Translating Game Text to Language-Neutral Diagrams

Good news! I've submitted the final draft of my book "Graphic Design for Board Games" to the publisher! Of course that now leaves a void in my schedule for some other long-term project. I'm not yet certain what that would be, so for now I'll continue sharing early drafts and previews of what I've written for the book. The following section comes from the chapter on designing language-neutral diagrams. In this sub-section, I discuss the practical process of diagramming each part of a game action into glyphs and icons.

Let’s make a diagram for a very simple in-game action: You take 2 apples from one opponent.

The effect text is written in second-person declarative tense, so “you” is implicit. To be very clear, it could be written as “You take 2 Apples from one opponent.” For most games, you won’t need an icon for “you,” but let’s assume that this game does need that extra clarity. So you need two “person” icons, one for “you” and one for “opponent.” In this example, you have two “person” icons. “You” has arms raised, a solid color and no outline. “Opponent” has arms lowered, a black outline, and a dartboard for a head to indicate that this one opponent is being targeted.

Presumably, you’ve already made icons for your game’s most commonly used nouns. If you’re lucky, your nouns are actual items, like food or water, which can be represented by symbols of the real things. For more abstract concepts, like prestige, energy, or actions, try simple flat shapes like stars, lightning bolts, or hearts. If the game has fictional resources like “Unobtainium” or “Magic,” then make the symbol resemble the corresponding game component as much as possible. For this case, you can show the apple icon twice and delete the “2” from the diagram.

The only remaining text is the verb “take” and the conjunction “from.” It’s helpful to look at the effect from a very high-level perspective and translate the game effect into different “zones” of the game area. In this case, the effect is really saying “2 Apple moves from Zone A (an opponent’s supply) to Zone B (your supply).” The transfer of resources can be represented by a large arrow going from left (the opponent’s icon) to right (the “you” icon). Within that arrow, you show the two icons for Apple. Thus you have a complete diagram for this game effect that can be easily recognized at most scales.

Here are some more examples of common effects and how they might be diagrammed.

Gain 1 Apple or Banana

“Gain 1 Apple or 1 Banana.” While this is still technically a transfer of resources from one game zone (the general supply) to another (your supply), using an arrow and making an icon for the general supply may make the diagram rather cluttered. In most cases, players will understand that these simple effects presumably affect themselves alone. You can show “+” an icon for the apple and banana. You can represent “or” with a diagonal slash “/”

“Spend 1 Apple to increase your Strength.” This transactional style of effect is very common in games. It’s implicitly an “if/then” statement. In other words “If you choose to lose 1 apple, you increase your Strength by one increment.” Most games use “:” to divide the “if” and “then” portions of a diagram. Let’s also presume this game has a “Strength Track” rather than Strength tokens. In that case, it’s useful to depict “increase” as a different symbol from “gain.” In this case, upward-pointing chevrons imply an upward movement of along the strength track.

(Diagram of four possible in-game actions in Diamonds.)
This is an excerpt from the rulebook for Diamonds. Each suit of a standard card deck lets you move diamonds among different vaults as shown. Note how the arrow in each example goes over or under the vault icon to indicate whether it’s publicly accessible.

(Diagram of a multi-step action in Senators.)
This diagram is an example of the “Extortion” phase of Senators, in which a player sets a price for their opponents’ goods. Note how each step of play focuses on one point of time, using transparency to attract or avoid attention when most pertinent. The colors of arrows are color-coded to match the acting players. Inactive players are about 25% opacity, like the white player in the second panel or the pink player in the third panel. When the green player makes an offer, it’s depicted as a comic-style speech bubble.


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