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.

 

Keywords

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!

 

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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!