What Is A Meeple? The History of the Best Game Board Piece!

The word “meeple” is now so common that even most very casual board game players know what you’re talking about. It’s such an iconic part of board games that it’s hard for many people to believe that the word wasn’t invented until late 2000 and yet that is 100% true! But for those new to the board gaming space or who haven’t heard the term before – just what is a meeple?

A meeple is a small human-like token representing the player’s pieces in a board game. Meeples have five points (two legs, two arms, and a head) and are often made of wood but can be made of plastic, stone, or other material.

Meeples are extremely common in board games, especially strategy, resource management, and European board games though they are widely used enough that they can be found in other types of board games, as well.

five white meeples on board game tile
Great shot of the last spot about to be filled by a good looking meeple.

The Birth of the Word “Meeple”

The word meeple is credited to Alison Hansel by multiple online sources. This story can’t be fully proven or disproven, but credit is given to her as having coined the term meeple when playing a game of Carcassonne. She referred to the little human-like pieces as “Meeples” after combining the words “My” and “People.”

I haven’t seen any counter stories to argue against this being the beginning of the word “Meeple,” and seeing as how Carcassonne is widely known as the game where the term meeples came from (though it is interesting to note that originally the word meeple wasn’t used in the rules of Carcassonne – though they were the first game to add it as a description of player pieces in later editions of the game).

This took place in November 2000, giving birth to a word that would rapidly come to represent people shaped figures in the wide array of board games that used them.

Need more meeples for various games? Need extra pieces for large group battles in your TTRPG campaign? Check out these meeples on Amazon – you can get a lot of wood meeples for a price that won’t break the budget.

multiple rows of colored meeples

While it’s not something that many gamers are going to argue about, it is interesting to see there are some disagreements in recent years on what type of board game pieces count as meeples, which don’t, and if it really matters at all.

So let’s dive into these meeple-related questions in more depth!

So Just What Is A Meeple?

At it’s simplest form a meeple is a token used to represent a player’s pieces on a board game. These generally look like people in some forms with 2 legs, 2 arms, and a head. The styles beyond that can vary, and while some people argue that a meeple can now be anything (animal, robot, zombie, etc) there are others insisting that the a meeple refers to those pieces that are human-shaped and that other shapes are tokens or pieces, but not actual meeples.

At least officially, this group may have a good point. Not only was meeple a combination of words that included people (which animals, robots, etc are not) and then there’s the dictionary definition of Meeple.

meeple (n)

A small human-shaped figure used to play some board games

I use a green meeple to score positive, a red meeple for negative (only one color is present at one time).

Macmillian Dictionary

Then again Webster doesn’t even have meeple as a word, so it’s fair to say that in this case a dictionary might not be the final authority on the question of what is a meeple and what is not a meeple, but it’s still a piece of evidence we definitely need to consider for this argument.

In the beginning, at least, there were certain characteristics that all board game pieces called meeples seemed to share:

  • They were person-shaped
  • They represented people in the board game
  • They had distinctive legs, arms, and a head (though this became a bit more abstract later)

You would have meeples where the arms and legs weren’t as distinct (see Lords of Watedeep for an example of this) but there was still clearly an outline of a human figure where you could make out where the arms and shoulders were, even if they were up against the body.

This has hit the point where some people say rabbits like those in Bunny Kingdom would be meeples. I’d disagree. They’re great pieces, and Bunny Kingdom is an amazing game, but those are tokens or bunny pieces, they’re not meeples. But others would argue that the word meeple is now so common in board games that it’s any game piece that has some shape of a character.

So if it’s not just a wood block or something like that, then it counts as a meeple.

It’s not like there’s going to be a final say on this, so it’s one of those questions that ends up becoming a matter of opinion on where to draw the line but whether all tokens are meeples or all meeples are tokens but not all tokens are meeples in your eyes, it’s safe to assume that any board game piece that has some form of the now iconic 5-pointed shape can safely be referred to as a meeple and everyone will know what you’re talking about.

six meeples of underwater divers
Meeples can take slight alterations and costuming based on the board game theme – such as deep sea diving.

Carcassonne: The Original Meeples

The most iconic of all meeple shapes have got to be the original ones from the game of Carcassonne, where the name comes from. This was the shape that started it all, and the wide yet distinctly human shapes were a cool game token that really caught on because of what they brought to this award-winning game.

Here’s a picture of these original meeples – the ones who were the first of many other meeple designs to follow.

The original meeples of them all…on a very interesting Carcassonne board.

Many Different Meeple Designs

Whether you want exact copies of existing meeples used in a particular board game, or don’t like the meeples and want a different variation, there are plenty of options that are available out there.

Replacement meeples are easy to find, and sometimes can be ordered directly from the company. If not, the number of listings for dozens if not hundreds of meeples of every shape, size, design, and color can be found on Amazon and other online listings.

Notable Meeples in Other Board Games

There are many games that use meeples. If the player tokens represent people, it’s a Euro game, or both, then there’s a very good chance that you are going to find meeples when you open the game for the first time.

Some of the most notable other games that use meeples include, but are not limited to:

  • Lords of Waterdeep
  • Stone Age
  • Charterstone
  • King Domino
  • Mutant Meeples
  • Terra Mystica
  • Agricola
  • If Wishes Were Fishes
  • Meeple Circus
  • Meeples vs Monsters

There are so many games that have their own take on the meeple (I’m rather preferential to the ones from Lords of Waterdeep myself). If you’re looking for “animal meeples” then Everdell and Dixit are the games that are most likely going to come to mind as they have animal figures that most closely resemble the design or style of the original meeples.

Common Meeple Questions

Where can you buy meeples?

There are many options. Most game companies offer replacement meeples for a nominal fee, there is also an amazing array of bulk meeple options to buy on Amazon or some cool custom meeples that can be found on Etsy.

Whatever you’re looking for, there are going to be plenty of options available.

How are meeples made?

This depends on what they are made from. Modern versions made from hard plastic are going to be done from a mold where the heated plastic is in the mold, formed, and then cooled to solidify the shape, similar in concept to how dice are made of resin.

Wood meeples do not use an injection mold but actually go through a multi-step process that involves traced shapes being cut from a board, sanded, polished, painted, and then varnished to make sure the color sticks. This is an interesting process if you’re into wood working, and generally must be done on a mass scale to be profitable.

What are Digital Meeples and how can I get them?

I assume digital meeples refers to symbols, emojis, or other little custom graphics for Discord, Slack, or other social media as not having meeples in a digital game just wouldn’t make sense.

On many popular forums like Board Game Geek you can find emojis of meeples, and custom emojis are available for Discord and Slack, meaning you can find meeple emojis for all of those social media platforms.

Is Meeple singular or plural?

Okay kind of a weird question based on the website you’re on, but meeple is singular. A meeple is a single piece. Meeples is plural. Like, hypothetically speaking, if you had four guys putting together a gaming group it would be “Meeples” vs “Meeple.”

How do I get replacement meeples?

Look around for the ones you want, find the retailer you trust (or hit up your local gaming store – always a good choice) and purchase the ones that fit your need most whether Amazon, eBay, Etsy, the original game company, or a local provider.

Who invented meeples?

The main designer of Carcassonne was Klaus-J├╝rgen Wrede, so he could be considered the inventor of the very specific design that came to be known as a meeple, but tokens representing people have been used in countless games before then.

Are Meeples copyrighted or trademarked?

This question is more complicated than you’d think. So take this for example:

  • Hans Im Glueck owns the Trademark to Meeple
  • JD Hale attempted to file copyright to Meeple in use on merchandise, though that appears abandoned at this point
  • The storied creator of the word holds no right to it (Alison Hansel)
  • Meeple has become so common a word that it is in multiple dictionaries

Hans Im Glueck’s trademark is specifically to the original specific design of the meeple from Carcassonne and was grabbed to protect other companies who were copying their design of meeples and selling it from stealing the trademark design from under them. Hans Im Glueck has also been very clear that they don’t want to prevent others from using the term “meeple” or making their own, but this is to protect them from unlicensed uses of their exact design.

So in general, meeples are open for use whether for game design or merchandise, but the design needs to be altered from the original or a licensing deal with the trademark holder needs to be worked out.

You Are Now A Meeple Master!

Well at the very least you have the equivalent of an academic Ph.D in “Meeple-ology.” Meeples are a classic and widespread representation of board games, and there’s a reason that was one of the terms that jumped to our minds immediately when we founded Assorted Meeples. These gaming pieces are synonymous with board games and now you know the full history of the mighty meeple!

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