So recently you may have seen a couple of reviews on this blog. I review stuff all the time, so that isn’t a great opening sentence. Let me try again. Recently, you may have seen two very specific reviews on this blog. Those are reviews for Food Fight, a small four-player card game with quirky cartoonish art, and Castles of Burgundy, an instant classic in the making.
So far as games go, you could not get more different if you tried. They are both 2-4 players, but that is about as close as they get to being similar. One is about playing cards to fight one another with instruments of edible destruction and the other is a fairly abstract tile placement game. Food Fight is ranked number 4,011 on Board Game Geek, whereas Castles of Burgundy is ranked number 11. There is exactly 4,000 positions’ difference between them. They are nothing alike really, but by far the biggest difference is that they have completely contrasting art. This was the biggest compliment for Food Fight, whilst it was the biggest flaw in Castles of Burgundy.
This got me thinking about whether great art makes a great game. If you want to read the review of Food Fight then I suggest you read the review in full but suffice is to say that it didn’t wow us. Instead, it was a fairly average game; however, oddly enough we still enjoyed playing. This may seem like a contradiction, and in order to understand we need to break down the enjoyment into two different aspects – the first is the physical enjoyment in playing the game. The second is the aesthetic side of things. What is the game like to physically play – not in regards to theme or context, but in regards to the physical components? What do they feel like? What is the physical experience of playing like?
What we enjoyed with Food Fight was the physical experience of playing the game. The cards were good quality and with a nice feel to them. What made them special though was the artwork and the humour with the artwork. It was quirky and funny. It made us smile and snigger and that made it an enjoyable experience.
Castles of Burgundy, on the other hand, was entirely different. It was the opposite. Where the game itself was fantastic, the art felt old and a bit dated. It wasn’t innovative, but instead very basic. This didn’t overly detract from the game; however, it also didn’t really add.
When we look at the two examples, it becomes possible to look at the games and say “well, the artwork does not tend to make a great game, but it can contribute to making a game better” – and this is a very fair point. Likewise, bad artwork won’t make a great game awful – as it is already a great game.
But can we be so sure? I don’t know. Maybe not.
When Art Doesn’t Make A Game
There are certain times when the art of a game just doesn’t matter. Castles of Burgundy is one example. Catan, in all of its greatness, is a game where ultimately the artwork simply doesn’t matter. The same can be said for Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, or any of the great Eurogames.
I think the reason why is because these games are mechanically heavy. They are games where the mechanics really matter as opposed to any other aspect of the game. Yes, Carcassonne is a game about the middle ages, but that part can be left up to the imagination. Really Carcassonne is a worker and tile placement game. Yes, Ticket to Ride is about trains, but realistically it is a set-collecting game. These mechanics are the core focus by which the game is known and so the artwork helps, yes, but only from a tactile sense.
What this means is that similarly, art will not save a game if the mechanics are not good. There are several games we own where the mechanics are, at their core, broken, and good artwork does not save the game. In my opinion, there are several Escape-The-Room style games that fall into this category. The art is beautiful, absolutely stunning, but the game itself is broken and due to these broken mechanics the game becomes a (beautiful) unplayable brick.
When Does Art Make A Game?
Art can make a game when the mechanic relies on it. Take games like Mysterium for example. Mysterium is a game in which complex concepts need to be portrayed with abstract and surrealist images. Thematically, it is similar to Cluedo in regards to the players need to find a murderer. The difference is the clues are coming from the ghost of the murder victim, in the form of dreams, which makes them fairly trippy to look at.
What really makes Mysterium though, and what could have seen it burn if done wrong, is the incredible artwork on each of the cards. They do make the game in this case, and the same can be said for any artistic-based game. Things like Codenames, if the art sucked, would be terrible. This is because, in both of those examples, the art is a core part of the mechanics of the game. Both have hugely visual elements that need to be explored with artwork.
Instantly, we can see with these games that the art is really important and sucky art would totally…well…suck.
It’s All About Mechanics
Gaming, at its very core, is about the mechanics of the game. It is about what is physically going on on top of the board, or within the cards, or about the dice. How you play the game is placed in the highest importance above everything else. Good art, as part of the mechanics of the game, will make a great game; however, otherwise, the mechanics will always reign supreme over the art. The mechanics are always most important, and if they happen to incorporate great art then that’s good.
That being said, if the mechanics are “okay” then great art will only make it a “slightly better than okay” game, which is still far off being good. If a game is outright bad, then art will not be able to save it.
So, what do you think? How important is artwork to gaming? Which games do you enjoy the art of the most? Let me know in the comments below.