Making the Game part 4 – Graphic design

Previous entryPart 3 / Next entry: Part 5

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. In Part 3, I discussed the first playtest of the game with strangers, and the way the name of the game came to be.

At this point, I had decided that I was going to develop this game to the point of doing a small print run. Furthermore, I wsa going to do it in time for GenCon. Keep in mind that this was early June, and GenCon is in mid-August, so I was working on a 10-week timeline. Aggressive, but exciting!

The cards at this point looked like this:

Kind of uninspiring, don’t you think? I knew I was going to need art for the cards, but more importantly I was going to need well-designed cards. While I don’t personally know any illustrators, I do happen to be close friends with an outstanding graphic designer, Bree Heiss.

I called Bree one evening to talk about my game and the role I thought she might be able to play. There were several things that needed some awesome graphic design in my game:

  • Layout of the fronts of the cards (a very big task, incorporating different information for different card types, point values, artwork, artist credit, legal stuff, plus rules text and flavor text)
  • Design for the backs of the cards
  • Design for the box that the game comes in
  • Design for the rules sheet that comes in the box
  • A logo for the game itself

You’ll note that not included in this list is illustrations for the cards or the game box; the graphic designer’s job is design, not illustration. How are the elements arranged on the card? How do the words on the game box intersect with any artwork on the box? These are the kinds of things a designer can help with.

Fortunately, Bree was available for some design work. She even put a contract together for the work she would be doing; very professional (more on contracts in the next segment!). I was thrilled to find that she had given me three options for paying her: A single set fee, a lower fee plus 5% of game profits, and no fee plus 10% of game profits. While I went with the straight fee, I was tickled to see that she had enough confidence in me and my game to be willing to give up her fee in exchange for the chance that I might make a profit. (Note: While anything is possible, I am not assuming I will make any profits here!)

And with that, we started working together. Bree has been my main sounding board throughout this process; it’s amazing how the graphic design and the game design are closely intertwined! She started off by doing some sketches of potential card layouts.

The graphic design magic begins!

From here, I started providing feedback. I liked the idea of making the point value of a card in play nice and clear, as on Mortar and Pestle. I liked that Bree provided variation on themes as well as totally different themes.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get even black and white sketch art for my cards, and one of my playtesters (my brother in Pennsylvania) had suggested that an all-text layout might be the way to go. I asked Bree to try one of these. We also talked about ways of trying to clarify which cards in play had ongoing effects and which simply did their thing and then sat there, and one idea was to use a horizontal layout for cards with ongoing effects, to make them clearly different.

The next set of sketches incorporated some of these ideas:

New ideas start to develop

There were some innovative things here. The side-by-side art and text of Telescope on the bottom left and Solid Workbench on the bottom right was a cool idea, but we soon decided that the whole horizontal layout was just too much of a pain to deal with in-hand, even though it looked good on the table.

I liked the circular doo-dad that held the point value of Double Pelican (bottom row with purple border), but I liked the placement of the point indicator on King’s Disfavor (top row, second from right). Having the point value up top meant that players could stack up the cards that had no ongoing effects in their laboratory, showing just the name and the point value.

I also liked the black background of the negative point value on King’s Disfavor; it made it clear that this was a negative card to play on someone else.

With this back-and-forth, a vision for the cards started to take shape. Bree’s next set of sketches showed this zeroing in on a plan (and she also had gotten her scanner set up by this point, so we’re seeing scans instead of photos from here on):

Variations on a theme

Lots of cool stuff going on here. The design I enjoyed the most was this variation on Double Pelican (top row, second from left). I liked the big point indicator on the top right corner of the card. I liked the art box with a nice space but with some curves to it. It felt both clean and cool. Bree wasn’t thrilled with some of the blank spaces on it, so I sent her back a modification of her sketch (note that I am a poopy artist here, and it shows):

Note my efforts at editing the bottom right part of the art box

Bree understood where I was going with this, and put together an actual wireframe using some art she found online (not actual game art – sorry).

I love Bree’s flavor text

Yeah… this was looking good.

Now, there’s more to card front design than just arranging the parts – there’s also font to deal with! Bree supplied me with a dozen different fonts for the title and for the main text. We also used this process to pick a font for the card back, but I’ll address that later (we set the fronts aside for a while to work on the backs).

Once we came back to the fronts, Bree was ready to go all out – color, shading, legal text, art for the cards we had in, the whole nine yards.

I’m liking the color and the point indicator – Bree was experimenting with having it point downward for some cards and left for others. The art looks great (Beth Sobel did a fantastic job on this, her first piece for my game), but the art box is just so… rectangular.

This one is definitely not a rectangle. The filigree below the art window is kind of cool. The point indicator is too orange, though, and the oval art window was a little on the small side; not every piece would look good in it.

All right – now we’ve got some interesting choices! I personally loved the second layout of these four, Distributed Lore. A slightly curved art box, still plenty of space for text… yeah! I wrote Bree an email, and somehow screwed it up, telling her that I liked number 3 (Reversal of Fortune).

In the ultimate bizarre irony, here’s what I got next:

Yes, I got four cards mocked up to look like card number 1 from the previous set. I liked number 2, I mistakenly said number 3, but Bree did number 1. It was a weird mix-up, but Bree got it all worked out in the end:

Final layout in all its glory

Mmm, delicious! It’s clean and easy to read, but still beautiful. The swirly bits on the point indicator and the filigree beneath the art indicate that this card has an ongoing effect (cards without an ongoing effect will lack this). I just love everything about this layout.

Sharp-eyed readers may have also noticed that this card is of the “innovation” type, which wasn’t present in earlier versions. The rules are still in a little bit of flux based on playtesting, and I only in the last week renamed the Laboratory card type to Innovation in order to avoid confusion with the use of the word “laboratory” that refers to each player’s board.

It’s pretty amazing to see how far the card design has come in just a few weeks. It helps to have an amazing graphic designer like Bree Heiss on your team! None of you are allowed to hire her just yet; she’s still working on Chaos & Alchemy for the next few weeks, so hands off! 🙂 After that, though, hire the heck out of her; as you can see, she’s awesome.

And just wait until you see the  work Bree has done with the card back for Chaos & Alchemy. Fantastic stuff, I promise.

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter


One thought on “Making the Game part 4 – Graphic design

Leave a Reply