The Terminology of Modern Boardgames

Now that I've started making the design and development of These New Worlds more public, I thought I would take a moment to talk about modern boardgames. I know a good number of people on the mailing list or following the blog are fairly new to the hobby, so hopefully this will be helpful.

The problem is, it's a huge topic. It would be hard to sum up board games in one article. There's so much variety and so many different styles and origin stories and so much history. My own knowledge only scratches the surface.

So I'm going to break it down into a glossary, of sorts. So let's start by looking at a few different game types that typically get lumped into the "boardgame" hobby.

Miniature War Games

Sometimes grouped in with boardgames, miniature war games involve using sculpted miniatures to simulate combat in a real or fictitious setting. Players typically control armies or groups represented by these miniatures (28mm is probably the most common scale) and enact combat scenarios.

Examples: Warhammer 40K, Starfleet Battles, Axis & Allies

Collectible Card Games

Collectible card games are games played by building a deck, usually of a specific size, from cards one has collected over time. Cards are sold in many forms - pre-made decks, random booster packs, individually, etc. They exist in various quantities; common, uncommon, rare, etc. and typically the cards (if the game is popular enough) will hold some monetary value as a collector's item based on that card's rarity and condition.

Examples: Magic the Gathering, Yugi-Oh, Pokemon

Living Card Games

Living card games are similar to collectible card games, but the cards are sold under a slightly different model that places less emphasis on the collecting/card value aspect and more on the game play, itself. Living card games are released in sets and every time you buy a pack, you know exactly what you're getting. LCG's remove the elements of randomness and rarity.

Examples: Android Net Runner, Legend of the Five Rings LCG, A Game of Thrones LCG

Euro Games

Euro games are where we start to get into what people more traditionally think of board games (although they're usually board games, they can be either board or card games). Certainly not every Euro game is from Europe, but in general, the genre draws its inspiration for game mechanics and play style from German boardgames.

Euro games have a few unique traits:

  • Player interaction is somewhat minimal or incidental - there's very little player v. player combat, etc.
  • Randomness and luck is minimized. Instead, winning relies more on strategy and skill.
  • There's no player elimination - everyone starts the game, everyone finishes the game.
  • Theme is secondary to game mecahnics.

Examples: Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Power Grid

Ameritrash Games
A somewhat derogatory name that's been embraced by those who love them, Ameritrash games are a sort of catch-all term for 'American' style boardgames (vs. European games described above). Like Euro games, there are some distinctive features that many Ameritrash games share, but the one main defining distinction is a greater emphasis on theme. While many Euro games could be played exactly the same way with a different theme, Ameritrash games tend to be thematically more emmersive and the game system sort of falls apart once the theme is removed.

Examples: Cosmic Encounter, Battlestar Galactica, Talisman

Abstract Games

The definition of abstract games is somewhat vague, but essentially, they're games for which theme plays no significant part at all, or which have no real theme to them in the first place. Enjoyment of the game comes from the gameplay itself, not the story surrounding it. These games may have a theme, but it's entirely for show.

Examples: Patchwork, Blokus, Qwirkle

Party Games/Casual Games

Party games are games meant to be played by non-gamers in a casual setting. The game is often more about creating an enjoyable social interaction than engaging in a challenging game. Party games are usually the games most non-gamers are familiar with.

Examples: Apples to Apples, Taboo, Codenames

Roleplaying Games - Wait, what? No.

Role playing games aren't boardgames, and while there's a lot of overlap in people who enjoy and play both, I don't know of anyone who considers them to be one in the same. I've been asked about the difference between boardgames and role playing games. Boardgames are just that - games that have a board or card components, with a set play length, a clear-cut objective, and win conditions. Roleplaying games, conversely, are more story-driven adventures in an open world setting. Players take on the role of constantly evolving characters and adventure through DM-crafted scenarios, sometimes for years at a time. There's no "winning" and no "ending." RPGs are interactive storytelling.

Examples: Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire the Masquerade, Pathfinder

Now that we've taken a look at some of the different types of boardgames out there, let's take a deeper dive into the game mechanics - that is, the engine or set of rules powering the game, making it playable and (hopefully) fun.

There are tons of different types of game mechanics, so to save us all a lot of time, I'm going to go over what I would consider to be the top 12, excluding things like betting mechanics (such as in Poker) and trick-taking mechanics (e.g. Hearts), which generally everyone is familiar with already.

  • Action Point Allowance - In AP games, players have a set number of points available during each round of play which they can spend to perform various actions. Once their points are 'spent' their turn is over (Example: Above & Below).
  • Area Control - In an area control game, players are competing to control areas of the board, usually through having a majority stake of tokens, people, etc. in that area (Example: El Grande).
  • Auction & Bidding - In these games, players are buying and selling (from a 'bank' and/or one another) resources, often looking to accumulate the most wealth (Example: Power Grid).
  • Card Drafting - Card drafting games involve players taking turns drawing cards from a communal pool, or by passing around cards, choosing one, and then passing the remaining cards along to the next player. Much of the strategy in this type of game comes from selecting cards you feel will give you an advantage and balancing that with anticipating what cards your opponents will pick, blocking those picks, and so on (Example: Seasons).
  • Cooperative Play - In a cooperative game, players work together to achieve a common goal while elements of the board and events in the game play out against them, like getting off an island before it sinks, or putting out a house fire before the building becomes engulfed (Example: Pandemic). Note: These are some of my personal favorite games and are great for new gamers.
  • Deck Building - In deck building games, players take turns performing actions (usually playing cards) which add cards to their personal deck. The goal of the game is to accumulate the most powerful deck of cards by the end of the game and tension in these types of games tends to snowball. Variants on this type of game include dice pool building, with dice instead of cards, and engine building, with a variety of components/actions (Example: Dominion).
  • Dice Rolling/Press Your Luck - These games are more typically games of chance. Some decisions are made by players about when and how far to press their luck, but that's about it (Example: Zombie Dice).
  • Pick-up and Deliver - Pick up and deliver games, as the name implies, center around the idea of transporting resources from one place on the board to another, usually as a means of gaining victory points, money, etc. with various game obstacles and other players attempting to compete and interfere (Example: Xia: Legends of a Drift System).
  • Hidden Movement - Hidden movement games involve one or more players in the game making turns and moving about the board in secret (usually with some sort of double-blind setup), in an attempt to outwit and out-maneuver other players to accomplish a hidden objective (Example: Letters From Whitechapel).
  • Roll and Move - Roll and move games are probably the boardgames most non-gamers are familiar with, as most "classic" mass-market boardgames fall into this category. Role dice, move pawns, repeat until the end game condition is met (Example: Sorry).
  • Tile Placement - Tile placement games require players to place tiles on the play surface in order to gain certain objectives - e.g. build patterns, areas, or structures, score points, or complete a shape. Tile placement is not the same as having a modular board. In a modular board, the elements of the board are all laid out at the start of the game - their layout just varies from game to game. In a tile placement game, the game "board" grows during the course of gameplay, usually with no two games ever being the same (Example: Carcassone).
  • Worker Placement - In worker placement games, players take turns placing pawns representing "workers" (people, animals, vehicles, etc.) at various points on the board in order to perform specific actions or gather specific resources (Example: Stone Age).

Finally, let's take a moment to talk about common game components. Most of these will be pretty well known or self-explanatory, but here's a quick rundown.

  • Cards - Often standard poker card sized, or the smaller "Euro" card size - used for player decks, actions, items, etc.
  • Coins - An item in a game that represents money, usually cardboard, plastic, metal if you're lucky, or paper if you're unlucky
  • Cubes - Usually plastic or wood, generic cubes are often used to represent resources in a game.
  • Dialss - Sturdy cardboard or plastic dials are often used to track points, health, and other metrics in board games.
  • Dice - They have more than 6 sides! Polyhedral dice most commonly have 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20 sides, with two 10-sided dice used to make percentile rolls.
  • Mats - Printed mats often accompany many board games and provide additional playing surfaces for tracking resources/player stats, serve as designated card-play areas, etc.
  • Meeple - Every meeple is a pawn, but not every pawn is a meeple. Usually wooden, meeples are flat pieces that represent people in shape and may be detailed, or solid color. The pieces shown in the masthead for this post are traditional meeple.
  • Miniatures - Sculpted 3D plastic or metal figures, usually 28mm scale, used to rerpresent players, monsters, etc.
  • Pawns - Any wooden or plastic piece representing a player or movement piece belonging to a player.
  • Poker Chips - Not just for playing poker, poker chips are most often used by gamers as a replacement for paper money, fur durability reasons.
  • Rondel - A round gear-like element players move pawns (or meeples) around, often with limited control to turn the rondel for the purpose of selecting different game actions.
  • Spiners - The classic spinner with an arrow that you flick which spins around until it stops, revealing the outcome. Spinners are rarly used outside of party games.
  • Standees - A poor man's miniature, standees are cardboard depictions of players or monsters on a plastic base that allows them to stand up vertically.
  • Tiles - Most commonly hexes or squares, but can be any shape, tiles are heavy cardboard components players use to make up (or cover) the playing area of their game.
  • Tokens - Any other generic bits and pieces that make up the components of a boardgame, e.g. victory point tokens, resource tokens, disease tokens, etc.

So What About "These New Worlds?"

You may be wondering how all of this ties into TNW and what type of game and what game mechanics TNW uses.

I would classify TNW as something between a Euro game and an Ameritrash game, leaning more toward the Euro end of the spectrum.

Primary game mechanics include Area Control and Action Point Allowance.

I would consider TNW to be a lightweight game, in that strategy is present, but not overwhelming, and that the game should play quickly (1hr or less) and feel accessible to new players.

It's not meant to be a brain-burner, as many Euro games are, and there's a not insignificant amount of direct player v. player interaction.

I hope this write-up was helpful!