Published on April 19, 2020. Last Updated on May 1, 2023.
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 few 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’d prefer 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.
- For board game mechanics, https://boardgamegeek.com/browse/boardgamemechanic is the authority.
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.
A mechanic where each player is allowed to take a certain number of actions on their turn. The player has to choose which actions to take, and in what order. Some games are ‘Simultaneous Action Selection’, meaning players choose their actions at the same time.
When two things are next to each other, they have adjacency (are adjacent to each other). This usually means they’re orthogonally adjacent (to the north, south, east, or west of each other), not on the diagonals, but that will vary by game.
Admin / admin time
A game phase involving cleanup or resetting elements of the game for the next phase or round.
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.
Analysis Paralysis (AP)
A situation where a player is overanalyzing or overthinking their next play, and cannot decide their best move. This is usually a bad thing, and something for designers to avoid.
A type of game where the goal is to control an area of the board. You may score points based on how long you hold an area or how much area you control.
Another term for components, or the dice, cubes, tokens, and other pieces needed to play a game.
A slang term for a game or decision in a game that really makes you think. There may be a lot of things to consider, or a lot of elements that need to be managed. Either way, a game described as ‘brain burny’ is probably not for a newer gamer.
Usually heard during playtesting (but also occasionally seen in published games), a ‘broken’ game has an unbalanced card, weapon, strategy, tool, or technique that causes unintended consequences to the game’s mechanics or themes.
A broken game can also refer to a game where the rules are incomplete or unclear, and players are unsure how to resolve something within the game. Players might ‘house-rule’ something to get past that immediate issue.
As opposed to a hardcore gamer, a casual gamer may enjoy simpler games, shorter games, or simply play games less frequently.
A mechanic that allows a players that’s behind to catch up to the leader. If you’ve ever played Mario Kart, the catch-up mechanism here is the blue shell (which targets the 1st place driver) or the lightning bolt (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 may 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 the ‘chase’ being ‘pay to win’ — the player who has spent more money on their cards generally wins more often 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 ends up having only one winner – in some cases a team wins.
A generic term for the many pieces in 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 on the box to see what’s inside.
Cooperative game / co-op / co-operative game
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.
Decision scale / space
A way of framing how important the decisions are in a game. Decisions that are boring or of little importance can make the decision feel unimportant — almost like you could choose at random and it wouldn’t matter. At the same time, decisions that feel like life or death can be really stressful.
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.
The spots on dice, usually white or black.
Time spent between the end of your turn and the start of your next turn. The term is usually used when the player does not need to pay attention to the game or other players between turns. Downtime is sometimes unavoidable in games, but can be removed by giving players a reason to pay attention to other players or the game state between turns.
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, a galaxy, etc. 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.
A game in which players actions build on each other. The ‘engine’ you’re building is essentially a feedback loop that builds on itself – you might acquire cards or tiles that let you acquire more energy or resources. Examples include Splendor, Century Spice Road, and Scythe.
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 typically 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.
A side of a card. One side usually has information, while the other is usually uniform. Usually, you’ll 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, a lack of consideration during the design process, or that a lot of pieces are used in the game.
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.
Flip the table
Tabletop’s version of rage-quitting — literally or figuratively disrupting the table or components on it. In real-world games, this is a major faux pas since you might damage the table or the game. In Tabletop Simulator, pushing the button to flip the table is also a faux pas since it flips the on-screen table. (If you’re the host of the game, you can turn this off in the Permissions.) It’s usually acceptable (and sometimes hilarious) to flip the table in Tabletop Simulator after finishing the game
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.
To take the same action as another player chose, as intended by the game design. Other players might have following as an option or a requirement. Examples include Tiny Epic Galaxies and Tiny Towns.
In trick-taking games, to follow suit means to play a card of the established suit. In most trick-taking games, the first card played in a round establishes a suit (or type of card) that all other players must follow if they can. Examples include Spades, Hearts, and Contract Bridge.
That weird group of humans you meet on a regular basis, either in a real-world location or a virtual space.
Pronounced ‘grawk’ and rhyming with ‘hawk’, ‘grok’ is American slang for understanding something intuitively or by empathy. To ‘grok’ something means you understand well, even that it has become part of your identity. Originally a term from a 1960’s science fiction novel, it was used by 1980’s computer science nerds and gained mainstream acceptance through a World of Warcraft quest.
The maximum number of cards you may hold in your hand. In some games, you might be allowed to add more cards than the hand limit, but then you’ll have to discard down to the hand limit.
A game mechanic where the order in which you play your cards is important. You might be able to build a combo by playing card A, then card B, or activating card A first lets you take a more powerful action on card B. Examples include the enormous Gloomhaven and the tiny Love Letter.
As opposed to a casual gamer, a hardcore gamer may enjoy more complex games, longer games, or simply play games more frequently.
Drafting a card you don’t really need or want to prevent an opponent from drafting it.
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’s box 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. You might go ‘unconscious’, be disabled, or unable to do something instead.
A game that combines aspects or elements of American and European games — tight mechanics as seen in European games, and a deep, engaging theme as seen in American games. Sometimes called ‘Eurotrash’ (a portmanteau of ‘European’ and ‘Ameritrash’). Eclipse and The Gallerist are two examples.
One of two main types of randomness found in board games. Input randomness generally happens before a player makes a strategy or decision, and helps to inform or guide the player’s decision.
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 trademarked term.
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 game 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 or simpler components. May also be called filler games or party games.
A strategy or set of strategies to deal with the luck found in a game.
A description for a game that requires using lots of math, either to play strategically or to count up scoring. ‘Mathy’ games may have players feel like they are ‘mathing out’ their turns.
A description for a game that has lots of ‘meat’ to it. This is not quite the same as a ‘heavy’ game and is not necessarily a long game. ‘Meaty’ games tend to have strategic, deep decisions that need to be carefully considered and a lot of things going on. Examples include This War of Mine: The Board Game and Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island.
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 the player to your right, 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 measured in millimeters.
Min Max / min-maxing
Playing as efficiently or as optimized as possible; playing in a specific strategic way to convert resources, score points, etc. Some games have loopholes or unexpected ways to score more points, even though these may be unorthodox or less fun ways to play.
Modular board / modular board game
A type of game where the full board comes in pieces and can be put together in many different ways. Instead of playing a game that uses the same exact board layout (such as Monopoly or Ticket to Ride), the modules can be rotated and oriented to create a new board design each time you play. Some games (such as Zombicide) have modular boards that are double-sided. Once the game is done, the modules can be randomized for the next play.
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.
In trick-taking games, a different suit from the trump suit or the current suit. In most trick-taking games, you must follow suit unless you don’t have that suit in your hand. Playing off-suit usually means you can’t win that trick, but this varies by game.
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.
One of two main types of randomness found in board games. Output randomness generally happens after a player makes a strategy or decision, and helps to decide the outcome.
How much control or how many choices a player has. If the game creates lots of exceptions or rules that restrict your choices, player agency is decreased. If the game allows you to choose between lots of actions, or lets you choose the order in which you take those actions, player agency is increased.
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 usually 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 scoring points lacks strategic or tactical focus. It can also refer to a game where points are given at the end of the game or throughout the game.
Print and play (PNP)
A computer file (usually a PDF) that contains the cards, tiles, or other printable components of a game. Print and play files usually
Quarterbacking / Alpha Quarterbacking
A single player telling everyone what they should do, often in a co-op 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.
To quit a game before it’s conclusion, usually because you’re frustrated and angry. Usually a major faux pas, and something that can get you thrown out of a board game cafe / shop.
A game where players take turns at the same time, or where seeing time tick down or up 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. Games with modular boards, more scenarios, expansions, and a design that allows for more variance may have a higher 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 game mechanic where resources, tiles, or cards are placed in a circle, but only some can be chosen for free. Games that use a rondel may be trying to prevent players from taking the same action each round. In most games, you’re allowed to choose one of the resources, tiles, or cards. If it’s more than a set number of spaces from your token’s starting point, you may have to pay something to take it. Among others, Antike and Imperial use them.
Roll and Move
A type of game involving rolling dice and moving a number of spaces. Sometimes used in a derogatory manner to dismiss it. Examples include Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, and Clue / Cluedo.
Roll and Write
A type of game involving rolling dice and writing or drawing something on paper. These games are often very portable and can be played by a large number of players. Examples include That’s Pretty Clever, Roll Through the Ages, Harvest Dice, and Welcome To… .
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.
Semi-cooperative / semi-competitive / co-petitive game
A game that has cooperative and competitive elements. There may be a common objective all players are looking to achieve alongside a competitive way of scoring points. Examples include Castle Panic! (all players work together to defeat enemies, but only the player with the most points wins), Dead of Winter (players have common and personal objectives), and Nemesis (complete a personal objective while fighting off a common enemy).
A selfie, taken in front of a shelf of games, perhaps even the shelf of games you own.
Shelf of shame
A slang term for games a person has bought, but not played. They may be stored on a literal, physical shelf or elsewhere. These games may still be in their original shrinkwrap, unpunched, or otherwise not ready to play for the first time.
Clear plastic sleeves to protect cards from wear and tear. Some sleeves may have designs or solid colors on the back to help distinguish them.
A negative term for a game that is long, boring, repetitive, and/or tedious.
A type of game where the goal is to discover other player’s characters, or to see your team win without revealing some secret information.
A row or collection of cards that sit in front of you. These are typically ‘your’ cards (not ‘common’ 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.
Slang for a game that takes up a unexpected amount of space on a table. This term usually applies to larger / heavier games, but can apply to any game that has large components or lots of things to lay out.
How a game looks on a table. Games with a ‘good’ table presence might be very colorful, might use 3D or height above the table in some way, or otherwise present a rich visual look to stand out from other games.
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.
Take that (AKA take-that)
A mechanic or element in a game where an action one player takes causes harm or something negative to happen to another player.
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 while the patent has expired, they retain 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/or 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 term for a game that makes you think, or games with deeper strategic moments.
A type of game where players are laying tiles next to each other in some way. In games like Carcassone, players create a map from the tiles they play throughout the game. Other examples include Alhambra, Galaxy Trucker, and Ingenious.
A type of game where the goal is to win ‘tricks’, or rounds of cards. In most trick-taking games, each player plays a single card each round, and the highest number of the correct suit usually wins.
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.
The order in which players take their turns. In many games, player take turns one at a time in clockwise order around the table. In other games, play is simultaneous, so there is no turn order.
A term describing a game that is unfairly balanced or has some unbalanced strategies. This can lead to a dominant strategy (a strategy that always wins) and players feeling like the game is unfair.
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 used by people to vote on the weight of the game (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, shed all of your cards, be the last player standing, 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.