You’re sitting at the table with four of your closest friends, playing a rousing game of Brains, Grains, and Trains. You play a zombie card triumphantly… only to find out that’s exactly what the next player needed. Turns out, brains look a lot like wheat bushels upside down.

Later, you’ve got a hand full of cards. You don’t want to tip your hand, but you just don’t get what the icons are trying to tell you. Are you supposed to trade it for four train pieces? Trade it for any other four trains from the discard pile? Rip it into pieces and distribute it to your opponents?

What are these icons? And how can we make them easy to read?

Welcome to the Board Game Icon Crisis Hotline. For English, press 1. For German, press 2. For Spanish, press 3…

What is an icon language?

It’s a series of graphic symbols used to quickly and easily convey the key rules, actions, and concepts of your game. A good game icon language balances two things: being unique to the setting of your game, and being recognizable. And like a lot of graphic design, while it’s very easy to spot when an icon language is not working, if you’re doing it well, the language should be intuitive to speak and read after a few turns of your game.

Why should an icon language be unique?

Because a good theme can engage and empower the mechanics of your game, and you carry it through all aspects of the game’s graphic design. Think of them like verbs in writing. Sure, you can just use the word “fight”. But if you want an engaging story, you might think of some different ways of conveying that concept.

Do you dress your iconography up with a magical arcane look to compliment your fantasy game? Or maybe blocky simple shapes that are more friendly and fun? Your choice of language when it comes to iconography can be the difference between “battle” and “smack-down”, and subconsciously affect how players feel about the experience.

For a “dungeon-crawl fantasy” theme, a sword seems like a logical choice to represent attacking. But Baldrick’s Tomb and Ascension have two unique ways of showing them that reinforce the two distinct spirits of each game.

Things you can do to make your icon language unique:

  • Tie them into the art style of your illustrations, by either using the same medium, color palette, or techniques.
  • Search for icon sets on stock illustration sites like iStock that you can adapt to your theme.
  • Consider a bold framing element for otherwise neutral icons to give them flair.

That said, when you need a duck, don’t use an albatross.

The second part of your language is recognition. If you use a word or sentence structure that’s too obscure, people won’t understand what you’re saying and have to break from the gameplay to read your rules, or maybe give up entirely because there are too many roadblocks to engaging with your game. And since board gaming is enjoyed by audiences from different cultures and backgrounds, using symbols that are part of everyone’s language can be tricky.

Phones designed by Scott Lewis, Jo, and Dmitry Baranovskiy for the Noun Project

Things that you can do to make your icons recognizable:

  • Research how your concepts are depicted in other places with a Google search or by looking around The Noun Project.
  • Show them to a lot of people to see how intuitive they are.
  • Sometimes, even an unusual icon can be learned while playing the game (like the weird pink flame in Kingsburg), so show them to people in the context of the game as well to see if the read of your icons is an issue.
  • If the concepts are too complex and you’re having to mash up your icons in weird ways to get your point across, consider using text instead of icons to more effectively reach your audience. (I’m looking at you, Lewis and Clark.)

Strange pink ghost or possessed cotton candy ball? Even obscure icons like the “peek” icon in Kingsburg can be learned if used sparingly.

The words in your language

Telling one word apart from another within your icon language adds a whole new layer of consideration. In a setting like board games where we often see one icon next to another, or look at them from different orientations around the table, or want to be inclusive of vision challenges, having an easy read between them is key.

  • Avoid getting too detailed, especially if the icon is going to be small on a card.
  • Try breaking up your icons into both simple shapes (square, circle, triangle) and very distinct colors for at-a-glance readability.
  • Consider including a glossary of icons in your instructions and on a reference card for each player, especially if your game hinges on understanding a lot of icons.
  • Again, a framing element can work wonders on two otherwise similar icons.

Different colors might seem to work fine… until you consider color blindness or the ink printing darker/lighter than you thought it would. Avoid these pitfalls by using shape AND color to set your icons apart.

Your turn!

Have you ever played a game and come across some baffling icons? Or seen a clever use of a symbol someplace? Let us know in the comments!

More resources for icon design:

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Christina Major

Artist/Designer at Whirling Derby

Christina does freelance graphic design for board game publishers with her husband Mark Major, is the wig-wearing half of Whirling Derby, and draws/authors a webcomic over at

15 Readers Commented

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  1. Norv Brooks on July 7, 2014

    Great article, Christina. Well done!

  2. Glittercats on July 7, 2014

    I think knowing when *not* to use icons (as you mention in bullet 2.4) is an underrated skill. There are a number of games out there now with beautiful icon languages, which has led to a lot of deserved focus on the benefits of iconization. But some designers to try to convert everything in the game into icons, even when it’s a complex or rarely-used concept. Yeah, the monolingual Farsi speaker at the table won’t be able to read your English card text — but they also won’t be able to read the card-by-card icon explanation page in the rulebook that your English-speaking players are constantly referring back to!

    • Christina Major Author on July 8, 2014

      I think you bring up an excellent point that if the icon is complex and concept is not used OFTEN, the game isn’t going to reinforce it enough to add it to your “vocabulary”, and that’s a sign you may just be better off with text. If you’re reading your icon language and having to look up every other word in the “dictionary”, it’s going to chop up the narrative and make things unpleasant for everyone.

  3. Jon Vallerand on July 7, 2014

    Being from the bilingual city of Montreal, I’d like to point out how appreciated it is around here for a game to use icons instead of texts. Having to buy two copies of Dominion to be able to play it with monolingual players is problematic.

    Also, as you mention in 2.4, and as Glittercats has pointed out, icons should not be used for everything, and should be limited to things that come up often. If only one card would use that icon, an icon is not needed.

    One last thing: while icons do have their usefulness, one thing Magic: The Gathering did well is to use standard ability names. Dominion would be a lot quicker if it replaced “Each opponent gains a curse, adding it to their discard pile.” by “Curse”, or “Trash a card from your hand. Gain a card costing exactly X more than it.” by “Improve X”. I’m not sure when icon is better than codeword, and vice versa, but it’s also an option.

    • Christina Major Author on July 8, 2014

      Oooh, that’s a good point about codewords/shorthand too. It all accomplishes the same goal: making a language that’s a quicker read so the rules and language barriers aren’t holding your back from enjoying the game. But I can definitely see in places where there’s a mix of languages like Montreal it gets REALLY handy! I’m curious: what games are the easiest to break out for you when you’re playing with monolingual players who don’t speak the language the game is written in?

      • Jon Vallerand on July 8, 2014

        The most difficult things in such a situation are cards, or other text-heavy, hidden information component. The easiest games are obviously those that are language independent. In language-dependent games, it goes in order of how easy it is for such players to ask for translation: cooperative games > open information games (such as Worker Placement or skirmish game) > card game > hidden agenda/deduction game (“what does Traitor mean?”)

        Actually, that’s not true, party games, especially those with cultural references, are probably worse! Not much kills a game of Telestrations as much as a “I have no clue what this means”.

  4. Peter on July 9, 2014

    On the multi-language thing, Essen throws up some things to be aware of, principley when there are single language editions the German language edition is more plentiful and cheaper. Icons insted text largely solves this issue, makes multi-language copies easier, and where single language still exists generally makes self localisation a matter of printing a manual. Being able to by the German copy (or a multi language copy that doesn’t suffer from text bloat (seen 3 languages on cards before) makes life better. (All this probably brings production costs down to, larger identical runs on more of your bits and pieces won’t hurt).

  5. Scott Hartman on July 9, 2014

    Good article. As a graphic designer I can say that it takes tremendous effort to create a good icon whether for a game or website but when you do it well it is very satisfying work. I made the iconography for Infamy, a board game published by Mercury Games, the icons and logos for that game took many weeks to finalize and dozens of variations/edits. In the end I am thoroughly happy with how they turned out and I think they shine as in-game icons as well as help establish the setting.

    In the end, good graphic design won’t make a bad game good but it can make a good game great.

  6. Chris Headley on July 9, 2014

    Good iconography is hard but I appreciate when iconography enhances card real estate letting artwork to come through without cluttering the card. The artwork is cool & I hate when game information starts infringing. But it is late & I can not come up with any examples at moment. I know I have seen cards where I needed a cheat card to understand the cards I was going to play.

  7. Arthur Wohlwill on July 10, 2014

    I remember the first few times I played 7 Wonders, I got overwhelmed by the iconography. In that game it becomes a problem because there are some many icons and the game moves pretty quickly, with everybody playing at once. It also happens that I teach college Biology and my students get confused at the iconography of textbooks. What is that blob? It means nothing to them. I actually wrote a blog about this (from the educational standpoint. It is a problem that I have not figured out yet, but your blog gives me some ideas.
    (here is the blog if anyone cares )

  8. Derik@Lagniappe on July 11, 2014

    Very helpful article, Mrs. Major. Arthur’s example of 7 Wonders, I thought made outstanding use of iconography (excluding the expansions). I imagine, like Peter brings up, it translates into other languages very easily.
    The only thing I’ve seen done with icons that I don’t particularly care for is everybody and their mother using the same icons from At least if people would modify and re-color them so they didn’t look like everybody else’s games :-/

  9. Royce Banuelos on July 11, 2014

    Great article! I just wanted to add how Ticket to Ride included icons into the train cards so color blind people would be able to distinguish the different colors. Using icons was a simple solution for that problem. Sometimes icons are great to help include a wider audience. Oh and I agree the Lewis and Clark icons get out of hand ha ha. I played with a group and we got several cards wrong and had to continuously check what icons meant.

  10. Jason Ward on July 24, 2014

    Great article! I’ve found that icons, perhaps more than any other aspect of a design, can affect play dramatically. Your thoughts on color and simple shapes are dead on. Here are a couple more icon sources that I love.

    Thanks, Jason Ward at

  11. Kevin Garnica on July 28, 2014

    I think that consistency in the layout is also really important.

    “These icons are the *cost* of the card” vs. “these icons are the *bonus* gained”, etc…
    It’s easy to get these sorts of differences mixed up if they aren’t laid out in an intuitive manner relative to each other.

    Games that have great, clear iconography: Kingsburg, Splendor, The Speicherstadt.
    Games that don’t have good iconography: Troyes (and Tournay), Le Havre, Bora Bora.

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