Graphic design is a key skill in board game making, it is critical that your game be understandable and intuitive. An intuitive game is one that a player can look at and generally guess how all the moving parts fit together. This is done by making sure you use the right language to describe the game, both in words and iconography.
Now I’d hardly call myself an expert in graphic design, but I do play a lot of board games, so below is a brief timeline of some of my struggles getting the iconography right for my game, Killer Croquet.
So one of the key mechanics in Killer Croquet is “Collisions”, either your mallet colliding with somebody’s face, or your ball colliding with any number of things (including somebody’s face)
The original mechanic involved rolling a dice and checking for collisions. This was changed to cards for a variety of reasons, so now when you check for collisions, you draw and resolve a card.
There’s actually quite a bit of information that needs to be on these cards.
-A binary hit or miss for attacking.
-A list of object types the card allows a ball to hit. (different objects are harder to hit)
-Any changes to the ball’s trajectory as it is deflected off the thing it hits.
-Reference material to remind players what happens with a successful collision.
This mechanic has been the sticking point for a lot of playtesters, and is at the core of the game.
My first interpretation of the collision cards were a direct representation of my needs. A binary pass or fail for attacks (represented by the orange hammer), a listing of objects the ball could hit, with a brief description of what happens. Additionally, when you “collide” with a wicket, the ball’s trajectory never changes, so I put that as a binary pass/fail element in the corner as well.
My thoughts were to make my cards like the Crisis Deck in Battlestar Galactica. Unfortunately a crisis is just what I got.
For any given card draw, the card was mostly extraneous information: lots of information and icons that are only circumstantially relevant. Players had to search and decipher a handful of elements, most of which boiled down to nothing.
Furthermore the trajectory diagrams were tiny, icons were placed inconsistently, and the combination of text and icons unwieldy.
The first playtest with these cards almost sent me back to dice, but from an theory perspective cards should be the better choice for clarity, so I attempted to refine the visual language on the cards instead of changing the mechanics.
For the second iteration of cards I knew I had to trim down the sheer amount of information on the cards. The first thing I realized was that chances “to hit” a player with a mallet was identical to hitting a player with a ball. So I could scrap the binary orange mallet and use a single symbol for “hitting players”.
The wicket was still kept separate to distinguish that it is not influenced by the trajectory. I also did away with the text to make the trajectory diagram bigger.
This design still suffers from a few problems. Looking for the wicket symbol is still not easy, not a bad problem but it breaks the visual flow of the card. Depending on what you’re doing, you have to look at different parts of the card. It makes it very easy to get lost trying to scan for information.
The other problem is that there is no indication of “missing”. You are successful if the icon is present, but failure is only marked by the absence of the icon. Since there is still a lot of information on the card, it can take a lot of time to ascertain that a symbol is, in fact, not present. Furthermore, the odd grouping of symbols above the trajectory icon is not immediately descriptive or eye catching.
The third iteration solved some major problems, but also created some.
The first step was to standardize the information on every card. With the same information in the same place with each card it becomes much more obvious where to look for information. Wicket pass, wicket fail, same space on the card, and the result right next to it, whether a success or a miss.
Additionally, the cards had space to add smaller icons as reference to what happens. Pass wicket? Score extra turn market. Hit player? Do damage. The addition of miss iconography, made it much clearer to players what to do.
There are still problems though. Each icon is given equal weight, which makes the card seem busy and flat. Players can employ a system to extract information out of the card, but it still takes multiple steps. Also each of the cards had a similar feel. Though it is only a deck of 10 cards, there are 40 entries (4 per card), each with 3 distinct pieces of information. Ultimately 120 pieces of information.
The game uses a 10 card deck, and a certain amount of “card counting” is a part of the game, but with excessive information on the cards understanding the information was hard enough without trying to master it.
In general these card designs slowed the game down immensely, it took players too much time to analyze and understand the information; they were beginning to really understand the information in the first play through however, so I could tell I was on the right track.
The current designs aren’t perfect, but at this point they work very well.
The first change to the cards is the addition of one extra large symbol that marks the card. I’ve also introduced a symbol that represents “hits everything”. The idea here is that when a player flips over the card, the first question they have is “Did I hit?”, the first thing they see on the card is now a symbol with one of three permutations “yes” “no” and “maybe”. All previous iterations of these cards answered that question with “it depends”. Furthermore in the latest deck only 3 out of the 10 cards are “maybe”.
The maybe cards only hit particular targets, and 3 of them were enough for me to influence the probabilities of the different targets to keep the appropriate balance. Furthermore, next to the icon are additional icons that define exactly which targets hit and which targets miss. There was even space available to include the rule reference icon to hint at what happens when a specific object is hit.
The second largest icon on the card is the trajectory diagram, as it should be. After a player asks “does it hit?” The next question is “now what?”. The relative size of the icons reflects the flow of information.
Lastly, 6 of the cards are “hit”, 1 is a “miss”, and 3 are “hit somethings”. By giving the each of the card types a large easily identifiable symbol it becomes much easier to glance at the discard pile and guess what is left in the deck.
In terms of card counting it reduces 120 pieces of information to roughly 10. The big X is in the discard? Everything else is a hit or a maybe. As opposed to going checking the specific “to hit” for each object on cards in the discard pile.
There are a couple losses with these cards. Firstly, it is harder to distinguish that the wickets do not influence the trajectory of the ball. That rule is made fairly clear in the rulebook, and is marked on the card by an asterisk, but it is not as clear as I would like. Also, in general, I have less control over the probabilities of the trajectory variable for specific target. In practice this means that, previously, when a ball hits a player it was 30% more likely to stop than other targets, and now it is only 10% more likely to stop. It is actually the only change the new design necessitates, and it is by no means game breaking. Fortunately the percentages “to hit” are identical despite rearranging the distribution of the cards. A small price to pay for a critical increase in clarity.
I’ll certainly be tweaking the designs moving forward, but having clear goals to strive for makes the process iterative as opposed to just running around in circles.
Graphic design is an intensely important element of game design. More than likely players are going to play your game incorrectly, and fudged rules can really warp a players perception and enjoyment of a game. Graphic design is a careful balance of enough information, emphasized correctly, and appearing at the right place and time. I cannot stress enough that graphic design ought to play a major role in your prototypes at every stage of the process. It can make all the difference.