Visual Aesthetics: How do they Matter?

William and I had a conversation about game aesthetics on Saturday, in the context of a board game meet-up where he acquired a game he had long yearned for, but which is out of print and difficult to find. The game is called Napoleon’s Triumph, and it models the battle of Austerlitz (with some ingenious mechanics, by the way).

William is fond of war games; he loves to engage with well-crafted models of complex interactions. For him, the mechanics of a game – how well, and how elegantly, a game’s rules seem to recreate the system it models – have always trumped everything else, including production quality and graphic design. He also appreciates digital games with low production values but sophisticated concepts, whereas I find the visual experience too important to my enjoyment of a game to be overlooked for long.

But he has found that a game’s visual aesthetics have a growing impact on his experience, as well, and that these aspects of a game can add something beyond what the mechanics have to offer. Specifically, he looks for games whose visual aesthetics complement the theme and enhance the play experience. Napoleon’s Triumph is exceptionally well-produced, and its map board is particularly beautiful. The map depicts, of course, the terrain of the battle and its surrounding area. It does so, in combination with the wooden game pieces, in a way that brings to mind tactical maps used from the 19th century onward, with which history enthusiasts are frequently familiar:

Map belonging to the United States Military Academy Department of History, depicting the battle of Borodino: note the blue and red bars representing troops
Napoleon’s Triumph map board with game pieces (photo from

The effect of the game’s visual design is that players feel immersed in an authentic experience. The map creates atmosphere; it feels like a tactical tool, not a toy – this map makes it easy for players to imagine that they are 19th-century generals strategizing in camp.

For another example of the power of a game’s visual aesthetics, I recommend a visit to to check out this review of a game called The Quiet Year, used by a high school teacher to help his students understand storytelling. The game is available in a no-frills downloadable pdf version, but as the reviewer describes his partially-homemade luxury edition, in a rustically-carved wooden box wrapped in burlap, and the effect it produces on his students, it becomes clear that the game’s esthetics play an important role in captivating students’ interest.

In the world of educational games, visual aesthetics are frequently sacrificed to shrink a game’s budget. I certainly understand why – many game designers, or teachers wearing the game designer hat, are not also graphic designers, and can’t necessarily hire one. Not everyone has a friend willing to build and carve a wooden box. Teachers often need to be able to print out board games rather than wait to have funding to buy expensive copies of well-produced titles. Where digital games are concerned, the term “graphics” calls to mind costly, high-definition 3D interfaces that require computing power that schools don’t necessarily have. That said, many indie game studios, both digital and traditional, must also produce games on a smaller budget; because they are looking to appeal to consumers and not educators, their games must nevertheless be visually attractive. I can’t help but suspect that the lack of emphasis on visual appeal in some educational games may come from a hesitancy to really commit to the idea that a truly enjoyable game experience can also be a powerful and effective learning experience.

Then again, perhaps it is purely a question of funding.

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