Have you ever wondered what’s involved in getting a boardgame from a designer’s head and into your hands? Well, it’s definitely a long and difficult process. While I can’t speak about the effort required to design the game mechanics—though you can assume years of invention, prototypes, testing, more prototypes, more testing, finding a publisher—I can speak about the graphic design. In this article I’ll tell you a bit about the graphic design of the Z-Man Games story-telling adventure boardgame, Tales of the Arabian Nights.

Tales of the Arabian Nights has been around for a long time; there have been two versions of this unique game by Eric Goldberg, one in English in 1985, and one in German have encounters, and must make decisions that refer to numbered paragraphs in a 300-page Book of Tales. As the game progresses, your character’s adventure story grows with the decisions you make. It’s a bit like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books that were such a phenomenon in the 80s.

When I heard that Z-Man Games was doing a remake, I was eager to work on the project because of the rich possibilities of the theme, which had not yet been fully explored in gaming. The Arabian Nights is an unique and exciting melieu, but too often it receives a very ‘Westernised’ fantasy treatment. One of my personal goals was to create game art that reflected the exoticism of the Arabian Nights; and so the visual motifs are sourced from Islamic decoration, embellished with glittering metals and colourful jewels. Another big influence on the design were the wonderful ‘Golden Age’ illustrations of such masters as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and René Bull.

René Bull, in particular, was a new discovery for me, and I was surprised to learn that he was not very well-known. In fact, only the original 1912 edition of his Arabian Nights has the full complement of colour illustrations; later reprints left some out. I bought of those reprints before discovering this, and eventually, and with some difficulty, acquired two copies of the beautiful original edition (one falling apart—the illustrations are now framed and on my studio wall—and one in good condition). The calligraphy of the chapter headings immediately inspired the game logo. Using the original hand-drawn font as a basis, I reworked the logo to be more readable but still evocative of curvilinear Arabic letterforms. I was also convinced that Bull’s illustrations would be perfect for the box cover, so fought hard for what was a slightly unconventional cover design. My hope was that, in a small way, the game would bring attention to what seems to be a long-neglected artistic talent.

Like most big boardgames, Tales of the Arabian Nights has several decks of cards. The card illustrations were done by the talented Dan Harding, whose bold, evocative figures and objects work perfectly as part of the overall design. On the location encounter cards, the paragraph number the player refers to is dependent on the terrain in which the encounter takes place. Instead of the fiddly icons that denoted the different terrain types from the old editions, I used coloured gems (also of different shapes, to assist colourblind players). City encounter cards feature a ‘mini-picture’ of the city’s location so they can be found easily on the board. As in all these decisions, the object is to communicate information clearly in order to make the game easier and faster to play.
The map, of course, was the biggest design challenge. In previous incarnations of the game it was painted in a very pictorial fashion—green forests, blue seas, little illustrations of cities, etc. My new map was greatly influenced by ancient cartography, a subject that has always fascinated me. Hours of research into old maps, both online and from books in my own collection, went into the design, and it developed though quite a few versions. Originally I went more for a parchment look, more subtle colouring, and a period-accurate style. But as the rest of the game became more more colourful and bold, the subtleties no longer gelled with the rest of the design, and I changed the design to create an unusual blend of old map imagery, icons, and bright colours. Instead of little illustrations I used silhouettes of buildings that matched the architectural styles of the various different cultures.

Laying out the 300 page Book of Tales was the next challenge, and here the focus was completely on readability. Here, traditional typographic experience was helpful. I concentrated on making sure that typefaces, type sizes and layout all made the book as easy to refer to as possible, given the amount of text and the size of the book.

Over a year since I began work on it, and a couple of hundred hours, several hundred dollars worth of book research, and over four hundred emails with the clients later, I finally received a copy of Tales of the Arabian Nights from the printers. I’ve been designing for a couple of decades, and there are only a few jobs in that time that have demanded as much hard work, creativity and dedication as this one. Fortunately, the printers did a great job translating the files into reality; the matt-finished cover contrasts nicely with the gloss-varnished logo and illustrations, and René Bull’s stunning illustrations look better than they have in print for many years. It was with a great sense of relief that I opened the box to see the high quality of all the game components. Best of all, the whole design hangs together and gives the game a distinctive ‘feel’, that I hope is something quite different and unique.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is published by Z-Man Games, and is already into its second printing. It’s a very fun, funny and thematic game and has had an extremely positive reception among fans of the original and new players alike. For gamers who love a story, this is a real treat. Game graphic design is without doubt, an extremely difficult and time-consuming process, but the pleasure to be had in seeing people from all over the world playing and enjoying the game with the components you designed makes it all worth it.

For more information about Tales of the Arabian Nights visit Z-Man Games (www.zmangames.com), and its listing on BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/34119/tales-of-the-arabian-nights). You can also find a rules summary and reference sheet for the game Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html#tale).

by Universal Head

Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate websites, to postage stamps, to a mobile phone interface. His personal site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.