Icons vs Text, Part 3

This series of articles is all about our icons and text in game components.  Our design group has had extensive conversations on the topic and I’m sharing our conclusions with you.  Last time, we looked at the merits and limitations of icons. Today looks at some alternate approaches to icons.  What can we convey without using a conventional icon?


Component Color

Many games use color to indicate association.  Cards may have different color borders, figurines may have different color schemes.  This is an asset to the game so long as color is an indicator but not the only indicator.  Relying on color solely can be a tragic oversight–one bad decision leading to the game’s downfall.  My goal as a designer is to put joy on tables.  Closing off a portion of my potential audience by relying on color defeats that purpose.

My group encountered this situation only a few weeks ago.  I purchased a game on its excellent buzz.  We unpacked the components and John meekly declared the red and green tiles completely indistinguishable.  We packed the game back up and I haven’t reached for it since.

A similar issue arises if component color and player color overlap.  It becomes easy to mistake a community component for one belonging to a specific player.  This happened to me at a recent playtest.  I was playing green (as I often do) and one of the game regions was green.  The designer would ask from time to time, “how many green cubes do you have?” and I mistakenly answered with the number I had remaining in my supply when he actually meant “how many cubes do you have in the green region?” Oh the laughs we had over that one…


Component Art

In many cases, component art is sufficient for a player to know what the component represents.  Much as with color, this approach works fine so long as all components with the same art have the same attributes.  This works particularly well in miniatures games, where a squad of identical units can be represented with several identical minis.

Foreign CardCollectible card games like Magic: the Gathering are particularly good at this. When I was playing regularly in the late 1990s, it was vogue to fill your deck with foreign-language cards, if only to demonstrate your memorization prowess. Returning to the card I’ve been using regularly for examples in this series, several readers told me at a glance that this card is Necromancy and that it brings creatures from graveyards into play.



Some games games use keywords to represent blocks of text.  Keywords do not in and of themselves constitute component text.  They must be interpreted. They are not self-contained in the way that full text is.  Keywords are a useful design element but always remember that they have more in common with icons than with component text.

My frequent design partner Luther Bell Hendricks V is a particular fan of using keywords alongside reminder text.  In this way, the keyword is sufficient for any player who has memorized its meaning but the reminder text remains for players who haven’t.  At his suggestion, we have been exploring this as a way of handling recurring character abilities like flight in Sentinel Tactics (kickstarter campaign running now!)


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 look at several more published games to see how effectively each one used icons and/or text.  I will then offer my own advice on each.  Have a great week and I’ll see you Friday!



2 thoughts on “Icons vs Text, Part 3

  1. 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?

    I appreciate it when components are clearly marked if they’re used in “sets” for each player – either by color (red/yellow/green/blue) or by icon, shape, or symbol (like in Game of Thrones 2nd Edition).

    I really appreciate it when components that have different uses have different shapes – I think “Compounded” could have done a better job with its discs/stickers in this regard, though I appreciate that there were at least stickers to designate what the different discs do, and they were clearly explained in the rules.

    On cards I LOVE iconography in general, because I’m a Magic: The Gathering player and I’m “used” to keywords, which as you noted are similar to icons. When iconography is done well (7 Wonders or really anything by Bauza) it’s possible to take a complex thought and represent it with a picture – even if you don’t know ahead of time what the icon means. I love seeing a new icon and guessing what it does, then being correct – that’s good design,and a good relationship between a player, the game’s graphic design, and the game’s rules.

    Small World is another example of iconography at work, though not done quite as well as in 7 Wonders, it’s still very useful, and once described it’s easy to remember what icons mean on the Race and Special Power placards.

  2. sirvalence says:

    The component + player color overlap is one I forget to watch for, but I’ve seen a few published games with that problem. Good reminder.

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