User-Friendly Games, Part 2

The Story So Far…

Deep games are cool.  Complex games can be awesome.  Many excellent games are excellent because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.

This post takes a look at complexity.  How each it be managed to engage our players and keep them engaged.  How can complexity be user-friendly?


User-Friendly Utilities

webopedia mentions Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), online help systems, and menu-driven programs as examples of ways to achieve user-friendliness.  What do these look like in a tabletop game?


Graphical User Interfaces allows computer users to interact with devices through icons instead of text.  With the spread of the eurogame revolution and its emphasis on language-interdependence, board game companies have excelled at GUI implementation.

So long as the icon is an intuitive match for the game action it represents, your GUI will be smooth and your players will thank you for it.

NavegadorEuro games are filled with excellent examples
of GUI icons.  Shown to the right is the player mat from Navegador.  It’s easy to see each icon explain its function.

Even text-heavy American style games benefit from well-planned GUIs and recent editions of Magic: the Gathering are an excellent example.  Not only is a picture is uniquely associated with each card, Wizards of the Coast has gone one step further by ensuring that the images be closely linked to the actions or creatures they describe.  For example, wings are only depicted on creatures that can fly.

Menu-Driven Programs

Our first instinct might be to think tabletop games cannot be menu-driven.  It’s not as if we can choose our play by tapping on the top ribbon of the game board and selecting from the pulldown, is it?  But some games do have fixed sequential turns and many of them do use menu-driven systems.

Mexica CardPlayers in Mexica spend action points each turn to carry out actions.  Each player gets a reference card and this card works exactly like a menu.  The indicator in the upper left corner reminds us to take 6 action points at the beginning of our turn.  Each row on the right shows icons for the actions and their corresponding action point cost.  Reference cards like this empower our players without sacrificing complexity from the design.

We similarly chose to guide players through their turns in Dragon Tides by printing the turn sequence on each player mat.  From top to bottom, each player carries out Lights → Camera → Action, selecting from the menu of options at each step.

Online Help Systems

There is always a chance of misinterpretation no matter how diligently you test, retest, blind test and blind retest your game.  Online support keeps you in touch with your player base and allows you to answer each question publicly as it arises.


Every game published in the twenty-first century should have this kind of online support.  Even designers who self-publish on a minimal budget have access to bandwidth at fan sites like the Geek.

Put a pdf of your rulebook online and update it as needed.  Keep an additional FAQ at the same location and update it even more regularly. Put these documents on the publisher’s website and link to them on fan sites.

If you have the resources, make instructional videos that cover setup and show sample turns.  I recommend making several small videos that highlight key elements rather than a single long video.  They are for your players to access and download when away WiFi isn’t accessible.  They are also more likely to answer each player’s specific question quickly and get him or her back into the game.

Introductory Scenarios

Play almost any new game on a smart device and you’ll first be led through sequence of introductory scenarios.  Why are those there?  You already know why.  Carefully sequencing the first scenarios in a game ensures each player gets a complete introduction to the game while simultaneously getting him or her into the play as quickly as possible.

  • A sequence of introductory scenarios gives players an opportunity to settle into the setting of your game.
  • When your rules harmonize with your setting, introductory scenarios gives players an opportunity to feel like active parts of your game’s setting.
  • Well-sequenced introductory scenarios limit the number of rules the player needs to take in at a time.  This in turn temporarily reduces the complexity of the game.
  • Well-sequenced introductory scenarios embed tutorials. Highlight critical elements of play by making victory in the scenario depend on mastering those elements.

Tune in Next Time

Our next post in this series will focus on conveying game depth.  In it we’ll discuss designer-in-a-box syndrome and continue asking how user-friendliness manages players experience and keeps our players engaged.

What do you think of the complexity and its impact on user-friendliness?  How do you convey complexity in your designs?  what have you learned from the experience? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


4 thoughts on “User-Friendly Games, Part 2

  1. I love this topic. Conveying complex information simply is something I ever strive for.

    I know we’ve already talked about keywords, but they are another effective technique for conveying complex information simply, in a single word.

    In the software world, usability testing is an all-too-often-overlooked discipline that strives to ensure that the software not only meets its stated requirements, it meets them in a way that users can understand. In game design we call this technique playtesting, and it’s one of the most vital steps in the process.

  2. Dean Ray Johnson says:

    I’ve been thinking about this stuff a bit, especially about how to use GUI elements to speed up gameplay. In general, a lot of user-unfriendliness is driven by perceived complexity. When you show someone a 20-page game manual, or cards with 18 different icons for various statistics, or a game board with 60 different worker placement spots, that game is going to FEEL uninviting for newcomers, even if the game makes sense once you get going.

    For example, playing Sentinels of the Multiverse, how much time is spent during each villain turn just reading the villain cards over and over, reminding yourself which cards act at the beginning and end of the turn? Sentinels’ basic mechanics aren’t that crazy, but inexperienced players will get bogged down reading that text over and over. Compare that to something like Hearthstone or Magic, where cards will say “Charge” or “Haste” instead of saying “This card can attack on the turn it comes into play” over and over.

    On the other hand, if everything is icons, then you constantly go back into the manual to decipher them. Race to the Galaxy is notoriously confusing for the small variations of different icons and phases. Roll for the Galaxy changed that by not just reducing the number of icons, but also by explaining each icon right on the tile in plain text. You can draw a new tile from the bag and just read its text to know that it gives you two dice into your citizenry, but the icons are clear enough for other players to look across the table and see what you’ve been building.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s