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  • Essays
  • The Importance of Visual Appeal in Board Games

The Importance of Visual Appeal in Board Games

O Updated
(Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

As many of you probably already know, I'm a very visual person. So it's no surprise that I am drawn in by great board game art, sculpts, luxurious components and overall visual appeal. Don't get me wrong, visual appeal alone doesn't make me want to buy a game, but when good gameplay and great art come together, a game really zings for me.

I am ashamed to say though, that I can't name many board game illustrators, other than maybe a handful - and I have the feeling many of you are the same. To help with this, I have started a new podcast series which I'm calling "Let me illustrate", which will feature a different board game illustrator, sculptor, graphic designer or another visual artist every two weeks. The first episode featured Andrew Bosley, so please have a listen and let me know what you think.

However, this article isn't about promoting this exciting new project. I want to talk about what I think these people add to the game experience for me.

The first thing you see when you play a game, at least in real life, is the box art. It sets the scene and mood of the game you're about to try. It sometimes also gives clues as to some of the mechanisms used in the game and maybe even whether it's co-operative or competitive.

On the back of the box you will usually see the game set up, alongside text giving you an overview of the gameplay and the usual technical specifications, such as player count, game length and age range. The layout on the back is usually the work of a graphic designer, who will have made careful decisions about font family, size, spacing and arrangement of all the different components. It's work that we often take for granted, but that could have taken a while to do and decides how easy it is to make your buying decision in a games store.

The next big piece of art is the game board and the player mats, as applicable for your game. Rulebooks also often feature a fair amount of art. All of these items are usually the team work of an illustrator and a graphic designer who between them create something that looks stunning but is still easy to read and process.

When it comes to cardboard tokens, it is again usually an illustrator who creates the artwork for them and the art for those is quite a different thing than that for the box cover, gameboard or rulebook. Illustrators always consider the function of each piece of art within the game so that it works well.

Wooden, metal or plastic components are often created by sculptors, certainly the latter two. They often work from art or sketches created by the game's illustrator and they have to translate those 2D drawings into 3D models, which often requires them to create elements that aren't visible in the drawings. After all, illustrations often feature the front view of characters, creatures, buildings and other elements, meaning that the sculptor has to create the back.

All of these elements take a lot of time to create and adjust further as the game gets closer to publication. The artists need to have a good understanding of what the designers are trying to achieve with the game, so being able to communicate well is important. In fact, everyone working on a game needs to communicate well. Illustrators, sculptors and graphic designers all need to talk to each other to make sure every element fits with each other and into the game as a whole.

Mind you, it's not just about amazing visual appeal. Often games that have very few illustrations and focus more on minimalist design and style are harder to make, because every element needs to work a lot harder and be a lot more precise.

I think we all take the visual aspect of board games for granted, not realising the amount of work and time people have spent creating it.


There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #312779 04 Aug 2020 11:18
I'll be just a shade contrary. Though I think you're correct regarding end-users not appreciating the level of effort spent on the visual presentation, I think the result of that effort is often over-appreciated.

Given that many modern games are purchased and played perhaps two or three times prior to retirement I think a lot of collectors are focused on the visual appeal more than the gameplay. I suppose this is true of all products, not just board games.

That's fine, because there's plenty to choose from. But the art of Scythe was being fawned over long before Scythe was available to any customer. It was (and in my opinion still is) a major part of the purchase decision, perhaps the biggest part.

Given that Scythe is a critically acclaimed game it can get away with it. But I've played more than a few turds with a high-gloss lacquer applied. That's how sales and marketing works, I suppose.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #312780 04 Aug 2020 11:23
I agree. The first game I thought of while reading this article title was Scythe, for all the same reasons. In our current zeitgeist, a visually appealing game is easier to get on the table, especially when everybody brings a stack of games to play. But people who play their games more than 2 or 3 times will eventually notice which games are genuinely better, independent of the visuals.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #312782 04 Aug 2020 12:07
People care a lot about art and component quality. I use Plaid Hat a lot in examples because I saw them change from the relatively close sidelines.

When Summoner Wars was released originally, it came with a white and black paper mat which Robert Florence (I believe) compared to a 16 year old's bed sheet... in an otherwise glowingly positive review!

The same artist came back for Mice and Mystics, but people seem to like his anthropomorphic creations more than his humanoids. The modular board for that game were all nicely illustrated, and that game took off even harder, despite likely being a less solid game mechanically.

I don't think Dead of Winter (or Ashes) would have been nearly as popular without Fernanda Suarez's illustrations.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #312786 04 Aug 2020 13:44
I'm someone who really likes a good visual presentation of a game setup, and I wonder if that's because I'm a person who plays a game more for the experience and immersion where other people play for the challenge of the game system itself (I know my euro group are definitely hard in the latter grouping). While it won't make sense to many people, I will enjoy a game less that has sparse components on a table even though the actual gameplay may be superior - probably why I never really got into rpgs the very few times I tried them.
And I do exactly like Oliver describes - the box front draws me in and then the display of the game setup on the back will get me reading the rules and any reviews I can find.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #312789 04 Aug 2020 14:43
The artwork on the box draws me in to an otherwise unknown game on the shelf. My first board game purchases were Blood Bowl and Blood Royale, both with engaging artwork. As an aside, it has been cool to see Chris Achilleos', Christos at the time, art style evolve from that Blood Royale box art. I can't think of any game purchases that weren't judged by the artwork as a major component of future enjoyment. That personal restriction does mean I will miss out on some very good games, Cave Evil probably topping the list, where I don't cotton to the art direction.

There are some exceptions to that, C&C: Ancients, where I like the system. Since I cut my teeth on AH games, hex and counter games get a romanticized pass.

Plus I'm a Libra/Virgo cusp and we like pretty things. LOL
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #312802 05 Aug 2020 07:55
I'm curious to hear if there are some basic standards to game art design that have evolved over time. Things like; make sure your token designs can be distinguished apart from 6 feet away, ensure the color choice doesn't hinder the large portion of men with color blindness, text legibility at a respectable distance.

I've seen games that fail at all of these because it doesn't look like they ever took the final product and demoed it for real. I especially dislike it when important game text is put in some gothic script, printed in a tiny 6 point font, and then thematically written on aged parchment splattered with blood for the thematic presentation. Hey man, I gotta actually READ that stuff!!

This is probably an aside from art design, but layout itself is critical. I hate it when there isn't a flow to the layout. This is particularly important with cards or tokens covered in stats. List the stats in an order than makes it easy to see what they are and when they are used. Arkham Horror 2ed was the worst for this, the cards were covered in numbers and symbols but it was an almost random distribution across the card, making it hard to know which numbers were used for what. Wargames have a similar problem when the token is littered with numbers.

Symbology is another side tangent. I know publishers want language universal game components but I think I'd rather learn some french or german for a game than try to deal with arcane symbols replacing what could just be a few simple words.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312803 05 Aug 2020 08:44
Art and theme are huge for me. I kick-started Cryptic Explorers on the strength of the art alone. Escape the Dark Castle, Sea Evil and Dungeon Degenerates initially sang to me for the same reasons. These are perhaps outliers but hit me with a singular vision that speaks to me and i'll happily support that kind of aesthetic and theme even as an object d'art. It helps that all of those games so far have been totally badass. In this instance it's less about 'professional gloss and competence' and more about personality and intent. Having said that-i also have Shadows of Malice on the way and that's as plain jane as any wallflower at the ball. I guess a strong singular vision can manifest itself in all kinds of ways but art married with intent are often a strong indicator that there's something i'll appreciate about 'the experience' that extends beyond the pure mechanics of play.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #312815 05 Aug 2020 14:52

Andi Lennon wrote: ... on the strength of the art alone. Escape the Dark Castle, Sea Evil and Dungeon Degenerates initially sang to me for the same reasons. These are perhaps outliers but hit me with a singular vision that speaks to me ....

Picked up EtDC and DD after being attracted for the same reason, hopefully that's a niche part of gaming that can be supported and stay.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312825 05 Aug 2020 22:43
Absolutely. There's definitely a passionate minority starved for this kind of thing so hopefully we continue to see the efforts of these developers rewarded. There's certainly a healthy underground movement sustaining it in the RPG space but the associated production costs of board game may cause publishers to shy away from such bold statements in favour of something more universally palatable (read:bland).