The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Mike Doyle Interview

Ryan Bretsch

May, 2005

Mike Doyle is a name that you may not have heard of in the boardgame world, but that is about to change. The upcoming Reiner Knizia game, The Adventure League by QuestMachine, has Mike's signature imprint on it, as the lead artist for the gameboard and component graphics. Mike is currently a Design Director for a New York City brand consulting group. He has lead brand consulting efforts for M&Ms, Pepsi, DaimlerChrysler and Jose Cuervo... just to name a few.

Examples of Mike's talent can be found at his website www.michaeldoyle.com. We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Mike to get a fresh but experienced perspective on the "art" of boardgames... in more than just the literal sense.

Ryan Bretsch: Many people are interested in the creative process that goes into fashioning the art for a boardgame. Once given the premise and theme of a game, where do you draw your inspiration for where you want to take it artistically?

Mike DoyleMike Doyle: This is a good question, Ryan. Anything and everything inspires me. Generally, I first start by digging into the era or culture in question. The art, materials, machinery, graphics, architecture, poetry, the way people lived, the history, what they celebrated, the way they viewed the world (religion-centric, materialistic, impulsive, violent, austere) are all inspiring. All of these provide important cues that can effect the visual look, feel and tone of the game.

Now, all this describes what one would expect—how to style a theme. When things get interesting is when I look at other forms of packaging throughout the world, outside of gaming... from European dry goods to Japanese shoes to the rich world of album cover art, for example. Looking at other expressions can influence new ways of thinking on the common game box.

Describe from an artist's standpoint, how illustration, shading and color in a boardgame set the mood and tenor for a game. Can effective art help the game play better?

At its best, the tools at the artist's disposal draw players into the theme and provide the framework for an enjoyable playing experience. The enjoyment that good artwork can provide comes from the delight of looking at something appealing and satisfying (whatever that may mean to the individual) and comes from the sense of power and control one can experience through carefully presented information graphics. As I'll elaborate later, information graphics can better inform players of the status of key variables such as: Who is ahead? How close am I to the end of the game? What do I do next? How does another player's move affect me? etc.

Some of the tools artists have at their disposal are as follows:

  1. Color/Hue: These are general color categories, like red, yellow, purple, green, etc. This is the single most effective manner in which to categorize groups. Categorization can happen through players (which is the most common use for color coding), goods (like Puerto Rico), areas/zones and any other thing which you would like to have on the first tier of coding.
  2. Color/Saturation: This refers to how bright or gray a color/hue is. This tool can be effective in toning down areas that are overpowering color/hue communication. An example of this might be to desaturate a board's color so that the player's pieces will "pop" off the board.
  3. Tone/Value/Contrast: Durch die WüsteThis refers to how dark or light a color or neutral tone may be. In situations where there is a great deal of bright color, strong contrast (black against white) can dominate. An example of a game using tone would be the camels in Through the Desert. Here, color "values" have been reduced to separate this coding from the player color coding.
  4. Form: This refers to things like triangles, squares, visual dynamics etc. Examples of form are when physical objects or shapes "explode" off the board visually... or, for example, when a board demonstrates a strong diagonal effect.

Many other visual tools and tricks are available to the artist. The careful use of these tools can bring about a hierarchy where the proper aspects of the game are highlighted and projected to the user and supplemental information sinks back to a secondary role.

How much input does an artist have in the technical aspect of how a board is developed and represented to the consumer, in terms of the physical game mechanics?

The artist/designer should drive this. However, I always start with input from the publisher and listen to what they have in mind. After all, they've played the game, they know what is important to the game play and have an educated opinion of how things might lay out. This is an extremely important jump start that can save a great deal of time.

Next, I look at the information architecture. To me, the game-board is nothing other than a giant chart of information. It's fundamental purpose is to reveal the mechanics of the game and provide dynamic feedback of the game in progress. This is where I start. It is only after this, that I begin to style the board according to the tone/theme that the publisher and I have in mind. All this is extremely important in getting the players into the game quickly and providing a satisfying game flow.

Walk us through the mechanical process of game art development. How does a simple pencil sketch become the glossy, striking, exquisite, colorful canvas upon which the game is played?

Well, I always begin by defining a wireframe of what is central to gameplay: basically, the hierarchy of information. Sometimes this is just a sketch on a bit of paper or words (for example, "produce materials -> process materials -> ship items"). I also look for exceptions to the rules or to the basic premise that might need calling out. This is usually the wrinkle that makes the game interesting. At this time, I also look at the physical components that the publisher has in mind and measure how these components will physically fit into this framework—or really, how the framework will fit around the pieces. Once the publisher and I are satisfied with this skeleton of the game, I begin to sculpt the body around it, to see how the game looks and feels. After the art components have been illustrated and placed on the original wireframe, I take another hard look at how things are looking and working together overall. Questions I might ask are: "Is the art overpowering?", "Is the art getting in the way of the mechanics and feedback mechanisms?", "Is the coding working (for instance, do the color pieces conflict with tiles, art, etc)?"

From here, I make adjustments—sometimes to the art and other times to the information architecture—to better accommodate oversights from early development.

In terms of art development, this is all done digitally any time that it makes sense. I carve out a look and feel that I believe will resonate with players using anything from painting programs, to Adobe Photoshop, to illustrating programs.

What are some common reasons why "bad" game art can occur? How could this negatively impact the game?

I think there are two levels that I would frame this in—at one level there is "information architecture" which is what the board is mostly about and what information needs to be conveyed. At the other level is "aesthetic interpretation" which is mostly reflected in the game box, but can also be seen on the game board.

Mayfair Games' Settlers of CatanOf these two, "information architecture" is, by far, the more critical component and where things can go badly wrong if one is not careful. When graphics (such as color coding), fail to provide adequate feedback, the gameplay can be damaged, and sometimes severely impaired. And it can be subtle. For instance, in the Mayfair version of Settlers of Catan, the colorful tile artwork interferes with the players' colored pieces. This is because the tiles rely on both color and form for coding. Certainly the game remains very, very playable. However, the harshly colored tiles make it harder to read the board when the patterns formed by the color of the player's pieces are overpowered by the dominant coloring of the tiles.

Again, this situation is perfectly playable, but more care in this regard could have better aided players. Disastrous situations occur such as when colors are virtually indistinguishable—and the game becomes too hard to play as a result. In general, when I look for such informational nuances, I review the game board for its ability to determine key variables in the game.

As for "aesthetic interpretation", I would say that there are two altitudes to gauge. At a very high altitude, I think the industry, as a whole, is not keeping up with our culture and the emergence of a totally new generation of board gaming with respect to box art. I will get into this in a bit, but in general, there is very little that I like or find appealing in terms of box covers.

At a lower altitude, the second component to aesthetics has to do with the actual execution of the art. I believe, like any other kind of product, if the execution is not as good as it can be, the product experience is a little less compelling. One can easily stare at a game board for the good part of an hour. What other work of static art do we own that we stare at for quite as long?

From this perspective, good board design and effective graphics can offer the pleasure and enjoyment that comes from being a part of agreeable surroundings. I compare bad looking board game art to living in a run down, messy home. Yes, everything may function and work perfectly in the house, but you don't necessarily feel as good about living there or being the owner of that home, as you would otherwise.

In your opinion, what are some games that have examples of "good art"?

Good game art is tricky to define. Again, some of it falls under information design—is the board aiding the gameplay? Some of it relates to the aesthetics of the board—Am I drawn to it? Does it look beautiful? Is it appropriate? Some of it relates to box graphics—How compelling is the art?

As to a game that answers well on all these points, I cannot think of a one, but I might have a more critical eye than most. I still feel I haven't had as much exposure to all of the different games in a way many of the readers here have. But here are a few that interest me, segregated on the points I have outlined:

Information Design:

A great many of the Eurogames do a good job at this though I rather like Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings series and Traders of Genoa.

Metro from Queen Games Board Aesthetics:

  • Heroscape
  • Wongar
  • Eschnapur
  • San Marco
  • White Lady

Box Cover Art:

  • Metro
  • China
  • Clue (2005)

Turning to the area of "box art", is this an area that you feel game publishers maximize? How much authority do you feel that an effectual box art design can have in compelling a person to want to pull down a game and play it?

In terms of publishers maximizing what they have on the boxes, I think many of these companies fall short in their branding efforts. Often, the publishers' brandmarks and co-branded marks feel like an afterthought. A few companies that do have strong branding are Avalon Hill (both old and new), Alea, Ravensburger and Kosmos, amongst others. Now here, I only speak to the thoughtfulness and decisiveness of devices rather than aesthetic criteria of their marks and brand detailing—as this is a very subjective area. Such publishers as I mentioned make good use of color, placement and graphic devices to create a consistent, systematic look throughout their portfolio. Everything has order and feels purposeful. This can increase shelf appeal in game shops and within one's own closet when the games are seen as a group.

In terms of reaching into the game shelf, I generally pull down games based on previous experiences and what I'm in the mood for or I think my guests are in the mood for—so this would by far be the primary driver for playing a game. However, compelling art can help when decisions are made by guests in the house as they scan the shelves for something to play.

Alea GamesIf they see something that looks interesting, they ask about it and this means it might have more of a chance for play. Readable graphics from sides are very important. Generally, you see the sides of the boxes in home situations. Finally, as mentioned, publishers that have strong brand "looks" or graphic systems amongst the products in their portfolio (like Avalon Hill—both old and new—and Alea) will naturally find themselves grouped on the shelves in the house. This is very effective in drawing the eye to that cluster in one's shelves and consequently finding a particular game.

Summarize the reasons on how "distinguished" board and box art can have a positive impact on the marketing of a game? From your background in marketing, how much impact do you believe board and box art has in the customer's final buying decision?

I ask, "Why would someone buy a particular game?" For most current consumers, I would suspect word of mouth, online research and previous playings are the greatest purchase drivers. Box art has very little influence here except perhaps to seal the deal. Some do buy the game for the artwork and how it looks, but this is the exception. Others, who are on the fence might be swayed by presentation and add it to their collection. Additionally, there could be a way to rethink the box graphics to attract a new generation of gamers.

As for the board, I believe it is interesting to note that it plays a greater role these days than it used to in terms of driving purchases. Years ago, one's experience with the board before purchase was the image on the back of the box, perhaps a previous playing of the game with friends or perhaps seeing in a magazine. Now, the board presents itself before purchase through images online. With the multitude of photos posted on the BoardGameGeek and other sites, the board offers many clues as to what the game experience will be like before a purchase is made. Also, besides how it looks, a well designed board can show a glimpse of the important mechanics that might be evident through the look of the board. This can also add appeal to those looking for particular kinds of mechanics or combinations of mechanics. It's the, "Oh I get it, you put this piece here and this happens to make this happen" type of thought. Such familiarity and association with known mechanics makes it easier for the consumer to jump into the rules, as they already begin to understand the language of gameplay.

We hear a lot about the rarity of "innovative game mechanics" and that truly pioneering mechanics are getting harder and harder to find. Do you feel that there is anything "innovative" left in game art, that hasn't been done before?

Absolutely and here I'll speak toward box art. There has been, for many generations, a general formula for creating box covers that basically has not changed. With the themed Euro-style games, for example, you will find a big, illustrated image, usually depicting an event related to the theme, the big game name on top and the publisher's logo on bottom—usually on the right hand corner. Illustration styles can vary and often will depict a period look.

Of course, there are stylistic differences that ebb and flow with the decades, but, essentially, the formula of logo, illustration, logo and the scale of the components has remained basically the same. Additionally, the look and feel of the box art tends not to be terribly arresting or new looking. All this said, Franz Vohwinkel is quite good delivering within the previously stated formula. The lovely imagery and a high level of detail is very good—he really does a terrific job. He has done a lot in this regard to raise the bar for the industry. Metro, is one of my favorite games with this type of approach, giving a really convincing, beautifully rendered illustration and period typeface.

So why do I think this formula needs rethinking? With the new generation of gaming at hand, the visual language remains identical to its predecessors—it does not communicate that something new is happening here. The world of games desperately needs to become relevant and desirable within our culture. It deserves to be desirable as the products do have widespread appeal on many levels. Boardgames bring people together. Boardgames are fun and challenging. Boardgames make us think. The great talent behind the development of the games deserve as much as well. With all the exciting facets these new games have to offer, publishers should be holding the keys to a lifestyle that people want to be part of. I believe the perception here (in America, at least) is that boardgames are for kids or for people out of the "mainstream" with regards to their entertainment choices.

Mike Doyle's version of the Puerto Rico box art.

So I ask, why can't boardgames aspire to capture this gaming lifestyle in the hearts and minds of the mass through a new look, a new fresh feel? Why can't new, arresting visual design bring to life what we all really want: that is, to have games be part of the "in" club that people choose for their entertainment choice?

What does this new game presentation look like? It should be "chic, hot, cool" within the context of the theme. It should not look like a board game, in the way the iPod didn't look like, nor was packaged like, a regular mp3 player or music device. It should be our badge. When the iPod first came out, people would say to me, "Huh? What's that? It looks different. It looks cool."

The new look should break the definition and conventions of how people view a game, just as innovative game designers have completely redefined how a game should play. To this end, I draw on inspiration from outside the world of the gaming and ask, "What is desirable?" I look at the design appeal that is coming out of Target these days. 20 years ago it was another low end competitor to Kmart—not a club I wanted to be part of. Now, contemporary sensibilities and designer appeal elevate the brand to the stylish alternative to inexpensive shopping. By dispensing with the expected, consumers are given the freedom to reinterpret their notions of what a "club member" might be like. In this way, the game box can shed any stigma that is commonly associated with who games are for.


Many thanks to Mike for taking time to share his views.

- Ryan Bretsch

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