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!