Art Direction: There’s More to Games than Meets the Rules

This article is based on an interview with Marek, Boardcubator’s art director, during which he discussed the specifics of this role with Michal.

Marek interview
Marek in the Boardcubator office and Space Race astronaut models next to the N1 rocket.

Bare gameplay isn’t everything. It stands beside quality and art design as one of the three pillars that support the fundamental gaming experience. From art direction’s standpoint, developing a board game requires questioning every single component in terms of what it looks like, what the material feels like when you hold it in your hand, and how fun it is to play with it. All of this matters. Games are engaging when you enjoy looking at them, revel in handling the pieces, and feel that every part works the way you expect.

I always focus on building strong thematic ties that draw players in, so when we saw a meeple on the board of Space Race, we knew there should be an astronaut in its place. And that’s exactly it — the degree to which each component emulates the theme corresponds with the level of immersion.

When you analyze every component in detail, you’ll see if something doesn’t work. Take a game apart and think about every single aspect, every piece, and what it represents. If everything has its place, the whole gaming experience will be solid and consistent once you put the game back together. You can end up building a space agency that employs cosmonauts instead of meeples, and move rockets on a board that’s actually a technical blueprint — such a game will grant you a ticket to a mesmerizing journey. Every component deserves this level of attention so players can identify with the world in which the game takes place, and that’s exactly where the art director comes in.

blueprint board
Marek with Jan mounting a Space Race board prototype and a visualization of the blueprint on it.

So how does art direction work anyway?

Art direction is about maintaining a unified vision that brings all artists working on a project together. In its scope, it involves not only the visual design of the game and its environment, but also the overarching narrative in the sense of how the game is presented in any particular setting — whether you are looking at a Kickstarter campaign, booth at a convention, or a box cover. The key to art direction stems from a firm grasp of all the factors that affect the perception of the game and an ability to preserve a homogeneous visual sense across the board.

Adhering to a unified visual logic is what makes a product memorable.

It’s the art director’s role to make sure the product designer and the graphic designer aren’t doing something completely different because they have different ideas about what will look good. Instead, the artists work within the previously set boundaries so their collective output yields a visually compact game. It’s necessary that everyone honors the fact there is an underlying concept that permeates every part of the production. This allows the artists to operate in a narrow and specialized space so they can focus solely on their area of expertise, focusing on specific issues and further developing the visual side of the game. The product designer, for example, just needs to deal with the fact that certain technology won’t be able to produce sufficient detail or that a particular component might get scratched after four uses so it must be manufactured from a different, more durable, material.

Marek shooting Project L
Project L and Marek taking product photos.

It’s not all set in mold

Every game has a different thematic scope and mechanics, which offers unique opportunities and challenges in terms of art design and development. There are various limitations that may not be initially apparent, such as things that are not possible to draw or manufacture in a certain way, and you won’t know about a lot of these restrictions until you grab a pencil or start molding a piece.

The overall image of the game naturally develops over time as we’re trying to find creative solutions to match the needs of the game. Whenever facing obstacles, I say to myself: Ok, let’s try to produce it from a different material or try to go against an established paradigm. Pushing the boundaries makes the job appealing to me.

Yet, it’s not like the art director plans the whole thing in advance and just keeps telling everyone what to do. Artists always change the shape of the product through their artistic expression and signature style that they imbue their work with. The initial concept is flexible, and it develops over time. Moreover, all members of the artistic team bring their expertise into the mix, and it’s crucial for the art director to pay attention to their ideas. Based on their specialty, they will have important insights into the production and offer advice on how, for example, the graphic or the tactile aspect of the game can be improved so playing it feels better. It’s necessary to regularly check up on the artists to understand the way they want to do things and why it may be important.

Art direction in progress
Marek supervising shooting of the Space Race Kickstarter video and checking the quality of large scale prints.

Let’s get on with it then!

Working with artists can often be very complicated because they may, for example, lack time management skills or have issues with submitting their work in a form that was agreed upon. What makes the art director a good leader is the ability to establish successful workflow and ensure that everyone follows it.  It’s crucial to anticipate what the artists will be going through and know how their strengths and weaknesses may affect a project’s timeline. This comes hand in hand with motivation, which is another important part of the whole process. All artists do their best work when they enjoy what they do, so it is crucial to walk them through the assignments, take as long as necessary until something attracts their attention. Once you see them crunch an idea in their head, become excited, and crave to just take a shot at making it happen — then it’s time to go full steam ahead.

My style of working with the artists is based on taking a very long time to pass on the assignment, during which we discuss the task, look at some references, or I even give them a bit of time to draft something to make sure that we understand each other.

The art director guides the artists towards their concept of the game, see the way they grasp it, and then reshape the ideas to a mutual vision of what everything should look like in the end. Once the assignment has been passed on to everyone, the art director establishes a working environment in which each artist has a clear workflow so all data can be easily transferred among the team members. This involves organizing a timeline for data submission, what the results should look like, determining which points on the timeline depend on each other, and outlining who should send what to whom. What follows is just a technical process of making sure that the data actually go where they should, that they are correct, on time, that an approval process is working, and making sure that there aren’t constant and radical changes in the assignments. In this sense, the art director is a person who links information across the team.

baikonur
Going through sketches for Space Race with Dalibor “Max” Krch, the illustrator of the game. At the bottom, there is one of the references for Baikonur and the finished illustration next to it.

Art and mechanics intertwined

Visual and mechanics designs invariably affect each other — it’s a mutual dialogue that gradually shapes the game. As one of the core team members working on a game, the art director needs to know how all aspects of the game work together. The art director playtests every major iteration of the game’s design because only then will they see if there is an opportunity to improve the expression of the game or an issue that needs to be addressed. For example, execution of a game concept may not be coherent, one of the phases can seem too long, or a part of the game may just not be fun even though it is mechanically solid. A solution for all of this may lay in art design.

My job is to decide how to incorporate elements of the game so they work together. How can the way the game looks and the material it uses assist or even enhance the gameplay mechanics?

Graphic design, how the game communicates with players, the way that components are used  all this constitutes an inseparable part of the gaming experience. In practice, art direction steers the execution and implementation of the game mechanics. It helps to specify the format of the components, inputs on what type of gamebook a game could benefit from, or, for example, helps to transform a boring upkeep phase into an exciting part of the whole game.

playing with things
Marek carrying out his concept for the Boardcubator Essen SPIEL booth on the left. On the right, with Sisi playtesting one of the Project L prototypes.

In the future articles, we’ll take a look at specific examples of how art direction influenced our games as well as talk about other aspects of games production and development.

Until next time,

Michal

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Marek is working as an art director in Boardcubator and a marketing specialist for Bionaut. Three of his crowdfunding campaigns made it to the top 10 most funded Czech crowdfunding campaigns, one of which was for Jan Švankmajer’s latest film Insects. Moreover, he spent 5 years working for the Czech Film Fund.

MichalMichal is Boardcubator’s communications manager and game developer. For the past 6 years he has been an instructional designer for Norwich Institute for Language Education. He is also a university lecturer and teacher trainer, working towards a PhD in English literature. We’re all mad here.