“Do you fancy a game of Race for the Galaxy?” I asked. “That’s the one set in space, right?” they replied. “With settle, develop, and all that? And… the icons! It’s the one with the bloody icons, isn’t it!”
Text vs icons is one of the major visual design decisions in board and card games. Icons are generally more concise and make the game easier to translate to other languages, but are harder to understand for those new to the game. Text is easier for new players but can get quite wordy. Whether icons are a good idea partly depends on how well they have been designed. Race for the Galaxy has a lot of information to convey, and it tries to do it all with icons. The bloody icons. Here’s one of the cards from Race for the Galaxy:
To convey what this power does, four different circle symbols are needed. Yet, in an admission that players cannot decipher the meaning from the symbols alone, the designers have also put text in the bottom right explaining the symbols. But if the text (with some simpler icons) does the job of explaining the power, why have the symbols at all?
There are enough icons in the game that it comes with a hefty double-sided reference card:
If you turn up to play games and you produce a reference card like that, you’re immediately going to put off a few players. Their first few games are going to be spent pouring over the card, desperately trying to work out what the icons on the cards in their hand mean.
Some icons are simple enough to work nicely:
But often the powers are complex enough that once again, the text appears:
Not only are the symbols dense, but some of the colour choices are pretty awful. In general, designers should avoid using hue-only differences to convey meaning. Light red vs light green will mean nothing to a red-green colour-blind person. Dark vs light is much better, or saturated vs desaturated (strong vs weak colour). But it’s not just red and green that can cause problems, especially by the time the colours have been through a potentially-inexact print process. Here’s three cards with red circle symbols on them. Which circles are meant to be the same colour?
While playing the game you should be able to concentrate on deciding which card to play, not playing “which colours are these”. Some of the circles refer to rebel military worlds, which is a totally different concept to the symbols referring to rare goods. (And it’s only in writing this post that I realised the rebel symbol is the small circle next to the world, not the world circle itself.) Speaking of which, the goods symbols are another instance where colour is used to distinguish something quite vital:
They aren’t the worst colours around, although the blue and green are not incredibly distinct (more obvious in the four-colour card icon in the top left, above). These colours have a relevant ordering in the game: the prices of the goods, shown above. But there’s no intrinsic or culturally accepted ordering for colours (the best example I can think of, at least for gamers, are the rarity colours in World of Warcraft and other Blizzard games): who can easily remember that yellow is better than green is better than brown? Here’s a diagram of the current system of shapes and colours:
My suggestion for making the goods ordering clear is to combine the colours with a shapes system, where the number of points on the shape is the goods value:
This would convey the prices easily without needing to refer to a separate reference. This would require a redesign of developments; RftG is already using shape to distinguish developments (diamonds) from worlds (circles), so I suggest to have developments as a number between two parallel horizontal lines (an open-sided square, if you like). Meanwhile, to avoid confusion over the whole rebel issue, I would just use text.
And as for the game…
Race for the Galaxy is quite a good game, under all this. It has more complexity than its spiritual twin, San Juan, but it is welcome complexity, which makes the game more interesting to play. Between the gameplay design and the visual design, I would hesitate to bring out Race for the Galaxy with anyone other than experienced gamers, whereas San Juan — which is text-heavy — is a nice gateway game.
Review note: I played the first (and currently, only) edition of the game, without expansions.