April 1, 2020

The UX Design of Board Games, Part 4: Player Aids

I had planned on posting this two weeks per my usual schedule, but the global pandemic has gotten me down. I have lots of stuff I could be doing, but I have almost no motivation at all. How are all of you hanging in there? Stay healthy, stay safe. If you can stay at home, please do so.

Without further ado...

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 last post 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. The second post was about iconography. The third post addressed diversity. This post will cover player aids in board games.

According to the website Human Memory,

"Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information and past experiences in the human brain."

Let's breakdown exactly what this means. The first step in creating a new memory is encoding. What does encoding mean? Encoding is the first step in creating a new memory. Encoding is taking the element and converting it into something that can be stored within the brain. Storage and retaining is just the passive process of keeping the information in the brain. And recall is the retrieval of the memory from the brain.

There are lots of different types of memory, but I'm going to focus on the types that are involved when playing board games:

Sensory Memory

Sensory memory is the shortest-term type of memory. Sensory memory allows the brain to retain (for a very short time) impressions the information received through sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. For example, the ability to look at something like a playing card and remember what it looked like with just a second of observation is an example of sensory memory.

Short-term Memory

Short-term memory is the ability to remember and process information at the same time. It holds a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily-available state for a short period of time (less than a minute).

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is intended for the storage of information over a long period of time (shocker!). Long-term memory can be divided into declarative memory and procedural memory.

Declarative memory is the memory of facts and events and refers to those memories that can be consciously recalled. Declarative memory can be additionally subdivided into episodic memory and semantic memory:

  • Episodic memory represents the memory of experiences and specific events in time in a serial form. This is less important in board gaming.
  • Semantic memory refers to general factual knowledge. Much of semantic memory is abstract and associated with the meaning of verbal symbols like icons. Very important for board gaming!

Procedural memory is the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things. These memories are typically acquired through repetition and practice.

Many of the games we play are complex. Many have simple rules and are easy to play. In either way, there are things that need to be remembered. While reading the instruction manual and playing a game a few times can help commit the rules of a game to memory, some games are quite complex. Complex games often come with a player aid. Below are some good examples of player aids.

This player aid from The Quest for El Dorado has a spot for your draw and discard decks as well as the steps each player takes during their turn. A small, but handy little player aid.

The player aid from the game Five Tribes contains a lot of information including the turn order, the roles of each of type of meeple, end game scoring for the merchandise set collection, and on the back a summary of the different genies available for purchase. The player aid also includes the conditions for the game end which is useful for playing your turns as the conditions for game end get closer and closer.

The player aid on the left is from the game The Gaia Project and the one on the right is from Castle Panic. Both of these player aids show the order of play for each turn or round. The order of play is important for both of these games so the player aid is a helpful reminder for both seasoned and new players of these games. The Gaia Project player aid looks much more complicated because of their use of icons, but once you play the game a couple of time you learn its visual language and it isn't a problem. The player aid for Castle Panic is super simple, but still very helpful.

The game Pulsar 2849 has a pretty straightforward gameplay, but the last phase of the round has 9 steps! It's difficult to remember each step, let alone the order that they should be done in. This player aid is a little large, but usually, one player will read the production phase steps while another player completes each step. The back of this player aid shows game end scoring.

This player aid from the game Roll for the Galaxy is on the backside of the screen that you use to hide your die rolls from the other players. It packs in a lot of information! It shows your starting set-up, the round summary, what happens for each phase, goods prices, game end scoring, terms, and the distribution of dice faces. It can seem like too much information, but each section is used in different ways and some players may need all of this information, while others may only need to reference the dice face distribution or some other specific segment. The fact that it's on a piece of the game that players are already using makes it even better as it doesn't add to the space requirements on the table and it's easy to refer to without alerting your fellow player to your plans.


If a game you own has you reaching for the instruction manual often and doesn't come with a player aid, make your own! You can also search on Board Game Geek to download and print player aids made by other gaming enthusiasts. 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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