Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Last week I asked about different ways that I could lay out the tiles for Wizard Academy and Mike tried to persuade me that I should move away from rules text to icons. Ultimately I was unconvinced of this point, for various reasons that were specific to the game, but some of the ideas batted around were thought provoking more generally. Icons are widely used, in some cases you may have stopped seeing them as symbols at all and automatically accept their meaning.

Icons offer two main advantages over text. The first is brevity, it's much easier to fit a one character icon onto a card that means "You may pay this cost using a mana of this colour or two life" than it is to place that entire line of text on the card. The downside to this is that nobody knows what your symbols mean and can't play your game until you teach them. One solution to this is to put the full text indicated by the icon immediately following it:

The only real problem with this solution is that it is entirely self defeating. Adding the full text means that the icon is no longer serving brevity and may as well have been omitted entirely. Magic gets away with it, as the full text description is only placed on the first set that introduces a new mechanic and the icon can serve this purpose in subsequent releases (which can enable more complex cards once the players are used to the change).

Most games don't have the luxry of being guaranteed several sets; board games are expected stand alone creations. Iconography still serves brevity, but the cost is that the rulebook must contain the descriptions of what these icons mean. This makes the initial games harder, as information that would be readily available to all players whenever it was relevant is instead buried somewhere in a rulebook that only one individual can consult at a time. On the other hand once the group is experienced with the game it can speed up play. It means that there is more space available for other uses, ranging from game effects to artistic expression. Ultimately their value comes down to how many icons a player needs to learn, how easily they can be expressed and how intuitively a player can link the rules text to the selected icon.

The second benefit is that icons are independent of language. The word 'fire' only means fire to English speaking people, but an appropriate icon means fire to everyone.

This means that putting out a translated edition of the game simply requires a new rulebook rather than the translation of every single component. It also means that someone can pick up a copy of your game before you're done translating, if they don't mind playing from a pdf or if one person in the gaming group is multilingual. These are all pretty cool things to happen, so it's good to aim for.

The main obstacle to this is that the approach needs to be universally used throughout the game. A game can't achieve language independence through having icons on all of its tokens, if the cards are still full of text. The drawbacks of icons become more significant the more you use. A small number of icons doesn't add too much to the learning curve and it'll be easy to find intuitive images. A larger number makes learning the game harder and makes it incrementally harder to find more images that fit the concepts exactly while being sufficiently dissimilar from the other icons the game uses.

It comes down to selecting the right approach for the right game. I can't think of any 4X strategy game that manages language independence through iconography, but I could name a dozen quick card games that do. Since I've moved over to working on a smaller game with a shorter play time now seems like a good time to try my hand at developing games in a language independent way. I'll let you know how I get on.

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