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The Art Of Board Games


Good art can't save a bad board game, but it certainly helps. In the same way that a gorgeously-shot film might still be completely unwatchable, the look of the thing isn't solely responsible for how well it works. But good artwork can definitely go some way towards redeeming ame, however terrible, just as terrible drawings can destroy one that might have been excellent otherwise.

This applies to the packaging, as well as the contents - remember that unwatchable film? If it's got wonderful posters and a snazzy little case, you'll still go ahead and buy it. So why is good artwork so important? What makes it good, or bad, or so completely off-putting you might never play again? And most importantly, why do I get to decide? I don't, not really, but here's a couple of thoughts...

The Importance Of Looking Fancy

First things first, beautiful artwork isn't the be-all and end-all. It can be distracting, for one thing; when play-testing new games, developers often make a bland, dull prototype with very limited artwork so that the mechanics of the game stand out above all else. For another, it depends entirely on the style of the game - some are hugely reliant on visual elements, while some take a far more minimalist approach. But there's no denying it's a hugely important factor, perhaps one of the most important.

Perhaps where this is most evident is in card games, or those with a heavy emphasis on card-based play. There are plenty of examples of nicely-painted boards out there - we'll get to that in a minute - but with a set of cards the artist (or artists) get to showcase a massive range of images and styles. Even where cards are involved that are entirely text-based (think "Stupid Deaths" or "Cards Against Humanity") the graphics are an essential part of the design. With these, the layouts are often simple, bold, and consistent - where artwork is heavily featured, simplicity is pushed aside in place of detail, colour and sometimes absolute mayhem.

One example of a game where the artwork on such cards is particularly impressive is "Arkham Horror" - and indeed, any of the many thousands and millions of expansions that have followed in the example of the core set. The computer-generated elements of the cards - the deep, blood-coloured borders and gold outlines, the text and the intricate statistics - are nice enough, but the artwork itself is another thing altogether. These have been painted, rather marvellously, to depict shady characters in shadier situations, guns and knives half-buried in dusty caskets and barrels, and most importantly those horrifying, terrible creatures.

Purple mists seep over the sunken rooves of abandoned homes; slick, wet tentacles burst out of spinning, shining vortexes; filth-drenched creatures stumble, quite animatedly, from their moss-decorated swamps. And in this case, it all adds to the experience.

That being said, "Arkham" is a game with horror at its core, so without the dread-inducing artwork it would quite lose the thrill its attempting to generate. Returning to films for a moment, a good horror movie without a half-decent monster is just a man running around in a chunky costume and some cameras.

It's not the only game with fantastic-looking cards - those that make up the deck of "Outpost: Siberia" compliment its grizzly, wacky theme by depicting monstrous creatures with vibrant colours against rose-tinted backgrounds. "Monsters vs. Heroes" shows classic monsters in Victorian getup and Hellish colour schemes. The cards are like little fantastic works of art all on their own and you can hold them in your hand, but above all else the sheer number of them means the artists really get to lean into the theme and bring the whole thing together.

Now, onto boards. For a moment, I'd like to take a look at a game called "Inkognito". There are two versions of this game - the original, board game version, release in 1988, and the 1997 card game version. Here, the cards were nicely-decorated, but the effort was spared somewhat, with a total of five designs spread and duplicated over around thirty cards.

The board, however, for the original was rather intriguing, essentially a colourful map of Venice with nicely-drawn landmarks and a clear, elegant track around the board. "Dinosaur Island" deserves a mention here too, with an excellent, neon colour scheme and a style that borders on cartoonish while remaining quite mature. Well, as mature as anything can be, where dinosaurs and crazy gameplay are involved. Of course, there are far too many wonderful boards to mention here, so let's move onto something equally as important...

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Let's talk about the games that don't quite make the cut. For me, at least, and while I'm a little uncultured I'd like to think I could spare a shred of judgement to games like "Dominion". The card deck is one of the dullest examples I can think of: the artwork takes up less than half the card, and the rest of the space is... well, it's grey. Grey and pale grey. Where the artwork pokes up through the fog, it's boring - characters stare straight up at the players, occasionally holding things but always blank-faced and dead-eyed.

The criticism here might seem a little strong, but bear in mind "Dominion" is a good game - it was just very nearly destroyed by the way it looks. The box itself is a masterclass in how not to excite your target audience, with a messy title, a muted colour scheme, and juvenile art that simply shows a few people in boring helmets looking down on a couple of bungalows.

The box might not be the most significant aspect of a board game (correction: it definitely isn't) but it's quite often the thing that'll make somebody buy the game in the first place. Of course, the mechanics, the story, and the theme all come into it too, amongst other things, but if the box wasn't snazzy you might not ever flip it around and look at the box, and then how would you know? Sometimes, as well, the art on the tin can be quite at odds with the work inside, but as long as both are good this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The purpose of the packaging is to draw in the player, and the role of the stuff inside is to keep them immersed.

Another honourary mention for bad artwork goes to "Glory to Rome" which seems vaguely reminiscent of one of those nursery educational posters - you know, bold-but-boring font, lots of red, and a cartoon Roman with rather stubby knees who looks like he's about to stab himself in the chin. There's more to say about the box but I'll let you take a look for yourself. And, if any proof is needed that the box can sometimes be a dealbreaker, many reviews will tell you, by way of a throwaway comment, that the player never thought to even buy it until they found the alternate, black-box version.

The Art Of The Game

Art is a subjective thing, but good art - whether it's wacky, cartoonish splashes of colour or dark, grizzly sprays of red and black, whether it's a gorgeous box or an intricate board - can be the making of a good game. As long as the game itself holds up that same standard, of course.

Everything else is subjective too, but a bad game is a bad game, and no amount of crazy, fancy drawings can make it truly enjoyable. And before this drags on into a rambling mess of conclusions that lead us no further into understanding what makes good good and art art - and before I'm tempted to draw up some wildly-opinionated top ten (or bottom ten), let's finish by going full circle. Good art can't save a bad board game, but it certainly helps.