Zeussical’s Occasional Game Design Thingy – Pieces, Tokens, Meeples, and Pawns

Ok! It’s been…… *checks wrist* several months! I did say “occasional”. It’s right there in the name. This year, huh? After some stress-related writer’s block, I’m back to discuss what is possibly the most iconic symbol of board gaming next to dice, the Pawn. Or Meeple. Or Piece. Or Counter. Or Token. Definitely one or all of those.

Short Overview

Dice, cards, and boards are all pretty indicative of board games in general, but if there is one iconic image for the modern board game that is unique to boardgaming, it has to be the meeple.

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Fig. A. – A Knight

There are other types of pieces that serve similar purposes: Piece is a broad term – the first game pieces were likely stones or some other readily available object. Component is similarly and sometimes even more broad,, but it sounds fancier. Token and Counter are similarly pragmatic descriptive terms. Pawns are interesting, because both they and Meeples lack a clear definition of what is and is not a Pawn/Meeple. In their most iconic form, Meeples are wooden extruded silhouettes of a simplified person shape, and pawns are abstract designs, rotated along a vertical axis. But internet arguments explode all the time over whether Meeples can have faces drawn on them or whether a pyramid can be called a Pawn. There is even a BoardGameGeek survey about what can and can’t be a Meeple, thoroughly confusing the issue for the rest of time. But before we get into all of these properly from a game design perspective, let’s take a look at the Meeple from an aesthetic and historical standpoint:

THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE MEEPLE

It is widely accepted that the first wooden doodad to be called “Meeple” was the Worker or Follower from Carcassonne, who gets to be a Monk, Knight, Bandit, Farmer or Other depending on where you decide to put them and how many expansions you bought. As far as can be told, the first written instance of the term occurred in late 2000 in a session report posted on BoardGameGeek.1 In the game being reported, one of the players, Alison Hansel, stumbled over the pronunciation of “my people” when referring to the tiny wooden workers, leading to the coining of the term “meeple” over the course of the night. Carcassonne was certainly not the first game to use such pieces – Europa 1945-2030 being a commonly cited example, and other examples having been presented from games produced in the early 80s. From there, the term seems to have caught on quickly, with an award called “Meeples’ Choice Award” being created on a game forum of the time as soon as late-2001.

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Fig. B. – Farmer

Today, the term Meeple is fairly common knowledge around the board game community, though not everyone can agree exactly on what, exactly, constitutes a meeple. Little wooden silhouette people as in Carcassonne are clearly meeples, but what if the piece in question made of plastic or metal? (Un)surprisingly, The Internet has some Opinions about this. Even more confounding, sometimes the object of controversy isn’t a person shape, but is instead a shark or whale as in Survive! or a 3D representation rather than an extruded 2D one, as in Risk or Betrayal at House on the Hill? No one knows. It is relevant to mention – the company that owns Carcassonne, Hans im Glück, currently holds the EU trademark of the term “Meeple, having applied for it in 2017, though it does not seem to ever have been contested or defended. It’s likely that if it ever is, the documented origins from various internet sources may invalidate their claim to trademark. Or at least make Everybody Mad.

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Fig. C. – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

The Basics

As mentioned above, the first game pieces were almost certainly just whatever rocks and such were lying around. You see this a lot in very old traditional games – Mancala, for example, can be played with any type of small stone, and Go can use as little as two distinguishable sets of stones. This can be a tool of a designer to make a game feel “traditional”. Tak is a fictional traditional game that is referred to2 in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle series, and when James Ernest was designing a defictionalized version, he designed a game in which the pieces are simple and abstract, and thus easily improvised. A key to understanding game pieces is to understand how a piece’s form and function are related:

Counting and Similarity

Many times, a piece is used purely as an object for counting. One version of this is Victory Points, which we will cover in a later thread, but other games that use counting pieces are the aforementioned Mancala and the many games that use the “Mancala mechanic” (Deja Vu, Five Tribes, etc.) Games with capturing also often will use captured pieces as counters. A key to these types of pieces is a unifying similarity – each stone should generally look like the other stones, VP tokens share a particular design within each game, and so on. They do not have to be identical – in Deja Vu, the pieces are different shapes reminiscent of Lucky Charms. They do, however, need to be similar enough for our brains to categorize them as a group of like objects. This helps our brains count them easily or get a general idea of how many there are just by looking at a general pile.

Memory and Noticeability

Pieces can be used to mark important information that players might need to remember. You may need to know that a house or hotel has been built in a particular location, or that a particular gate to the other realms has been closed in your quaint seaside town. The important trait for this kind of piece is that it is noticeable. There must be contrast in some way, either as a 3D figure on a 2D board or a bright color on an otherwise cool-toned board. Noticeability both helps a piece’s meaning stick in the memory, but also makes relevant information in the play area stand out at a glance.

Score Tracking and Personalization

In some games, pieces are used simply to track what score a player is on. It can be simple, as in Azul where each player has a simple cube that moves along a number line, or whimsical, like in Dixit, where scores are tracked by little wooden rabbits3 running around a course. Scoring tokens should have a sense of ownership, either due to location – where each player has their own board or region for scoring, or even just their own specific pile – or by personalization, like having different colors or unique shapes. This sense of ownership ties players to their piece, and can be a visual indicator of progress, either relative to other players on a shared board, or by increasing scale/distance on a personal board.

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Fig. D. – Meeples, possibly?

Area Control and Presence

Area Control is the first truly interactive function of pieces that we are covering. These pieces are either moved or placed, and can represent a claim to a specific space on a board, or players may be competing to have more of their pieces controlling an area. This can also be abstract, where a game piece’s area of control extends beyond the space that it is in based on its strategic capabilities, like in Chess. A game piece that is used for area control might be claiming an abstract geometric space or a particular node in a connected graph, or something more literal, like a country or region on a map. These pieces need to have physical presence that communicates this ownership. To use Chess pieces again, the different pieces of a Chess set have a visual language to them, where larger pieces can generally control more area on the board or hold more importance. Or in a game like Inis, your pieces can stack higher and higher to indicate more and more influence in a region.

Movement and Ergonomics

Movement is probably what most people picture when thinking about game pieces. Building off of Area Control, movement is a tool for shifting that area for progress or advantage. It helps for these pieces to have a feeling of movement to them, either by the kind of cultural association that the classic pawn shape has, or by shape, like Monopoly‘s strongest piece, the racecar. Even if there is no clear implication of movement, these pieces should feel able to be moved – the classic pawn has a very “grabbable” design, and many figurine-type pieces also invite movement.

Workers and Personality

Games in the Worker Placement genre have a similar style of play – in turns, players will send their workers to different locations on the board, at which point the worker will Do A Thing, and then some or all of the workers are collected back into their respective players’ pool and repeat until the land is stripped of all possible value. Agricola is a classic worker placement game, where you send your tiny farm people to different parts of your tiny farm to do various chores and grow crops (Games are Exciting!). The catch is that when you take a particular action by placing your worker there, other players cannot perform that action for the rest of this round. This is similar to Drafting, which will also be a future topic, but in a physical space rather than abstract passing of resources or cards. An interesting Worker Placement game that I’ve seen recently is Charterstone, a “Legacy” game in which you play a campaign of games within your playgroup, with the game evolving over the course of the campaign. In this, players get to decide what the various possible locations are in the game, and it also has an interesting “bounce” mechanic, where placing a worker on an already occupied space frees that worker to do another job before its owner needs to spend their whole turn recalling their workers. More than any other function, this is where giving the pieces a personality helps. Meeples, those little wooden silhouette people, are often used for things like this. This personality gives a piece more life in our minds’ eyes, helping to invest players in the piece’s agency and capabilities.

Common Variations

Game components come in all shapes and sizes, and this is by no means exhaustive, nor are any of these definitions particularly well…. defined…. But I want to briefly go over some of the common forms that might be used in games:

Pawns

Originating from the game that would eventually become Chess. Generally rotationally symmetrical with a low center of gravity, but it also has been used as a catch-all for a piece that represents a player.

Meeples

They have contested origins and definitions. Refer back to the beginning of this header if you’re reading this out of order for some reason.

Pegs

These are designed specifically to fit into specific holes on the board. It might be wood, like many Cribbage boards, or plastic, as seen in Trouble. These can be nice for “travel” games because they are more resilient to being jostled.

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Fig. E. – Assorted un-jostled pegs

Standees

These are usually composed of a base, often plastic, with a slot on top that you place a picture or silhouette of a character, usually card-stock. These can also be as simple as a stiff piece of card-stock that you fold in half and stand up like an a-frame. Especially fancy versions of this might have a “front” and “back” of the picture, so you can see your character’s butt or something..

Cardboard

Usually the most cost-efficient game component, these come in standard-sized cardboard sheets with shapes cut out of it that you punch out when you first set up the game. For some people, punching these bits out is an integral part of the tabletop game experience. Often these will sit flat on the board, but sometimes there are cardboard pieces with slots that you use to link pieces together to create a 3-D figure, like the birdhouse dice tower in Wingspan. A particularly interesting instance of this is the “Pirates Constructible Strategy Game” in which punch-out sheets that can be assembled into different pirate ships are sold in packages similar to trading cards, then players assemble their ships and use them in a miniatures-type wargame.

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Fig. H. – Potentially addictive material

Practical

Occasionally you have components that serve a useful purpose. Some games might use dice as player pieces, which might track a value. Other games might have components with a dial and window setup that you can set in different values. Sometimes it can be as simple as the weird pie-slice thing from Trivial Pursuit.

Figurines

Sometimes a game will have the budget for fancier, more sculpted components. These will usually be molded plastic in the shape of the character they represent. Sometimes they are simple solid-colored plastic throughout, but there are also games that come with colored versions of the figurines, like Betrayal at House on the Hill. Some games even go all-out on their figurines, like Rising Sun, the game that spent more time designing supposedly cool faux-Japanese figurines than it did on fact-checking the Wikipedia article that it got its monsters from. 4

“Treasure/Vanity”

And then there are components that are fancy just for their own sake. There is a whole industry of selling fancy, more expensive replacement components for games that are cooler and better than the originals, which are often specifically made to be cheap. Personally, Herable and I got a fancy set of components for our copy of Terraforming Mars, replacing the plain white plastic cubes that mark temperature and oxygen with little standees of a thermometer and oxygen tank, among other upgrades. You might also have components that don’t actually need to be as fancy as they are – Forbidden Island has its four Treasures that are completely ancillary to the game – but look really cool.

Evolutions & Advanced Topics

Being among the centerpieces of a board game, there have been many twists on their role in any given game. As it would be impossible to list all of them, I’m going to briefly cover the ones that are at the top of my mind right now, most of which are vaguely (I’ve decided) relevant as either cool or ubiquitous.

Upgrading/Stacking

Checkers being quite a widespread game, this will often be an intuitively familiar game mechanic when it appears. Upgrades can be modular, as in Checkers, where one piece is stacked upon another, or complete, as in Chess, where a piece is entirely replaced by another. This mechanic evokes a sense of growth and improvement, which can be very psychologically satisfying, giving players a feeling of progress in a very visual way. The stacking type of upgrading is also very versatile – it can be used in abstract fashion as in Checkers, but it can also be used literally, like ever-growing stalks of stackable bamboo in Takenoko, or symbolically, like the tiles in Dragon Castle being analogous to levels of the eponymous castles. One interesting version of this is Tiny Epic Quest, which uses meeples with little holes that can hold weapons and items, which you obtain during your….. epic quest… in true Fantasy RPG fashion.

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Fig. F. – Japan (ca. 685 CE)

Constraint-Based Placement

This is more of a meta-mechanic in the context of game pieces, but it comes up an awful lot and it’s mathy which I have a soft-spot for. In games using this mechanic, pieces fit into one or more types or categories, and possible moves or scoring depends on the intersection of categories of pieces and areas in which the pieces are placed in the play area. A basic version of this can be something to the effect of “A piece can’t be next to a piece of the same category.” Azul is a version of this with a single category – color – but there are more complex versions of this, like Sagrada, in which there are multiple categories and restrictions of what pieces can be in specific spaces on the board. There also can be soft constraints, where pieces can go anywhere, but scoring or progression is based on constraints. An example of this is Tiny Towns, where materials can be placed anywhere, but they can only be made into structures according to certain constraints, and buildings only score points according to certain other constraints.

Secrecy

Many games create strategic play by utilizing secrecy, or in game design terms, “hidden information.” Sometimes this is as simple as having tiles or tokens with a “face-down” and “face-up” side, used for secret bidding or voting. Dixit, for example, uses tiles with different numbers that players use to bid on which image they believe is the Storyteller’s card without being influenced by other players’ votes. There are also more elaborate ways to conceal information, or to make the hidden information more strategically relevant. Making it more strategic, Stratego (ha ha) uses special pawns with their value hidden on the base of the pawn to create a game of bluffing and deduction. Or for especially interesting pieces, Princess Jing uses screens with windows and mirrors to control players’ sight lines as they seek their opponent’s princess.

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Fig. G. – Ordinary courtyard

Physicality

Speaking of Princess Jing, some games make use of a piece’s physicality in its gameplay. This can be simple and flavorful, like the various traps of 13 Dead End Drive (which I am still not convinced that anyone has actually played instead of just using the traps to launch the various character pawns), or it can be intricate and precise, like the aforementioned Princess Jing. A use of physicality that I particularly like is the recently remade Fireball Island, in which a player’s piece can be pushed or knocked over by “fireballs” as represented by marbles. Where they end up after being knocked over depends on the physical location of the piece once all the fireballs have stopped rolling.

LASERS

Arguably, this should go in the previous section, but come on, LASERS. Also arguably, there are hardly any games in this category – the only one I’m currently thinking of is Khet, which has been described as Chess with Lasers, which automatically makes it better than Chess. I think there also were some Khet imitators, but I’m not going to bother looking them up because I’ve already been working on this for months and somehow have over 3000 dang words and am feeling a little punchy at this point.

Commentary/Design Corner

So, what can we say about game pieces? It’s hard because in writing this, I’ve kind of backed myself into a corner since “game piece” is such a broad, general term, yet in my head, I still know that certain things are pieces and others are components. Clearly, there is some kind of functional defining feature, but it’s hard to say what it is. The best that I can describe it is that there is a certain line between what is the game and what is the player, and everything on the side of the player is a piece and everything else is not. Yet there also are game pieces that act as entities or avatars of the game itself. And there are things like player boards are on the player side of the line that I would not classify as a piece.

Aside from classification, game components and pieces fascinate me as a game designer. Where most of game design is abstract – purely functional and indifferent to physical form – game pieces are form and function inextricably intertwined. While many games could be played with completely abstract, generic platonic shapes, some pieces can entirely define their game. This can be something uniquely functional, like the mirror pieces I mentioned before, but it can also be little things, like the way that checkers pieces interlock so satisfyingly. The right piece can make a game just “feel right” – there’s something exciting about revealing your Stratego piece, or it feels so satisfying to make your Azul mosaic out of those little tiles that are definitely not Starburst candies and should not be eaten. 

Figuring out how to make the piece that you want is a fascinating puzzle sometimes. One of the games that has been rattling around the back of my head is something that I call “Double-Blind Werewolf.” A werewolf trope that I have always liked is that first dawn after the full moon, where the werewolf wakes up and has no idea what has happened in the night before. Maybe there are fur or feathers scattered about, or mysterious bloodstains, but maybe, just MAYBE they’re not really a werewolf (they dearly dearly hope). I’ve been tinkering with mechanisms to make this possible to do in a physical game piece. The idea would be for each player to get a random piece at the beginning of the game. Throughout the game, there would be tests: a certain group is secluded, and if a werewolf is in that group, something bad happens, but even the wolf does not know for sure whether it was them. Some of figuring this out is math (and I love math) but some of it is also about component design. The basic idea is that there are pieces with paths on them, like the tiles in Tsuro, and there are pieces representing tests that you insert a certain number of pieces into, follow a particular path, and the path leads to success or failure. It’s a mechanic that works very well from a pure game-design standpoint, but making it into a physical reality is a whole separate interesting problem to solve.