Published on January 12th, 2015 | by Nicole Jekich1
What Makes Great Art in Games
I moved to Seattle as an undergraduate to study commercial art and media nine years ago. For four years I learned all about the principles, factors and techniques that go in to producing high quality art as part of a greater story or product identity. I was gearing up for a future in video games; however my passion for illustration and working with local game designers led me to the analog realm of tabletop games.
While there are many technical differences between the digital and tabletop gaming media, all games rely heavily on using art as a way to attract, entertain and build a memorable experience for their consumer. When I share on Twitter about a game having great art there are usually three factors that lead to that exclamation. I look at board game art for its: 1) visual interest or artistic quality, 2) storytelling ability and 3) practical design.
I want to share why certain board game art stands out from the rest for me. I have also included a couple designer tips that might help you to produce art for your game.
Art as Visual Interest
The most basic principles of art begin in the visual representation of an idea. Art fills up every nook and cranny in a tabletop game: from the board maps, to character cards, custom logos, dice, and the finalized box art. There are many opportunities to connect with a gamer by catching their eye.
The game that put me on the path of board game fandom was the 2009 release of Small World by Days of Wonder. The game features bright, colorful and light-hearted caricatures of fantasy species and archetypes. The person responsible with his painterly characters is Miguel Coimbra: a well-known board game artist who also has art work in Cargo Noir, 7 Wonders and Cyclades to name a few notable titles.
Miguel Coimbra’s art has many elements that make a piece of art visually interesting: the use of bright colors, choice of composition, dynamic character poses, atmospheric perspective and the ability to connect me to the game on an emotional level.
Setting the Mood
What can you make of the scene above? It’s night at the docks and between the headlights and ship lights there are two men smirking and shaking hands. The one dressed in a suit and smoking a cigar is standing next to a bag overflowing with money. In the foreground, another man stands alert. His eyes are sharp and a scar beneath his eye is in view.
This is clearly the scene of a shady business deal. This art comes straight from Cargo Noir, a game where players are smuggling goods to each riches. Great art sets the scene by providing visual cues which emphasize a particular scene, emotion or event.
There are even more artists out there than there are board games and each has his or her own unique way of approaching an artistic challenge. If you prefer board game art that features a high level of detail, I recommend looking at Jérémy Masson. He illustrated the art for Mascarade and his use of multiple colors and layers upon layers of clothing and accessories is awe-inspiring.
Every designer and artist needs to study up on Color Theory. It is through understanding how certain colors interact that you can make decisions about color choices that have a lasting impact on a piece.
Art as Storytelling
From day one to the final portfolio presentation, our instructors always hammered home the importance of a good story. In any form of entertainment, the story is key to capturing a viewer’s (or participant’s) attention. We are easily invested in stories; we like having heroes succeed and the bad guys fail.
However, some of the best games I have played present a different perspective on the classic hero story. In Euphoria (part of the board art is pictured above), the players represent the leaders of a dystopia. Your task is to assign common workers to manual labor while also preventing the workers from becoming too educated, or even self aware. Morale high, Intellect low is the way to build a better dystopia, and that tale is told in the board art.
I Am the Hero of This Story
Great stories establish early on that their protagonist is worth rooting for. When I play games, I am participating in a designer’s world and I am one of the many gamers looking to complete my story and hopefully reach a victorious ending.
Having a strong visual narrative or scene on a board game’s box cover sets up expectations for the players. I want a board game box to tell me through their art: “Who am I in this game?” and “What will I be doing in this game?”. The cover of Tokaido is a great example of storytelling. The cover features an inviting spread of fun activities players will encounter while trying to have the most relaxing vacation on their way to Tokyo.
Art as Function
Game cards and pieces not only have to look pretty but they have to quickly and easily relay information during a game. Squinting to read text or icons is a sign that the creators overlooked how their game would operate at the printed scale.
Some games follow a minimalist style in their games to prevent losing information like the 2nd edition card sample from Glory to Rome shown above. Glory to Rome’s art is impressive because of the restricted use of color, symbols and text associated with the different actions and resources in the game. The cards are striking and legible without the use of highly detailed illustration.
Magic the Gathering has arguably the strongest art direction in any game. They have 20 years of experience in creating a massive game that is popularly played all over the world. If you need a crash course in formatting, look at how Magic cards lays out all the text information on the card: the card title is on top and is the largest heading. Underneath the card art is the card type, card information and italicized at the bottom of the text box is a sentence of flavor text.
While having great formatting may not be the most obvious eye-catching feature of a game, having poor design and text layout will hamper gameplay.
I tend to gravitate toward colorful card and board games that are targeted to new gamers. I often find that many first-time designers and indie companies feature more experimental design and art in their games and are looking to market their game to a wider, more diverse audience of casual gamers. I look for art that appeals to a wider audience and includes women and people of color as equal character roles, while not relying on tokenism or overly perpetuating gender roles.
The art of Jacqui Davis was featured in DiceHateMe’s Belle of the Ball card game. People came from all across the globe to participate in the Belle’s parties and the diversity showed in the character design. All sizes, shapes, gender, hair color, height and ethnicity were featured in this simplistic card game and the diverse portraits is a feature that I want many more designers to put in their future games.