I have been writing this article on and off for a while now. I get riled up when something happens and then it dies off. More recently, a brief discussion on the iconography and production values on Faiyum prompted me to finish this article.
There have been many passionate discussions about overproduced games. Like it or love it, games with elaborate artwork and deluxe components are here to stay. At present, publishers are reprinting “classics” at a furious rate and many of these games have been retweaked with brand new content and also new artwork. Many of these newly designed games are coming from crowdfunding projects where capturing more eyeballs is critical for commercial success. I really cannot fault designers and publishers for wanting to boost the bottom line. To be fair, the new edition is usually an improvement from the original but it is also true that most of the time, the artwork and components feel excessive, especially with the popular deluxe editions of games. For this discussion, I will steer clear from components and focus on the artwork. There is no point for me to argue about deluxe editions of games since there will always be folks who want it and those are against it. The market gets what the market wants.
As far as artwork goes, I get the feeling from forum threads and blogs that many new gamers have sky high expectations. They want a game to be gorgeous with artwork that features vibrant colors and realistic renditions of structures, objects, etc. Instead of simple lines and colors with high contrasts, many want a visual smorgasbord that feature an orgy of colors that provides a “wow” moment. For crowdfunded projects, this eye candy is pretty important and supporters will criticize the quality of the art, usually because they inadequate or not unique enough. I rarely hear of it being excessive.
Obviously, colors can sometimes impede game play. I think most gamers would agree that artwork that actually hinders game play is not acceptable. I don’t think most of us want art, no matter how gorgeous, to impact game play. Usually, colors with similar shades will make it hard to distinguish specific tiles, pieces or board elements. Players may end up picking the wrong pieces, making tactical errors or worse still, planning a strategy based on defective artwork. I don’t think this happens all that much. The last game I recall having this issue was the first edition of Carpe Diem where the two sets of tiles have shades of green that is incredibly hard to distinguish. Being color blind is also another issue associated with artwork. Folks who are color blind tend to have a hard time differentiating between specific pairs of colors. Thankfully, I think publishers are well aware of this issue and often include iconography to supplement the usage of colors.
For all other types of artwork, it is hard to criticize personal preference. Everyone likes what they like. From my end, I wish publishers would consider modifying existing artwork instead of brushing off the original and remaking the art in its entirety. Take for instance, the upcoming reprint of Maharaja: Palace Building in India by Kramer and Kiesling that is now re-titled “Maharaja”. This is a fantastic and long overdue reprint of the original design by Phalanx. I bet the rule tweaks are good for the game. Even simplifying the title makes sense. But the artwork from the original game was more than adequate. Perhaps there is room for improvements but wholesale changes probably weren’t necessary. The original game had simple lines and muted colors. This allowed player components to stand out clearly and distinctly as the contrasts are excellent. Admittedly, the glass tokens are a little unusual for palace pieces, but they work. The character portraits could also be improved, but the overall illustrations are charming and functional. For me, the new artwork in Maharaja feels overwhelming. The colors are vibrant and overbearing. Because everything looks “realistic”, the board is busy and cluttered. Looking at the board, I honestly had to scan a few times before figuring out where the palaces are supposed to be built. That’s with an empty board with no player pieces on it. With an additional 5 player colors populating the board, good luck torturing your visual cortex. There is no way you can deny that the original artwork provided better contrast and is way easier on the eyes.
Perhaps one can argue that the improved artwork helps with theme. Of course, a well-drawn piece of art can connect the players with the narrative or story arc of a game. In Maharaja, you see all these Hindu gods attached to each city. Last I check in this game, it was all about building palaces. Perhaps a better use of the theme would be to portray famous designers or architects in India, but that probably won’t excite the masses. Instead we have aggressive looking gods splayed across the box cover, giving the impression that Maharaja is a war game of sorts. The artwork and theme feels mismatched. Perhaps I am wrong and the new game has a different theme that I am yet unaware of. (**Edit: I found out that they do intend to make the game about building statues to gods instead of palaces. However, as I was told by my gaming buddy from India, the cover art is NOT a Hindu temple. It looks more like a mosque. They are not the same. The architecture is distinctively different!)
Speaking of the connection between artwork and theme, I recently replayed Brass after a long while. I own the Gryphon-Eagle version of Brass with illustrations that hearkens back to the Industrial revolution. The artwork is very reminiscent of that period just like many other Wallace games with strong historical themes (London, Automobile, Liberte, etc.). Now, the original Victorian artwork on the board and cards probably needs improvement and some touching up, but the art matches the theme really well. The Roxley reprint of the game is a fine piece of work with lots of fans enjoying the game, but the artwork to me is again overwhelming. The colors are heavy and dark, perhaps trying to match the grittiness of the Industrial revolution. Still, I feel it is too grim with poor contrasts. I miss the simplicity of the original design and thought it didn’t really require a whole lot of changes. The new version while sleek and modernized, failed to connect me to the narrative to which the original version did. I guess Roxley had a different vision after all. Again, having the game reprinting so that a new generation of players get to enjoy the game is a lot better than the the alternative. But, does the artwork always have to be “rectified”?
Another game that comes to mind is St. Petersburg. The original publication from Rio Grande Games is considered by many to be ugly and crude. Not me though. I thought the artwork felt appropriate and distinct. Distinct not only for the game, but in an odd way, it has this “Russian” feel to it that I cannot pinpoint exactly. The images in the new game doesn’t’ even look remotely Russian. In fact, the older art reminded me of cubism. I know I am stretching the comparison here, but the newly reprinted St. Petersburg took it one step too far. The new artwork looks hyper-realistic. Rather than making it sophisticated, the game now looks….weird, for the lack of a better word. Maybe creepy might be the better word. Some of these portraits featured game designers and famous board gaming personalities. Clearly, I am not the only one to think the new graphics look awful. It’s too bad since the tweaks and expansion seems to be widely accepted as an improvement to the original.
So are there games where newer editions do not end up with more complicated artwork? Yes! I give you…. Capstone’s remake of Irish Gauge. The artwork by Ian O’Toole is vastly improved from the original game by Winsome but also captures the spirit from the original artwork. The blend of colors are soothing and easy on the eyes and the game, though having simple artwork, is just absolutely stunning. As you can see from the original, the new game improves without completely remaking the original visuals. This is what I wish to see more of. You can make it nicer without always having to make it different.
In the end, there is probably no right or wrong in this argument. Perhaps just one person’s preference on what constitute good artwork in board games. As I said, good games should come first and having a game is better than not having a game. So, as crazy as the artwork can be, I still think it’s good the games are being reprinted. I do however wish that publisher don’t feel so pressured to constantly “improve” artwork.