[Over the past 30 years, we have spent a lot of time discussing game design, what makes a game good and, in some cases, great. Although important, game design in not the only consideration in making a game a success – graphics can play a major part. In this issue, graphic design is addressed by Gamers Alliance contributor James Davis who knows more than a little about the subject. As James says:

“I’ve been a graphic designer and web developer for more than 15 years. And gamer for (ahem) much, much longer than that. I was a gamer back when you could actually own all of the hobby games published in the USA. each year. Can’t do that now.

I’ve been very lucky and honored recently to add a few game designs to my portfolio. I was the layout artist for Baseball Highlights 2045 and the graphic designer for 20th Century Limited. And there are three others in the pipeline at the moment. I love the fact that I’m able to combine my love of gaming and my passion for art and design. I hope gamers will enjoy my designs as much as I enjoyed working on them. Of course it helps that all of the games I’ve been working on are really good.”

Now, without further ado, James offers his insight on….”

(Graphic) Designing Games by James Davis


Most people don’t realize it, but graphic design is all around us. Absolutely every package, bottle, can or box you buy in a grocery store has been designed by a team of expert artists who meticulously pour over every square inch of the item’s surface. Every movie poster, every book cover, every logo, every cereal box, every web page, all posters, magazines and advertisements are designed by artists from many fields. In essence, graphic design is one of the main means of relating people to objects and concepts. And games.

gamesstructure (1)A graphic designer needs to comprehend quite a few diverse fields. One of the key and typically underrated skills is typography; the understanding of line-height, kerning and font families. He or she needs to understand the fundamentals of digital print production such as color separations, grid layout, bleed and the difference between RGB and CMYK colors. Obviously a graphic designer needs to be an artist who employs color-theory, drawing or painting, along with layout and design elements such as balance, unity, visual rhythm and contrast. And you must be very good with raster and vector programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to be able to succeed in the field.

And that’s just the obvious skills. You also need to be able to take an idea given to you from a client and transform it into a successful artistic presentation. That is not easy to do. It involves active listening, critical thinking, problem solving, negotiation and persuasion. To quote Bruno Munari, an Italian artist and designer, “A designer is a planner with an aesthetic sense”. Or in other words, graphic design is the combination of social science, business and art. Yes, a graphic designer does make pretty pictures. But a great deal more than that is involved.

So how does this relate to board games?

Well, every professionally published game has gone through the hands of a graphic designer before it ever is placed on your gaming shelf. Everything within the game, from the cards to the game board to the token and the rules is meticulously crafted. The designer or artist’s work is a required and critical step in between the game creator’s hard work and your game night.

And it is relevant because a bad design can sometimes break a good game. Poor graphic design can take a well designed game and turn it into a frustrating mess. I’ve played many very good games that were ruined by a thoughtless or unskilled designer.

In an effort to not offend I won’t name names, so let me give you a few generic examples of what I mean:

tokaidobox1aAlthough you can find great color designs in games such as Tokaido or Takenoko, horrible color choices are a common mistake. When two very similar colors are used for completely different parts of the game for example, it makes the play frustrating as everyone repeatedly plays the wrong card or moves the wrong piece. And sometimes there is a horrible use of color. Gamers are typically going to be staring at the game board for an hour or more. If a garish design makes their eyes bleed after fifteen minutes, there’s a problem.

colorblindapplesThis also includes not bothering to think about colorblind people. I’ve had a few friends who couldn’t play a game at all because some of the important colors on the board looked identical to them. This problem is easily fixed if the designer cares to put in the effort. It’s as simple as including icons with the colors to denote a player’s tokens or using something other than a change of color for the back of different card decks.

Poorly thought out typography and page layout of the rules can make the game very hard to learn. A solid, thick block of text on a page without spacing, breaks or headers is pure drudgery to get through. It’s worse than reading the user’s manual for your toaster. And of course there is the unreadable text on a patterned background. Or the all white text on black that gives you a migraine by the time you finish reading. Or the highly stylized text that is impossible to decipher. The rule book should be attractive and visually interesting, but it should also be clear and readable. And it should be easily scan-able so players can quickly check a rule while playing.

seasonsbox1aThen there’s the bad design that makes it harder to actually play the game: The victory point track that is far too close to the card deck, so that when you draw a card you accidentally move the tokens. Confusing areas on the board that may or may not be adjacent to each other. Spaces that are far too small for the tokens that are placed on them. Or confusing or inconsistent iconography, such as displaying an important icon on a token, but not on a card that references it. Despite these complaints, a game that gets this right would be Seasons. Everything in Seasons is designed with a specific purpose. There is no extraneous or missing elements. Nothing is left to chance and no guesswork is needed from the players.

magicgatheringcardLastly there is the artwork. And here is where it gets subjective. Just like traditional art, everyone likes what they like. Two people can look at the cover art for the same game and come away with completely opposite reactions. But there are still some rules to follow. Number one is: hire a professional artist. Some very well crafted games are undermined because the quality of the artwork looks like someone hired their 14-year old nephew with an illegal copy of Photoshop. All people judge an object by how it looks. It’s a trite saying, but people really do judge a book by its cover. And if the artwork is substandard, then people can tend to think the game is too. Magic: The Gathering is a great game, but it also has consistently displayed on the cards the most amazing artwork for over a decade. Other examples of getting it right would be Ghost Stories and 7 Wonders. I’m sure you could thing of many more. As I said, art is highly subjective.

On the other hand, it is true that some people aren’t at all visually oriented. For them, it doesn’t matter if a game looks amazing or if it is drawn on card stock with a Sharpie. It’s only the play of the game that matters to them. And I agree to a point. Even a Michelangelo couldn’t erase the stink of a poorly crafted game. You might want to frame it and put it on your wall, but you wouldn’t want to play it. I agree that the art and design are not more important than the game play itself. It is a combination of great design and development that can create a well crafted game; they work together. The developer creates the game, then the designer polishes it and helps promote it. But without a good game as a foundation, the design is useless. Jeffrey Zeldman put it well, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

To add yet another quote about this subject, Joe Sparano from Oxide Design said, “Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.” In hobby gaming that can mean simply that great design doesn’t get in the way of the game play. There aren’t any visual design flaws that irritate you each time you take your turn. The design of the board, tokens, colors, iconography and typography all work together intuitively. What you see helps you grasp how the game flows and how the turns progress. In essence, the less you notice the design the better it has done it’s job. It is this high level of design that creates the best experience for gamers. Again, Seasons is a good example of this.

Unfortunately that high quality of design is rare both within and without our hobby. There are many reasons for that. The most obvious being that the top-notch, brilliant designers who can pull off a “transparent” design also pull in the big bucks. And despite the current overflowing amount of hobby games being made each year, our hobby is still pretty small comparatively. So most game companies simply can’t afford a great designer.

Similarly, the vast majority of graphic designers have never heard of our hobby. Which brings me to a very common reason for bad board game design. If you truly want a great design for a game, the designer should be a board gamer. A non-gamer will have a difficult time understanding why his or her brilliant artistic vision will make the game harder to play. A good designer will try their best to know what is needed because that’s part of the job. But even a highly intuitive designer will tend not to see simple things that we gamers take for granted. For example: placing important information on the left side of a card so you can see it when you fan your hand.

Of course the number of designers who are also gamers is extremely low. Which means that the people who created and will publish the game need to see these details and point them out to the designer. But then they aren’t designers themselves and so may not know what to look for. This is a common issue between a designer and client. They don’t speak exactly the same “language” and so there is often misunderstanding between them. The differences are usually ironed out, but not always. Sometimes there’s just not enough hours in the day to catch everything. Thus the reason for many mistakes you see in a game’s artistic design.

But then that is fine when you stop to think about it. Not every game needs to be an artistic masterpiece to be successful. And not every game requires an “invisible” design to be playable. The vast majority of published games have reasonably good graphic design. The design is not great, but it doesn’t suck either. And that’s good enough for most of the published games. And it has been slowly getting better over the last decade or so. But it could be much better. Yes, the game play is more important. But the visual design is how that game communicates with the players. And that is a critical component that unfortunately isn’t talked about very often.

Now that you have an inkling of what goes into creating the art and layout of a game, you will be better able to tell what works and what doesn’t. Believe me, all good designers want to know how to improve their skills. Having more players who understand the rudimentary elements of design can only improve our hobby.

So the next time you pull a game off of your shelf, take a closer look at the art and layout. If something doesn’t work, then a good artist will want to know about it. Be respectful though. We artists put a great deal of ourselves into the work and then place it out for the world to see. As Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” – – – – – – – James Davis

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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