Form, Function and Game Play Art

It is said that form follows function. This famous modernist mantra is quite often quoted in the forums when speaking of game art as it relates to bits and boards. This is something that has fascinated me for some time and, as I continue to develop an increasing number of bits and boards, am beginning to form some consolidated opinions on.

The function of game art is usually attributed to providing players with clear direction, understanding of and movement within game mechanics – in short, information design. While this is partially true, there is far more going on than most give credit to. My experience has shown a number of functions in addition to information design. Understanding these functions can help to illuminate the tugs, pulls and interactions of the many decisions that are made in development of art and design.

Design is not as clear cut as it would seem. Ideally, gameboard art would satisfy every function to its fullest. In practicality, achieving the ideal is near impossible. Just as it would be nice to have a game that is richly thematic to everyone, fun to play for all, pure and elegant, quick, tense, etc, etc many of these desirable traits can, at times, be inversely related. Therefore the task of balancing design functions is a series of granular, sliding scale choices.

The four primary functions that I have found relevent in the design process are information design, thematic detailing, appeal and brand differentiation. While some of these functions have greater importance than others, good game art requires sacrifice from each of the functions to achieve a balance.

This sacrifice is something I do not believe is generally understood or accepted. The statement that art is “getting in the way of the game or function of a game” often comes up to refer to a sacrifice that information design has taken. Quite often this is true. Bad design or poor design decisions are periodic, sometimes with disastrous effect. The US release of Medici is one such game where it takes effort to distinguish the cards from each other. This, not so much due to a sacrifice for another function as just poor art.

On the left, pictures dominate over color coding. Multicolored cloth and dye cards have similar attributes in this respect. While not a design solution, the cards on the left at least code much stronger between sets.

On the other hand, it should be noted that it is vital that information design – to a certain extent – sacrifice something for other needs. When I speak of sacrifice, I assume good design is in practice and careful thought is being given to each decision. What this article is not about is badly designed art – art which fails to deliver in its functions not for a lack of sacrifice against other functions but due simply to poor application.

Finally it is impossible to separate the design of the board from the bits. Bits are simply the dynamic states that the board cannot convey on its own. It is for this reason they both share the same basic functions.

Information Design
Without a doubt, the most important aspect of art creation is the function of information design. Careful attention to how the board is structured, information is displayed and its relationship to the bits is key to both understanding the game as well as playing it. A well composed game can offer transparency of data so that it does not “feel” as if one is looking for information, but is readily absorbed. Well crafted art can work in harmony with bits so that they do not get lost on the board but are properly positioned within the hierarchy of information needed. One board that I recently fault is Mayfair’s Tigris & Euphrates. The combination of fairly high contrast board art (particularly in the case of the river) and busy tiles makes pattern recognition difficult. Here, the art gets in the way of pattern recognition which is critical to playing the game.

Mayfair T&E board to the left of the original German publication. Note the high degree of contrast on the left board combined with the lower concentration of bit color coding and multicolored imagery substantially decrease pattern recognition compared to the board on the right. Thematic embellishment and – perhaps was believed – appeal were pushed at the expense of information design. There is nothing transparent about the board on the left. One must struggle to find the patterns.

Information design can include, but is not limited to:
- properly sized spaces to accept bits
- color coding that distinguishes groups of objects and subgroups or sets if necessary
- clear display of patterns that game play can create
- proper labeling of important points
- clear, easily absorbed iconography when needed
- clearly organized areas of play
- orientation of graphics toward players
- bits that can be handled comfortably

Now, here comes the important part. If “function” were only information design, as some people attribute, gameboards would be reduced to simple colored blocks and fields with appropriately simple applied type and or symbols. This, if following the form follows function mantra. Symbols themselves would venture into primary shapes rather than thematic. Why is this so? Because the more objects there are in the art and the more complicated the objects are, the more the eye must work to separate the information into workable patterns. Any object that is not primary toward the task of playing the game increases input the brain must take in and slows down comprehension. This extra work may be completely imperceptible, but it is there even if in the most discrete terms. Below is an image of a fairly pure T&E board. (Note, I didn’t take the time to make it perfect or color blind friendly, but it gets the idea generally across). Pattern recognition is very high, particularly when compared to the published board. Indeed, you can stare in the center of the abstract board and absorb the basic 4 colored tile patterns without looking directly at them. In the printed version, the eye must move about to scan and absorb. But who wants to play on this anemic stripped down design?? Pure abstract forms have a beauty all their own if properly proportioned, but there is a whole level of enjoyment lost in the simple design.


Indeed, art serves other functions beyond information design.

Thematic Support
We see in the previous example a Tigris & Euphrates set completely stripped of all thematic detail. Absolutely functional from an information design standpoint, but void of place and time. Part of the charm of E&T game is imagining the cultures sweep across the land, break up and form again. Whether one sees E&T as a thematic game or not (this has been discussed more than I care to mention), without thematic detail something is lost. Shadows over Camelot is a game which oozes with thematic design details. Does this get in the way of information? Most certainly so. Does it matter. Probably not. Handled with great care, the thematic function balances well with the information function so that it plays quite well.


Appeal

Appeal includes elements and detailing that add to the overall aesthetic appeal of a game. It is that which invites and holds attention – attention not on a level of comprehension of gameplay but of appreciation. It is that spark which satisfies something inside and makes us feel “good”. Many times details can satisfy appeal and thematic support both at once. The differentiator here for the appeal function is that, in the name of beauty, it goes beyond what thematic detail or information graphic might call for. Balancing this function is very tricky as it can be tempting to embellish at too high a cost. Each decision then is one of moving the sliding scales this way or that and weighing the positive effects against any negative functional moves in any of the categories.

Appeal functions to create desire and desire to own and play. It is a tangible asset that can generate sales. Given a basically even choice between two games, many will pick the nicer looking one. Of course appeal is absolutely relative. What is satisfactory to one, may not be to another. In the end, one can not please everyone. In the same way a game designer may develop game(s) that may perfectly appeal to some, he or she will always find those who will not agree.

Elements added to increase appeal need not be thematic. A very appealing design may have very little theme embedded in it. All this function is concerned with is attraction or attractiveness. The appeal function can be purely tactile – wood vs plastic, weaved paper vs non textured.

Brand Differentiator
Game titles are brands as much so as the publishers. Game play art is an ambassador as much so as the cover. One thing we all hate in games is the yet another – those games that feel as if we have played them before in another form. As ambassadors, boards carry with them some of the weight of expectation. A unique looking board can be an attractor, whether in online reports or on the gaming table. Here, the gameboard functions as a billboard or box cover during game play to players and passers by. It is a statement and a powerful tool to imprint on people. Being able to picture a game in the mind is a value. By establishing an iconic look, recall is aided. In this crowded game market, capturing an iconic look and feel is an asset whose value is increasing.

It is an opportunity not only to draw players in through appeal or thematic attraction, but also a statement that here we have something new and different – an invitation to something new. After all, who wants to play the same rehash of a game again. If a gameboard look seems rehashed it does not help in cueing “here is an exciting new game, come and see”. It is a call to believe in a game and its promise.

For these reasons, there is value to art that stands out, is fresh and interesting. This can at times be in conflict with appeal – where it can sway too far in challenging conventions. It can also work against information design where familiarity can help gamers get into a game quicker. Again, understanding the balance that is needed is critical. For example, games which have very unusual mechanics and/or are complicated to play may best work with more convential graphics. This as not to distract from what may already be a difficult learning curve.

Striking the right balance between understandable game information, a rich themed look and a handsome board that looks new and exciting is a delicate thing. The desire is that all functions are addressed to as high a level as possible or reasonable while understanding the sacrifices each must make for the other.

– Mike