Boardgame interfaces: the good, the bad, and the modded

As part of a long-overdue cull, I’ve been working through my solitaire boardgames lately to determine which ones to keep. One issue I run into frequently is boardgames covering important information. I wish they’d stop doing that. And it’s not just a pet peeve; it’s a philosophy. One of the great strengths of boardgaming is being able to present information all at once. And yet that’s so often compromised by games that just plop tokens on the board or stack chits willy-nilly or don’t think about how cards are played or rely too much on player aids and so forth. It’s a fundamental part of a game’s interface, and I’m astonished how many games fail to understand this.

I’ve been playing – and, weirdly, coming to appreciate a lot more – the third edition of Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror boardgame. Here’s how it looks:

This is called a neighborhood. More specifically, it’s the Merchant District, with three separate spaces. Daniela Reyes is in the upper left at the Uninvited Isle, there’s a River Skulk on the River Docks, and you won’t have any problem getting a table at Tick-Tock Club, what with the lack of a crowd. The clue token in the middle is a goodie to be collected, accessible from all three spaces. The little red tokens are doom. As the game progresses, doom spreads:

When there are five doom in total, or three in any one space, there goes the neighborhood! Now you have an anomaly, which means 1) you can’t collect the clues and 2) any additional doom pushes the game clock toward failure. So you mark an anomaly by placing an Anomaly Token:

So let’s pretend it’s several turns later and we’ve got a card that references the Merchant District:

Hmm, I see Rivertown and Miskatonic University down in this part of the map. But where’s the Merchant District? Wasn’t there a Merchant District? Can anyone direct me to the Merchant District?

I know why they have a big-ass token to mark an anomaly. Because it means the clues are locked and you can’t get them. So it makes sense that you might want to indicate this with something dramatic. But by covering the clues? As well as the name of the space? With enormous over-sized tokens? Whose bright idea was that? Because here’s what I think of it:


I think it looks better that way. Heck, I didn’t just mod Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Third Edition, I improved it, aesthetically!

Please, boardgame makers, developers, and publishers, I implore you, stop covering important information!

The Great Zimbabwe ⬆️

The 2x1 purple tile needs a cost (the two cattle token) and an ownership marker (the oblong white piece) and these completely obscure what’s on the purple tile.


I don’t understand the problem…

Just choose better games!

All the info you need, right there!

Ohhh, nice thread topic that I don’t have much to contribute to off the top of my head. My gut feeling here is that bad examples standout more than good ones do and, fundamentally, simpler designs do this better (less information to convey). On the other hand, to the latter idea, there’s the Arkham Horror example above which, albeit modded, does look an improvement over the other games in that series. Either way, it’s definitely something I’ve noticed before while playing games, but never thought much about afterward.

I don’t have any nice pictures, but I recently played Suburbia again and think it does a nice job of conveying different building types (commercial) and subtypes (offices). Maybe, or maybe certain, Feld games too (counting chickens in Castles of Burgundy, though that one throws a lot at you). Most every wargame I’ve ever played is terrible at this in one way or another, though.

Tom-- Be more hardcore and memorize what locations are in every neighborhood.

Seriously, I like your solution! I get annoyed at games with pieces that are wildly disproportionate to the spaces they are meant to reside in, and end up blocking information, preventing other pieces from being in that space, or just looking… gross from a board-presence perspective. This seemingly includes basically every game with minis (except the griddy dungeon crawls where that Beholder takes up those four spaces EXACTLY!).

On the other hand, a minor bit of jostling as you move a piece into a space, or having to peek under a pawn to read something on the board goes hand-in-hand with the charming physicality of board games. So some theoretical game where every piece has its strictly designated slot–like, imagine there’s a card-shaped outline on every location in an AH neighborhood to hold the monster cards, and circles for the player pawns, etc–would feel too anodyne. Give me a bit of sloppiness, please!

For Arkham Horror, how about sticking each of those giant anomaly tokens to one of those plastic tripod things they put on the top of takeaway pizza to keep the lid up?
Then it can live where it’s supposed to but you can still see the district name and clues underneath.

If you’re lucky they’ll even still fit in the box!

I had some similar thoughts recently about Spirit Island and token size.

The original game and expansions have plastic invader tokens with a small footprint, and a variety of maybe nickel-sized punchboard tokens that represent various land states. They work fine, and let you know at a glance what the state of each land is.

They later made the “Premium Token Pack” available which provided wood replacements for the punchboard tokens that were slightly smaller. This was great for me, because they were still easily identifiable but made each land more readable.

They also recently introduced Horizons of Spirit Island, which is a beginner-focused standalone/expansion sold for much cheaper with all punchboard components having a much larger footprint. I used it to try and teach the game to some boardgame newbies recently, and it was great for that purpose except that the larger tokens made the board incomprehensible!

As long as a token is readily identifiable, I guess smaller is always preferable to me?

Huh, that’s exactly what was in my brain as a suggestion. Would look kinda cool, too.

They could have also made an anomaly token for each district that had the district name on it; there wouldn’t be that many since there are limited number of districts. Or tokens that were donut-like with anomaly graphic around the edge and you could still see the detail inside.

Totally get the annoyance with stuff like this. They need more playtesting with people coming up with the QoL improvements.

Never occurred to me to do something like that!

Here’s another minor thing that bothers me about Arkham Horror Third Edition (there are things I really like, as well, and I promise I’ll give them equal time in a later conversation!). Again, not specific to Arkham Horror, but certainly something that a company as experienced as Fantasy Flight should have caught.

The tokens themselves.

There are very few reasons to take issue with an actual token. You’ve really fallen down on the job if you’ve screwed up something as simple as a token. But here are a few different ways to screw up a token, and Fantasy Flight as managed to find two of them!

Sin #1: Tokens that can be easily confused with other tokens.

In Arkham Horror, there are tokens representing doom that are scattered around the map. There are also tokens representing “remnants”, which is the currency you earn from fighting monsters. Here are the two tokens:

Firstly, guess which is which. The actual icons make sense once you grok that remnants represent chopping tentacles and whatnot off dead monsters to use them to power spells, or to trade at certain locations. So the tentacles are remnants and the abstract curlicues are doom.

But they’re nearly the exact same color. And at a glance, the iconography is just curly lines that do nothing to distinguish one from the other. It’s not a big deal since the tokens rarely share the same area, but there are relatively few tokens in the game, so it’s quite an accomplishment that two of them are so similar.

Sin #2: So you saved a few pennies by printing multi-use tokens with different backs, huh? I bet that’s a great idea without any drawbacks!

Not in Arkham Horror Third Edition. The most important tokens in the game are two-sided. One side is doom, which is the bad stuff on the board; the other side is a clue, which is the good stuff on the board. It’s the basis for almost all the scenarios: doom loses the game, clues win the game. And they’re constantly sharing the same spaces, whether it’s being collected on a card, stacked up on the scenario sheet, or marking locations on the map. Clues and doom constantly live side-by-side.

For instance, the Merchant District has both clues and doom, and it’s all marked with identical tokens. Two are on the clue side, two are on the doom side:

Anyone who’s ever played a boardgame knows that stuff gets jostled around. And sometimes tokens catch on something and flip, which is no big deal when it’s clear which side the token was on. But that’s rarely the case in Arkham Horror, where an inadvertently flipped token can dramatically change the state of the game:

Oops. Hopefully I noticed when it happened, otherwise, that’s a significant shift. I think I might take a permanent marker to one side of those tokens.

Rage increasing!

That’s exactly the sort of thing that drives me batty. Why, Great Zimbabwe, why? (I still really want to play that game someday!)

Why are wargamers so willing to put up with so much crap? It feels like they’re consistently held hostage to some of the worst and most persistent and most unnecessary interface fumbles, yet nary a peep. If I were an actual wargamer instead of just a dilettante, I’d be raging 24/7 until the situation improved!

Sure, but even this can be done wrong. For instance, sprawl can work, but it needs room to breath. You don’t necessarily need a slot for everything and everything in a slot, but you do need to anticipate what information will be conveyed and how. And when important information isn’t being conveyed because it’s obstructed by a playing piece, you need to rethink what you’re doing.

If we’re sticking with Fantasy Flight games, Eldritch Horror is a great example of a game board with that sloppiness you’re talking about, and plenty of room for sprawl. It doesn’t need a slot for everything and everything in its slot because it has so much space on the board! In fact, the Indian Ocean feels ready to made to hold whatever active Rumors are in play. There’s even room to resolve your combats down there. You can plop cards, tokens, monster tiles, investigator standees, and more however you need around the board without covering up stuff, because the board is so big. And, sure, it might look a bit sloppy, but that’s okay, because you were the one who put the stuff there and if you care about interfaces, you probably arranged it so you could see what you needed.

(Here’s where I might rant about the annoying double-sided monsters, where you always have to pick them up and flip them around to get the information you need. So incredibly annoying in scenarios with lots of monsters.)

Probably some waffle about ‘fog of war’ is my guess.

Much as I like Darkest Night 2nd Edition, that board gets stupidly crowded with quests, blights, mysteries, characters etc etc. Imagine planning a turn and realising “oops, there’s a blight there I missed under the stack of other things (cards) to worry about.” The silly timer system for the quests which has since seen me take quests off the board and lined up next to a series of dice (1-6) so I can track via location that way. Which then means I need to look in different areas when planning turn now.

Also, full credit to “Feast for Odin” for using bits of cardboard to deliberately cover things up :-)

Did you cut that token with chicken scissors??

You think you’re going to cut through an anomaly with a basic pair of run-of-the-mill kitchen scissors?!

Those scissors have probably been blessed in the tears of 1000 virgins!

Maracaibo has a good line in token shapes not matching with the slots they go on.

There are wooden circles, they go in square spaces.
There are wooden cubes, they go in octagonal spaces.
There are wooden octagons, they go in shield-shaped spaces.

Fortunately it’s not a problem after you get going, but it’s really confusing when first reading the rules. On the plus side, there’s no important information covered up.

Only because the bowie knife I use to skin wolves wasn’t handy.

(I wasn’t aware those were chicken scissors. I think of them as the industrial-strength boardgame-modding scissors that live in the kitchen.)

That’s hilarious, and exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. I’ve never even noticed that, but now I can’t unsee it!

Oh well, at least they weren’t fabric scissors. Shudder

You know why. Because [this particular sort of] wargames is made by and for people who have been playing them since the 1970’s, think of wargames as serious business, and believe approachability is beneath them.