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.



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!



10 thoughts on “Icons vs Text, Part 2

  1. sirvalence says:

    I’m a big fan of iconography, but I do tend to like complex games.

    Here’s a website where some folks are designing icons for their games and sharing them with the world, which may be of use to other designers. http://game-icons.net/

    Another tactic, between icons and full text, is the use of keywords. For example, in Magic: The Gathering, the use of the keyword “Flying” takes up much less space on a card than “This creature can only be blocked by other creatures having this ability.” It’s still somewhat language-dependent, but less abstract than an icon. Just another tool for conveying a lot of information on a small piece of cardboard.

  2. Make them large – make them high-contrast – keep them distinguishable at arm’s length. Icons are an excellent choice when they are well-designed and implemented, but can be a constant hassle when not. Our game group recently did a first play of a game with colors that are not easy to distinguish in dim light, icons that are too “busy” (too artsy?), and these busy icons blend into the background art (which is very good, but also fairly busy). A little bit of simplification and shift in the color pallet would have made the game MUCH more enjoyable.
    In other cases, we encounter cultural icons and abstract symbology that’s only relevant to the game itself. It requires learning the iconic language, which is more of an investment than some players want to make. This makes some great games less accessible, and a couple of keywords might be more effective for more casual players. Use icons if it’s the BEST solution, not just because icons are cool (which they can be).

  3. I always lean toward more icons for speediness & ease of translation.
    There are still some things that need to be written down. Fortunately card art helps with memorization in that department.

    Card art is almost like it’s own form of Icon. That’s why it’s important that card art is clear and adds to the card. If art is too similar to other cards or makes the text confusing then it is no longer doing it’s job.

  4. As a player and a designer I am a fan of icons as often as they can be used. I agree they need to be easily readable, and not too complex. Sometimes a keyword is more effective. In both cases however, they need to represent something that is easy to remember after using it a few times. If the icon or the keyword requires a lengthy explanation, it definitely detracts from the game. What bugs me most however, is when the icon and the text appear in game elements. As a player, I appreciate the expediency of an effective icon, or a solid text explanation of the mechanic, i don’t need both in the same place.

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