Player Experience (PX) Series #1: A Primer on User Experience and Interface Design

This is an installment in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” feel free to start at the beginning, or just jump right in!

Valour with TeapotTo begin our exploration of Player Experience (PX), I feel it’s important to take a step back, and understand some underlying concepts. Luckily, there have been decades of research on human-centered design (and, turns out, board games are intended for consumption by humans). So to set down some vocabulary around fundamentals, we’ll begin with an analysis of board games from a raw “User Experience” or “UX” perspective.

No discussion of User Experience or Human-Centered design is possible without a peek at the research of Don Norman. In his seminal work, The Design (‘Psychology’, in some printings) of Everyday Things, he lays out a series of terms for describing an experience a user can have with a system. He’s gone on to clarify many of these topics through successive editions of the book, and a great online presence. The key concepts he lays out[1]:

  • Visibility: Can the user see the thing they are meant to interact with.
  • Mappings: Which elements of the interface correspond to the pieces of the system I wish to impact?
  • Affordances: How the user identifies that an interface is meant to be… interfaced with.
  • Constraints: Where are the bounds of the user’s ability to change the element?
  • Conceptual models: What existing preconceptions or cultural norms does this interface element relate to? What are we comparing the system to more broadly?
  • Feedback: When a user does a thing, do they know that their action was effective in manipulating the system?

The three core concepts here, especially with regard to board games, are affordances, constraints, and conceptual models. Several years after the book was published, Norman ranted on a listserv in an attempt to clarify that computer interfaces don’t actually create affordances, only perceived affordances – but since our games live in the physical world, we DO get to have real affordances 🙂 It’s intuitive to pick up and move a cube, and components can be printed like the ‘Race’ and ‘Descriptor’ chips in Small World which are cut in such a way that their shape hints at how they are intended to be used together.

Cards have a natural constraint of being only visible from one side; a smaller printed area on a game board implies that fewer things will be placed there, and larger areas suggest they are more important, or will be used to contain more things.

A conceptual model draws on a user’s previous experiences to help guide them to a conclusion: a row of connected squares on a game board (a “track”) can teach that perhaps one of our cube-shaped wooden affordances will record a scalar value of some kind. A card port at the edge of a board, or a card-shaped area implies that a card or a deck will be placed there. A carefully-placed line may afford a space, or constrain a territory. Conceptual models can also be thought of as “knowledge in the world”.

For example, when areas on a board are graphically connected into a network, it simultaneously provides an affordance of how a player will be interacting with areas and their neighbors, a constraint around which areas may be able to influence one another, and a conceptual model that they are related in some manner, perhaps in a physical way. One glance at the Pandemic board is all it takes for a user (player) to identify that Atlanta and Washington D.C. are related, but Atlanta and Los Angeles are not.

Photo credit: Flickr user Jana Reifegerste (CC BY-SA)

By allowing a player to intuit how various parts of your game are intended to be used, we give them mental room to build mappings and conceptual models of the more abstract and esoteric concepts we’re trying to confer. Is that chit really an army? Obviously not. But because you’ve given them an affordance (the chit) they can move within constraints (a hex grid), they’re able to project their desires (conquer their opponent’s city) into the conceptual model “this 5 square feet of cardboard represents the eastern front, c. 1945”.

These things all work together to help a player understand what they are supposed to do. A game can include a vast amount of complexity, but through a consistent and well organized “interface” the player’s experience is facilitated. And affordances, constraints, and conceptual models aren’t in any way limited to the situations I’ve described. It’s a short leap to imagining these considerations applied to: iconographies, color consistency, or the layout of rules; by way of further example: Arkham Horror is vastly complicated, but by stacking smaller conceptual models together… the symbolism of an Elder Sign is introduced early and consistently, and after learning that certain baddies follow white arrows and others follow black arrows on the location network, the player’s larger conceptual model (The Old Ones must be defeated), can quickly filter using these simpler models to make in-game decisions (“do I want to seal the gate here, or just close it?”).

We do a lot of this naturally as designers, because we’ve played a lot of games, and we are steeped in the cultural constraints we’re working within, making it easy to leverage those. However, it’s still possible to fail at board game “UX”: in Caylus, the Bailiff and the Provost are a terrible interface — nobody can remember which is which, because their affordances are almost identical, even though one has no problem culturally constructing an understanding that something will be moving linearly along the path delineated by a constraint made of spaces.

Board games are a unique spot (beyond and because of the fact that they’re physical), since they have many of the flexibilities of digital interfaces, while being able to provide a User Interface and Experience in the real world that players can touch, manipulate, and conceptualize.

“A well designed product teaches users how to use it.” And there’s no excuse for board games not to do the same.

Come back next week for a discussion of noobs, veteran gamers, and some weird thing I’ve termed the “Familiarity Spectra“. And if you haven’t yet, subscribe using the box to the right to make sure you receive every installment of this series as it’s released!

Continue on to the next installment →

[1] Here is a really helpful summary of Norman’s topics. You should also check out his book.