Last week, I got to play Stronghold for the first time. I liked it, more than I thought I was going to, although I think there may be some question over its long-term replay value. It wouldn’t be fair to reflect further on the game after one play, but it is entirely fair to reflect on the board art. The Stronghold board is both striking to look at, and entirely functional in terms of allowing players to easily access and digest all the information they need to play. This is, sadly a relatively rare combination.
One of the things I enjoy about board games over computer games, and indeed the experience of playing a board game in reality rather than electronically, is the simple tactile pleasure of handling pieces and appreciating art. Maybe it’s the miniatures gamer in me, but those little things make a big difference. It’s one thing to co-ordinate at Zerg rush in Starcraft, but quite another to pull off the same tactic successfully with little plastic Zerglings you can pick up, feel, press into your skin, hold into the air as part of a victory celebration.
But boardgames have a difficult balancing act required on top of visually stimulating and appealing design, one which is shared, curiously, with everyday household kitchen items. What, you might well ask, does a game have in common with a kettle, or a toaster? Well the answer is that both are supposed to look nice within a number of constraints set by their physical function. Kettles have to be roughly jug-shaped so they can hold water, toasters need to contain toast, and designers have to abide by these basic functions whilst also making them look good on your countertop.
That’s harder than it sounds. If you’re shopping for a new kettle or toaster, how many do you feel really engage you with their visual design? Board games have the same problem: we expect them to look good, but we also want them to be quick to set up and put away, and to ensure we have all the information we need to make good decisions and enjoy the theme while we play at our fingertips, often when all the components are spread out over a wide area. That’s a tough ask. It’s difficult enough to make the information needed available at a glance on a single card, let alone an entire game. And very few games indeed manage to do both this and remain visually appealing.
Games designers, thankfully. can cut corners more than engineers. Often we put up with fudged designs in which we can get everything we need, but only at the cost of a little more effort and annoyance than we’d ideally like. For my money, the best-looking board game ever is Napoleon’s Triumph with it’s stunning recreation of the sort of map an 18th century commander might well use to track the course of a battle. And it doesn’t have a lot of information needed to allow the players to plot their tactics. However, one each space side, across which opposing forces line up to do battle, there is printed a little symbol which tells you what kinds of units suffer a penalty attacking across that direction. They’re clear enough on the board. But as formations move they obscure these important symbols, and once combat is joined, the units involved sit on top of the symbol on each side. So whenever you want to see the symbol on a side where there are units sitting (which is often), they have to be removed, the symbol inspected and the pieces replaced neatly. It works, and it’s a great game, and a wonderful looking one. But the visual design impairs its usability as a game.
There are other visually beautiful games games that are less appealing from an informational point of view. War of the Ring springs to mind, for example. Games that are more successful in balancing the two tend to be those in which there’s not so much information to track. Claustrophobia and Cadwallon are a fine examples. But of course that’s not a wide-ranging solution to the problem: we want games that are complex and challenging as well as lighter fare and in such games, as the amount of information involved rises, so does the need to display it in a clear and accessible manner for all the players, and so do the problems in doing so effectively, an unfortunate Catch-22 situation.
The issue, and the number of games that fall short of the mark, has spawned a popular cottage industry in free fan-made play aids to try and improve the situation. Many are, as you might expect, pretty poor although you have to give credit to the authors for t least trying, rather than just complaining about it like I am. One notable example that bucks the trend is the work of Peter Gifford, better known as UniversalHead. As a professional graphic designer and a lover of games, he understands the peculiar problems in communication and visual art that games represent and has developed a fine skill at overcoming them. Given the popularity - and effectiveness - of his player aids, I’m surprised work in visual design for games hasn’t been more forthcoming for him than Tales of the Arabian Nights, Prophecy and a few other lesser known games.
But it hasn’t. And I can’t help but wonder if that doesn’t indicate that this issue is held in relatively low regard by publishers, who are more concerned with getting exciting looking, visually appealing product out of the door and onto the shelves to entice people to buy, worrying about playability as a secondary problems. As it stands, whatever the reason, Stronghold remains sadly rare as a game with beautiful components which actually aid rather than impede the complex information flow of the game, where it should be the norm.