Skip to Content

How important are thematics and illustrations?

8 replies [Last post]
Ronschuijt's picture
Joined: 04/01/2010

Hey everyone, I'm an illustration student at the art academy of Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and for my graduation paper I am researching the importance of theme and illustrations for the success of a board game. I stumbled upon this forum and I found that there where many interesting discussions going on here and I hoped you guys wouldn't mind to give your opinion about the subject:

How important is a theme for a board game?
-Can a theme just be used as a frame for the gameplay in or is it always an important part of the player's experience?
-How necessary is an original theme or excellent executed illustrations for a successful game, both in game enjoyment and in commercial view? Is a lousy illustrated game really less enjoyable, or is this aspect not that important if the gameplay is flawless?

Thanks in advance!


Joined: 02/16/2010

I have both worked in the retail game industry as well as making my own effort to make a mark. Illustration could be referred to as a “Deal-Breaker”.

When a gamer comes into a game store browsing there’s little chance they don’t already have some inclination toward a certain theme or game type. The type of game determines the levels of art required, but make no mistake; it is still requisite to a sale.

If our potential gamer comes into a store looking for a, fast, easy, dinner table game then yes, certainly the art can be cartoony and even a little silly. In fact this may be precisely what they WANT to see, as is the case with Munchkin.

If they are leaning toward an RPG then the artwork should nearly always be from a serious standpoint, players looking to role-play tend to take it pretty seriously.

That said there’s plenty of exceptions, H.O.L. is an RPG based on humor/satire and dinner table games such as Magic the Gathering can become all too serious.

My point is that even if the best writer in the world created the single most original and addictive board game…and had a ten-year-old illustrate it, it wouldn’t sell worth beans. However if H.R. Giger illustrated some garbage copy of a risk clone it would move off my shelves so fast I wouldn't have to dust for months.

As a retailer I wouldn’t even consider a poor looking game unless I was pressed to purchase it from a trusted source. The fact is that even if I left a copy of it sitting in dead center retail space where every consumer who walked through the door HAD to look at it on their way to grab comic-books or whatever, they would invariably only be able to check the back of the box IF they ever even got that far.

The reality is that “flavor-text” on the back of the box may push an interested party to buy, but it won’t change a person’s mind.

Games without some level of art work (even simple “functional” artwork like that in monopoly) don’t sell and they won’t get carried by retailers.

Let’s be honest, even cheap-ass games puts art on their packages…….No art…No game….


Joined: 02/25/2010
My opinion

First, good luck on your studies.

Second, to answer your question, I think that both theme and illustration are important. Especially for mass appeal. There are few games that are extremely popular with little to do with theme or illustration (these are the classics like chess, checkers, go, etc.) but they are also hundreds of years old.

In terms of appeal, I believe contemporary board games will struggle in mass market appeal without clean professional illustrations and without an engaging theme. For example, everyone has played Monopoly, but people will shell out more money to buy a Twilight version of Monopoly.

Mechanics and playability are probably the most important. If the rules are overly complicated, illogical, unplayable, etc. the game will NOT be that widely appealing, but theme and illustrations are a close second/third in my opinion.

Joined: 04/10/2009
Just restating what has

Just restating what has already been said but yes. It's very important. I have to state that I passed over Settlers a couple times because I thought the art on the box was extremely boring. I've also picked up games that had a great theme and fantastic art and the game was just rubbish. So in one case I lost out on a great game because it seemed boring to the eye and lost money to several games do to it being flashy.

As someone once said: A nicely packaged box of shit will sell better then a poorly wrapped peice of gold.

As for theme itself I think its very impiortant to the game. Theme keeps the game together. Nothing is worse then playing a wonderful game and have a rule or a part of the game itself to just say screw the theme and put it in there. It rocks the foundation of the game when something just doesnt work like that.

truekid games
truekid games's picture
Joined: 10/29/2008
addressing your questions

addressing your questions specifically:

-A theme is often just a very loose frame for gameplay. But just as often, the gameplay is generated first and the theme is applied after, using the gameplay's key actions and weight as the frame... and some games have no theme (abstracts, like "Go" or "Quarto"). Some games have more thorough integration and some are just slapped on. The level of importance of the theme on the experience depends on the player- some want full color components and detailed miniatures, with a backstory in the rulebook. some are fine with no theme and a crayon sketched board, as long as the gameplay backs it up. The gap is very wide, though you can make some generalizations depending on depth in the hobby and geographic location.

-As before, the success of the gameplay can sometimes be VERY dependent upon the theme/illustrations, and sometimes theme/illustrations aren't needed at all. it depends on the player. however, including a well integrated theme casts the broader net, as those who don't care about theme won't count it against it for having a good one, whereas the inverse is not true. marketing wise, inclusion of solid theme is a good idea for that reason, and also for the reason the other poster mentioned- in a retail store, an attractive box pulls in infinitely more customers (especially in America). The box gets it in the shopping cart, the gameplay is what keeps it out of the garage sale/ebay a few months down the road. On the internet is somewhat different, as you'll have WAY more hobby-centric users purchasing games there... but the same "attractive theme casts a broader net" still applies.

a well applied theme can also assist gameplay, if you're applying intuitive reasoning for actions based on theme (giving players a consistent mnemonic via the theme/graphic design makes learning and retaining rules much easier).

theme is not NECESSARY, but if it's well done it helps both sales (a LOT) and gameplay (some).

Joined: 06/22/2009
Game Artwork

I had an interesting conversation with my FLGS owner regarding game artwork. To a brick and mortar store, the artwork on the box is almost more important than the theme, or the game mechanics. To sell a game you need to get a customer interested. Pour or unprofessional artwork can make a game difficult or impossible to sell.

The example that we discussed is the board game Hamburgum, see: The artwork was done by the designer/ publisher. It is absolutely dreadful. Even though this game has a good theme and game play, it does not sell. The tendency is for customers to purchase games like Stone Age or anything from FFG vs this ugly game.

Bad artwork can also prevent the game from even being demoed by potential customers. The Hamburgum open demo store copy never gets played at game nights with 60+ people in the store.

The artwork plays an important roll in getting a customer interested. For many customers their first encounter with a game will be when they notice the box cover on the store shelf. There is only one shot to make a good first impression.


My FLGS is Underhills Games in Ohio, See:

Joined: 07/08/2009
Phillip . . .

. . . you lucky Ohioan bastard. 60+ people . . .


octogon's picture
Joined: 04/12/2010
That's an interesting way to look at it...

For the first question, I think the theme is more than just a frame for game play, it does contribute to the player's experience.
For example, if you like Star Wars, and you play a game of Star Wars, you will most likely enjoy it. But, if you play a Star Trek game, that you know very little about, you won't enjoy it as much as the Star Wars game, because of the theme.
On the contrary, some themes don't contribute to the player's experience, because the theme is to generic, and only is a frame for gameplay.
But, I guess it all depends on the player.

For the second question, I think the illustration is very important to the player's experience, and commercial view, even if the gameplay is flawless.
For video games, board games, and any other games, the only reason I even consider trying them is because of the illustration on the box.

I hope that answers your question.

Kalmari Krapula
Joined: 11/19/2010
a bit about illustration and theme and a lots of off topic.

According to my own knowledge and experience, what I could say about theme is that vaires a lot. Some of the games are trying to simulate some certain and spesific subject, some are build around interesting game mechanics and most of games are somewhere between these two extremes.

My experience and what I think is that games we see in department stores and big automarkets are representing lighter (mechanic), non-thematic (or not-so-thematic) and quick-to-play (often less than 1½ hours) games, which are also richly illustrated and often published by big companies. More specific by theme or simultaning (is that a word?) games are often sold in smaller gameshops.

So I see it the way there are some different kind of customergroups, harshly categoried in non-players, semi-players and "true" players. Non-players mostly buy games from big markets and department stores and selection-decision is strongly effected by advertisments, price, appearance of box and box' backside-text. Example, a father buying a game as christmas present to his child.
Semi-players have wider knowledge about games and their mechanics, and they are usually looking a little bit tougher nuts to crack. They search information about games and read previews about games before purchasing. This group is maybe not so big than non-players, but they buy new games more often. They buy their games both from big and small stores. From big ones they are looking for little bit cheaper and enjoyable game with nice layout, for medium to large groups. From smaller shops they are searching some little bit more expensive and exotic piece, for small to medium groups to play. Reasons affecting theis selection-decisions are good previews, interesting game-mechanic or theme and enjoyability, but also quality of components and layout of box AND game itself.
"True" players are more trickier than two groups before, because group consists very different kind of people. While some are kind of hardcore players, who play games daily and are in continuos search for new games, are the others interested in only one theme, second world war for example. They buy games not so often and the ones they buy are mostly simulation games. For hardcore players the game is always sum of many aspects and they might be very critical toward games. They also consider a gaming experience as a wholeness and there also theme and illustration are equal parts of it. Then, as opposite, people interested only in some theme are not usually so picky about the looks and layout of the game. What makes them one group in my categoriation is their hunting for games, how they check every shop and internetsite in their search for new masterpieces. They are masters of finding gaming information and they've got very broad knowledge about games. They usually buy their games from specialized shops and stores, and also from internet shops and directly from publishers.

And how wonderful I slipped off topic. Well, about the theme and illustration only..
I would put it this way: Smpler games need better illustration to make game interesting and attractive, than a more complicated game, until some point. After that point more complicated game will need to be more thematic become interesting.

Personally to me the most enjoyable game would be one with quite strong theme, nice illustration, 3-8 players, lots of interaction and which lasts for couple of hours.

So this is my opinion, based on my experience, mainly gathered in my homecity of Jyväskylä, Central Finland. There are about 100,000 inhabitants in city and 30,000 around it in rural areas. City is semi-international/-cultural, with over 35,000 students, ages between 16-30. Most of foreigners are exchange students. We also have one shop specialised almoast only for games and gaming. This is just a background info, so you won't consider this as an absolut truth. :)

Hope this helped you, good luck for your studies and best regards


Syndicate content

forum | by Dr. Radut