Signalling (art and titles)

Today we had a meeting with an artist and graphic designer who we may hire to work on the Artiste project. I’ve previously advocated placing a great deal of trust in artists – on the basis that there’s no sense in hiring an expert and then having a non-expert (i.e. me) telling them how to do their job. However in this case our prospective artist isn’t a gamer, so while I can trust her on the art, I need to be careful to indicate artistic and graphic elements that have specific meaning in the context of board games.


Most obviously there are conventions with respect to how a card for a game should be laid out. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a format other than having the image taking up most of the top half of the card while the ability text takes up most of the bottom half. The Mage Knight cards are slightly unusual in that they buck the trend of having the card title appear at the top of the card, but it still appears above the main ability text.

Slightly less obviously there are practical issues and iconography to consider. Players are capable of holding hands of cards in various ways and the physicality of this impacts upon card design. Having key icons and numbers appear in the corners of cards allows a hand to be fanned so that these can all be consulted at once without needing to spread out a hand and see all of the cards at once (Which gets uncomfortable quickly as hand sizes increase.) Iconography is equally straightforward to express, though with the added difficulty of ensuring that icons on different mediums will noticeably match even if the printing on one or both is less than perfect.

The hardest thing I found to communicate was the manner in which art and design elements signal various facts about a game. If we garbled the text from the image above and showed it to a gamer that had never played Mage Knight and asked them to tell us about the game there’d be enough clues there to identify a few things about the game. The level of detail in the art, the space allocated to text, the use of icons for card type taken together spell out that this will not be a light game.

Consider these cards, what do they tell you about the differences between the games that they’re from, even with the text garbled out:

wowcard munchkin uno

The elements of art and design used to signal the nature of a game are slightly woolly, which makes them hard to express to people who are new to gaming. It’s made slightly trickier by our positioning Artiste as a game that’ll be accessible to people joining us from the orchestral route as well as the gaming route. Were we at either extreme it’d be easier to suggest an imperative like “Put as much detail as possible into everything.” or “Keep to bright, bold, primary colours and sweeping images.”

Certainly this is on the lighter end of the scale, but I’ve been playtesting with some of the Genesis and Nightmare testers and they’ve had a blast with it so I don’t want the box and cards to signal that this is a children’s game with no meat on its bones. Another consideration, entirely separate to the game itself, is its identity with The People’s Orchesra, which typically uses areas of bright colour to make the association clear.


I’m not sure that it’s possible to write an exacting taxonomy of which artistic and design choices indicate what about a game and it’s weight and mechanics. However it is important for games designers to consider this and be concious of it when writing the brief for artists and game designers. In this instance I think that the best way forwards is to discuss it frankly with all involved and try to provide lots of examples of how different games signal their intent through their art.

Equally a game’s name can have a large impact upon how it’s initially perceived and whether someone stops for a second look or glances past it. Artiste has always been a working title and the field of names is wide open, though literally as I was writing this blog post I was pulled away for a brief discussion and brainstorming session on names. The leading candidates are now:

Instrumentalists, art and deceit.
Instrumentalists infiltrated.
Muddle musicians.
Shenanigans: The Musical!
The Truth About Musicians.
Truth, Lies and The Orchestra.

Language is something that varies considerably in complexity. The frequency with which words occur in language determines how complex they’re seen as being which in turn dictates how “heavy” something that uses that language seems. A title like ‘The Truth about Musicians’ signals a lighter game than ‘Instrumentalists Infiltrated’ due to word use, but there are other linguistic factors. An active/action title implies a more thematic, quicker and lighter game than a passive one.

I’m not sure how each of these stands up yet, as I mentioned the meeting occurred literally as I was writing this and I’ll want a while to mull it over. My instinct is that “Shenanigans: The Musical” is a great title, while it uses an uncommon word it’s also very active and ‘shenanigans’ feels like a good word for a social deduction game.

There are other aspects of game design that signal the games nature to people who’ve not yet had the chance to play it, but this seems like a good place to start. What games do a particularly good or bad job of signalling their intent?

For a scholarly database on the complexity of words click here
For a fun with common words try this

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