Caylus Board Development I

Continuing with the Caylus project for my personal investigation, I've begun laying out the board. This is preliminary and there are some incorrect details and incomplete art – but it's a start.

Firstly, let me say that the published edition of Caylus is just fine and I have no big issues with it. The information design on the tiles and board is quite good for such a complicated game. Also, particularly good for a game seeking language independence.

My first objective was to get the castle closer to the center of the board. This reason for this? Since this is a castle building game (with subsequent infrastructure development) I wanted to put this front and center. It also will create a nice visual focal point which is appealing to look at. From the castle, goes the building track. I loved the way in the original game that you follow the track across the different actions. I expand on this by ending the track back into the castle for the castle building phase. In this way, it is one simple explaination – simply follow the actions on the road – that's it.

The section building area corresponds to the favor track which is just below it. In this way, there is a direct connection between these as the game progresses from section to section. The favor rewards for castle sections are close to the building area where I believe it is more appropriate. I've also moved the turn order track right next to the stables for a direct connection there.

One thing I have noted with many boardgames is this focus on pictorial icons of buildings to represent purchases. It's a funny thing though. While this works quite well for computer games where you can see your city growing and being built, the effect is quite different in the boardgame. For the computer games, you really feel like you are looking at a town growing. For boardgames, because the symbols are confined to different tiles, I don't get a sense of a town so much. Additionally, the buildings all start to look alike and don't serve to communicate actions so well. So, in this version, I've compiled many buildings in a scene around the castle. It looks nice to me and has the Disneyland map effect, which is playful and entertaining to look at. In their place on the tiles, I will have other icons such as people and objects representing the actions drawn in medieval style. This further supports a medieval feel. Now, one might say that the original theme of building buildings along a road is more thematic, but I donno. When looking at the board with these tiles (which I did not include in this post), I feel the theme of visiting areas and conducting actions more than before. I don't feel building a building so much, but I do feel a more colorful liveliness of medieval activity.

There is something very gamery about having an outer track that you travel on – it feels good and understandable at a glance. This could be due to the fact that we have Monopoly burned in our brains and there is an association there. No matter though as it is pleasing.

Castle detail

Actual size detail

– Mike

Caylus Box Cover

Cover Detail

Created with an eye on medieval drawings, this cover is at once playful and serious. Bright colors, naïve medieval drawing qualities and sense of scale all deliver a fun look. Additionally, by wrapping the picture around the box, this playfulness is enhanced and invites the viewer to turn the box around and investigate the landscape on its sides. On the other hand, by antiquing the image, applying graphics very elegantly and using a rich color palette, we have a cover that offers a serious, adult look.

Flat view with 2 sides. The pictorial quality of the sides is a rewarding treat when seen on the shelf.

Spine: I really love the effect here on the shelf. This game looks fun. It is important to note that the spine has at least as prominent role as the cover in terms of shelf impact. This holds true both in crowded store environments where games are displayed by their sides or in the home.

I’ve created a band graphic that wraps completely around the box vertically (and onto the back) which tells the main story. This story starts after the title, wraps around the box and ends at the title. Again, a device that encourages the viewer to pick the box and explore it, turn it around, read more and perhaps move onto the game details next to the band on the back. I’ve not yet seen this done before on games, but I like it very much. It seems like anything that is compelling and well written can wind along this strip including rules summary. If rules were used for a game, it might help demonstrate how simple it is to play. At any rate, this band winds around the box as the Caylus road winds around the board.

I have the king larger than life pointing at his command – to build the castle. The medieval technique of drawing people larger than life in context has a distinctly cartoon look, much like those turn of the century political cartoons. I absolutely love this and the many narrative details that were used in medieval art – scrolls coming out of the mouth as talk bubbles for instance. Whenever possible in games of this period, I like to evoke this look. Again it tends to offer warmth, playfulness but have enough historical backing to be serious. In the process of creating this, I had planned to put workers with tools building the castle and city buildings. In the end, this got too busy and didn’t look as good, so I took them out. The king alone works fine with me as he is the one setting the challenge to build. I don’t really subscribe to the notion that a cover needs to tell all that a game is about. A cover can tease the viewer to find out more. It should have enough meaning to show context and highlight some point of the game. Beyond that, if the mood is right and it is attractive, it is a fine thing.

Initial quick sketch. Here the basic layout was mapped out with the king centered towering over the castle. You can also see the workers. While developing the art, it was becoming clear that all the workers were too much.

For me, this box could set comfortably on my coffee table or office desk. It has enough badge value to give me pride in my hobby and elevate it to more than simply a kid’s game.

– Mike

Flowerpower Cover

A guilty pleasure here doing this one. It’s hard to avoid an attractive cover with a subject like flowers. Colorful and fun, this is at once playful and sophisticated. Simpy showing flowers on the cover seemed too obvious. By turning the petals into letterforms, we have an unexpected twist. Type as image solves two communication elements in one stroke, which is satisfying. Simple colored sides contrast the complexity of the cover as well as its whiteness. Each side uses a different strong, bright color. Informal handwritten text echos the floral forms while speaking toward the simple informal nature of the game.

– Mike

Die Macher Box Cover

Enclosed artwork that I created for Die Macher. A game that commands such reverence and plays so seriously deserves a strong, arresting cover. Nothing terribly innovative in terms of the elements chosen. The check box was used in Hans Im Glück’s cover and the flag proposed in the upcoming version. I find though that quite often the final design solutions try too hard to get a point across. Here, we simply have a dramatic close up of the flag. Flags are emotional things by their very nature. Flags represent a country. No need to show much more here. It is passionate and says “Germany.” The checkbox is a commonly used icon in election campaigns. It is the combination of elements given proper scale and treatment that turn the ordinary into something of a higher level. This is one serious, serious box for a serious game.

– Mike

T&E Box Cover

Enclosed a box I created to correspond with the board I made as a set. I am a big believer of boxes that have a coffee table appeal. Badge appeal is very important. If there is indeed a general negative impression of adults who play games, then the games need to present themselves in new way. The covers need to match the revolutionary developments in game play – signal newness. These aren’t the trite games one grew up with but a whole new breed of products. Covers need to have a badge appeal that invites non gamers into our “club”. They need an appeal that we can stand behind and be proud of.

– Mike

Modern Art Preview IV

This is the fourth 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.

I hope you enjoy.

– Mike

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 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

T&E Board Development Part V

Below can be found final or near final art for this project. Since last posting, I’ve widened the gold river inlays for more pronouncation. Additionally, the starting temple icons were reduced to a more appropriate scale – they were too large. This was purely an aesthetic concern of mine.

I reduced all the tile chit sizes to what they need to be to properly fit within the board grid. Now, they fit comfortably within each grid square. The farmer icon was simplified to one livestock rather than three. It is now easier to spot and better looking. The king sword icon was also reduced in size just a little for a better look.

Overall, I’m very pleased. I seek out opportunities, when possible in my investigations, for fresher approaches to problems. Game titles are brands as much so as the publishers. Gameboards are ambassadors as much so as the covers. 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. Gameboard art serves many functions – which I will be writing about very shortly. As an ambassidor and visual representative of a brand, design decisions go beyond what helps play and what looks good to how the brand can stand out amongst the many. It concerns itself with how it can stand out both in the moment and in our memories for the next play and opportunity for another gamer to see.

– Mike

Game Art Gallery

I’ve consolidated all my game related art projects into one blog, indexed by projects for easier reference. This will serve as my portfolio and will the primary storehouse for all such activity. Named Mike Doyle’s Game Art Gallery, a link will also appear on the sidebar of this site.

– Mike

T&E Board Development Part IV

The lastest work is nearing final and can be seen below. The first image again is the board sans bits. I spent some time reducing the contrast of the background blue tiles which narrows the range of values. As you will see in the images to follow, by reducing background contrast, the bits will stand out more and will increase scanability.

You can see the difference between the new board and the old one in this image. While it may not be as nice looking on its own, it will serve well when the bits are added. It turns out the values are approximately where I started off with (in Part I of this series) but had later increased contrast for a little more drama.

Design is a series of decisions, none of which are black and white. Everything is a sliding scale. A minor adjustment can have major implications. This can be seen in game design as well. Add a card to a deck or an extra piece or another resource and a game can shift dramatically.

Below you can see the board with some new bits. Disaster and monument tiles (tile backs) have been added to the mix. Also a small icon for color blind added to leader tokens. After experimenting with the monument tiles, I found the original German board had a nice touch. This was to blend the tile into the background allowing the detailing to focus around the monument like a bulls-eye. Earlier experiments with monument tiles that have higher contrasting outer edges made the monument far too dominent. For the disaster tile, I've chosen to have it recess back behind the main board tiles – as if the earth there has been spoiled. There is so much going on in this game that it is good if some pieces can dominate and others recess.

Circles for leader tokens were a very good idea. The shape contrasts well from the other tiles making for an easier read.

Below, you can see the monument tiles. The gold forms a tight frame around the monument which makes a pleasing visual "ramp up" to the monument piece.

Below comparisons between this new board and the German and Mayfair editions.

I'll be taking another look at this tomorrow, but am pleased at the moment with the results.

– Mike

T&E Board Development Part III

Below the latest development on the board. I tend to agree with comments on the statues and it was something had been bothering me from the beginning. I believe that my rational for the stautes was to anchor the board to compensate for the deliberate flatness I had applied to the playing area. This flatness is necessary to help the pieces project. So, at this point, I've added a stone lion treatment to the center of the board. The contrast is minimal – though I might be adjusting this as I study the effects on the pieces. This lion gives a center mass / focal point that I was looking for with the statues. The borders have been scaled back to a more proportionate level and, as Greg had suggested, figures in the border now face out towards the players. I've added larger corner motifs as well which are oriented toward the players. The center lion's orientation does not bother me when upsidedown as it has been knocked back pretty far with low contrast.

I worked on the player markers. Symbols have more consolidated areas of color than previous publications to emphisize symbol form and color concentrations.

More work will continue on this, but it is getting closer to my satifaction.

- Mike