I’ve been threatening to do this for a while. And by “threat,” I mean that I will ramble along in streams of conscious thought of something which I know very little about. So here it goes.
Typically artwork is the final element added to a board game’s production life. Mainly because it can be expensive, takes time and generally isn’t integral to a game’s mechanics. One can develop a concept, create a prototype and playtest a design with art, illustrations or pictures nowhere near the final concept that the designer or publisher may have in mind. Or without anything at all! Indeed many times during a design’s gestation period the rules and mechanisms are rethemed or applied to a completely new setting from that originally conceived. Even when finished, a game could be illustrated with clipart or photographs. Basically, a game doesn’t need artwork. It just needs rules.
Some would even argue that graphic design is more important than what we think of as traditional artwork. You can have outstandingly technical and expressive illustrations that are an eyesore because the design’s communication is poor. Graphic design involves the game’s layout so that everything is clearly delineated, readable and formatted. It’s important to convey information so that the interface is usable and hopefully the rules and mechanisms are intuitive for players. Yes, it can include artwork, but also text and icons and board spaces. Graphic artists can accomplish that without any emotive illustrations. Lacking such may prove less immersive, but can still effectively guide the players as necessary.
Despite all of that, there is little denying that artwork and illustrations significantly enhance a design’s setting and theme. And while, yes, it’s so much rolling dice and pushing cardboard, effective art helps to engage players in the world the design hopes to portray. The irony is that illustrations must serve both an aesthetic and functional aspect. The function is achieved partly through appropriate graphic design, but also how the artwork conveys the game’s language consistently, yet unobtrusively. It must complement gameplay while not getting in the way. That’s what’s so interesting to me in analyzing a game’s artwork or illustrations. They must concede that the rules are primary. At the same time, they play no small part in world building.
Of course, art is very personal in how we perceive it – and how it’s created. What beauty that catches the eye of one beholder barely registers a nod from another. It’s all subjective. Even defining What is art? can be nebulous. That’s what makes it beautiful. And this doesn’t even begin to address the idea of board games as works of art, in themselves. What about the pieces and tokens? Can they be art, too? A game is a creation. In that sense, to me it is a work of art. Some can even inspire, elicit emotion and offer commentary. But those broader implications are beyond the scope of this Top 10 list.
Not that inspiration, emotion and commentary have no impact on my selections. It’s just that overall I’ve narrowed my focus to one simple consideration: these are board games illustrations, from my collection or that I’ve previously owned, that I would want to frame and hang on the wall. And it is subjective. Some are included because they function well within the game or effectively immerse players thematically. More likely, those attributes were used to break ties.
As I intimated to begin with, the caveat here is that I have no background in art, art history or anything related. I draw stick figures poorly. While I enjoy many types and styles, I can’t explain them technically or describe schools or types of art forms. So none of that critique here. I’m one of those nincompoops that call any shade of red red, and look at a Picasso and say, “Huh?” To be sure, I do appreciate games with cartoony illustrations (The Grizzled), more realistic representations (7 Wonders), MMO videos style (Imperial Settlers), faux historical look (Fidelitas), licensed images (Marvel, Star Trek, Star Wars) and other unique work (Villainous Vikings, Chronicle). So while there may not be any discernable style in this list, the bottom line is I simply find them striking. Whether that be for their expressiveness, color, uniqueness or whatever, this is art I would pull out of my games, frame and hang on the wall. Then again, all of these artists and illustrators are professionals who already sell their work to display, anyway!
Apotheca (Andrew Federspiel, Knapsack Games and Renegade Game Studios) is essentially a cardboard version of the popular Match-3 digital apps that you can find on any device. So despite the amazing artwork, it’s an abstract game that could be set to literally any setting with any illustrations. But what amazing artwork it is! Eduardo Garcia, or Del Cid as the Spaniard is known, has only worked on one other game, Lagoon: Land of the Druids (2014). So his work may be refreshing.
His creativity in illustrating the game’s apothecaries give the abstract nature a fantasy, and sometimes crazy, vibe. The apothecaries give players variable powers and Del Cid’s imagination instills vibrancy and life into them. Beyond that, the feel of his work often appears as if he paints (digitally, but whatevs) his subjects in the dark with a light shining on them. Or like a picture takes a photo of someone with a flash in the night. The central figure is bright, as is his/her immediate surrounding while the background and edges faded darker and darker. It’s a striking image.
The Card Game of Oz
Portraying an existing and popular world setting can be difficult. Portraying the real one is even harder. 1939’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was certainly colorful and full of life. The movie and almost everything in it are not just Hollywood lore, but American icons. Yet it was not completely faithful to Frank Baum’s book. James C. O’Conner’s The Card Game of Oz is so intertwined with Baum’s narrative that you can almost rewrite the entire book with the cards!
Of course that means the artwork already begins at odds with our popular conception of the Land of Oz. We already know what it looks like thanks to MGM. But fans of all of Baum’s fourteen books transporting us through his extraordinary universe will delight in the collected illustrations here. The artists do an incredible job bringing to life all of the story that the musical neglected. There are some better than others, of course, particularly with characters that aren’t quite realistic looking. Yet overall, the images are just as colorful as was Judy Garland and amazingly cohesive across the set, despite the variety of talent and style assembled to produce this unique title.
Citadels (2016 edition)
When a new edition of an old title is released, one of the aspects compared, contrasted and debated between the two versions is the artwork. And it can drive gamers into two camps like a political issue splits an electorate. Okay, so I exaggerate for effect. Still, it creates buzz in the forums between the old schoolers who live and die by the original art and those that prefer the fresh change. Citadels is a role selection, city-building game. But really it’s a role selection game. It’s about interaction, guessing, bluffing and second-guessing. Building your city districts is a means to measure how well you’re doing at intrigue.
In such a minimalist design, what the cards look like is essentially moot. Yet they do provide context, as well as an opportunity to display some wonderful art at the same time. The first edition’s illustrations were fine, but I always found them a bit dour and serious. Perhaps that mood fits the game’s theme more precisely? But also it seemed as if it didn’t take advantage of the complete color spectrum. Overall Bosley and Eckert imbue the second edition with a cheerier tone full of more realism, and amazing technical skill and attention to detail. I’m uncertain to what extent each illustrated which parts, but their work is more akin to traditional paintings. It may not do anything for the game mechanically or thematically, but it’s arresting to behold while you’re planning to stab someone in the back.
As with Citadels, Matt Leacock’s cooperative family game is fairly minimalist. Aside from the amazing treasure sculpts, art only graces the island tiles. Even the role cards display basic instructions with a generic symbol. Hopping from tile to tile, players search for treasure cards in order to collect the four prizes in a race against time before the island sinks.
The design successfully builds a pulpy narrative of mystery and adventure and Canga’s illustrations reinforce that atmosphere. It may not be as immersive as what other work has achieved in board games, but every location seems to hold a secret of its own. Each title has a unique personality, even to the extent of flirting with monochrome as most tend to heavily favor one color and it’s hues. Individually the locales are frame-worthy. Arranged for gameplay to form your island they are quite stunning.
Sometimes choosing a setting for a design will preclude a certain style or look. This is often the case with historical subject matter, though designers are certainly not restrained to any such rule (see below). And Dominique Erhard’s Illiad isn’t one hundred percent historical. Still, his elaborate rock-paper-scissors style combat card game based on the legendary Trojan War pays homage to the historical period from which the story emerged.
McCambridge only has two credits to his work in the hobby and those from more than a decade ago. His work here is perhaps the most realistic style on this list with correctly-proportioned characters, animals and war machines – and one scary looking Gorgon. And they are done talentedly. The sober color palette bathed in predominantly reds, browns and grays imbues them with a visceral earthiness that I think fits the intimately brutal nature of Greek warfare. And his attention to detail with subjects of limited scope is impressive.
Georges Bouchelaghem, Xavier Gueniffey Durin
Many times I find that a game’s artwork represents its mood, rather than setting or theme. Such is the case with Bruno Faidutti’s (and others’) Isla Dorada. Sensibly about exploring for treasure, this unique design is a mad and chaotic romp that will have your head spinning. That’s because all players are members of the same expedition represented by one pawn. But everyone wants to go to different places!
As Durin’s first project in board gaming, his illustrations exude that sense of whimsy with caricatured depictions of explorers, creatures and natives (French games seem to excel at the latter!). The brightness, choice of color and odd subject matter combine to create an unpretentious atmosphere that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That nicely complements a game which can strategically spiral out of control pretty much as soon as the expedition starts off.
Then there is always the mix of history and artificiality. I don’t know, perhaps realism is more difficult, not as fun or dampens expression? In any event, Kenjin is a simple card game set in Feudal Japan where players try to win battles by mustering more strength at various locations. It could have taken place in any time period. Japan’s as good as any. The battlefields are rather generic – no actual Japanese place names – as are the units, other than the requisite samurai.
Biboun, a recently productive illustrator in the hobby, flourishes with the material here. His landscapes and locales are idyllic and realistic. But unlike the visceral grittiness of McCambridge’s combat game Iliad, he portrays his characters in an insouciant unnaturalness that doesn’t realistically mesh with its setting. But that allows players to distance themselves from the subject matter and theme. As a result Kenjin is likely lighter and more accessible. For this combat game’s weight and complexity, it is understandable. Regardless, Biboun is a fantastic artist. You should definitely check out his web site and other outstanding work.
Miguel Coimbra, Édouard Guiton, Florent Maudoux
If you follow us regularly here at the ‘Dragon, you might be surprised to find this the only Steampunk work on my list. There is a layered response to that. It starts with the point that I find most Steampunk games don’t adequately capture the spirit of the genre. That includes artwork. Rather, the style is applied most often simply because it “looks cool” and as a result the illustration and artwork seems disconnected from play. Mission: Red Planet, one of the stronger Steampunk designs – and my favorite game of all time – does better, but isn’t as judicious with illustrations as I think it should be, relegated exclusively to the role cards. And then each player has an identical set, at that.
Yes, much of all that applies to Mad Zeppelin, too. Yet I can’t divert my eyes from the bizarre and arresting creations. I won’t delve into the game, because it’s not a very good one, though it can still be fun. At least it bears the genre’s proclivity to thumb its nose at convention. While credited to a few individuals, the bulk of talent seems to stem from Édouard Guiton, if only from its resemblance to Magnifco, which he illustrated alone. It’s compellingly expressive in a dark and whimsical way, like if Tim Burton got into Steampunk. Besides, I need to include Steampunk in this list one way or another.
Onward to Venus
While some design’s concentrate purely on rules, mechanisms, setting and/or theme and consider the actual artwork and/or artists later in the process, Martin Wallace’s Onward to Venus and Greg Broadmore’s world of Dr. Grordbort seems as if they were intertwined from the start. Destiny. It could be that Wallace conceived his design of solar colonization before discovering Broadmore’s bold world. But at whatever point he chose the Grordbort setting, Broadmore’s artwork was packaged with the deal.
While it appears Steampunk at first blush, Broadmore’s creative brush is a mix of retro sci-fi, atomicpunk and Victorianism. For most people, though, you might as well lump all four together. What strikes me most about his vision is the melding of fiction and historical commentary. With an eye clearly on the past, Broadmore talentedly creates an imaginary narrative replete with colonial images of gleefully suppressing natives and rapaciously extracting resources while wantonly destroying the landscape and its indigenous life. Its biting satire is technically sound and will elicit more than passing emotion and comment.
Many times a game’s setting could be just about anything. In which case I secretly hope the designer gives the artist large leeway in creating the world. Via Nebula is another Wallace design with a very different setting and impression. It’s strictly a pick-up and deliver design. Nothing heavy or taxing, but smart and brisk. A completely casual experience. So while the art in Onward to Venus is emotively acute, nothing of the sort is expected of Via Nebula. And again, the possible settings it could occupy are legion.
Joubert is a relative newcomer to the hobby with only a few credits to his stint in board games. In Via Nebula, his creations tilt to the cartoony style, with loud ornamentation and zany proportion. Perhaps it’s just a warmer vibe than Coimbra’s similarly expressive caricatures in Mad Zeppelin? I find it visually appealing nonetheless. With the illustrations largely consigned to the cards, the talent here also doesn’t have a significant impact on player immersion. Still, it’s consistent and complementary throughout. You can imagine the people Joubert draws actually building the structures he drew along with them. His work is fun, florid and vibrant, even loud. Yet it doesn’t hijack the design’s eloquent mechanics. And what more can a designer ask of an artist or illustrator?
(Sources of images: Illustrations are from publishers’ or artists’ web sites…only because getting them that way is way prettier than what I can capture on scanner or camera!)