#26: ADSftK Designer Diary 2 (Art and Committing to Theme)

Alright!  Now that they holidays are over and everyone’s work schedules are returning to normal, let’s see if I can get this baby back on track 😀

Finally, part two of my series on the MANY things I learned from The Game Crafter‘s “Time” Design Challenge.  My entry was A Dragon Show for the King and the lessons were plenteous. Last time, I covered the design goals and physical components. This week, I’ll be discussing art and a little bit of theme.

Firstly, a subtle but serious problem.  I’ve mentioned before that this game was quite unique for me in that, out of 10 game designs over a year-and-a-half, this was my first which grew around mechanics – no theme or story.  Seriously! If you go to the game’s page and download the PnP you can see how the cards looked right up until the last few days of the competition.  Just grey cards with some information listed on them.

At first, I wasn’t worried about it.  “A theme will come,” I thought.  “I’ll just work on the game-play now, and finish the look and polish later.”  Yeah, the problem is, “non-gamers” and “gamers who learn rules a little more slowly” have a very difficult time grasping what they should do, when, how, and why without a frame of reference.  As I mentioned in the last post, accessibility was very important to me.  I thought “Draft a card, Cook it for X turns, and Score it” was simple.  It turns out that some people need to know why they are picking a card before anything else can make any sense at all.

Most people could be coaxed along through the learning curve, though.  Just when I was feeling my lowest about this problem, a lady from my FLGS asked to play it again.  The week before this she had played, was confused, and lost badly.  But this week, she said it was fun and wanted to play again!  That’s when I knew I had something worthwhile.  The biggest problem with “No Theme” was still to come, though.

I was so comfortable with the game as it was and so focused on making it a foundational Lagniappe game, that I resisted putting a theme on it.  Any other time, this could be argued as holding out for the perfect story.  Unfortunately, I was on a time-crunch.  I wasted weeks!  Wasted because “dragon eggs” was the second reasonable idea, first good idea I encountered! *Special thanks to Teale Fristoe (@nothingsacredg) for the suggestion of a celebratory dragon show instead of a kingdom wide war!*  Instead of committing to a good idea so that I could actually move forward, I continued to spin my wheels and ask everyone I could what theme / story they thought would work.  DON’T DO THAT!  Not only did I look really desperate (because I was), it tainted my image and ruined the conversation with a number of people who were nice enough to try the game.  The delay ultimately caused a LOT of headaches for the rest of the project.

By not committing to a theme early, I put myself in the awkward position of needing art in a VERY short period of time.  3 ARTISTS.   3 different artists came and went – unable to do the work I needed in the time I had left.  3 WEEKS.  Being a nice guy sucks when it causes you to flush 3 weeks waiting for one artist to actually produce something. 3 weeks down with nothing to show for it is scary!  I didn’t even dismiss her from the project until the 4th week.  When I finally did man-up and tell her, “Dont worry about this,” it was out of pity. With everything going on in her life and only 2 weeks left to finish the entire project, it was better for her to not have this extra stress.  It wasn’t all her fault, either. I utterly failed to follow Mr. Rodiek’s advice on working with artists.  I didn’t have solid numbers on how many dragons or eggs I needed.  I just couldn’t decide, which made her job a bit harder.  It’s always easier to do a lot of things when you know how many need to be done – instead of doing a lot, checking to see if it’s enough, yet, doing some more, ad nauseam.

After all of this hemming, hawing, and negotiating I ended up having to do all of the art myself in the last 5 days before the end of the contest.  Not fun at all.  I still didn’t even know what numbers I needed.  The original plan was to have dragons on the card backs. That way, when players flip the eggs into their score piles, they’d be building a group of dragons.  Right out the window!  I didn’t have the time or skill to pull that off.  This late in the game, I was just happy to have eggs.  I painted up a whole bunch of eggs – went until my brain ran dry.  Then, I worked up some hot coals for the background, built some symbols in Illustrator, and just started laying eggs on cards.  The number of eggs required for the project quickly became apparent.  Certain sets, color adjustments, and repetitions of similar styles were obvious now that I was actually doing something.  Ugh! It hurts to think of how much time and heartache I could have saved by building card illustrations and making a pretty prototype early on.

Now, let’s wrap up my lessons from this post.

  • Commit as soon as I have a theme which works with / explains how and why the game works.  This means not worrying about how the game’s theme (wizards and dragons and murder, oh my!) represents the company.  For me, contests are more about the designer than the publisher.  Besides, theme can always be changed.
  • Once I have a working foundation for the game, start mocking up illustrations.  Most people say to keep the prototype completely plain for as long as possible to save money on printing and retain modulation between edits / iterations.  Mocking up illustrations was key to my understanding of what art assets were needed.  Therefore, when time matters, I need to develop the look of the game ASAP (even if it means borrowing art from others) so that I have more time for fixes and adjustments.


  • Shop for and network with artists EARLY!  Even if I don’t know what art assets I need, yet.   While most people focus on how expensive art can be, my primary experience has been one of great difficulty in finding an artist.  PERIOD.  A dependable artist who is somewhat familiar with board games would be ideal.  However, someone I can stretch my budget to afford AND who is available has been a bit of a crap-shoot.  Looking for someone at the last second for any project isn’t exactly setting yourself up for success.
  • Mock-up the game before talking with an artist about the project.  If you find an available artist, they want to know what you want  – ALL OF IT – now.  To save yourself and your artists a lot of headaches, you should have a complete list (and complete understanding) of the art assets you need before they begin working.  *Quick note: if you are doing “full art” cards (illustration over the entire card instead of using a card boarder) make sure your artist leaves extra space around the focal point of the illustration.  Your printer needs a bleed area and your graphic designer needs room to layout information without covering up important parts of the image.  This layout. . . this version of framing the image is not natural for an illustrator.  If you don’t make your needs clear ahead of time you will be left with sub-optimal card art.
  • Learn to wear SEPARATE hats.  There are times where the Lagniappe Games publisher really interferes with Derik the designer.  Some times, I need to allow myself to work a game design for the experience.  It might become a great game, and it’s okay if it’s not “Lagniappe” worthy.  The important thing is to allow myself that learning experience.

Thanks for reading!  What have your experiences with design challenges been?  How do you pick your theme?

Let me know what you think