Sunday, November 27, 2011

Communication Design in Boardgames

I had a great time at BGG.con this year and got to play a number of new games. None of the new stuff really jumped out at me. Probably the most enjoyable was Kingdom Builder, and Power Grid: The First Sparks might have potential, but there was nothing I played that had me running over to the vendor area to snag a copy.

Instead, I found myself struck by something else: wow, the physical and communication design on many boardgames is appallingly bad.

Let me pick on one thing in particular – perhaps inspired by realizing that Steve Jobs was obsessed by fonts – that I think will be completely uncontroversial and yet remains the source of the most common, irritating, and inexcusably bad design decisions: font sizes. If you want to play along here, you'll need a decent metric ruler (I use metric because that system actually makes sense). The size I'm measuring here is the x-height, the height of the lowercase letters which are the bulk of the text.

Break out your copy of the base set of Dominion, and look at the Chapel. This has a text box roughly 3.5cm by 4.5cm. It's got a single line of text. That line of text is 1 (one) millimeter high. 1mm! For me, it's only clearly readable at half an arm's length even in the bright light of day. What nut job thought using text so small in a sea of empty space was a good idea? By far the most frustrating thing about Dominion's thoroughly terrible graphic design is that through 5 expansions and explosive popularity, they've refused to revisit a single thing about its physical design despite its clear unusability.

Compare this to a more sane game like Glory to Rome, where the font size is 2-3 times as large (text is 2mm high, keywords 3mm and usually highlighted). I can generally read Glory to Rome cards across the table, and can certainly see the important keywords. To heap insult upon injury, not only does Glory to Rome have far more legible text than Dominion it also has larger art. San Juan also thankfully starts at 2mm, although it could still easily be larger with no loss of aesthetics.

Deck building games are of course serial offenders here. Because it uses a slightly bolder font with more heft, Ascension's text is crisper and more readable and looks larger (I can comfortably read it at arm's length), but it sticks to the same paltry and unnecessarily small 1mm font size. Nightfall – I think we're seeing the pattern emerge here – 1mm. Nightfall uses small caps for everything, so it's a bit more legible, but still not readable at arm's length. At least they're using a larger percentage of the text box. On the plus side, Thunderstone seems to have grasped the apparently difficult concept that if you have more space to say something, you can use a larger font to say it more clearly. Unfortunately, they also start with the base borderline-readability of 1mm and work their way up to maybe 1.5mm which, while an improvement, is still no great shakes and still leaves many cards with the confusing combination of small text with lots of dead space.

Compare this to the font size in the book I'm reading (Jasper Fforde's One of Our Thursdays is Missing, if you're curious): about 1.5mm. Can you read your average book from across a card table? I hope so, because gaming font sizes are reliably considerably smaller than that.
The problem of ludicrously small font sizes is disturbingly widespread. Just to pick a few additional random games of various genres that are serious offenders: War of the Ring, Eminent Domain, the reference cards for Undermining and Pret a Porter, Kingdom Builder (given these cards must be viewed across the table), Castle Ravenloft, and Maria. I was surprised to find that a personal favorite of mine, Rivals of Catan, uses tiny 1mm fonts – and thin ones! – for the card text; I expected better from Teuber, Kosmos, and Mayfair. This inspired me to check Mayfair's 4th Edition of Settlers of Catan, and the fonts on the Discovery cards are horrible – tiny and low-contrast, white on green (fortunately Trails to Rails is much improved). Agricola also is a slave to consistency, using the same (you guessed it) 1mm font on all its cards, so the couple that run long will fit while the 95% that have only a line or two of text maximize their unreadability.

Now, take a look at Quarriors. By the (admittedly sub-basement) standards of these games, it's not so bad: the font size is over 1mm (just; about 1.2mm), and the font is strong, making it somewhat more readable than Dominion but not as good as Ascension, although the total choice is still obviously bad given the amount of wasted space. But, it's worse than that. Unlike Ascension, Quarrriors cards must be read across the table, not just in your hand. At those distances, more than say 50cm, the text is simply not readable. You have to go over everything at the beginning and then remember what the dice do, or lean over and peer every time you need a refresher. You can argue persuasively that in order to be able to enjoy Quarriors, you need to remember what the dice do, so if you can't remember, you're not going to enjoy the game anyway. OK, but this still misses the fact that there is no reason for the cards to be as unreadable as they are. There is plenty of space on most of the cards. And many powers could have been clearly explained with large friendly icons, although as Pret a Porter and 51st State demonstrate, incomprehensible and/or misleading icons may be worse than borderline-readable text.

All these games have made inexcusably poor and indefensible choices about their fonts. But I reserve my especial contempt for Star Trek: Expeditions, the rather fun and thematic Knizia cooperative game made borderline unplayable by miserable choices in graphic design. For an example of possibly the most poorly designed card in all of gamedom, check out the Captain's Log card The President's Wife. Can you read the Politics penalty for leaving the location without resolving the challenge? I can't. I'm guessing, because my eyes hurt just trying to make it out, but I think it's about 1.2 mm high, same as the other text in the box (which, by the way, is gargantuan - 3.5cm by a whopping 7 cm). Putting one line of text in a 3.5x7cm text box and sizing it at 1.2mm is bad enough. But then making part of it dark purple on black is the height of insanity. The Rebels track (yellow) is OK. Green (Environment or Energy, depending on who you believe) is borderline acceptable. But the purple is not good.
Now, in fairness, The President's Wife is substantially the worst card of a bad bunch – that dark purple on black doesn't happen to come up anywhere else. Still, if you want to play Star Trek: Expeditions, I recommend you do so during the day, when bright natural light seems to make most things in the game readable – by comparing the look of this game in the daytime vs. at night you can see how much brighter daylight is than the artificial light I typically game under. The raw font sizes, at about 2mm, aren't terrible if they're nearby, and the key information (type of challenge, skills required) does jump out at you.

The crippling problem with Start Trek: Expeditions is one of how the components are used. These are not cards sitting in your hand, where they would be acceptable. These are cards that have to lie on the board and be read by everyone at a distance of 60+ cm. And at that range, the small font sizes and low contrast with their black background is hugely problematic. It's like flying in the dark. You can see the challenge, you just can't read the consequences or benefits. While it's true that there isn't a ton of wasted space on the cards, nonetheless the choices here make the game much too hard play, solely because the presentation is bad.

This is not rocket science. People get it right, and oddly some small publishers seem to do better than larger ones. CGE's Space Alert uses a good card design with strong 3mm high-contrast text which is readable across the table. The aforementioned Glory to Rome from Cambridge Games Factory uses a very sensible card layout.

Perhaps I'm getting older, but I still win the "youngest player" starting condition in some of the groups I play with. My corrected eyesight is still good and I don't need near-vision correction yet. But I will at some point, probably soon – and don't kid yourself, once you get into your 40s you will most likely either need them or be happy to live in denial. Whichever way you go, many games being published these days will become problematic. Here's hoping that game publishers can figure this out and fix it before it's too late for us.


  1. Designers and publishers, while generally not graphic designers themselves, are also quite unwilling to hire them. Furthermore, people who call themselves professional graphic designers often don't seem to have a clue. It's heartbreaking how bad things have gotten. I expect a certain degree of ignorance from small start-ups like Valley Games (though I am bewildered by their lack of recognition of graphic design as something to be concerned about), but there is simply no excuse for a monolith like Fantasy Flight.

  2. I have a sneaking suspicion that alot of this stuff boils down to: "it looked cool on my (backlit) monitor at 150% of actual size!"

  3. ASL is one of the biggest offenders here, and is almost unplayable by the eyesight-challenged without the aid of a magnifying glass. Though, I suppose in this case it's the size of the counter instead of the font.

  4. You have to think that these people who design & publish these games forget that folks have to *learn* them at some point. For example, when you mentioned Chapel in Dominion, my immediate thought was "who cares how large/small the font is, EVERYONE knows what chapel does!" but of course that's only true for those who have played the game. Learning for the first time and not being able to read the cards from the tableau in the center of the table without picking them all up individually *is* a problem.

  5. "ASL is one of the biggest offenders here ..."

    The scary thing? It's not.

    I took out my ruler and checked, because I was thinking, you know what would be hilarious? If Dominion is worse than ASL.

    And the fact is that none of the information on an ASL AFV counter is smaller than the x-height of standard Dominion card text, the text used to convey some huge fraction of the game's information. Not the tiny machine-gun ratings, not the vehicle identifier. In fact, most information on ASL counters - gun sizes, movement points, infantry ratings - are *much* larger and more readable that Dominion text. The only thing I can find that is smaller is that tiny infantry smoke exponent.

    I hardly need mention that ASL uses 1/2" and 5/8" counters here, and you could fit at least four of those into a standard Dominion text box.

    It's not an entirely fair comparison of course, since reading an isolated number at a given size will be harder than reading a line of text where the smallest letter is that same size, but still, I think the fact that I can even say this indicates just how ludicrous Dominion's font choices are. The guys who designed the ASL layout 20+ years ago didn't have a lot of space to work with, and they clearly thought about how to convey the really important information in a way that you could see it. Then they realized the small type sizes on other things were going to be a problem and made AFV cards where everything was in a readable font.

    Dominion, they just went ahead and put tiny text in huge text boxes because, apparently, they don't like their customers much.

  6. "You have to think that these people who design & publish these games forget that folks have to *learn* them at some point ... "

    Well, I think this is true given how bad rules are. But I don't think this is at the root of the typography problem for Dominion (and others). Dominion's font choices are *so* obviously bad, that if you're going do go with that font, there is almost no need to even put the text on the card at all. Just use huge art and a reference card.

    My suspicion is they just don't think about it at all and don't care. They know they want to be able to theoretically put a ton of text in there, and they want standard font sizes, and their art is of size X, so they just used a minuscule font without even bothering to wonder whether it was readable or not, and without even trying to make their game beautiful, are even attractive, or maybe just not ugly.

  7. Does anyone have access to cards from Magic: The Gathering for comparison? I'm curious if this tiny font size is just the long shadow of that game, people copying the design of Magic without thinking, and if Magic has done anything to improve its readability over the years.

  8. just checked some mtg cards I had lying around for prototyping - text size there seems to be slightly more than 1mm for lowercase letters.

    That said, I have a strong hunch that the text scales depending how much space is available, and the ones I have on hand are pretty wordy cards... (counterpoint: wordy complex cards are the ones that require the most reading and thus better font size/contrast - ah paradox)

  9. Nice article, Chris. My eyes are well north of 40 now, and nice fonts and clear game graphics are something that has become increasingly important to me over the past 5 years. I first noticed it when War of the Ring appeared, with those ridiculous cards, but it's been a slippery slope of falling standards ever since.

    A lot of companies simply do not get that "pretty" does not mean "good", in terms of game play.

  10. Production artist for real live marketing, design and game-design companies here, and I have two words for you: consistency and localization.

    Consistency: Best practice is to have the font size be the same across all cards. You fit your worst-case, longest text sample into the space allocated for rules text and let the rest be that size. It really matters when you lay out the cards on the convention table. If you don't do this, the game looks as if it was not very well thought out. People get a visceral sense very quickly about component quality, and rules text that is sized markedly differently on different cards compromises that first impression.

    Localization: If you ever plan to localize a game to other languages/regions, you need to have about 30% more space than you think you need. English has a gift for brevity, and the text will grow, especially in German.

    I'm over 40 now, too, and I am totally in agreement that it's difficult to read these things. They lose more eyeballs than they gain, however, if they don't kneel to the gods of localization and consistent type sizing.