When Game Terminology Is Terminal


I’ve been working on a game design lately, and when I do that I tend to think about game-design-related things.  Hence this post.

Board games, like any hobby, are flush with their own set of words and terminology that can be very intimidating to the outsider.  Perhaps this is even more true of our beloved hobby than others, since we not only have the general boardgaming terms like “deckbuilding,” “eurogame,” and “press-your-luck” but each game has it’s own specific set of terms.

The reason for this is almost a paradox – we have these confusing, game specific terms to help create clarity, consistency, and remove confusion.  That is, instead of fully explaining out a function or mechanism each time it is referenced, assigning a term to that mechanism makes it easier to reference.  If the terms are clearly defined and used consistently throughout the game, it can certainly eliminate rules questions and reduce the amount of text needed on cards and in the rulebook.  Designers should strive to use a clear, consistent terminology without overlapping terms or having multiple terms for the same function.

But is it possible to have too many terms?

Every term you create is a term that has to be learned, which increases the amount of effort needed to learn a game. If you call a pile of tokens the “resource supply” or the “shipyard” or the “miners guild,” depending on the theme or purpose of your game, in the middle of the game someone’s going to get a card or something referencing the “shipyard” and the player is going to have to go, “wait, what’s the Shipyard again?”  Hopefully after a few turns or a fully playthrough it will be memorized, but the point is it has to be memorized.

Obviously this is needed to some degree.  You just can’t get away with it.  But if every single thing happening in your game has a special term, you start to lose all reference to reality.  It becomes harder and harder to remember every term, since EVERY term is something to remember.

So, while having a strong theme (or at least a recognizable theme) can help give context, it may also be important to sacrifice a little on the theme end, as far as rules go, and use terms that actually resemble real, everyday words.

At some point you have to assume that your players understand the english language (or whatever language you are writing your rules in), because you can’t explain every single word.  In writing this post I’m assuming you can read english and can piece together the meaning of my sentences.  Board game rules have less of a threshhold for interpretation, so you have to be careful, but still.   If I find myself writing an entirely new language to explain the rules of the game, I might be going too far.

What do you think? Is it possible to over-do it with new terminology in board game rules?

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.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. I think the answer is, “Sort of.” For me, the quintessential example is Belfort. When I read the rules, I recognized a lot of mechanisms I’d seen in other Euro games – indeed, part of its appeal is its clever blend of some of those mechanics. Everything had a new name, but the functions were recognizable and the concepts transferable.

    In my house, it is my customary role to read the rules and then explain the game to my wife, Kathy (who as often as not beats me in the first session or two). I specifically remember explaining the “Recruiter’s Desk” in Belfort by simply saying, “It’s like ‘Family Growth’ in Agricola.” Right away she knew what I meant. I just needed to add that the “Recruiter’s Desk” costs two gold to use, unlike “Family Growth,” which is free.

    I genuinely believe that designers are afraid that if they borrow a mechanism and call it the same thing as a term that is used in another game, it will give the impression that the game is simply copied, or a variation on a theme, and not a whole new game. My current work-in-progress is “East India Company,” which includes a strong pickup-and-deliver process. If I used all the same terminology as Merchants of Venus, then “EIC” might give the impression of just being a knock-off. Moreover, players might ignore the key elements of “EIC” that do make it unique.

    I’m reminded of a recent controversy regarding the game You are the Maniac, which by many accounts is a thinly-veiled copy of Guillotine, right down to the text on many of the cards. There’s a difference between game design being inspired by other games, and a game being what amounts to a re-implementation of another game.

    But I think this quest for originality and legitimacy may be at the heart of why you see different names for the same concept in different games.

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: