The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Art of Games

Dave Shapiro

February, 2006

Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.

André Gide

One of the most under-appreciated aspects of gaming is the artwork. Most game credits do not even list the artist. (Until the 1990s most games did not even credit the designer!) Gamers often discuss the mechanics, the designer, strategies and a host of other topics but relatively little is ever mentioned about the artwork. Game artwork serves three purposes: to draw our attention to the game, to create and embellish the theme and (critically important) presenting a convenient method for play (functionality). These parameters are valid whether the game is a board game, a card game, a role-playing game or even an electronic game.

The Lid

Art, like morality, consists of drawing lines somewhere.

G.K. Chesterton

Obviously the cover art is intended to draw your attention to the game; whether what is depicted has anything to do with the game itself is another matter. However, as with book covers and movie posters, the cover can entice a potential customer into participating, purchasing the game. It is the introduction, the first impression and the presentation can be decisive in a potential player's decision. Compare the cover of the Mayfair edition of Cosmic Encounter with that of the Avalon Hill version. If both were adjacent on a store shelf, which is the "eye catcher"?

Mayfair edition of Cosmic Encounter
Avalon Hill edition of Cosmic Encounter

A more dramatic difference is found when one compares the original box cover for Reef Encounter with that of the Z-man Games edition; while the original is functional, the new cover is a dramatic piece.

R&D edition of Reef Encounter
Z-Man Games edition of Reef Encounter

With abstract games the cover art can be especially deceiving. It is difficult to sell a product that the consumer is unable to relate to in some manner. Because abstract games, by definition, lack a theme, the player cannot relate to the material. An impression must be created that will encompass the play of the game as these games usually lack anything but the most generic of boards and bits. Mastermind, for example, is a simple code breaking game yet covers for the game have depicted everything from a sophisticated couple, possibly spies(?) to an Einstein caricature. The cover offers no clue as to the contents of the box or how the game might play. The components consist of a board with holes to hold a variety of colored pegs. At the time these covers reflected contemporary interests. This past year we witnessed several abstracts based on DaVinci reflecting the increased interest generated by the popular Dan Brown novel; none of these games has any real theme.

Victory: The Blocks of War coverCover concepts for themed games are easier to construct as there are familiar parameters to employ prior to production. Certain common conceptions are expected. The cover for a war game will usually depict some action; a tank, ship or a soldier who's moving or shooting or shouting. These covers regularly depict conflict.

Though the discussion above centered on war games our expectations as gamers, our prejudices, are repeated regularly. Children's games tend to be blessed with cartoon-ish covers and animals. Science fiction games must have aliens, space ships or robots. Finance games depict wealth or opulence. Even in the world of fantasy we have our preconceived expectations. Who would accept an orc dressed in a white suit or a beardless wizard dressed in blue jeans and a sweat shirt? In each genre there are specific, certain parameters that are expected and the artist must consider these when designing the cover.

In an unusual reversal, it is more difficult to design a box cover for an electronic game than a standard board game. In this case a completely static presentation must represent the action, the video and sound of the game. The cover for an electronic game is far more removed from the actual game play than that of a board/card game.


The artist alone sees spirits. But after he has told of their appearing to him, everybody sees them.   


The role of theme in a game is similar to that of the score for a film; it serves to enhance the experience. Just as any film could be reduced to just plot and acting, any board game can be reduced to mechanics and components. In most cases the theme for any board game could be altered or even eliminated and the core would remain playable though certainly less enjoyable. However, a poorly themed game can feel uncomfortable or wrong as certain common expectations have been altered. Battle scenes in films are usually accompanied with thundering drum beats not a simple, lone piccolo; the opening sequence of a James Bond movie just would not be the same if he walked to notes of Vangelis' Chariots of Fire. The same is valid for games. Children's games tend to display bright, light colors while most dungeon crawls will include shades of red and black. Given the parameters of the game and the theme for the game, the artist must create the proper atmosphere through use of color and design.

Tikal boardHow critical the selection of color is can be demonstrated with one example: make one simple change to Tikal, exchanging the color of the jungle tiles from green to pink. Though the mechanics and theme have not been altered in any fashion, the new tiles would, at a minimum, be uncomfortable and in a worst-case situation, be so annoying as to eliminate any possible enjoyment from playing. Of course, abstract games seldom suffer from this—Go with blue and red stones would lose nothing in the play of the game. The stronger the tie is between theme and mechanic, the more important the accompanying artwork.

Primordial Soup geneJust as the selection of color can be important, the images the artist includes can significantly alter the feel of the game. Once again a single example should suffice to demonstrate this. For the game Primordial Soup, the genes are depicted in a light, slightly humorous manner. If the genes were depicted as somewhat evil, monster-like, the atmosphere of the game would be significantly altered and the game would illicit a more nasty flavor. Though Primordial Soup can be very confrontational, it never feels so while playing as the depiction of the genes is cute.

The third area where the artwork is critical is in the design and display of the map—the board. Many maps/boards have minimal coloration, if any; they are simply play areas. These types of boards are not limited to public domain or abstract games such as Go or Chess. For example, the first several editions of Third Reich were published with colorless fields of hexes. A few years ago the game underwent a complete revision including the map. The artist in the second rendering has enhanced the board with color and incorporated minor changes but the effect is dramatic. Both of the boards are for the same game just different editions. The newer edition map provides the feel of a topographical map rather than the sterile, almost abstract depiction of the earlier editions.

If a particular era is suggested by the theme then colors and images appropriate to that time will serve to enhance the experience. A few splashes of just the right colors, adjusting the tone of the colors and the images can mean the difference between a first class production and an utter failure. Compare the boards for Castle Risk and Mare Nostrum. Both maps encompass identical parts of the world. It is impossible to miss the richness of the Mare Nostrum map. The color pallet may be considerably smaller than that used for Castle Risk but the presentation is superior. Even more interesting is a comparison of the two Third Reich maps with the maps for Castle Risk and Mare Nostrum. All of these games are played over similar physical areas of the world yet the differences in the boards are dramatic. The coloring can achieve a certain tone for the game.

Third Reich Castle Risk
Mare Nostrum

Heroclix figure Miniatures, as with card games, depend on the artwork more than a typical board game. Miniatures are little sculptures that must capture the image as there is nothing else to tie the theme to the game. Could Heroscape or the 'Clix games be played with cardboard counters? Of course the games would be playable but being reduced to "just the numbers" would result in a very dull experience. (My '7' with two dice, attacks your '4' with three dice.)

Card games of any type tend to be mathematical and abstract. The mechanics for the game are methods for manipulating numbers into pre-determined patterns for scoring. The card art achieves whatever success the game has in conveying a theme. Consider Magic: The Gathering and Blue Moon, both games are based in traditional card families; Magic in the "war family" and Blue Moon in the trick-taking family. Without the artwork, these games are little more than traditional games. The artwork may be chrome but it does more than enhance the play; it creates the game world. The different land cards in Magic serve as different suits. Is it possible to eliminate the art and retain the same game? The mechanics remain but the entertainment would suffer tremendously.


Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it.

Robert Motherwell

The final critical contribution of the game artist is to the components. As with the board, function is as important as appearance. Some games require little more than some sort of plastic bits to mark or count while other games, war games in particular, require information that the player will need. How the information is presented and the convenience of the components is important. When done properly, the player never notices the components. However, when the artist fails, the result can make the game literally unplayable.

On occasion artists have taken liberties when designing the map boards. Though it is rare and I am certain never deliberate, the accidents can be entertaining if not frustrating. In some cases these alterations have gone unnoticed while in others, the change has been significant to the point of changing the game itself. The artist who designed the new board for the 40th anniversary edition of Risk eliminated a critical connection on the map. To compound the error, a different artist, while drawing the new map for Risk 2210 A.D., used the 40th anniversary edition as his base and so the link remained absent! With the Mayfair edition of Tigris and Euphrates the artist extended a river branch effectually increasing the number of areas for placement of river tiles. Obviously these are not game breaking errors and both are easily rectified by simply pointing them out prior to beginning play. These two examples serve to demonstrate the connectivity between the artwork for a game and how the game functions.

Similar types of problems arise with the components, the bits, in a game. Some games include bits that through unintentional errors or design decisions, fail to achieve their intended purpose; on occasion requiring the players to substitute or alter the components in order to make the game playable. Very often it is the color selection that introduces problems (Fresh Fish, 4000 A.D., Risk Godstorm). In these games the colors chosen for the player's units are so similar in appearance that it is often difficult for players to distinguish their own pieces. Through the DesertThrough the Desert has played havoc with color blind players for years due to the selection of pastel colored components. A quick and sure method for avoiding this type of problem is to follow the path Überplay chose when producing New England—all of the tile components are the same color and are differentiated by a letter only. (Of course this results in one ugly looking game.) Days of Wonder has introduced different symbols for each color facilitating play for the color blind. (Note: they recently revamped the online Gang of Four site to include symbols on the cards that identify the colors. Never again will I attempt to play a straight flush composed of two different colors.)

In addition to the colors of the components, the size and shape can be as significant. Again, if the components are well done, they are not noticed; it is when something is amiss that they draw attention. There are few games that can compete with the quality of Eagle's productions but even Eagle has, on occasion, flirted with flaws. The American Civil War has a great looking (huge) board and the components are Civil War miniatures. Unfortunately, there are certain areas on the map that are simply too small to hold them all. (Eagle is in the process of revamping parts of the game and the new edition will be released as American Civil War II; there are indications that the map/component problem will be addressed.)

DrakonIn other games what is esthetically pleasing may not be the best for functionality. For example, important icons are on the center of each Drakon tile—the same location most players will place their characters thus hiding the information. Wongar has an unusual problem with the composition of the armies. One of the three styles is a tall cylinder and another is a donut shaped piece—both are very happy to roll off the board (and the table) with any little shake. The Wongar bits can usually be found lying next to the Primordial Soup "hit" markers which are small, round balls with a hole drilled in the center—they too prefer the floor to the table.

Most gamers do not acknowledge the contribution of the artist because, most of the time, the art component works well. On the rare occasion when there is a problem, attention is drawn and criticism rendered. Considering the thousands of games that have been published, the record of errors is miniscule. When it is well done, game art can be something worthy of an exhibition. The contribution of the artist in gaming is significant and yet seemingly not appreciated. The game artist is an unsung hero.

The Cast

My mother said to me 'If you become a soldier, you will be a general; if you become a monk, you'll end up as the Pope.' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.

Pablo Picasso

So who are some of these artists? The list below is certainly not definitive; it presents a few of the better known names and a bit of information about them and their work. I have tried to list a few games that might be familiar.

Eric Hotz - He has illustrated for Avalon Hill, TSR, Wizards of the Coast, I.C.E. and others. His work should be most familiar to Hârn (Columbia Games) players.

John Kovalic - The author of Dork Tower, co-founder and the chief artist for Out of the Box games, he has worked on several games including: Apples to Apples, Munchkin, Chez Geek and Chez Dork.
Rodger B. MacGowan - Vice president and art director for GMT games, MacGowan's style, especially for cover art, is easily recognizable. He attempts to place a face on the battle by including a large portrait of some personage involved in the event. His work for GMT is substantial and that for other companies measures in the scores including: Civilization, Squad Leader, Up Front and World in Flames. A World at War box

Doris Matthäus - The wife and partner of game designer Frank Nestel, she contributes to their own firm as well as "the competition". Generally her work has a light touch and is often humorous. Her list of credits include: Elfenroads, Elfengold, Elfenwizards, Mü and Mehr, Primordial Soup, Tigris and Euphrates, Andromeda, Aladdin's Dragons, Carcassonne, St. Petersburg and El Grande.

Paul Niemeyer - He is the lead artist for Eagle Games. His contributions include: The American Civil War, Attack, Civilization, Conquest of the Empire and Bootleggers.

Mark Simonitch - Founded Rhino games, worked for Avalon Hill, designed Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage and did the artwork on numerous games including Battleline, Galaxy: the Dark Ages, Santa Fe Rails and Ivanhoe.

Redmond Simonson - One of the co-founders of SPI, it is generally agreed that he is responsible for the look of war games today. His work has been described as "minimalist" but always functional. In addition to artwork for games he was a photographer (Time, Newsweek) and worked designing book covers (Is Paris Burning?). Following the decline of SPI, Simonson founded Ares Development and began designing computer games. Eventually he founded Microbotics. It is difficult to relate just how influential his work was however, some of his work includes: Panzer Blitz, Spies, Star Force, Battle for Cassino, Great Medieval Battles, Freedom in the Galaxy and Agincourt. Mr. Simonson passed away last year but his legacy remains.

Drew Tucker - Illustrated some of the Magic cards, is very strong in role-playing games and is responsible for the Anathema artwork.

Franz Vohwinkel - Probably the most prolific of the active game artists; it has been suggested that his style makes him this generation's Boris Vallejo. His games include: Tikal, Java, Mexica, Alexander the Great, Mesopotamia, some Magic cards, a set of the Blue Moon cards as well as the board-box and dragons, some of the Battletech cards, The Settlers of Catan Card Game, Samurai, Big City, Chinatown, Starfarers of Catan, Ra, Rhinelander, Attila, Princes of Florence, Doge, Web of Power, Starship Catan, Traders of Genoa, Puerto Rico, Amun-Re, some of the artwork for A Game of Thrones, Legend of the Five Rings, Warhammer TCG and literally dozens of other games not included here.

Joe Youst - One of the more popular artists in the wargaming world, his work includes: Barbarossa: Army Group South, 1941, Battle for North Africa and Brandywine.

There is little doubt that I have merely skimmed the surface here. My point has been to call attention to the work that contributes so much to our pleasure and entertainment and yet so very often is not acknowledged. We owe these artists much more than most realize. Speaking for all gamers I say... thanks guys.

- Dave Shapiro

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