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!