An average board game contains a lot of different pieces. The names for some pieces are obvious – like dice and pawns. But for others, it’s not so obvious.
What are the pieces in a board game called? Collectively all the pieces in a board game are called components, or less commonly, equipment. Common pieces include chits, tiles, counters, chips, dice, cards, pawns, standees and miniatures. Individual pieces usually have names specific to each game.
Games usually have a theme. In Monopoly it is property, in Carcassonne it’s settlements, and in King of Tokyo it’s monsters competing for control of Tokyo. The theme of a game usually determines what the pieces for that game are going to be called. For example in Carcassonne, a meeple can be a farmer, thief, knight or a monk depending on how it is used in the game.
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But there are some generic names which go across all games. This post looks at what those names are.
The board is where board games get their name from. Although, games without a board such as Cards Against Humanity, are often included in the board games category.
The board is usually square or rectangular and is what the game pieces are played on. It tends to be placed in the centre of a table so that it is easy for players sitting around it to access it to play game pieces.
Some game boards are very large and need a big table to play them on. Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite games, but it takes up a huge amount of space! In the new edition, the board is made from interlocking tiles instead of one large fold out board so the game takes up less table space.
Some boards are used to track scores or other game elements. In Carcassonne the board is used to track a player’s score. In Kodama: The Tree Spirits it is used to track the progression of the turns in the game.
Board game boards are usually made from a binding board, the same type of cardboard that hardback book covers are often made from. The board has the printed board design glued to the front. Then the back and sometimes front sides are then wrapped in textured art paper and a protective coating is applied to it. See my article, Board Game Boards – What They Are Made From and Why for more info.
Cards in games are usually square or rectangular and have slightly rounded corners which makes them feel nice to hold. They tend to have individual designs on the front of each card and a standard design on the back.
Cards are usually protected with a thin layer of plastic laminate to stop the ink from wearing away when they are handled and to stop them from sticking together.
Cards can be the only component in a game such as Sushi Go! (see on Amazon) Or cards can be a part of a board game with other components.
Because cards can be shuffled and dealt at random, they are often used in game design to introduce an element of randomness and chance to a game. For example, it is common for cards to cause a random game event, for them to represent bonus items used by a player, or represent monsters in the game.
The cards held by a player are called their hand (shortened from ‘hand of cards’).
A group of cards in a game forms a deck. There are two main types of decks in a typical game. The Draw Pile from which people draw new cards and the Discard Pile where players place cards after they have used them.
In some games, a player takes on the role of a particular character with individual traits and abilities. The character sheet contains all these details as a helpful reference for players to keep with them during the game. The photo is of a character sheet from the 2nd Edition of Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulu (read more on Amazon).
The name comes from Dungeons and Dragons where players each have a character sheet for their role. See my article What is Dungeons and Dragons? (Quick Intro for Non-Gamers) for more information.
Board game character sheets sometimes have markers placed on them for a player to keep track of their character’s health, stamina, mana or other statistics which change during the game.
Chips are little round cardboard, plastic or clay pieces. The ones in the photo are from Splendor (learn more on Amazon).
They are most commonly thought of in reference to the chips in poker. The poker association lead to them being linked to the phrase, ‘when the chips are down’ for when you have placed a bet on something and you really need it to pay off.
A common game upgrade is to replace the cardboard coins included in most board games with plastic or clay chips.
Chips don’t always contain numbers, but they do usually represent a game currency. For example in Splendor, the chips are different colours and have different coloured gems on them.
Chits are small pieces of cardboard that come in all kinds of shapes. They are usually made of cardboard with a lighter density than the main game board.
When you unbox a new game for the first time, the chits are usually on a printed sheet of cardboard and are partially cut out. You need to push the chits out of the cardboard sprue before you can use them.
People are more likely to use the word ‘chits’ when referring to the chit sheet. When the chits have been pushed out they will usually be called tokens, markers, tiles or whatever their component type is.
Chits are hugely versatile and are used for all kinds of things – a person’s units, power ups, resources – anything really.
Usually made of cardboard, coins represent currency in games. They tend to have different numbers on them representing the value. In a new game coins are often on a chit sheet and need to be pushed out. The coins in the picture are from Small World (check it out on Amazon).
Some people upgrade the cardboard coins to plastic chips or metal coins to create the feeling of real money in their game. There are some games which have official upgrades where players can buy the exact coins for their specific game in metal.
Publishers don’t usually ship the base edition of board games with metal coins because they would make the game too expensive. See my post, Why Board Games Are Expensive (But Totally Worth It!) for more info.
Counters are small, usually round board game pieces (although they can be any shape). They are made of cardboard, plastic or wood.
They are used to keep track of the numbers in a board game.
Counters may be used to keep track of how many times something has happened in a game. For example, the counters pictured above are in Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulhu (more details on Amazon) a counter is placed on the ancient one’s track each time a gate to the other world is opened. If there is a counter on every space, the ancient one is summoned.
In the deck-building card game Magic: The Gathering, some cards ask that a counter
Dice are also a popular counter option where players just rotate the dice to show the current number.
Cubes are typically small and made from wood or plastic resin. Besides being fun to stack and play, cubes can be placed on the game board, or used around it.
The cubes in Dice Forge (Amazon link) are used to keep track of the resources each player has.
They could be used to represent a currency like in King of Tokyo (more info on Amazon). They can represent resources like in Agricola (learn more on Amazon) where different colours represent different types of resource such as white for sheep and black for boars.
Usually made from cardboard with a plastic rotating centre, dials are spun by players to keep track of what is happening in the game.
For example in Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (more details on Amazon), dials are used to keep track of the human’s resources: fuel, food, morale and population.
In King of Tokyo, dials are built into the character boards for players to track their health points and the number of victory points they have collected.
Dials are different to spinners in that they cannot be spun freely to give a random result. Instead, dials are designed to have a little resistance built into them so they stay where you set them.
Dice are a really common piece in board games. They are usually made from injection-moulded plastic, but can also be made from a zinc-alloy metal. They come in many different colours, patterns and sizes. A lot of tabletop gamers will have their own dice sets kept lovingly in a velvet bag (I do!).
The most iconic dice is the 6-sided dice or D6. But there are many different types of dice with different numbers of sides. The standard dice being the D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20.
In traditional ‘roll and move’ games, standard numbered dice are used to determine how many spaces on the board a player can move on their turn.
Dice don’t necessarily have a number on each side. Games often come with their own custom dice with different symbols and icons on which represent things in the game.
King of Tokyo (game details on Amazon) has fun with dice. They are bright green, black and oversized. It makes you feel like the dice are sized to fit the giant hands of the giant monsters in Tokyo. They roll with a big clatter on the table which is very satisfying!
The result of a dice roll is random so they are often used in game design to introduce luck and tension.
For example, Small World (more info on Amazon) famously has dice called ‘the dice of blanks’. Players roll this dice when they want to conquer a region on the map but they don’t quite have enough units to do it. So they roll the dice to see how many reinforcements come to help. If no reinforcements come, they fail. This dice seems to land on the blank sides more often than it should!
Markers are small pieces made from cardboard, plastic or wood. They are used to mark key events in a game and will usually move along a track on the game board.
For example, the picture above is from Small World (Amazon link), where the crown marker is used to track which turn the game is on.
A marker may be used to keep count of the turns in a game. Small World uses a crown as the turn marker which moves along the turn track after every round.
Meeples are small people-shaped board game pieces. They are usually made of wood.
The word ‘meeple’ was originally said in 2010 in reference to the wooden follower tokens used in the board game Carcassone (details on Amazon). The word is said to be a combination of the words ‘my’ and ‘people’.
Meeples are usually used to represent the player’s units. A player tends to be given a certain number of meeples which they can choose to deploy in the game in the way they think is best.
Depending on how and where a meeple is played, it may take on a different role within the game. For example, in Carcassonne:
- Placed on a road = thief
- Laid down in a field = farmer
- Placed in a city = knight
- On a monastery = monk
Meeples have become a familiar icon in board game culture. They can be found printed on t-shirts and accessories for board game fans to display their fandom to the world.
For more about meeples see my article, Meeples – What They Are, How They Started and Evolved.
Miniatures are small figurines which are quite detailed. They may also be referred to as ‘models’. Miniatures are usually made from injection-molded plastic. The miniatures in the photo are used in Necromunda (details on Amazon).
They are usually in the shape of player characters such as elves and wizards. Some games create miniatures for the monsters in the game like in Zombies!!! and the now out of print Dungeons and Dragons: The Board Game starter set.
Miniatures are made to the scale of the boardgame so that the models look like they fit with the game. The scale is generally determined by the size of the grid squares on the board. For example, a common standard is 1×1 inch squares.
Because the cost to produce detailed plastic models is much higher than creating cardboard pieces, miniatures may only be made to represent player characters in a game. For example, Gloomhaven (details on Amazon) contains miniatures for all the player characters in the game, but the monsters are cardboard standees.
Just as Necromunda players paint their miniatures, board gamers may paint the miniatures for the board games they love.
Usually used when referring to pieces which have the shape of a pawn in chess, pawns are usually made from wood or plastic.
Like in chess, pawns are used to represent a player. They usually come in different colours, with each player being a different colour.
Unlike some game pieces, pawns are moved around a lot in board games. Their shape directly lends itself to this – the coned top and wider base help to make them easy to grab and slide around a board without falling over.
Pegs are small rounded tubes with a wider top which slot into other pieces in the game. They are usually made from plastic.
Pegs tend to be used as a marker for things in a game which are changeable because they can be added and removed easily.
For example in Dixit Odyssey (see on Amazon) pegs are placed into the boards players use to cast their vote. Their votes will change every turn so pegs are ideal for this. In the Game of Life, pegs are used to represent family members on the player’s car because the family members change every game.
Spinners are exactly what they sound like, something you can spin. They are usually made from plastic or cardboard and are really fun!
Spinners are usually used for random events because when you spin the wheel you don’t know where it will land.
Spinners are quite rare in modern board games because they have been replaced by dice to give the same random result. Dice are preferred over spinners for a few main reasons:
- They can take a long time to slow down so players are waiting a long time for the result
- They may land directly on the line between different results
- They may stick in some areas more than others, giving biased results
- They take up more space in the box and cost more to produce
The clue is in the name. These are the pieces in a board game which stand up. Usually made from cardboard slotted into a plastic stand.
Standees are usually printed on a cardboard sprue and need to be pushed out. Standees are good at representing units on a board, Gloomhaven (details on Amazon), for example, has many different types of monster standees.
But games like Flick ‘Em Up in the picture above (see it on Amazon) have taken standees a step further. In this game standees are used to create the buildings which set the scene for a western showdown. They fit the theme perfectly.
Tiles are usually square but they can take other shapes. A key feature of tiles is that they can be joined together to create a board that other pieces can be placed on.
Tile placement games are a genre in themselves, just as card games and board games are. In a tile placement game, the board is remade every game, leading to a different game every time.
A very famous tile placement game is Carcassonne (learn more on Amazon) where players take it in turns to lay a tile that connects to the other tiles. As the tiles build up, the cities, farms, roads and monasteries on the tiles join together to form settlements which players can place their meeples on.
Used to measure time in a game, timers can be either analogue or digital. My favourite type of game timer is the hourglass or sand timer. There is something relaxing and timeless (!) about watching the sand drip through from one side to the other.
Timers are used to add pressure to a game because players have a limited amount of time to make a decision or complete a task as a group. The sand timer pictured above is from Mysterium (see it on Amazon) where one player plays the ghost trying to communicate using only pictures who hurt them, in which location and with which item.
The co-operative game Magic Maze (game details on Amazon) has a timer which can never run out during the game. If it does, everyone loses. Players must pay attention to the timer and get to a time icon on the board whenever it gets close to running out. The time pressure rule combined with the rule that players aren’t allowed to communicate in this co-op game leads to a very intense experience!
‘Token’ is a catch all term for any board game piece. In the games I play, if a piece doesn’t have a specific name, ‘token’ is used more often than any other word to refer to a piece. For example, “Can you pass me the exit token?”
Technically, all board game pieces are tokens because they all represent something that they aren’t.
“A thing serving as a visible or tangible representation of a fact, quality, feeling, etc.”Oxford Dictionaries
A token can take any form and be made of anything. It’s something that we have fun with during some games. If a player wants to substitute their pawn with a Kinder Surprise toy, a Dungeons & Dragons miniature, a novelty eraser… whatever they like. Then they can.
‘Tokens’ is a word used in game rules when a set of pieces have different values but the publishers don’t want to give them a specific name. Some are in the photo above. The tokens have wide-ranging meanings – secret stairway, wardrobe, dog, vault etc.
In King of Tokyo (details on Amazon), some power-up cards come with special abilities which can be used by the player. To remind everyone of the ability and to keep track of how many times an ability has been used, the player is given special ability tokens along with the card.
A unit usually refers to something there are multiples of in the game. For example, each player may have eight units which they can choose to use in the game how they see fit.
The word unit is more likely to be used when the game has a military theme and the pieces represent military troops like in the picture above from Small World (learn more on Amazon).
When the pieces fall into place
So that’s my quick tour of what the different pieces are called in board games.
Some component names are used somewhat interchangeably. What I call a token, someone else may call a marker. And most games give pieces specific names which apply just to that game.
But so long as everyone is having fun and understands what’s going on, it doesn’t really matter!