D&D 5e Compatible Game Boards

The main board with primary stats as well as areas for money,
languages, healing potions, downtime earned and renown. The dials
are magnetically held down firm and sit on a 1/4" acrylic surface where
the board image is face mounted underneath it. The back of the board
is finished with nice textured book cloth.

I have to admit it. While I have continued to play eurogames now all these years, there is a new champion game in my heart…D&D.

It sure isn't what I had thought it was! Somehow over the years I couldn't get past the geeky stigma associated with the title and the image I would get playing with our board game group in the opposite side of the game shop from the D&Ders. I suppose in my mind I limited this game to that grid mat dungeon crawl that I would see there.

What I was surprised to find was this is more of a long term, cooperative play, storytelling adventure. It's a game with a huge story arch and never ending possibilities shared with a group of friends. It makes for great fun and quite a lot of laughs, given the unlimited situations one can get into. Also, this is a game where people stare at people instead down at their boards. As such, I seem to experience a deeper feeling of connection with others when playing D&D.

Some typical character sheets used while playing.
These would be printed and then marked up during play.
Coming from the boardgaming side of things though, I found myself at a bit of a loss on the material side of things. While playing, I longed to have the bits and stuff to look at and see my game progress through. After all, this is a pen and paper game with tons of changing stats and infinite variability.  A bunch of numbers scribbled onto paper doesn't give me the rich feel I'm used to. Granted, I do understand that the storytelling nature of the game is central and, for some, even the complicated stats and dice can get in the way with the flow of telling the tale. Needless to say, I immediately set off to see if there was a way to bridge the gap between a rich tactile experience and the typical pen and paper tracking methods.

Crop from the main board. In addition to the dials being magnetically attached to the board, all the track indicators have magnetic connections. They stay put when the board is shaken and turned sideways or upside down. This is key for a game that needs to maintain its data from game session to session. No setup is necessary other than the first game played.

I have created 3 player boards which seem to capture the primary data I would be looking for: a main board (above), a spellcasting board and a combat/hit point board. (These will still need to be supplemented with some note cards for items and objects collected along the way.) The main board (seen above) is themed with a zodiac feel, which seems appropriate for the mystical legendary side of the game. The basic mechanic used on the boards are octagon dials (magnetically held to the board) which rotate to display the appropriate stat. The range of the stats are such that a few spinners (with increasing sets of numbers) are available for each slot. I've color coded the whole set with a magenta/red to indicate proficiency. Given that the dials are magnetically snug to the board (which has a layer of acrylic plexyglass over it), the board can be shaken and even turned upside down without any movement. This is key as the point of the boards is that the information be carried over from game to game without having to reset the board.

The primary area within the board is divided between the 6 core attributes – Charisma, Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom and Intellect – each of which have 3 layers: Proficiency/saving throw (inner circle), Basic Ability/ability check (central circle) and all the skills/skill check (outer circle). This works well to pair up skills to abilities and, with the help of the icons, aids in locating the correct number quickly. Along the top there are two dial areas for levels (one for multi-classing) and another dial for passive perception.

In addition to this we have areas to track (from top left going counterclockwise): Renown, Downtime earned, Gold, Languages learned and Healing potions. WIthin the skill area (along the bottom) is a space to track inspiration as well. The gold area can track up to 500k gold, which is quite a bit! Languages include an "other" space for future game expansions.

I absolutely love the effect of the clear acrylic plexiglass above graphics. In addition, all the dials have an acrylic plexy finish. This, in addition to the magnetic pull,  offer a deliciously magical experience while readjusting the pieces. It sort of looks and feels otherworldly in this way.

In future posts, I will showcase the spellcasting board and combat/hit point board. I've also created some note taking sheets which I'll be sharing. Being that I'm terrible at taking notes, these really help me to quickly organize and file information.

If you are a D&D player and see other things you think might be good to track or have any comments questions send me a note, I'd love to hear!

– mike

My new book: Beautiful Lego

I'm very proud to announce the release of my first book, Beautiful Lego by NoStarch Press. This book is a first of it's kind as it's a coffee table art book format Lego book. While many other Lego books have been released, they all are either on the industry or focused on how to build specific pieces. Beautiful Lego was designed like an art book with minimal copy and gorgeous pictures of works from designers around the world. In total, there are 350 pieces, over 70 designers and around 400 photos in this 282 page book. Works range from huge, epic scale pieces to simple micro scale builds with 30 or so pieces. Images in the book are unique as they have all been retouched, color corrected and, in many cases, a background added from the original photo. For this reason, the pieces have never looked so good. If you know of someone who likes Lego it makes a great gift for kids and adults alike.

It has been getting great reception with write ups in The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, TODAY.com, Wired online, USA Today, MAKE and others.

– Mike

Columbus Museum of Art show

For those in the Columbus area, the Columbus Museum of Art is showcasing Lego works in their latest exhibition, Think Outside the Brick. Here, you will find a number of artist from throughout the world including myself. On display are prints of my Abandoned House series and the Odan project. Additionally, are smaller sections of the Odan work on display. The exhibition is from
November 8, 2013 to February 16, 2014.

– Mike

My 200,000+ Lego piece

My latest work, completed earlier this year, called "The Millennial Celebration of the Eternal Choir, K'al Yne, Odan took around 800 hours and over 200,000 pieces to complete. It is 6' high by about that wide and about 3' deep.  The work takes the viewer to a mystical planet called Odan in the midst of celebration. Below, you can see a video on this. In addition, I've built a new site to house the storyline and upcoming models within this worldscape. At the site, you can purchase DIY kits of small sections of the model as well as prints of the image.

Epic Lego Kickstarter Project

If you like what you see, please consider helping to support my Kickstarter Project.

Rewards are as low as $13 for funding and include 4"x 6" hand embossed fine art prints to objects from the actual model as well as full size fine art prints. One of the neat things here is whichever object you choose as a reward, I will add it to the model. So, the model will evolve depending on what people choose.

From Kickstarter:

What is the Odan Project?
This will be an epic series of sculptures built entirely out of Lego, themed around the imaginary world of Odan. Each Kickstarter project in this series will help to support one very large sculpture. Pieces will range from castle-type capital cities – such as this first Kickstarter work  – to future works which cover fantastical nations of evil, beauty, exotica, spiritual/cultural centers and much more. Each model will be micro scale but super sized at around 6' high. The combination of building micro scaled pieces to this level of detail is very unusual in Lego builds, setting these works apart. Each work takes many hundreds of hours and tens- even hundreds- of thousands of Lego.

For this Kickstarter project, I will finish the sculpture and photograph them beautifully (see below for other projects I've done). I'll create two gorgeous, limited edition fine art prints about 13" x 16" (signed and numbered) with certificate of authenticity and a letter from the artist (that is, me). Additionally, two smaller 4" x 6" hand embossed fine art prints will also be rewarded for most of the funding packages. Note, that the final images are not yet available for preview as the sculpture is only half finished. Also, after the work has been photographed, it will be dismantled and sections of the sculpture will be rewarded as part of the funding packages.

Packages that include parts of the model look wonderful in shadow boxes (not included) along with the 4" x 6" fine art prints. The sections – while sometimes small – are all precious one-of-a-kind elements that vary depending on their position in the model. Note, many of these pieces, particularly the larger city pieces/towers will not be offered anywhere after the Kickstarter ends. If they are not funded, they will be reduced to Lego rubble for another future project.

YOU tell ME how to evolve this city.
What you see in the video and as the main picture is only what I've currently finished – which is about 1/2 or so the final piece. The final piece will be much taller and fuller than pictured here so far. As I finish this work, the city will eventually tower above its current height and to each side of where the city currently stands. 

Your funding will help determine how the capital city K'al Yne will evolve. More funding at the levels of the Farm Manor, Miller, Bailiff and Landlord packages will evolve the village area. The Priest, Bishop, Seer and Disciple packages raise the consciousness of this kingdom. Bureaucrat and higher priced royal/noble packages will build up the more spectacular parts of the city. The Beastmaster and General increase the military side of the city. Each funding will effect the storyline of K'al Yne. It should be a lot of fun to see how this grows! By the way, if you think of another package or object that would be cool to create, let me know and I might do it. :)

In order to make these models as exceptional as I believe they need to be, I need your help in acquiring Lego materials for the build. I would expect this work to go above 100,000 - 150,000 Lego pieces. While I have many pieces, I don't have this many on hand and often there are special needs for hundreds and thousands of identical bits that I don't have. Lego bits are only a few cents each (on average 6-10¢). But, when buying 50,000k or more bits, it adds up very quickly. Additionally, money donated will go to a few smaller matters, like a larger table to build on and tripod to photograph from. Money will also go towards paper, ink, printing and packaging/shipping.

Latest Lego and misc game

My latest LEGO creation, the Power of Freedom: Iraq, released a week before July 4th speaks toward the senseless destruction that our unlawful invasion created. You can read more on this on my sister blog, Snap. Beautiful glicée prints are also available through Bumble and Bramble.

I've had the honor of having prints of my LEGO works selected for display in a new, upcoming museum in Boston called the Museum of Realist Art. They are moving into a former library branch near the east Boston waterfront. You can read more about this here as well as visit their site here.

I've been having a fantastic time with my buddies playing games again after a couple year hiatus. I'm discovering a fantastic brew of great games from 2010 - present. Again, I'm interested in reworking art from my favorite games. At the moment, I've been reworking the art for Through the Ages, which has remained my very favorite game.

Also a reminder for those interested. The game art below is still for sale at Bumble and Bramble looking really incredible. It makes for a great gift for your game spouse as well. :) You can read what others who have bought prints have to say.

– Mike

Prints Available for Sale

I'm pleased to announce the sale of limited edition exhibition quality prints of a few pieces I have worked on. Each one is approximately 12" x 17" (give or take an inch or two in some cases). They are all printed on thick archival ultrasmooth fine art paper with archival inks. They can be purchased through my site, Bumble & Bramble.

Each comes with a signed and numbered print, a signed/numbered/stamped certificate of authenticity and a little documentation on the piece which is also signed. They are $49 each or $44 each if you buy more than one (plus S&H). Note all are sold unframed only.

Generally, these are printed larger than originally produced. In the case of the Caylus board, it is approximately 70% actual size and not usable for play. The Battles of Napoleon is also smaller than the original production as the original game was huge!

Colors are rich and vibrant and, in the case of a few (Caylus, for example), are brighter and truer to the my original intent.

– mike

New Lego art and slight delay in game art prints

First off, for the many who had responded to art prints of game art, it is happening, there was just a little delay. As with all things in life, stuff just seems to take longer than one would expect. I've been experimenting with color proofs on the game art prints to get them just right which takes a little time ... and got a bit caught up in a little something else. :) That being the Lego art above. Probably just a few weeks until the game art prints are ready for shipping at which time, I'll be notifying those of you who contacted me as well as on this blog.

In the meantime... if you are interested in Legos at all, you may know I've been working on a series of abandoned homes. This one above is the third in my series called "Victorian on Mud Heap." It was made with black, white and gray pieces – about 110k - 130k of them – and took around 600 hours to make. The building stands about 5.5' x 6' x 3' and was made only with unaltered Lego pieces. No foreign materials like glue, wood, tape, paint or even modified Legos. If your curious how it was done, I have a general "making of" post on my site Snap where I will be continuing the "make of" series of this piece through the week. On that site, you can also see more close up views which I'll be adding to.

You can also purchase a print of this and even a few actual chunks of the model (one of a kind purchases) at my print shop where I will be selling the game prints in the future (you can see them there as well). Prices for the game prints might be different though than the Lego prints. Probably will sell the game prints in two sizes, one cheeper than the Lego prints and one more expensive depending on the size.

In terms of the future of Lego for me, my next piece will carry on this theme, will probably be more grand and could possibly be a permanent exhibit in an art gallery! Still working on that, but it is a possibility which I'm very excited about.

Happy gaming ... and bricking!


Limited Edition Game Art Exhibition Prints

Matte and frame not included

I’m very pleased to announce that in the next few weeks, I'll be offering for sale hand signed and numbered prints of a number of works that I created over the years. These gorgeous prints will be printed on exhibition quality archival matte paper (the kind artists use for gallery prints) using Epson’s state-of-the-art UltraChrome K3 pigment based inks. The prints will be approximately 12" x 17" – depending on the art – and larger than the original publication. Due to the printing process, these prints will be of higher quality and resolution than the original, providing a richer viewing experience.

All packages will include:
- Signed and numbered print
- Signed, numbered and embossed certificate of authenticity
- Artist’s documentation of the piece

The price will be under $50 and will include shipping anywhere in the world. I'm still working out which pieces to offer, but for now covers from El Capitan, Caylus Premium, Eagle and Lion, Leonardo da Vinci.

If you have any questions, interest in purchasing or suggestions for what you would like to see, feel free to contact me.

– Mike

my new sister site: reMOCable

ReMOCable is a showcase blog that features Lego MOCs (My Own Creations: made from imagination rather than instructions) from builders everywhere, presented in themed entry. Each entry will have a unique and, hopefully, interesting theme that I curate. These themes help to provide a unique and fresh view of works seen together as a group. It is my desire to see MOCs framed within the context of a thoughtful, art environment which reMOCableshould provide. Every few days I should update the site with a new themed entry.


Newest Lego work

Here is my second Lego work, Three Story Victorian with Tree. You can read more about it on my Lego blog. This one took about 450 hours and around 55k pieces. It's all Lego, though. No foreign materials like glue or tape and no breaking of Lego pieces to make. You can also buy prints of this.

– mike

Gone brickn

 For those interested or wondering where I'm at, I've fallen under the spell of Lego recently and am continuing my writings and designs on another blog, Snap, which is all about Lego and work on it. Lego is a fascinating medium with its modularity, precision and variability. Having only recently picked it up (since I was a kid) I had no idea what was going on in that world. Well, as it turns out, a heck of a lot. Adults and kids/teens all over the world, building the most incredible things!

My first series of pieces will be abandoned homes, rich with detail. 

As for board gaming, I still do play on occasion with friends, though far far less frequently (unfortuately). I stopped the BG art due to burnout. Full time job with long hours, long commute, kids and then BG art taking all my other awake time for a few years in a row sort of took a toll on enthusiasm. Game art is terribly time consuming to create. In the end, I didn't have that luxury. Kids took more of a front seat and the art stopped. It was a great ride though and I thank all the publishers, gamers and game art enthusiasts for the interest and excitement which kept me going for long, and wonderful time! :)


Supplemental notes on the Function(s) of Board Game Art

It has been a while since I wrote on the "form follows function" topic (or any topic for that matter due to work obligations), so I thought I would revisit this. A few years back I addressed form/function in this article which received some passionate responses. I reread the old article again for the first time in a long time, and I have to say, it covered more than I remembered. So, I'm linking back to the original article and treating this new article more as a supplement to that old one rather than a rewrite. In itself, this entry is a bit incomplete without reading the older one but still works fine as a first read or on its own.

The Form follows Function Fallacy

I'll start with the term "form follows function" as it seems to have a sort of grand and specific meaning for many. I have heard "form follows function" and "functional art" often referred to in the blogs and forums. Phases like, "the art isn't functional" or "because, as you know, form follows function" or something to that effect often can be found. Well, what does that really mean, anyway? No doubt what the writers mean – in the context of game art – is function = usability. Period. Anything that falls short of the writer's expectation of usability is then "unfunctional art." In the end, I find this a fallacy which is masked with a kind of intellectual air to validate the point. The inclusion of this term, I believe, is more to suggest a knowledge, scholarly insight or some sort of undeniable truth as shorthand. This rather than dive into (or consider) a full discussion or appreciation of the design problems at hand that art is working toward.

With regard to the "form follows function" statement, the problem (and the general failing of that term) is that "function" remains open to interpretation and is a matter of word play more than anything else. In the end, it can mean anything one wants it to. It then has the potential to pollute any criticism or deep understanding of the process through misidentification of the problem(s) at hand.

The first question to ask in any design process or final evaluation of a product is "what are the functions of this object as a product to be sold?" Or one can ask, "what are the design problems needed to solve to?" It is the same question. From there, it can follow what the design solutions are or can be directed toward. Unfortunately, the problems at hand are not necessarily clear. When they are clear, they are not always easily weighted (that is, to what extent is function A more important than function B or what is a successful mix in this particular situation). This can be challenging as one can really never know for sure exactly how important each design problem will be within the context of the changing marketplace.

To put it in history, "form follows function" was championed throughout the 20th century by architects and industrial designers as a rationale to describe certain design principles which followed an object's utility. The original point was that the utility of the object would guide its ultimate physical manifestation through design. For instance, the thinking for the design of a juicer might go: a juicer is about getting juice out of fruit (that is its utility), therefore all design considerations should stem from how best to do that. If a design aspect does not work towards juicing, then it is not relevant - it is simply decoration and should be avoided. (This, as opposed to the function of the product as a whole – juicing PLUS consumer attitudes, aesthetic tastes and conditioning, badge value, etc).

Coined in 1896 by Louis Sullivan (Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor), the term came into being in a time when economic forces and haste were at serious odds with the expensive and time consuming production of fanciful elements. Soon after, another modernist phrase "ornament is crime" began to find itself linked to the "form/function" phrase as moral principles to design by. With the association of the two phrases, the problem then began that the phrase "form follows function" was as much a mantra for an aesthetic inclination (reduction, machine age modernism look) as it was a rational design solving process in its fullest form. Unfortunately, by eliminating from the equation ornamentation and or stylization (which could be used as attraction and for other benefits), a whole facet of design tools and opportunities are lost.

A counter to this severe reductive process is the appreciation of the benefits, indeed functions, that ornamentation and aesthetic considerations (that go beyond an object's utility) can possibly deliver. In architecture for example, ornament can aid in wayfinding, attract customers, cue warmth, be invitational and create unique global identities for properties and cities (particularly in a sea of design simplicity). Here are just a few of many business applications for the ornament in this context. Ornamentation becomes functional. It is then more than the primary utility of the building (or a juicer).

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with its characteristic Gehry look. A modern Baroque and certainly different expression of ornamentation (or perhaps "style" is a better term). Nonetheless, the function of visual identity was profound in establishing a memorable mark for Guggenheim and Bilbao – attracting tourists from around the world to this old port.

The automotive designers realized this in the 30's. As testing in aerodynamics was leading car design to a single tear drop look, they came to the conclusion that "utilitarian function" would drive the industry out of business if they didn't address aesthetic tastes (decoration). And so it is that designs took on looks driven not solely by the utility of the object (like the juicer example above) but also were inspired by the aesthetic cues from popular culture (the look of rockets, for instance). This at the expense of utility (physical drag, efficiency, etc). So here, ornamentation drove design as part of a business decision. It defined the look, feel and character of brands that helped to create brand loyalists out of customers and carve out unique identities for companies. Form was the function, along with many other utilitarian considerations – like the utility of physics. These days, if one is to look far deeper, the definition of function could include environmental responsibility. This then goes back to the physical utility of less drag and less energy used to move the car and thus less pollution (back to a teardrop shape).

Here, we see the Aptera which seeks to address the functional needs of physics (less drag), and consequently greater efficiency (less pollution), while establishing a unique brand look and aesthetic appeal (brand definition and attraction). The degree of consumer appeal (the function of attraction) and acceptance is questionable though as it could be too different – weird – for the masses. Though perhaps the Apple aesthetic has trained audiences to appreciate this pure, stylish and spartan look (which I personally love).

So it is then that "form follows function" becomes subject to definition. Physical utility of the object's purpose? Consumer attraction (tastes) and sales? A greater or higher moral obligation? Sometimes these problems all complement each other and other times the problems are opposed. To the extent that all the problems weigh in becomes more a subjective call than mechanical or scientific one. The right mix is generally not perfectly clear. All these then wrapped up in the constraints – financial and technological – within the manufacturing process.

In short, form DOES follow function as long as one truly and fully understands ALL the problems that need solving toward and one grasps the weight or gravity of each topic against the whole. Otherwise the statement is quite useless as a talking point. For this reason, I much prefer the term "problem solving" as it forces one to acknowledge the process and ask "what are all the problems at hand", rather than just refer to an empty phrase linked often to a shallow definition of function. ...Of course, "problem solving" it is not nearly as catchy ...or authoritative sounding.

Defining Game Art Functions

Here now, we come to game art design. Before speaking of successful design (or begin evaluating it) one must identify the function of game art.

It is very simple. Game art functions to enhance the endeavor of the game. That is all game art is for, nothing more, nothing less.

We must then ask, "what is the endeavor of game?" From here, there can be found at least three primary game goals. Firstly, for the consumer, it must entertain. That is, in fact, the only reason to buy a board game product. Entertainment can take many forms which I will describe later, but from the consumer point of view, that is all our games are for. Secondly, for the publisher, it is to make money and further an enterprise. A product can be the best of its kind, but if it does not make money or cause a publisher's brand to rise in perceived value, stature, or selling power it has failed in its endeavor toward the seller. Finally, the game champions the game cause. This is a greater good level which seeks to elevate the category as a whole through the product's own excellence.

In terms of the first point (the consumer pov), game entertainment takes a number of forms (not limited by this list):
- the enjoyment and company of others sharing in a common experience face to face
- the mental brinkmanship
- playability/mastery - the enjoyment of feeling in control or more skillful than others (with what ease one can navigate the game and feel "masterful")
- the particular puzzley mental stimulation board games provide
- the physical (touching materials, fiddling with pieces, viewing depth of field)
- the excitement of competition
- potential to learn something new
- collectibility and admiration of one's collection

In terms of the second point (the seller's pov), a game should:
- provide good profit
- expand a publisher's portfolio in a positive direction
- reflect on the publisher's brand in a positive way
- potentially reach new customers who might seek out other games in the portfolio

In terms of the third point (the category's pov), a game should:
- provide the board game category with a more positive image and a reason to participate
- conversely, dispel negative perceptions of gaming/gamers (child's play, hobby for losers/geeks)
- encourage and facilitate those who do participate to "catch the game bug" and become a gamer themselves

Here is how art can address the needs of the game:

Information Design
- Information design provides newcomers confidence that they can learn the game and the teacher confidence that it will be a successful teaching experience.

- Assists with pattern recognition which can make a game easier to play

- Ramp players up quickly to feel "masterful" in their game.

- For gamers, familiar conventions can be reinforced to facilitate the learning of new or unusual gameplay

- Attractiveness draws people into the game
- Can help make a title an easier "sell" to bring out of the closet and onto the table
- Gives us entertainment during downtime
- Provides atmosphere
- Can drive sales
- Can generate news/talking power/buzz
- Potentially reach out to new consumers (non gamers) previously unaware, but attracted to box.
- Positively impacts the hobby as a whole (can make it seem more legitimate – seem less a hobby for children or "weirdo/geek/outsiders")
- Positively impacts a publisher's portfolio
- Help to open distribution channels for publishers (especially with their first games).
- Heightens collectibility and admiration of one's own collection – makes collecting fun.

Thematic Detailing
- Thematic detailing brings one into the spirit of the theme
- Makes the game all seem a bit more believable, to the extent that is possible.
- Can facilitate in the learning of a game (familiar theme concepts can support game mechanics)

Information design, attractiveness, thematic detailing

I have heard game art design equated to information design (like illustrative charts and graphs). This is certainly very true. Game boards and components can be information heavy – sometimes very information heavy. (Indeed Titan had a massively dense board, with each 1" hex space being one of eleven terrain types, and having 3 different entry points that had 4 different types of entry methods. All this multiplied a good 80 or so hexes). I have also heard folks make connections to Edward Tufte (a graphic designer / teacher who advocates strong information design). Indeed, you can find a recommendation of his books on this blog, one of my first entries from a number of years back. He is really a great read and full of enthusiasm! There is much to learn from him and use in certain specific game art situations as well.

The board for Titan is a very information dense one. With around 80 hexes with 11 or so terrain types, 3 entry points and 4 types of entries, each hex had many potential reads. Unlike traditional maps, the terrain does not follow natural patterns (like clusters of hills, valleys, mountains, tree areas) but rather geometrically spaced patterns which are hard to decipher.

What one must remember though is his investigations relate to something somewhat different here. Yes, both games and the work he covers are information driven subjects. The difference is that games are entertainment first and foremost. Information design being the primary, but not by any means, exclusive driver of the entertainment values. This is the heart of the matter as many discount or simply cannot realize all the functions that art simultaneously serves. Some parts of game art are pure information, some parts are a combination of information and aesthetic and theming detail, and some parts serve no game playing information but are purely for enjoyment.

I have also heard it said that all this is fine, as long as the function of usability always comes first before other functions. Again, I say this misses the point. It assumes a simplistic process that is black and white, on and off. "Is function decor (or any other function) sacrificing the function of usability? If yes, then bad design." Well no, not necessarily, I say. Because it is all a sliding scale. It is all a matter of degree. In reality, the design process is a long continuum of very discrete interrelated decisions. For instance, it may be the case that a small loss or insignificant loss in information generates a big gain in theme entertainment. Or perhaps the loss could be made up for through another less direct design move. Here, things are not so black and white. Again, it comes down to understanding the weight or gravity or each element with respect to the overall project's endeavor.


A (less than ideal) case example

I added "less than ideal" as, admittedly, the work I will describe was for me not perfect. In the end it fell short of what I had hoped it would deliver. However, I do believe that the investigation was correct – it's final implementation didn't quite make it to my satisfaction though. The investigation illustrates, for me, some of the push and pulls of a few functions at work.

A project I did a while back, El Capitan, presented itself with a number of design challenges. One challenge centered on the names of the different sections of the board. The board is divided into a 3 x 3 grid where each of the 9 grid spaces is a different city. It is in these cities that the game actions take place. In the original game, Tycoon - which El Capitan was modeled after - the theme was about global travel. Here, the city names (the 9 grid spaces) had clear geographical significance. The cities had names like New York, Mexico City, Tokyo, etc. From these names, it is easy to visualize exactly where each city would sit within the 3 x 3 grid relative to each other as everyone has the basic world map burned in their brain. One need not ever have seen the game to guess which space was which.

The remake, El Capitan, was rethemed to Medieval European cities using their indigenous names. The problem here is that the geographic relationship between the cities is not really known by most, particularly when assigned to a rigid 3 x 3 grid. Add to that, the city names are at times unfamiliar variations and add to that some of the names sounded alike and then we have a bit of a problem. The theme, while much more rich and romantic (to me anyway), was not as easy to play. (Note, this is not to disparage the idea behind the retheme but merely introduce the graphic design challenges inherent within the concept.)

If the names themselves were a blockage, no matter how clear they appeared on the board, they would cause confusion. So it was that I knocked back much of the utility of the names - through decoration - and introduced an iconographic reference system on the cards that referred to the board grid rather than the names. Just as the theme and the cities that were chosen had served as romantic decoration, so too the type was treated as a decorative element through the selection of a heavily ornate font. This added quite a bit to the look (compared to a simpler serif font). The function of the type readability then transferred, in part, to the aesthetic appeal function and the thematic application functions. The newly developed icons - found on the cards - would then hold much of the weight of the information design. These icons were a graphic of a 3 x 3 grid with the appropriate city positions highlighted. The rationale here is that if names are causing a blockage, which they were, it was better to redirect attention to a simpler, more intuitive system – the grid icon or, as I called it, "the pip system" (as the icon highlights looked like dice pips). No language is needed to understand what area each card effected.

This would have been great, but I did not push the strength of the icon enough (it was too small on the cards and the non highlighted pips were too subtile). This made it a little harder to see than it should have been. Add to this the production printed much too dark (which highlights a frustrating problem of artist control within this industry). This dark printing negated the contrast of the pips and intensified the situation. (Some thought it was too hard to play upside down as well; the brain needed to reorient the pips. I found it easy to wrap my head around when the board was oriented upside down to my position. However, we could have added a smaller reverse oriented icon for "upside down players" if need be. In hindsight, I probably should have explored this).

The point here is that the apparent information design function of the type (its readability) was not as obvious as many thought. Some commented that the type should have been more readable. This to increase what seems to be the information design function. The problem was that in so doing, a player would spend too much time directly using the type for reference or information gathering (rather than the pips) and fall into the trap of rechecking each time to make sure a city was Tunis rather than Tanger, Valencia rather than Venezia or Athina rather than Alexandria... and then double checking that for the position on the board because they would get the location mixed up in the grid. To me this sort of checking and making sure during the game was disruptive. In short, the names were not effective carriers of information.


I continue to write on the "function topic" as it is not what I believe many think it is. The term itself is a good one in theory, but in practice is is more a shorthand to subject to opinions on definition and consequent misidentification of problems. It is a fascinating subject though which highlights the design and problem solving process.

– Mike

QWG's Cavum

Cover image

QWG will be publishing Cavum by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Riesling just in time for Essen. It will be printed in English, German, French and of course Dutch. The game takes players in the American West in search of gems. Players mine through the mountains in search of veins, working their tunnels to trace to neighboring cities (pictured on the board in orange). As I understand it, this will be a heavier game than El Capitan and play around 90 minutes.

The look of the game has an antiqued paper finish with period typography and engraved images. Like El Capitan, the punchboards are dressed up for a very nice presentation. These will be pictured in a future post.


A few of the "order" cards

Happy gaming!

– Mike

Blackbeard Anticipation II

I received some feedback which I've incorporated into these charts. They are pretty hires, so you can drag them onto your desktop and use. These print on 11x17 paper. You might need to reduce the size slightly to fit without printing. Again, if you see something incorrect, please let me know.

As previously mentioned, I was looking to add an anti-pirate back to the player aid. Not having played the game yet, I’m unsure if all the details are correct; but I hope it’s pretty close. The information was cobbled together from what I could find from the updated rule sets. I modified the look slightly for both of these to give a little more depth and thematic interest.

If anyone familiar with the game sees details in error, I'd appreciate you dropping me a note and I'll look into correcting.

Happy Gaming.

– Mike

Blackbeard Anticipation

--- Note, thanks to a few who contacted me with some fact errors in the following player aid. Much appreciated! The image below is the now updated one. ---

Ok, I too have been struck by the Blackbeard bug. I've not yet played it, and never played the original, but a detailed pirate game seems so awesome. I bought the game a week or two ago and have read the rules many times, set the board up for a few rounds of solitaire play and been doing the obligatory daily checks to BGG for rules updates. Still, after playing it myself a bit, I found quite a bit of look ups necessary. I know that's the kind of game this is, but it might prove too distasteful to some I game with. It seems like the game could flow better with concepts better consolidated. To help things move a bit, I've created an 11x17 player aid. This combines the Pirate Actions list with basic procedural guidelines done graphically.

The front of a player aid guide with Pirate Actions. The back will have Anti-Pirate actions and whatever else I can get that is meaningful.

It includes some symbols for key concepts so that it can be scanned if looking for a particular one. For instance, if you are looking for things relating to booty or loyalty there are icons associated with them. For actions that are continuous (or need to follow another action), I've kept on the same scrap of paper which appears to fold over for the next step.

I will probably get this uploaded to Geek if others find it helpful, though if there are mistakes, it would be good to know. Send me an email. I cobbled together concepts from the rules, so I could have gotten things wrong. I know there are also some procedures missing, like Dueling. I didn't want the player aid to necessarily have everything, but cover all the main concepts I would need if just starting.

Next on the agenda is the Anti-Pirate actions, which will go on the back side of the sheet.

After setting the game up, I found the need for more dimensionality. The lack of objects with depth tend to make this game seem less exciting than it really should be. Also, I found many pieces getting lost on the board – like merchant ships. It's not terrible, but I did find that adding cubes and pieces helped the experience. Here, you can see cubes for merchant ships yellow for new ships, white for 0 cargo holds, red for 1, blue for 2, green for 3 and black for 4). Once found, yellow cubes are replaced with one that is randomly drawn from bag. For the KCs, I used large wood cubes that I had on hand. These then correspond to player colors, which I feel is needed. I felt like without player colors, I tended to lose track of my ship a bit. So, I've added player color flags to AOEIII ships. Red flags are used for D&B status which seems nice. Below some images for of quick modifications.

Some modifications to make more appealing to me (and hopefully others in my group).

Congratulations to the Berg/GMT team for this! Very much looking forward to playing. I also am really looking forward to the remake of one of my favorites from yesteryear, Conquistador – another Berg title.

Happy Gaming


Valley Games’: Municipium (Cover and Cards)

After having completed the board, I've taken another look at the cover. The evolution of the board did not go in the direction that I had originally taken for the cover. So I found a little disconnect between the two. Not that they have to match, but I did think I could do better here. So, I've restyled the cover with a mosaic and picked up the various characters from the board. I'm quite fond of this. It has the richness I often like to do in these pieces. It also – in a way for me – goes back to the original concept which was more abstract in nature. One thing I have always tried to stray from is a literal interpretation of the implied game story. Such covers tend to look trite to my eyes. Here, with the characters simply lined up, there is no stiff reinactment of a scene or literal story being told. It is more abstract in nature allowing the viewer to imagine.

Card backs: Common card (gray) and family cards with family names
Card fronts from various families

Also, here we can see some of the cards for this production. Again, I think a nice rich touch that ties things together with the mosaic.

– Mike

Supernova Alien Screens and more

Here we can see player screens with the aliens and icons which correspond to board pieces. They gray type and such will actually be silver, so the contrast is not as you see here. Throughout the program we are planning to use silver which should really be lovely and through a future feel to it against the white.

Some more research cards with silver icons.

Colonization cards with silver

The Colonization cards should really look nice with the silver line work against the green – very special and high tech. It will have a very nice feel as one holds them in ones hands and tilts from side to side.

– Mike

From the Vault: Arte Moderna

I had the opportunity to play Arte Moderna for the first time a few weeks back. I'd been trying to keep the copy I had unpunched and unused, but the money had mostly fallen out of the punchboard and my friends and I were “in the mood”. I hadn't looked at this for a long time and it brought back a lot of memories – this was my first art to be previewed in a published game. There were quite a few little things the publisher and I put in the game, from a portrait of his wife, to her favorite flower to… Derk, just because.

So, with memories spinning around, I dusted off the old backup hard drive and took a look at the files. One thing I had totally forgotten was the other artists I had created as part of the selection process for the publisher. Some I'd wish were picked, but oh, well. No biggie. I really liked one of them, so I thought I'd share that and a few others that were created for the first presentation.

The first one is based off of one of my long favorite artists, Cy Twombly. While I did not want to mimic other artists (Iike Mayfair’s edition did), I didn't mind this series of paintings. To most gamers, Cy’s work would not be recognizable and would probably seem new and totally alien. One thing you will see is the English rather than native text as this was a first presentation. Also, the format was changed a bit. If I had it to do over again, I would have coded it on both sides for left and right handers, but now I know better. Note here, for the icons, I had proposed an O for open, 1 for once around and 2 for double. This seemed more logical to me than trying to interpret an icon as in previous publications. In the end, the publisher was looking for a stronger connection to the native language, so this was put aside.

Here, we have a few more artist styles that had been presented in the initial concepts. In the end, I'm fine with what was done. There are things I would have done differently. But oh well, live and learn.

Back with my buddies, we played our game of Arte Moderna and had a very good time at it. Although my incredibly poor performance in this session confirmed that I should stay far clear from opening my own art gallery. :D

– Mike