I don’t want to play your game if you care so little about its production that you phoned it in on the counters, map art, box design, player aid cards, and map. There, I’ve said it. I know that the quality of the game should matter way more than the quality of the components, but if I’m being 100% honest with myself…it still matters a whole lot more than I care to admit as the price of games continues to rise.
Today’s article is pretty simple, it’s a wishlist for publishers to consider and I hope you’ll add on to this with your thoughts as well to have a public conversation about what we like and don’t like! After all, we’re being held hostage by “the way it’s always been done” in an era where digital publishing and a worldwide network of manufacturers should ensure gamers get what they want.
There are, of course, tradeoffs and publishers try to balance the price of the game with the component count and quality that they demand. Further, the small (by comparison) print runs of boardgames means that there’s a threshold over which even giants like Fantasy Flight Games won’t tread…even as a Kickstarter. So, I fully recognize that the items on this list may cumulatively make games so expensive that they can’t reasonably expect to perform in the market. That said, without saying anything we’re going to continue getting what we’ve always received.
It starts with a box
This is easy…I don’t want a box that has enough room for a small above ground swimming pool unless the components inside demand the box be that big. Some folks like to store their wargaming components in game boxes, but even when the boxes are the deep 3″ – 4″ variety the components (unless bagged) rarely fit in even with thin profile trays like those from GMT Games.
I own a lot of games and it’s irritating when games come in that could have been in a smaller box and now it’s hogging physical space that could store 2 games with the same component count. It’s a waste of money and space…size the boxes for the game inside. That should go without saying, but I see it more frequently than I would like.
Maps are the centerpiece
Maps, for want of a better way to put it are the centerpiece of the majority of tabletop wargames. I want three things:
- Appealing artwork
Two of these are on the subjective end of the spectrum, but there are plenty of examples after 50 years of making wargames that should inform artists to the extent possible about what the majority of folks can stomach. As Supreme Court Justice Potter famously said, “I’ll know it when I see it.” In the case of clarity and appealing artwork, there’s a growing consensus specifically around what this is NOT rather than what this IS and taking cues from that shouldn’t be ignored.
Let’s start with durability.
Should maps be mounted? I don’t care one way or the other, but I will say this durability applies to both and my expectation is that the map graphics should flake off from repeated folding and unfolding the game and the seams shouldn’t tear from light usage.
Further, paper should of a sufficiently thick stock that it’s not prone to these problems. Every time I take a paper map out of a box and see that from the initial fold at the factory there are now white lines on the map, I’m looking directly at Compass Games here who seem to charge the most for games with maps that exhibit these issues. It has gotten better in the last few years, especially in 2017 & ’18 releases but a map like the one that came with End of Empire should never have been approved in the proofing stage.
Maps have to sustain holding the pieces, repeated plays, and folding/unfolding on a regular(ish) basis if the game is excellent. Accordingly, it should be tested and given the utmost attention in terms of durability.
What about clarity?
Maps tell a story, but if its impossible to read, then how good is that story going to be? A map like the one in Amateur to Arms is gorgeous, but features horrible information design and layout. Entrances, trails, and boundaries are difficult to see and understand in many cases, especially on the western side of the map.
That said, clarity doesn’t trump aesthetics and maps should be both. There’s a balance that needs to be struck. On the other end of the spectrum are maps from The Gamers which feature smooth flowing, chunky lines, and are boring beyond belief. A little texture goes a long way and no texture is boring. These battlefields were living places and need some character to accompany the clarity or they become clinical.
A few things to consider:
- Are my elevation changes and dominant terrain features in a hex easily identifiable?
- Is the typeface period appropriate and easy to read on the map?
- Are hex outlines understandable even in crowded depictions?
- Are informational charts on the map placed appropriately and easy to use for both players?
- Are game-specific features easy to locate and do they feature a creative depiction that’s adapted to the game in a meaningful way?
These questions get at the central challenge of information design for wargaming where there’s a balance to strike between art and design. Start with the feeling and build from there. We’re not trying to play games on an Ellsworth Kelly masterpiece (though that would be pretty awesome if Ellsworth Kelly had designed a wargame board!).
Though the most subjective of my recommendations, it’s one that should be given just as much attention as the component durability. I’m not even suggesting that there’s a “right way” or a paragon of wargame map art. For as many people who love Rick Barber’s maps there are an equal number who don’t find it appealing. The same can be said of The Gamers maps and even the beloved Combat Commander map style.
Art, as much as it is an exercise in subjectivity can be evaluated based on its merits. As such, I think it necessary to propose some criteria for the evaluation of map art.
- Does the map evoke the period?
- Does the map give a clear picture of the challenges (or lack thereof) of the terrain?
- Does the map provide sufficient clarity on terrain occupancy?
- Is there sufficient space in the hex, or areas, for the pieces that will be required to occupy it? If not, what alternatives on-map (or off) are provided to players?
- Is the color palette both pleasing to the eye and sufficient for the utility of the game?
- Are the typefaces used on the map legible, easily seen from where a player will sit, and in geographic proximity to the subject described?
There are, of course, others but these seem to represent the most consistent shortcomings of wargame maps. To people who claim that map art doesn’t matter to them, then great…for some of us it does and if it’s truly not a big deal then why bother chiming in any time someone critiques map art? It gives the impression that you do, very much, care about what map art looks like!
What about counters?
The lessons of UX designer Steve Krug apply in wargame counter design as well (for the most part…).
Here are a few key lessons to learn:
- Counters should be usable – Easy to pick up, manipulate, read, and understand intuitively. If the game has lots of stacking, color code them for easy reference and have the colors mean something as well. A giant stack of white counters on top of a gray one is annoying an unusable.
- Don’t make gamer’s think – Counters should be easy to understand from an information layout perspective. Be consistent, if movement is always in the lower right corner…keep it there in every counter regardless the unit type. If you use NATO symbols, make sure it’s sufficiently big to see from the table’s edge and that it is used across ALL units of that type. I hate seeing games where some armor is the NATO symbol and on some units it’s the silhouette. Be consistent!
- Don’t waste our time – Jamming as much information as you possibly can onto a single counter might feel great because you’ve increased the complexity of the game with minimally adding to the rules overhead someone needs to keep in their brain. Unfortunately, these kinds of counters tend to lend themselves to exceptions which are the enemy of usability.
- We form mental maps of information – If the relationship between counters is important, make it obvious at a glance. I don’t want to read the tiny unit designation to figure out which units are in the same formation. Use color. I don’t want to see a tiny depiction of a uniform coat to figure out unit allegiance…La Bataille is guilty of this nonsense.
- We are creatures of habit – Use the work that’s come before you and will come after you as a starting point. Failing a compelling and necessary reason, stick with the design patterns that already exist in wargaming. Changing something for the sake of changing it is only going to add to confusion. When you have a novel design that demands the change, it will be intuitive and acceptable, but if you can’t solidly answer “no” to the question, “Could my design work within the norm?” then don’t try to reinvent wargaming. Not only are you not that clever as a design…we’re not that clever as gamers!
I’m going to do a whole article on rulebooks, so let’s leave this here for the time being and we’ll wade into rulebooks and player aid cards at a later date.
As always, if you want to weigh in on this article … hit me up below in the comments or over on Twitter @wargamehq!