CL Simplex

Board Game Design: Language

Board Game Design: Language

Since I am passionate about board games, I will focus this mini-series on board games specifically! For one, we might eventually release our long term passion project, BeerQuest and this might be a good precursor toward discussing that project. That aside - there are always connections to software. Designing a board game very much feels like building a program for people to use. In retrospect, this might be a very good exercise moving forward! From our perspective in building software as well as playing meaty, involved board games with complex rules, I feel we have some cogent views on board game design.

Flavours of Design

There are common threads to all branches and flavours of design. In reality, this is all connected to...everything. An art director I worked with once said that design is everywhere and is constantly consumed every second of our lives. I tend to believe this perspective, but that is not to say all design is good or helpful. It's also not always done well, which is I suppose why talented designers can make the big dollars.

Board games actually share a lot in common with software projects. Similar to anything one builds, designing a board game and software share similar challenges and processes. First of all, you start with an idea and build from there. At some point you put it in front of a human. They take it and go from there. In the old days of software, you actually bought a physical copy of the product. That shipped AS-IS, without over-the-air updates. Also, once in people's hands - things often always stray from the original plan. Reality becomes how people actually use/enjoy it - not how you wanted them to. To quote a friend, DnD is what happens at the table - it is not the story you want to tell.

Language and User Experience

In order to tell a story, or explain the rules to something - you need language. This is the focus of this blog post. Language is a critical, and seemingly undervalued part of board game design. From the designer's perspective, rule books are almost like legal documents. Legal documents are interpreted, and are filled with implicit intention. Much like good writing, parallelism (one of my favourite design concepts) is crucial for smooth user experience. An important concept is board game rules are Keywords. Keywords and phrases to express certain events should be...consistent right? For example, if you are making a game and you have rules for when your characters are running. Don't mix in words like "sprint", "rush", or "charge" if they don't have any additional meaning! Semantics matter, especially for software developers!

One of the games we enjoy and play is called, "Labyrinth: War on Terror." It's a game made by a company that already has a big, complex game under their belts called, "Twilight Struggle" - which is regarded as one of the best strategic board games ever. Point being, they aren't rookies and they have the budget/resources to get it right.

Looking at these cards (forgiving my photography and even if you don't understand all the context) you can see that there are conditions on these cards that start with "Play if..." Now, notice how despite being phrased in three different ways - these all describe the same thing! Similarity/congruence is a pillar of good user/player experience. Good design demonstrates intention ("these conditions are the same") and poor design betrays the lack of intention ("aren't these conditions the same?") You might not think of it in this way, but the information in the cards are related - despite the relationship being obscured. Even after playing multiple times, we still feel we might be misinterpreting some of the cards in this game. This game suffers from this in a couple places, but my intention is to demonstrate the concept - no rip into Labyrinth (it's a solid game.) Even something as simple as flipping a sentence around increases the cognitive load on your users/players. They are spending less time enjoying your game, and more time potentially confused about your intentions as a game designer!

Yay, as always, #bloggingreturns! Like any game release schedule, our next blog post is "pending." The plan is to talk more about things we enjoy talking about, versus having a huge "Jargon" section. Happy Monday!


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