The design of An Infamous Traffic’s cover began with a surprisingly rejection. Mary and Tom had both loved the design of the game. They had loved the look of my playtesting counters, and they had loved the map. They did not, however, liked the cover.
What more could they want?! This cover had everything. It had fancy typography and it had a pretty painting. What historical game box could want more?
Well, it turns out that they both had strong opinions about covers. Wargame cover design over the past fifteen years or so has followed the Rodger B. MacGowan school of design. Get a painting, offset it with a plain or lightly textured color bar and voilà—you’ve got an evocative cover. Of course, those that know his older work might identify him with well-arranged collages and striking silhouettes, but he (and most wargaming companies) seem to have left these designs behind with a few rare exceptions.
When I asked Tom for advice he gave me just one name: Saul Bass. That was all I needed. As Tom detailed in the cover story for his Agricola: Master of Britain, Bass’s work in film posters still sets the bar for powerful and affecting minimal designs. And here I thought I couldn’t love Hollandspiele’s approach any more than I already did. I was ready to scrap my initial design.
I design covers for every project I’m working on, often early in the process. Mostly, it’s a way to distract myself from the modeling and the spreadsheets and the wordsmithing that makes up so much of game design. Whenever I need a break, I boot up some Adobe product and just start noodling around. Normally I have no illusions on actually using that cover in submission. Covers, like titles, are things usually left to editors and publishers, and I don’t mind submitting to their judgement. After all, they are the ones who need to sell the darn thing.
In general, my approach is eclectic. With An Infamous Traffic my first impulse had to go with a painting with some water and ships in it. When I was working on Pax Pamir, I worked up two covers, one that was heavy on type, and one that opted for a more abstract take on the game.
I loved that second cover so much. After hundreds of plays of Pax Pamir, it captured everything I thought a good cover needed. But Phil Eklund shot it down almost immediately and came up with his own. I deferred to his judgement and am happy I did. The game’s published cover was both more thematic and almost instantly recognizable. When dealing with a theme that has gotten very little attention in this industry, it was wise to err on the side of accessibility and eye-catching.
Now I had a chance to do a cover my way. I did some sketching and came up with a short list of visual priorities: nautical, ominous, distant, and minimal. I tried a few designs but settled early on a somewhat 70s inflected design that was mostly negative space. I wanted the ocean to dominate the design.
I ran into a problem pretty early though. The ocean is colorful and would work against the darker tones. Even the wine-dark look didn’t carry the weight I wanted it to without adding in a ton of complicated texture work. And, what’s more, all that work would just keep me farther from keeping things minimal.
Eventually I settled on black and decided to let the title bleed into the sea. By refusing to offset the title either in position or color, I wanted to undermine the composition’s negative space. Since the central feature of the design was its stark contrast between top and bottom, each element wasn’t in a perfect balance. I wanted the darkness to appear to be growing.
For the sky I decided on a gradient. Gradients are one of the big no-nos of design because they are so often used capriciously and can make designs busy. I wanted the visual noise. By making the strip of graphical activity at the top as noisy as possible, it could counterbalance the big block of dark space. The brighter colors of the gradient also allowed me to have room for a little visual optimism; after all, not all the Brits who set sail for Canton were villains.
The overall effect of the horizon, I hope, serves to emphasize two important divisions. The first is a divide between those who supported and opposed intervention (further emphasized by the two voices from the parliamentary debate I quote on the box sides). The second is a division in peoples which is meant to include the mutual pride and suspicion with which each side treated the other. Of course, the cover, like the game itself, is seen from British perspective. But the design’s perspective and title are meant to place us at a remove from the action. In this way I mean to subtly invoke the game’s emphasis on London society and a world that would, for so many years, think of the opium trade as “an infamous traffic.”
On Friday, Cole tells us about An Infamous Traffic's map.