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Commentary on Games Design

Language (in)dependent games

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“…but if I wanna read, I take a book, not a boardgame”

– Bernd Eisenstein, IronGames

It’s a great quote isn’t it?

Yet when you look at the top-rated BGG games it becomes harder to rationalise. Twilight Struggle; Agricola and Android: Netrunner all have fairly heavy language dependency, whereas PowerGrid; Caylus; Tigris and Euphates on the other hand have components that are free of text. Language independence is quite clearly good for a publisher in that multi-lingual publications benefit from better economies of scale. Does it matter from a designer’s point of view though?

What is a language independent game?

Language independent games can be defined as those where the physical components do not require that the players understand any one language.

From Eisenstein’s perspective it does because he is both publisher and designer. Then again, so is Tony Boydell and I see Snowdonia is doing very well in a variety of languages. A thornier example would be GOSU and GOSU:Tactics which is a re-implementation of the same design only this time without language dependency from a smaller publisher.

As a designer, do you make a language dependent game or not?

You know what this means...

You know what this means…

A lot of this harks back to knowing your audience and the horror of card games, and it certainly helps to know if you are designing for a publisher who is happy to publish the right game in different languages if there is a valid design reason for doing so; or for a small press/self-published release. From a design process point of view I think the decision to go with a language independent design should be made earlier rather than later. Depending on what and how you approach the design of a game, the components may or may not be an early design consideration. The key question in the process is:

How much information do I need to give to the player about how to use this component?

If the information you need to impact is complicated- you are going to need to use a complicated language. If the information is simple enough a design might be able to use a simple and intuitive icon-based language to communicate how a component is used.

The language of components

Language independent boards are reasonably commonplace in that iconography and layout can be explained in the rules with a single diagram. Boards, as components, are large and can use spatial positioning to avoid complicated language. Player tableaus might also achieve this if they are not acting as an aid memoir too, or they risk being bewildering complexity (Bora Bora, I’m looking at you). Cards are smaller still and allow information to be hidden from other players, but that information can still be relatively complicated (Magic: the Gathering, Twilight Struggle). Cards are, then, the most common component in which we see language dependence (Agricola, for example, where the cards are the only dependent component amongst many).

Language dependence influences your design

You can’t just ‘take the language out’ of a game. Simplifying the component instructions might be possible but it doing so, the component interactions are also simplified. And that, from bitter experience, can make a game boring.

If you must include cards in your design (and regular readers by now must be starting to get the impression that I am really starting to hate designing card games- they are absolutely correct in this) for reasons of simplicity for print-and-play or to include hidden information and instruction from other players, try to make that information as simple as possible. You don’t have to actually do this, just mentally consider what is achievable or what could be done if the language usage was reduced to a level where iconography would suffice. Again, this has to happen early in the process or you risk getting sent back to square one.

A case for using both icons and language on cards

A friend of mine describes some games as ‘nits games’. Nits are a colloquial term for head lice (or their eggs) in the UK: an obligate human blood-feeding parasite that spread by head-to-head contact, usually by school children. ‘Nits Games’ are those where the players crowd around the central play space to read cards that have been revealed or dealt that contain words or symbols too small to be read by the players without craning in to see them. ‘Catchy’ isn’t it?

Anything that reduces comprehension time it usually a good thing. If several words may be saved by the use of a symbol- it’s probably worth doing. This is particularly the case when considering demonstrations of your game. If the first things the players have to do in a demonstration is read and understand a lot of card text, the demonstrator is going to lose tempo and excitement will wane until the gameplay proper can begin.

Consider the meaning the component needs to convey and do it quickly.

Cartographers understand

Warning: algae

Warning: algae

Whilst looking for a way to approach some icons I needed for a print-and-play micro-game recently I came across this article that addresses good design in map symbols. A lot of the points made are transferable to game design symbols:

  • Make it easy to recognise Provide a player aid by all means, but referral slows play and it should  be a learning aid more than an essential component.
  • Keep it closed in form Using a closed form helps focus on the symbol. For example, a circle is a closed form that focuses the viewer’s eye on itself. A star is an open form that makes the viewer’s eye want to move out.
  • Keep designs consistent Sets of symbols are easier to mentally group and learn.
  • Make it reducible Detail will be lost at small scales. Don’t agonise over a design that is not fit for purpose at the scale it will be used at. Reduce early in the process.
  • Pander to perception Viewers perceive symbols directed up and right as positive and down and left as negative. Also green symbols are generally positive, whilst red are negative.
  • Use negative space Negative space makes symbols really stand out from a background. Consider plain filled or entirely negative symbols on textured backgrounds.
  • Don’t lose the symbol Consider blocking out sections of board or card art to lead the viewer’s eye.

Ease of recognition is obviously key: recognition aids memory. Triggering memory is good for games design as is keeps the players in ‘flow’- the game isn’t disrupted to consult the rules. This is the criticism leveled at Race for the Galaxy (the poster-child, for some, in over-reliance on symbols) where the symbols taken in isolation are well designed but rather similar when viewed next to each other. I find The Phantom League is guilty of this too.

To Sum

Consider the information that needs to be communicated to the players by the game, between the players and consider it early in the design process. Keep in mind the audience you want for the game and design the components as simply as they can be in order to complete the design you want.

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3 thoughts on “Language (in)dependent games

  1. “Also green symbols are generally positive, whilst red are negative.”

    But on the other hand, green and red are not positive and negative in every culture. And of course, colour blind people are people too!

  2. Pingback: Top Picks July 24, 2013 | Designer Chronicles

  3. Quite a timely post for me to discover.

    Language independent design is something that I have been aware of for some time, yet largely ignored until recently. I had always considered the possibility of cheat sheets or electronic apps as a alternate solution for the language dependence, yet, I will be taking a second look at replacing some text based narratives with some sort of iconography. I’m not certain that replacing the text entirely with iconography is going to work… yet it is something I am reviewing.

    Cheers

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