When choosing the next board game purchase, we all want to make sure that it will be a game we enjoy. Whether you are looking for a party game, or cannot wait to find the next big Euro game, we all have our particular likes. But, what is it that subliminally sells the game to us, before we even get down to the gameplay? It’s the artwork!
We all want a game that looks pretty on the table. That makes us stop and think “wow!” Of course, we all have different views on what appeals to us artistically. But it’s fair to say 2020 had some very gorgeous games to offer for all tastes! Here are the picks of six of the blogging team.
Gavin Hudson is chillin’ in Santa Monica
Despite 2020 being the worst year for communal gaming, reports of it also being a bad year for games have been slightly exaggerated. Not only were there some great games released this year, but there were also some stunning looking games. Chief among these for me was the bright and breezy stroll along the boardwalk, Santa Monica.
While the game itself is a competitive yet friendly draft and build card game overlayed with a puzzling meeple moving contract fulfilment mechanism, the true charm comes from Jeremy Nguyen’s witty and detailed art. The pun-tastic locations on the boardwalk and beach cards layer on bucketfuls of theme, lending narrative and humour to what could otherwise be an abstract and dry experience.
Locations such as Flex of Sand and Joan of Arcade allowed us to add story flourishes and meaning to our turns. Even cards that just contain a sun lounger, a car park or a stretch of beach are evocative of a dreamy day spent along the strand or in the souvenir shops.
Art and mechanisms also align closely which lends the added bonus of making the game easier to learn. Locals not taking too kindly to the over-touristification of their hidden hot spots. Visitors needing to get from their cars and accommodation to the suntraps and volleyball nets.
Santa Monica is a game where the eye for small details makes a big whole. It’s a simple and engaging game brought to life by its style and art. Little things like the sunglasses and cameras printed on the meeples all help to marry mechanism and theme. It’s the sort of game I want to stick on an ocean soundtrack and lick a Mr whippy while I play. Though, I’m not sure if they serve 99’s in Santa Monica.
Sarah Carpenter thinks Calico is purrrfect
One of the things I love about board games is the artwork. If a board game has great artwork, I am likely to pick it up off the shelf. Whether that then leads to me purchasing it or not ultimately depends on the game itself, but the artwork is certainly one of the elements that first draws me in. One of the games that most caught my eye in 2020 was Calico – a gorgeous tile-laying game all about quilts and cats.
Calico is illustrated by Beth Sobel, who has provided artwork for other wonderful games including Wingspan, Viticulture Essential Edition, Arboretum and Herbaceous. The box art is beautiful and will have any cat lover intrigued and excited about the game. Although from a first glance Calico looks like a light, cute game, it is actually quite a puzzle!
In a game of Calico, players draft and place patch tiles onto their quilt board. Each board includes three design goal tiles that will score points according to the colours and patterns of the patches around them. Players are also trying to make groups of patterns because they will attract cats to the cosy quilt, and groups of colours, as they can have buttons sewn on to them (cats and buttons are also points at the end of the game).
The patch tiles of different colours and patterns are incredibly important in the game. They are bright and colourful, and certainly, make the players feel like they are creating a beautiful quilt. The cat tokens are absolutely beautiful, and the button tokens are colourful and vibrant - being able to add them to your quilt is a real treat! If all of this wasn’t enough, the game also includes gorgeous double-sided cat scoring tiles that match the cat tokens.
I love Beth Sobel’s artwork for Calico, as it really adds to the feel of the game. I’m hoping that the beautiful artwork entices many people to pick up the game and discover how wonderful it is.
John Hunt is has found his artwork hero in Unmatched
Ok – I admit it, I am cheating. Unmatched Vol 1 came out in 2019. I am going to fudge this on two counts: first, I didn’t get Unmatched until early 2020 (I think?!) and second, the Cobble and Fog expansion was released in 2020 and if anything that is even more gorgeous. Good – now that’s out of the way.
Regardless, the artwork and design of Unmatched is an absolute treat in every regard. Oliver Barrett has a real talent as an artist, illustrator and designer. His work is rich and detailed and aspect of the art: box, board and card is eye-catching and coherent. The high point for me is the cards: the face art is reminiscent of a combination of great graphic novel artists like Kevin O’Neill and Sean Phillips and classic movie poster artists like Saul Bass.
Every character has some particular stylistic motif: Robin Hood, for example, is consistently faceless. Likewise, certain cards to share this unity of approach: the ships on Sinbad’s voyage cards are always in the same place and the ‘Momentus Shift’ cards in each character’s deck all portray similarly composed fists. This unity carries through to the signature ‘heralrdy’ on the reverse, which is particular to each hero and these too provide coherence both to the individual characters and across the roster of heroes.
For me, the art is vital to making this game work. At face value, Unmatched is a lazy mash-up of disparate IP, where in many cases the cynical could argue the designers have grabbed a roster of dated heroes with no royalties to pay. But open the box and play the game and as a consequence of the fantastic job that Barrett has done you have something sumptuous, evocative, character-filled and coherent. Just outstanding!
Tom Harrod is raiding the art supplies with Raiders of Scythia
Raiders of Scythia is like a Raiders of the North Sea reimplementation. A v1.5, if you will. The game board itself has literal boundaries between the countries; you can’t miss them. In Raiders of the North Sea, there’s more of an organic progression up the board. Here, you travel down. That’s a geographical decision; Scythia is north of Greece’s coastline.
Each country has stark contrasting art, with a backdrop that portrays the region. The Scythian Village is lush, quiet and green, the calm before the storm. Persia has gorgeous sandstone minarets and sublime architecture. Greece’s classic marble temples symbolise a powerful, sophisticated nation. Their Settlements won’t crumble without a fight. There’s no fighting, nor raiding, occurring within the artwork. That’s because those protagonists sit in your hand, or on your tableau board.
Sam Phillips’ artwork on these Hero, Crew, and Animal cards oozes with character. There’s an equal mix of female and male warriors; each one more bellicose and pugnacious than the last. They wear hoods, furs, armour. Each is unique. They’re reminiscent of high-quality tattoos, or a cartoon model you’d expect on a bottle of spiced rum. There’s a hint of a ligne-claire comic-book style. I, for one, would read a graphic novel featuring these characters in one voracious sitting!
They’re a far cry from The Mico’s jagged caricatures. (Mihajlo Dimitrievski is somewhat synonymous with Shem Phillips. He penned the art for Raiders of the North Sea, and the West Kingdom trilogy.) The debate will run into the night about which art style people prefer.
My 10¢ is that this looks awesome. Sam has a few games in among his portfolio now – Circadians: First Light, and Hadrian’s Wall. (Both by Garphill Games, again, like Scythia.) It’s obvious he takes great delight in creating vivid characters. His art style is equal to The Mico’s, it’s becoming recognisable with the click of one’s fingers.
Nathan Coombs is flying away in his praise for Wingspan: Oceania
Throughout my life at school there was this other pupil in my class called Jeremy. The sun always seemed to shine on him. He could do no wrong. He was smart and at the top of the class, yet sporty too – and an excellent swimmer. To cap it all he was actually really nice, a good friend and was from Australia!
Before you think I have lost the plot talking about my childhood inadequacies let me explain what this has to do with board games and the best artwork and expansion of 2020.
Wingspan is a bit like Jeremy but in a box – winner of almost every category that it entered, and a few other more tenuous ones too. But we love Wingspan for all of this.
And then Stonemaier Games brings out the Oceania expansion! This is the equivalent of adding to Jeremy’s body of perfection a bronzed and sculpted torso, a catwalk model as a date and a surfboard under his arm [which he probably does have now that he is grown up]. The Oceania cards have been lovingly hand-drawn by Natalia Rojas. The beauty of the antipodean birds has been carefully recreated. The artwork is simply stunning. This, coupled with the premium feel of the linen effect cards, make this a beauty to behold.
There are some significant tweaks to Wingspan when using Oceania [see my vote for best expansion of 2020]. For me, there has been no skimping on quality and the attention to detail is wonderful. Having lived down under for 18 months I can vouch for the colourful diversity of their wildlife. Playing Wingspan Oceania in 2020 brought a sense of colour into a rather drab winter in the UK. Memories of a previous life down under come flooding back, along with a few recollections of being a little envious watching the Australian surfers at the North Shore beaches in Sydney.
Jeremy is probably there now.
Kirsty Hewitt is seeing stars in Stellar
Over the summer of 2020, I had some opportunity to do some stargazing. Nothing spectacular, just a small telescope and some binoculars in our back garden. I was lucky enough to be able to see Jupiter and Saturn on several nights. I have always been interested in space but this experience made me remember why it was so amazing. But the real space “nerd” in our house is my husband. So when I saw a space-themed two-player game, I knew it would be in his stocking for Christmas!
The gameplay itself is straightforward. You pick up a card and then play a card to your telescope and a card to your notebook, following some placement rules. The goal of the game is to collect sets of cards to score points at the end of the game. I enjoy the gameplay a lot as there are tactical decisions to be made.
But it is the artwork that really elevates this game to another level. You start the game with nothing. Over the rounds, you make this colourful collage of all the things you have “seen” as you add cards to your telescope and notebook. Each of the interstellar objects is depicted so beautifully. From the swirling colours of an interstellar cloud to the rugged crevices of an asteroid, there is a serious amount of detail and realism in the artwork.
The pictures make the game a joy to play. There is something pleasing about seeing all this glorious artwork build up in your telescope. In fact, the artwork is almost enough to make me not care about the score. After all, having seen a host of gorgeous celestial objects, have I not already won?
Now I’m off to wrap up warm and see what wonders of the cosmos I can see tonight.