Friday, July 11, 2008

graphic design in boardgames

If you dig back into this blog's archives, you'll see that one of my first posts concerned an old Avalon Hill fantasy wargame called Titan, and a clever computerized instantiation, Colossus. In the end, of course, it's more fun to play a boardgame with real human beings and it's a literal tragedy that my ancient copy of Titan has only seen a few plays over the course of its lifetime. The reasons are not surprising: it take a few hours to finish, once you're eliminated you're gone for good, etc. - that breed of Ameritrash, Risk-like gameplay is hard to pull off once you graduate from college. But it still hasn't prevented me from getting excited over a remake of Titan that is currently in the works. Valley Games is releasing a new edition of this revered classic sometime in the next month (!) and I can't wait to get my greedy hands on it.

Now, you might wonder why someone would want another copy of a boardgame that they already own. The issue here is art and design. Print magazine recently ran a story on the resurgence of boardgames in both Europe and America, and one of the themes that came through was the new emphasis on quality. Quality of gameplay, of course, but also quality of design, of artwork, of components. Modern day game designers and publishers are putting more effort into the presentation of their product, and it's paying dividends. People (like me) collect boardgames now, not because they have a playroom for their 6-year-old, but because they view the game as something worthy of a little adoration.

Now, I won't deny that there are some classic games out there with excellent art and design work. For example, see this blog entry by our compatriot RL on the classic Dune boardgame from 1979. The components captured a unique style that seemed the reflect Frank Herbert's intriguing universe. But by and large, modern designers, artists, and publishers have better tools available to them and cheaper means of production. Back in the day, it was common for wargames to ship with sheets of counters and hex-maps, like this from Advanced Squad Leader (1985):

Something my older brother could love, but not a game that the average person would find immersive, intuitive, or attractive. Consider, as a comparison, this image of map and components from 2005's Conquest of the Empire (a wargame about the Roman Empire):

Colored miniatures not only give this game an attractive third dimension, but the use of shape allows players to analyze unit and army composition faster and more intuitively.

If you've never thought about boardgames from a graphic design standpoint before, I strong recommend reading this blog entry by designer, Mike Doyle. In it, he eloquently speaks to how good design can provide both aesthetic appeal and increased functionality (information) at the same time. The good news for me is that Doyle is leading the way on the new edition of Titan. Here's why I'm so excited. This is a pic of the Titan board from the classic 1980 edition:

Note the color pallete and layout. And here's what the new board will look like:

I love the dark contrast here, the more striking colors, and the use of a parchment effect to provide rule information. Yum. Ok, another comparison. On the left is an example of a dragon unit-counter from the original and on the right is the re-worked version. Obviously, the art is more "realistic" and computer-ish this time - but the choice of icons to express information is also more intuitive. Instead of a star to denote a flying creature, Doyle has adopted a raptor silhouette.

When two armies clash on the main board in Titan, the battle shifts to an appropriately titled "battleboard" which represents the actual terrain-hex which the armies occupy. In other words, there's a transition from strategic to tactical. On the left is an old-school battleboard, on the right the updated version. Again, note the use of the classy parchment effect, as well as the inclusion of more information (so that you don't have to flip into the rulebook when a battle begins).

So what's the point of all this, in the end? To make more money off of chumps like me? Well, yes, I suppose. But once you begin to view boardgames as playable works of art, I think your perspective shifts. Here's a quote from Doyle's blog entry:

"Art for walls serves to enhance the ambiance of a room. By the same token, the art on the game board provides an ambiance to the gameplay that very pure data will never drive. I maintain that you are more likely to spend time looking at your favorite games than the art on your walls. Thus, the game aesthetics are just as important as wall decoration aesthetics for setting a mood and ambiance. How often have we stared at the wall art for 60 minutes or two hours at a time? Now how about the game art?"

I couldn't agree more. It's just basic psychology here: people are attracted to pretty things, and will be more willing to pay attention to them for long periods of time. If I pull out a wargame to try and convince some relative non-gamers to play with me, it better look good. If all they see is piles of counters with numbers and hexes, their eyes will glaze over and they'll start wondering where my copy of Risk is (I frickin' hate Risk). But if I pull out something like War of the Ring...

or Thurn and Taxis...

or, I hope, the new edition of Titan...

... I think I'm more likely to draw out that wide-eyed little kid that each of us tends to suffocate with lawn-work, excel spreadsheets, and mind-numbing TeeVee.

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