I’ve been a Graphic Designer for 14 years and a Boardgame Designer for almost 4 years. Most Boardgame Designers who are working towards a Kickstarter project have the attitude that graphic design exists to make things more attractive. It’s true, Graphic Designers are tasked with showcasing your information in a nice way, but the real advantage to having a Graphic Designer on board is user interface design (UI).

While this term is defined as creating interfaces to maximize the user’s experience on electronic devices, I often use it for boardgame design as well. The theories are all the same. The goal is to make the user, or player in this case, have the most natural and easiest responses to your game as possible. This can be simple things like the placement of art, text, or iconography that is easy to understand and follow, or the refinement of a design to increase effectiveness.

I was recently hired by Cosmic Wombat Games to completely recreate the art and graphic design for their upcoming game, Campaign Trail, launching on Kickstarter on May 3rd. Focusing on the game board, here are a few changes I made and why.

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Look and Feel

As I said before, graphic design also exists to make projects more attractive, but that’s always a subjective goal. There will be some that like the old design more than the new, and that can’t be helped. The goal is to have the majority of players enjoy the new aesthetic more than the old, and a good Graphic Designer knows how to do that.

You, as a Boardgame Designer, might really favor a certain color arrangement; however, you might be in the minority. There’s nothing wrong with that initially, but when you try to apply a look and feel to a game that only a minority of others will enjoy, you miss the goal of the project.

A Graphic Designer doesn’t just use their own aesthetic senses, but they spend hours in their daily lives looking at designs for all kinds of products and purposes. They’ve spent the time it takes to know what is enjoyed by a majority of users.

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Placement for User Experience

Graphic Designers also take into account a lot of issues that may not occur to others when it comes to usability. For instance, in Campaign Trail, players can travel to states with a plane icon using certain actions. You’ll notice that on the old game board, the plane icons were located on cities. This was for thematic purposes only.

After reading the rules, I realized that the game board would eventually be covered in cubes and other components. What if a player wanted to travel to Kansas, but didn’t know if there was a plane icon to utilize? They would have to remove all of the components to see if there was a plane icon available on that state, especially if they weren’t familiar with that states’ geography.

In the new design, I located all plane icons in the exact same place, top left of the banner. This banner is typically exposed as much as possible because it contains all the valuable information of that state. Now, when a user wants to know if Kansas has a plane icon, they just look in that top-left spot.

The beauty of this is, it won’t be something explained in the rulebook. Placement of icons, text and art is a focus on how the mind naturally searches and finds things. A Graphic Designer’s job includes trying to think about what is easiest and natural for the player to do in order to find the information they need. If done correctly, the player won’t even consider how easy it was to do something based on the graphic design.

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Refinement and Minimalizing

Let’s be honest, we as Boardgame Designers can get carried away sometimes with theme and/or mechanics. Sometimes we throw something in that looks good or speaks to the theme when in reality, it’s not needed or its benefits do not outweigh the obstacles it creates. It’s a Graphic Designer’s job to shave away the superfluous or distracting bits of design to create a more focused and pure experience for the player.

The original game board of Campaign Trail had a few elements that, as a player, could have been distracting. The names of the cities, the regions, and the terrain texture were all elements that weren’t a bad thing to have, but in the end, weren’t needed and could have been distracting to players.

There isn’t a functional use in the game for any of these elements, and the only purpose they served was thematic. If there’s no issues caused by an element whose only purpose is to add theme, and it does it well, then that element should stay; however, in this case, we needed to remove clutter from the game board. There’s a lot of information on the game board, and that meant anything superfluous had to go.

In the end, the publishers liked having the cities noted, even though it serves no actual play purpose, so I created a less distracting way of noting them with the small circles. A Graphic Designer can get carried away with trying to minimalize as well, so it’s a good thing to find compromise.

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I Can’t Afford a Graphic Designer

That’s understandable. What we do takes a lot of time and that can add up. Here are some suggestions if you can’t afford a Graphic Designer upfront.

  1. Offer half pay with a percentage option if the Kickstarter funds. No Graphic Designer wants to take the risk of working that much only to never get paid because the project didn’t get funded. Offer to pay them half their estimated cost if the project doesn’t fund, but a certain percentage of the project if it does fund.

    If the project reaches its exact goal, make the percentage equal their full estimated amount. If it goes over, then the Graphic Designer is rewarded for taking a risk with you and is paid more than their estimated amount. Not only will this satisfy their need for compensation, but it will make them an enthusiastic member of your Kickstarter endeavors.

  2. Ask for advice. In the event that you have no funds at all for a Graphic Designer, at the very least, join Facebook Groups and other social discussions where you can showcase your designs and ask for advice. Graphic Designers like myself are gullible, and give advice away for free.

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No Boardgame Designer is an Island

Boardgames are just too big of a project for a one-person-shop. While one person can make a game this way, that game won’t be the best product it could have been. The more experts you have working in their field for your game, the better it will be. Unfortunately, if a Graphic Designer’s contributions are done well, they go mostly unnoticed and can be overlooked.

Was I the Artist, Graphic Designer, Publisher, and Boardgame Designer for both of my games (Evil Intent and Asking for Trobils)? Yes, and that’s why I know that I could have benefited from other people’s involvement. Luckily I wasn’t the only Boardgame Designer for those games so I’m very happy with the product, but the publishing, marketing, and distribution suffered greatly. I know if I had more hands in those games, they might have gotten to more tables.

Can you think of a boardgame that has great Graphic Design?

If you’d like to keep in touch with Campaign Trail, you can follow the publisher on Facebook or Twitter for updates!

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Christian Strain

Game Designer at Kraken Games

Christian is a co-founder of Kraken Games. After releasing their first game, Evil Intent, Christian is currently working with Kraken Games on three other projects including their upcoming title, Asking for Trobils.

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35 Readers Commented

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  1. Jens Alfke on April 6, 2016

    You’re correct that many factors are subjective; I strongly prefer the overall look of the old board. The muted colors stay in the background and the terrain texture makes the oars more visually interesting without getting in the way. I find the new colors garish, and the wavy stripe at the bottom and the script font look like something from a cola ad.

    (Also, has the new design been checked for compatibility with common forms of color blindness? Without the old border lines around regions, there are only color changes to differentiate them.)

    • Christian Strain Author on April 6, 2016

      Your opinion is appreciated 🙂

      The colors in the map and actions aren’t required for game play purposes. They’re guides to help you find your state. So if a card says Maine, it highlights it in the same pink color so that someone who doesn’t know where Maine is, can find it easily. Colorblind or not, they will see the shaded in area highlighting Maine.

      The best way to make sure color blind players can still function in a game is to use symbols or some other identifying mark besides just color. In this case, the location and shape of the states themselves do that. And for the different actions in the reference area, each has a specific icon with a letter in it.

      Color blind compatibility doesn’t always mean changing the colors. Sometimes its just making sure placement and icons are there to support the same difference.

  2. Norv Brooks on April 6, 2016

    In a prototype I’m working on currently I was guilty of “Let’s be honest, we as Boardgame Designers can get carried away sometimes with theme and/or mechanics. Sometimes we throw something in that looks good or speaks to the theme when in reality, it’s not needed or its benefits do not outweigh the obstacles it creates.” My game board has hexes and for thematic immersion in some cases I used background graphics of jungle, plains, deserts, swamp & mountains. In other hexes representing the same type of terrain I used simple icons. It was confusing to players as to what the graphic background hexes were. I removed the graphics going with all icons. It was much better.

  3. John Shulters on April 6, 2016

    Hi Chris. Thanks for pointing out all these design issues with concrete examples…so much better than simple theorizing. We’re testing CT and really appreciate the changes in clarity and content you’re bringing to it.

    You mentioned how graphic designers (and any expert, really) “spend hours in their daily lives looking at designs for all kinds of products and purposes”, which I know is perhaps the most valuable way of gaining experience to ply to your trade. As I’ve been out of the graphic design business for a while, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for go-to sites/forums/groups to gain good inspiration and guidance on the latest in graphic design and UI/UX (like deviantart is for illustrators)? Thanks!

    • Christian Strain Author on April 6, 2016

      Behance.net is a great place for inspiration. Of course, other games as well.

  4. Rugerfred on April 6, 2016

    Great article!
    Do you know any Facebook groups to suggest, regarding the second advice?

    • Christian Strain Author on April 6, 2016

      Sure. Art and Graphic Design for Tabletop Games is one I mentioned below. It’s probably the best one for direct questions about graphic design. There are other graphic designers in there along with other game designers.

  5. Jason Greeno on April 6, 2016

    Great stuff. Echoing John’s request and also can you recommend how best to get feedback on graphic design choices when working with an unreleased product?

    I can get graphic design feedback in forums, but would love to have game-graphic designers to chime in.

    • Christian Strain Author on April 6, 2016

      There are a few groups on Facebook that I might post in for other opinions. Art and Graphic Design for Tabletop Games is one. There are a few designers in there that give good advice when they can.

    • Norv Brooks on April 6, 2016

      The feedback I got that I mentioned in the 2nd from top comment came from play testers. I belong to a group of game designers that meet once a month to play test other members’ prototypes. Even though most of them are game designers & not graphic designers, what works & doesn’t work involving the graphic designs can be very helpful.

      • Christian Strain Author on April 6, 2016

        I have found graphic design coming up in play testing before. If a player is having a hard time remembering a rule, some people’s first reaction might be to reword the rules, but sometimes graphic design can be more helpful. A single arrow, placement of items on the board, or an icon might make that rule a more natural thing to follow.

  6. Bob Schrempp on April 6, 2016

    I think it important to differentiate between a Graphic Designer and a Graphic Designer with game design experience. It takes so
    E special skills to design games.

  7. Jamey Stegmaier on April 6, 2016

    I think you did a fantastic job with the graphic design/illustration overhaul, Christian! I’m a big fan of it.

  8. Ron Halliday on April 6, 2016

    Speaking as a professional cartographer, the original map is much more appealing to look at. The use of National Geographic-style borders really gives it more gravitas – more “oomph” – and a more professional feel. It avoids using overly dark fills by using dark outlines (which also work well for the nine smaller states), and the overall colour scheme feels balanced. Whereas the original map doesn’t draw my eye to any one particular region, in my opinion the new map’s colour scheme is unbalanced because the smallest regions have been given the lightest colours – the four NE regions have a clear visual separation from the rest of the map. Cartographers typically give smaller areas darker colours and larger areas lighter colours in order to balance their visual impact.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with several of the gameplay-based design decisions that you have made, such as removing the terrain, simplifying borders, and consistent location of map/game icons within states. And adding drop shadows to the graphics works nicely to separate game details from the flat map background.

    I’m just going to rattle off some more thoughts, in no particular order.

    I find the unlabelled city locations odd, both as a cartographer and as a gamer. At first glance, it looks like a printing error, as if someone had accidentally turned off the layer containing city names. I also notice that it is much easier to find the airports on the original map because all you have to do is scan it for city names; you find them without even trying. And just how distracting were players finding this text? I have to think that people are going to ask “Why aren’t the cities labelled? It looks like there’s plenty of room…”

    I don’t find the location or size of Alaska on the second map very appealing. I think people are accustomed to seeing Alaska and Hawaii grouped together as on the first map, and it makes sense visually because they are part of the same region. But a lightbulb just went off: you might be able to make this look quite good if you do AK and HI like the nine smaller states, inside hexagons.

    Finally, since I’m Canadian – colours, eh? – I noticed that the blue flag swath vaguely resembles Canada. If you hadn’t thrown the stars in there, I would’ve thought that you had just oversimplified the detail on the Great White North. You could easily make the blue swath resemble Canada though, if you extended it to Maine and corrected the connection with WA. The trick would be making the red swath resemble Mexico! If that were doable, I’m thinking that the card piles would have to go back in Canada and the symbol legend in Mexico or the Gulf of Mexico.

    Good luck with the game! I look forward to seeing the final published version.

    • Christian Strain on April 6, 2016

      Wow, lots of thoughts here. First, thanks for that. We always appreciate constructive opinions.

      As to your cities and planes observation, keep in mind that most people don’t know where all the major cities are in the US. An upsetting amount actually. That, with the fact that the game board will be covered with cubes and other components, makes it difficult to find a plane icon if it isn’t in a standard place.

      The cities aren’t labeled because there’s no reason for them to be labeled in the game. There’s no functional use. In fact, there’s no functional use for them to be noted at all, but the circles where wanted by the publishers. There may be some expansion or other reason for that of which I am unaware.

      HI and AK are hardly used in the game. The size is an indicator of that really. It’s just the natural fact of the way the election process really works. Candidates don’t fly out to Alaska or Hawaii. They don’t have enough votes to matter to candidates in the election. It was silly to take up so much space on the board for an area that wouldn’t be played on that much. I did have AK and HI in hexagons originally, but that was asked as a change.

      Canada and Mexico have nothing to do with the game. It would be misleading to involve them in anyway.

      Thanks for your thoughts Ron!

      • Ron Halliday on April 7, 2016

        I find it interesting that you were able to convince the publisher to remove the city names but not their locations, especially since neither have any functional use – the only important thing to know is that you can fly in and out of certain states. Do you think that players are going to make the connection that these (pointless) points only exist to show the city where the airport is actually located within that state? You should be aware of the publisher’s reason for wanting them, to better defend removing or keeping them. You might even find out that the text should go back on (for an expansion, as you mentioned).

        I agreed with you that the plane icon should be in a standard location, so that the game pieces should be able to fit WITHIN the state and AROUND that state’s iconography. Did you consider using an airport departure or distance table to list all the cities/states that people can fly in and out of, in case of map/piece clutter?

        It’s also a shame that the publisher rejected your HI and AK hexagons. Any state that requires something out of the ordinary (scale change, displacement) should be presented in the same fashion. I think Baby Alaska is the thing I like least on the entire product; placing it inside a hexagon immediately tells you that it was scaled down to fit the space, just as some of the other states were scaled up.

        And I wasn’t suggesting that Canada and Mexico be truly represented in any meaningful way, but if the flag swaths were to generally coincide with the continental landmass it could be a nice touch. Some people might nod and say “I see what you did there.” It would probably be more effective in this case to use white for the Canada swath, blue for the ocean swath and red for the Mexico swath; an intriguing way to incorporate the American colours that also includes an extra level of information without being a distraction.

        • Christian Strain on April 7, 2016

          The departure and arrival idea is really good. I’ll bring it up. 🙂

          • Ron Halliday on April 7, 2016

            Great! I appreciate your willingness to do so.

        • Jeff on April 7, 2016

          The cities actually do have a purpose in the game outside of flying to them. Each debate occurs in a specific city and one of the candidates has a special ability which allows him/her to drop extra voters in a city on certain turns.

          With that being said, taking the names off but leaving the locations was out compromise solution to the overall amount of clutter on the board and the need for the city locations to be identified quickly.

          • Ron Halliday on April 7, 2016

            Thanks for the clarification Jeff! So can candidates fly to cities at any time during the game, or only for debates? If the cities deserve a bit more attention (to be identified quickly, as you mentioned), maybe a debate symbol would work better than a simple hollow circle? A larger circle with a microfone in it would certainly communicate the idea, and it sounds like debates are an important part of the game.

          • Jeff Cornelius on April 8, 2016

            Candidates can fly to any city any time they play a “flight” travel card, which can be any time during the game.

            They are forced to fly to a city during the 2 debates.

            And there is a candidate with a special ability that gives him/her an opportunity to put extra voters in cities.

            Because the use of cities is so disparate (and may even be incoporated more with expansions) we feel that the generic circle is the way to go. Although we could come up with a generic city icon, like a skyline inside of the circle or something like that.

  9. admin on April 6, 2016

    Some good points on each side on this blog. I favor the new board myself, if for no other reason than it states in it’s design that this is a fresh new take on a political game. I think the new Campaign Trail will capture the attention of people seeing it on the tabletop, the box and map are clean and inviting. I think both boards are a bit of excess color and information so it’s hard to deal with that in general, but if you are going to make 9 regions of color, you might as well go bold!

  10. Shao-Ying Chen on April 7, 2016

    Great article! I’m a boardgame gamer and designer in Taiwan, and I’d like to translate this article into Chinese to facilitate the understanding of boardgame designing principles for boardgame designers in Taiwan. Of course, the original author and the location of this article will be subscribed in the beginning of the translation article. May I have the pleasure to translate this article and publish on the Facebook fan page about boardgame designing and testing? Thanks!

    • Christian Strain on April 7, 2016

      I have no issue with that. Thank you for your interest and passion about the article. 🙂

  11. Samuel on April 7, 2016

    If the circles are there I think the city names should be. They may serve no purpose other than to be educational. As a non American I like learning like this during play. As you said a high Amount of your countrymen do t know the capitals either.

  12. Chad Williams on April 8, 2016

    I think the overall redesign (and explanation) is excellent. It’s very clean and easy to read at a glance. It does seem a little odd that the publisher would want to keep the city locations or names noted unless they intend to spin this as an educational game at some point. From what I can tell though, only a few states even have cities to note and most importantly, no state appears to have more than one noted city. If a card referenced a city by name like “Los Angeles” and had the name printed on the board, a card saying “Los Angeles, CA” would be just as good without any need for a city icon as each state abbreviation is already part of the design. The only point at which the city iconography or labeling would be helpful to the players is in the event that a state would have more than one city within it’s boundaries. Keep up the good work.

  13. Lewis Pulsipher on April 11, 2016

    Many of the observations in comments come down to what people want from the board other than pure functionality. That is, some prefer a “realistic” appearance (the original), others an abstract appearance (the replacement).

    If airports are quite important, why not make the plane icon MUCH larger? Without the city name they are quite hard to see, even when in standard orientation.

    • Christian Strain on April 11, 2016

      The board is really big. The plane will be a little easier to see in real life 🙂

  14. kerempooh on April 18, 2016

    Sorry to say, but I like the original much better.
    The new version is metro pretentious and soulless.
    I don’t get any atmosphere, theme or anything from it.
    It may as well be a game about corporate takeovers.
    Just boost the colors on the original one a bit, maybe some slight cleaning and I’d even give each state a slightly different shade of base region color to make it even easier to read and give it even more organic feel.

  15. Nicolas Ospina on May 12, 2016

    Great article Christian! I am currently designing my own board game and although I am still far away from a finished product, you make excellent points as to what are key factors to keep in mind when thinking of what the final product should look like. As I design my board game I have to constantly remind myself that what I am making is indeed a board game, not a map or a cool poster to put up on my wall. This might be obvious, but it keeping that in mind I think is what drives most of the changes you made to the original. Although there might be some ‘cooler’ aspects to the first map (size of Alaska, city names, the stars in the background, topographic additions like mountains, etc) they are for the most part completely irrelevant to gameplay. What I would’ve loved to see as well would’ve been another set of old and new designs, but with all game pieces and cards on the board (like a snapshot half way through the game)….I think that would’ve demonstrated even more just how much additional information the old design had!

    • Christian Strain Author on May 12, 2016

      Thanks Nicolas! You can actually see a comparison on the current Kickstarter if you look at the review video, that’s the old design. I think the older KS is also available on there.

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