4 Tips for designing on a shoe-string budget

When it comes to board games, one of the biggest costs you’ll incur is with art production and graphic design. Having an attractive looking product is now a must if you’re planning to crowdfund it, given that the gap in production quality between independent and professional games is quickly vanishing.

For Endogenesis, I wanted high-quality visuals, but to also keep costs low so as to have a modest crowdfunding goal. Based on statistics provided by Kickstarter themselves, almost 70% of successful projects raise less than $10,000, which means that success is exponentially harder to achieve when you’ve a high target!

Though I’m lucky enough to have come from a design background, keeping costs low was still challenging given that my skillset wasn’t enough to cover all the visual needs of the project. As such, I’ve had to come up with some creative solutions — here are some of the things I’ve done to keep art costs for Endogenesis to a minimum.

(Note: Many of these points assume that you have some experience with using a graphics editor. Otherwise, you can always start with free software such as GIMP and Inkscape — they’re almost as good as paid ones and there are video/web tutorials being released every single day!)

1. Simplify your requirements

In an ideal world, we’d want 100% unique, fully-rendered art for every single card in our game. But unless you have a high budget or have very few cards, this generally isn’t feasible. Depending on the artist you hire, high-quality art can set you back anywhere between $30 to $150 per card illustration. And if you have 100 unique cards in your game, that’s already $3,000 – $15,000 in art costs, and you’ve yet to factor in box art and graphic design!

For Endogenesis, I had around 120 unique cards, so I had to quickly abandon any hope of unique art for each card. Instead, I looked for ways of simplifying my requirements. One of the ways I did this was with Monster cards:

There are 24 monsters in Endogenesis. Instead of having fully-rendered monster art, I opted for silhouettes instead. Because of their simplicity, artists charge a much lower rate for silhouettes than fully illustrated designs. I then composed the background art in a way that made it look like the silhouette was formed from a light source behind it, casting a shadow from the front-view. The result was that I was able to give each card a unique flavour, while keeping costs low!

As you might’ve noticed, all monster cards use the same background art, which brings me to my next point…

2. Re-use art, but do it in a smart way

Re-using art to cut costs is nothing new, but the trick is to do it in a way that doesn’t look cheap or lazy. One way to do this is to make sure that the art you’re re-using is of very high quality, so that the game looks polished even if the visual elements are repeated. It’s generally better to invest in creating one very high quality artwork that you’ll re-use on ten cards, rather than try to get unique but subpar art for all ten cards due to budget constraints.

When using the same art across different cards, you’ll want to make simple yet significant changes to them to set them apart. One way to do this is by using icons:

These are Skill cards in Endogenesis. Because these Skills are from the same “skill class”, I re-use the same background across the board, with the only differentiating factor being the icon art. The background is designed specifically for this purpose, with plenty of empty space in the center so as to draw visual focus onto the icon.

Another great part about using icons is that they are a lot easier to create, and much cheaper in cost if you’re hiring a designer. For the price of a single full-detailed illustration, you might be able to get up to 10 custom icons!

Yet another great thing about using icons is that they’re so readily available online, bringing me to my next point…

3. Get familiar with stock graphics

With each passing day, there are more and more awesome stock resources online, many of which are 100% free! There are sites like Freepik and Vecteezy for vector art, while you can visit like iconmonstr and game-icons for icons.

However, given that it can be difficult to find high quality stuff that fits perfectly from 100% free sites, I find that it’s best to use them as a base to create your own custom art. As Endogenesis required over a hundred icons to be created, there were times where I’d burnt myself out trying to design an icon for a specific card. In those cases, iconmonstr was really useful — I’d search for icons based on certain keywords, and then use an appopriate one as a base to create a whole new design. That’s because it’s always easier to work off an existing base, rather than starting from scratch.

Otherwise, you can also look to stock sites like Shutterstock or iStock — the stuff there aren’t free, but there’s often more to choose from. To take it a step further, you can even purchase card templates/generators from Graphicriver… stuff like this makes it very easy to make your own designs! Here are a few resources one can find from a quick search:

“Game Cards Design Kit” by scareddragon

Set of game 2d icons by CreativeGameAssets.com

While stock graphics provide a great resource, it’s best to use them very carefully. More often than not, you’ll need to put in a bit of work to ensure that the visual style of your stock graphics are consistent across the board, otherwise it’ll look very obvious that your art is mostly “store-bought.”

4. Don’t start hiring artists until you’re absolutely ready

While this seems like a no-brainer, I’ve seen it happen too many times, especially when I was doing freelance design myself. Don’t hire artists/designers until the game is as ready as it can be! Freelancers generally charge a premium to make revisions to previously completed work, so if you end up repeatedly changing the details of your game, you can rack up a rather hefty bill. I recall a branding project I did a couple of years back, where the client requested fundamental changes very late in the project numerous times. The result was not only frustration on both ends, but a final bill resulted in being around 250% of what was originally agreed upon! Being organized is a crucial trait to have if you’re going to be running the show for a crowdfunding campaign.

For the majority of your game testing, it’s usually sufficient to use placeholder art and ready-made templates for your prototype. Don’t jump the shark and fully theme your game with completed art when the gameplay’s or theme is not yet finalized.

And that’s all I have! If you know of any other tips to cut development costs, do let me know in the comments below.

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