Spotlight on Games > Features
The Best Titles
October 3, 2004 UPDATE!

So often we are concerned with game designers. (Actually I more prefer the term "inventor" these days – the process is too difficult to be "only" design.) Before deciding to play something new, someone might ask, "Who invented it?" If it's not a recognized name, perhaps they will try to get more information before agreeing.

But let's look at another process, the one that comes before this question even arises. How do you decide whether to even purchase the game in the first place? You read ads and reviews. You look at pictures. And, I claim, you consider the title. Does it clearly convey what the game is about so that you have a good idea about what goes on? Does it have a funny or serious or odd point of view that gets your attention? Does it tell you something about the "attitude" inherent in the game? Is it appealing? Let's say you buy the game. Now you become concerned with marketing. After all, you have to sell your friends on the thing. It's better if the title helps rather than hurts your cause. In fact, if the title alone gets them laughing, the battle is already half won.

So the title, like the graphics and ads, is really part of the marketing of a game. Thus it is the province of the publisher rather than the inventor. This gives us a chance to recognize publishers for a change. Which ones have the best records for game titles? Which have worked and which haven't? There are many ways for a title to be good. Let's look at some of them. Of course these suggestions are purely personal. You may disagree or have other favorites. But at least I will always try to explain why so that the criteria are clear.

One last note: a good title is no guarantee that the game will be!

*                 *                 *
The best way for a title to succeed is by evoking a vivid, powerful image. Probably one of the best titles ever, To the Green Fields Beyond (SPI), recalls the desperate, dreary, endless situation of soldiers trapped in the trenches struggling for release. Descent on Crete (SPI), not merely Crete, brings to mind the surprise, excitement and visual variety of hundreds of planes and paratroopers trying to alight on a small Mediterranean island. Knights of the Air (AH) conjures up those First World War fliers of honor when the battle was as much against the laws of physics as against one's opponent. Other vivid titles:
London's Burning (AH) and World in Flames (ADG): horrific images, effective nontheless.
12 O'Clock High (Talonsoft): that enemy looming above
Black Sea Black Death (Peoples Wargames): overwhelmingly dark mood
After the Holocaust (SPI): ruins, desolation, picking up the pieces
Viva Pamplona! (FX Schmid): Even though wargames seem to have a built-in advantage, here's a society game that invokes the sights and sounds of the running of the bulls.
Valley of the Mammoths (Ludodelire): green valley, massive tusks
Yukon Company (db Spiele): gold mining in the Arctic landscape
Dampfross (Schmidt): German titles may be a bit more difficult for the English reader to appreciate, e.g. this one where "-ross" is an old time word for horse, something like steed, and "Dampf" means steam, recalling the glorious early days when railroading and horses co-existed.
Stimmt So! - Tante Emma Kauft (Queen): It sounds like an insistent little kid at the department store: "It Does So! - Auntie Emma Will Buy It".
Igel Ärgern (Doris&Frank): A bundle of "Agitated Hedgehogs" rolling about.
The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (TSR/SJG): and Bug-Eyed Monsters: They Want Our Women (WEG): yikes!
Period quotes, with their sense of immediacy, form another good source for titles. They are images, sound images if you will.
Fire As She Bears! (miniatures) and Clear for Action (miniatures): naval action can be very dramatic
Land in Zicht!: "Land In Sight!" is the Dutch version of Entdecker (Kosmos)
Home Before the Leaves Fall (COA): what the politicians said as the soldiers left for the front in August 1914
Lift Off! (Task Force): what's more dramatic than a rocket launch?
Mamma Mia (Abacus): or more flavorful than a pizza parlor?
Stephensons Rocket (Pegasus): It's been so long since trains were called rockets that it has a wonderfully quaint sound today.
Black Vienna (Kosmos): The dark world of organized crime.
Similar is a reference to a quote from an important work of literature, speech or song. Some of the good titles in this category, e.g. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Wargames Research Group/Ariel), Paths of Glory (GMT), The Far Shore (3W), Der Flaschenteufel (Bambus), are cheats because they simply appropriate names which are already titles. But there are a number of others, again mainly from the world of war:
A House Divided (GDW) and This Hallowed Ground (The Gamers): from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
Fateful Lightning (XTR) and Terrible Swift Sword (SPI): The Battle Hymn of the Republic song inspires these American Civil War titles.
Sein oder Nichtsein (Eon): German for "To be or not to be" – you can never go wrong with Shakespeare. Surprising that he is not more used.
Götterdämmerung (Moments in History): The nihilistic ending opera in Wagner's Ring cycle makes a poignant comment.
We the People (AH) and For the People (AH): Quoting the US Constitution and its later echo by Lincoln.
A Mighty Fortress (SPI): Martin Luther conveniently provided a hymn to quote from -- how many leaders have done that?
In Flanders Fields (Moments in History): The John McCrae poem was once regularly memorized by America's schoolchildren.
The Far Seas (3W): If this isn't a quote, it should be.
Aquarius (Looney Labs): What symbolizes the 1960's better than the song from Hair?
Material World (Strange Magic): Not sure where it started exactly, but a good example of a contemporary one that works.
Some titles are not quotes exactly, but clever formulations or re-formulations which may generate a smile or interest.
Safe Return Doubtful (Simulations Workshop): Isn't it interesting the way the title does a 180 at the end?
The Cossacks Are Coming (XTR): A re-model of Paul Revere's famous cry.
Bushido Denied (XTR): Juxtaposing the ancient way of the warrior with the computer-age "access denied".
Samurai Sunset (XTR): XTR strikes yet again. Sunset as an ending, but also a reference to the sun's presence on the Japanese flag. Alliterative as well.
Kohle, Kie$ & Knete (Schmidt): More alliteration. The German title takes advantage of the fact that there are so many euphemisms for money. It doesn't really work that well in English; perhaps the closest would be Booty, Bucks & Bread.
New Games in Old Rome (Piatnik): Sort of a new wine in old skins paraphrase.
Schrille Stille (Zoch): The German has the Zen-like meaning: "shrill silences".
Frag (SJG): Extremely short sort of anti-title works perfectly for the type of game it is.
Trivial Pursuit (Selchow & Richter): Any unimportant pastime, like playing games, is a trivial pursuit, especially if it's a game about trivia?
Further up the same stream are the titles which are deliberate puns. While famously called the lowest form of a joke, they are yet a form, one whose proper and customary response is a groan rather than a laugh. Another title in this category is one the author helped to create.
Bohnanza (Amigo) and Al Cabohne (Amigo): In German "Bohn" is bean so these are the famous bean cowboys and bean mafia.
Was Sticht (Moskito): "What Sticks" by Moskito has a prominent mosquito on the cover, but Stich also means trick in the trick-taking card game sense.
Schotten-Totten (ASS): The title of "Scottentots" equates the behavior of Scottish landholders with Hottentot tribesmen.
Ohne Furcht und Adel (Hans-im-Glück): Rhymes with "ohne Furcht und Tadel" (without fear or fault), but means without fear or honor.
Dubito (Hugendubel): In Italian, the word "subito" means "at once, immediately!". I think Knizia meant Dubito as sort of a double pun, since it is similar to Italian "dubitare" or "to doubt", as in the game you don't want to do anything immediately, but instead are in considerable doubt as to what is the right thing to do.
Smart (Cwali): Simultaneously descriptive of people who play games, how a good game should look and a type of recreational drug, which is the game's topic.
Pass the Gas (Fun City): And some go too far, like this game about balloon aviation. Let's hurry on to the next category!
Traveling up the comedy ladder, the following just might be indulging in satire:
Captain Park's Imaginary Polar Expedition (Cheapass)
Bleeding Sherwood (Cheapass) It's not the happy forest we had been led to believe?
Give Me the Brain (Cheapass): Fast food restaurant workers.
Parts Unknown (Cheapass): "Where did you get these parts, Igor?"
Chez Geek (SJG): No, Cheapass does not have a MonopolyTM on this category.
Adel Verpflichtet (FX Schmid): The German means Noblesse Oblige, but the rich art collectors in this Klaus Teuber game do nothing but spend money on art.
Vernissage (Kosmos): Another Klaus Teuber game on art and art criticism, the French for "varnishing" probably has more than one meaning.
Formula C- (Placebo): This could almost be its own category: games which satirize the titles of other games.
Nicht die Bohne! (Amigo): "Not the Beans!" is definitely a reaction to Bohnanza and all of its many expansions.
Some titles succeed on sheer weirdness, creating a incongruous image in the reader's mind:
Iron Dragon (Mayfair): It's a flying, fire-breathing thing, but made from iron?
Proud Monster (XTR): It's a raging, snarling monster, but it has an evolved human condition like pride?
Sympathy for the Devil (XTR): why?
The Damned Die Hard (GRD): they do?
Natos, Nukes and Nazis (XTR): huh?
Sushi-Jalapeño War (Xeno)
Mississippi Banzai (XTR): Tojo starring in Deliverance II?
The Old Contemptibles (XTR): They're old, but they're contemptible. So the reason they're being honored again is ..?
Blindes Huhn (Berliner Spielkarten): OK, it's "Blind Chicken." Why?
Sideshow (3W): A circus act seems like a strange sort of war.
Where's Bob's Hat? (Rio Grande): Sounds more like a prop man's plaintive request.
Who Stole Ed's Pants? (Eight Foot Llama): For aesthetics' sake, I'm still hoping that Ed's full name is Edna.
Ein Arsch Kommt Selten Allein (Heidelberger): "An Ass Seldom Comes Alone" – no doubt, no doubt.
Egyptian Ratscrew: Do they charge admission to this show?
Look At That Schmuck on the Camel (Avalon Hill)
Some titles deserve notice for their sheer effrontery.
Eric Goldberg's Kursk (SPI): Putting your name in the the title qualifies.
Frank's Zoo (Rio Grande): What about Doris?
The Very Clever Pipe Game (Cheapass): So does calling your game clever.
It's also a treat when the title of the game is something that players say while playing it. But it only counts if they really do say it, not if the publisher merely hopes that they do.
Can't Stop (Hasbro): I must have heard "I can't stop yet" a million times, just before they do, involuntarily, of course.
RA (Alea): Players love saying "RA!" And, including this game is an excuse to include one of my favorite double puns: "Hooray for the sun god / he sure is a fun god / Ra RA RA!"
Uno (International): You have to say it – it's in the rules and you'll pay the price if you don't.
Oh Hell: Not required, but you'll feel like it.
I Doubt It: A lot of more fun to say with authority if you have the cards to back it up.
Njet! (Goldsieber): Fun to play with fake Russian accents.
Shit! (Adlung): You'll say it when someone scores maximum points while everyone else is forced to play their re-stock cards.
Mömmen (Die Wüelmäse): Everyone hates to see you play Tim the Shearer.
Tichu (Abacus): I'll teach you!
Speaking of saying it, some titles are great for no other reason than simply being fun to say. Now stop reading reading silently for this next bit and start pronouncing the titles aloud. See how much fun your tongue is having?
Bamboleo, Abalone, Halali!, Kerplunk!, Mbogo, Ido, Bananadrama, Gnip Gnop, Riffifi, Sisimizi, Rigatoni Intriganti, Hick Hack in Gackelwack, Arabana-Ikibiti, Crokinole, Tzuris, Gouda! Gouda! (watch for the sequel, Havarti! Havarti!)
These games were published by Zoch, Abalone, Kosmos, Ideal, House of Ideas, Goldsieber, VSK, Parker, Winning Moves, eg Spiele, Glücksritter, Zoch, Bambus, none, Laughing Gravy and Eurogames, respectively.

To wind up, here are a few titles that should have been:

Hugo: As the players love to name the ghost chasing them, this should have been the title for Ghost Party (Ravensburger).
The Seven Wise Guys: Don't you think this would be a fun American title for for Die Sieben Weisen (Alea)?
Months of Decisions: What the designer himself reports has been used for Days of Decision (ADG)
Wooden Quips & Iron Puns: What many have re-named Wooden Ships & Iron Men (AH)

October 3, 2004 Updates:

Vanished Planet: the idea of an entire planet disappearing is very dramatic

Kelly Bass sends in these suggested additions:

Sunken City
Conjures a vivid image of mystery & decay.

I'm The Boss!
In the English version, the "become the dealmaker/dealbreaker" card is called "I'm The Boss!" It's always great to shout it and slam the card down (hopefully) ruining everyone else's plans.
[Reiner Knizia has done this one better, at least for me, in Einfach Genial where multiple times the player gets to shout, "I'm a genius!" –Rick]

Simple, with the question of whether they mean Shopping Spree! or Shooting Spree! Also, for some reason, it reminds me of the whimsical cry "Whee!"

Quo Vadis?
Good quote. We like to say it during another's turn, with heavy Latin accents ... though we don't really know what they are!

Sucking Vacuum
Funny title with multiple meanings (I think).
[I think this is a "Plan 9 from Outer Space" type of title, so bad that it ends up being a cult favorite. ]

Hick Hack in Gackelwack
The kids loved saying this so much, they won't let me call it Pick Picknic, even though we have the English version.