When Mary and I started talking about the feasibility of publishing games ourselves, one of the prime topics of discussion was how to keep down the costs of the artwork, while still paying our artists a rate that we felt was equitable and fair for their labor and talent - a tricky balance, to be sure. I know when I was developing pack-in games for Yaah! magazine that I had to adhere to a pretty strict art budget. One artist completed his work for a few hundred bucks at a hefty discount as a favor to me and to Mark. When I asked him out of curiosity what his normal price would have been for a project of that scope, he said it'd be about $1100. It would have been worth every penny, but wouldn't have made economic sense for a magazine pack-in.
And while it might make sense for a boxed game, the simple fact of the matter is that Mary and I don't have that kind of money to throw around on a single game, and we wouldn't be comfortable asking professional artists to work so far below their going rate. I mean, we'll haggle a bit, sure, but at the end of the day we want to treat professionals like professionals.
Our solution was to enlist yours truly as a sort of in-house graphic designer that would take care of the covers and counters, while hiring talented artists to create the maps. (My graphic design ability is slightly limited, so we've also reached out to artists who can lend their special touch to unit illustrations and status markers.)
This hinged, of course, on me being able to create good counters, and that those counters were also able to pass the Mary Test. That probably sounds a little ominous, and might even get me into trouble, so let me explain. Like a lot of wargamers, my bar for "good counters" is set at a certain level that's primarily concerned with functionality and cleanness. If you give me a countersheet for an old SPI game, I'm going to "ooh!" and "aah!" But if you give that same sheet to a Eurogamer, they're probably going to say it looks "dull" or "plain" or "what's the difference between a 2-2-4 and a 2-4-2?" They have higher expectations for board game components, and I'm not going to say they're wrong to have them. In fact, they're probably right, and we've just been conditioned over the years to accept plain, blah counters. Mary came to wargaming through Eurogaming, and is still primarily a Eurogamer, and so her standards are higher than mine. She's also well-versed in art and design. Hence, the Mary Test.
There were doubts about my ability to pass the Test at first -- that's going to become clear when I do the piece on Blood in the Fog and the dozen different iterations of those counter designs. I was very conscious of this when I started work on the counters for The Scheldt Campaign. I needed to prove that I was up to the task of handling the counters in-house.
I always lay out counters in Photoshop. I know I should probably lay them out in Illustrator like a normal person, but I've never quite gotten past the "what does this do" stage in Illustrator. Something for me to improve on. In the meanwhile, I use Photoshop.
I design my 5/8" counters on a 6/8" (or 3/4") canvas. I use Guides to mark certain areas or "zones" of the counter.
The innermost zone is the "safe area", where the counter's art and factors will make their happy little home. The middle zone indicates the actual full extent of the counter. Stuff in this zone will be visible on the counter, but nothing important should be in this zone. This is to protect against misalignment in the cutting. (This is not really an issue with laser-cut counters to the same extent that it is with die-cut counters. I still do it just to be on the safe side though.) Finally, the final zone extending out to the ends of the canvas is the bleed area; this is where the art/color will overhang past the cutting area (and this, too, protects against unsightly miscuts).
This being a Very Serious World War II Game, the colors used for the various nationalities don't exactly jump out at you to promise excitement. Tan! Brown! Gray! There are a handful of green (Americans) and orange-red (Poles) counters, but mostly we're dealing with various shades of car interiors. So, my first task was to try and jazz that up a little. The simplest way to do this was to use a straightforward circular gradient emanating from the center of the counter. I used two shades for each color, starting with the lighter shade and moving into the darker shade. The gradient ends just at the edge of the safe zone, so that you have solid colors for any cutting edge. This again protects against miscuts.
DIFFERENTIATING TASK FORCE, TACTICAL, AND SCRATCH UNITS
A key element of the game's design is the distinction between Task Force HQs and Tactical Units. Tactical Units can exist on the map as a detached force, but will generally be put to better use if assigned to a Task Force. The Task Forces all have the same NATO icon, but I felt it was important to drive home the distinction more overtly.
I quickly hit upon the obvious answer of using a "filled-in" white NATO symbol for the Task Force HQs, while using a "hollow" symbol for the Tactical Units. This of course had the added benefit of letting the player actually see the gradient for the vast majority of the units.
Further, among the German Tactical Units, there are a bunch of randomly-drawn "scratch" battalions cobbled together from leftovers and raw recruits. I gave those NATO symbols a pale yellow interior to further distinguish them from the others.
The game has a wide variety of unit types, and all-in-all I now have about two dozen different NATO symbols I can draw on for future WW2 games.
SPECIAL RULES REMINDERS
The game also has a number of special rules that apply to this unit or that one. Some of these were highlighted on the counters in the original Microgame Design Group edition of the game; for example, the artillery counters in that game had a parenthesized attack factor to indicate that while they could support an attack, they couldn't attack all by themselves. I tweaked that slightly, putting a box around the factor instead. Parentheses always seem kind of unwieldy to me on a counter, and they certainly wouldn't have fit given the large, bold, black numbers I used.
Beyond the arty units though, there were a number of units with their own specific chromey wrinkle. Some of these had some other kind of signifier on the original counters, such as an underline, while others did not: you just had to remember that such-and-such a unit did such-and-such a thing. I used a simple stripe at the top of the counter as a generic catch-all for "see the special rules section, or consult the special rules box on the PAC". It seemed to have done the trick rather well.
I passed the Mary Test! This is one case where there were very few revisions, and my first stab at it more-or-less matches the final product. Two notable exceptions:
In my first pass at the counters, I used a slightly different font for the Task Force's ID number than I used on the Tactical counters to further push the distinction between them. Mary and Brian didn't care for that though, and didn't think it was wholly necessary, so out it went.
I also took the "hollow" concept a little too far perhaps, and had hollow dots for the artillery units and motorized infantry. Brian suggested I fill those in, if for no other reason than to prevent certain gamers from filling them in themselves with a permanent marker. I agreed and put the black back inside the little circles.