Daily question: Is it just a game?

Here’s Monopoly, one of the most well-known and popular board-games of the last few decades:


And here are a few more distant board-games as listed at Bibliodyssey:


Il novo et piacevol gioco del giardin d’amore (The new and enjoyable game of the garden of love) — Published by Giovanni Antonio de Paoli in the 1590s, the board features two rows of game squares, the outer one displaying the virtues and the one closer to the central garden with game numbers on pairs of dice.


The Swan of Elegance (A New Game Designed for the Instruction and Amuseument of Youth) — John Harris published this linen-backed, hand-coloured etching in 1814. Each of the game board’s compartment shows a child engaged in a moral or an immoral deed. A twelve page rulebook had four lines of verse explaining each scene. The medaliions in each corner represent Apollo, Minerva, Wisdom and Genius.


German print – game-board — Untitled anti-British World War II propaganda shipping race board game published by F Westenberger in about 1940.

Got any examples showing we haven’t hopelessly lost the art of board-game design?

7 thoughts on “Daily question: Is it just a game?

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  2. It is a shame about the look of mass-market games, since they’re the only ones most people ever see. The very name “Monopoly” tends to be a hot-button word for board-game fans, as it’s the average person’s only point of reference for a strategy game (OK, maybe Risk too), but really isn’t a very good game by modern standards. I do have a copy but I never play it anymore.

    Of the genuinely good board games, The Settlers Of Catan seems to have the most extensive marketing, and can sometimes be seen at shopping malls. It’s definitely worth buying as an intro to modern board games (though personally I like Carcassonne, another excellent “gateway game”, better.)

  3. Jens Alfke: “I take it you’re focusing strictly on visual design, not gameplay…”

    Sorry, if I didn’t make that clearer. Yes, I was commenting merely on the visual appeal of mass-merchandised games which I have casually observed, as I am not a student of the field. My question was more a genuine question than a comment on the state of board games. So thanks for the thoughtful and extensive links.

  4. No offense, but your choice of (a recent redesign of) Monopoly as the ‘modern’ game makes me suspect that you’re probably unaware of the true current state of the art in board game design. It’s as though you were complaining that we’ve lost the art of film-making, by comparing “Casablanca” and “North By Northwest” with, say, “Space Chimps”. By which I mean to say, the crap being extruded to department stores by Hasbro (including pathetic attempts to milk 70-year-old designs) has absolutely nothing to do with where the action has been in board gaming for the past, oh, 20 years. For that, you have to look to German publishers like Kosmos and Ravensburger, and small US companies such as Rio Grande, Z-Man and Fantasy Flight.

    So, board-game design. First, I take it you’re focusing strictly on visual design, not gameplay, because at least one of the older games you show (the swan one) looks to be pretty trivial as a game experience, probably at least as boring as Chutes And Ladders. It’s harder to judge the other two without rule books, but I’d say it’s likely they’re not as good as Monopoly. (In particular, games designed for teaching or propaganda purposes are often very lacking as games.)

    There are some really stunning visual designs in board games today. A good place to start is Mike Doyle’s blog. You can get an eyeful of a lot of good game visual design just by scrolling down the page, but his post on the functions of game art is a must-read. Of the specific designs he’s worked on, his artwork for Caylus II is particularly stunning (if a bit busy.)

    Of more abstract games, Kris Burm’s Gipf series is notable for a striking and consistent visual design sense. The layouts of game pieces resemble abstract geometric art (and can be combined into new variants).

    I also have to give a shout out to the upcoming new edition of Tales Of The Arabian Nights, whose design is going all-out for Orientalist sumptuousness:

    And some other games I own that I especially like the looks of (you can find pictures on BoardGameGeek.com):
    Blue Moon City
    Villa Paletti

  5. The board of the following game is awesome. I don’t have a good picture at hand, this is the best I could find on google:


    It’s from the 1980’s. Actually, more recent board game designers tend to focus on abstraction instead of on pictorial exuberance. I think they are right that the abstraction distracts less from the game-play. A good game is all about the balance of powers, not in the first place about the visual appearance. Often, gorgeous appearance is a sign of poor gameplay, unfortunately.

    A few examples of beautiful board, just from the realm of train-related games, though with much more abstraction as in the old examples you gave:


    There are really many nice boardgames around. I am not as pessimistic here!

  6. Jan: “I like the social part of it, sitting around a table, sharing an interest with friends.”

    “Simply elegant” board-games aren’t like horizontally and vertically “infinite” computer games than can go anywhere, sound or look like anything seemingly without effort.

    Constraints, coupled with aesthetics of the kind I sampled above, give the players not only a pleasantly sharable space/experience but a platform to project their fantasies. Indeed, as you say, complexity and refinement are brought into the game implied by those elegant boards by the interaction of the players, not by the overpowering of the computer generated worlds.

  7. I love board-games – always have, always will – although I’m not playing them anymore. I used to play war games from Avalon Hill and SPI (by James F. Dunnigan). The computer sort of killed the experience for me; all the good designers abandoned the art for different reasons. I like the social part of it, sitting around a table, sharing an interest with friends. I have a theory about board-games and computer apps: good board-games and computer apps share some common attributes. They give the same experience. I even believe you should design your app with the board-game in mind. What does this mean? It’s visual, it gives you feedback, it’s simple enough to learn and execute (mechanics don’t kill the experience), it educates you, it gives you an understanding of dynamics you wouldn’t get from studying a static system. There are probably lots of other attributes.

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