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Artist Diary: Lisboa, or "That Game Is Too Blue!"

Ian O'Toole
Queens Park
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Lisboa is my third collaboration with Vital Lacerda and Eagle-Gryphon Games, following The Gallerist and Vinhos Deluxe Edition.

However, it was actually the first game I worked on for Vital. Having first started to discuss working together, Vital asked me for a sketch of the game's cover, which for almost two years was the sole indication of Lisboa's visual style. But I had barely started when Vital asked me to work on The Gallerist, then Vinhos Deluxe. It was a couple of busy years before returning to Lisboa.

My initial sketch for Lisboa's box cover in December 2014

From the start, it was evident that this was a game Vital was passionate about. While all of his games are well researched, the enthusiasm and knowledge with which he spoke about the history of his city was infectious. After much discussion and a perusal of the many, many reference images that Vital had gathered, I wanted to make this a visually unique and authentic game. I wanted people from Lisboa to recognize their city in every part of the game.

For me, there was never a question as to where the visual direction of the game should go. The unique style of Portugal's Azulejos painted tiles leapt out at me immediately. I knew straight away that we weren't going to find anything that was more distinctive or authentic to the theme. There was also a striking visual link between the delicate artistry found in these tiles, and the fact that many are now chipped, cracked, and broken. This ties in beautifully with the theme of constructing a great city from the ruins of a natural disaster. In addition, the style is both historical and representative of modern Lisboa as these incredible pieces of art can still be seen throughout the city.

An example of the stunning Azulejos

To help get my head around the task ahead, I printed out one of Vital's earlier prototypes and played the game with a patient friend. This is absolutely essential when designing a complex game as I need to see how the pieces interact, how the stacks of counters need to be placed, and where the sticking points in the gameplay are. While the game was running pretty well at that stage, it was apparent that development work was still to be done, so I decided not to start with the board. The Azulejos style would demand a lot of time-intensive detail, and changing it significantly as gameplay evolved would create problems. I decided to start with the iconography instead.

The graphic designer in me always tends towards clean, simple iconography. However, it was clear that this approach would cause problems here as I wanted to stay as true as possible to our chosen style. Because of this, I approached the icons as miniature illustrations, using key signifiers to tie groups of them together. All of the resources and the icons related to them (such as Produce) have a circular base. Both of the main institutions in the game, the clergy and the treasury, share a diamond-shaped base. All of these icons, as with everything else, began life as thumbnails in a sketchbook before being fully rendered digitally.

Some early sketches alongside the final icons

The next task was to work on the cards, both political and decrees. While the four decks of political cards are largely separated only by color, design elements such as the decorative flourishes vary from deck to deck to further distinguish them.

The initial layout for the Political cards

As I moved on to the ship cards and began considering how they operated on the table and in conjunction with the player board, a nagging issue that wouldn't go away began to surface. The original player board (called your portfolio) was a simple rectangular shape, and cards played to your portfolio were laid beside it in two rows. This caused a number of issues for me. First, it used a lot of table space. Second, once the cards were played to the table, only the top icon was relevant. All of the other information had no further effect on gameplay.

Mulling this over in my sketchbook, I decided to strongly recommend we make a big change to how this all worked. The idea was to obscure the information on the card that became irrelevant by tucking it under the player board, simultaneously saving on table space. This isn't a new idea obviously, and it's one that my own favorite game, Glory to Rome, uses well. However, I also felt that we could aid the player in learning the rules of the game by doing this.

Each card has a benefit that the player receives immediately when the card is played to the portfolio. By making this icon the one that got tucked under the board, we were able to introduce a simple general rule: "When you cover something up, you receive it." Adding arrows to the area behind these icons to remind players where (top or bottom) each card should be tucked also helped during the learning process.

My first sketch to sell the idea to Vital

Consequently, ship cards became a bit of a challenge as the original mechanism had players flip the ship cards once they sailed away after having been filled with goods. Not wanting to force players to lift the cards from under their portfolio every turn to flip them, I devised the "dock" area on the player board that serves as a space to store goods. This had a number of positive effects. First, it changed the ship cards from portrait to landscape, which serves as a clear indicator to every player of how many ship cards are currently in play. Second, it freed up most of the ship card, which goods would previously have covered, to show the illustration, as well as clear indications of the ship's hull size and selling bonus. The goods spaces also now act as a track of sorts, with the ship card itself indicating the maximum amount of goods that can be loaded onto it.

Ship cards in a player's portfolio

This redesign of the entire manner in which the player's portfolio operates was probably the biggest turnaround we had during the process of creating the visuals for Lisboa. A lot of discussion and convincing was necessary, and a lot of rules rewriting resulted (apologies to all involved!), but I feel that the result is a good solution for the game.

The near-final player boards

Then began the long process of creating the board. The first step was to lay everything out in simple shapes without any illustration or thematic elements. This creates the core functionality of the layout. The key elements at this stage are flow, clarity, and hierarchy of information, as well as ergonomics in regard to pieces that will be placed onto the board.

One of Vital's prototype boards

A change that was made at this stage was to move the treasury track to the center of the board so that it was more related to the noble offices, the ship yard, and the city itself, all of which it affects. Once this bare-bones version was complete, I printed it out full size to move components around and make sure it felt right.

Another change I wanted to try out was having a standard tile for the stores, but having a cut-out "entrance" that would indicate which street the tile faces. This would have the positive effect of reducing the number of tiles needed from 40 down to 24 (since they would no longer be color-specific) and would also make set-up easier and faster. You can see here my rudimentary prototype that I presented to Vital, who liked it enough to give it the go-ahead.

A bare-bones mock-up, testing the concept of the store tiles

Once the layout was working, the process of illustrating the board began. There are no real shortcuts here; it's just focusing on each section in turn and trying not to go mad in the process. The drawing process took about a week to complete. Once the main elements were in place, the iconography was added, and I started to introduce color into areas to differentiate them. This is a fine balancing act. Too much color betrays the style we're working in and distracts from the icons during play.

The near-final board

The box cover was the next big task, but time was beginning to run short. This and a number of other unrelated factors led to the cover illustration being completed in just two days — two long, long days. Thinking of the box as a single piece of design (rather than as a front cover and four sides), I liked the idea of players picking up a chunk of rubble, with the painted tiles still attached to the front. The fact that I knew the final box would be pretty heavy helped to reinforce the concept.

From sketch to final cover

Once most of the elements were complete, I made a full prototype and organized to play it with a few different groups. The reason for this was to uncover issues that don't become apparent until new players sit down with the game. I always make a point of not using a player aid during these playtests at it puts the burden of communication on the board and other components.

Late-art prototype, using 3mm think foam core to mimic the thickness of the final tiles

These playtests proved invaluable, and a last round of updates were made for further testing by Vital and approval by the folks at Eagle-Gryphon Games, the publisher.

There are many, many more elements to this game that needed individual attention, such as the thematic custom meeple designs and public building illustrations, as well as the task of splitting the player board into three separate levels of cardboard before production.

It's been a long road since that cover sketch I created in an afternoon in 2014, but a hugely rewarding one. I hope I've managed to do justice to the amount of passion that Vital has poured into his game, and it's not only one of the projects I'm most proud of from a creative standpoint, but also a game I really love to play. I hope you will, too.

Ian O'Toole

Late-art prototype in play at PAX Aus 2016

3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)

3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)

3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)

3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)

P.S.: Sorry it's so blue.
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