Design is about so much more than aesthetics — something software designers, especially user experience designers, have known for a very long time. In the analog gaming world, the discipline known as “user-centered design” is starting to come into its own as well, making games not only look good, but helping players understand what’s happening while they play.
Christian Strain, co-founder of Kraken Games, is a game designer, and also a graphic designer. He was recently hired by Cosmic Wombat Games to redesign the look of their game Campaign Trail. It had a good-looking board, and feedback on the gameplay was positive, but playtesting revealed that some elements were distracting, and players were having trouble finding some things that they needed to see.
Anyone who’s ever played different versions of the same game, published in different decades, will have seen the difference that changes in graphic design can have on a game. Sometimes they improve with subsequent revisions, and other times, abandoning simplicity in favor of splashy graphics and busy details can get in the way. One good example is the classic game Dungeon! by Dave Megarry. Compare an older version of the board, from the 1970s:
Strong colors, clear lines, and easy-to-read text keep a relatively complicated board easy to read and easy to navigate. No doubt some of the simplicity is due to the limitations of printing technology in the ’70s and ’80s, but the restraint forced by the times works well for players. Comparatively, here is a later edition, published in 2012:
It’s a richer, more detailed design. The question of whether the older or newer version is better-looking is subjective, and reasonable people could perfer the aesthetics of either one over the other. Gameplay is a different matter, however. On the new board, three dimensional tromp l’oeil has been used throughout, with shadows, lighting effects, realistic stone passages, more subtle color differences, and typeography that blends into its surroundings. As a result, more time is spent looking carefully to see what’s going on, and the game itself is affected. (Note — another edition by Wizards of the Coast in 2014 began to address some of the readibility issues, while at the same time introducing new art styles.)
When redesigning Campaign Trail, Christian Strain looked at everything from the colors used to the placement of icons to the layout of the board. One example of how he used graphic design to improve gameplay was around the way players could tell which states had airports they could fly into. In the original design, it was easy for the playing pieces to obscure vital information like the plane icons that indicated airports on the board. Here’s how Christian solved the problem:
In the new design, I located all plane icons in the exact same place, top left of the banner. This banner is typically exposed as much as possible because it contains all the valuable information of that state. Now, when a user wants to know if Kansas has a plane icon, they just look in that top-left spot.
Software design has seen a seismic shift in the past few years, from the photorealistic style of early Apple iPhone apps now refered to as “skeuomorphism” to the flat design favored initially by Google, and now nearly ubiquitous, from the Material Design language of Android to the tiles of Windows 10, to Apple itself. Does that mean board games will soon abandon elements like realistic mountain ranges on maps in favor of abstract solids? Not necessarily. There’s fun to be had in the details, whether whimsical or ultra-realistic. A game isn’t the same thing as a business app on a phone. But there are lessons to be learned from the world of user-centered design, and ways to apply the rules of usability, while keeping the fun.
Read about the design process behind the art for Campaign Trail in Christian Strain’s article on League of Gamemakers.