Are you a budding professional in the industry? Are you wondering if the effort and costs of attending these events are worth it? In this blog I share my thoughts on it and offer some pros and cons you may want to consider before attending your next con.
Families, like tabletop games, come in all shapes and sizes. The larger they get, the more diverse their members tend to be, yet despite this diversity, each one of them bears traits that tie them together like green eyes or blonde hair which make them recognizable as kin. Rather than let nature and DNA take its course, when designing for board games, we must rely on our creative ability to manufacture these ‘family traits’ so that when everything is laid out on the table, there is no denying that all of the components belong to the same game.
These days, it’s all too easy to keep your designs strictly digital. The benefits of printing out your design iterations can’t really be oversold, we’re making a printed product after all! Periodically producing hard copies of your components and laying them out on a table as they’d be in a game will give you a better sense of size, orientation, colour, how well the components play together and how well they carry the overall style and theme of the game.
Depending on their function in the game, components may (by design) have a distinctly different visual appearance than other components. In cases like these, it’s even more vital that we sew the seeds of kinship into them. One thing I do when starting on a new game, is create a sort of mini style guide for how I’m going to handle visuals throughout the game. In this style guide, I define things like typographic style, iconography, visual tone, and a colour palette. Once I’ve got these nailed down, I can easily apply these styles to each of the components as I design them. Furthermore it gives me a clearly defined structure upon which to construct the components.
There’s an obvious benefit to creating a style guide for your game: all your components will play nicely together, aesthetically speaking that is. But are there some less-obvious benefits to doing so as well? You bet there are. Even though we may not be consciously aware of it, our eyes pick up on little things that, if done poorly, can interfere with comprehension or usability…or in my case just really irk me. We’ve talked about how creating a typographic style can help unify the look of your components, well, we can enhance that sense of cohesiveness by establishing set type sizes for different uses throughout your game. For example, you’ve got 4 different types of cards, each of which have a different purpose, but all have similar text elements like title, ability, and numerical stat values. Unless it’s physically impossible, I try to standardize these common elements. In terms of designing our 4 card types, let’s say we make the titles 16-point Shackleton Condensed, the abilities 10-point Termina Regular, and the stat values 14-point Termina Heavy. Barring any outside interference, we can be fairly certain that the legibility across all card types is now pretty consistent. (All of these typefaces, btw, can be found at Fort Foundry, by Mattox Shuler. Do yourself a favour and check ‘em out!)
One shining example of a successful game-wide style application (or in this case across two games) is Brass published by Roxley Games. Roxley flawlessly creates a style that firmly embeds you in the industrial revolution of the 19th century. A clearly visible style can be observed throughout each of the two games; Brass: Lancashire and Brass: Birmingham. Beyond that, even the campaign page of the Kickstarter offering is beautifully crafted to immerse you in the theme.
Another ‘not-so-obvious’ plus to establishing a style guide for your game is incorporating or adhering to a corporate/brand. One publisher that immediately jumps to mind is Red Raven Games. We all know a Red Raven game when we see it. Part of this has to do with the fact that most (if not all) of the games are done by one illustrator; Ryan Laukat. More than that, there’s a distinct common style to several other elements that Ryan employs on Red Raven games. This does a great job of unifying the brand offering and from a design perspective, there’s a lot less guess work that needs to be put into creating the style for that particular title. That is not to say that there aren’t also benefits to straying from the corporate brand, but this needs to be done with forethought and intent in order for it to still look professional.
All of this to say, whether it’s blatantly obvious or a little on the subtle side, applying a game-wide visual style to your game will not only give it more table-appeal, but will likely also enhance playability. Continuing to refine your process and defining what ‘style guide’ means to you will help you put forth a more visually consistent, well-designed product and probably increase your productivity too!
As I write this post, the clocks are rolling over to the New Year and I find myself, as many do, looking back on the past 12 months. 2018 represented a ton of new things for me, I was entering the new year as a full-time entrepreneur as I have done on occasion before, but this time was different. Instead of taking any (and all) work from a variety of industries that came my way, I would focus on one industry in particular. An industry that I have become quite enamoured with on both a personal and professional level over the last 5 years: Tabletop Games.
It all started with a colleague of mine. He was into ‘board games’ and asked if I would like to come to his place one weekend for a game day. Immediately (as so many people who are not up on modern tabletop games do) my mind went to the tired old Ameri-trash titles like Monoploly, The Game of Life, etc.. I thanked him for the offer but said, “No thanks”. Fast-forward to a year later, he offered again. This time, I decided to take him up on his offer. Well, suffice it to say, my life changed that day. After 10 hours of learning how to play these all-new ‘modern’ board games, I left his place my head spinning and completely exhausted, but thoroughly content. I found a new hobby. Over the next while, I began to grow my collection and even scheduled game nights of my own and eventually started to create my own player aids. After a year or so, I decided that if I was able to create accessories for my friends and I, why not do it for real? I had the background in print design, I knew the ‘ins and outs’ of preparing files for print to avoid manufacturing hiccups, I had the professional experience to handle myself and make good impressions on clients who may be used to working with moonlighters or weekend warriors. “OK”, I thought, “Let’s do this.”
The joy I get from working on Tabletop Games is really more than should legally be permitted. They say that if you really enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I can verify the validity of this statement. Every single publisher that I have met in this industry has been a fount of generosity and kindness. The gaming industry by nature is incredibly inclusive and welcoming which makes it that much more enjoyable to find work in.
In the past year, I have attended a few of industry conventions, spent a week at a client retreat working on game prototypes and their corporate brand, and had the privilege of contributing to the creation of several new games! If 2019 is half as fun and rewarding as 2018 has been, I will be a happy camper.
I am extremely thankful to be where I am and to those who helped me get here. From friends, to colleagues and of course clients; your help, support and patronage have been incredible! I am truly grateful and look forward to fostering those relationships in 2019.
Now that I am here, expect to see big things from me ;)
Happy New Year.
It was Summer, 2001. I was serving tables at a few restaurants while picking up as much freelance work as I could, while trying to make ends meet. Back then for me, freelance gigs were pretty scarce. My network was undeveloped, and I had virtually no rep. I had just left a company and was looking for my next full-time job.
At that time, Web design represented the lion’s share of what people were looking for from their graphic designers...well, that was my experience anyway. It was pretty much a wild west when it came to standards and practices. New technologies were popping up all over the place, Macromedia Flash (before Adobe bought them) was still a very big deal as well.
I had landed a few interviews and felt pretty good about my chances, but one common thread was that in every interview, I was asked if I was able to do <insert emerging technology here>. I quickly found myself in a bit of a pickle. Do I say, “No” and risk the job being awarded to a ‘more qualified’ candidate? Or possibly worse, do I say “Yes”, and risk not being able to pull it off? If memory serves, it was a little bit of column ‘A’, and a little column ‘B’. In the end, I’m a pretty quick study and was able to get by, learning what I needed to from books and web searches.
Fast Forward 10 years, I’m sitting in an interview at a high-tech firm and it happened again. This time, I’m sporting a little more grey, and a lot more experience. Over the last decade, I had become well acquainted with “Matt Paquette, Graphic Designer”, and was very familiar with what my strengths and weaknesses were. So when I was asked if I had a certain skill (IIRC, it was programming in JQuery), I said, “No, actually I don’t.”, they quickly followed up with “would you be willing to learn”, to which I replied, “No”. Then went on to explain that programming is a very different skill set than what I do, and they’d probably be best hiring someone on an ad hoc basis when the need arises.
For whatever reason, I didn’t land the job. But more importantly, this was a pivotal moment in my professional life. I had started to make the shift from the fledgling designer, who was willing to do or try absolutely anything (regardless of it’s relevance to my skill set) to a confident professional who is aware of where their skills lie and equally as important, where they do not. This self-realization has since been a touch stone for me when speaking to colleagues and clients. Our conversations revolve around how my skill set can best solve their problems. I truly believe that being honest with yourself (and other) about what your limits are is integral to making a good product. That is not to say that you should never push your limits. I try to take some time every day to learn something...even it it’s just for a few seconds.
My career path over the last decade has migrated from graphic design for High-Tech to Museums to now Tabletop Games and even more so now, I find myself conflicted about who I am professionally and what I feel I need to be good at. Tabletop games are filled with lots of fun visual themes and elements, all of which would be a blast to illustrate and paint. As a graphic designer, I could no doubt benefit from having better illustration or digital painting kung-fu, and through practice, those goals can eventually be attained; until that day, it’s important to know what I bring to the table and be confident in my ability to do so. It benefits no one to take a job where I lack the skills to effectively complete it. It wastes time and ends up reflecting poorly on me and my professional reputation. When I’m in the role of client, I much prefer a straight shooter who has a handle on what they can and can’t do so I can manage my expectations or if need be find another supplier who can get the job done. It’s as simple as that. Now, where was this knowledge 20 years ago? :)
Thanks for reading.
The term “Work Smarter, Not Harder” may be cliché, but it rings true. Establishing a solid, easy to follow workflow will maximize your productivity and creativity.
There are some very useful techniques that can really help us attain these goals. Here are a few things that I do when creating an accessible rulebook that flows well.
Good design, better yet, GREAT design should invisible, often not even memorable because it does what it's meant to do; enhance gameplay. When we experience bad design on the other hand, its quickly etched into our permanent memory. It's clumsy nature gets in the way and can often inhibit the natural flow of the game.
Graphic design of something as functional as a tabletop game is as much user experience as it is aesthetic, if not more. Architect Louis Sullivan's axiom, "form follows function" describes a principle which states that the purpose of a thing should be the starting point for it's design. Later, Frank Lloyd Wright evolved the axiom to "Form and Function are One". Sullivan and Wright were of course, speaking of buildings, but I firmly believe that this holds equally true for the design of anything.
When it comes to tabletop games, the game card is likely the most common component used; for several reasons. They're cheap to produce and they can be easily designed...or can they?! ;) There are so many GREAT examples of games that have stunning cards, but when it comes to gameplay, they seem fall a bit short. I'm always looking for new ways to enhance gameplay through well-designed components. So, when I encounter something done well, I make note of it and look for opportunities to incorporate it in my own work.
Whether you're a game designer creating prototypes, or a graphic designer working on a client's game, the principles and workflows are pretty much the same when it comes to thoughtfully laying out your game cards. This workflow can be separated into three distinct phases:
- Data Collection & Analysis
- Wireframing & Design
Data Collection & Analysis
How many times have you worked for hours in Photoshop to come up with the perfect card design, only to get it into InDesign and run into problems because you didn't leave enough space for the longer text items or failed to leave space for an icon that only appears on a couple of cards? We've all been there, but there are ways to avoid these "D'oh" moments if you do a little research and planning.
First thing to do is talk to the client and ask for their card content data. This is usually some sort of spreadsheet that has all the content items like ability text and values nicely laid out in grid form. The game designer may claim that it isn't final, but nevertheless, it will still give you a good idea of what elements are required and how large the containers need to be.
The first thing I do when blocking out the design for a card is to analyze the data and identify the longest values for each of the card elements so I can construct a 'Frankenstein' card. This Frankenstein card represents the the most content a card could possibly have which forces me to create text areas and numerical values badges large enough to accommodate the content values for any card without having to resize or rearrange items due to text overflow.
Wireframing & Design
OK, so we know what actors need to be on the stage, and how much walking around room they need. Next up is wireframing; assigning placement and prominence to the content items on the card in order to maximize gameplay and minimize snags.
So often, the process goes something like this: the game designer creates the prototype, art is commissioned, THEN, the cards are designed. This frustrates me to no end. If we take a page from Louis Sullivan's book, the design of a thing is superseded by it's function. How can art be commissioned if the framework for which the art will be placed in hasn't yet been created? Doesn't make sense does it?! This is why I try to get in on a project as early as possible so we can get the design as close to done as we can before art is created. The results are stunning cards with killer art that looks like it was made specifically for the card frame and not adapted to fit.
There's a pecking order to the data elements on a card. That is to say, some data elements are meant to be given more weight than others. This is often referred to as 'hierarchical design'. Designers use several characteristics to help guide the player through the information in a specific and intentional manner. These characteristics can take the form of size, colour, location, or a combination of the three. Take, for example one of the monster cards from Arkham Horror: The Card Game.
Right away, my eyes are drawn to two things: the card title, and the numerical values in the coloured areas. Next, I drift down to the bolded text, and finally the ability in the center text area. As the top attention getter, the title is both the largest font size and at the top of the card. Next up, the numerical values right below it are again in a large font and are also laid upon coloured badges.
Let's head on down to the bottom of that attention getting scale now. The bottom of this card is reserved for a bunch of items laid out in a tiny font that describes the artist's name, copyright info, and card numbering (unique ID and quantity of this card, etc.). Based on it's location and size, we can assume that while required to be present somewhere on the card, this information is not as important to the player as other elements are.
I think the designer did a fantastic job of using size, colour and location to guide the player through the information. It can make a big difference in terms of what the reader will look to first, and if done poorly, may cause lag to the flow of the game.
User Experience (UX)
Now here's a term that we're seeing an awful lot of lately. It's not a new concept, but it's become quite the buzz term. When designing for tabletop games, UX is something that we need to devote some attention to. Simply put, 'User Experience' considers the player's emotions, attitudes, and motivations when designing. Looking at a player's typical interactions in a game and asking yourself 'why' the player is doing something and then making design decisions to specifically address these motivations will result in a thoughtful design that 'feels right' to the player, and creates a natural flow to the game.
Layered with user experience is the concept of ergonomics. There are some well-established standards when it comes to card design that users expect to see and if they're not done correctly, it can throw the game off.
For instance, if the game calls for cards to be fanned in the player's hand, perhaps it makes sense to put vital information in the top-left corner. If cards are to be played on the table for all to see, then it might be a good idea to enlarge the text or make the card double-ended so that others needn't crane their heads just to read it. Look at the flow of the game turn, and how the different elements on the card are referenced and in what order and use common sense to determine what you'd look in card design as a player to facilitate gameplay. Nobody enjoys having to dart back and forth, from top to bottom or opposite corners just to perform some simple consecutive actions that would be made so much easier if the elements were grouped together.
Use your space wisely, don't be afraid to spread the elements out and make good use of the space. Crowding elements together can make things difficult to read or decipher. Give them their own space so they can be easily referred to and evaluated.
Most of the time, this is the main communication tool on cards. Job one is making the text readable, from there we can tweak style and feeling. I talk a lot about this in another post, but here's the Coles notes version:
- Use easy to read typefaces for body text. Thematic fonts are great, but use them sparingly as they are often more difficult to read.
- If you need to shrink the size of your text, adjust the tracking and leading accordingly.
- Ensure that there is enough contrast between the text and the background it lies upon.
- Leave adequate gutters around your text. Avoid running your text right up to a frame or another element. Crowding text is cumbersome and hard to read.
think outside the box
There's no hard and fast rule that says game cards need to be a specific size or shape. If the 63x88mm rectangular card size you're using for your design isn't working for you, change it! Make it landscape instead of portrait, circular or square instead of rectangular, whatever serves to elevate play. Don't be confined by the norms, explore the abnormal with passion. With today's printing technology, virtually anything is possible.
You've planned, you've wireframed, and you've designed. Now, you're all set to produce these bad boys. I've seen people lay cards out in Photoshop or Illustrator, or even non-adobe apps like sketch-up. Unfortunately, when it comes to laying out a multiple page document, none of those apps are really that practical in my experience.
Adobe InDesign makes the process of laying out cards and other components a simple and organized process. InDesign's data merge tool allows you to take that spreadsheet you created with all your card data and generate the individual cards, graphics and all with ease. Using data merge means that from card to card, every element will be in the same place, use the same styles and have the same colouring and effects applied to them. No need to perform the same routine over and over again for each card, or duplicate pages to ensure you have the same layout, it's all done for you.
Once you've got the basics of data merge down, it's time to create your template in InDesign from your card design. Here are some guidelines that I follow when creating card templates in Adobe InDesign:
Create paragraph and character styles BEFORE creating the data merge. You'll be happy you did. Leave no text unstyled! All that planning you did comes in handy, but it only goes 90% of the way, you can't plan for things like client alterations, or how the text will interact with certain pieces of art. In addition to text styles, InDesign allows you to style other things like tables, and objects. For instance, if you want to add a drop shadow to icons, do it in InDesign with an object style instead of on the source file, should you ever want to change, all you need to do is adjust the style in InDesign rather than modify every single one of the icon files.
- Layer it Like an Onion
Personally, I find it a little too messy and cumbersome when everything is on one or two layers. At the very least I try and group like objects on layers together. For instance all text on one layer, frame on another, and background images on yet another. Ideally though, I prefer to have a layer for each element. It allows for greater control when editing items on the card, you can lock other layers while only editing the elements you want.
- Spacing Matters
Most of the printers these days are pretty spot on when it comes to print registration (aligning prints to cut lines), so this may not be as much of an issue as it used to be, but I feel it's necessary nonetheless. Leave at least 3 or 4 millimeters gutter between any text or icons and the card edge. Also try to avoid using any elements that run closely along the card edge like a card border. Any slight shift in printing will draw the player's attention to the misalignment and may reflect poorly on the design.
- GREP Styles
GREP styles allow you to do things like automatically apply styles to specific phrases or words, swap out text strings for something else or a multitude of other neat operation that, depending on the size of your deck, may take ages to painstakingly go through and format by hand. Setting these up may take a little more time and effort, but 'a stitch in time saves nine' or so they say :) Ultimately it can be a tremendous time-saver.
Awesome! Time to run the data merge. Once you've got the merged document created, it's time to go through it and spot-check to make sure everything went as planned. From here you can tweak it as needed and voila! Job done. Ready for client viewing.
This is only a brief look at card design, but hopefully it gives you a preliminary insight into what a little planning and thought can do to create cards that are easy to use, easy to read and promote efficient gameplay. Happy designing!
Turns out, I was a touch too ambitious in my blogging schedule. Working a booth the entire day then networking in the evening doesn't leave a whole lot of time for sitting down with a glass of <insert favourite beverage here> and your laptop, capturing your thoughts from the con.
That said...WOW, what an amazing time I had. This was only my second year, but my first year as a full-time, self-employed designer. And boy, what a difference it made! I had the opportunity to meet SO MANY wonderful people in the industry; publishers, game designers, graphic designers or artists, you name it, everyone was such a delight to meet and connect with.
This was also a great opportunity to meet in-person, several colleagues & clients that up until this past week, I'd only had the chance to meet 'virtually'. There really is no substitute for pressing the flesh and finally getting too meet face to face.
One big difference this year is that I got to see so many of the games that I worked on in action. The Thunderstone Quest table was always 3-deep in spectators, as was Scorpius Freighter, both by AEG.
From there, I headed over to the Brotherwise booth to check out Call to Adventure. Wow, what a table presence that game has. I can only imagine what it'll look like when the playmat and player boards get printed! (Psst. You still have a few days to back it on Kickstarter!).
Unfortunately, my inaugural game with Tasty Minstrel Games, "Embark" didn't make it to Gen Con this year, but perhaps it'll make an appearance at one of the later cons like PAX Unplugged or Essen. Either way, I'm excited to get my hands on it.
All in all, I had an amazingly great time. What a different experience than last year. Coming to GEN CON this year, a little more seasoned in the ways of the industry and knowing a few more people really made it feel like a week-long get together with some really great and welcoming friends, who are only too willing to share their love of games and the industry with anyone who is willing to listen.
Looking forward to the next time we meet...
I have only been to Gen Con once before, and that was as an employee for a museum. While I had a great time and learned a great deal, the experience was undoubtedly a different one than the one I'll experience this time 'round.
This year, I'm 100%, all the way, a self-employed graphic designer. The only objectives I have to strive toward are wholly my own. Last year's con was in a word "Overwhelming". The crowds, the constant din, the go, go, go-edness of it all was a little too much for me to take. In retrospect, however, I believe that last year was a necessary exercise. The experience I gained at Gen Con 50, fumbling around in the dark really helped me get a feel for the event and how I could interact with it going forward as a freelancer.
Here's a multi-part blog on my experiences this year at Gen Con.
After a gruelling drive from Ottawa, we arrived in town late last night. I had dreams of meeting up with friends and colleagues, but those were quickly dashed by exhaustion and common sense.
Up at 7:30, raring to go! 10:00, we leave for breakfast. Last year I found a great breakfast spot, Cafe Patachou, and couldn't wait to kick-off this year's con-going experience with a hearty "most important meal of the day", LOL. Seriously, though...amazing omelettes, wonderful bread, and sweet homemade preserves (although, personally I think I prefer Gingham Wisdom preserves more, but I'm probably biased :O ).
On to the booth setup for Wonderment Games, makers of Quodd Heroes. We've got a 10x10 booth this year. Set up isn't going to take all day (or two) like the ginormous Upper Deck or Paizo booths. The Wonderment booth is eye-catching with it's beautiful back-lit backdrop (how's that for alliteration?!) and the game will be stunning as well when set up.
Couple of meetings and then preparations for the deluge to come. Gen Con 2018, do your worst.
Stay tuned for Day 2 commentary.
Live and die by the brand. Is your brand being represented in a consistent and professional manner across all channels? Here are a few thoughts that may help you ensure that what you put out there is speaking a unified visual message.
Art direction advice for non-creatives…
First in an ongoing series of posts about design in general and in the tabletop game industry.