Form Follows Function

Form Follows Function. It’s a rule in modern architectural design. According to Wikipedia it means that “the shape of a building or object should be predicated by or based upon its intended function or purpose.” I think that’s a rule that could be equally applied to board game components — and with at least as good of a result.

To me, you see, it’s all about usability. The components of a game should make a game easier to use, and for at least the last ten years we’ve been moving rapidly in that direction — to the point where I’m aghast when I pick up a game (usually published on the American market) where the question of usability has not been addressed. But, these questions of usability have usually fallen short of the architectural ideals that talk about how the shape of something can improve its usability, and that’s what I’m going to address today.

First, though, a look at what we’ve done thus far.

A History of Usability

I talked about elegant component design previously in Elegant Games, Elegant Components, but I’m going to rehash some of that here.

To start with, it’s ironic that I now deride American games for not keeping up with the usability curve, since that’s really where the idea of making complex games easy to use originated. For that we can thank the late Redmond Simonsen, a graphic artist and game designer who worked for SPI. It’s easy to see Simonsen’s importance to SPI if you look at my Six Degrees chart. He was a hub around which SPI turned.

What you won’t know from that chart is how extensively he thought about design. In one of his many essays on the topic, he wrote:

[W]hat is not so clear, however, is exactly what constitutes a good signal-to-noise ratio in graphics or just what value to place on “reliability” (which translates as consistency of format). And although the gamer is not vaporized when faulty graphics causes him to “detonate” the game he’s playing, the fact that it has indeed turned out to be a “bomb” is certainly unpleasant.
Virtually every gamer has had the experience of struggling through what might be an otherwise good game, hampered by the fact that the organization and design of the components prevents him from easily understanding what he is about — and thereby losing concentration and interest in the game.

That some artists today have the utter gall to think that their noise is more important that the game’s signal drives me to frustration. However, I think that companies that publish these designs will soon begin to realize every bit of success that they deserve from their very attractive but ultimately unusable “bombs” — and that their successors will make wiser choices. Meanwhile, most game publishers fortunately follow in the footsteps of Simonsen. Still, it took until the 1990s for the next major innovation to occur.

I consider The Settlers of Catan pivotal for its player reference cards and its easy collation of hexes, resources, and building costs. Many German games since have made superior use of icons that both make it easier to see how to play the game and to allow for rapid internationalization. In my earlier article I also commented upon Descent: Journeys in the Dark, whose dice-driven combat system is easier than any combat-result table you might have seen in an SPI game by a factor of about a thousand.

However, these excellent usability designs all tend to depend upon letters, words, icons, and other symbols. In other words, they ultimately depend upon language, and thus force us to ask: is there a way to make components more usable by the form of the components alone? In other words, to return to our original question, can form follow function in gaming, as it does in architecture?

To a limited extent, the answer is clearly yes, and I think it’s a topic that bears more consideration.

The Money Question

I think the question I hear most often while gaming is, “Is money secret?” It’s closely followed — for those games that have victory point counters rather than a victory point track — the question, “Are victory points secret?”

I usually offer the same response, which I’ll admit is one part unhelpful and two parts smartass — but there you go. I say: “Sure, just turn them over.”

This usually results in one of two things.  On the one hand, a player may turn a piece over, see it’s blank on the other side, and nod his head sagely. On the other he may flip it over, see that the other side is identical, flip it over again in confusion, and then glare at me.

However, I think this is a prime example of how form should follow function in a board game.

If you mean for your money or VPs to be secret (and you’re not relying on an even more obvious method, like a player screen), then you should print the valuation information on only one side of the money. Similarly, if you mean for it to be open, then printing that information on both sides is an extremely obvious way to show that secrecy isn’t possible. Particularly for the latter case, I never feel the need to look in the rules, because the double-sided money’s form clearly tells me that it’s meant to be open — because there’s no way to make it secret, absent sticking your cash in your pocket, generally a no-no.

Granted, there are two potential flaws to my argument. If money is secret on the board before you draw it, then its single-sidedness might not tell you anything reasonable about what’s to be done with it afterward, and if your money features two different things on its two sides, it defeats my argument entirely. But, these situations tend to be exceptions, and absent them, I’d rate this as a single case where publishers always tend to think about form following function.

Other Form Ideas

There are many other ways in which component form could follow function. Sometimes some publishers are already taking this steps, and sometimes no one is.

Can pieces be stacked? If so, they should be stackable. This is a pretty obvious design for three-dimensional games like Torres, but it’s a rarer two-dimensional game that remembers to do it, with The Year of the Dragon and The Market of Alturien being the notable exceptions.

Similarly, if pieces can be interconnected in any way, it’d make sense for the components to reflect that. Would The Settlers of Catan be a more usable game if the roads clicked right into cities or settlements? I’m not sure. However if a city was a little add-on piece that clicked over a settlement, I’d guess that might help some first-time players who were otherwise confused by the fact that it’s the only “upgrade” in the game.

Returning to the question of stacking, it’d similarly be nice if pieces represented stacking limits. This is easiest to do in a case where the stacking limit is effectively one. However, Primordial Soup totally misses its opportunity to create a score track that shows off the fact that you can only have one piece in each space. Torres does a little better by having the spaces be about the size of one cube, but it’d be easy for a first-time player to miss that. I bet it’d be harder if the scoring spaces were some irregular shape, like a circle instead of a square.

There are many games that reflect card limits on their boards. For example in Medici, you have space for exactly 5 loads of goods, and thus there’s never a question of, “What’s my limit for the turn?”

I’m certain there are many other places in gaming where component form could better represent function. I’d love to hear about what you’ve seen done, and what you think’s been undone in the question of component form following function.

Around the Corner

I’ve reviewed a couple of American game designs in the last few weeks. First was Dragon Lairds, which fits into my category of “hybridized designs”. It’s St. Petersburg with take-that mechanics. Second was Monster Mayhem, which is a pure beer & pretzels game.

I’ll see you in 14.


Author’s Notes: I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of expansion on this front in the last several years, but I still tell people to turn over their money when they ask if it’s secret. —SA, 8/2/15

3 thoughts on “Form Follows Function

  1. BBC had this nice series about the history of industrial design in 20th century – The Genius of Design (possible to find on youtube).

    It sets against each other two different philosophies of design, diverging on the idea “what is actually a function of the industrial design?”

    One one hand you have the school of functional design with one of the prominent designers being a German Dieter Rahms (surprise!) with his 10 thesis about good design:

    Good design is innovative
    Good design makes a product useful
    Good design is aesthetic
    Good design makes a product understandable.
    Good design is unobtrusive
    Good design is honest
    Good design is long-lasting
    Good design is thorough down to the last detail
    Good design is environmentally friendly
    Good design is as little design as possible

    Main idea is “less, but better” – which was behind the logic of German industry that it tries to make affordable products, but make them as good as they can be.

    Things changed however, first in style (with 1980), but also in content as the miniaturization of electronic chips made the functional issues of desinging objects less important. What took its place was what I call emotional design. BBC series quotes then chief of Ford design, J Mays;

    “Design is nothing more than a communications tool. To bend the sheet metal in such a way that it communicates the values of the brand and pulls the customers in, makes them reach in their wallet, pull out the money and pay for the car. Design is not an analytical process, it’s an emotional process. Go to customers home and see who they are, see the customer in their car and that who they want to be.

    Ford kinetic design is a design language that should visualy comunicate the idea of the vehicle really moving even if its standing still. They ask me if kinetic design has a function, yes a function of kinetic design is to put a smile on your face.”

    So if we move to games, we see these two goals sometimes in harmony and sometimes in direct opposition:

    – one is making user interface (through use of graphic desing and also theme) in a way that helps players learn the game, and also play the game, by making it easy to discern important elements of the game.

    – the other is using graphic design with a function of producing an emotional response. It’s important to point out, these games do not create emotions, they re-create them, meaning players must have emotional affinity towards the subject matter – or why ameritrash games which are the most “emotional genre” often use these big licences like LotR and Star Wars as would be players already know them and have an emotional attachment to them (AT is emotional as it focuses on creation of memorable experiences through drama and narrative). Also explains the use of minis and leaning towards visual baroque. But this approach has a function, but the function isn’t in helping you use the game, the fuction is in creating an emotional response from you. Which means during playing, but also before playing! Emotional design is crucial in selling products, making something people will buy because they’ll react emotionally to it, before their rational mind can intersect. Best depicted by Kickstarter craze for any games with good looking miniatures (whatever the rulebook) and the phrase “shut up and take my money”. Euros also followed which is why the attractive visuals are more important than they use to be. In Wargames it seems classic idea of a functional, easy to discern visuals, still reigns strong, possibly because there’s a lot of data to juggle, and also because it’s not an emotional genre, but a narrative driven genre (simulation) which feels more like reading a book. And if you’re publishing a book, first priority is in making it readable.

    The tension between these two design principles usually guides me quite well in figuring out what is going on with the visuals (and theme, which can also be a part of user interface) in any game.

    • Thanks, some very insightful thoughts! Clearly, I often focus on the functional aspects, but I agree that the emotional aspects are important too!

      • Otherwise I’m more in the functional camp as well (legible, approachable design), but I felt it was important to highlight that things that do not seem to be driven by functionality tend to also have a function, but a different one.

        From what I see games usually try to balance both of these two aims – the preferable percentage of each then depends on the genre and I think the publisher (developer). The problem becomes when these two different goals of design clash.

        Also, it’s why I approve of boardgame projects involving both the illustrator (the emotional part of visuals) and the graphic designer (the user interface side) as two different persons. Hopefully led by a competent developer or whoever is in charge.

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