23 March 2019

Gamer Jargon

A book, bound in black textured leather, entitled 'Gamer Jargon,' on a wooden surface.

Recently, as I was writing an article, I found myself using the term FLGS. It occurred to me that not everyone will know what that means, so I decided to spell it out. And then I decided, as this blog is meant to be welcoming to everyone, there might be some people who need to know, for one reason or another, what many of the terms that are frequently used in gaming circles actually mean.

So I decided to create a glossary. This entry is going to be a list of terms used in tabletop gaming, either board games or roleplaying games, that are commonly understood by serious gamers, but perhaps not so well known to new gamers or people who are not as deep into gaming culture.

I imagine this will not be an exhaustive list. I expect I will add to it occasionally. If there's anything I've missed that you think I need to add, please let me know in the comments, and I will get it in the list as soon as I can.

Abstract Strategy Game - A strategy game is one in which you are making strategic decisions in an attempt to overcome your opponents. Many of these games involve heavy themes which allow you to simulate battles or wars (Axis and Allies being perhaps the most well-known of this variety; some might argue that Risk is the most well known strategy game, but I'm not sure I agree that strategy is the main characteristic of Risk). However, there are many strategy games that have little to no theme, or the theme has, in essence, no effect on the game mechanics (an example of this is Hive, which has a theme of arthropods fighting to capture each other's leader, but the actual game mechanics bear little to no resemblance of real-life bugs).
It is generally agreed that in order to be an abstract strategy game, it must possess the following characteristics:
  • Little to no theme
  • Fairly simple or straightforward mechanics
  • Perfect information (that is, everyone knows everything about all players; no one has cards that other players can't see, there are no dice rolls that affect how pieces move, etc)
  • Little to no elements of luck or random chance
  • Usually involves one player overtaking the other(s)
Chess and Checkers/Draughts are the most well-known of the abstract strategy games, but others include Go, Hnefetafl, Hive, and Santorini.

Alpha Gamer - A player who tends to tell other players what to do. This is especially common in co-operative games, where the players all share a common goal, but one player may have a better idea what needs to be done to reach that goal than other players, and instructs them on how to achieve that goal. Although this can be beneficial in a game where the Alpha Gamer is the only (or one of the few) experienced player, and the others honestly don't know how to proceed, when everyone at the table is familiar with the game and doesn't necessarily need the direction, it can be a point of contention.

Analysis Paralysis (A.P.) - a tendency to take a long time to decide what action a player wants to take. This may happen because there are so many options available on a player's turn that it can be hard to decide which action to choose. It may also happen because the player has few good options open at the moment. Sometimes it happens just because a player is indecisive, or tends to overthink. The A.P. phenomenon can be associated with specific players, or it can be associated with a particular game which works in such a way as to cause A.P. in many players.

Campaign - In most roleplaying games, there is a story arc that takes place over the course of several game sessions. Sometimes, those story arcs may only last for a single session, being completed in one evening (or whatever period of time the group chooses to play). The GM will introduce the story, setting out the conflict that needs to be resolved, and at the end of the story arc, that conflict has been resolved, although there may be some loose threads that still need to be wrapped up in a subsequent story arc. But for the most part, a story has all the normal elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
A campaign is simply the collection of all the stories together. Campaigns may consist of stories with little to no connection, being merely an episodic narrative of 'whatever happens to the PCs this time.' Alternately, the campaign can be an entire saga, seen as a huge meta-story in which all the individual story arcs are viewed as a whole. Campaigns can even range anywhere in between those two extremes.

Catch-up mechanic - Some games have a way to let the players in last place have a chance to surge ahead and catch up with the players in the lead. This allows the game to be a bit more evenly balanced, as opposed to many games in which it's hard to knock a player out of the lead once the lead has been achieved.
An example of a catch-up mechanic is the game Power Grid, in which the player in last place gets the first opportunity to purchase resources, or move into a new city, and resources are cheaper for that player. Meanwhile, the player in first place gets the last chance, and the resources are more expensive.

Character - In roleplaying games, a character is the person in the story, as opposed to the player, the person sitting at the table with paper and pencil. Often, rules and session summaries will refer to the player and the character interchangeably, but this can sometimes lead to confusion.
For example, if Chris is sitting at a table playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, and he has a character sheet in front of him describing a half-elven archer named Radnas Cralath, then Chris is the player and Radnas is his character. Later, Chris might tell his friends about the amazing gaming session in which he killed two goblins with a single arrow, but what he really means is that his character killed two goblins. Usually, everybody understands that Chris is not saying that he personally killed any goblins, but sometimes, it can be an important distinction to make.
See also Player, below.

d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, etc - abbreviation for different types of dice. The 'd' represents the term 'die' (or the plural form: 'dice'), and the number following it tells you how many sides that die has. Thus, 'd4' is a four-sided die, and 'd12' is a twelve-sided die. These notations are often preceded by a number to tell you how many of those dice to roll (for example: 4d10 would indicate that you are supposed to roll four ten-sided dice). Sometimes, these will be followed by modifiers, often addition or subtraction (such as 3d6-2: roll three six-sided dice and subtract two from the total, or 2d8+4: roll two eight-sided dice and add four to the result), but occasionally multiplication as well (that is, 2d10×3 would mean to roll two ten-sided dice and multiply the result times three).
The six types of dice listed above (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20) are the ones most commonly used in gaming. Occasionally, someone may refer to an odd number (d3 or d5, for example), which is usually just a regular die divided by 2 (that is, taking half the result of a D4 and rounding up any fractions serves as a d2, although flipping a coin is also a good way of getting a d2; similarly, halving the result of a d10 can function as a d5). Other types of dice exist (I personally own some oddly-shaped dice, like the d24, the d30, and the d7), but I'm not aware of any games that use such dice.
Some games use unique variations on these themes, but the above rules cover most everything you might encounter. There are two special exceptions: percentile dice and Fudge dice.
Percentile dice are usually notated as d%, and give a result between 1 and 100 (or, in some cases, between 0 and 99). Although 100 sided dice do exist, it's far more common to roll 2d10 and treat one of those two dice as the tens place, and the other as the ones place. Some specialty d10s are printed with 10, 20, 30, etc instead of the usual 1, 2, 3... to help differentiate more easily.
Fudge dice are used primarily in the Fudge roleplaying game and the Fate roleplaying game (and any games that use those systems, such as the Dresden Files roleplaying game). These games use special dice that are not marked with numbers, but with pluses and minuses. Generally speaking, they are six-sided dice with two blank faces, two faces marked with + and two faces marked with -. A typical set of four looks something like this:
Four ivory-coloured plastic dice, each marked with pluses and minuses instead of numbers, on a glossy wooden surface.
These dice are used to generate a number between 4 and -4, with most results being near the centre at zero. By adding +1 for each die that lands on a + and -1 for each die that lands on a -, and treating the blank faces as zeroes, you get your total with these dice.

Deck builder - a game in which you start off with a small number (often 10) of basic cards, which can be used for a specific game effect, or can be used to purchase more cards to add to your deck during the course of the game. The first deck builder game, and in many ways, the best example of the mechanic in its purest form, is Dominion. That game has three kinds of cards: Treasure (in values of 1, 2, or 3), which is used to buy other cards, Victory, which are worth points at the end of the game but don't give you any mechanical benefit, and so serve to clog up your deck until the game is over, and Kingdom, which represent buildings, activities, and people that grant you some benefit when played. You start the game with a deck of seven 1-point treasure cards and three 1-point victory cards, from which you draw a starting hand of five cards. You may play these cards to add any of the other cards to your deck, making the deck better suited to bring you more treasure, more Kingdom cards, and ultimately, more Victory cards as the game progresses.
The deck builder mechanic has been incorporated into games that also use other mechanics; an example is Clank!, which uses the deck builder mechanic to drive players' actions on an actual board.

Dexterity Games - games in which the core mechanic relies on physical actions in some way. One of the best examples of a dexterity game is Terror in Meeple City (aka Rampage), in which players attempt to demolish buildings by dropping items onto the board, flicking items across the board, or blowing onto the board.

DM - See GM, below.

Engine Builder - A game in which the actions you take enable you to acquire greater rewards later in the game. Generally, you start with a small amount of resources, money, or victory points, and by spending these wisely, you build a system that generates more of those resources. For example, in the game Splendor, each time you purchase a card, that card counts as resources which may be used to purchase more powerful (and valuable) cards later on. At the beginning of the game, you can only afford the most basic cards, but those cards enable you to purchase more advanced cards later, and those more advanced cards eventually enable you to purchase the most advanced cards towards the end of the game. Thus, the game centres around starting from a modest beginning and 'building an engine' that will score you more points later on.

Fiddly - This term describes a game that has a lot of small things that players need to keep track of. Often, it's in reference to a game that has a bunch of small components which need to be moved, adjusted, or maintained in some way, making the game more complicated (and sometimes, in some people's opinion, more tedious) as a result; an example might be Asmodee Games' Eclipse, which has a lot of components, and often requires a lot of moving several bits at a time. Sometimes, though, it refers to a lot of mental checklists and calculations. Here, I'm thinking of Terraforming Mars, which (especially in the endgame) often involves a single action triggering a whole lot of dependent effects (for example, the Immigrant City card causes you to increase your M€ production by one each time a city tile is placed; once a lot of these types of cards are in play, each time a city tile is placed, the game must pause as everyone looks for all their cards that are triggered by the placing of a city tile and resolve the effects of those cards before the game can continue).
Although it sounds as if players tend to avoid fiddly games, there are many people who like fiddly games. Additionally, not everyone agrees on what it means to be 'fiddly.' This is one of those terms that is, in actual usage, quite vague, as different players characterise different things as fiddly. What one person defines as 'fiddly,' another may say is 'deep and engaging.'

FLGS - Friendly Local Game Store. Refers to a store in your town that sells games, as opposed to ordering games on Amazon or other online retailers.

GM - Game Master. In a roleplaying game, the person who describes the world in which the other players' characters are performing their actions (although the GM is technically playing the game as well, the term 'player' is generally reserved for the non-GM players). The GM controls all the characters not controlled by players, describes the places and events that the PCs encounter, and makes final rulings on the outcomes of any action, be it a player's action or an NPC's action.
Note that the term Game Master (and thus the abbreviation GM) is a generic one; many games use that term as the official title for the person that takes on the role in that game, but there are a lot of games that use other titles. The most common version is Dungeon Master (abbreviated to DM) from Dungeons & Dragons, but other titles have included: Moderator (or possibly Game Moderator), Referee, Umpire, Narrator, Storyteller, and many more (often obscurely game-specific, such as 'Hollyhock God' from the game Nobilis).
It should be pointed out that, whatever title a game uses, it can also be used as a verb. That is, instead of saying, 'I'm going to serve as GM,' gamers will often say, 'I'm going to GM.'

Heavy - Many board game enthusiasts will often describe games as heavy (or, as a contrast, as light). There is no one universally agreed-upon definition of what makes a game light or heavy, but a general consensus amongst most gamers is that heavy games involve a lot of different things to keep track of at once, usually involving tough choices. An example might include Twilight Imperium, which involves constructing ships, expanding empire, conquering planets, developing technology, and engaging in diplomacy, often at the same time. Contrast this with a light game, such as Churrascaria, which involves nothing more than playing cards to mess with other players and maximise your own scoring cards.
Some people use a different metric for determining if a game is heavy or light. The description of heaviness on Board Game Geek says that the community is expected to rate games based on how hard they are to understand. In other words, the more complex the rules (and thus, the larger the rules document), the heavier the game is.
Others measure heaviness by the amount of components involved (and by extension, in essence, the actual physical weight of the game in its box), or by the length of a typical game, or by the amount of time in a game spent making decisions as opposed to resolving actions. Another rubric is 'how many times do I have to play this game in order to "get" it?'
As with so any things, the truth is probably some combination of all of these things.

Hidden Movement - Some games involve one or more players moving their pieces but not allowing the other players to know where those pieces are. Often, this is done by having the player controlling the hidden piece write down which space he is on instead of placing an actual physical piece on the board. An example of this is Scotland Yard, in which on player takes on the role of Mister X, and rather than moving his piece around the board as the other players do, he writes down, on a pad of paper that he keeps hidden from the others, the number of the space to which he moves each turn. Every eight moves or so, he reveals his location (but not where he's going to or where he came from), and the other players must deduce where he's going from there based on which type of ticket he uses to travel.

Hidden Role - A game in which one or more players is assigned a role within the game about which the other players are unaware. For example, in The Resistance, each player is randomly assigned to one of two teams: the Rebels or the Infiltrators. For the most part, players in hidden role games do not know which role the other players have received (so for instance, in The Resistance, the Infiltrators know who the other Infiltrators are, but none of the Rebels know what role any other player has). Sometimes, only one player has a hidden role (an example would include Dead of Winter, in which it is possible (but not certain) that one player is assigned the Traitor role, but no other player knows to whom (or even if) the Traitor role has been dealt.

Kingmaker - Some games, usually in three-player arrangements, will result in a situation in which one player is unable to win, but by his subsequent choices and actions, determines which of the other two players will win. This is a particular problem in the three-player chess variant; as the game nears its end, one of the three players will find himself in a position where victory is no longer possible. Often without even trying to, that player will weaken one of the other two players, causing the third player to win with little to no effort required.
Most players find the Kingmaker quality to be undesirable in a game, but it can be a fun game with the right players and the right attitude.

Legacy Game - A game in which the events in each play of a game permanently affect all subsequent plays of that game. This is normally accomplished by having a number of components that are not opened until certain circumstances are met, events that cause you to permanently alter or destroy components (like writing on the board, or affixing stickers to the board, or tearing up cards). Thus, after you've played the game a certain number of times, you have a totally unique game that is specific to your group.

Light - See Heavy, above.

Mechanic - the way in which the game works. The rules for what players do, how they do it, and when they do it. This term can refer either to the overall rules set (for example, saying that the game of Puerto Rico uses a worker placement mechanic) or for the specific way in which a game works (like talking about the way that The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Pendant uses a unique card-based mechanic to determine turn order). Gamers will often talk about how, 'mechanically, the game works well,' or 'I just don't care for games that use deck builder mechanics.'

NPC - Non Player Character. In a roleplaying game (and also in many video games), an NPC is a character that does not belong to a player. The character is controlled by the GM (or, in the case of a video game, the computer), and represents one of the many people (enemies, allies, and passers-by) who the PCs will encounter as they progress within the story.

PC - Player Character. In a roleplaying game, the PCs are the main characters, the ones controlled by the players who are performing the main action in the story. The players (usually) get to create them and upgrade them, and are the ones who control the characters' actions.

Player - In roleplaying games, a player is the person sitting at the table with paper and pencil, as opposed to the character, the person in the story. Often, rules and session summaries will refer to the player and the character interchangeably, but this can sometimes lead to confusion.
For example, if Chris is sitting at a table playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, and he has a character sheet in front of him describing a half-elven archer named Radnas Cralath, then Chris is the player and Radnas is his character. Later, Chris might tell his friends about the amazing gaming session in which he killed two goblins with a single arrow, but what he really means is that his character killed two goblins. Usually, everybody understands that Chris is not saying that he personally killed any goblins, but sometimes, it can be an important distinction to make.
See also Character, above. Additionally, note the distinction between Player and GM in GM, above.

Push Your Luck - Some games require you to decide if you're going to end your turn and keep the rewards you've gained so far, or continue your turn with a chance to gain more rewards, but at the risk of losing everything you've gained this turn. For example, in Zombie Dice, after your first roll, you set aside the brains you've rolled on your dice (the points you could earn), and the shotgun blasts (the damage you've taken this turn). Then you must decide whether to roll again, possibly gaining more brains (and thus more points), but in doing so, you risk gaining more shotgun blasts as well, and if you accrue three shotgun blasts in a single turn, then you lose all the points you've gained in that turn and your turn ends.

Social Deduction - Games that feature social deduction involve using social clues to deduce which players are lying. For example, in the game Coup, players are free to lie about which character cards they have, and thus what abilities they can use. Other players must decide, based on behaviour, previous actions, and other similar social details, whether to believe that player or not.

Take That! - A mechanic in which players take actions that adversely affect other players. Not so much in terms of causing them to lose points or destroying their units, but more stealing cards/resources/etc, altering the actions they take, and the like. A perfect example is the game Churrascaria, in which cards that are worth victory points (sometimes negative points) are held in a player's staging area, and the players must take actions to move those points cards to their 'scored cards' pile in order to secure those points for themselves. In addition to the points cards, there are action cards which allow you to move, swap, redirect, or alter the points cards. For example, one action card allows you to trade all of the cards in your own staging area with all of the cards in another player's staging area. There are also reaction cards that change the way another players action cards work; for example, if a player plays an action card on you, there is a reaction card that causes that action card to target a different player instead. This sort of messing with other players (preventing them from scoring their points cards, stealing cards from their staging area, forcing them to take negative points cards, and so on) is a typical kind of 'take that!' mechanic.
Some people use alternate terms for this same phenomenon. For example, in my gaming circle, we often use the term 'screwage' to refer to the 'take that!' characteristic.

Theme - The story behind the game, often reflected in the art and aesthetic appeal of the components. Some games have no theme (such as Crokinole), but most board games (especially modern games) have at least some semblance of theme. Themes are often described as 'thin' or 'heavy.' Thin themes are ones that don't have much in the way of a story, or the story is not heavily tied to the mechanics, or the story is not a very serious one. Examples of games with thin themes might include Apples to Apples, where there's really no story behind the game, or Jórvík, where the theme has little effect on the mechanics. A heavy theme is a detailed story that strongly influences the game, to the point that changing the theme would make it a completely different game. An example might be Near and Far, in which the entire point of the game is to play characters searching for the Last Ruin, and changing the theme would adversely impact the game, because so much of the theme is woven into every other aspect of the game.

Trick Taking - Many card games involve playing cards to the centre. After each player has played one card, the player who played the highest card takes all of the cards played. This group of played cards taken by a single player is known as a trick. This is a common mechanic in many games played with a normal 52-card deck, such as Hearts or Spades. It can also be found in some speciality games, like The Fox in the Forest, which uses trick taking even though it's a game for only two players.
Most games that involve trick taking require players to 'follow suit' if they are able to. That is, whichever player plays the first card in a trick is said to 'lead.' Whatever suit is led, other players must play a card in the same suit if they have one. If they do not have one, then they are free to play a card from another suit, but cards that do not follow suit cannot take the trick. Some games also involve a trump suit; if a player plays a card from the trump suit, then that player takes the trick, even if the card of the trump suit is of a lower value than the highest card that did follow suit. If more than one trump card is played in a trick, the highest card in the trump suit takes the trick.

Worker Placement - A mechanic in which players have a number of tokens which are placed in various places on the board to allow you to take a specific action. For example, in Lords of Waterdeep, players may place a token on a space that gives you additional gold, a space that lets you recruit a fighter, a space that lets you recruit a mage, a space that lets you build a building, or a space that lets you complete a quest, and other similar spaces. Often, though not always, worker placement games limit the number of tokens that may be placed on any one space. In the aforementioned Lords of Waterdeep, for example, only one token may be placed in the space for most of the actions each round, meaning that the first player to gain gold in a round will be the only player to take that action until the next round, and that player may only take that action once in that round.

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