, and I want to tell you all about how we did it.
Curious to see how the game plays before we get started? Watch this video!
Let’s make a board game!
Expanding a digital game into a physical space might sound strange, but there are many tabletop gaming fans here at our office. Some here have made prototypes of their own board games, and Mojang even made our own foray into the (digital) card game market in 2014, with Scrolls.
Our efforts led us to Ravensberger, a German game, toy, and puzzle company. Founded in 1883, they’re a full 126 years older than Mojang! Undaunted, we teamed up and approached a number of designers to pitch us Minecraft board game concepts.
Let’s go to Germany!
I became involved with the project this February, initially on a trip to help narrow down the prototypes, then as a producer. With me on the trip were Jens Bergensten (Chief Creative Officer), Patrick Geuder (Director of Business Development), Patrick Liu (Director of New Games), and Filip Thoms (Product Designer on our merch team).
We met with Daniel Greiner, board game editor and admitted Minecraft enthusiast, at Ravensburger’s main office in Germany. Over the next few hours, we played five different prototypes of varying levels of complexity or “Minecraftiness”. Our task was to pick a game that we felt was suitable both for our audience as well as parents, children, or friends of that audience. A game that was too simple wouldn’t feel good for us as game-makers, but starting off with an overly complex game could alienate our potential audience, causing the game to collect dust on someone’s shelf as they struggled to find people to play with.
In the end, we chose a design from Ulrich Blum, an independent game designer who had created a game featuring a cube of resource cubes and a 3x3 game board, which represented a player’s home. Players could travel through the intersection of game tiles, flipping over rooms (later, biomes), monsters, and items, much like they can in the final game. But this earlier version also allowed you to do things like take a hostile mob tile and put it in someone’s home, blocking them from building on that space until the player dealt with the interloper.
I was curious how a game designer would represent the world of Minecraft as a board game, and what the refinement process looked like on their end, so I reached out to Ulrich himself for insight into his process and what he learned during development. Take it away, Ulrich!
Ulrich: “The first thing I did was to play Minecraft non-stop for about a week. I started to dissect the game: what am I actually doing, what goals do I set for myself, and what catches my interest? Most importantly, how do I feel doing all this?
“The first and most obvious thing that was clear to me: I wanted blocks in the game. Physical, chunky blocks, that I could touch, play with, stack, etc. But what to do with the blocks? Should players build with them? A quick call with Daniel killed that idea. If we used small cubes, we could pack about a hundred of them in the box without making the game too expensive. The bigger the cubes would be, the less could go in the game. Four players building stuff with just about fifty cubes wouldn’t work.
“So if building was not an option, the other main way to interact with blocks in the digital game was mining. How could I translate that to a physical game? Then I had one of those moments where everything was apparent in an instant, and the mining cube was born. A big block, built out of 64 blocks where you can dig for the resources that you need.
Ulrich (cont): “I went back to playing the digital game, trying to find elements that I could use. I found that the sense of discovery was an element I really liked. What if players would have to discover the stuff that they wanted to build instead of just getting whatever they needed? I laid the tiles face-down on the table, and gave players a character to walk around in the world to let them reveal it bit by bit.
This system worked great and made for a much more interesting play experience. Together with Daniel and the developers at Mojang, we started to iterate very quickly with a new version of the game almost every day for several months. Just about everything from Minecraft was tried at some point. We gradually realized that less was probably more; a game that does a few things very well was preferable to a game that tries to do everything. So, we ended up with what you can now find in the box: a simple, streamlined game that is easy to teach, but still offers many interesting choices.”
By the end of our trip to Ravensberger’s offices, we had an idea of the game we’d like to go with, but we also scrutinized those choices once we got back to Stockholm to make sure that we’d picked the game with the most potential to cover all that we were looking for.
Among our feedback and changes, the “build your base” theme of the game turned into a broader “build structures in biomes”, the tiles, numbered to indicate power and where they’d appear in the game layers, needed to lose some of the complexity, and while some tiles provided bonuses to players, they didn’t count toward your final goal of having the most points.
Let’s get playtesting!
In classic Minecraft style, the board game went through many rapid iterations based on exhaustive feedback. We were given new builds of the game, sometimes daily, shared to us in a PDF file. Any time a piece was changed, we’d want that to reflect in our physical playtest copy, which often meant swapping a printed tile out of a card sleeve, or cutting and pasting something. Daniel gave us changelogs and kept our rules document up to date, and we’d refer back to that if there was any confusion. Keeping the rules straight when elements of them have changed several times that week can be tricky!
Our employee playtesters were generous with their time, but all of this testing had to lead somewhere and we had a looming game design freeze deadline where no further changes could be made to the game’s mechanics. At this point, the biome tiles were still Minecraft screenshots, and the buildings were rectangular stand-ins that hinted at how they’d contribute to scoring. We needed art that let players know just what was going on in the game, which avenues of gameplay they should attempt, and how their efforts were progressing.
Art production and design was handled at Mojang by Ninni Landin, Martin Johansson, Nikoo Jorjani, and Nicolette Suraga, and we partnered with an art team at Fiore GmbH, with biome tile concepts and design handled by our friends at BlockWorks.
After feedback that rooms should be biomes, some of Ulrich’s early designs featured different kinds of buildings. When it came time to freeze the game design and call it feature complete, we decided that we should have buildings in natural-looking (for a Minecraft world) settings. But how were we to get pictures of builds onto board game tiles? Should we give it to an art team and just say, “Make some Minecrafty-looking buildings?”, and hope that represented the player actions and environments well?
We found a solution that was easier than handing it off and hoping that someone would want to design and draw completed Minecraft structures. Daniel and I sat down and wrote out suggestions for each of the biome, material, and feature combination. Maybe a mountain biome’s stone “feature” could be a rail station. We could see that in-game, and it’s easy enough to think a player might build that. Maybe the mountain’s obsidian feature could be a… dance floor? Hey, obsidian was hard, and players build on their own theme sometimes!
With the concepts approved, we turned to BlockWorks. Having just wrapped up working with the Minecraft 10th anniversary map with BlockWorks, I asked Managing Director James Delaney if he’d be interested in tasking his team with bringing to life what was then just a spreadsheet full of ideas. We wanted the buildings to be a mix of old and new, with nods to Minecraft builds (such as the player statue), as well as things that could be understandable by those unfamiliar with the game. Since Minecraft isn’t limited to a medieval fantasy theme, and players can build whatever they’d like, a small number of builds didn’t follow any particular theme, such as the dance floor, train station, or potion bottle.
To review and approve builds, I joined BlockWorks’ build server and got to observe the designs right there in Minecraft’s creative mode. We changed only minor things from the initial designs, such as some areas that coworkers were having a hard time identifying without clues (sorry, UFO, no one could guess what you were!).
With the designs settled, renders were created and sent off to the artists for creation. They did a fantastic job, nailing little details like adjacent biomes of the same type being tileable between the cards and their efforts carried the project through to the end.
Let’s wrap this up!
Working on a board game was a new experience for most of us at Mojang. We learned that, since we’re a game company, we wanted to be very involved in the process. Luckily, we were told that this worked out just great, and even contributed to the success of the final product! Some of the biggest lessons, though, were about the differences between creating a physical and digital product.
With a physical game, all of the components must fit inside a box, and the blocks already took up about half of the box’s space. Additionally, since components are cut from a single sheet, and just a few more tiles might mean another custom cutting die and sheet, feature creeping can mean having to remove other features that we literally do not have room for We also didn’t get to push a button to release the game; considerations had to be made for production times or shipping the product around the world on a boat.
For creating a new game, the whole process was very quick from start to finish. We reviewed the pitches in February, locked in the game and rules in June, did the art in July, and the first copies of the game were shipped to players on October 1st. The whole project involved a very passionate team to see it through, many of whom were borrowed from their “normal” jobs. I’m grateful to have had such an incredible experience with this talented group, and hope that players enjoy the final game as much as we enjoyed making it!
If you’re curious how to play the final version of the game, check out the fantastic video explanation near the top of the page. Minecraft: Builders & Biomes is now available worldwide, online and in many local game stores.