Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?
We judge our favourite games in a legion of different ways; game mechanics, agency (no one likes rail-roading!), difficulty, repeatability. I know a chap who raves about the ‘new game smell’ that effervesces when you pull off a box lid. There are some games I cling to because of how easy it is to snack whilst playing. But I’m going to be as shallow as a paddling pool by taking a peek at some incredible eye-candy and picking five of the best-looking games around.
At first glance, the box art of Scythe looks like a painting that used to hang on my Nan’s wall. Front and centre, pastoral labourers harvest wheat somewhere in 1920’s Europe. Then the eye drifts back towards the horizon and the plumes of smoke belching from gun-toting mechs. Alas, my Nan did not have mechs!
Scythe is an engine-building game where players take on the role of fallen leaders vying to restore their honour and conquer Eastern Europe. Careful resource management and a soupçon of luck might just colour you victorious.
The art of Scythe is the work of Polish illustrator Jakub Różalski. His style smashes together Classical landscape paintings with images of towering war machines warped directly from science fiction. Expect to see flocks of sheep grazing around the ruined shells of armoured mechs, and wintery log cabins overshadowed by gigantean four-legged tanks. Różalski’s work is so iconic and eye-catching that it was his artwork that inspired the creation and development of Scythe, not the other way around.
Różalski’s digital paintings have been catapulted into a Scythe expansion trilogy, pixelated into a computer game called ‘Iron Harvest’, and now flood the pages of his gloriously glossy coffee-table artbook, ‘Howling at the Moon’.
Hanamikoji is a dainty little two-player affair. It’s great fun, although perhaps a little nebulous in terms of theme. Players compete to earn favours from Japanese Geisha by delivering them certain special items from a deck of cards. It’s an extremely quick game to get to grips with and withstands many replays. But boy-oh-boy is it pretty to look at!
The card deck is elegant and as colourful as a packet of Skittles. Designed by Taiwanese genius Maisherly Chan, they would look stunning framed and mounted beneath a spotlight. And they deserve to be, too! The depictions of the Geisha are inspired by traditional Japanese imagery combined with more modern renderings she found on postcards, in manga, and on the cover art of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’! Chan sketched her way through several iterations of Geisha before settling on the ones which grace the game today. I strongly suggest getting your hands on a copy of Hanamikoji simply to gaze at the cards. Better still, buy two copies, and frame one set for your wall.
Maisherly Chan has also illustrated games like Planet Defenders, Realm of Sand, and Dark Castle.
We rebound from the vibrant artwork of Hanamikoji to the stark, monochromatic design of Escape the Dark Castle. It is eerie, melancholy, and I love it!
The premise of the game is simple; you are a prisoner who must Escape the Dark Castle. Working with your fellow prisoners you must overcome a barrage of adversity through atmospheric storytelling.
The design and illustration are the work of UK based Alex Crispin (who, incidentally, also wrote and produced a soundtrack to go with the game. I’m listening to it now as I write. It’s terrifying. I’m fairly certain someone’s standing behind me.) Everything from the smack-in-the-mouth box art to the dice to the cards which reveal your challenges are rendered in stark black and white. The illustrations have a hand-drawn quality, and a retro, early Dungeons and Dragons kind of feel to them. Which pleases my inner geek more than a morsel. Good luck with your escape, player, good luck…
There are four things I truly love; the Eighties, Scandinavia, Science Fiction, and playing games. So, when I discovered this RPG it literally blew my hair back.
Based on the artwork of Simon Stålenhag, Tales from the Loop is set in suburban Sweden during the 1980’s. You play as a teenager solving mysteries manifested by the Loop, a sinister underground research facility. The Gravitron experiments conducted there have bent reality, and so Stålenhag’s suburbia is littered with impossible creatures and colossal machinery. There are more than just a few 1980’s Saab 9000’s in there. Oh, and there are dinosaurs too.
Each image contained within the rulebook (and indeed the expansions, campaign book, GM screen, and supplements) is incredibly evocative. It is the kind of illustration that makes me yearn for just an iota of artistic skill. And a time machine. And maybe, just maybe, a really old beat-up Saab. Things were definitely cooler in the 80’s. Back then, kids kicked ass before going home for dinner.
A deck of cards is simplicity defined. Saying that, one can also provide an immense opportunity for artists to lavish us with dazzling imagery. Which is exactly what Marie Cardouat has done with Dixit, the 2010 Spiel des Jahres winner.
The artwork plays an integral part of the game; it’s not just there for decoration and to make the promo material look slick. A player, chosen as the ‘storyteller’, secretly selects a card. They then say a sentence or word describing the picture on the card they’re holding. The other players then select cards from their own hands which they feel best match the storyteller’s description. Points are scored on their accuracy.
The cards are at once whimsical, hypnagogic, and beautifully coloured. A lady is trapped inside a snow globe, a stone doorway opens to nothing but blue sky, a wooden mannequin sits on a gilded throne. All 84 cards are perfectly designed to unleash your imagination. Just a glance launches me off into a reverie of daydreaming which ne’er a deadline or phone alert can rouse me from!
If it were possible to commission someone to illustrate my dreams, I’d be looking up Marie Cardouat on LinkedIn before my morning coffee.