A quick-start guide to the essential components of a good board game
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When you start looking into how to make your own board game, one of the first things that strikes you is just how many different bits and pieces — from dice and cards, to counters, coins, miniatures, and more — make up a game. In other words, there’s a lot more to it than just a board! And as you develop your idea and theme and choose the mechanics — given how many options there are to consider — you’ll need to ask yourself, “What should a board game include?”
It can quickly get confusing if you’re new to game design — even if you’ve been a keen player for a while — so we’d like to run through the most common and popular components from which you can choose what you need for your own custom board game. Several of them will be familiar to you already. Others, you may not have heard of until now.
Before we dive into the list, the collective noun for all the many bits and pieces — including the board itself — that make up a tabletop or board game is “components”. So, that’s the term we’ll use from now on.
Many of the names for the various components that can go into a board game are generic. In other words, for example, symbolic figurative pieces which represent players (like the little colored people in Carcassonne, the woodland creatures in Everdell, and even the score-keeping rabbits in Dixit) are all known as ‘meeples’. All solid geometric shapes with numbers or percentages on their surface which are rolled to obtain a random score are called ‘dice’ — singular, ‘die’ — regardless of how many sides they have. And all realistic, molded character pieces — whether people, dragons, monsters, animals, or anything else — are called miniatures.
What should a board game include? A quick-start list of key components
So, as this is a quick-start guide to board game components, we’ll stick to the generic definitions. Obviously, not all board games need include all of these components, even if some — like the board! — are essential by definition. In many ways, the question, “What should a board game include?” might be rephrased as, “What could a board game include?” And that’s what this list is about. Let’s dive in!
A gaming board
There’s a subtle distinction between tabletop games and board games, even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, you don’t need a board for a tabletop game — just a tabletop. So, card games, paper-and-pencil games, and many puzzle games are all tabletop games but not board games. Whereas a board game must have a board. You could argue that board games are a subset of tabletop games as boards are almost always placed on a tabletop (although, they’re often played on the floor, too).
The traditional and most common board for games is a printed card stock square or rectangle which may also fold up. In most cases, the board goes in the middle and has directional sides at which players sit. Other types of game board include modular sections which fit together — a bit like a jigsaw — to form the playing area. In several games — especially of the role-playing variety — the sections are placed on the table one by one as the game progresses and the configuration may change with each game played.
Cards are a common and very old component of many games. They’re usually rectangular and about the size of the traditional ‘poker cards’ but may vary in size and shape. Made of laminated printed card stock, they can represent characters, powers, numbers, or contain instructions, penalties, bonuses, and more besides.
Game cards may be pictorial, symbolic, numerical, textual, or all three. They’re usually gathered into decks and introduce randomization into the mechanics of a game; giving the players opportunity to respond creatively to new situations, opportunities, and consequences. They can also be part of the ‘win condition’ of a game — for example, when to win a player must collect a full set.
Chips, chits, coins, and counters
We’ve grouped these components together because they’re all part of the same ‘family’. As board games developed after traditional card games like poker, bridge, and whist, many of the oldest components were borrowed from these earlier games. These four all trace their ancestry back to the poker games played by gamblers in the saloons and casinos of the Old West.
Still used in poker as betting pieces representing cash values, chips are small round pieces about the size of a half dollar. In board games they are more commonly made of plastic these days, but may also be cardboard, metal, or even glazed ceramics. Chips usually represent a value or currency system in a board game and may have numbers or other symbols printed or stamped on them and can be different colors.
Chits are very similar to chips but made of cardboard. They’re usually printed on a single sheet of covered, perforated card stock and need to be pressed out before you can play. They can represent anything from players to currencies, to powers, skills, scores, and more.
The poker-based origins of coins are obvious. And in board games they still represent money — like the gold-colored ‘doubloons’ in Pirate’s Cove —but are more commonly made of cardboard or plastic. That said, game manufacturers may offer separate upgrades which include metallic coins, or you can just substitute them with a pocketful of pennies and dimes if you’d like a shortcut to the ‘real feel’ of your game currency.
Small, flat disks, typically circular in shape, made of cardboard or plastic — although sometimes of wood or ceramics — that are used to track movement across the board. Think of Ludo, Checkers, and Backgammon as classic examples. They can also be used to keep scores or limit moves.
Dice, spinners, and other random number generators
Most board games are a mix of chance and strategy. The oldest and most efficient way of introducing a controlled element of chance is to use a random number generator. Okay, so in the strict mathematical sense, dice and spinners aren’t completely random but they’re close enough for most board games. Otherwise, you can actually use a genuine random number generator (RNG) as an app on your smartphone or tablet.
Dice are geometric solids with numbers or percentages on the sides which you roll to get a score. The classic die (singular of dice) has six sides with the numerical values indicated by a number of dots. But modern dice can have up to 20 sides. They’re identified by using the prefix ‘D’ followed by the number of sides. So, for example, a D6 is the classic die, a D4 is a pyramid-shaped die with four sides, and a D20 is made up of twenty triangular sides. There’s another variation commonly used in role-playing board games, which is the ‘percentile’. It’s actually a pair of special D10s with values 0 to 9, which combined give you a ‘tens’ figure and a ‘units figure’ resulting in a percentage. So, if you roll a 3 and a 0, you score 30%.
An even older way of generating a number in a board game is the spinner. Usually, a flat polygon spiked on a short, pointed stick — like an old-fashioned spinning top — which is twisted quickly and released to make it spin. As it loses momentum, it falls on a random side where a value is printed. Another kind of spinner is like a clock with a freely moving ‘hand’ on a central axle and the numbers spread around the perimeter. Players spin the hand and read the number closest to where it stops.
Variations on numeric dice
You needn’t always have numbers on dice, though. Several good games use dice with stickers or symbols which represent actions or characters, for example. So, as well as being used to decide how many spaces a character can move in a turn or the outcome of combat, they can also decide what actions a player should take or even whose turn it is next.
Meeples, miniatures, pawns, and standees
Meeples, miniatures, pawns, and standees are all substitutes for players that move around the board to achieve whatever is the objective of the game. While clearly similar in function, they have distinct forms and origins. Which you choose may depend on the theme and feel of your game.
The word ‘meeple’ entered the English language in the year 2000 when — so the story goes — a player, Alison Hansel, coined the term to describe the little wooden figures in the popular board game Carcassonne, created by German game designer, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede. It soon caught on among gamers — although it hasn’t yet found its way into the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
While strictly belonging to the original game, the term meeple is often used for any small, simple, wooden piece which represents a player in a board game. It’s also become so popular that you can find meeples as memes on social media and even on merchandise such as T-shirts, postcards, and mugs! It’s said to be a contraction of two words, ‘my’ and ‘people’.
The realistic molded figures — like tiny, detailed sculptures — that have their origins in war games and role-playing games, are called ‘miniatures’. But as board games have evolved and developed, both in emerging complexity and synthesizing elements from other gaming traditions, they have migrated into board games, too. Miniatures are most commonly used in board games which are inspired by the classic role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons or RuneQuest. They can represent player characters who may be wizards, elves, dwarves, knights, and so on; or they can be used for monsters, dragons, and other non-player characters. Usually, both.
In war games, a single miniature may stand in for a squadron, battalion, or other military unit or represent a single soldier. In a role-playing-based board game, a player will usually control a single miniature as their character. In a war game, dozens or even hundreds of miniatures may be operated by a single player.
Miniatures are made of injection-molded plastic and usually lovingly painted by the game owner. Serious hobbyists also enjoy customizing their miniatures by cutting, swapping, and adding parts. Others may collect and display miniatures as a pastime in its own right as well as deploying them on the game board.
Pawns — best known as the first line of attack and defense in the game of Chess — are small pieces which are typically conical in shape with a flat base and a rounded ‘head’. Pawns, like meeples and miniatures, represent players on the board. They’re often made of colored plastic like the pawns in the popular detective board game, Clue.
Standees are three-dimensional game components made by slotting a press-out cardboard shape into a plastic stand (hence the name). They usually represent players and non-player characters. But they can also be used for scenery, obstacles, and other components of certain games.
Typically squares — but sometimes triangular, hexagonal, or other shapes — tile is a confusing term because it can refer to a kind of chip — like the letter tiles in Scrabble — or modular elements of a board with multiple possible configurations emerging during the course of play. As an example of the latter, we can reference Carcassonne again, in which the tiles are placed to form territories which the players’ meeples then occupy.
Egg timers and ‘pingers’
In several board games you may want players to work ‘against the clock’, either competitively or cooperatively. The traditional timer is the hour-glass with sand inside which measures a minute or two as the sand slips from the upper bulb to the lower one once the timer is flipped over. Other types are those commonly used in kitchens, usually clockwork with a ticker and a bell when the time’s up — hence the name ‘pingers’ because of the tinkling bell sound they make. Obviously, there’s no reason why timed elements of the game shouldn’t be measured using any countdown device, including the one on your phone. But if it’s included as a component inside the game box, the timer is usually of the hour-glass variety as it’s lighter and less expensive.
Is a rulebook a component? We think so. After all, without it, you can’t play the game! Rulebooks can be as simple as a foldout sheet or as complex as a hardcover volume with hundreds of pages. But for most board games of average complexity — and rulebooks should always be as simple as possible — a printed brochure is usually enough. It should be illustrated and nicely laid out with numbered headlines, sub-headings, bullet points, summary boxes, and an index to make it easy to use and quick to consult when learning the game or in case of a dispute between players.
Well, that’s our quick-start guide to common game components. We hope it helps get you thinking about which bits and pieces would be the best fit for your own board game design and answers your question about what should a board game include. It will all depend on your idea, theme, and core mechanics, but this list should get you started. Bear in mind that there are several other options not listed here, but most are variations on these main generic types. Also, some of the terms are interchangeable, so that, for example, one person’s ‘counter’ is another’s ‘chip’ and vice versa.
Did you know that here at Qin Printing we print game boards and manufacture components and custom game boxes for people just like you who want to develop their own unique game or game prototype? Among our clients are individuals with a passion project, clubs and game societies, and budding entrepreneurial game designers who need a professional version of their game to take to trade fairs, conventions, and pitch to game publishers.
If you’re interested in making your own board game, why not talk to us? We have decades of experience in the industry and we’d be more than happy to discuss your ideas with you. Get in touch today and one of our friendly, expert team members will be delighted to explain how we can help or, if you’re ready, give you a quote for realizing your own beautiful, custom-made board game.