Welcome to the 2018 Zatu Selections - our very own board game awards. Today's award is for Artwork of the Year 2018. As much as it's the playing experience which ultimately makes our minds up on whether a game is good or not, there are many gamers who are swayed by the artwork.
If the box looks great, you're more likely to pick it up and take a look. It's even better when you open the box and find that the detailed, thematic, colourful, or thematically dark, artwork continues on the components. Here are the winning games, chosen by members of our writing team.
Ben G - Root
I can’t think of any game artwork that came close to Root in 2018, in my opinion. That’s not to say that other games were bad. Root was just so good. Kyle Ferrin used his signature style to bring to life a woodland war zone in the most adorable way. A fully-illustrated double-sided game board, four player boards and around 100 poker-sized cards all show off Ferrin’s accomplishments.
It is not just the unique style that makes the art of Root my pick of the year, but also the way that the art shapes players’ experience of the game world. Cute cartoon creatures draw you in, but their appeal is just a thin facade. Savagery and cut-throat antics lie in wait behind those big, round eyes, alerting players to the struggles that currently embroil the creatures of the woodland. It is no surprise to me that the world of Root is already being adapted to an RPG.
Kyle Ferrin’s art teases us with glimpses into what’s really going on as we march wooden meeples around the board in summer and winter. The relationships between the different factions play out in scenes of conflict and trickery and the personalities of different creatures come across clearly. The Eyrie comes complete with four leader cards, each of which is beautifully illustrated, while the Vagabond player can choose between three different options, all of which are bursting with life through their art. Root is a fantastic game, but it just wouldn’t be the same without this incredible art.
Louis N - Imaginarium
There have been several games with sterling artwork in 2018. Both versions of Brass feature some exceptional artwork, conveying the theme whilst being visually appealing. 2018 has also been the year of The Mico, who has put his art on some very popular and well received games. However, there is one game whose art stands head and shoulders… and teeth… above the others, for me.
Felideus Bubastis is not a well-known name when it comes to art, but his illustrations for the cards and board of Imaginarium are both captivating and disturbing (in a good way… I think). His freakish designs encourage people playing the game to inspect the pictures more closely. You can't help but want to examine each and every card, to see exactly what is going on. The pictures just dare you to inspect, like a weird treasure trove of tiny, freakish museum pieces. And his animal creations have to be some of the weirdest things I have ever seen in a board game, with their bulbous eyes, chimpanzee grimaces and Steampunk sensibilities.
Imaginarium is probably the only game I have played where you can't help but show every single new card that comes out to all the other players. And then there's the board. If a card isn't selected in a round, or if a card is destroyed from your tableau, it suffers a fate worse than death… it goes into The Crusher. The Crusher is always the first thing anyone notices about the game… who in their right mind would put a giant set of teeth in the middle of a board game?
Imaginarium has some (literally) fantastic artwork. For me, some of the best artwork of the year… but maybe not for the faint-hearted.
Ryan H - Root
As one of the most highly rated games of 2018, it should come as no surprise that Root boasts beautiful artwork to accompany its well-regarded gameplay. A competitive, asymmetrical strategy game based in a cutesy woodland region, Root's theme is both original and adorable. With each player commanding a different species, including cats, birds, mice and a plucky raccoon, every team behaves completely differently with unique objectives.
Lovingly paired with this theme is the quirky lore that includes the sinister rule of Marquise de Cat, the brave band of mouse rebels called The Alliance, and the squabbling birds of The Eyrie. It's a breath of innocent fresh air compared to that the lovecraftian abyss that I am so accustomed.
The units on the board are represented by custom animal meeple, which are aesthetically pleasing in their own right, with their charming painted faces and carved ears. In addition, the board, cards and game box have a hand-drawn style, courtesy of artist Kyle Ferrin, with artwork that is very easy on the eyes.
Gameplay aside, it is easy to see why so many board gamers have been drawn to this title. With such a saturated market, it's essential to have a game stand out and the best way to do that is by making it gorgeous. I'm also very impressed that publisher Leder Games didn't pursue the increasingly common route of plastic minis, instead utilising a cheaper, wooden material. As much as I love plastic minis, they are a fantastic way of bumping up the cost of our beloved hobby. If you haven't checked it out already, I strongly suggest that you do.
Tom G - Brass Lancashire/Birmingham
When Martin Wallace released the original Brass back in 2007, it was deemed as a fantastic game to play, but perhaps wasn’t the most pleasant game to look at. Its yellowed board and brighter colours didn’t match the theme to well!
Fast forward 11 years to 2018 and Roxley Games re-released Brass (Lancashire) but also followed up with a new instalment, Brass Birmingham! Both games have had their artwork redesigned from the ground up and Roxley have done a fantastic job of matching the theme perfectly with the industrial age that Brass is set in. A dark, almost dystopian theme transports players back to the days of the Industrial Revolution. I am a massive fan of the artwork in both games and they are fully deserving of Artwork of the Year!
Will M - Architects of the West Kingdom
At the risk of sounding somewhat superficial, for me, artwork can sometimes make or break a game – I have seen many a dry Euro game that may play like a dream but has turned me off with uninspiring, flat artwork. Other games can put me off with over-complicated pictures of warriors firing impossibly heavy guns with shrapnel flying and sweat dripping! Numerous games caught my eye in 2018, such as the wonderfully dark foggy Victorian world of Brass Birmingham and the childish dream-like wonder of Feudum and Root, but for me, the artwork of the year award goes to Architects of the West Kingdom.
When I rediscovered board gaming in late 2015 I was almost overwhelmed with the sheer amount of exciting and enticing artwork out there but I was drawn to the artwork of Explorers of the North Sea, with its bold cartoon Viking imagery. The other two games in the North Sea trilogy (Raiders of the North Sea and Shipwrights of the North Sea) were also illustrated by the same man, Mihajlo Dimitrievski (or “The Miko”, as he is otherwise known).
The Miko’s artwork ensures Architects of the West Kingdom maintains the same high standards and consistency as the North Sea trilogy, with its striking box cover that uses the same layout style and font as the North Sea trilogy (showing they’re all in the same family of games). The wonderfully illustrated board shows a bird’s-eye view of a Middle Ages town and the areas around it where resources can be collected. The layout and iconography is clear and the graphic design is spot-on.
The great artwork persists throughout, from the rulebook, player boards and building cards to the amusing apprentice cards that portray characters such as a scarred debt collector, a pompous patron, muscular stonecutter and a dishevelled pickpocket amongst others. What is most appeasing is how the artwork goes hand in hand with your immersion into the game and the world of the West Kingdom – I eagerly look forward to the next game in the series, Paladins of the West Kingdom.