I played “Race for the Galaxy” for the first time today over lunch. I haven’t played enough for a fair analysis, so this is not a review – but I did encounter something during the game that got me a-thinkin’ about board games, design, playability, etc. etc. so forth and so on.
I’m not even going to go into detail about how the game is played, except for this: in the game, there are cards that when played, provide some ability or bonus.
The thing that caught my attention, though, was not the function of the cards – but the design. Not that it was bad design. Just very icon-heavy. Very icon heavy. Look at the picture. See all the icons?
Now, here’s something interesting. There’s another game, recently played, called San Juan. These two games, San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, are played essentially the same way. San Juan is puerto-rico themed and Race for the Galaxy is space themed, but aside from that, the specific cards included, and some added complexity in RftG, these games are essentially the same. Now look at the other picture, for San Juan. Notice the non-reliance on icons. Notice, in fact, the distinct and complete lack of icons.
The whole Icons vs. text description is something that I’ve been sort of… studying, you could say… in the process of creating Armyland. See, icons are great when you have a consistent power, attribute, or item – it’s a pretty, space-saving way to represent common knowledge. However, that means you have to remember what the icons mean. you have to interpret the icon every time you look at it. With text, you just read the description and do what it says – the knowledge needed is contained on the card, instead of in your head (or buried in the rulebook.)
Race for the Galaxy had a much steeper learning curve than San Juan. In San Juan, I had to adjust to the style of gameplay, I had to figure out which cards were useful and which could be spent, and I had to build a strategy around that. In Race for the Galaxy, I had already learned the gameplay style from San Juan, but I struggled to formulate a strategy, as each new card I pulled I had to study the icons for a few seconds to interpret what that card even did for me. Then I had to compare it against my other cards, which I also had to study, and I simply surrendered to doing whatever I could figure out could be done, rather than building a strategy and waiting patiently. With San Juan, I feel like I could jump back in to the next game and formulate a decent strategy, but I think I’ll need a few more playthroughs of RftG before being comfortable with which cards are available and what function they perform. There’s so much to recall regarding the Icons on the card that it’s hard to remember what cards there are, at least right away.
A strange thing about Race for the Galaxy is the inclusion of descriptor text in addition to the icon. In the cases that this occurs, the description is absolutely necessary – there’s just no way to convey the purpose of the card clearly with icons. But this makes me wonder, if it would have been better suited to just have descriptions on all the cards. Sure, it takes space away from the nifty sci-fi art, but I think it would make the game a whole lot more playable.
In Armyland, I’m using several icons, but my goal is to make these icons detailed and unique, and to imply the ability that it represents. For example, “Attack” is represented by a sword, “Protection” by a shield. Fire has a flame icon, Ranged attacks have a bow icon. These icons don’t have all the information inherent in them like a descriptor – but it frees up a lot of space for other description as well as art. Given that these things – attack, protection, fire – are common, and consistent abilities, I think it works. In addition, these icons are detailed, colored, and shaded. Hopefully, in the end, once the rules of a particular element are learned, the icon will be enough to remember it.
Another problem with the Race for the Galaxy iconology, as I’ll call it, is that a signifcant number of icons are just shapes. When you have a diamond, a circle, a pentagon, and a rectangle all in play, it takes a moment to stop and differentiate each shape, and then interpret what it means.
A game that gets its iconology down really well is Smallworld. There are a lot of race abilities and powers, but the graphics on each race and special ability token are surprisingly descriptive – with minimal text, if any. Once I read through the meaning of each power, I saw how the graphic displayed the use of the power. I don’t have ever power on the list memorized, but I can figure out what each power is just by looking at the icon.
Dominion, on the other hand, does extremely well with descriptive text. Sure, there are a few icons, but this is a game that clearly knows its place. Almost as challenging as creating a unique and descriptive icon is summarizing a card function in as few words as possible and having it still make sense. Dominion sets itself up with solid and consistent terminology, and then lists easy to remember terms that can easily be connected to their use in-game, instead of trying to get all fancy with icons.
In conclusion… I think using Icons can work. I think using descriptor text works. I just think you have to recognize within the game you are designing which to use and when to use it.
What about you guys? Do you prefer icons, or descriptor text? Is there a game you think does a good job of using either? How about a good example of really poor implementation?
[disclaimer: I really enjoyed Race for the Galaxy. I think it’s a fun game. I recommend it. It just has a steeper learning curve than other games on its level. And thats okay.]