Thoughts on the cover

Cover as an attractor. Cover as a representative. Cover as a brandmark. Cover as a badge. Cover as a family crest. Cover as a sales tool.

Properly identifying and understanding this ambassador’s many roles and responsibilities is a necessary first step in the development and critique of final art. A cover’s ability to meet consumers’ needs on these levels can ultimately help sales within a product line, within a publisher's broader portfolio and further out into other publishers’ portfolios.

I hear a good deal of skepticism regarding the importance of cover. Statements like, “It’s all about the product, the play and the experience in the end. I can take or leave the cover – it’s of little influence. Yes, most likely, a serious gamer would not buy a game by the cover alone. I certainly hear much of this and see others’ points. However, the roles and responsibilities a cover provides extends deeper than I think we are often willing to admit in the seduction, the sale and support of the community.

A good cover is magic. At its best, the magic can draw our attention to the product. It can seal the deal between two comparable choices. It can increase anticipation and get the game to the table more. It can heighten one’s desire for the game to work. It can help us as we evangelize the product, the hobby to others and outside the community at large. In the end, it is a powerful tool that can influence sales.

The sale can be made in many ways and forums. It is not necessarily the exchange of money, but the moment before purchasing when one says, “I’ve got to get this!” It can be browsing in one’s FLGS, researching online or at a retailer’s site, at a friend’s house or at a con. It is here – that moment one’s heart races in anticipation of a new game – that the cover can work its magic. It is here that the cover needs to work as hard as it can to deliver on the game’s promise of a good product and a potentially great experience.

Cover as Attractor
I begin with the obvious. If a cover catches one’s eye as attractive, it’s off to a good start. There is no formula to attractiveness. Attractive covers can be dark and rich or pale and muted, simple and bold or complicated and messy, serious or silly or any end of the many spectrums. Now, this said, it is more than simply, “I like the way it looks” or “don’t like the way it looks” as this is painfully subjective and an unreliable measure of attractiveness. Think of a woman (or man) who certainly is good looking but “not your type.” Mostly what matters here is a level of execution that suggests that the product has been well thought out and produced – an indicator of the level of production and promise a game holds. A partial measure is how it attracts the eye enough for one to pick up and investigate more or to inquire at a friends house what the game might be or if it is good.

Cover as Representative
Here, a cover’s role is to highlight some aspect of the game, the game’s theme and its tone. Toward being a good representative of the product, the publisher and creative should ask the following during the development phase:

- What is this game’s essence? Is it a very abstract game? Is it dry? Is it serious? Is it silly? Is it complex or simple? Is it a gamer’s game or more casual or less hardcore? Answers to these questions can guide the tone of the art. It is not necessary to capture all of these points within the framework of the cover art, but instead to identify one or more potentially important points that one wishes to make.

I would not have guessed this game so thoroughly dry and abstracted based on this cover. I don’t mind dry games at all, but was caught off guard when I found more about it. The addition of a character and donkey in the foreground suggest more human perspective in the game. Perhaps the removal of characters and more emphasis on land plots could have been more expressive of the dry nature of the game. Or perhaps a different style of illustration could have helped – one more abstract in nature.

- Where is this game taking us? This is a very simple matter and one always addressed. This matter being time period and place. To many games, this really is the theme. For this reason, publishers and illustrators certainly focus their efforts to this point of communication. Games of ancient Aztecs have an ancient Aztec flavor, etc.

- At what altitude are we playing this game – ground level, 40k feet or somewhere in between? This is an important aspect that I don’t think well recognized. For this reason, I’ll spend some time on this point. Games which have highly abstracted mechanics generalizing thematic actions often find themselves at a higher altitude of play. I frequently find when playing Eurogames, that I don’t really feel like I am what I am supposed to be (a medieval merchant for example) or to be doing, but certainly do feel the flavor of the time and place. Eurogames, with their treasured clever simplicity tend to take players at a higher level looking far down on the intended or implied activity. For instance, in El Grande, I have no sense that I am dealing with knights or am necessarily in this time period by virtue of my actions.

I find that the higher altitude a game takes players, the more generalized a cover should be within the framework of thematic time and place. Conversely, the closer a game begins to replicate real life activity, the more situational a cover should probably look or, at least, have license to portray. I say this because, more often than not, covers set up an expectation toward theme that simply is not there. A frequent technique is to portray characters in the middle of some action(s) relating to implied actions in the game. For example, I see a cover with a merchant on it unloading goods on a waterfront filled with other merchants and shoppers and a shop’s sign and I think, “Cool, I’m going to feel like I’m there trading goods at a port during early Renaissance.” The reality though, is that I have a common ship – used by all players – and move it throughout the Baltic while periodically exchanging my colored disks for colored generic barrel tokens or for coins from stop to stop. That’s it. And that’s Hansa. It’s a great game, but it is not the theme that has been set up by the cover. Instead, I’m up at 40k performing highly abstracted series of moves on an old world map – again, very fun play but a major disconnect from the product promised on the cover. This is what I call “a merchant, a ship and a sack of gold” covers. I’ve seen variations on this frequently, nearly always with this large gap between cover and theme play. Such covers generally go to great effort to detail situations covering many or most game activities from a ground level perspective. A trading game will have merchants in the middle of a deal, perhaps with a ship (if there’s shipping, of course) and perhaps the goods off to the side. A canal building game will have guys in overalls digging with the overseer and an aqueduct along with period construction techniques. In short, period people posed as if I’m them. What a surprise later in the game to feel that, no, I’m not them, or at least I don’t feel like it.

With this ground level execution, I had hoped play would take place in town, exchanging goods. The activity and portrayal is so specific rather than wholly implied as it is in the game play.

Again, a fairly ground level view for such a highly abstracted game. The fact that the characters are not taking part in action but pausing to look at the viewer does help abstract assumptions on game play however, which is a plus. They are engaging the viewer to participate in their world. The disconnect, though, is that I get no sense of knights during play at all.

Is it any wonder then that theme and lack thereof is such a highly talked matter? Our collections are filled with products that celebrate ground level theme that is not really part of the product itself. We are set up to desire and dream of being transported to places taking part in situations only marginally implied.

Conversely, some games do overcome the temptation to spell out a game’s thematic intentions. Tikal is one such game. Here, on the cover, we don’t see archeologists, or native guides or trails, or a jungle map, or guys digging up treasures or the uncovering of temples or volcanos in the distance. Instead, one single treasure mask flanked by native bush is all that is needed to peak my interest. And, oh, by the way, the pyramids are there on the bottom upon closer examination. Absolutely nothing has been set up here in the way of a ground level play. I assume where this game takes place based on the treasure and flora, and I guess, because it is a treasure, we are perhaps talking about treasure hunting...maybe. Are we natives living 1000 years ago? Or is this the present? It doesn’t matter, though. What it does set up is the emotive engagement toward a place where I want to go and to experience. The set up is enough for me to reach toward the package and pick it up. When I look at the cover, I think that the game will powerfully capture some aspect of being there... and it does. Perhaps this due only to the production of the board and pieces, but it’s not important. In the end, after playing the game, the cover has fulfilled its promise of taking me to this place. I look back onto it a few days later and once again dream of going back.

The mask is a powerful detail that promises nothing of gameplay, only suggesting an exotic local. Pyramids, which are subordinated below, reinforce the local and could suggest more on gameplay theme if one wants – though it does not describe the uncovering of pyramids, only the existence of them. Still, the pyramids could have been omitted for an equally appropriate and powerful cover.

Like Tikal, with the cover of China, references toward game play are ambiguous ... and this is not a bad thing. It would seem to be about temples or something on a grand scheme. More than anything, the image is beautiful and takes me to a place where I’d like to be. In the end though, the gameplay is so abstract and board relatively unembellished, the game could be of any place. Perhaps better it would have been to focus on a still life of a period object (perhaps something relating to diplomacy) that is evocative of a time and place without showing the place itself. In this way, I wouldn’t be disappointed that I didn’t feel like I was in China when playing the game. On the other end of this production, the board could have been enriched and more evocative of China to satisfy the feeling of some Chinese authenticity. In this way, there could be more payoff against such a beautifully seductive cover image as this. Nonetheless, the image is attractive, colors are rich which gives the game some appeal.

Now, I know where publishers and artists are coming from when covers over explain situational events. Certainly, this is the sort of treatment often seen on fiction book covers of fantasy, sci-fi and romance novels. The objective there is to put one into the story, to get us one step closer to seeing what we are reading or will be reading. Here, this works. Books do detail experiences and places to great degree. We read situations and experience them as a character might. In this way, situational covers on the books can heighten the experience by giving us a fantasy glimpse of some aspect of the story which we have experienced. Now, moving back to our Eurogames, the situational art most often does not translate because the experiences are marginally implied at best through game abstractions. One might argue that these situational covers on games fill the gap between game play and implied thematic actions or that they are the storytelling device to complement the game. However, as said, more than that they tend to set one up for disappointment when the game is not what it appeared to be on the cover.

Situational covers are abundant within certain book genres. While not always the greatest, they do take the readers to places they will go and experience within the pages of the books. There is no gap in expectations here. The reader will certainly feel an attachment to the image after reading the book.

So, what techniques can be used to avoid situational explanations that might over-promise gameplay? There are many ways to approach this. Some quick ways to think of it are to get very close on to an object and create a still life, like Tikal. If it is a game of economics in Renaissance Dutch world, perhaps it is a beautiful Dutch still life of coins. Or an artist can go far back to describe a setting – for instance a Dutch port filled with ships for Hansa. New illustrative styles might be employed which have a more abstract quality (some can be seen a little further in this article). Many options exist that extend beyond the merchant, the ship and the bag of gold. In either way, the goal being to portray actions that are not explicit but suggestive or iconic.

Representatives of a new movement. As the Euro movement is characterized by innovative new mechanics and game play, it would seem that games should look new and innovative. Covers can play a huge role in signaling newness. As notions of games for adults can carry negative baggage for those outside the hobby, cover art with a fresh look can work well to dispel these thoughts. If a game does not look as one expects, than expectations toward what a game is can be shaken for such individuals. Just as these products have redefined the boardgame category, so too should their look reflect this redefinition. Now, as Eurogames are trickling into new points of distribution – from coffee shops, to book stores to Target, these unexpected venues offer greater license for unexpected looks.

As a representative, the cover should take the viewer to some place and time that the game does - if there is a setting to the game. It should have a tone appropriate for the game - whether that be serious, silly, rich or dry. It should avoid overreaching thematic embellishment such as character situations only broadly implied in gameplay. Finally, as a representative to a new breed of games, it can bear the weight of signaling a changing gaming environment.

Cover as a brandmark
Iconic covers have the power to establish in the mind’s eye the product brand. Such power aids in recall and the ability to relay and speak of a title to others. Below are two covers. There is no question here which cover is more vividly recalled. Tikal’s powerful image burns into the brain whereas the Settlers image is very easily forgotten. Many factors contribute to this gap. On Tikal, the object is simple and large. The colors are deep and saturated. In Settlers, a more complicated image is set in a very small window on the cover. The image has no iconic value but it very situational making it hard to remember. Additionally, colors are muted making for low impact.

Cover as a badge
Badge products and brands are those which we use to define ourselves as consumers and individuals. It is the swoosh on the hat and the little white earphone buds in the ear. It is any element that brands exploit to differentiate a product and to define the brand in a powerful way. It is these things that consumers can latch on to and proudly get behind as a matter of pride – a badge of authority or distinction. These badges become symbols of attitudes greater than the product they represent. A white earplug suddenly says to the consumer, “I am hip, I am creative, I am of style.” It rises above an element that simply says of the brand, “I am iPod.”

No matter who you are, the white buds and cascading wires are a clear visible sign that you belong to this “club.”

Covers have the potential to rise above brandmark status and above brand representative status to become badges that represent individual gamers. As the cover is the most visible aspect of game brands, they can be that facet of our hobby that we can proudly stand behind and say,“This is me. I am a gamer.” As a category, however, I do not find this appeal in covers that I see. They have not the adult sophistication, intelligence or style that I might attribute to this hobby and that I demand as such an individual (or such that I would like to portray). And, yes, I do believe gaming is very stylish – in particular Eurogames. The Euro product category is one developed with great craft and finesse toward streamlined reduction and intelligent simplicity. Such reduction and simplicity is certainly very modern and sophisticated.

A snapshot of the category. The overall look is old and tired – not infused with the modern attitude and style that one would desire in a badge product.

Where covers generally fall, however, is in a camp that employs a relatively specific group of illustrative styles that appears cartoonish ... in an outdated way (as seen above). There is no style infused in the artwork. To style, I look towards many sources. From children’s books to annual reports, magazine illustrations to cosmetic packaging and everything in between, we find a rich and interesting world of illustration. These illustrative styles offer more attitude, interest and style than our current crop of covers do. Such new, more sophisticated styles can become the vernacular that defines this new breed of game design and outlines a path toward badge propositions.

Geek anxiety, as Mark Johnson puts it, abounds. This anxiety is that association with the pimply faced introverts that we once were or the many whom we played with. More often than not, being an adult gamer enthusiast draws associations to D&D, Magic, sloppy party games or trivia style productions. Or perhaps associations revolve around child’s play. Whatever the negative perception, it certainly is not a club I’m proud to declare publicly. Covers carry a great deal of weight on them in terms of overriding the general perception (geekity, child’s play) to the values that makes up the product (that of sophistication, modernity, elegance). As a whole, I do not believe covers have met this goal.

Geek alert! Geek theme aside, the corny characters oddly placed in stiff positions possesses negative badge value. While the publisher is family oriented and probably attempting to communicate this, there is no style that I can stand behind as an intelligent adult. As fun as the game is, as beautiful as the board and elements are, I'll “brown bag” it to and fro, so as not to appear as some oddball.

Again, a stiff portrayal of characters and activities. Devoid of style or drama it is not a cover I can be passionate about as a representative of my culture. I’m not putting this in my office for others to see.

Not a badge proposition either. Such a sophisticated and elegant game and yet the cover is simply trite.

Cover as a family crest

Covers have the potential to define the publishers’ brands in ways that encourage sales and provide authority. Beyond the logo, there stands the opportunity to define a proprietary brand look and feel which can differentiate their products from other publishers. In this way, the brand look becomes a sort of logo beyond the company’s mark itself.

The most commonly mentioned brand to effectively take advantage of this is Alea. Each box carefully adheres to a template which, when seen as a family of products, has greater impact than the individual units. Beyond greater shelf impact - as the family line might be displayed in retail settings - the potential arises for increased sales as some collectors seek to complete their Alea set. Again, a retail setting can even be a friend’s closet where games are often stacked by brand. In these cases, where the Alea collection stands together, the boxes form a larger unit that the draws the eye in, potentially increasing likelihood of play and the possibility of further sales. It is for this reason, that new publishers would do well to look into defining a programatic look beyond an illustration and logo simply placed on the bottom corner. The need for this approach will only grow as the landscape of publishers enter an increasingly congested marketplace.

What can constitute a proprietary look and feel? A family look can be made up of the box size, graphical elements (like a colored bar strip), positioning of the main artwork (when not full bleed much like Alea does), size and positioning of game titles, position of the publisher’s mark and any graphical elements to support it (for instance bar/block behind Avalon Hill’s mark), templating for sides of boxes and a house style for illustration or subject positioning (for instance the person on side of Alea’s spine or character in the foreground of Phlanx’s games). Surprisingly, given all the techniques at their disposal, very few publishers take advantage of establishing a strong house look.

The power of a strong proprietary look is undeniable here. It draws the eye into the collection as a whole and then to individual product offerings. On the shelf, the collection becomes a unit.

With the Alea covers above, the Look is clear. We have an assigned “window” area for an illustration, an area for the title, a background texture treatment, an area for the designer’s name and an area for the product description. Although the placement the company logo has not been resolved, the system is very consistent. Whether one is a fan of the Look or not (I am not so much), the overall portfolio style is impressive (even to me). In short, the whole is greater than the individual parts. Despite any misgivings I might have with the details of the system, the fact that implementation of the program is consistent, makes the program a strong one with great appeal as a family of products.

In terms of misgivings I have with the system, I would say that the emotive impact that the cover image can deliver has been greatly diminished by its reduced profile on the cover. The result here is that it is harder to get into the picture and that leaves less of an impact. Images tend to look a bit fussy as details get small in this format.

The Hasbro reincarnation of Avalon Hill certainly has a strong identity as well. Beyond a mark which is contained on a black field, the brand makes use of two bars that intersect at the mark as containers for title and supplemental information. No matter what the size or proportion of the box, this will work. It is probably no coincidence that a division of the Hasbro giant have a mark that so dominates the box, even over the product brand. This is probably a sign that the proprietary devices of two bars are not effective enough. Indeed, they have been cluttered with information that is even allowed to violate the bars, such as the sticky in Betrayal. At other times, patterns such as in Robo Ralley dominate over the bars and ghosting such as in Battle Cry break down the cross bar effect. This aside, as a mass brand looking to dominate the crowded shelves, an overpowering logo certainly must have been a conscious thought.

For most publishers though, logo placement, box size and templating for the box sides are the only tools utilized in their program. Consequently, often times one needs to scan for the logo to recognize the publisher. Without assistance from a graphic system, a lone logo tends to seem more of an afterthought. Some examples can be seen below.

Days of Wonder benefits from a square box which is surprisingly unique – or, at least, very uncommon – in this category as far as I can see. Certainly Hasbro AH has square boxes as seen above. In general though, rectangular formats dominate this category. Beyond consistent use of box size and shape, logo size, logo placement and title placement, there is nothing proprietary about the covers. The illustration style is consistent, but because it looks like everything in this category, such consistency doesn’t help much. As for the square box, given the rate that new publishers are entering the market, it is only a matter of time that the box shape will loose its power. In that case, there will be little else definable here beyond a mark.

As an aside, square formats are difficult to work with in terms of imagery development. While the outer shape has an instant appeal, square images generally lack drama. This is because a square is a balanced, resolved shape. A rectangular image will naturally add a dynamic touch to images. Compare, for instance, normal TV screen proportions with the more extreme letterbox proportions. The sweeping landscape format initiates a dramatic composition by its very proportions in comparison to standard TV proportions.

While Ravensburger has a stronger mark than DoW in terms of shelf presence, there is no sense of common order or systematic detailing in the overall package. The mark’s use of a diagonal helps things considerably as it becomes a sort of violator that in no way blends into the box art. Whatever one thinks about the mark, at least it ties the products together in a small way. The overall effect here is not one of a collection of offerings that are part of a set. Remove the logo, and these games could be any publishers ... and often are.

Shared properties certainly can retain multiple publishers’ looks. This can simply be a matter of cropping and resizing an illustration to fit within different box proportions and working around any graphic devices a brand might use (like AH’s colored bars seen above). However, in cases where the print run and materials are common between two companies, a product will generally retain a single publisher’s proprietary branding while the second partner will tack on a logo to that look. This is to greatly control costs. Such is the case when Rio Grande runs with Alea, as an example. The box retains the Alea look and feel and gains or substitutes a RG logo for the RG products. Brandmark aside, in my head I am buying a RG product to complete my Alea collection. This because, as a consumer, I feel that I have purchased an Alea product. So strong is my identification with Alea through their proprietary branding.

Alea’s identity preserved across another brand. Either way, I feel like I’ve purchased an Alea game which is part of the Alea collection and not a RG product.

On the far end of the spectrum, we have a complete lack of proprietary identity with the Eagle Games productions. Here, Eagle did have a core box size for their signature productions, but strayed from this with coproductions and other situations. The difficult to read logo was not placed consistently and later simplified (perhaps for readability) as seen on RRT. The fact that the mark had no container (a box, circle or some other consistent background to contain it) makes the mark a harder read and seems more of an afterthought application. At times the mark is allowed a little play as seen in Attack! where it has been themed. While this is not necessarily a graphical “no no” in itself, great caution should be taken if a brand is to reinvent its mark based on theme. In this case, Eagle had no proprietary look to fall back on, which really hurts identification. Indeed, I might very well think Attack! were from another company if I were a newcomer to gaming. Whatever one may think of the former company, the lack of any uniform presentation looks sloppy as it lacks a professional, coherent look as a company unit. The end result here is a marked decrease in shelf scanability as one might look to seek out Eagle games. Such freeform application also undermines the satisfaction Eagle collectors might otherwise get from trying to collect them all – it seems less like a collection.
Finally, there is Splotter Spellen which has no visual template whatsoever – each game being it’s own entity. At times, their mark appearing hidden on the cover, but mostly not. As you can see below, there is no size, shape or formatting commonality at all. While I rather like some of their covers, including those below, there remains no proprietary elements that can help shelf scannability – not even a logo. The brand is the game and nothing more. While the highly informed can connect the games together, for most it is not evident that these products fall under the same publisher.

Were I not so informed, I would have no idea that these games came under the banner of one publisher. This is a missed opportunity in situations where the products might live together as there is no opportunity for brand loyalty for the uninformed.

The cover is more than an opportunity to impress. It can inform toward the nature of the game and this genre of games. It can infuse the community with a greater sense of pride in our hobby as well as attract others to it. It can be a tool to highlight a publisher’s full portfolio and encourage purchasing across it. Conscience attention to details which address these points can certainly serve publishers well as part of larger marketing plan.

– Mike