A Matter of Appearances

What’s Inside Matters

For those of you who don’t know, I come from a computer science and philosophy background. You might think those two disciplines are really different, but they have more in common than you’d expect. For example, both are very interested in defining and understanding intelligence. But the main area of overlap I want to discuss today is how both are much more interested in the “essence” of things than their appearances.

In philosophy, this is probably best illustrated by Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato suggested that we are all like prisoners chained in a cave facing a wall. We spend our lives watching shadows dancing on the walls, but we’re never able to turn around and see the true forms casting those shadows.

Computer scientists strive to abstract away all unnecessary details, leaving only the vital characteristics and relationships needed to represent a system. Frivolous characteristics, like the way things look, generally aren’t important enough to represent. All that matters is how the thing works, its functionality.

This is all a long way of saying that I usually don’t care about appearances. It’s not that aesthetics aren’t important or interesting to me. It’s more like I’m usually so interested in what I consider to be the core of something that I don’t have time to worry about things like the way they look.

When it comes to a game, the core is the way it plays. It’s the rules and how they structure a player’s behavior and experiences. It’s the game’s components and they way they interact to mimic how something in the real world works. It’s about how the game feels. Since starting Nothing Sacred Games, I’ve dedicated most of my effort to making the core of Corporate America as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

But The Outside Matters Too

The problem is that it’s challenging to show people that core. (I’m not just being an elitist philosopher here and saying that everyone is stuck facing those shadows.) People don’t have a lot of time. They’re bombarded by opportunities and products both on and offline, and they have to quickly prune away things they’re not interested in without knowing all that much information about them. You can’t expect people to take a lot of time to research any one particular thing.

Perhaps worst for a game like Corporate America is that the core is inherently systemic. The game is about moving pieces, it’s about players interacting. It’s not about the way the cards look, it’s about the way the cards act. But almost all of the ways that potential players would discover the game are through static media. The player will see a picture of the game, or read a short blurb about it, or possibly watch a video on it. It’s very difficult to communicate a dynamic experience, especially one as open ended as Corporate America, in such a linear fashion.

Realizing how important it will be to catch people’s attention quickly for when I try to raise funds to get Corporate America printed (it’s going to happen very soon!), I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get the game looking good–very good. I don’t have a huge budget, but my hope is to get all parts of the game to look professional and interesting enough that someone who happens to see any component gets intrigued and wants to learn more. That’s when I’ll hook them with solid gameplay and a jovial atmosphere! Mwahaha!

But to get the game looking that good has been a long and difficult process that still isn’t over. I’ve had to design and redesign every component of the game many times over. Each time I learn a bit from the previous iteration, and I get feedback from many friends, the occasional book on graphic design, and inspiration from other games. Slowly but surely, the look of the game is getting there.

The main problem is that I want to start telling more and more people about the game to start raising interest, but I’m nervous to do so without making sure the game looks really good. It’s one thing to show friends who are basically obligated to feign interest in my projects. It’s another thing altogether to show random people on the internet who live to point out errors. So in the past few weeks, I’ve been reworking every component to get the game in shape for general promotion.

Last time I discussed the updates I’ve been making to the business cards. I predicted that they would change before finally being printed–and they already have! They will continue to change as well. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for new visuals for the game.

Getting Board

Take the board, for example. Now, originally, I didn’t want a board for the game. They are big, heavy, and expensive. However, playtesting showed that the game really needed something to help structure the game flow. The board’s primary purpose is to show you which phase of the game you’re in, show you which of the many decks of cards is relevant at the moment, and give some reminders about specifics of gameplay, like how much it costs to buy a new consumption card. The functionality of the board has been relatively stable for some time, but the visuals of it have changed a lot over the months. Here’s what the board looked like when it was first conceived:

The first version of the board. Pretty simple, huh?

This board worked fairly well, but it sure is ugly. For my next iteration, I attempted to spice things up a bit, making it look more interesting. Here’s what I came up with:

A more decorated board. Pretty spicy, eh?

You’ll notice a few functional changes: spots in the center of the board are included to help remind people how many cards are played in each phase, and the deck and discard spaces are removed.

I didn’t expect the art to be final on this board… it’s what you might call programmer art. When I created this, my intention was for the board to be a visual selling point for the game. This was a draft, and I wanted an artist to create something beautiful based on it that I could show people to raise interest about the game.

This plan did not work out. For one thing, you may have noticed that this board is rather cluttered. It was simply too difficult to include all of the functional elements I needed and have all of the decoration that would be necessary for the board to work. While some people might appreciate very elaborate illustrations, my preferences and abilities simply don’t allow it. So, I decided to redo the board in a simpler way that I could actually pull off myself.

A sort of fancy-ish board. Pretty simple and spicy, yeah?

Alright, before you judge, remember that I’m learning.

The idea here is to adopt a news network style (similar to the legislation cards) to make the board look interesting but uncluttered. This is definitely a step in the right direction, even if I went a bit crazy with the gradients. With a little help from some friends (thanks Simon!) I was able to create a more presentable version:

The current version of the board. Isn’t it gorgeous?

The current version of the board is clean and functional, but still looks interesting. It will probably change before the game goes to press (seriously, there’s always something you can do to improve a game…) but this could do the trick.

You might be thinking “this won’t excite people about the game”. I think you’re probably right about that. Thankfully, I’ve gotten some help in making other parts of the game look awesome!

A Beacon on a Hill

A shiny new piece of legislation.

You might remember me discussing the visual design of legislation cards before. When we last left off with legislation cards looking a little something like this:

This was a vast improvement over the previous versions. But the childish drawings leave something to be desired, even if they do add some charm.

A shinier, newer piece of legislation.

Thankfully, I found someone who can help me out. Chrissy Fellmeth, a talented artist who has worked on several other games (her portfolio), took my crude drafts and turned them into beautiful illustrations. They do a great job of capturing the humor of the game. And there are plenty more where this one came from!


That about Covers It

Oh, except one more thing… the game cover! (Sorry.)

I’ve been working with a friend of mine, Karen Siebald, to get the cover art for the game in pristine shape (Karen.siebald@gmail.com in case you’re interested in some top quality art or just want to tell her how good the cover looks). My thought is that the cover is the first impression most people have of the game, and is what will represent it on websites like boardgamegeek and kickstarter. It needs to be clear and simple enough to instantly recognize but interesting enough to catch people’s attention. In a single image, it must communicate what the game is about to people who have never heard of it before. Here’s what Karen came up with:

Behold. The top of the box.

I don’t know about you, but I think it looks great. Actually, I wonder… what do you think of it? Would seeing this on a web page or on a store shelf make you take a second look?

Ok, that’s it for today. Hope you’re enjoying seeing the game evolve as much as I am!

Leave a comment


  1. I think the catch phrase on the cover is awesome. It conveys a huge a lot about the attitude and feel of the game. It fits very nicely with the rest of the cover. I was thinking about how we would play the game (and still do) with older versions. Funny how the aesthetics of the game really didn’t matter at that point. The “art” was there sole because the game needed to be represented. That being said, the new art is looking great and I think it will catch a lot of eyes!

  2. Slim

     /  September 4, 2012

    Those legislation cards are looking amazing! In other news, I have to agree with Carey; The tagline for the game is brilliant. It both describes what you do in the game AND is a funny joke (not like all the too-clever-and-not-funny-or-functionally-descriptive taglines on most board games I see in the store).

    Also, I have to say, I’m incredibly impressed by the leaps and bounds you’ve made as a designer while working on this game. Keep it coming.


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