There’s nothing like an original… except when there’s something very much like the original, but just a little bit better.
[mod-uh-fahy] verb, -fied, -fy·ing.
1. to change somewhat the form or qualities of; alter partially; amend…
Reasons for graphical board/card game mods:
- Restyling or retheming
- 3-D customization
- Improved playability
Graphical modifications in board and card games happen because the user sees some way to improve their enjoyment of the game through effort and artistic inspiration. Sometimes the mod is a simple retooling of pieces to add a new aesthetic or incorporate a theme that would otherwise be unrelated to the original game. Some mods add dimension – literally – to the game by reinventing the board and/or pieces in three dimensions where there had originally only been two. A third variety of game mod – and perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of game designers – is the modification that directly improves the playability of the game through improved graphic presentation.
Mod #1: Graphic Restyling and Retheming
This is by far the simplest form of graphical game modification. The game stays effectively the same but it gets a new paint job, either to add a new level of flavor or to simply bring a different artistic angle to the design of the pieces. Anyone with some pens, a decent printer, a pair of scissors and some glue can create a functional board or card game mod this way, and the results are almost always enjoyable for the proper audience. This form of mod is also incredibly profitable for established board and card game publishers. Adding a licensed intellectual property or brand to an existing board game is a fast and easy way to produce a collector’s item with a pre-built consumer audience. Just look at the number of sports-franchise-themed chess sets, Movie-franchise-themed trivia games, pop-culture-themed Uno™ sets and region-specific Monopoly™ boards available. Seriously. A search for the publisher USAopoly on Amazon.com nets over 1,000 different results.
Eventually I’d like to write a piece on some of the most successful, most innovative and most unusual commercial mods of this variety. If anyone has input or access to actual NPD data for this project, by all means, write to me and I’ll gladly give you some co-authorship credit for the column.
Meanwhile, I’ve found the following examples of user-created restyle mods.
Marcus Kellerman, also known as Sharkus on BoardGameGeek.com, created this Simpsons-themed “homebrew” version of Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line. The activity became an almost communal effort when he opened his creative process to the BoardGameGeek forums. Other users of the web site were able to help him edit and refine his ideas as he worked on it, even suggesting materials and processes that helped Sharkus deliver a more authentic feeling presentation in the end.
Battle Line seems to be an incredibly popular game for restylers, and when you look at the simple presentation of the original cards for the game, it’s easy to see why. The cards feature a name, a number value and an image. Apart from the historical relevance of the particular units and their tactical relevance in relation to one another – which even within the game is taken loosely – the game is already something of a blank canvas waiting for new themes. In fact, the game can still function if the cards are reduced to nothing but a number.
Mark Mahaffey, who posts at BoardGameGeek as West2, is actually a professional designer and mapmaker who has worked on the production of numerous board games. His own blog, The Mapologist, documents his creative process of the design of several game boards, both original and reworked. I discovered Mark’s board designs through a gallery he posted in the BoardGameGeek forums, and was particularly impressed with his minimalist take on the Vinci board.
The official Vinci board is completely fine by itself. the spaces are clearly defined, have easily recognized terrain attributes, and feature well designed icons. The scoring track is simple, but perfectly functional and impossible to misread. If the board has any weaknesses, it’s simply that the function outweighs the aesthetic. The broad palette of colors and textures can be a bit jarring, and the title typography doesn’t exactly speak to the game’s “dawn and growth of civilizations” theme, but none of this hinders the way the game plays, only how it looks.
The redesigned board presented by Mahaffey quiets the cacophony by replacing the textures with muted color washes over a subtle stone-like texture. The typography has become far more elegant and suited to a game of European history. Even the icons within the spaces have been simplified to basic black silhouettes against the earth-toned colors. The sum is a map that, while less detailed than many of Mark’s other creations, has the look and feel of a classic European fresco. A new richness and depth of style is given to the game simply by visually modifying an already playable board.
Mod #2: 3-D Customization
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a well-crafted three-dimensional customization of a board game is nothing short of a labor of love. The investment of time and materials alone would be enough to deter anyone but an absolute devotee of a game from taking on this challenge.
Take, for example, the hand-crafted centerpiece for Rio Grande Games’s Puerto Rico created by a Korean gamer who goes by the moniker “doctorfaust”. While I’m unfortunately unable to translate his blog entry, he does a wonderful job of documenting his creative process through photography. Because Puerto Rico is primarily a resource drafting game, Doctorfaust’s elaborate center staging are makes for an incredibly creative way to present the various pieces. What begins as an already deep and rich strategy game takes on a whole new layer of richness in the historically inspired depiction of the game’s setting.
Racing and dungeon games are also popular targets for gamers with a penchant for model building. These kinds of games are often structured so that the “negative space” of the board offers plenty of room for creative license and embellishment. The supplies to craft these game adaptations are often readily available through hobby shops, or can be cannibalized from landscape features from various tabletop miniature war games. Trees, terrain and even buildings originally intended for model railroad landscapes become features of road races, shipping ports and long-lost catacombs with relative ease for a seasoned model builder.
Conventions seem to be popular places for craftsmen to show off their creations and adaptations. To the audiences at these gatherings, the work that goes into the reinvented boards is immediately appreciated, as the function is as apparent as the form. These modified games are sometimes even used at events by publishers to draw attention to their more affordable retail-ready counterparts. Whether created by fans or professionally commissioned by publishers, the most successful 3-D adaptations must take care to fuse attention to detail with the same standard of playability the original game is known for.
Looking at the other side of the coin, the potential drawback to such creations is that the addition of sculptural elements can occasionally create difficulties with the playability of the game. In 2005, Mayfair Games released a special limited-edition 3-D 10th Anniversary edition of Settlers of Catan. While the overall response to the set was quite positive, a number of reviewers pointed out the less-than-spectacular compatibility with other Catan products.
Part of the appeal of the Settlers of Catan games is their expandability; while the basic game is made for three to four players, expansion sets allow up to six players, and the complexity of the game can be enhanced with the strategic expansions, Cities and Knights of Catan and Seafarers of Catan. Where Mayfair’s 3-D set does include pieces for four players to play the Cities and Knights expansion, the results of trying to integrate any other Catan sets – available only in the traditional “2-D” cardboard materials – can only be described as “aesthetically clunky”. The combination of sets creates a situation where each terrain type is effectively represented by two different visual presentations, and roads, settlements, and cities built at the juncture of the two different tile types just don’t set quite the way they should.
By itself, the special edition of Settlers is a phenomenal success. Taken in the context of the entire franchise? Not quite as much.
Mod #3: Improved Playability
Of the three types of board game modifications, this is the one I personally find most interesting. What would otherwise be a fantastic game can be virtually crippled by a poor visual presentation. The designers of a game may give so much attention to refining the mechanical aspects that they completely overlook flaws in the aesthetics. Sometimes a persistent fan finds they can fix the offending game with a retooling of the graphic elements.
Once I set out to find a prime example of this issue, it didn’t take long to settle on the ultimate case study. At a party where several professional game designers were getting together, I lobbed the question out for debate: Do any games come to mind that would be greatly improved simply by reworking the graphic design of the board or components? Almost immediately, the answer came back with multiple confirmations: Medici.
When Rio Grande Games first published Reiner Knizia’s Medici in 1995, it was nominated for a Spiel des Jahres award. Mechanically, it was a solid auction and set collecting game. Right away though, players had issues with the components of the game. Crucial symbols on the board were small enough that player markers could completely obscure them. Foreground and background colors all fell in the same range, causing the overall readability of the board to be a bit muddy. The colors chosen for the pyramids representing the five traded commodities were very similar to one another. The confusion the color scheme caused was only compounded by the design of the cards for the game, which didn’t quite match the board. Some reviews even critiqued the size and weight of the game’s cards; players felt they were awkward to hold and difficult to shuffle.
Fans took matters into their own hands. Numerous players of the game were known to take paints and markers to their boards to help make the colors more distinguishable. Several even threw the board away entirely, opting instead for their own creations. As photos of these home-brew versions made it on to the forums at BoardGameGeek.com, other fans began taking these new versions even further, creating even more stylish components and even packaging for the aesthetically new-and-improved game.
Perhaps the most popular of these custom redesigns was that of Finland’s Sampo Sikiö, known to BoardGameGeek users as “Kilgore”. Kilgore’s board was hailed for its bold colors and incredibly clear readability, and still had a beautifully stylized graphic presentation. His cards were larger and easier to associate with the colors of the board. If there is any weakness in Kilgore’s design, it would simply be that the black numbers on the blue and green cards are a little tricky to read due to low contrast, but the overall result of Kilgore’s effort is a vast improvement on the commercially-available version of the game. Where Rio Grande gave us a muddled board, Kilgore made absolute clarity. Where Rio Grande created a round space, making it difficult to compare positions at a glance, Kilgore fixed the issue by orienting all tracks in the same direction. And where Rio Grande gaffed on the size of the cards, Kilgore replaced them with a standardized card size known for it’s for easy shuffling.
To top it all off, Kilgore used an antique-looking tin to package all of the smaller components of his home-made set. (Author’s edit: since the intital posting of this article, it was brought to my attention by Kilgore that the tin was actualy created by fellow BoardGameGeek member Gary Garison.) The full effect is a visually rich and creative deconstruction and reconstruction of a game hampered only by the original publisher’s poor choices in design. Out of the box, Kilgore’s version of the game is bright, clear, and full of style. Inside the box (or tin, in this case) it appears to be the kind of treasure you’d find forgotten in a dusty attic, just waiting to be rediscovered and played.
There are, without a doubt, plenty of striking and innovative methods and reasons for graphically modifying games; most of them though, I believe, would ultimately fit into the three major categories I’ve described above. If I’ve committed any major oversights in my presentation, by all means let me know. I can always use more to write about!