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Trying to define “the board”

Britannia board connectivity diagram

On LinkedIn someone asked if there were industry definitions and names for the various aspects of a game board. There aren’t any that I know of, but it’s worth trying to analyze what we actually have in a “game board”.

We’re accustomed to thinking that a video game has an interface, but so do tabletop games. The interface enables the player to see what’s happening in the game, and to manipulate the game, to tell the game what the player wants to do. This is non-technical in tabletop games but still exists, and can still be better or worse depending on how it’s arranged. The board is the principle part of the interface that reveals what’s happening, whether it’s a physical board or on the screen in a video game.

Typically, in a tabletop game we have something that lies flat on the table that stores information that we call a board. In video games the board is frequently an array in memory, and each pixel on the screen may be a slightly different location, or a more conventional square or hex grid might be hidden from sight but still in use. From the player’s point of view the screen is the “board.” Recently some tabletop games have gone from a shared board to individual boards, often called player layouts or mats, that store information. Team sports have “boards” that we normally call fields, as in a football or baseball field, the ice in hockey, the court in basketball, the pitch in soccer. They are still places where information is stored, but because the athletes act on the field we tend not to think of those fields as boards.

A traditional game board - and an athletic field - records the results of maneuver, placement, and location of “pieces.” In most board and video games the board is digital, that is, it has discrete parts/locations, whereas sports fields tend to be analog, with continuous flows rather than discrete separations, though we also have discrete locations in, for example, the penalty area and six yard box in soccer or the bases in baseball. Maneuver always involves location because what makes maneuver important is the spatial relationship between “pieces” in their locations on the board. Placement (as opposed to maneuver) provides the spatial relationship but without the possibility of moving pieces that are already there. Instead pieces are placed, as in Tic-Tac-Toe.

Insofar as many games represent warfare, and warfare is largely about maneuver, it’s not surprising that most classic games are games of maneuver and location, though some (such as Go and Tic-Tac Toe) are games of placement rather than maneuver.

Area control in modern Eurostyle boardgames is a matter of placement and spatial location, and sometimes of maneuver as well. Worker placement, on the other hand, is usually a matter of storing status information, not of spatial activity. For example, in cases where placing a worker at one point means someone else cannot place one there, you could just as well use tokens or cards to keep track of which functions have been allotted to which players.

More recently in some tabletop games, boards have only stored status information having nothing to do with maneuver, placement, and location. The board is used to record the state of various kinds of information that have no spatial relationship to one another, as in Kingsburg. On a roulette “board” for example, players store the bets before the ball rolls. In the inventory of a video RPG, the player stores his items in various “locations”, but there is no spatial relationship between one and another, even though items must (in some games) fit the shape of the storage area.

Typically a player layout or mat in a tabletop game is of this type if only because none of the other players has any assets on this “board,” so that a player layout is rarely used for maneuver. (Maneuver typically implies maneuvering against pieces of other players, although technically the word does not necessarily include that aspect.)

What do we call the parts of the board? Generally where maneuver, placement, and location is important you have some kind of “grid.” The most familiar grid is an area layout, like a map of the 50 United States or the countries of Europe. The grid may be regular, as in squares, it may be hexes or a brick pattern that amounts to the same thing as hexes, it may be a series of concentric circles divided into areas. It may be irregular, as in a connectivity diagram such as Merchant of Venus or Masters of Orion II or many board wargames. In every case the grid amounts to an array showing connectivity between and consequently spatial relationships between locations. (I made a connectivity diagram for the Britannia board once; but it’s easier to play on something that looks like a familiar map of Britain, than on a connectivity diagram. Yet the so-far-unplayed card version of Britannia uses region cards placed in a pattern that amounts to a connectivity diagram.)

[I’ll try to insert that diagram here, if not you can use this link (case sensitive): http://pulsiphergames.com/britannia/images/ConnectivityDiagramBrit.gif ]

A special instance of this grid is the track, as in Monopoly, Parcheesi, as in Olympic swimming (each player has a separate track), and in many other race games. A big difference is that even though the track amounts to a connectivity diagram, it is linear, there is no choice of where you can go, so practically speaking there’s no maneuver. In fact you can see a track as more status track - where are you located right now - than anything like a playing field. Yet some race games allow maneuver on the track, perhaps a going from inside to outside in a car or chariot race game. This might be called a route rather than a track. The classic game Careers uses a track that offers periodic choices to follow a different route into various “careers” that lead back to the main track.

Aside from grids and tracks/routes we can have places on the board where something tangible is stored, as in the locations on the Monopoly board where we store the cards. In a data flow diagram these would be called “data stores”. Perhaps we could call them “depositories”. They provide a location for storage of something physical, such as cards, or something virtually physical, as when a boardgame is computerized but you can still draw “cards”. A “magic shop” in a computer RPG also amounts to a not-wholly-random depository.

Then we have all the locations that store status information, for example which worker has been allocated to which task. A time record track or turn track stores status. In every case, it should be possible to reflect the same storage by using cards or other tokens, but it’s often easier for all the players to see when laid out on a “board” of some kind. I’ll call these the “status” or “status tracking” parts of the board. (“Conditions” might be another choice.)

Many boards also contain pure “information displays”. These may be orders of battle or appearance of new assets (as on the FFG version of Britannia, along the eastern side of the board), they may be combat or other tables, they may show turn order, and so forth. They may remind players of specific rules. (Ideally, all of the rules of a game would be on the board; but that’s rarely practical given limitations of space and eyesight.) Status changes; information displays never change.

Of course, we can also say that many game boards display information about terrain, economic values, and so forth even as they provide a grid for maneuver, placement, and location.

These areas can be mixed, as in Monopoly with its track, depositories, and some information (the price of properties, the amount you get for passing Go); or Britannia with an area grid, a status section (where players keep track of saved Increase Points), and an information display (the turn-by-turn appearance); or computer Civilization where we have a square or hex grid, plus many, many status areas (if you click on cities), plus information displays.

Must the board to be a single large layout? I’ve mentioned games where there are player layouts, which means we have several “boards”. What about card games where the spatial relationship of the cards is important, for example card Solitaire or Canasta? (Most card games do not have the spatial relationship, for example Texas Hold‘em.) These are boards of several parts.

Then there are tile laying games, with tiles effectively substituting for cards, and all of it ultimately derived from dominoes. The result of laying the tiles is spatial relationships: these are placement and location games. For all practical purposes this is a board that is constructed as the game proceeds. So cards can certainly be used for a board, whether they are laid out ahead of time or laid out as the game proceeds.

Settlers of Catan has a randomly tile-laid board: there is a spatial relationship, but not one influenced by the players. Once the board is laid out, it becomes a grid for placement and location.

When cards/tiles/dominoes are used as a board, almost always it will be a spatial board, one for placement (or even movement) and location. It’s unlikely to be a board that will help keep status, or a depository.

What is essential to a board? Depositories don’t need to be on a board, we can place draw decks, piece supplies, the Monopoly bank, more or less wherever we want rather than on a board, without too much inconveniencing the players. (Remember, this is all part of the interface, which is supposed to make it easy for the players to see what’s happening in the game, and to manipulate the game.) Information displays can be on separate play aids, in a rulebook, in the software’s Help files. But to improve the interface we may want some of this information on the board where everyone can easily see it. Status tracking areas can be on individual player layouts rather than on the board, or may use tokens or cards, but once again the question is what’s most convenient for the players, what makes the game easier to play, status recorded on a central board, or on a player layout, or somewhere else?

The one thing that almost has to be on the board is a playing field/grid, when the game involves maneuver/placement and spatial relationships (location), because the interactivity amongst the different players’ pieces just about requires a common visual display. It’s not surprising that the boards of classic games like Go, Chess in its many versions, Parcheesi, Backgammon, Nine Men’s Morris, Tic-Tac-Toe, Hnefetafl, are all playing fields and nothing else.

Some people will argue that everything we might do with a game board, can be done with arrays in a computer. That’s likely true, but the purpose of a board, which is a major part of a game interface, is to make the players’ tasks easier, to help them see what’s happening in the game. Putting all of that in a computer array hides it. The assumption in a boardgame is that all information is visible. The state of a computer game is that nothing is visible until a programmer causes the computer to make it visible.

To go back to our original question, we have:
• regular or irregular grids or tracks/routes
• depositories where physical (or virtually physical) things are placed
• information displays, and
• status tracking areas.

I should think someone has tried to define areas/functions of boards before, perhaps someone can point me to those attempts.

My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from mcfarlandpub.com or Amazon. (Books-a-Million has an eBook version at http://bit.ly/PQQqh3.)
I am @lewpuls on Twitter. (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.) Web: http://pulsiphergames.com/

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blog | by Dr. Radut