Anyone who’s played a good Eurogame with a badly translated manual knows that solid writing is a small but crucial part of a tabletop game. Most discussion on the topic is about clear and concise rules explanations; this is fair enough, as communication of complex game topics is difficult and very important. But I wanted to delve a little more into language as a thematic and illustrative tool. Using interesting and descriptive vocabulary in your game is a great way to make it more memorable, and even a way to help your players understand how your game operates.
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is an interesting game with a gorgeous graphic design aesthetic. However, it also has incredibly vague language. You summon “Units” with “Battle Advantage” and place “Status Tokens” and “Exhaustion Tokens” on them: Not words that should really refer to the clash of sinister wizard Highlanders. It also uses “Discard” to refer both to cards being sent from your hand to the discard pile and to your units being ripped to bloody ribbons, which is sort of suboptimal if you’re trying to build impact. In all, it could really use a vocabulary touch-up.
Being colorful with your game’s vocabulary accomplishes several things at the same time: It makes your game stand out from a field of competitors, helps illustrate your theme, and can indicate how a particular component is supposed to work. As an example, let’s go over some of the ways people have described “turning a card sideways to show you’ve used it for the turn”, and how it supports that particular game:
- “Tap”: This term is associated with Magic: The Gathering primarily because of A) Magic’s dominance of the cultural headspace and B) copyright. It’s not incredibly descriptive, but I do like that it lends a vague feeling of high fantasy to the game: You’re drawing power from something, whether it’s a land, creature, or artifact.
- “Exhaust”: The World of Warcraft TCG uses this, among others. As prevalent as the term is, it’s not particularly descriptive and acts as the game design equivalent of bunting. WoW could have benefitted from changing the term to something from the game it’s based on, though I never played WoW so I don’t have suggestions. “Put On Cooldown”, perhaps?
- “Kneel”: My gold standard for game vocabulary comes from Fantasy Flight’s Game of Thrones LCG. You can easily remember what it means after hearing it once and it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the series. The characters you control aren’t mindless beings you summon to work for you, they’re grudging subjects showing obeisance to your iron fist. It lends the game a lot of flavor and makes you feel like a badass for rotating a bunch of cardboard rectangles 90 degrees.
- “Boot”: Doomtown Reloaded makes you “boot” your assorted cowpokes in order to do things. I have mixed feelings about this one: It’s creative and thematic, but “boot” as a verb doesn’t immediately make me think of using a resource like the previous three. That said, anyone who’s invested enough into your ghost cowboy card game to buy a copy is going to quickly get used to it.
You can also use weird terms to make a particular resource or component stand out to your players. If you sat down to Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar for the first time and I told you that the resources to collect in the game included wood, stone, gold, and CRYSTAL SKULLS, you’d immediately know which is the most valuable.
I’ve also used vocabulary just to add a touch of flavor to my games. In Happy Daggers, my Shakespearean swordfighting game, you select from a number of sword moves to use for each turn, like “Thrust”, “Dodge”, and “Parry”. One of the cards was originally called “Taunt”, but in the interest of theme, I changed it to “Bite Thumb” near the end of development. It made the flavor of the card a little more obscure, but all the players who understood the reference smiled.
But Not Too Interesting
Obviously, you can overdo things and flood your players with strange terms that are hard for them to remember. This can cause a great deal of confusion and slow down games.
My go-to example here is Elysium, an otherwise excellent game about drafting and assembling sets of cards of like color or value. However, in an attempt to inject flavor into an otherwise dry Euro, the designers inserted a huge number of Greek mythological terms in place of common mechanics. A set is a “legend”, and you don’t create one, you “write” one. You have a “Domain” and an “Elysium” zone (which, to be fair, is the title of the game) and there are special cards that belong to the cult of the Eleusis.
When playing Elysium, I found that all the players, myself included, would ignore the majority of these terms and just use whatever sprang to mind naturally (“Snake” for “Eleusis”, for instance). Where it became a problem is when it would use the official names of things on the cards themselves and I would find myself re-explaining concepts during the middle of gameplay. It didn’t completely ruin the gameplay, but it did feel a little unfair when someone didn’t understand an effect.
Players ignoring your fancy terms and using whatever they’re used to is an indicator that you need to change them. On the bright side, it’s a very obvious indicator that change is needed, which makes the problem a lot easier to solve. Another good way to tell that your vocabulary might not work is if you yourself keep forgetting all your terms. As much as it can pain you to change “Cyber-Neon Factory Manager” back to “meeple”, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
Even though it may not seem like it in a field filled with gussied-up mathematical systems, good, memorable writing absolutely has its place in board games. By paying attention as carefully to the way you write your games as you do to what you write about, you can create a more wonderful experience.
Before I finish this column, by the way, I wanted to address something tangentially related: 90% of board game Kickstarters referring to their game as “fast-paced” and/or “frantic”. If your game is in real-time and leads to players accidentally punching each other, go ahead and use those terms! Otherwise, they’re verbal static occupying a screen desperate for space and they need to be replaced with something more descriptive. If you’ve gotten this far, don’t let bland language stop you from going all the way.