Boardgame art

Moderator Level 1

Some time ago wrote a post, mostly about boardgame production values, but it touched a little bit on art as well. You can read that post here if you wish. @nwrex stated that I should write more about the art aspect in modern boardgames. I have decided to take that as a challange. As such, I accept the challenge. 

Clearly the term art is highly loaded. For the purpose of this post, I will use the term of "art" to mean the visual 2d presentation of the game. This does not include the way the components feel. And, it won't include 3d components such as minis or the coalition blocks of #Pax Pamir (Second Edition). It could however include 2d representations on 3d objects, such as the illustrations on chips from Chip Theory Games. This is an overly narrow view of boardgame art. But truly, art is such an expansive term that one must needs narrow it somewhat. 

Now the deal with 2d art is that, with many things in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This makes talking about art in a super objective way a bit of a challenge. But, that won't keep me from pontificating about it.

The first thing about art, as applied in boardgames, is that I believe that art in boardgames is fundementally harder than than in most other mediums. A painting, an illustration in a book, or other such things don't have to deal with the restrictions that are found in boardgames. In boardgames, as in other visual arts, the art tries to communicate something, it tries to communicate theme, evoke feeling, or a sense of place. But, unlike most other visual arts, in boardgames the artist must consider the importance of the actual game-play. There are game-play elements: icongraphy, terrain features, and other such information, that one must avoid obscuring. In fact, if the art can highlight those elements without detracting from the art, so much the better. It becomes a delicate dance for the illustrator. A dance between clearly communicating the gameplay elements without the game looking like something from

This balance between the necessity of clarity and looks has led to a lot of accusations leveled at certain types of games. For instance, I have heard a lot of criticism leveled at 18xx games. They are generally considered to be ugly, but the truth is that they have, as a type of games, have decided to sacrifice aesthetics in favor of clarity. And, truthfully, I think this has served 18xx games quite well. The fact that 18xx games tend have a underlying system that makes learning other 18xx games much easier, makes the importance of clarity so much more important. For instance, if a small town is indicated by a square in one game, a triangle in another, and a dot in another it can quickly begin to cause some confusions. Likewise, if the first stage of track is green in 18xx but in another 18xx it is the second stage of track that is green, that can cause confusion. The fact that 18xx games have chosen adopt a single super clear art style for all essential gameplay elements is a big reason that new 18xx games are so easy to learn if you have learned one or two games in the system. Since these games are also, generally speaking, pretty complicated, the clear style makes it easier for new players to get into it. All the information is clearly delineated. For more fascinating discussion of aesthetics in 18xx games listen to this fascinating podcast episode. This is from the The Train Rush Podcast and comes from a pair superlative podcasters. 

These criticisms have also been leveled at wargames, especially the hex and counter kind. But once again, clarity is of super importance. On a board showing a battlefield distinctions in terrain and among different unit types are super important. You can't have confusion about that. You have to clearly show the differences in terrain etc....So, once again, they are accused by many as being ugly. For examples of what I am talking about, you can look up #SPQR: Deluxe Edition. I don't think there are any pictures extent on the BGA website, but there are a lot on BGG. 

So, the 18xx and wargames set aside for now, what about "regular games" what about our beloved euro games? What about our thematic games? What about our hybrid style games?

Ian O'Toole, Klemens Franz, Vincent Dutrait, Ryan Lauket, Andrew Bosley, Kyle Ferrin, The Miko, and Beth Sobel. These are some of the names when we think of the art in the games we like to play. These are names that are really well known. These are names that I imagine most of us associate strongly with certain art styles. When we hear "Klemens Franz" we picture euro games, probably a Rosenberg, with a very distinctively, though not attractively styled, cover but very nice art on the interior. Upon hearing Ian O'Toole most of us probably immediately associate that with heavy deluxe euro games, and a very lovely and clear art design. 

Ok, So there are some general ramblings about art in boardgames. Next I would like to offer a quick and dirty list things that I think are important in boardgame art.

  • CLARITY: The art should not obfuscate gameplay elements. In fact, good art, should help draw your attention to the gameplay elements whenever you need it to.
  • Art Should Communicate the Theme: If the game has a theme the art should communicate that. I do think that this communication of the theme should, primarily, be immersive rather than descriptive. 
  • Art Should be Consistent: This means that the like stuff should look like like stuff. The humans should all look like the same sort of humans. The animals should look like the same sort of animals, and etc.... For instance, I think that it would be dreadfully jarring if some of the occupation cards in #Agricola (Revised Edition) were illustrated by Andrew Bosley, some by Kyle Ferrin, and some by Klemens Franz. 

So, what does this mean for us as players? How much importance should we put on art?

Almost all of us are human, as such, we do tend to prefer things that we find aesthetically pleasing. The thing is, that as I mentioned earlier, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I know some of my biases in this area. I really don't like horror or gross styles of art. I really don't like anime. I really don't tend to enjoy chibi style artwork. This means that, for me, many games will not appeal to me on an aesthetic front. These games will probably include almost anything in the Arkham universe, or #Cave Evil, #Middara, #Arcadia Quest, #Kingdom Death: Monster, #Dungeon Degenerates: Hand of Doom, or any number other games. Most of these are games that I think sound good, they sound fun. But, I find them aesthetically displeasing.  Now, it is important to note that I don't necessarily think that the above named art styles are "bad" as such. I don't really have a problem with people enjoying those things. But for me, personally, I don't enjoy them. Alternatively I really love art like Kyle Ferrin's cute woodland creatures, and I know people who really really dislike them. Once again that, for them, is a personal taste issue. 

The important thing for me when I am playing a game with unappealing aesthetics is to seperate what is my personal taste, and whether or not the art objectively does what it is supposed to do. If I were to play #Kingdom Death: Monster, it would be important for me to distinguish between my personal distaste for the theme, and whether or not the theme communicates the theme, I believe it does. Or any other point which we believe it is necessary for the art to fulfill. Once I have separated that, I am than free to form a much more objective opinion of the art. I can judge that the art isn't for me but that, objectively speaking, the art does what it is supposed to do. If the art style works for you, than it's great. 

This is equally important to separate your preferences out when judging the art on a game with an appealing art style. For instance, to give a concrete example, I love #Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain. I could see this potentially becoming, with time, my favorite game of all time. I just love everything about it, except for the time investment. The theme is spot on for me, the gameplay is great, the component quality is awesome, the art is spot on for me. The art is super super appealing. But, especially on the map, it isn't super clear. The way the color's and script are done, it makes a lot of province names hard to pick out. It breaks, in that sense, the most important rule, the rule of the clarity. But, until I can seperate my bias out, it is hard for me to recognize that the art, beautiful as I find it, does have that pretty big flaw. That doesn't lessen my enjoyement or esteem that I have for the game. But, it should color how I talk to others about it. 

So, considering this, my first plea is that we, as a boardgame community, learn to seperate between what we personally find appealing or unappealing and what is objectively good or bad. 

My second point is simpler. There are 129,412 entries in the BGG database. IF each entry would take only 15 minutes to play, you would need to play for 32,353 hours to play through them all. That is more than 16 years of making it a full time job. And, during those 16 years, several thousand more games will be coming out each year. The point of all this is that there is enough choice that you can afford to be choosy. You don't need every game. You can afford to choose NOT to buy or to play a game for whatever reason you want. It is ok to choose not to buy a game just because you don't like the art style, that's fine. Boardgaming is a tactile and physical hobby. If part of that physicality, the visual, is off, than you don't have to mess with it. 

My third point is maybe sorta the opposite of my second. In the same way that you can grow your palate, you can grow your visual palate. You can learn to like art that you didn't earlier. I have learned to like art styles that I used to consider terribly dry and boring, stuff like wargames and 18xx. I could learn to like horror style art, or anime. Don't be afraid to branch out a little bit, don't be afraid to experiment with art styles that might not be your first choice. Some of my favorite games have come to me because I was willing to buy a game that, in the moment, I thought looked ugly. 

So, this took me way too long to write. I think I started sometime last week and worked on it a little bit here and there. I fear that it bears the marks of its gipsy origins. I hope that you managed to track, and that I managed to communicate what I was trying to communicate. Feel free to drop any thoughts or corrections in the comments below. 


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12 months ago

I will play even the ugliest game if it is entertaining.

I will pay many hard earned dollars for the prettier version of a game.

So, bad art will not stop me from enjoying a game but if they offer a beautiful version, even if it is sustantially more expensive, I will buy it (like #Century: Golem Edition, for example). I will also pay extra for large wooden components, playing mats or a useful insert.

Won't pay more for plastic miniatures on most games, though. Or linen finish cards. Or signed/numbered editions.

Moderator Level 112 months ago

Very well thought out and communicated. I do think that the art brings a lot to a game and is a crucial component to a game. Some games get away with it but its the games that "Look fun" and "play fun" that get to the table the most. My collection is just over 100 games and I don't see it getting to be larger than 150 so art will definitely go into my decision making process with the games I keep long-term. 

Supporter12 months ago

#Terraforming Mars. Truly an amazing game but it's art is all over the place. TM definitely violates your consistency rule. And in fact, many people actively avoid TM because of it's art. I think that is a mistake. When do you decide to pass on a game? When you like the theme but don't like the art? When you don't like either? What if trying a game with a different art style expands your horizons and you get to enjoy an amazing game?

Moderator Level 112 months ago

When do I decide to pass on a game? It all depends.

I would hope, if the art is good, that the theme and art are walking, at least somewhat, hand in hand. So in many cases it will be a combination of art and theme.

I definetly think that expanding your art style preferences is a great thing to do. My horizons have been greatly expanded and I have been so blessed by my expanding horizons. 

Moderator Level 112 months ago

Thoughtful as always.  Thanks for posting it.

My wife likes good looking ('pretty') games-they are more likely to get her to the table to play it.  I like games that are aesthetically pleasing as well, but many of the games I like do not fit her sense of pretty.  And I'm okay with that.  I like the art to fit the theme, be easy to understand and use, and I'm willing to give games some slack for consistency because I like them.  (I didn't really notice the variety in #Terraforming Mars until after a few plays when I saw a review that mentioned it.)  The art work often helps draw me into considering a game in the first place- #Scythe, #Lost Ruins of Arnak, and #Wingspan are examples. I do think my art palate has gradually broadened since I've gotten more into gaming, and I'm looking forward to seeing how broad it gets over the coming years.

Moderator Level 112 months ago

Your point about art as an important part, not only for you or me but for other players, is a good point. 

Premium User12 months ago

I think you are dead on with the assessment that game art is hard.  It has to be great art but within the parameters of being functional which is a hard line to tow.  

Pendragon is a great example because I agree with you, the art and components are great but reading place names is hard and takes away from game flow.  The place names look like they belong on that map but unfortunately they don't just look like they belong, they blend in.

But making them easily visible yet still looking like they belong would be a hard task.

The other thing that people care about is consistency as you mentioned..  I look at #Terraforming Mars as an example.  Personally, I think the art is fine. but if I had a dollar for every time someone complained about the different art styles mixing together I would have no game wishlist left as I could afford to buy them all!

Edit: Missed that I got ninja'ed on TM.

Moderator Level 112 months ago

Hey, I am glad that my problem with Pendragon isn't just a "me" problem. I was honestly wondering if I have a bit of an eye problem....LOL

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