Why Art Can be a Detriment to Your Game

May 22 2018, 7:04pm

Beautiful space-themed artwork
Beautiful space-themed artwork

In tabletop gaming, one of the first things players will often notice about your game is the art. Art helps tell the story.

Perhaps your game is pirate themed. Board game implements with pirates, ships, oceans, parrots, palm trees, buried treasure, and the like will all immerse players more than mere geometric shapes can.

Art also oftentimes aids the player in carrying out their actions. Great iconography can let players know what they can and can’t do with a quick glance, for instance.

While artwork can aid in usability and immersion, it can also get in the way of people playing your game.

There are two reasons why art can be a detriment to your board game:

1. Usability
2. Development

Usability

Most of the games I’ve designed are pretty barebones in appearance, but I have been working on a tile-based game that has a number for cost and points earned. Both of these numbers are graphically presented in a way that, thematically makes sense, but has led to more confusion than anything.

If I had even more art in the background, there’s no doubt that usability would go down further.

Using better graphic design, I’ve been able to make the tiles a little easier to understand and thus use.

As an interesting thought experiment, assume for once that the Magic: The Gathering card layout was slightly different. Instead of the textual elements and art being fairly balanced, imagine that the art occupies 75% of the space on a card.

Now, all of a sudden, the card becomes harder to use, either because there is less room to explain things or worse…

Okay, this is actually pretty cool
Okay, this is actually pretty cool

The text used to explain is now covered by art, as this amazing piece by astoryinpieces shows. Granted, this is an extreme case but careful balance and position of graphic elements can make all the difference when it comes to how usable game elements are.

Development

From a development perspective, I often advocate for holding off on designing boards and cards through software until the gameplay has been fairly ironed out. Not only will you have to spend less time and effort correcting things, but any more dramatic changes in game play can addressed with little hassle.

I say this from experience designing one of my latest games, Beach Combers.

That sticker wasn't there to start
That sticker wasn't there to start

For the longest time, I thought my game cards were the way the were going to be. I went ahead and designed simple art that I believed would not only convey the theme but get players to easily understand how to use each card.

Not only was I wrong about usability—players didn’t know the difference between trash, event, and metal objects—I also ended up doing a major rehaul of the game. Now, most of the cards have little recycling stickers on them and/or changes in value.

Stickers are not fun to cut out and put on.

When and How to Approach Art

Probably the best way to tackle art is to wait until the moment you feel it absolutely needs art. A good indication of this for me has been when a game has been playtested dozens of times and is around 80% finished as a result of these playtests.

By holding off until late in the development of a game, you can better ensure that you will not have to spend more expensive time and resources to change assets.

There's a lot of art work that would otherwise need redoing
There's a lot of art work that would otherwise need redoing

As for how to approach the development of art, come up with loose sketches that convey the the concept. Show these concepts to older playtesters to get their input on what makes sense. Go through an iterative process with pen and paper as much as possible before landing on something to design in software.

It can be hard to resist the pressure of adding art, I know. You’ll save a lot of time and money in the end for being patient though.

What are examples of games with art that amplifies usability and experience?

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