Me Design Board Game, Use Words Good

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.

Be Interesting

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.

The Phantom Knight Games Manifesto

I first started designing board games in late 2014 after graduating from college that summer. I was already pretty hardcore about tabletop games, especially RPGs, but the thought that I could design one wasn’t in my head. After discovering print-on-demand sites and realizing that I probably wasn’t going to get anywhere as a playwright, I started Phantom Knight Games in March 2015 and begun kicking things into gear.

Most of 2015 was me launching myself into the deep end and attempting to learn how to swim. As a result, I would come up with an idea for a game, announce it on my Web site, and then immediately find out through playtesting that it had major issues. I will never regret this time, as it resulted in two pretty decent games, but it didn’t leave a lot of room for me to figure out what kind of games I truly wanted to be making.

In December, I printed a bunch of games and brought them to GaymerX. There were a lot more video game developers that year than I expected, and I was one of two or three people there with tabletop games to sell. Despite this (or maybe because of it), I managed to sell a good amount of stock and meet a ton of people.

This convention, combined with a reflection on my past and the games that truly meant a lot to me, made me come to a realization about the kind of games I want to make.


Psychological Games

 Game design is a mixture between math and psychology. Every good game has a mixture of both, but the ratio can be incredibly different.

I have a reasonable understanding of probability and arithmetic, but I’m not a mathematician or a programmer. Constructing complex, beautiful systems is something  I could only do at a decent level, at best. I want the games I make to be ones that I can make truly great, and that means games where the other players are more important than the twelve mechanics running simultaneously on the board.

This doesn’t mean every game has to be social deduction, but I want to be primarily focused on psychology. Bluffing, mind games, communication, and occasionally just laughter or wild screaming.


Strange Games

Any artist’s output is going to suffer if they only draw inspiration from their own medium. It results in movies about movies, plays about plays, and games that are invented after a game designer plays games with other game designers.

I want to make strange games. Games that employ mechanics nobody’s seen before, or one that combines mechanics that were previously thought unmixable (not just “deckbuilding meets drafting”). Themes that cause people to turn their heads. Inspiration drawn from everything that could possibly be fit onto some cards and a board.

Someday, God willing, I will design a good game. And until then, I will probably design bad games. But if I’m going to make a bad game, I want it to be a really weird bad game.

Also, given that my next game is a superhero-themed party game, it’s going to take some time for me to live up to this expectation, but one day I hope to be there.

(A lot of this sentiment was created after reading Richard Garfield’s essay in The Kobold Guide to Game Design, which I highly recommend.)


Games That Make People’s Day

This is a hard category to define. Let me try.

There are a lot of games out there, even extremely good ones, which I can get up from and forget that I played. Typically, these are more cerebral with less player interactivity, but it applies to plenty of non-mathy games as well. They don’t really affect me one way or the other, they’re just a fun way to pass the time.

Then there are the games that make my day.

Co-op winning in Cosmic Encounter by the narrowest margin. Revealing six brutes in Libertalia. Saying “Goku 3” in Codenames and having the field agents guess all three words* correctly. When I play one of these games, I get up from the table, smiling, with a story to tell the next day. I really want people to know about what an awesome time I had.

I still have yet to truly define what really categorizes these games. They’re typically interactive, funny, and have room for lateral thinking, but beyond that there’s a pretty significant variety. But I know that this is the kind of game I want to design.

*”Orange”, “Monkey”, “Time”. Also it was my friend who did this, not me, but I couldn’t resist adding my favorite Codenames anecdote into this post.



I’m writing this as someone still very new to both designing games and interacting with the larger community. It’s more likely than not that I’ll look back on this in five years and scoff at what an idiot I was. But having a philosophy like this feels like having a torch thrust into my hand after stumbling around in the dark. I have some guidance, at least for now, and hope that it brings me to something triumphant.