It's unusual to ask the graphic designer to write about their graphic work. (We can write as a rule, although I’m not sure it’s personally my forte). Mary and Tom's request for me to say a bit about my board for their upcoming game The Vote: Suffrage and Suppression in America was unexpected, but I’m going to see if I can say something useful and maybe even coherent with an outside chance of being informative.
In designing a board, the first thing to do is gather the specs, the art direction, and the rules/playtesting components. You’d be surprised how often the rules are the one thing clients don’t think to supply right off the bat. Board game graphic design is UX design - its designing an experience where the users' choice, actions, and decisions are supported by the components not a struggle with or against them. Blocks moved, counters flipped, dice rattled. There's a physical engine in action when a game is played, and putting the gear stick in an out of the way corner isn’t what's needed.
Fortunately Mary and Tom have the experience to lay out a game in a solid manner. I’ll leave it up to them to answer what they are laying out instinctively from long practice and what’s a deliberate choice. Either way, the layout I got was clean, simple and made a great deal of sense for the rules that went with it:
Two player game? OK. Tracks facing the players on their corresponding side of the board? Great! Why are the tracks to one side? Well that's the fun bit. Mary and Tom wanted an old school (and I do mean old school) spiraling track for the score track a la the old Game of the Goose. The spiraling track was used repeatedly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for race games that span in theme from the original Goose Game to horse racing, romance and, my favorite, the teaching of morality to children through illustrated pictures with pious titles.
The Mansion of Happiness, Q. & S. B. Ives Company of Salem, Massachusetts, 1843.
So with the required direction in hand, I set forth. Despite the joy in my heart at the clear direction, I soon hit the first real stumbling block of my journey.
The look. Or there lies the rub.
There's three-quarters of a century being covered in this game, and while ‘Victorian’ covers a lot of it, there's a big difference between the early Victorian and the late, which is more Edwardian, and then there’s Art Nouveau somewhere in there. Not that this was the only consideration either. For instance, the game has its roots in Hollandspiele’s This Guilty Land, so some visual connections should be present. Also much of the available illustrations and photographs are firmly in the Edwardian, and while the spiral track is used through the whole period, it is used less and less as we reach the end of the nineteenth century. Further, the Victorian tendency to an ornate busyness is anathema to the modern boardgamer’s intolerance for beauty over clarity. Most people don’t know what's what when it comes to the styles of the day, and there is a tendency in people’s minds to blur things together, especially with imagery. The result is that ‘the 19th century’ is a bit mangled in its appearance to us now from what it looked like in reality. As a final thought, in the later half of the nineteenth century, games were being mass produced (as we might understand mass production) for effectively the first time as the technology finally allowed for it, and that technology also affected the appearance in subtle ways. This is something I used to my advantage.
Stating the obvious
I usually start with broad strokes, so a little texture and an old map served for a background and I’m off. My intent was to make a map to suit but the client isn’t looking for something to get them in the ballpark with the first draft. I found a period map that showed the spread of the popular vote in the 1880 Presidential election as a placeholder.
Historicity aside, the colors on the background map were going to overwhelm the map. Opacity and some color adjustments quickly solved that issue. Line boxes for the region tracks were next, and I picked the first draft colors of the main areas of interaction as well as picking out fonts: Brilon and (boringly) Baskerville.
Then I started to add the kinds of elements that are very 19th century - ornaments. Here's one place where I’m leaning heavily on the ‘19th century’. Historically, the ornaments in letterpress were for framing and filling space. The physical limitations of the reproduction techniques of the letterpress created the need for something to fill space in an aesthetic manner that could be reused elsewhere so as to make them affordable. These ornaments had originated as mimics of woodcut, etching, and scribal ornamentation. Lithography’s arrival at the very tail end of the 18th century as a technology meant much of the physical restrictions and reproduction restrictions of letterpress were moot while retaining the ability of letterpress to mass produce. Lithography also added the ability to lay down large areas of color in a reliable way, which had been the realm of the hand tinter or very short print run until then.
The power of suggestion
If you are wondering why I’m raising this at this juncture, it’s because it was not all giant leaps forward in technology, and that helped define the appearance of the printed material. Alignment was an issue. T-Bars, pin holes and other methods worked well, but were not the precision methods we experience today. Our tolerance for shifts in registration are profoundly limited and trapping is a no-no. And that leads to a major graphic decision for me. I could have done all kinds of effects to make the map look more like a period piece, a historical forgery if you will. But I didn’t. I wanted to acknowledge the reality that I am making something new, not old. Something of our time. I was looking to let the players lose themselves in the setting but not sacrifice their understanding of how to engage with the game as a person of the 21st century. Pretty? Period? Look too closely and it will break. The illustrations on the spiral are from the 1910s and 20s (mostly from the Suffragist magazine) but stylized slightly. The ladies ringing the bell are from a satirical cartoon that was intended to mock the suffragettes and while suiting the space well, I was pleased to have it as a quiet subversion of its original intent. The strokes around the text headers, matching the background color and game title, are mimicking the period technique that allowed for a little shift in the registration to go unnoticed. Effectively pointless in modern printing. By contrast, the purple and red of the tracks are for readability, not period. They would have murdered for a red like that in the nineteenth century. The ornaments are from a few decades earlier than the illustrations. The map in the background is an imitation serving the single purpose of framing and its style is more forgiving given that such maps were relatively consistent in the look for most of the period selected in the game.
Paint me a picture
The variety of colors I used for the regions in the map are from the hand tinting tradition, but the solid colors are more indicative of lithography. The goal was lots of colors then, but the palette needs to be relatively narrow where they are strong. Purple was a no brainer given the historical context and red was requested but what about the other?
Blue/teal won out in the end. Sometimes you just like it.
Spiraling to victory
The Victory image in the center of the spiral was one of the first images I found, and it seemed someone was telling me to put it there. The use of period illustrations was my call to This Guilty Land and some of the illustrations in the spiral are from Nina Allender, a fantastic illustrator and contributor to The Suffragist magazine. The lady of victory on the logo is also one of hers. I tried to keep the illustrators mostly in chronological order because of the tendency of these spirals to tell a story.
So take a look at Nina Allender
That’s about it really. And yeah, have a look at Nina Allender.