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!