March 4, 2020

The UX Design of Board Games, Part 2: Icons

I love board games. I play board games a lot. I even go to board gaming conventions! And I'm not referring to Monopoly or Scattergories (those are fine!), I am referring to "Euro-style" games like Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride. After playing a lot of games, I started to notice certain aspects of the designs that could be improved to create a better user experience for a wider audience.

This post is the second in a series of four that will cover specific areas of game design that should be addressed for better user experiences. The first post covers the use of color in board games. This post will cover the use of icons in board games.

There are several reasons to use icons in board game design, including:

  • As a supporting element to color
  • Convey a lot of information in a small space
  • Language independent
  • Adds to the theme

I'll go more in-depth on these reasons, but first, the most important thing with icons is to use them consistently. While some icons may not be obvious or complicated looking to start if the icon system is consistent then it will be easier to learn.

Consistency is KEY

The game Great Western Trail uses icons all over the place, on the game board, building tiles, and cards. The icon of a number with a negative symbol should be easy enough to interpret and remember, but it is not used consistently. The two images on the top show when this icon is used to depict a cost. It costs $2 to pass a tile with a green or black hand on it and it costs $5 to increase your hand size.

On the lower left-hand side image, the number with the negative symbol means a discount rather than a cost. When you purchase a building, you get a $1 discount for every carpenter that you've hired.

And finally, on the image on the lower right-hand side, the number with a negative symbol is used to indicate an increased cost for each additional worker that you hire. So that is one icon that means THREE different things all in the same game.

What three different icons do you think would work for cost, discount, and additional cost? Post your ideas in the comments!

An example of a game with a very consistent icon use is Terraforming Mars (one of my favorites!). Some icons are used more than once, but they have different visual treatments to convey different meanings. For example, the 2 in the gold box with a brown border on the center card means an increase in income (something that happens every turn) while the same icon without the border means take that much currency now and only once. In addition, the icons are consistent in both meaning and placement on the card, which makes this icon system very easy to learn.

As a supporting element to color

Like I discussed in the first post in this series, using an icon instead of or in addition to color is very important for gamers with color blindness.  If a color without an icon is used on game boards, tokens, or cards then gamers with color blindness will have a difficult time distinguishing between important aspects of the game

To adapt the cards in Underwater Cities, the icons on the corner of the cards are surrounded by a unique shape depending on the color of the card. Yellow card icons are in a circle, green card icons are in an octagon, and the red card icons are in a star-shaped outline. I've outlined them in the photo above so you can see them better. This is a simple and elegant solution that will allow players with color blindness to easily distinguish between the types of cards.

Underwater Cities is full of different icons as you can see from the cards in the photo above. Some are simple, like the lightning bolt to indicate an instant play card or the gears which mark this card as something that happens every production round. Other icons are quite complicated and need to be learned from reading the instruction booklet and playing the game once or twice.

Convey a lot of information in a small space

Board games often have to communicate a lot of information that is confined to small spaces either on the game board itself or on playing cards.

The board game Wingspan has cards for over 200 unique birds (if you include the European expansion) and each card has to provide the players with a lot of information. While the map icon at the bottom is just for fun and to learn something, all of the other icons are important to gameplay. Before you can play a bird card in Wingspan, you must pay its cost (food cost) and you have to know what area of the board you can play it in (habitat type). The number of points, type of nest, number of eggs it can lay, and its wingspan are all factors that combine in each player's strategy and goals for the game.

Language independent

Euro-style board games are popular across the entire world! While it is somewhat easy to translate and print instructions in the specific language for each country, it would be expensive to have to reprint the components of the game (game board, cards, tiles, etc.).

The Gaia Project has a somewhat complicated system of iconography, but once it's learned it becomes second nature. All of the components for this game, including the player boards, main game board, goal tiles, etc. do not contain any language other than Arabic numerals. It's the icons that provide all of the information that you need to know. For example, building costs are indicated by the yellow circle (currency) and the white square (ore) with a downward pointing arrow. These same icons (the yellow circle and white square) can also mean income of currency and ore when paired with the hand icon.

Adds to the theme

All games have a theme from space exploration and bird watching to conquering the enemy colonizers, themes make games unique and part of the fun!

Spirit Island is a game where you play a spirit of the native peoples of an island. During the game, explorers settle on your island and build towns and cities. The icon system adds to the theme of the game with tribal-style illustrations to represent the different types of elements (the illustrations also help players with color blindness distinguish between the elements), speed of the card, various invader types, and more.


Icons are an important part of board game design and add to the user experience of a game in several ways. Icons can be a supporting element to color, convey a lot of information in a small space, make a game language-independent, and can add to the theme of the game. Do you think there are other ways icons can be used to improve the user experience of a particular board game? Please share in the comments.

Stay tuned next week for my next post where I tackle diversity in board game design! I will also be giving a lightning talk hosted by Ignite UX Michigan on May 12 at the Circ Bar. Please join me if you can!

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One comment on “The UX Design of Board Games, Part 2: Icons”

  1. I have always been impressed with games that are able to be completely icon-based, no words. It certainly makes it easier when teaching others and you have to worry a lot less about the orientation of the board, if you remembered to bring your reading glasses, if the game is in your native language... it's a real challenge to create, but worth it!

    I think it's really interesting to note that certain symbols are obvious and intuitive in any culture. For example, lightning bolts work great for "instant" in any language. However, is the classic "house" icon (triangle roof, door, window, chimney) recognizable around the world as a house? What about a stop sign? Sometimes when designing it's important to take a step back and think about who your audience is an if they will come from the same background as you.

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