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Thalara - Behind the scenes, part 2: The visuals

Alexander Wrede
Germany
Bremen
Bremen
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designer
publisher
Microbadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: Codex: Card-Time Strategy fanMicrobadge: I do board game development for the love of itMicrobadge: Plays Games with SpouseMicrobadge: Composer
In this second part of our Behind the Scenes, let’s take a look at the visual evolution of Thalara. If you haven’t read the designer diary or the first part of this series, check it out here:
Thalara - Behind the Scenes, part 1: Concepts

Evolution of Art

One thing that makes Thalara stand out even if you haven’t played the game is its wonderful artwork. Responsible for the enchanting look is our talented artist Martin Sobr, who worked on the game’s art starting with the very first concept designs. Although Martin did an amazing job translating our confusing descriptions into actual character art, the evolution of Thalara’s art wasn’t that straight forward. Our goal was to combine a mythological design language with a modern and diverse look. Throughout art history, representations of goddesses (and to be fair, most female characters anyway) are mostly very sexualized, and rarely strong in the way we like to think of powerful characters. We didn’t think it would be difficult to achieve this, but we learned creating powerful characters that don’t fulfill every cliché really isn’t an easy task at all.

Creating interesting characters

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Early drafts of Myrja, the Fire Amazon

When we started working on Myrja, the fire amazon, in our naive view there were two poles between which we’d try to strike the balance: Designing attractive, powerful characters players are visually drawn to while avoiding unnecessary over-sexualization that’s commonly used to appeal to something we learned is called the “male gaze”. When you put it this way, it sounds almost as if you’re trying to appeal to different target groups at the same time. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as from our experience both underlying assumptions are wrong. First, male and female players alike don’t just want sexy characters, they want powerful, interesting, authentic and coherent characters. This is a good thing, because it means there’s room for characters that aren’t sexy or beautiful in a classic sense. But moving forward, we also learned that the term “male gaze” seems to be kind of misleading. When given a choice, almost every single person in our mostly female test groups didn’t like “stronger” versions of Myrja, but leaned more to those on the sexy side: “Myrja looks too strong, I can’t identify with her this way!” This may have to do with learned expectations and prejudices, but it doesn’t change the fact that both genders like to see a certain amount of sexyness for whatever reasons.

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Evolution of Accaina, the Time Traveller

After many iterations on many characters, we came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to make characters everyone likes. So we changed our approach: Instead of making every character a compromise between different preferences, we’d make vastly different characters. Each one of them matches Thalara’s lore, there’s nothing just for the effect of it or just to make a certain type of player happy. Anyway, we think the character cast as a whole is coherent, interesting and diverse. Do you agree? Which characters do you like the most and why?

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Evolution of spell design

Well, it’s obvious that the look of Thalara’s spells changed with different prototype versions. It’s not a good idea to put too much work into early prototypes, since many things will change with each wave of playtesting. As the game design and mechanisms changed over time, the requirements for graphical design elements changed a lot. For example, in the early versions of Thalara there was only one card type that combined energy cards and spells. But the biggest game design change that affected the spell card design was this: Early spells had multi-level activation stages that changed and improved the spell’s effect depending on the number of energy cards you played along with the spell. This meant that font size had to be really small and there was little space for artwork. When I changed the spells to always have a single effect, this problem was solved without further ado. It’s important to note that the graphical design implications weren’t the reason for this change. I just noticed that playtesters didn’t really care about the strategic nuances that the multi-level system introduced, and that removing it streamlined the game in a good way.

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Evolution of Accaina's Rewind spell

If you have a closer look at the older spell cards (and if you happen to know some German, since the first prototypes were German only), you might notice that wording changed a lot during development. You were fighting for "worlds", learning magical "lessons" and conquering "temples" before we introduced the concept of Artifacts 2 years ago. By the way, the temples will have a comeback in the "Temples of Thalara" mini expansion that is part of the Master Pack.

Energy cards

Energy cards not only power your character’s spells, they’re also your most important weapon in the battles for the last artifacts. It’s important for the players to quickly grasp the strengths and colors of all cards, so we tried to make these as clear as possible, and even now after funding the game on Kickstarter, we’re still trying to improve the energy cards. In the late game, it becomes important to be able to tell the difference between Artifacts and Remnants, so we reworked the energy cards completely and added unique energy color icons: A triangle for Artifacts and a circle for Remnants. Also, we created new artwork for all energy cards. This is probably one of the very last changes in the development process of Thalara.

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Evolution of energy cards (work in progress)

In the final part of this article, we’ll take a look at balance and strategy. We’ll talk about the design of spell effects, the balancing of energy cards, the catchup mechanism and how to outwit your opponent. Until then, if you haven’t read the Thalara Designer Diary, check it out now:

Thalara Designer Diary
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