Lesson 6.1 - Tweaking: 5 Whys and The Right Question - The Cardboard Designer

Lesson 6.1 – Tweaking: 5 Whys and The Right Question

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Sometimes in the tweaking and tuning phase of game design, it can be hard to even know what exactly it is you need to tweak. Here are a couple of methods you can utilize to help figure that out…

The last couple of posts were all around getting the most out of the play-tests of tabletop games that you are designing. In the next few posts, I want to touch on some ways that you can tune and tweak your cardboard masterpieces to get the very most out of them.

5 Whys

Have you ever had a younger sibling or cousin who would ask you question after question after question? Every single time you gave an answer, it would be followed up simply with a “why?” You’d be stuck in an endless loop of your own ignorance until you admitted defeat. We have Google these days to placate these childish quests for knowledge. In the 90s I had to reach for the newest copy of the encylopedia – the idea being that even if the answer wasn’t in the book, it would still be heavy enough to bat said young person away.

If you’d told me at the time that this line of questioning was actually managerial genius, I wouldn’t have believed you. But what do I know?

Using 5 whys to answer questions about your game, is a simple, but powerful tool on the quest to tweak and refine things. Basically by just continuing to ask why until you hit the actual root cause of the problem, you can discover more about the issue your thinking about. The reason we limit ourselves to 5 whys is because after this point, the law of diminishing returns usually rears it’s head. It is also important to point out that you don’t HAVE to get to 5 whys? The root cause might be there in front of you after the 3rd or even 2nd why.

  • For your board game, lets say the initial problem is that players end games with to much money in their hand?
  • Why do players end the game with too much money? Because they don’t buy anything in the last phase.
  • Why don’t players buy anything in the last phase? Because no actions can be carried out.
  • Why can no actions be carried out? Because each action takes at least a full phase.
  • Why does each action take at least a full phase? …

You see how the designer could have thought they’d backed themselves into a corner when actually a fairly obvious solution might present itself. There may or may not be a good reason why each action takes at least one full phase? Maybe this has to be that way due to other dynamics, but it at least gives the designer a jumping off point to help find a solution

By using the 5 whys, we were able to get to the root of issue rather than a symptom which wasn’t actually that players end the game with too much money, but that actions take at least one full phase. Those are quite different problems to try and solve.

And this leads me into the next point I wanted to discuss regarding board game tuning:

Figuring out actual problem gets you a long way to the answer

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution


Human beings by their very nature are problem solvers. It’s actually one of the reasons that we are drawn to board games. We like puzzles, and we get immense satisfaction by solving them. Remember that last rush of endorphins you felt when you solved an escape room puzzle? That’s your body telling you how much you like it!

It’s literally written into our DNA. What separated us from so many other species through evolution was our ability to create and utilize tools. The wheel and the plough helped us move things easier, and feed ourselves better. We solved problems to improve our situation.

The downside to us being hard-wired problem solvers, is we can often jump the gun, and try to fix things even before we know what’s wrong.

Great mind, great mustache

The quote above, attributed to Einstein is a perfect way of framing this idea that knowing the problem is far more important that we give credit.

It is the reason the 5 whys are such a powerful tool – it forces you to stop and think before diving straight in.

In the example about the player having to much money, there would have been many logical ways to tackle the problem. Up the price of the cards? Reduce the players income? Create other money sinks in the game?

All reasonable ideas to resolve the issue of too much money. But if we consider that our root cause ended up being that the player only had too much money on the last phase of the game, then introducing any of the above steps could actually count towards unbalancing the game even further. And without investigating it, we may not have ever known why. We’d have been up a metaphorically smelly creek without a paddle.

It also acts as good exercise to work through when play testing a game with players. If someone gives an important bit of feedback, but finds it difficult to define specifics of the issue, walk through a quick 5 whys with them. I’ve used this trick multiple times with people passionate about providing me with ways to improve the game, but unsure exactly what they are trying to say!

Forcing yourself to go through the 5 why exercise every single time you hit a problem will become tedious and isn’t necessary. There are some problems that are very obvious to fix. For example, if players find a particular component hard to use, you know that a redesign around the component would be the right approach. But next time you are in a position where you don’t know the specific problem your trying to resolve. Or even next time your in position where your pretty sure of the problem that needs resolving – pull out your 5 whys and have a go! You might be surprised!


  • Take one of the games that you are working on. If you have recently done a play test and have a few points of improvement, see if you can apply the 5 whys to one of the items.
  • If you don’t have your own game in development or at a stage that you can start to tweak it, have a look at a game you played recently and thing about an aspect of it that didn’t quite work for you, or felt a little stilted. Use the 5 whys to see if you can figure out what exactly the problem was with the game.
  • The next time you have a play-test session, try to think about the problem that people are actually saying they have with the game. If the feedback isn’t specific enough for you to identify the problem, run through a quick 5 whys exercise with them!

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