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The Art of Board Games

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The Art of Board Games
There Will Be Games

As many of you probably know, I am a very visual person. I love it when rulebooks are well laid out and have helpful photos that show how something works. The graphic design of game and player boards is also something I think is very important. A good choice of clear icons can really help with understanding how a game works and speed up the flow of a turn. Top it all off with beautiful board game art and you have the complete package, if you ask me.

Let me start by saying that in this article I don't want to ignore people who are blind or who have visual impairments. However, I don't have any useful experience with vision impairment or blindness. I, like many men, have a type of red-green blindness, but that's about it. In fact, my colour blindness is quite mild, so I can distinguish between red and green for the most part. So I can't offer any help to board game publishers about how to make games more accessible.

All I want to say is that it's easy to assume that you can't play board games if you don't have sufficient vision. Yet, most blind people actually still have some level of vision and many people's vision is somewhere between perfect and fully blind. Also, people's eyesight naturally degrades with age. So contrast, colour palette, text size and many other graphic design choices are so very important when you want to cater for people who don't have full vision. Just don't ask me what those choices should be, because I can't help with that.

So in this article, I purely want to focus on my experience with the visual elements of board games.

Colourful Illustrations

As I said at the beginning, I'm a very visual person. I love games that have beautiful illustrations. The art you see on the game board, player aids, cards, game box, rulebooks and everywhere else is so very important to me. It helps me immerse myself in the world that the game tries to create.

It is amazing to see so many different styles and ways of bringing the games we play to life. I wonder if there is anyone out there who doesn't collect games from a specific publisher or designer but instead tries to get every game with a specific illustrator. I suppose Beth Sobel is probably the first name that comes to mind here, probably followed by Ian O'Toole. Both of these artists have contributed to such a large number of games that you could easily have a collection dedicated to them.

However, there is a long list of talented artists in our hobby, all with their own amazing style. You can listen to some of them in my podcast series Let me illustrate, which puts the spotlight on the people who make our games look so gorgeous. I strongly recommend you listen to them talk about their approach to art. Everyone even shares something about themselves that isn't generally known, their own little secret so to speak.

Board Game Art in 3D

There is more than just illustrations of course. Wooden tokens, metal coins and plastic miniatures all play a role as well. The 3D element of board games is often overlooked. Table presence is more than just a good-looking game board. A wooden or cardboard dice tower, a nice selection of models or a heap of wooden resources in custom shapes are all important parts.

A game of Wingspan set up on the table, with the cardboard dice tower, plastic card draw, etc.A game of Wingspan set up on the table, with the cardboard dice tower, plastic card draw, etc.

All of these components have to be shaped in such a way that they're functional, easy to recognise and help the gameplay. Many of them have to be to scale and fit within certain areas of the game board or slot into a dual-layer player mat. A lot of time and effort is put into getting these 3D components just right. They're all... well... a work of art.

So even though I'm not a huge fan of too much plastic in board games, I do admire the skill that someone has to make a highly detailed plastic model that is sturdy and looks good on the table. I appreciate how a horde of Viking warriors or an army of tanks can be really impressive and how much fun it is to move them around on the map.

Of course, for tabletop gamers, minis are the lifeblood and plastic scenery is a must. A corsair takes a while to paint fully, but in the end, is just breathtaking. Finishing a whole army of them, while also making trees, preparing buildings and creating obstacles, is clearly a labour of love. Having to get everything ready before you can play is real dedication.

Personally, I prefer to have cardboard standees or tokens, custom wooden meeples or similar. They're immediately ready. I'm just not a miniature painter.

Eye Candy

So when everything comes together, a clearly laid out rulebook with plenty of useful illustrative examples, great graphic design that ensures actions spaces are easy to see, carefully chosen iconography that is easy to understand, amazing art on the game box, boards and in the rulebook and expertly crafted 3D components, playing a board game goes beyond just being fun. It goes further than being a real joy for the eye. A game can actually become a piece of art in its own right. When everything is just perfect it's almost as if it's no longer just a game, but an artefact of cultural importance.

Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit here, but I think we can all name a game or two that is so gorgeous in all its parts that just looking at it is a pleasure. Playing it is almost an unnecessary bonus. It takes a special place on our shelf and whenever it comes out, the excitement is palpable. You have nothing short of reverence for it.

What About You?

Now that I've gushed enough about the visual appeal of board games, I want to know what you think. Do you enjoy looking at board games just as much as I do? Do you think board game art is an important part? Maybe you don't care how a game looks? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to find out how you feel about 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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drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #339040 18 Apr 2023 12:41
Nice topic, and well written as always.

I'm a visual artist and educator. Firmly rooted in middle age, I can make this simple declaration: Life is too short to play ugly games.

I've been critical on this site before about the 1st edition of Summoners Wars*. A great skirmish game marred by subpar illustrations. It was the first of many games I culled purely for aesthetic reasons:

Dungeon Saga
Survive! (Stronghold's 1st effort)
Epic Kingdoms
Zombies!!!
Zpocalypse
OGRE (SJG's bloated "designer edition")
That MtG Planeswalkers thingamajing

* PHG's release of a second edition with improved visuals was much needed. I bought the new master set.
Joebot's Avatar
Joebot replied the topic: #339042 18 Apr 2023 13:30

I wonder if there is anyone out there who doesn't collect games from a specific publisher or designer but instead tries to get every game with a specific illustrator.


I do that with Ryan Laukat games!

In fact, the first game of Laukat's that I bought (Islebound), was solely based on the cover art. I'd never heard of the game, knew nothing about it, but instantly loved that cover when I saw it on the shelf at a game store. I bought it on a whim, which is not a thing that I often do. Turns out the game is great, and my son and I have played it probably more than any other game in my collection.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #339043 18 Apr 2023 13:33
If I am rating a game on a 1 - 10 scale, artwork can adjust my rating up or down by 1, and so can graphic design. Sleeping Gods has lovely art (+1), but has an exhaustive alphabet of icons that are not 100% intuitive (-1). Same goes for Saltlands. Masters of the Night has very nice art, and the notorious Universal Head did the excellent graphic design (+1). Dark Venture has decent graphic design (=1), but the art is fugly (-1). No matter how good or bad either the art or graphic design is, it has a limited impact on my overall impression of the game.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #339045 18 Apr 2023 15:30
I get a lot more out of a game that oozes theme and atmosphere from its art and commponent design, it allows you to immerse yourself in your hobby.
Many of my games have these properties, too many to talk about, but I will change to talking purely about games with (for me) outstanding pictorial artwork - and my two favourite so far, but by a large margin, are two of Awaken Realm's visual masterpieces, Tainted Grail and Etherfields (so much that I splashed out for sleeves for all cards). These two have just incredible, stunning art on all of their cards that really does increase the experience while playing, and are soon to be joined on my shelf by another stunning sibling ISS: Vanguard.

And then dropping just slightly in quality from those three are games that just have a cood combination of art and graphic design that match the game theme to, again, increase the experience when playing - just some of the games I have that do this include Nemesis, Machina Arcana, Waste Knights, Dungeon Degenerates, Shadowrun Crossfire,

And finally, I'm not a minis painter either but a year or so ago (after a lot of prompting from online articles, including people here) I decided to start dry-brushing some of the numerous grey plastic minis from my boardgames. I stuck to larger figures (due to eyesight, shakey hand, and lack of skill/patience) and though it took a lot longer than I wanted (I have poor patience for painting and take long breaks often) I have a few games now with minis that while no where near tabletop quality look great at 12 inches distance in a boardgame - Lords of Hellas and Bloodborne look so much better on the table now (and I have some evil looking nazis in Fortune and Glory).

In short, visual quality and tactile components greatly increase my enjoyment playing boardgames.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #339051 18 Apr 2023 17:02
One thing not really touched on here is art FUNCTIONALITY. I recently played a game called BARBARIANS AT THE GATES, a card driven game on the fall of the Roman Empire. Some interesting mechanics and at first glance, art that looked period specific - gloomy, matte and kind of darkish. However when game play commenced we started to see the shortcomings of the art. Dark printed city names on a brown province were very hard to read. Faint lines showing space connections required careful close up examination. In short, poor artistic choices hindered game play.

So art is good...til its not. FUNCTION first, then Form IMO.
Whoshim's Avatar
Whoshim replied the topic: #339056 18 Apr 2023 19:56

drewcula wrote: I'm a visual artist and educator. Firmly rooted in middle age, I can make this simple declaration: Life is too short to play ugly games.


I agree. When I was younger, I picked up a number of different games. However, as I have gotten older, I have started only adding games to my collection if they are aesthetically pleasing. There are too many good games out there. I would rather play a game that is slightly less good but has good art than an ugly game that is only marginally better.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #339066 19 Apr 2023 14:44

Msample wrote: One thing not really touched on here is art FUNCTIONALITY. I recently played a game called BARBARIANS AT THE GATES, a card driven game on the fall of the Roman Empire. Some interesting mechanics and at first glance, art that looked period specific - gloomy, matte and kind of darkish. However when game play commenced we started to see the shortcomings of the art. Dark printed city names on a brown province were very hard to read. Faint lines showing space connections required careful close up examination. In short, poor artistic choices hindered game play.

So art is good...til its not. FUNCTION first, then Form IMO.


A timely opportunity for me to quote from "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered;"

Form follows function.

Thanks Louis Sullivan.

I just happen to prefer and play game forms that are pretty ;)
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #339072 20 Apr 2023 03:11
I have a kind of atypical relationship with boardgame art (I think, but, who knows).

Firstly, the kind of art that I really appreciate is often not the kind of art that it seems boardgamers like. This is before functionality comes into it at all, so, it's not about that. I often see lists of greatest boardgame art, and I'm like, eh, it just looks derivative to me. But I will occasionally see stuff that looks DIFFERENT and go, oh, that looks pretty cool, I like the look of that.

But also....

One of the aesthetics that I like is... well, almost like an unfinished/unprofessional looking mess. I do a lot of proxying and DIYing and shit pnping, and I kind of like that look - in many cases, more than the published versions of things we are playing. And nobody is making boardgames like that!

And then....

In terms of creating a mood/theme or whatever, it;s like 99% mechanisms and 1% art for me, and even then, the art is like, more the aesthetic that it is creating, than any specific points of art. So - art does not immerse me in any shape or form. What immerses me is play. In the worst cases, art detracts from that, because it can interfere with the play (like the example above about the art being too dark or whatever). Or because it will interfere with my expectations somehow, like if the art doesn't match what I feel the gameplay is like. And even if the art does match, and I like the aesthetic and its one of those things where I'm like "oh this looks cool", and it matches what I think the game feels like to play, then, if the gameplay is good, it fades away anyway and isn't something I'm even really noticing after about 5 minutes.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #339074 20 Apr 2023 10:30
I like Phil Foglio's art when it matches the subject matter: fun, silly, playful. I hated his artwork for the Strange Synergies board game, even though it was typical Foglio art. It's a game of capture the flag with superheroes and supervillains, so I wanted it to look like comic book superheroes, not silly Foglio characters. So I changed it. I found a website for somebody's homebrew Champions campaign and I looted it for suitably comic book style characters that weren't famous Marvel and DC characters. I even made a new box cover.
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #339083 21 Apr 2023 13:03

Msample wrote: One thing not really touched on here is art FUNCTIONALITY. I recently played a game called BARBARIANS AT THE GATES, a card driven game on the fall of the Roman Empire. Some interesting mechanics and at first glance, art that looked period specific - gloomy, matte and kind of darkish. However when game play commenced we started to see the shortcomings of the art. Dark printed city names on a brown province were very hard to read. Faint lines showing space connections required careful close up examination. In short, poor artistic choices hindered game play.

So art is good...til its not. FUNCTION first, then Form IMO.



Abyss was that game in our group that we all wanted to love but couldn't stomach the hard to read text and icons and the overly saturated very very dark art.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #339085 21 Apr 2023 22:15
Art for boardgames has a tough set of requirements. I don't envy the people stuck doing it or the people on the hook for managing them.

Msample is right -- it has to be a follower; usability has to come first and I do usability for a living so I'm kind of a jackass about critiquing it whether I want to or not. And not just games. Those credit card readers in stores, online order pages, app interfaces . . . I have trouble turning it off. So the new Unmatched maps with the huge multi-colored pies for locations are great for usability but stomp on the game's limited art with carolina boots. Little is left to admire.

When it's right, especially when it's unique, you know it. I'll never sell my Days of Wonder copy of Queen's Necklace just because its art is like no other.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #339086 21 Apr 2023 22:45
Marvel Champions has decent art by board game standards. From a strictly artistic standpoint, the artwork is below average, elevated to average and even good at times if you like superhero comic book artwork. But more importantly, the graphic design of Marvel Champions supports the utility of the components, including using different colors AND different shapes for the tokens in case someone is color blind. Pretentious hipsters love to badmouth Comics Sans as a font, except that it is entirely appropriate for this game about comic book heroes. And while the game lacks a unifying color palette, the old school coloring conventions of comics come through in a pinch: heroes tend to wear costumes with primary colors, while villains tend to wear costumes with secondary colors.