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Board game rulebook-writing glossary

A work in progress.

This is a list of board games terms and how I use them. The purpose is primarily to have a consistent reference for my own use, to help ensure that I use words consistently.  If it helps to clarify your own thinking or terminology, you're welcome to use it too. 

This list is not intended to be exhaustive, or cover every possible game in the history or future of gaming. If you disagree on the usage, I'm happy to discuss that, but I'm not trying to tell you that you're wrong if you use the same words differently, and I don't need to hear it if all you want to offer is that you think I'm wrong.

Components

Card

An element for delivering game content that fits in the player's hand, that is flat, flexible (contrast: stiff cardboard), capable of holding its own weight without bending (contrast: sheet of paper). Usually has a distinct face and back, although this is not critical to the definition.

Token

Flat, stiff. A token represents something in the game, usually some sort of resource. Its value doesn't change depending on where it is - if it represents 1 gold piece or 2 sheaves of wheat, it's always 1 gold piece or 2 sheaves of wheat no matter where it is. Most tokens are the same on the face and on the back - some may have a different back to represent exhaustion, as long as that doesn't change the type of thing it is. If they have different content on one side and a common back, such that each element is different from the next, then they are probably either a thick card or a tile instead of a token. In general, tokens in a group are all the same type of thing. Part of my definition for a token is that it's the same as its siblings.

Sometimes the physical component name will take precedence over "token", to make the item more recognisable to the player. For example, if the resources in the game are represented with wooden cubes, I would likely use "cube" in place of "token": "place 1 Iron cube on your factory".

Marker

Any element whose value depends on its location - it is "marking" a value with its presence. Score tracks are an example, with each player having a score marker. First Player markers are markers, not tokens, because their position sets the value. Markers are often physically the same as tokens, and punched from the same board, but if the value changes depending on where it's placed, it's a marker.

Standee

An upright component that represents a character (or less frequently, a resource) of some kind. Usually has a plastic base or some means to keep it upright; frequently replaced by a detailed mini that does the same job. The standee is generally a type of marker, in that its location is important to its function.

Figure, Mini

The highly detailed deluxe replacement for a standee.

Board

A flat stiff cardboard element, usually much larger than all other component types. The defining characteristic is that it is intended to create locations / positions for other elements to be placed into when playing the game.

Tile

A flat stiff cardboard element, usually smaller than a card, and intended to be placed adjacent to other similar elements. The word tile describes in part something that matches with its neighbours to create a larger surface.

Dial

An element whose rotation is used to record a value. Usually flat and made from pieces of board pinned together, but the critical element is the circular / rotational use.

Dice

A regular polyhedron marked with symbols on each face. Usually intended to be rolled to select one of its symbols as the active symbol for the purpose of some gameplay activity. After much research into the history of the word, I choose the most modern usage: "dice" for both singular and plural, whenever that decision is mine to make. This definition is supported by major dictionaries.

My reasoning is that the word "die" is more heavily overloaded than "dice", with other meanings including "to change from a state of being alive to being dead", and "a mould used for shaping a molten substance". All of the other meanings of "dice" have some connection to a cube-shaped object (or some other regular polyhedron). In a rulebook, it is possible for the designer to want to use the word "die" in the sense of "dead", which means that the term becomes ambiguous. Anecdotally, I believe that a child asked to identify a single 6-sided cube with dots will call it a "dice" more often than a "die", and thus using "dice" broadens the age-range of the game.

My decision is to use: roll 1 dice, roll 2 dice. While this may produce teeth-gritting in a segment of the audience, I don't believe it will produce confusion about the intended action, and that's what I care about in a rulebook.

 

Arrangements of Components

Deck

An ordered sequence of cards, which has been prepared in a specific manner so that it is ready to use by drawing an item from the top. Played face-down, such that the cards are not public knowledge. Players expect to Draw from a Deck, meaning that they take the top card privately. Players can Reveal from the deck, which means they take the top card and show it openly to all players. Usually only the top card is accessible, though other named locations may include the bottom of the deck. 

Pile

An unordered collection of cards. Frequently operated face-up, with the cards contained in the pile being public knowledge. Frequently used for discarded items after they have been played: "discard pile". There's no top or bottom of a pile; if order is important then it's no longer a pile. 

Stack

An ordered sequence of cards or other flat items such as tokens. A stack may be played face-up, but in contrast to a Pile, the sequence of the cards matters, and the cards below the top are usually not visible or verifiable public knowledge. A stack may have items added to it. Usually only the top card is accessible, though other named locations may include the bottom of the stack. A stack for cards is appropriate when the players are adding an item to the top of the stack, and/or removing an item from the top of the stack.

Bag

A mechanism for randomising access to a collection of an element; cubes, tokens, coins, tiles, etc.

 

Play Areas

Hand

Score track

Round track

[Named] deck

[Named] discard pile

Tableau

This can be given a more thematic name, with "your tableau" as a fallback if nothing else is suitable.

[Named] Board

 

Activities

Draw

Roll

Deal

Gain

Lose

 

Writing rules 

These are terms intended for use in board game rulebooks, with the intention of making rulebooks more consistent in their terminology.

Oddly, given that it's for writing rulebooks, I don't consider these hard-and-fast rules. So, general guidelines, but applied quite strictly and broken only with good reason:

Naming

Name items for their function before naming them for what they are made out of.

Uniqueness

Make all terms unique. Do not use the same term for two different things. Terms should share words only when the items they designate are closely related.

Use the Components list at the start of the book to establish a dictionary of nouns for the player. Use those terms consistently throughout. Players should be able to read a term in the rulebook without any ambiguity about what it refers to, and look in the components list of the game to find an item that exactly matches that term. 

Capitalisation

Capitalise for the title of an item, but don't capitalise component words, such as token, card, board, etc. The physical implementation of the item shouldn't affect its title. For example,whether the Player information is printed on a card or a board, the important element is that it's the Player information, so "Player card" or "Player board", rather than "Player Card" or "Player Board". This also makes it possible to leave out the component word once the player is familiar with it, e.g "Gain two Fruit" instead of "Gain two Fruit tokens". If the item's title were "Fruit Token", it would have to be referred to that way throughout.

Verbs

Identify a set of verbs, the actions the game will use, and use them consistently. Make sure to define the change in state that each verb represents.

For example, "gain 1 coin": gain is the verb, and means to take the specified item from the general supply and put it under your control. The change in state is that you control one more of that item than you did before.

Try to make opposite verbs use pairs of common English words that are well-known to mean the intended action. For example: "lose 1 coin" pairs with "gain 1 coin", to mean placing an item that is in your control back into the general supply. The change in state is that you control one less of that item than you did before.

Always use verbs consistently. For example: don't use "take" and "gain", and "get" and "draw" to all mean the same thing. If those are relevant terms in the game, they should each have a distinct and well-defined meaning, that is used only when appropriate.