Interpreting Icons and other nonsense

Race for the Galaxy sample cards
How many points are these worth? what do they do?


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.

Now how about these guys?

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.]

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. I would say that if Icons are more distinguishable like Armyland or something simple then that’s fine. But if it requires several minutes of translation then it would be more of a hindrance than helpful to save space from texts.

  2. I wrote a long post that was deleted, so here are the bullet points of my response
    -Yes, RftG has a steep learning curve.
    -San Juan is easier to understand at first.
    -I think RftG will be easier to understand in the long run, but you have to learn the language first.
    -I disagree about the Small World iconography (though admit this might be because I’ve only played twice, and over lunch).
    -I think Dominion has the clearest text of any game I’ve played.
    -Great job on the Armyland icons.

  3. I personally think that Race for the Galaxy has one the best designs in any game I’ve played. I am a huge fan of how easy it is to interpret what a card does at a glance once you understand the layout and iconography of the cards. This makes identifying a card’s power so much quicker than reading a block of text and is so much easier to see what your opponents have in play. Contrast this with something like Magic the Gathering which makes it very hard to quickly absorb the information on your opponent’s cards.

    I think the thing that makes icons so necessary in Race is the sheer number of unique cards. I don’t mind so much reading and then remembering what 10 unique cards do like in Dominion but once you get into 20+ unique cards it really helps to have icons to speed up the identification process. The text on the more complicated cards is not strictly necessary but is simply an aid for more involved abilities so you don’t have to refer back to the rule book each time you run into a unique power.

    All in all I’m a huge fan of using icons, they may have a steeper learning curve but when implemented well they work so much better than text.

  4. Very interesting thoughts. Honestly, for me, the RftG icons are incredibly intuitive and help me play the game quickly. But, I’ve also played the game dozens of times, and I don’t really remember how hard it was for me to learn. Smallworld, however, I have to look up the powers on almost every time. If you really want a game with ridiculous learning curve based on icons, check out 51st State (the main con when I reviewed it).

    I think that one of the main reasons for icons is that it allows a game to be language neutral, with only the instructions having to be reprinted in each specific language.

    On a brief aside about your Armyland icons, yes, to me, those make sense. Sword should always mean military might. Unfortunately, I’ve played a game (can’t remember which one) where Sword meant politics. Politics! Are you kidding me?

  5. I do think that Race for the Galaxy will be a lot easier and quicker to play after a bit of getting used to the icons… but it does look significantly cluttered and overwhelming when you’re learning.

    I think what bothers me most about the RftG card design, now that I think about it, is the inclusion of markers for every single phase on each card, even when the card doesn’t do anything with that phase. But then, maybe I was just overwhelmed at first playthrough. We’ll have to see what happens in the future. I reserve final judgement.

  6. I like the inclusion of the markers for each phase. I think it helps to organize your tableau. You can see at a glance which cards help you in the phase you’re currently doing. Granted, it feels like a lot is being thrown at you early on, but I really think it will be easier the next time we play. (There will be a next time, right? RIGHT?!)

  7. I think that having every phase on every card helps with consistency. The role cards themselves have the phases on them to further enforce this. It helps speed things up a lot when you can scan the same place on all your cards when looking for the bonuses to apply to a given phase. This becomes even more evident with the expansions and their additions to the game.

    It may seem overbearing at first but you’re usually too busy trying to figure things out to notice how smoothly the interface is working.

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