BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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The Naming of Parts

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

It didn’t end well for the star-crossed lovers, but Juliet makes a good point: Does it matter what things are called? The game designer is constantly creating things — ideas, objects, actions — that immediately require naming, and it’s a tricky business.

One argument is that the specific name doesn’t matter; it’s only a cipher for the thing itself; a useful, practical abstraction that the designer and player can both use as a common handle for an unfamiliar concept. An opposing argument would be that the name matters a very great deal, because it isn’t just a code; rather, the name — in some sense — is the thing, or at least suggests very strongly what the thing is supposed to be and hence immediately creates a web of expectations for players.

I certainly think that designers need to take care — but then, that’s what I think designers should be doing all the time! The words we use have the potential to reveal our intent, or obfuscate it; to intuitively enable players, or hobble them with a dim, misleading picture of our game that can only impede their understanding. But the truth of it is that our words, however carefully chosen, will often be heeded and then ignored, replaced by individual players with their own idiosyncratic language — what linguists would call a ‘folk taxonomy’.

The ‘meeple’ didn’t start out being called that. In my head the ‘cloisters’ of Carcassonne are actually ‘monkeries’ (I think my mother coined that term), and I never think of the meeples on the roads as ‘thieves’ nor the meeples in cities as ‘knights’, although the ‘farmer’ terminology does survive. When I used to play Super Cluedo Challenge with my family (by, it should be noted, our own rules), we adopted all sorts of mangled language: the ‘Conservatory’ was the ‘Conservatoire’ (with a laboured accent on the final syllable), the ‘Dining Room’ was the ‘Dinning Room’ (to rhyme with ‘winning’), and the ‘Lounge’, for reasons about which I cannot now begin to speculate, was the ‘Linge’ (to rhyme with ‘hinge’).

Why did we do this? I can’t say, but these shared rituals were all part of our shared enjoyment of a game which, in any case, usually lasted two hours only for us all to come to exactly the same conclusion at exactly the same time. The point is that we can be certain that, when it comes to Super Cluedo Challenge, no-one played it quite like us!

And that’s the beauty of board games. Everyone, almost without noticing, adopts their own traditions and conventions that surround and inform their play; and these traditions, in my opinion, are far more important to replayability and enjoyment than anything the designer or publisher can possibly offer.

Choose your words with care, but don’t expect them to hang around for very long.

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
    And to-day we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed, Lessons of the War: I. The Naming of Parts

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