Good to great: Do you think about UI in your board game design?

“I think the tables are easy to read, for the most part,” states D in this review of Cage Match! by Board Crazy Games.

“And, the results on these tables make a lot of sense to me as well,” adds Will.  “Because of these charts,” he adds a bit later, “This game could have easily been, both roll, whoever gets the highest wins, instead, I prefer this.”  The other 2 agree that they prefer this.

I can’t tell you how hard we worked to hear that.  It’s not something we would hear as recently as a few months ago.  Up to that point, we’d often say among each other that “the game lives and dies with these charts.”  We simplified them and reworded them, again and again, but I continued to get feedback that they were still a problem.  Now, they’re a positive, and we didn’t make a change to the wording or graphics.

Sometimes, it’s the little things, the details. The adjustment has nothing to do with how the game plays, and it isn’t anything that anyone specifically asked for.  Rather, by watching and thinking, and more watching and thinking, I figured out what needed to be done, and the change has had a marked improvement on the UI, the user interface, and it’s making all the difference.

UI is typically a term reserved for the digital world, but I think we need it for the analog world of tabletop games as well.  Taken from

The user interface (UI) is the series of screens, pages, and visual elements—like buttons and icons—that enable a person to interact with a product or service.

The UI is something any web designer or app designer thinks about constantly – in fact, it’s an area of specialization for which you typically hire a UI expert completely separately from your coder.  Yet, as board game designers, I don’t know that we think about UI as much or at least, I don’t see it talked about so much but we can easily adapt the definition to tabletop games:  It’s the series of game play elements — like game boards, cards and components — that enable a person to interact with a tabletop game.

We’re going to get into a murky area called “the feel of the game”.  It’s not something that can found in a book or put in a spreadsheet, but for me, at least, it’s a big part of what I like about games.  The best games don’t just have you do something, but make you feel something.  It doesn’t have to be as heady as what you might feel while playing Train.  In Star Wars Epic Duels, for example, I feel like I’m seeing a fight between Star Wars characters.  In Terraforming Mars, I feel like I’m terraforming a cold, unlivable planet into something livable.  In Merchants & Marauders, I feel like a ship captain of the Caribbean, trading and/or pirating.

In Cage Match! you feel like you’re in a fight.  If you don’t feel like it when you start, you most assuredly will once you receive your first punch to the face.  I’ve actually witnessed this many times and love it when a player’s face changes from apprehension to determination after they receive their first attack.  “Oh yeah?  Well take THAT!”  However, a critical element of feeling like you’re in a fight is that the game moves and resolves quickly.  We’ve sacrificed a lot of nuance and realism in favor of quick resolution because it’s just that important.

A year ago, when this was a much more involved, elaborate game, we had a double-sided “Fight Card” (then called a Results Table) that sat in the middle of the table.  You used it, as you do now, to look up the interaction of moves to determine the outcome.  Then when we stripped the game down, as described in this post, we realized we could fit the entire Fight Card onto the backs of the screens.  I was so pleased with myself for reducing the overall footprint of the game, reducing the number of components, and reducing the appearance of complexity.  As a bonus, I also reduced the game’s cost and weight.

But, then, through all the play tests, I started to notice something.  Players were having a hard time figuring out the outcome quickly.  All the answers were there, and they’d figure it out eventually, but that’s not good enough for a combat game where the fast pace is one of the key characteristics.  If people are fumbling and stumbling to figure out what happens next, that might work ok for galactic space combat but it really diminished the whole “feel” of this MMA game and people’s enjoyment of it.  Worse, nobody could quite articulate the problem.  There were suggestions to streamline the game, but it’s already so simple.  I had already reworded and simplified the grid countless times.  I asked the graphic designer if he could do anything to make the grid “pop” more, and he responded that he had some ideas, but “don’t expect miracles,” so I didn’t pursue it.  There were suggestions to change it to a card game, which I considered, and even made and tested a prototype.  I noticed some things were better in the card game but it still didn’t click as the solution.

Then, I stumbled upon this review of the Revolution Board Game by Tom Vasel.  Tom talks about how much he likes the quality of the screens – and we use screens in Cage Match!  However, what really caught my attention is that the placards being used in Revolution aren’t so different than our Fight Cards – information laid out as text, in a grid format. Tom seemed to like these too.  So, if text on colored boxes in a grid can work for that game, why wasn’t it working for ours?

Now, I’m able to articulate the exact problem:  It wasn’t good UI.  And, while people aren’t telling me directly, a better UI was the key to taking it from good to great.

So, here’s what I did:

  • I sent the Tom Vasel video to the manufacturer, calling for thicker material and “wrapping” for the screens.
  • The main thing was, I figured we’d try separating the Fight Card from the screens to be separate components, despite the addition of components, cost, weight and the appearance of complexity.
  • The new Fight Card components would also get thicker material, and there would be one for each player, not just one in the middle of the table.

These small changes have made a world of difference.  It never occurred to me, because I don’t have to read the screens myself and because nobody articulated this, but reading the screens just wasn’t a good UI.  Reading a grid that is sometimes 2 feet away from you can be a challenge.  You either have to squint at it – bad UI – or pick it up and read it.  A tri-fold screen is a clumsy, cumbersome thing to pick up, look at, and then place back — also bad UI.

After the changes, I watched the play-thrus by Board Crazy Games, and I saw the way they used the Fight Cards and SNAP!  It made all the difference.  Squinting at a grid, or picking up a tri-fold screen and putting it back – those are bad UI.  Reading a placard in front of you, on the other hand, is perfectly fine.  I’m not going to call it “great UI” to read copy on a placard, but it’s perfectly fine.  None of the players in the play-through seemed to mind, and this was confirmed during the review, where they stated that they actually like the grid and found them easy to follow (hooray!).  I further think that some little changes to the components, such as reducing their size but increasing their thickness, will go a long way towards taking the game from good to great.

The lessons here are:

  • UI matters.  It’s not just the game, but the board, cards, components etc. that players interact with that let them play the game.  It’s a big part of the experience, and while I think everyone knows that quality components are important, I don’t hear much talk about the UI.  UI matters, and we should talk about it.
  • Play-testing is so important. It may sound obvious, but it’s not just hearing what they say, but watching how they play, and reading the looks on their faces at various points.  I mentioned that I’ve seen the look of “hey, I’m in a fight!” on faces, and that’s exactly what we’re going for, and exactly why this game will succeed.  With early versions of the game, I saw the scrunched up faces when playing a more involved, more complicated game, and knew that something had to be done.

I wish someone could have articulated this to me:  Your game is fine, but you need a better UI.  It’s just not a phrase board gamers use a whole lot, but us designers need to, and the earlier in the process you think about the UI, the better.

Some final changes to improve the UI involve reducing the overall footprint of the game so that it takes less space on the table.  We’re looking to cut the size of the Action Pads in half, and reduce the size of the screens along with them, so that you can play easily on your coffee table.  Any other UI changes you’d like to see?  Tell me now, because at the end of the month, we’re going to print!

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