Tabletop gamer glossary / board game glossary
Gamers have a language all their own. Some of it is specific to individual games, but lots of terms or phrases have a common meaning. A couple of notes here:
- Note this is written to the new gamer, and is not meant to be an exhaustive list — if something’s missing that you think is important, let me know.
- The internet has a wonderful tendency to argue endlessly over the exact meanings of words, whether this thing is this term or not… I’ve taken great pains to avoid those types of debates here in favor of a simple, easy-to-read definition of those terms so you know what’s happening at the table.
A category of games that follow a distinct pattern: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. This style is used in video games (such as Civilization and Sim City) and tabletop games (Dominant Species, Tiny Epic Galaxies, Eclipse).
A term for when a game doesn’t have a theme. Chess, Backgammon, Checkers, and modern games like Qwirkle are all abstract games.
Broadly speaking, a style of game that favors a richer theme and/or player conflict over clever mechanics. American-style games often have direct player conflict (e.g. one player battles another) and a moderate to high amount of luck. While not necessarily produced by Americans or on the American continent, the term is used to differentiate American-style games from Euro-style games. Examples include Arkham Horror, Runescape, and Last Night on Earth.
A derogatory term for American-style games, sometimes used by fans of Euro-style games.
Another term for components, or the dice, cubes, tokens, and other pieces needed to play a game.
A mechanic allowing players falling behind to catch up to the leader. If you’ve played Mario Kart, the catch-up mechanism here is the blue shell (which targets the 1st place driver) or the lightning (which shrinks everyone in front of you). Games with a catch-up mechanic may award extra points, movements, or turns to players falling behind or in last place.
Collectible Card Game, also known as a Trading Card Game (TCG). A type of game where cards are sold in ‘starter packs’ or ‘booster packs’. Cards come in rare, uncommon, and common varieties, and rarer cards are generally more powerful (and thus valuable). Games of this type are sometimes criticized for being ‘pay to win’ — the player who has spent more money on their cards wins because their cards are more powerful, not necessarily because they’re a better player. Examples include Magic: the Gathering, Pokemon, and Netrunner.
A game where players compete against each other (as individuals or teams) to win. Not every game is competitive, however…
A generic term for the many pieces to a game. The board, the cardboard punchouts, the dice, the cards, the meeples, the miniatures, and other pieces that come in the box are all components. One of the first things many people do when looking at a game is to read the components list to see what’s inside.
A type of game where all players work together towards a common objective to defeat the game. In most cooperative games, all players will win (by beating the game) or all players will lose (if the game beats them). Examples include Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, and Castle Panic.
Two commonly accepted definitions:
- Games that feature complex formulas or lots of math to calculate movement, damage, or other actions — ‘number-crunching’, in other words. This definition seems more common in wargames and RPG types of games.
- Games with major, interesting decisions to make (as opposed to games that typically have one ‘correct’ or ‘strategically ideal’ choice). This definition seems more common outside the wargames and RPG types of games.
In both cases, ‘crunchy’ means there’s a lot for your brain to think about. The opposite of crunchy is ‘fluffy’ — essentially with more story and less competition or fighting.
A standard, six-sided die, often with one to six pips or the numbers 1 through 6. Some games use custom D6’s with sides showing one or two pips. Other common dice include D4, D8, D10, D12, and D20. Rules may refer to ‘2d6’ (with no space) to indicate players should roll two six-sided dice — the number of dice to roll comes first, followed by the type.
A game where players build a deck of cards from a pool of cards available to all players. Each player typically starts with an small, identical deck, then purchases other cards in the game to make their deck more powerful. Dominion is the most common example, while others include Star Realms, Nightfall, and A Few Acres of Snow.
Also called a traitor mechanic, the defector is a player with a secret goal that runs counter to other players. Defectors / traitors must typically look like they’re a team player, as being discovered can get them voted out of the game. Examples include Shadows over Camelot and Betrayal at House on the Hill.
A type of game that has players physically moving objects (such as chips, tiles, bricks, or dice) into specific places or towards other objects. Jenga is the most common example — instead of playing cards, you’re trying to remove a block from the stack, then carefully place it on top. Other games of this type may have you flicking discs or balancing things.
A mechanic that allows a player to reroll or change the number on the die. You may exchange a different type of resource for this ability, so it’s up to the player to choose whether the resource or the result of the roll is more valuable. This mechanic is used to reduce of the luck or randomness associated with dice rolling.
To select a small number of objects from a larger group of objects. In card drafting games like Sushi Go, you pick one card from a hand, then pass the hand to the next player. In dice drafting games like Castle Dice, you’ll pick one die to collect the resources represented on that die.
Dudes on a map
A sub-genre of games where the board is filled with ‘dudes’, figures, meeples, or other characters. For some, it’s a lot to look at or take in, but for others it’s a lot of fun. Examples include Axis and Allies and Risk, in all their various iterations.
A game that models the economy of a city, a state, a nation, a planet, or a galaxy. Players complete to build a more efficient ‘engine’, or make more things faster within the framework of the game. These games are generally (but not always) on the more complex side of things. Examples include Puerto Rico, Steam, Acquire, and Indonesia.
Eurogame / Euro-style
Broadly speaking, a style of game that favors clever mechanics over a richer theme or player conflict. Also called German-style board games, since the first games to create this category predominately came from Germany. While not necessarily produced by Europeans or on the European continent, the term is used to differentiate American-style games from Euro-style games.
Euro-style games avoid player elimination and are often designed to have little luck or randomness. Many (but not all) use Victory Points to determine the winner, and these are not fully calculated until the very end. Euro-style games will almost always have a theme, but it’s not as tightly integrated with the game play. Examples of Euro-style games include Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Carcassonne, El Grande, and Power Grid.
The side of the card with more information on it. Flip a card face-up to show it, or flip it face-down to hide it.
A game with lots of pieces or components to move, or a game where pieces feel flimsy or may not fit well together. A game that is fiddly can be more difficult or frustrating to play since the physical components are more difficult to use correctly. This may indicate an issue with the manufacturing process or a lack of consideration during the design process.
Filler / filler game
A shorter, simpler game. Games of this type may be played in-between larger or heavier games as a break or filler of time. Filler games can also be called light games, openers (e.g. games you start the night with), closers (e.g. games you finish the night with), and may also be party games. Some gamers prefer filler games as games that won’t take up the entire gaming time, or games that are easy to introduce.
Text (usually on a card) that adds to the story of the game or character. It’s not as important to read to learn how to play, but gets players more engaged in the story.
Friendly Local Game Store. The local store you go to meet friends, play games, buy games, special order stuff, or connect with offline.
Fluff / fluffy
In RPG’s and wargames, the text describing the world and concepts of the game. Games that are ‘fluffy’ might have deeper, rich worlds or a greater sense of story built in them along with simpler, more streamlined rules. The opposite of fluffy is ‘crunchy’ — less focus on the story and more focus on competition or fighting
Very strategic or complex games with lots of rules and components. Heavy games may take hours to play through, or feature campaigns that require several sessions to complete. The game may also be physically heavy and more expensive, owing to the many components it comes with.
Hidden movement games
Games where the movements of one or more players are hidden or not shown publicly. The player(s) whose movements are hidden usually have to keep track of their path or current location with cards or by writing their location with paper and pen. The person with the power of hidden movement may be cast as the ‘bad guy’, and as such may cast the rest of the players against that one hidden player. Examples include Letters from Whitechapel, Fury of Dracula, and Scotland Yard.
HP / Hit Points / Health Points
The amount of health a character has. Much like in video games, tabletop game characters can have HP / hit points / health points. It’s possible (though less common these days) to be completely eliminated from the game when your health gets to zero.
A player in a position to take an action that determines the game’s winner. Usually the player in this position is one that’s behind the leaders. It’s generally considered an undesirable trait to a game, since a player’s agency / control is taken out of their hands.
Living Card Game. A term trademarked by Fantasy Flight Games and described as a variant of Collectible Card Games. Where the contents of ‘booster packs’ in Collectible Card Games are randomized, the contents of Living Card Game packs or boxes are known. LCG’s are games like A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, and Android: Netrunner.
Other games use the non-trademarked term Expandable Card Game to represent a similar idea without running afoul of the trademark.
A type of game designed to be played a limited number of times. The game may require players to permanently mark the board or cards, tear up cards, or take other actions that permanently change the game. The board or cards may change based on the outcome of games or the choices players make along the way. Over the course of the game, other components may be introduced to further change the game, though they may not be revealed until certain conditions are met. The game is often still playable after the legacy campaign, but it may not be possible to reset it to the game it was. Examples include Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, and Seafall. Rob Daviau is credited with creating the Legacy concept.
Don’t confuse a legacy with a campaign type of game. A campaign may only be designed for a limited number of plays, but the components and board of the latter are easily reset. A campaign game typically won’t have new components introduced in the middle of the game, either.
Simpler games with simpler rules, and often fewer components. May also be called filler games or party games.
Mechanics / Mechanisms
Essentially, the rules or methods of game play. Mechanics can be as simple as drawing a card or rolling dice or as complex as role-playing or deploying units. Think of mechanics as the things you do to play the game, with the theme being the world in which you do those things. Descriptions of games mention the mechanics and/or theme to tell the player what the game’s about, or what sort of action happens in a game.
Board Game Geek has an exhaustive list of mechanics here.
A term for a generic player token. Typically solid-colored and wooden, it’s claimed the word was coined by Alison Hansel when she combined ‘my’ and ‘people’ in 2000, It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.
Meta / Meta-game / Meta-gaming
Using strategies, actions, knowledge, or methods outside the rules of the game to gain an advantage, or changing how you play a game based on non-game factors. Wow, that sounds complicated! Try this one: allowing real-world factors to change your gaming judgement. If you’re playing a game with your boyfriend/girlfriend, you might choose not to play a card on them because it would hurt them… so you play it on your friend, who it won’t hurt as much and isn’t as a good move, strategically.
Minis / Miniatures
Detailed, sculpted character tokens of specific sizes. Minis are generally crafted to work with one game or franchise of games, and may need to be painted before playing. Minis may be made with plastic or resin, although prototypes can also be 3D printed. Minis come in several different sizes and are typically in millimeters.
A way of noting the lack of player interaction in a game. Players may be building, growing, or exploring separate areas of the game and have little reason to interact or trade with each other. Tabletop games are meant to be a social experience, so games that feel like multi-player solitaire aren’t viewed favorably.
Orthogonal / orthogonally
To move a piece up, down, left, or right (north, south, west, or east), but not diagonally. Games that allow a player to move ‘one space’ without saying orthogonally generally means moving diagonally is allowed.
To be removed from the game, perhaps by your character’s death or by a vote. Depending on the game you may still be able to participate or watch, but your character is removed from the board / table and you no longer take a turn. This is considered an undesirable element of a game, and most game designers aim to keep all players in the game until the very end.
A game that offers lots of ways to score points. This is often a negative connotation, since it can imply lacks strategic or tactical focus. it can refer to a game where points are given at the end of the game or throughout the game.
A single player telling everyone what they should do, often in a cooperative type of game. Some players may have good intentions or may be trying to help a new player, but it’s frowned on to have one player decide for everyone without first getting input. Sometimes called Dominant Player Syndrome.
A game where players take turns at the same time, or where actual time is a part of the game. Games of this type may include a countdown or timer. Examples include Magic Maze, Escape the Room, Space Alert, and Fuse.
Replayable / Replayability / Replay Value
How enjoyable and fun the game is on repeated plays. Games with fewer scenarios, characters, or permutations may have a lower replay value.
Resolving / Resolution
Performing the required actions indicated on a card, space on the board or tile, or elsewhere. Once you play a card, it may be resolved by moving pieces, scoring points, drawing cards, rolling dice, or making a choice of some kind. Once completed, the card is resolved and play continues.
In the context of tabletop games, things you collect or acquire that help you buy stuff or accomplish your in-game goals. Resources are generally based on the theme. In Settlers of Catan, resources include brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. In Stone Age, resources include wood, brick, stone, gold, and food.
A complete set of turns by all players. Some games have a limited number of rounds by design, while other games are played until an objective is achieved.
Clear plastic sleeves to protect cards from wear and tear. Some sleeves may have designs or solid colors on the back.
A row or collection of cards that sit in front of you. These are typically ‘your’ cards (not ‘community’ cards) that typically help only you or hurt only others, and there’s a clear space between these cards and the cards in the middle.
To talk about your cards, your hand, the other players, or non-game subjects during a game. Most games don’t allow you to talk about your cards (the ones that do explicitly say so in the rules), and most gamers frown on it during serious games. Table talk can distract or disrupt a game while it’s ongoing, but it’s more acceptable to chat between rounds or games.
To rotate a card, usually 90 degrees, after using its power or resources. The rotation indicates its power or resource has been used to other players, and is returned to its starting position later on. Wizards of the Coast patented this mechanic in 1994 to use in Magic: the Gathering, and retains exclusive rights to use the term ‘tap’ in games. Other games use other terms to indicate the use of a card — ‘exhaust’, ‘activate’, ‘turn’, ‘spend’, ‘bow’, ‘kneel’, ‘use’, ‘open’, ‘charge’, and ‘commit’ is just a partial list.
Tech tree / Technology tree
Often pictured as a tree-like chart, a tech tree shows how your civilizations, weapons, or other elements grow throughout the game. Moving up the tech tree can mean gaining more resources or more powerful things. More common in larger or more complex games.
Slang for BoardGameGeek.com, the website.
The place, time period, and situation of the players — a theme is to a game as a setting is to a book. The theme expresses the topic or subject of the game, and is paired by the designer with the mechanics to suit it. A game set in 12th century Japan, for example, would probably not feature spaceships!
A single player’s choice of play. This can be as simple as playing a card on a pile or as complex as initiating (and resolving) an entire battle.
A type of game where each player takes their turn one at a time.
A generic term for scoring used by many games, abbreviated VP. Victory points are earned according to the rules of the game, and may be earned at any time during the game or after game’s end. Victory Points are more common in games with lots of things to do, with more points being awarded for more difficult things to achieve. Victory Points come in many names, but whatever the name, the goal is the same.
The complexity of the game. BoardGameGeek uses a 1-to-5 rating scale (1 being light and 5 being heavy).
Essentially, how someone wins the game. Collect a set, score the most victory points, be the first to reach a certain space on the board, have the most money, or the like.
A type of game that has players placing their tokens / meeples on certain spaces of the board to claim that space’s resource. Claiming it often prevents someone else from playing on that spot during that turn. Examples include Champions of Midgard, Stone Age, and Lords of Waterdeep.