Board Game Jargon Primer, Part 2

Welcome back to our series of articles demystifying the tangled mess of jargon that passes for common parlance in the board gaming world. I’m trying to keep the list in as roughly an alphabetical order as I can to make it easy to find your favourite confusing term. With that said, let’s get the ball (dice?) rolling!

Links to all of the entries below.

Area control

An area control mechanism in a board game revolves around the concept of having the most points within a border on a map. You might see this mechanic in a 4X game (q.v.), although it’s definitely not the only place you’ll run into this. Risk is an archetypical area control game. Whoever controls every part of the board—that is, whoever has their own figurines in every bordered area on the map—wins. Games such as Blood Rage don’t require you to exterminate everyone else on the map, but much of the tension arises from the fact that there is limited space for units. Other games use an area control mechanism in a tiny, even optional way. For example, Viticulture (designed by Jamey Stegmaier) has a small map of Italy in the corner of the main board. In this game, you don’t need to take part in the struggle for area control, but if everyone else is doing it you’d better have a really good way of catching up on the points you’ll miss.

Box art for BLOOD RAGE by Adrian Smith.
Apart from some glorious artwork, BLOOD RAGE also features really fun gameplay. Best of both!

Artist

Okay, I know you know what an artist is, but board game art is its own thing, and the look of a game can literally make or break its sales run. Clear, intuitive layouts and iconography are important to a game’s playability, so gamers follow artists almost as much as they do designers (q.v.). Some artists also like to work repeatedly with particular designers, so you have almost legendary match ups. Some of the higher-rated board game artists out there include:

  • Ian O’Toole, who often works with famed designer Vital Lacerda
  • Beth Sobel, famed for her nature artwork
  • Kyle Ferrin, who did the whimsical artwork for the brutal COIN-style [q.v.] game Root
  • Klemens Franz, noted for his artwork in many, many Euro-style board games
  • Mihajlo Dimitrievski, whose work with designer Shem Phillips has become love-it-or-hate-it iconic

Some board game designers also do their own art, but this is by far a rarity. You should look up the work of Ryan Laukat to see an excellent example.

From this point on I’m going to be mentioning the names of the artists in my examples because a lot of the same names will crop up over and over again.

Box art for Calico. Game designed by Kevin Russ.
We could have featured artwork from ROOT, which is beautiful. But Zwodder is biased: CALICO features artwork by Beth Sobel and it’s perfect for a cozy night in.

Asymmetrical game

If a game is asymmetrical, it means that all the players start with wildly different resources or abilities, rather than minor variations on a standard set of starting tokens or cards. COIN games (q.v.) are largely asymmetrical because of the material they deal with. Cole Wehrle’s Root, despite the cutesy aesthetic, is one of the most well-known asymmetrical games. In it, players can take the role of either four factions:

  • The Marquise de Cat starts with a token in almost every space on the board (from a pool of around 30 tokens).
  • The Ayrie Dynasty starts with three tokens in a single corner of the board (from a pool of around 20).
  • The Woodland Alliance starts with almost nothing on the board (but they have 12 or so tokens available to play).
  • The Vagabond only has the one token to play as, but can ally themselves with any other faction.

Each faction demands that players learn a whole new sequence of play and set of actions, since almost everything is unique to that faction.

Box art for Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right. Game by Cole Wehrle; Art by Kyle Ferrin.
Okay, Kyle Ferrin’s sartwork is just too gorgeous not to post.

Bag builder

This has nothing to do with Tuesday Night Sewing Club, but rather a type of engine-builder (q.v.) game. Bag builder games rely on the fact that you’re pulling tokens randomly from a bag, and using those tokens to play actions in your turn. In such games, specific tokens usually determine which actions you can perform. It sounds highly luck-based, but a good part of the strategy is streamlining what you put into the bag in the first place. Filling the bag with 20 or 30 tokens when you only have space for eight actions is just bad strategy. In the same context, using 10 tokens mitigates that luck aspect greatly, because you’re essentially leaving two actions to luck instead of…lots.

One of the best examples of a bag builder game is Orléans by designer Reiner Stockhausen, with art by Klemens Franz. Here the bag contains tokens denoting different members of society such as farmers, merchants, and clergy. The object of the game is to place these workers in your town to do actions, but most actions require a combination of different types of workers, so keeping your bag trim is essential. Another fantastic example is The Quacks of Quedlinburg by Wolfgang Warsch with art by Warsch and Dennis Lohausen. In that game, you play a quack doctor mixing potions in a marketplace. The bag is where you’re pulling ingredients from, but if you pull too many of the wrong ingredients, your potion explodes and you score nothing that round.

Box art for the Quacks of Quedlinburg.
Warsch and Dennis Lohausen

Board Game Geek (BGG)

This is the main website (boardgamegeek.com) where boardgamers get their information about games, share opinions, photos, digital rulebooks, and even work together to create games. If you’re into board gaming in any bigger way than collecting 30 themed copies of MONOPOLY, you’ll know about this site, mostly because it’s also a fantastic way to keep track of your inevitably-growing collection.

Screenshot of the BoardGameGeek home page.
And if you’re reading this, feel free to send zwodder a friend request.

Boss rush/boss battler

The boss or the end-of-level guardian in a video game. This term has extended to mean any end-of-level guardian that stands between the players and the next stage of the game, including dungeon crawling (q.v.) board games. The normal progression in a game is that players venture through and explore a region to power up their heroes before facing the boss. In a boss rush game, all those pleasantries are dispensed with and the players are simply facing a series of bosses, one after the other. Quite often there’s a time limit involved. It’s not a common trope because it turns out that many people enjoy picking off minions and pocketing their collective inventories before dealing with the boss. There aren’t too many games that use this mechanic, but the board game of Cuphead by Patrick Marino qualifies, since the video game it’s based on is also a boss battler. A better game that uses the boss battler mechanic is Vagrantsong (by Matt Carter, Justin Gibbs, and Kyle Rowan); this sees players cooperatively fighting bosses called “haints” on a spooky train.

Box art for Vagrantsong: A Bone-chillingly Spooky Adventure.
Ghost train, anyone?

COIN game

Nothing to do with actual metal discs used as currency. COIN stands for “counter-insurgency”, and is technically a series of games by publisher GMT games that deal with real-world counter-insurgency conflict in real-world historical settings. The games themselves are usually asymmetrical (q.v.) and the game’s components are largely abstract (q.v.) and representational. The board depicts a map of a region of conflict, with players vying for control on the board.

The first game, Andean Abyss, sees players taking part in the historical conflicts in 1990s Colombia, and the historical context is just as important as the gameplay. The first few games were designed by Volko Ruhnke, a CIA analyst, so he certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Collectible Card Game (CCG)

Art of the Core Set 2020 15-card booster pack for Magic: The Gathering,
Support your local game store!

A collectible card game is just that – a game with cards that can be collected together and built into playable decks. The games usually have hundreds to thousands of unique cards, with varying levels of rarity, and part of the fun is in curating one’s collection to include only the rarest or most powerful cards. Naturally, where there’s rarity there’s money, and many of the rarer cards can go for hundreds and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The games themselves are usually one-on-one games with people playing against opponents to see whose deck is better constructed. The cards themselves are sold in two ways:

  • starter packs contain a known quantity of known cards, so every starter of a given set is identical to every other starter of that set
  • booster packs usually contain 15 random cards and often with a guarantee of at least one fairly rare card

The most famous example is also the oldest: Magic: The Gathering (often abbreviated to MtG) by Richard Garfield. The game is almost 30 years old and they are still releasing new card sets. Pokémon is another such game, although the player base tends to be a younger demographic than Magic players.

Crunch

This has nothing to do with the exercise, or the concept of “crunch time” in modern software development, but rather with the concept of whether a game has interesting decisions and options for players to make. Usually this is termed as a game being crunchy, even satisfyingly so. There is no term in common use for a game that lacks crunch.

Box art for Red Factories: An Advanced Squad Leader Historical Module, Stalingrad 1942.
Wargames, like Advanced Squad Leader (pictured), are famously crunchy.

Knowing how complex a game is, and what level of complexity your boardgaming friends enjoy, is crucial to ensuring that everyone has as much fun as possible. — Ed.

d6, d8, d10, d12, d20

These are all common abbreviations for denominations of dice. The d6 is your standard cube-shaped die with six sides, and from there you can derive that a d4 has four sides, all the way to d20 being a regular platonic icosahedron with 20 sides. The number before the “d” refers to the number of these dice, so “6d20” means roll six twenty-sided dice. These dice are commonly used in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (“D&D”) and wargames (q.v.) such as Warhammer to determine the statistical odds of performing acts, but the dice get used in many board games to represent statistical randomness. Just because a die has a specific number of sides doesn’t mean those numbers are accurately represented, either. Betrayal at House on the Hill by Bruce Glassco, for example, has eight d6 dice with faces having zero, one, or two pips each. Some games have dice faces that represent icons, so they’re sometimes not even the familiar pips at all. The increasing popularity of tabletop gaming has given rise to a delightful cottage industry in custom die-making. It’s a rabbit-hole, however, so look up YouTube videos at your own peril.

Image of a boardgame board with glass counters and different denominations of dice.
Photo by Nika Benedictova