When it comes to tabletop games, good art direction can elevate the title to great things, and conversely poor art direction may, in fact, be a prominent nail in it's coffin. The role of creative or art director on a project often falls on the shoulders of a classically trained artist with 20 years of experience, but just as often, it's a hat worn by the project manager or some other team member who may not have that artistic background and experience. I find the latter describes how many smaller publishers operate; several people wearing several hats.
As a graphic designer who has worked on a dozen games, literally hundreds of art assets created a multitude of artists, the end product supplied by these artists can unfortunately vary a great deal. This variance can end up causing delays and costing you money from having to deal with inefficient or improperly setup files. Here are five points that will hopefully help you standardize the quality of product you get from your artists and in turn make a better game.
1. Go Big or Go Home
There's nothing better than playing a game that has gorgeous card and board art. It enhances the immersive experience and increases the overall level of enjoyment. So, that's great...you've got this awesome game with killer art and amazing graphic design. The time has come to promote it at the next big con. Your graphic designer sends you a proof of the booth wall panel, featuring some character art from your game, but for some reason, its so blurry that you feel like you're suffering the effects from a half-dozen cocktails when looking at it. Really it's a resolution problem. The 300dpi artwork is stunning at 100mm, but as soon as you blow it up to anything larger, it looks horrible.
As a graphic designer for tabletop games, if I want to make the marketing and packaging assets look incredible, I turn to the card art. That's often where the big wow factor is. Repurposing card art for large format graphics can be a bit tricky, however. If the resolution just isn't high enought, you can do things like run it through an upsizing filter like On1's Perfect Resize, or Alien Skin's Blow Up, but in the end, the results can be spotty and there's really no substitute for having high resolution art to begin with.
Obviously we can't demand that artists create their pieces at mural-sized dimensions, but if we pick something in the middle, we can usually satisfy most (if not all) of our needs. Card art that is 3000 pixels wide will serve us well. At card size, the resolution will be in the neighbourhood of 1200dpi (for a 63x88mm card), no issues there. Next, we have the box. If it's say, a 300mm box and the character is the main art, again, we're solid at 250-300dpi. Fast forward to creating those booth wall panels. The good thing is at that size, viewing distance will not be at arms length which means the resolution doesn't need to be that high. 75dpi is usually just about right for these types of applications. If your art falls below the minimum resolution for these large-format pieces, don't give up hope. Upping the resolution in these instances is a lot more forgiving than it would be for something handheld.
2. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Like I said, card art is your go to for impact. One of my greatest pet-peeves is finding that perfect piece of art for the rulebook or box, etc. only to discover that the left arm is missing because it appeared behind something on the card. These assets will be your greatest ally in creating all of your promotional material. If you're legs are cut off at the knee (literally) you either have to choose another piece, or do some fancy maneuvers to hide the fact that the art is not whole.
Ask the artists whenever possible to create the art so that the characters or main actors on the stage (could be equipment, etc.) are as whole as possible. You'll be thankful you did in the long run.
3. Layered...you know, like an onion!
Again, this point all comes back to versatility. As a graphic designer, working with layered art where the lighting effects, character and other objects are on separate layers than the background, makes my job SO much easier. Having to cut out the character from flat artwork not only is frustrating and time consuming, but it costs you, the publisher, moolah.
Asking your artists to supply layered files is a no-brainer. Not only can you easily use each of the elements on their own, but you also have the convenience of being able to tweak size and positioning to suit your needs. For example, if your particular card framework is slightly overlapping a key part of the character, you can just shift the character to one way or another to fix it. Easy peasy.
4. RGB vs. CMYK
When it comes to creating artwork digitally, you have a few options for what 'colour space' you create your masterpiece in. Mainly there are two or three colour spaces that most artists and designers work in; RGB, CMYK, and Greyscale.
The RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) colour space is what screen graphics are created in as it represents the colour components of light for that particular hue. The CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) colourspace represents the components that make up a pigment (or printed) hue rather than a light hue. Your home or office colour printers work on this CMYK model with distinct inks for each of the colour components layered on top of each other to produce the resultant hue.
When you send your game files to the printer for mass production, they're going to insist that all art be CYMK. OK, great, so that means you should ask your artists to supply CMYK art, right? Not necessarily. One big advantage of the RGB colour space is that it is much larger than that of CMYK. This means that you'll have a little more flexibility for expression in RGB. Some people choose to create all art in RGB and then convert to CMYK just before sending to print so that they can retain as much expression of colour as possible. This comes down to a personal preference between flexibility and work needed.
5. Who's the creative one here, anyway?!
This one is hard for a lot of people. Releasing creative control into the hands of the artist can leave you with a feeling of vulnerability. It is important to know what you want. More importantly, it's good to know how to express it in a way that gets your point across, but frees the artist up to knock your socks of by taking it in an awesome direction that you may not have thought of yourself.
If you have certain details that absolutely, MUST be present in the art, then by all means impart those kernals to the artist. The tricky part comes in expressing style and direction without giving specific examples which, in the end may look like more of a knockoff rather than an homage. For instance if you wanted a Game of Thrones-esque throne to appear on a card, you could easily just say exactly that, but chances are you'll get something that people will point out, possibly with derision. Instead, if you describe the throne as "a grandiose, medieval throne made up of other objects", you may get something a little more original and less of a knockoff.
Ultimately, this is your game, your vision, your dream. Bear that in mind when providing direction to the artist, but don't be afraid to give them creative freedom when possible; I guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised more often than not!