Eye of the Beholder

Another day, another article inspired by the hottest of takes on that platform of reasonable debate and mature discussion, Twitter. This hot take

So hot you could cook eggs on it.

There is no doubt that in the last decade the art direction, graphic and production design of games has come on leaps & bounds. With thousands of games released a year, publishers are looking more and more towards the presentation of games to draw people in.

The secondary market of accessories has seen an increase as the boardgame owning population grows. People want to ‘bling’ out their favourite titles, making it uniquely ‘their’ copy of the game. Does this new found desire to make games look good really come from a desire to hide the mediocrity of the design? It seems unlikely, but let’s take a moment to talk about the role of production decisions in games.

Defining the Issue

As I understand it there are 3 different strings to the bow of how a game looks: art, graphic design, and production. Art is the images that portray different parts of the game from the cards to the box art. Graphic design can crossover with the art side of things but is more to do with how the game is laid out, how information is conveyed to the players, and allows players to see the state of the game at a glance when done right. Production is the physical components of the game, the board, cards, meeples, and other various tokens that go into our favourites.

Every game combines these elements to make a whole, on top of the mechanics that make the game actually tick. Now could you remove them and still play the game? Probably, but even a minimalist art style is a choice. Simple cards and a board is a decision that some companies actually make, see Splotter’s Food Chain Magnate as a good example of this stripped back style.

See what I mean

When I got back into board games in the late 90s, I remember picking up several cheapass games that were very simply printed, mostly on light card stock in black & white. It was a way to get their game to market for cheap, but the market was a lot smaller back then.

As time has passed the ability of manufacturers and the dreams of publishers have come closer and closer together, allowing for reprints of games from board game history that look, feel, and play better, even if the underlying mechanics are the same. This has also inevitably led to new games looking much more appealing, something I applaud as it makes selling new people on the hobby, that much easier.

Although this may have lead to a rise of assessing games by looks first, something I am not 100% a fan of, the changes for the industry have been mostly positive, as diverse more diverse themes are explored through the medium of art & design.

Critical Mass

From a critical perspective, I do admit finding myself drawn to games that stand out from the crowd in terms of art & design. Escape the Dark Castle, Arkosa & Prisma Arena are all prime examples where I wanted to play the game because the art direction made it stand out. This is not to say that my critical appraisal stops at the box art, but if a publisher has taken obvious care with the looks of a game in an effort to make the aesthetic more unusual, then maybe the mechanics will be similarly interesting. I am always wary of falling head over heels for the art of a game.

One of the first games I picked up was King of Tokyo. Mechanically this is a relatively straightforward dice game, but the art, graphics, and production elevate it to a game that still sees play at my table. It didn’t need to include huge standees, chunky dice, and green energy cubes. However, each of those elements combine to make the game a real pleasure to look at, handle, and play.

Like it or not, and whatever you like or not, graphics & production are vital to your enjoyment of a game. As twitter user @samsleney said recently ‘Aesthetics do not cheapen depth’.

Nice Mat from FFG, deck holder and tokens from Buythesametoken

Accessorising

Now let’s go back to the beginning and look at the post that originally inspired this look down the aesthetic rabbit hole. It’s my experience that folk only really start accessorising games that they really like, ones they are playing again and again and have started to think ‘maybe I do need some metal coins’. I’m a big fan of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and whilst I think the FFG tokens are pretty good for this game, that hasn’t stopped lots of companies producing accessories for it. Would they do this if the market isn’t there? Of course not.

I can understand being concerned about games with hundreds of miniatures on Kickstarter, where the push is how much ‘stuff’ you are getting. I personally haven’t played many of these, but it is a valid concern that maybe there is an issue with looks and quantity over quality. However, if I play something a lot then maybe I fancy treating myself to some shiny components, and there is nothing wrong with doing so.

Maybe you, Lewis or whoever you are, think that game X is not very good and the person in question is trying to paper over the cracks but I say otherwise. I may not agree with their choice of game, I may actively dislike it, but if they enjoy playing it then why question what they do to really bring that game to life for them and there group. I bought the fancy dice for Eldritch Horror to have blessed and cursed dice. Did I need them? No. Does it add to the experience for me and my group? Yes. You should never ‘need’ to accessorise a game, the production decisions should make it playable for you from the off, but the desire to do so is always going to be around. People accessorise their cars, are they hiding poor fuel consumption?

To each their own.

Levelling criticism at a game, because someone has decided to make it look nicer, is just gatekeeping pure and simple. Let people have their fun, however they want to have it, and you go and have yours with your game of choice. There is so much variety in the hobby, so many different approaches to play, that we can surely all just get on with enjoying our games, in whatever way we choose. For some that is buying all the expensive bling they can find, others will be more than happy with what they get out of the box. One thing is for sure though. Despite all the increases in production quality, art and graphic design, the market for accessories is bigger than ever, and that is not going to change anytime soon.

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Author: Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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