The physical design of game components works similarly to, and in conjunction with, graphic design. If you have multiple types of tokens in your game that function differently, but are all one inch squares, it is harder to figure out what is what. But if you give tokens different shapes based on their function, it becomes intuitive to separate them. If all of the resources are squares and all of the money are circles, players will know they function differently.
Encode Rules into the Game
You can take this further and encode rules into your game either with physical design, so pieces fit into the area they interact with. Or with graphic design, so icons match the shape of components that interact with that area. If you use shapes without any kind of symmetry, you can easily show how a piece should be oriented, if that is important to gameplay.
Many people have made a puzzle at some point in their life. They know if a piece doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong there. This is especially useful with physical design, like a cutout to fit a component. If the component does not fit into the cutout, it is a clear indication that it doesn’t belong there.
If you use physical design and graphic design clues, players will need to reference the rules less often. This can prevent interruptions to the game flow and reduce setup time.
In a board game, the game state must physically change. If there is no change, there can be no interaction, and therefore no game. Changes to the physical game state are a direct result of the interaction of the game’s rules and mechanisms. How these changes happen, though, can add to or detract from the game’s elegance.
Many changes are very straightforward. If your character moves into the next room, you will move the representation of that character on the board into the next room. If done poorly the physical design of that character’s representation can make this action inelegant. If the character is represented by a card lying flat, it is much harder to pick up and move than if it was a standee, miniature, or block of wood. Think about the physicality of your game components. Is it better if components can stack? Do players need to identify components from multiple angles? The colors of a stack of wooden cubes can be seen while stacked, but a stack of cardboard chits will only show the top.
Making necessary movement easy is only the first step to elegance in upkeep. Using everything mentioned above to get the maximum value out of the movement is what separates an elegant game from a game that merely isn’t annoying to play.
Where the component starts should be obvious from the physical and graphic design. Where the component moves to should also be obvious. When it moves it can reveal and/or hide information. The piece itself can represent multiple bits of information.
Eclipse is a great example of this. Players have a row of wooden discs (easy to move) on their player board. These discs represent an available action. To perform an action a player moves a disc from their row onto the action spot. This shows what action they took and, when removed from the row, it reveals a number which is the amount of money the player must pay for their empire at the end of the round.
With one movement the player selects an action and changes their empires upkeep cost. This is already more elegant than having to deal with a separate upkeep cost track, but they took this system a step further. You also use these discs to claim territory on the board. Discs used to perform actions will return to the row at the end of the round, representing temporary costs of those actions. But discs used to claim territory stay on the territory. This represents the growing continuous cost of a larger empire. It also lowers the number of actions that empire can perform because their resources are already used to maintain control of the territory.
With one simple movement the player makes several changes to the game state, and they don’t have to think about it. They choose to take an action and the rising cost is automatic. This removes the chance for making a mistake that could happen if the cost was tracked separately.
What are some games that you feel use physical design to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design with physical design? What are some examples of physical design making a game less elegant?
* * *
I’d like to thank Phoebos Stergiou from Hercules Game Studios, Odin Phong, C.M. Perry, and Rick Lorenzon for their feedback on this article.