Undercoding and Overcoding Your Game's Visual Language


Yesterday I wrote a long post on the value and methods of double- or triple-coding your game's visual language. Now here are some pitfalls to watch out for, using some real world examples.

Above is an example of undercoding. Apples to Apples uses only two types of cards in play, each one is a different color: Green and red. Like apples, get it? Makes sense for the theme, but it's also the most common type of color blindness. Take a look at the same image on the right and see if you could distinguish the types of cards at a glance.

Solutions: These cards could have been doublecoded by using a unique illustration for each deck or rotating the layout on one of the decks so it's horizontal.


And here's an example of overcoding. Megan and I really tried to learn Race for the Galaxy from the rules document. We eventually figured out how to make it through a few sessions, but each time we spent a lot of energy just deciphering the numerous symbols and icons. In the end, we spent more time learning the game than actually playing it, which is a shame because I know a lot of folks who swear by RftG.

Solutions: Hard to say, really. There is a LOT of information to get across on a tiny card, so simply writing it all out in plain language may not be efficient. Still, constantly referencing the visual glossary is a huge stumbling block to fluent play. If I were designing Race for the Galaxy from scratch, using all the same rules, I'd probably make it a big box board game. Freed from the constraints of a deck of cards, we could use a board, tokens, pawns, trackers and other implements to help make the learning curve a bit more shallow.

That brings up a final point. Doublecoding can't solve everything. If your game is so complex that it requires a vast visual language, look at the game's design first and see if it needs to be playtested more. If you're satisfied by the game's rules and still need that large language, then look at other format for your game. You may be surprised to find that you're actually making a video game!

Next, I'll talk about how I used coding in Belle of the Ball, taking lessons from all examples.

10 comments:

  1. I (and Sage) had the same experience trying to learn Race for the Galaxy. The cards for SageFight are much easier to understand.

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  2. Funny that you should mention SageFight cards. That's exactly the format I was considering as a low-end alternative to the t-shirts. I could see them laminated with a lanyard like a convention badge.

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  3. I'm colour-blind (or visually impaired, if you will) and I've got no trouble distinguishing the green and red cards.

    Note how they've picked a light shade for the green, a darker one for the red. Easy to distinguish.

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  4. Nice! Good to know that was considered at least.

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  5. While I agree with your general point of how difficult it can be to learn the icons of Race for the Galaxy, part of the problem is how they are conveyed to new players. Each icon is treated as it’s own thing, but there are a handful of recurring elements in the icons and, if they had explained those elements, learning all of the icons would much easier.

    For instance, any time you see a hand grasping a rectangle with rounded corners it means a card in hand. If it has a +1 it means draw a card into your hand (increase the number of cards in hand by 1) if it’s Xed out it means discard a card. If a miniature version of an element like card in hand appears to the top-right of another element, the large element triggers the action of the smaller element, as in Public Works develop power or Gem World’s Produce power. Likewise, each of the phase symbols (like the orange diamond for develop and the with circle with the black and red border for Settle) recur in power icons.

    So Lehmann, Huang and Tummelson focused on teaching the words rather than the alphabet, making the icons seem much more complex than they actually are.

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  6. Wow, I think you've managed to make those icons make a lot more sense to me. I dunno if I can convince my wife to give it another shot, but I'd like to play it again with someone who is more fluent.

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  7. Glad I could help :)

    Maybe we should collaborate (I could use your graphic skills) on a guide to the RftG icon alphabet.

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  8. Glad I could help :)

    Maybe we should collaborate (I could use your graphic skills) on a guide to the RftG icon alphabet.

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  9. I'm colour-blind (or visually impaired, if you will) and I've got no trouble distinguishing the green and red cards.

    Note how they've picked a light shade for the green, a darker one for the red. Easy to distinguish.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I (and Sage) had the same experience trying to learn Race for the Galaxy. The cards for SageFight are much easier to understand.

    ReplyDelete

Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.