3 Things Being a Tech Product Manager Taught Me About Board Game Design

What does tech product management have to do with board game design..? While there are clear differences, here are 3 key things (among others) that apply to both tech product management and board game design that I learned as a product manager at two companies in the Fortune 500.

“To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity — toward ultimate freedom of expression.”  -Frank Lloyd Wright

1) "The Customer Isn't Always Right"

That's right... You heard me. Contrary to the common saying, customers often ask for features that won't be good for a product. App users frequently don't know how to describe what they really want, they might not know of more efficient ways to solve their problems, and they might ask for things they would actually dislike once implemented. As a tech product manager, I had to sift through mountains of customer feedback, picking out the key trends and details that made sense to implement.

Similarly, I had many play-testers of my board game, Blueshift, ask for all sorts of crazy game mechanisms and off-kilter ideas. Some wanted black holes of death that destroyed all nearby ships, some wanted super-complicated game rules to make it more realistic, and still others wanted to simplify the game away to nothing. In the end, there's no way you will ever make all of your customers happy. The key is to identify features that will truly satisfy your target customers, and to steadfastly stick to what is best for them.

2) "Get Customer Feedback Early and Often"

This might sound like a contradiction to #1, but the reality is that you must always be getting customer feedback. As a product manager, it is deceivingly easy to sit at corporate headquarters behind your computer, thinking you know what is best for the customer. In reality, the best product managers are relentless at seeking out customer feedback during every step of development. The sooner you get feedback, the sooner you can make course corrections. The more feedback you get, the more likely you are building what customers want.

A play-test of an early prototype of Blueshift

I have now held several hundred play-test sessions of my board game, Blueshift. At the end of every session, I ask each player for one thing they liked, and one thing they would change about the game. I record that information in a notepad, and later think through all the implications of the different ideas. I pay special attention to feedback that shows up from multiple people and play-tests. Over time, this has led to countless alterations to the original game, which has made it much more fun and fast-paced!

3) "Avoid Feature Bloat Like the Plague"

Have you ever used an app that has so many buttons and gadgets and gizmos, that it's difficult to accomplish even a simple task? In tech product management, it is easy to think that more features is better. After all, it would seem that with more features, there's a greater likelihood that a customer will find it useful, right? This thinking leads to the all-too-common ailment called "feature bloat". It follows when well-meaning product managers try to cram every bit of functionality they can into an app, only to realize it doesn't meet any of their customers' needs. This also relates to #2 above - you must find the key things customers really need, and then have a laser-focus on those things.

At every stage of developing Blueshift, I had opportunities to add more complexity and more rules to make the game more "realistic". Rather than doing that, I learned to ask myself "will adding this rule make the game more fun?", or "does the game really need this?" If the answer was no to either, I would leave the rule out. Don't get me wrong, Blueshift has its fair share of rules, but they are the ones I felt led to the greatest amount of strategy and fun compared to the level of complexity.

All said and done - these three concepts will help any tech product manager or game developer make products that their customers will love!


What are some of your favorite apps and why? What aspects do you like about the board games you play?

Ben Stenquist