This post first appeared on Seth’s blog, Cumbersome

I learned a word a few years ago from a friend of mine — a word that I don’t use nearly enough. Not that it’s a common word that would come up in conversation very often, it’s actually a fairly obscure word that a lot of people probably haven’t heard. But there’s at least 1 context in which I think I will start to use it more often.

And the word is (drum roll please)…

Subitize definition

The context in which I intend to use the word subitize more is iconography. I’m currently working on a game for Tasty Minstrel Games called Chimera Station, by League of Gamemakers member Mark Major. In Chimera Station, you employ a team of alien workers to build a space station, and in order to make your workers better at various jobs you splice brains, claws, leaves, and tentacles onto them. As you build the station you’ll be adding numerous modules to the board, each one representing a new worker placement space:

Early Chimera Station pic

I’ve been working with graphic designer Daniel Solis, trying to express a lot of information onto these small tiles, with a little room for background art where possible. If you’ve played a game that has tiles like these then you probably know what I mean… there’s a lot to convey, and a few different ways to try it:

  • Some games try to go language independent, replacing all English text with icons. This can lead to an overwhelming amount of hieroglyphics if the effects to be iconized are too complicated or varied.
  • Some games forego icons altogether and just use English text to convey all the information. The problem here is that text takes up a lot of space, especially if it’s specific and thorough. Trying to abbreviate text to take up less space can be harder to read than the over-iconizing mentioned above!
  • Some games use a combination of text and in-line icons, which is what we decided to do for Chimera Station. On the down side it’s not language independent… but on the up side, it offers the best chance at fitting the necessary info best and most clearly.

It’s that third option I’d like to talk about today. The first pass of the modules with in-line icons (see left images below) did manage to reduce the text, making the tiles more readable. However, the text is small, the space is compact, and most players will not even be reading it face up… so I asked Daniel to show multiple icons rather than a number followed by an icon ([coin][coin] rather than 2[coin]):

cargo bay example

The parenthetical clarification was removed from the tile – it will be included in the rulebook. The right image shows a sample background, not the right one for this module.

The new format looked great on tiles that only had 2 or three icons on them, but it introduced a different problem on modules with more icons on them. For example, Cryogenics allows you to trade a genetic component in for 6 coins…

Six coin icons is probably easier to read upside down from across the table. The cost (top) and VP value (bottom) on this tile got adjusted, but that’s not relevant to this discussion.

coin example - six coins straight

While I do think the version with 6 icons looks better than the original version, it’s difficult to tell at a glance exactly how many coins you get. Which brings me to the whole point of this article… subitizing.

The definition above indicates that humans are limited to being able to subitize about 7 items, but a more common or practical limit is more like 4 or 5 items. If you see fewer than 5 items, you can immediately know how many items there are without having to count them one by one. That’s called Perceptional Subitizing.

It could be that the 6 coin icons are too many for players to comfortably subitize, but I wasn’t happy with the idea of going back to the original text version either. So I tried a simple tweak: I added a gap in the middle of the row of coin icons, separating the 6 items into two sets of 3 icons.

Three items are easy enough for anyone to subitize, so breaking the coin icons up in to two sets will allow players to fairly easily combine 3+3 and identify 6 icons. This is called Conceptual Subitizing:

coin example - six coins separated

It’s much easier to identify “6 coins” in the right image than the left one, isn’t it? The tile also looks a lot better with the correct background 🙂

There are only a couple of tiles in Chimera Station that have more than 5 icons on them, and for those I’m hopeful this format will work out.

So, what do you think?

Were you familiar with “subitization”, the concept if not the term?
In general, can we can count on people’s ability to subitize in order to help create useful iconography in these games we play?
How have you used this concept in your games, even if you didn’t know what it was called?
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Seth Jaffee

Seth is a designer, developer, and player of strategic board and card games. He is Head of Development for Tasty Minstrel Games. You can find Seth at many game conventions, from Protospiel in Ann Arbor, to BGGcon in Dallas, to Strategicon in L.A. to name a few. Find him and play a game!

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  1. Jeremy on April 27, 2016

    The game Spot It! uses subitizing as its main game mechanic! (Subitization?)

  2. Gabe Barrett on April 28, 2016

    I think breaking the icons up is a really good way to handle it. When I first saw the tile with 6 coins, my brain found the middle point and broke it into 2 groups. Having it already broken up definitely makes recognition faster.

    What would you do if having 6 icons covered up too much of the tile or made things too crowded? Would that be a time to use a number next to an icon?

  3. Jesse on April 28, 2016

    This is brilliant! I especially love the 2×3 idea!

  4. Joseph Z Chen on April 29, 2016

    Great post! This is such a subtle problem and idea, but it becomes a really important visual design decision in making a game easier to understand and play. I love how brief and to the point your explanation is.

    I’m struggling with some of the same issues but with slightly different constraints. I assume when you have 5 items, you just show all 5 with no spacing? What about 7 items or 8 items?

    I’ve been experimenting with various formats. When prototyping with hand-written cards I showed every icon (e.g. ZZZZ for 4 Z resources). I felt it quickly showed with visual impact the cost and size of the effect. But what I discovered was that physical space was a constraint for me.

    Now I’ve been trying numbers. When there’s only one, I don’t specify a number (e.g. Z) but when there are multiple quantities I use numbers (e.g. 4Z). I’m finding it lacks the visual impact of actually seeing the actual resources repeated.

    Have you ever thought about repeating the symbols but showing a number when it exceeds a certain amount? For example, you say 5 is the limit, so you might show ZZZZZ but when you get to 6, you shorten it to 6Z?

    Another thing to consider is who will reading the information. Is this information on a card that is your hand and only visible to the player with the card? In that case the player has more time to read and understand the card. But once a card is played or in play, an ideal design would allow players from across the table (possibly reading the card upside down) to quickly glance at the card and understand the most important parts.

  5. Adubs on May 31, 2016

    I still have trouble seeing the gap. 3 stacked on 3 makes an even easier read. I’m having a hard time however understanding why you choose not to use a number beside the coin icon. A number is really just a basic icon that everyone recognizes imeadiately independant of language. You’re already using numbers on the top and bottom. Seems slightly inconsistent.
    In my deckbuilder I use icons that allow for the number to fall within it. That I find works the best.

  6. Floyd McWilliams on June 27, 2018

    Interesting article!

    I like Boomtown but I’ve found its subitization to be flawed. The core of the game is a card representing a mine, with an income (of 1 to 7 coins) paid when a specific number is rolled on two dice. This income also counts as VPs at the end of the game.

    Boomtown expresses income with a coin icon and subitizes in groups of 4, so 6 income is shown as a row of 4 coins then a second row of 2. This is okay when paying out income, but painful at the end of the game.

    It would have been much easier on players if the coins had been grouped by 5s, since it’s natural to count VPs in groups of 5 and 10.

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