T&E Board Development Part II

The latest development on this board can be seen above. There have been a lot of subtile changes from the gold inlay to highlight the rivers to final details of the frame. I chose to keep the playing field pretty dark and flat in tone to allow for contrast of the playing pieces as seen below.

Here, I've added a gold border to each piece to separate it from the background. A large field of color in each piece aids in identification at a glance. Furthermore, I've developed icons which are oriented in unique ways to better contrast each other. For instance, the king icon is diagonal, the priest is vertical, the trader circular and horizontal for the farmers. Not only does this help color blind players identify the pieces, it also adds a redundancy that makes for a high degree of scanability. Below a comparison between one board and another. This not to disparage the art of the previous publication but to highlight how certain principles of contrast can yield a greater degree of scanability. Note, how much easier it is to see patterns at a glance here with the newer art.

I speak of contrast quite a bit. This is the critical component in game board design. I often hear people say they prefer muted colors to let pieces pop off the board. They point out if a board is bright or busy or dark or otherwise the pieces will not separate. I'm afraid this is a misconception and wholely untrue. Indeed, while a muted background is one way to bring bits forward, there are many other techniques an artist may use. Contrast is the key and there are many different ways one can apply contrast to board/bit design. Color, for instance, has 3 components – hue, value and saturation. Hue being the color (red, green, etc), value or tone being how dark or light and saturation being how gray or bright a color is. Any of these components can be used or in combination as tools to achieve proper contrast. If a board is dark, light pieces can be used to contrast. If a board is warm colored, cool colors might be used to contrast. In addition, the properties of color are not the only ones that may be exploited for contrast – form, dynamics and many more properties are available to the designer. In all cases, application is an art that an experienced eye can best control. It is not a formula or science. It is not an absolute, but a spectrum of degrees.

I will be writing more about this in future articles and key elements that the designer must carefully consider and weigh when creating game art.

- Mike

---- Update ----
In response to Joe's comment on bit orientation, I thought I would see how effective patterns remain. Below is the examination. It still holds very well. This because the circle icons will have no effect and diagonals still read uniquely diagonal against the others. The horizontal and vertical icons could be improved, I suppose to form another shape, but it works well enough for me and satisfactory. This is a good example though how pictorial or iconic representation can enhance scannability when uniquely shaped. This exploits the fact that the eye does not have to go to the trouble to read what the details of the picture icons are – only the very basic shapes they form. Actually, this is how we read words. We don't read individual combinations of letters as much as the form that words create. In this way, we really are scanning words rather than reading letters.

– Mike

T&E Board Development Part I

Today I took on the board for Tigris & Euphrates fun as I have Samurai and the like. This board will take a few days, but for the moment, I have layed out the basic look for the main part of the board sans border and applied a few pieces. I'm very pleased by the progress. Above a detail of the board that I have developed so far, the look of which will extend to the full board and borders.

One problem that I have with the Mayfair board is the lack of contrast between the pieces and the board. Indeed, the mountains and landscape features on the board contrast similarly as the pieces which makes the board very hard to read. Additionally, the pieces have an undo amount of colored imagery on them which interfers with the color coded borders. The german version is a bit better in this respect and the solidly colored pieces also help, but things could be better. BGG's implementation of the game is certainly better in terms of reading the board, though the look is not very satisfactory at all.

I will be writing more about my rational to go from topographical map to a more abstract, period look, but for now I can quickly say that I believe this approach provides a strong signature look and feel for the game, which I feel it lacks now. Of course the look is derived from the mosiac work from Sumerian artifacts found in Ur. The Mayfair edition cued on this, but it can work harder for the game. River and treasure spots have some nice detailing based on the tile work. Each square has a unique combination of tiles to give the overall look an ebb and flow of darks and lights.

Heavy use of color coding is imperative on the pieces. They also need sufficient contrast so that the pieces separate from the board adequately. I'll be working more on this, but for now you can see a start of this.

- Mike

Samurai Board Development II

I worked a bit more on this and think it quite handsome and striking. I didn't like the way my previous version highlighted the ocean hexes. In this version they are more subtile carved into an old samurai cloth pattern that I found. To soften the costline, I've added a water treatment. Cities now are highlighted white. I developed the pieces a bit more using a more relistic rendering of the bits. Samurai and Ronin pieces have samurai emblems on them. Overall, I'm liking this very much at the moment. the board probably needs one more simple decorative detail, but I don't know what that is at the moment. The samurai cloth pattern in the background adds pleasing texture without taking away from game play, which is very important.

That's all for now.

- Mike

Samurai Board Development I

So, I decided to start on the board for Samurai. I had a vision based on the work I did yesterday which is in the previous post and wanted to see where I could land here. I think this is quite nice. Franz Vohwinkel's previous work was inspired by traditional japanese maps. They tended toward the soft side. While respectful of the tradition, it seems to lack power. Additionally, the light players' pieces don't jump off the board like they could – they seem to get lost – though the victory bits do pop. Color coding on the cardboard pieces does not seem so great either (from images I can see online). Granted, I don't have the set yet, but from what I see, this seems to be the case. I'm not sure why they chose to separate the board into pieces and die cut the board around the hexes. It looks cheap. So, I've ordered a copy of Samurai today. Perhaps this will become more clear.

At any rate, I chose a bright red finish for the map set against stark black. The effect here is powerful. It reads Japanese without actually coping existing material. The board is iconic and memorable – which I find a rare thing in gameboard design. I've only just started today, so it is not complete, but it gets the idea across. Japanese symbols weave in and out of the landscape. Each city/village has a unique icon. I can't tell whether that is so in the current version, but I do believe it adds a great deal of interest. My first attempt at the player's chits has them in black to tie to the board with solid areas of color. This helps them to pop off the board and aids in pattern recognition for each player's pieces. The information on them is white which pops off the board being the only white elements. I'm a bit tired now, so won't comment much more, but I do hope to pick it up again in the coming days.

- Mike

PR Modernist Board: Part II

Well, I took a look at this tonight and went with a more traditional color scheme and slightly more naturalistic forms. Also, I changed the boards' proportions to something more dramatic and asthetically pleasing. In addition to this, I've changed the backgrounds from black to dark green. This to warm up the coldness of pure black. Period details are sprinkled in, but in contemporary ways. For instance, turning a border detail into a strip which I allow to float over the landscape forms. I like the fact that I've allowed the city grid and field plots to more naturalistically fit over the land forms. I tried a bright ribbon detail which had a different color for each mat, but it really only serves to add color spice. Not really sure about it. I rejected it at the time, but looking at it again, it's not bad. Tomorrow I'll take another look.

This brings up another good point – distance. It is vital that an artist or designer get away from a piece and come back to it again fresh. Emotional attatchments to a technique or an effect can bias judgement. Taking time away from a piece and coming back to it later can lift the bias. Many a time I'll go to bed thinking something is fantastic, only to wake up and "see" it again in a different light.

Btw, the non pictoral symbols are medieval signatures. Interestingly enough everyone was basically illiterate – kings alike. So, they couldn't sign their names. Symbols were used that represented people of trade or of higher status. These also served at times as "logos" moulded into pieces for sale. The shapes of these symbols came from a complex grid that was used to determine the angles of the lines. I have this grid – though not with me now. I'll scan this in at another time.

One thing has come to mind. I would like to take this approach with Samurai. The black lacquer like pieces that come with the game against the backdrop of a black sea would be very nice. I'll definately be picking up a copy of Samurai to investigate this.

– Mike

PR Modernist Boards: Part I

I'm working on another aesthetic that fascinates me greatly. Yes, I very well know most probably a turnoff to most as the thinking is far beyond most individual's threasholds. Not so much a proposal of what should have been than where I think we should evolve eventually. The conventional thought is that game art needs to be evocative of the theme's period in every savory detail to be appropriate – to "get one into the theme". My sense is that while this is certainly fine (Tikal for instance), it is not a mandate. Indeed, boardgames are abstractions of our real word and period events. The thing that we admire so much about Knizia and German games in general is the modernist reductivist approach given to design. Purity is the virtue. Chrome only acceptable in great moderation. So then, I suppose the thinking is that the art must "make up" for the lack of atmosphere built into the mechanics. I would propose that if game art references period details, it has as much license to retranslate the theme into a new playing expression as does the game mechanics. Much as contemporary game design seeks to revolutionize gameplay, graphics can rethink the expected visual expression. Honestly how many times must we look at sepia maps with torn edges and faux aged look. Yes, I'm fine with it when it is well done – indeed my previous PR boards were heavily inspired by such a look. However, I look for the allowance to break tradition in the way our great designers have.

Above, is a first pass, that I'll be working on in the coming weeks and developing. As you can see, integrated within the boards are period details but in done a fresh new way. I believe this equally appropriate for the highly reductive gaming experience, that we admire. The landscapes are rendered in hot colors which pop out of a black field. I want to change the proportions of the boards to be more horizontal for more drama and unique feel. I'm also looking to work on the period details on the boards and develop the pieces to go on the boards.

I always get a kick out of the themed product shots that sometimes pop up on the box backs. PR has one such shot. This being the shot with burlap, palm branches and the occasional telescope. As if I will feel transported into this environment when playing. Yes in PR, perhaps one does feel transported as the mechanics fit very snug around the theme. There's, nothing wrong with such photos, but I do imagine a certain sense of let down when we get to playing our games. Indeed, it does take quite a bit of imagination to feel the theme for the most part. Perhaps this why discussions boards seem obsesssed with theme theories. We want a theme to take us somewhere. We want to believe we are somehow reinacting or taking part in the lives and livelihoods of those long gone. Yet we are unwilling to pallette the chrome that inevitably is necessary for thematic detailing to really take us to that place. So in comes the artist to dress up the playing atmosphere. Now we really feel transported, right? For the most part, I think not. As such, games fall into visual sameyness. Very little stands out and very little ultimately satisfies our desire for a really emersive period or thematic experience.

– Mike

gameKultur 2: zirkusMeeplz / preview I

Detailing a part of the world of zirkusMeeplz from the House of Wax collection.


- Mike

Modern Art Preview III

This is the third preview in a series of five showcasing the style of one of the artists for a new edition of Modern Art shown with generous permission of the publisher. For more information and release date you may read the first installment.

Many times artists will seek to capture a fixed moment in time through their art. The impressionists, for example, often challenged the notion of color and form by recording the effects of light in the environment at a moment. The challenge for viewers here is that our minds tell us what color things should be based on our experience. A stucco church should be natural colored. A green tree should be green. A mountain should be green, brown or such. But if one really would stop to study that object, one is most likely going to find that it is not the color they would expect. Light – whether direct or reflected – alters the expected color that the viewer finally perceives in unexpected ways to the untrained. A mountain, for instance, might be purple if it is far enough away. Here, the dust in the air between the viewer and the mountain bend the light waves in such a way for it to be seen as purple. Such careful observations reveal the unexpected and can be very delightful when one is open to them.

Another fixed point in time that is fascinating to examine is that moment that hangs right on the threshold of discovery. It is the tension and focus to breaking a code and that split second where the neurons make the right connection toward discovery. It is that point when walking down a long road and observing a blob in the distance that you realize that that blob is another person. Walk a little further and after studying and studying the figure, you find that the person is walking toward you. It is that moment, right before you can tell it is a man. That moment just before you recognize that, holy cow, that's Bob ...or whomever. When an artist can find that moment that eludes a viewer for just a bit, they have created something that engages the viewer. Such engagement becomes something of a game. What is that? Or why is that this way? By involving the viewer in such a way, the artist can draw one into the piece and make the experience even more memorable and lasting.

The artist pictured here, examines the effects of color on the seascape/landscape and pushes those moments where a simple collection of colored lines and blobs fall right near discovery of something greater. At first, the image is but perhaps just color blotches. After observation a landscape appears. To aid in recognizing the landscape or seascape are the hills in the horizon and the formation of clouds and particulars of the way colors fall on them. To me, this was a fascinating exploration that yielded quiet moments of reflection filled with joyous combinations of colors.

I hope you enjoy.

– Mike