What’s in a Name?

Naming my latest game – the War of the Dragon Kings – was much more of a challenge than I thought.  I knew that a lot of good names were taken out there in the board game world, but I was surprised at just how many that number turned out to be.  I would like to offer my thoughts about the naming process to anyone who is interested … so here goes!

When to choose the name of your game?

Do you start with the name? Do you decide on the name at the end of the process? Do you let it emerge organically while you design and playtest? I am sure that this is different for different people. There is no right answer.

In my case, I started with a name, but I just pulled something I thought was interesting out of a hat. I started out with The Light and Darkness War. I vaguely remembered a comic book … maybe a series … of that name from the 70’s or 80’s. I did a quick search on BoardGameGeek and Google to make sure that no other game was named that, and then I went with it. But, I was never in love with that name.

I have had thousands of games in my collection over several decades and owned and/or played, or at least researched, thousands more game titles while enjoying my life-long love affair (sorry, Ingrid!) with board games. Some games that have done very well have had simple titles — Dominion, Go, Sorry, Strike!!. Other successful games have had more complex names — Chaos in the Old World, Shadows of Brimstone, A Study in Emerald. Some games go after an intellectual property – Dune, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica. Etc. That makes it easy. Well, to name the game anyway. Although once you start getting into expansions, then you have to fool with sub-titles. Star Wars: Rebellion, etc. Some games are named after the land the game takes place in, whether real or imaginary – Settlers of Cataan, Carcassonne, San Juan, Las Vegas. Some game titles are descriptive – Fantasy Battles, Dungeon Raiders, Castles of Burgundy. Some game titles are based on a pun – Roll Player springs to mind. This is by no means meant to be a complete list and I am probably leaving out several other categories.

Now – here is where the hard part comes in. You choose a cool name. Then you go to BoardGameGeek or do a Google search – and find that it is already the title of an existing game. Where do you go from here?

1. Give up on the name and look for something new.
2. Add a subtitle.
3. Use the name anyway and worry about the consequences later.

If you look for something new, you go back to the drawing board and come up with another option. Let’s say you started with Star Wars … it turned out to be taken. Who knew? Now you say, “To heck with Star Wars, that game probably won’t do well anyway … I’ll go with Star Raiders.”

But Star Raiders is taken too.

So, then you try Star Battles, Star Conquest, Star Conflict, Star Food Fight, Star Grudging Stare, Star Innuendo – and THEY ARE ALL TAKEN!

You wanted to use the word Star because you want to indicate to anyone seeing this game on a shelf or reading about it on a list somewhere, that it is set in space. Now it’s thesaurus time. You pull up the online thesaurus and start looking at other options for Star. (I am too lazy to do this, even for the sake of science). You see Star, Stellae, Constellation, Bright Thing, and a few other options.

Now you are set – you change the game’s name to Bright Thing Wars! …. And … it’s … taken…

You grab your computer monitor, pick it up and hurl it through the window just like Chief smashing the grill with the marble water fountain in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

After a trip out to Best Buy and back, with a new monitor in place, you calmly proceed to the next step.

Back to me. I needed to nail down the name of my game and start getting cover art if I was going to begin the marketing process. I had created an entry on the BGG web site, which is like staking out your claim for a board game title. This is the equivalent of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. THIS IS MY FIRE HYDRANT is what he is saying.

But just to be sure I went back to the internet and searched again – Light and Darkness War Board Game didn’t bring up any hits, but I did get a hit on just Light and Darkness War. Seems like they re-made the comic series from the 70’s/80’s just a few years back. That meant that that title, as obscure and whacky as it was, was too hot to fool with. I didn’t want to have to look up obscure copyright laws and deal with cease and desist letters from the law firm of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe – PLUS I wasn’t in love with the name anyway, so I decided to change it.

The game is set in a Fantasy land and has monsters and magic and lots of battles … so … Fantasy Battles. Done! Yay! Except that that name was too close to Warhammer Fantasy Battles. I don’t want people looking my name up and getting confused with something else (and there is decades worth of content about WH Fantasy Battles floating around out there).

So next up — Monsters and Magic. I know that AND titles are not “in” right now. We had so many years of Dungeons AND Dragons, Tunnels AND Trolls, and stuff like that … but …. It lets people know it’s a fantasy game, involving monsters and spells. However, Monsters and Magic was taken, as were two or three other names along the same line that I tried out.

I was on about my 30th attempt at a game title at this point. So, I did what any good creative person would do at this point, I searched for an online tool to do the work for me. I found a website that generated random fantasy book titles. This generated page after page after page of options, some more relevant than others. The Quest for the Ribbon of Unicorn was one of my favorites.

Another half dozen options presented themselves. But once again – ALL WERE TAKEN. Not necessarily by board games, but these would show up on the other side of my search – on the Internet – as computer games. Maybe a board game and a computer game could have the same name, but not worth the trouble to find out – so still no luck.

I did the next logical thing a creative person would do – I tried to get others to come up with the name for me. I went to a Discord server where lots of talented game designers meet up to discuss stuff and asked for help.

I had a name in mind now – It wasn’t take yet – but was it interesting. My brain was a bit weary from three to four days of being deadlocked and absolutely being dead in the water working on this problem, so I wasn’t the best judge at this point. The folks there were all very helpful. So …

Since my game has elements of espionage and diplomacy in it as well as the monsters and magic and fighting, – how about Aggressive Diplomacy? The name doesn’t sound like much by itself, but I was thinking of a board game cover art piece with a Giant’s fist smashing through the gate of a castle and startling all the soldiers on the other side as they went flying back. To me, I had it. I was done. I just wanted to make sure others liked the idea. Unfortunately – nobody liked the name.

After I got through crying and made another quick trip to Best Buy, I thought that if these folks don’t like that name then it’s probably not going to work. They came up with a lot of alternate ideas and I wrote a few down on my list. One in particular sounded promising: Crown and Glory. They all liked it, I liked it, and it wasn’t the name of an existing board or video game as far as I could tell by my research.  I thanked everyone and went off to do an UnPub event.

I was kind of in a limbo at the event, telling some folks they were playtesting The Light and Darkness War and telling other folks they were playtesting Crown and Glory. When I got home, I was still not sold on the new name, because it reminded me of a biblical phrase that I had heard many times in my life – something about “a woman’s hair is her crown and glory”. I searched further and realized there was a Warrior Knights expansion (I even own it – that must have been buzzing in the back of my head trying to alert me) called Warrior Knights: Crown and Glory. Because it was a sub-title, instead of the main game, it was legal for me to use it as my main title, but the combination of knowing some people would look up my game and get it mixed up with a Warrior Knights expansion and the thing about ancient women cutting or not cutting their hair …. Just turned me off of the idea.

Back to the drawing board.

It was at this point that it really sunk in how many good names were already taken, when you add all the board games, physically or web-published, to all the computer game names together.
Finding a basic, descriptive name, that sums up your game, with just a couple of words is REALLY HARD now. Sorcerer King, Wizard, Magic Wars, Fantasy Battles, Monster Wars, etc. etc. etc. are ALREADY TAKEN.

Where to go next.

Well I realized that some words could be used over and over again. I remembered that there were like five different versions of board games named Shogun. I owned two different games both named Samurai Sword. So, I could use Fantasy Battles and just not worry about it.

Then it struck me. I wasn’t alone. Even the best designers were out there struggling to find good, descriptive game titles. Two of the biggest games that just came out were Gloomhaven and Charterstone. I had just purchased Legacy of Dragonholt. I played Daggerfall a couple of months back.

Concatenate two fantasy words and I was done.

I listed every relevant fantasy word I could think of and concatenated them. I came up with a lot of options and I think this is one of the few directions new board game designers can take if they want to quickly come up with a unique game name. Suddenly I had several options that were unique and available.

But something just wasn’t feeling right.

It was at this point that I realized I had gone about this whole process incorrectly. Bells started clanging in my head and the ghosts of a couple of benevolent computer monitors looked down on me while shaking their heads as I finally figured out my problem…

While I had created the game and all its mechanics and spent hours and weeks and days and months working on creating cards and character boards and making prototype monster and artifact miniatures and on and on …. And I had playtested the doors off of the game over and over and over …

I had been avoiding my least favorite part of the game – writing up the rules. Now some people start with the rules. I can’t imagine that. I don’t like reading OR writing rules and if I can hand off a game to someone else and they learn it and then explain it to me I am in board game heaven.  My process is to keep the rules entirely in my head until the very last thing, then write them all up, do blind playtesting and go from there.

That was not actually the problem though. While I love creative writing and enjoy writing up the lore/background of games, I consider that a RULES task. I had not written up the lore of the game.
THAT was the problem.

Suddenly I sat down and crafted the lore of the game as the first part of a Rules document and everything came together. Now I knew what words I was looking for. Instead of looking at all existing words and working backwards, trying to find a title that summed up my game …. Now I only had a few words to look at and see if the right combination tumbled into place like a Rubic’s Cube when you finally realize you can just pull all the colored bits off and stick them back on and the puzzle is solved and everybody (that wasn’t watching) thinks you are a genius.

I had a land …. Where there was a war going on … that was ruled by Dragon Kings ….

Now I had a short list of about six titles: Dragon Kings, Dragon Wars, War of Dragons, War of the Dragon Kings. Taken, Taken, Taken, – AVAILABLE!

Had I started with the lore/background of what the game was about I could have saved myself a long LONG LONNNNG process. I am not too upset about it because you learn best when you are dealing with problems, and I learned a LOT by working through this.

It may be that some of you, reading this, are saying to yourselves – “IDIOT – of course you should have started with the lore!” However, it was just not obvious to me.

For every game I design from now on though, I am going to start with what the game is about and get a short list of names and make the magic happen.

I guess I will have to give up the parking spot with my name on it at the local Best Buy store though, as I should be buying a few less monitors than before.