Icons vs Text, Part 2

This series is all about our design group’s conclusions regarding the place of icons and text in game components. Last time, we looked at the merits and limitations of text. Today is all about icons.  Let’s see how they stand up.

 

Icons

By the mid-2000s, almost every European game publisher had switched away from game text. They detextified their components like a neo-emo throwing clearing his room of pony posters and embedded icons onto each component. A key to each icon’s meaning appeared in the rulebook, frequently near the end of the rules.

 

Icons tend to excel where game text fails.

Icons eliminate issues of rule space on the component.  Since a single icon represents game effects found in the rulebook, it can represent a virtually unlimited amount of text without taking up any significant room on the component.  Glancing at an icon is equivalent to clicking here.  This feature frees designers to label each component with as many abilities and effects as desired.

 

Icons bring language independence to your game components.  To publish an icon-reliant game in multiple countries, the publisher only has to create a different rulebook for each nation’s language.  This was already needed; using icons allows a publisher to bring a games to new markets without changing any components.  Furthermore, several players can enjoy your game at the same time even if none of them speak a common language.  The components are clear to everyone.

Sadly, Icons are not perfect either. They tend to fail where game text excels.


Icons are not truly language independent.  Each game’s icons are a new hieroglyphic language all players must learn.  When actions are reasonably straightforward and game icons have been well-designed, this is a language gamers become fluent with almost immediately. Foreign CardConsider for instance this card from Magic: the Gathering.  It served as an illustration of language-dependent components in the last column.  But notice that it utilizes icons as well.  It has been so long since I played Magic with any frequency that I cannot honestly recall the name of this card or its effects.  Because I am fluent in M:tG icons, I have no trouble whatsoever telling that it costs 2 colorless + 1 black manna to cast however.


Icons lack immediacy.  Players must first consult the rules to translate each icon as it comes up.  This can be particularly irritating for your players if these icons represent complex actions or are poorly designed. I can think of several games with icons so poorly designed that they shared no relation to the gameplay they were meant to represent.  I’ll bet you can too.


When teaching a new Eurogame to friends, I generally find it wise to walk them through all event card icons before we begin.  This easily adds five or more minutes to the learning time of the game and at the worst possible time–when the player is
already trying to process the game’s rules.   The alternative is to let players look icons up as they go. This can wreck the pace of your game, jar players out of flow, and cause disengagement.


Icons frequently sacrifice portability.  If a game component can only express itself through icons, rulebooks and reference sheets are needed to clarify what the component does.  This may not be a problem for a big-box game that already includes a large number of components but what about small games that are meant to be portable?  Icons have their limits.


How about you?  How do you feel about icons on game components?

If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

 

Next time we get together, we will take a look at the role of color and keywords.  We then begin looking at examples of published games.  Let’s see what their graphic designers used and how well it worked. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you Tuesday!

 

Icons vs. Text, Part 1

Publishers occasionally ask my design group to be involved in late-game development.  This frequently includes evaluating the game’s graphic design.  Two of our team are color blind. This gives us something of an investment in game components being as clear as possible.  We have had several extensive conversations about the place of icons and text in game components.  As with many other aspects of game design, there is no one best choice.  Each has its merits, each has its limitations.

 

Today we focus on the merits and limitations of text. Friday will be all about icons.

 

 

Game Component Text

Arkham CardsSome game components rely heavily on text to supply relevant details.

This is particularly common in collectible games like Magic; the Gathering, Pokemon, and The X-Wing Miniatures Game.  It is also common in character-driven games like Arkham Horror or Schlock Mercenary: Capital Offensive.

 

The main advantage of putting text directly on a component is immediacy.  When all the relevant game effects of the card or character appear directly on it, there is significantly less need to consult the rulebook during play.  This keeps the game moving at a steady pace.  A steady pace enhances the flow of your game.  Enhancing the flow of your game increases player engagement.  Component text can be a good thing.

 

Another major advantage of component text is portability.  When I put a card from a trading card game into play, the card’s text proclaims its purpose.  There is little need to carry any rulebooks or reference sheets to clarify what the card does.  There may be fringe cases or card interactions that require a consulting the latest FAQ but otherwise the cards literally say everything there is to say.  Component text can be a very good thing.

 

Foreign CardText is not perfect, however.  It has its limitations as well.  Most prominently, game text makes your game components language dependent.  If you wish to publish a text-reliant game in multiple countries, you will have to manufacture a different edition for each nation’s language.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this was a perennial hurdle for German game enthusiasts.  Web-based translations of game text were a component all of us routinely added to the boxes.  Component text can problematic.

 

A big limitation of component text for the designer is surface area.  Sometimes, those words just won’t fit.  This issue hit us during the layout phase of Sentinel Tactics (Kickstarter campaign running now!).  We repeatedly found that we’d created abilities with too much text for the space available.  The text fit on our prototype cards because it used a different font and because prototype cards had no art.  Readying the game for publication meant hours rethinking details and shortening explanations.  Component text can indeed be problematic.

 

How about you?  How do you feel about text on game components?  If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

 

Next time we get together, we will look at game component icons and how they compare with game text.  I would suggest that they tend to excel where game text fails but that the reverse is also unfortunately true.  Come back in four days and see if you agree!

Scoring Frequency

Two designers in my group–Len Stemberger and Jean Ray Johnson–are working on area control games right now.  As you would expect, this has led to quite a few conversations about scoring.  In one particularly extensive conversation, John Eyster asserted that players don’t really have control over when scoring occurs in most of these games. This led me to wonder about the timing of majority scoring. This is what I came to.

Fixed Time

The simplest approach is to set a fixed interval of game time between scorings.  Wolfgang Kramer’s El Grande does this, with scoring occurring every 3 rounds.

The totally predictable nature of this approach is its biggest advantage and its greatest disadvantage.

Because players know precisely when scoring will occur, they also know when to push and when to relax.  This supports a cycle of tension and release. El Grande is an elaborate game with many moving parts. Players need brief pauses in tension to regroup and formulate their next plan.  The fixed time approach served this design well.

Because players know precisely when scoring will occur, they may also decide to ignore those periods of release as unimportant.  Giving players a breather can be a good thing.  Giving them a vacation is right out. Like proper form in weightlifting, the goal is a controlled release of tension rather than a sudden drop.

Variable Time

The lushest casinos and the dirtiest gambling dens know all about the boredom that can come from fixed-interval scoring.  The classic example of this problem is the slot machine that pays on exactly every fifth pull.  The player bets a nickel on pulls 1, 2, 3, and 4 but drops a dollar token on pull 5. Predictability like this leads to losses and is bad for the casino. Predictability like this leads to boredom and is bad for the player.

Many game designers have addressed this problem the same way that the casinos do–they have variable scoring intervals.  This brings uncertainty to the system and uncertainty brings excitement.

The variable time solution does leave one problem for us designers to address however.  Gambling houses are perfectly happy if a given game table goes dozens of rounds without a payoff.  Our players are at the dining table. They will only wait so long between payoffs.  We need controlled variability.

Imagine a bag containing eight tokens–five are blank and three have an X stamped on them.  At the end of each round, a player draws a token and sets it aside. Scoring happens immediately when the third X token is drawn.  After scoring, all tokens are returned to the bag and the bag its mixed.  This method guarantees no fewer than three rounds between scoring and no more than eight but also gives players partial information.  If there is only one X token out, this round will not score.  If two X tokens are out, any round could be the one. As X tokens get drawn, tension rises.  Approaches like this one give controlled variability.

Fixed Events

I enjoy designs which empower players to set the pace. Games feels more alive when my actions directly influence the game state.  This idea was at the core of Rolling Freight.  Scoring occurs when the deck of route cards reaches the end of a section.  Since players can always see how much remains in the deck, they always know how close the next scoring event is.  Since players control the rate at which this deck flows, they also control the pace of the game.

Option 4. Variable Events

Several designs use events in a variable way to make the pace more variable.  Sid Sackson’s Venture is the oldest example of which I am aware.  Dirk Henn’s Alhambra is may favorite example.  The Alhambra deck contains scoring cards similar to those in Rolling Freight but these scoring cards have each been shuffled into sections of the deck.  Players again control the rate at which this deck flows and have a general notion of when scoring will arrive but can never be entirely certain.

Option 5. Player Controlled

What about putting scoring intervals totally in the hands of the players?  Few games have gone this route. There is a great deal of design space waiting to be explored here.

Reiner Knizia’s card game ZERO does this by scoring each hand of cards after players have “knocked” twice.  The first knock signals the approach of scoring. The second knock immediately ends the hand and triggers scoring.  Each hand of ZERO could last through four rounds of play or forty.  It is the players who decide.

What do you think? How does the pace of scoring affect your experience?  Do you have a favorite approach?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing. 🙂

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 4

The first Protospiel Houston event was last weekend. This weekend–March 21 – 23 will see another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More, listed at the main Protospiel page are coming soon.

Several followers asked for a report from the event.  It is a strict rule of playtester etiquette to keep every prototype you play secret unless its designer specifically gives you permission. Many details have been left out for this reason. With that disclaimer in place, here are some of the high points.

Image

Successes

Our attendance target was 30. We had 41 attendees.  We hosted three speakers.  We successfully hosted a design challenge.

We had a great number of playtesters who attended with no affiliation to any particular designer–they were simply interested in being part of the design process and in providing helpful feedback.  

APE Games and Living Worlds Games generously donated to the event.  Without their support, we would never have been able to have Protospiel at all.  These are great companies that deserve your support.  Check out their games.

 

Murphy’s Law

Not everything went according to plan. Three of our scheduled attendees were not able to be with us due to circumstances far outside of their control.  We wish them well and hope everything resolves itself as soon as possible.

 

Lessons For Each Of Us

All creative endeavors include plenty of mistakes.  Mistakes are a good thing.  They give us an opportunity to learn, to adjust, to adapt, to improve.  Many of the best teachers and managers I’ve met refer to mistakes as “opportunities for improvement.” It seems to me that this is exactly the right mindset.  The stories which follow each showed me an opportunity to improve.  I hope you will find them useful as well.

The first game played at Protospiel Houston was Cubic Conjurers by Richard Gibbs.  This was a highly interesting spin on a few relatively common game mechanisms.  Once fully polished, this will be a solid addition to any gamer’s collection.  Interestingly, Richard did not plan to bring Cubic Conjurers out.  Lesson: give every prototype its chance on the table.  You might be surprised by the feedback you receive.

I was scheduled to give a talk at 7:00 Friday evening.  Of course, it’s hard to stay on schedule when you lose your flash drive.  One frantic dig through my email found a copy I’d shared with a proofreader.  I downloaded it and went straight to the talk.  Lesson: always have a backup.

A prototype making the rounds over the weekend was strongly simulationist.  Unfortunately, the simulation was so accurate that pure luck could catapult a player forward or leave that player far behind with no way to catch up.  Most of the feedback at the table addressed this issue.  Lesson: Always leave room for skillful play to overcome bad luck.

Another prototype which spent a great deal of time on the table looked quite a bit like a published design.  Although the designers asserted that they’d spent years developing their game and the game it resembled has also been on the market in major outlets for years, they both insisted that they’d never seen the published version.  Much of the feedback at this table focused on ways in which this design could distinguish itself from its preexisting competitor.  Lesson: Market research is essential.

Sunday morning was my chance to run a playtest of a game in development for APE Games with Mr. APE himself, Kevin Brusky.  Although many game elements are performing well, quite a few were far off the mark.  I’d fallen victim to the classic designer problem of trying to be too clever.  Rather than the clever effects I was aiming for, I’d written effects so situational as to be essentially useless. Fortunately, the playtesters spotted the problem and brought laid it out for me.  Lesson: Be prepared to rethink your ideas, particularly the “clever” ones.

 

Image

Closing Thoughts

Protospiel Houston was a success.  Attendees seemed to be steadily productive.  At our most packed, every table held a game but no players were standing around waiting for space to open up. Guest speakers were well received. And we’re definitely doing it again next year. 🙂

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 3

You prepped and polished your prototype.  You made the trip to a Protospiel event (or some other awesome playtesting event) You put it your design in front of a bunch of total strangers.  They gave you tons of feedback.  Now the convention is ending and your next steps lie before you.  Where should you start?

You had good preparation.  You had good execution.  Now you need good resolution. What will you do AFTER the convention is over?  Let’s get right into it!

18. A publisher expressed an interest in my game.  When should I contact her?

Your first step when a publisher expresses an interest should be to establish a timeline.  If you haven’t, there are a few general rules you can follow.

It is most likely that the publisher either took your prototype with her for in-house testing or asked you to send a prototype.  Send this within a week of the request and follow 3-4 business days with an email to confirm that they’re received it.  After that, my experience is that it takes publishers about a month to have a reply.  If you haven’t heard anything by then, send a short, polite message asking if they need any adjustments or have any questions.

19. “They said it was awesome! How do I get it published? Should I publish it myself?”

Me? no.  You? Maybe.

I personally self-published one game–The Great Migration–for the experience.  I’m glad I did it.  Going through the whole process taught me a great many things about that end of the industry.  But I wouldn’t personally do it again.

Kickstarter, and Indiegogo other similar crowdfunding platforms are opening new avenues for distribution and advertising however.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, I would urge you to contact some of the folks who have already gone that route.  Folks in this industry are sincerely supportive and will give you solid advice.

20. The playtesters wanted to completely overhaul my game.  If I take their advice, is this still my design?

This is a question I struggled with for quite some time myself.

The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is that playtesters will give you every manner of idea.  It is your job as the game designer to analyze each suggestion, to carefully pick which ones to incorporate and which ones to set aside.  It takes a great deal of work to do that kind of fine-tuning.  It is that work which entitles you to call this game your own and to put your name on the box.

21. I got contradictory feedback from two different groups.  Now what do I do?

Congratulations!  Having too many ideas is one of the best problems a designer can have.

In this case, I often try to temporarily pursue both approaches.  This may go so far as to assemble two distinct prototypes.  I then alternate tests of each approach.  Eventually, one of these designs will reveal itself as superior.  When that occurs, you can drop the weaker design and focus on the superior one.

22. But I have limited time and other responsibilities.  I can’t be working on two (or more) different versions at the same time.  Should I quit my day job?

In a perfect world, we have all the time and opportunity needed to pursue every avenue.  That nasty devil reality does tend to assert itself from time to time however.  Do not quit your day job.  Instead, pick the one(s) about which you feel most strongly and focus there.

23. Was this playtest a “bad” playtest?

Gil Hova contributed this question and spiffy dude that he is answered it as well.  Rather than trying to offer my thoughts, we can all all learn from the response he offers.

There are playtests where the game breaks down and everyone tears it apart, but I don’t think those are bad playtests, just difficult ones.

To me, there are three kinds of bad playtests…

First: The playtesters only say “Yeah, I liked it, it was okay,” and you can’t read any more feedback.

Second: The playtesters all LOVE the game. Then you play another, less polished game and they LOVE that one. Then you play a totally broken game and they LOVE that one too. And you realize that they’re cheerleaders, and they like pretty much anything they play.

Third: One playtester spoils the test somehow. Perhaps he is a high-maintenance special-needs kid who isn’t adjusted enough to social situations to play a game, or he is actually, literally insane and only offers lunatic ravings. These have both happened to me. They throw so much noise and static into the test that it makes the session tough to parse.

24. This game just isn’t working. I’m afraid it’s a dead end. Now what do I do?

Mistakes and dead ends are all a part of the design process.  Take a step back.  Let the game rest for a little while.

This question of what to do with a dead end design hits one of the reasons keeping a journal in some form is so very important.

Your design journal is a repository for all those other game theme and mechanism ideas you may wish to return to.  It is also a place to look for inspiration if a project stalls or if you wish to go back and look at options you set aside earlier.

Take a look at your options.  Have you tried each approach you considered?  Perhaps there is an idea you had, an idea which did not seem useful at the time but now fits your situation perfectly?

25. I set this game aside for months, then returned to it, polished it up and brought it to Protospiel.  It still isn’t working. Now what do I do?

It might be time to retire this design.  Perhaps this one simply doesn’t work.  That’s okay.  You will have plenty of failures along the way.  Keep working and keep trying new things.  Your successes will far outdistance your failures.  I promise it.

26. “How can I keep in contact with all the wonderful people I met?”

Apart from trading email addresses with everyone you met, become an active part of the design community.  Facebook has its Protospiel group.  Boardgamegeek has its game design forums.  Board Game Designer’s Forum is another great place to commiserate and to exchange ideas.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do after a playtest event?  Are you a freshman designer with a question that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with wordpress (http://wordpress.com/) and follow this blog.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Next kicks off with the details of Houston’s first Protospiel event and what I learned running it. See you Tuesday!

Playtest Feedback Form: Doing It The Looney Labs Way

While researching my current series on playtesting, I discovered an excellent example in the Looney Labs playtesting workshop page here.

Awesome and wonderful folks that they are, I secured their blessing to share it with all of you.  Question Answerer 1st Class Alison Looney tells me that it has been working well for them.

This form was obviously designed to collect playtest data on several games at once.  You will have to make a some adjustments If you’re only working on one or two games.  Setting that particular detail aside, I think there are several things any of us us can learn from the Looney Labs approach. 

Image

Notice that it asks few specific questions but instead has been designed to be open ended.  Notice that a huge amount of space has been dedicated to “comments,” including the back of the page.  Keeping their form open ended will encourage Looney’s testers to be sincere.  Some will share many impressions and comments while others may offer few.  This is a good thing.  In both cases, the feedback will be sincere.

I have seen several feedback forms that attempted to cover every conceivable question.  I created a several of these myself.  The problem with this approach is that it presupposes the creation of such an exhaustive list to be possible.  But no matter how hard we try, there will always be questions we missed.

At the other extreme, a blank piece of paper gives your testers limitless freedom but no guidance.  The tabula rasa approach to data gathering is more likely to lead to the creation of paper airplanes.

Looney Labs has found an excellent balance. They make sure to ask the critical questions–what did you play?  What did you like best?  Second best?–and left the rest to the tester’s creative mind to offer.

We would all be wise to follow a similar model.