The Jungle Gets Graphic: Or All About Graphic Design-Led Games in an Illustrated Age

The Indie Jungle is a lush, vibrant world, filled with color, beauty and eye-popping wonderment. From wildly imaginative images in games like “Mysterium” to stellar fantasy portraits like “Abyss” to rich visual landscapes like “Tides of Time,” illustrations can transform board game players to a different reality.

When you look on game shelves today, odds are you’ll see all kinds of creative and stunning illustrative styles. What you won’t see are many graphic design-led games…and for this intrepid jungle explorer, I’d like to see that change.

Graphic design-led games ^

What exactly do I mean by “graphic design-led” games? The term “graphic design” could be defined as “the skill of combining text and pictures to convey a visual message.” One could say it is typographic or design functionalism. As a Creative Director for an ad agency, I encounter graphic design every day at my job.

In the board game world, however, graphic design-led games are the rarest of creatures. Don’t get me wrong. Graphic design is an integral part of just about every game out there. Typography, iconography, layout, rules – these graphic design functions all play a critical role in making a game work. However, what breathes life into most games is the incredible illustration. Illustrations exude emotion, passion and creativity.

It’s not often, but every once in a while a game comes along that breaks off from the well-trodden illustrated path to take the road less traveled, embracing graphic design as more than just a form of functionality.

The Games ^

“Deep Sea Adventure”, photo by Fun Forge

Oink Games is a company that truly stands out in this regard. They use minimalistic art and a refreshing graphic design approach to create visually stunning games such as “Deep Sea Adventure”, “Maskmen” and “Troll.” These games are simple, often filler games that translate well with the style that Oink Games has chosen to depict.

Beyond Oink Games, there are several other companies that have dabbled in graphic design-led games worth mentioning, including Cambridge Game Factory’s “Glory to Rome (Black Box)”, Z-man’s “Sky Tango” and Breaking Games’ “Letter Tycoon”, among others.

To me, the game that best blends both illustration and graphic design to create one perfectly balanced and beautiful presentation is “Tokaido” by Fun Forge (among others). Wow, this game is breathtaking. It feels like a work of art that you get to play!

Railcars from “Yardmaster”

It just so happens that the very first design I worked on – Yardmaster – embraced a graphic design-led approach. Why did I go this route? Well, to be honest, at the time it was the only path I knew. When Yardmaster was conceived, I was very new to the tabletop gaming world. My advertising background naturally steered me toward a more graphic design approach, and so I asked my friend Dan Thompson, a very talented Graphic Designer and co-worker, if he was interested in working on this game idea I’d hatched up. Dan was up to the challenge, and he gave a very bold, retro look to the game that thankfully was kept for the final production.

Yardmaster’s artwork is very polarizing. I’ve had people tell me they absolutely love the design and I’ve had others say they loathe it. But most would tell you that, at the very least, they remember it.

Map set-up for “ICELAND”, a new game I’m working on

It’s something I’m striving for with my newest game, “ICELAND”, in which players are trying to get as many of their tourists off the island before the volcano blows. Graphic Designer Janice Baker has created some incredibly cool cards to create a visually stunning world that I’m hoping will cut through the clutter.

And that’s the thing with graphic design-led games. Because they are an endangered species, they tend to distinguish themselves from the rest. They are the magenta sheep in the flock. To me, that’s a refreshing thing to see in the gaming space.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is that Yardmaster leads a double life. You see, Yardmaster is also an Illustrated game.

A year after Yardmaster came out, the French-based company Iello purchased the rights to publish the game throughout Europe as part of their “Mini-games” line.

One game, two looks: “Yardmaster” art on top versus “Aramini Circus” on bottom

If you are at all familiar with Iello, then you know that all of their games have a signature look and feel to them that is colorful, whimsical and family-friendly. Oh, and gorgeous, did I mention gorgeous?

Thus, “Aramini Circus” was born. Iello decided to give Yardmaster a new personality, so instead of loading timber, coal, livestock and coal onto train cars you’re loading animals onto a circus train. The art was created by Mathieu Leyssenne, who some may know from games like “Jamaica” and “The Hare & the Tortoise.”

Needless to say, I was elated when I saw the final product! And yet, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the original Yardmaster – the little DayGlo orange engine that could.

Conclusion ^

I’m hoping more designers and publishers decide to get “graphic” in the future.

While I will always love and appreciate illustrators for their amazing talent, I’m also very appreciative of how graphic artists can transform functionalism into art.

Your turn. Share your thoughts: