Taking Things Away

They say that a craftsman is done not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. Today we’ve had a meeting about graphic design for the Scandinavia and the World project that illustrates this very nicely, so I would like to share the process that we underwent. Let’s look at where we started out:


I submitted this one for feedback some time ago and boy was there a lot of it! We experimented with the ideas that were put forward and some of them worked and some of them didn’t – but overall the card saw a lot of improvement.

The text boxes for instant abilities got their own colour to frame the card. The title of the ability got moved to its own space. Everything got some sort of background colour (we experimented with more dynamic backgrounds, but ultimately found that they overwhelmed the art).

This was all great, but it left the card quite busy and didn’t respond to the #1 thing we heard from playtesters (but not from internet commentators – which I guess shows the importance of playtesting for seeing how a thing works in practice): The text is too small.

Which brings us to the point of this post. The card has a lot of things on it and in order to increase the size of the text without making it too busy something needed to go. Understanding what can be cut begins with understanding the point of every thing that is included. This is how we broke it down for our card:


1 Flag. This is here because it’s a visually immediate identifier of the country that’s more interesting than their name. The icons going on objects to indicate which country wants them are too small to reliably use the image instead.

2. Name. This is here to disambiguate the flag. The flags are great and all, but some countries have flags that look almost identical.

3. Subtitle. Countries can have more than one card, since we want to represent more than one aspect of the country. We need different cards for Japan’s amazing giant monster movies and Japan’s cool robots.

4. Banner Colour. The banner is coloured to indicate the gender of the character. As an item may be wanted by “Brother America” and not “Sister America” this is important and sticking “brother” or “sister” on every single character is bulky and rubbish.

5. Gender icon. Disambiguates the banner for colourblind types.

6. Picture. No game effect, but looks cool. Card for a character wouldn’t feel right without it.

7. Item required image. Helps players quickly identify the item that the character wants.

8. Item name. Helps with the above and makes it obvious what an item is where the art alone doesn’t carry it (As in the case here with this declaration of independence that artistically is a page with writing)

9. Item value. Necessary for players to know what value of item to try to acquire to satisfy the character.

10. Second item. Not every character has one, but as its a bidding game the potential for two players to simultaneously have the right item is rewarding.

11. Separation. It’s necessary to stick a line or gap or *something* between elements of the card to stop them running into each other.

12. Ability title. Has no game effect, but contextualises each character’s ability to make the theme stick. A lot of abilities would feel samish without it – the words “Friendly fire” are necessary to contextualise why “Lose a character” is America’s ability.

13. Ability effect. Vital game mechanic information. Can’t see this going anywhere.

14. 5mm gap. This needs to go around the entire card in order to provide an adequate bleed zone for the printers.

Warning: The image after the next shows what we did in the end, so if you want to theorycraft what we decided to take away and why then now’s the time to do it. Or just read on and see how it turned out 😉


So everything is necessary right? Each of those elements has a specific purpose and couldn’t be removed without diminishing the card.

Well – not exactly. While they might all be serving a function some of those functions are redundant. Others can be merged so that one card element serves the function presently served by two. Finding things to take away isn’t about finding something that’s not doing anything – there are rarely any of those since everything was added for a purpose at some point – it’s about finding things that can be cut away because of the presence of other elements or with the slight modification of other elements.

There’s also the issue that not all things are equal. Deleting an element that’s in a place that doesn’t allow another element to take advantage of the created space is less good than deleting something that offers a meaningful advantage.

So, lets have a look at how we’ve applied these principles:



The subtitle (3) and the ability title (12) were generating redundant information. One showed the character’s unique identity, the other showed the character’s abilities unique identity. As each character has one ability these amount to the same thing – we don’t need to say this character is “Trigger happy” and has the ability “Friendly Fire”, those amount to the same piece of information.

This lets the title be bigger (Important since we want to increase the font size of the ability text and the ability text can’t be bigger than the title without looking weird) and cut off the bottom half of the title bar so that the rest of the card can be shunted up (creating more room for the ability bar)

We talked about losing the gender icon (5) and using texture as well as colour to make the gender colour code colourblind friendly, but ultimately didn’t have a good use to put that bit of space to, so for now it remains.

The character image is too important to lose and the items are vital game information so they had to stay. However the names of the items (10) turned out to be unnecessary. The character card needs to allow the players to identify what items the character’s want, but they don’t need to carry the theme for the item. The independence declaration will make it clear what it is on the item card – America (and Scottland and Christiana) need only indicate that they want it. If anything it adds to the theme for a player to see an item and go “Ahh! Now I see why (country) wants (thing)” This cleans up the card nicely and creates some more vertical space for the ability bar.

The ability title (12) is still intact and is now carrying the weight of making this version of a country special in some way. We’re also looking at adding an icon to the left of it – this is intended to be a shorthand for “This card lets you steal a character” or “get some money” or “spite a player” etc. It doesn’t take up any extra space since it’s in line with the ability title, doesn’t add any text to the card, but can take some of the load off the ability text as it allows players to quickly scan for cards they want over reading all of the details on every card.

The ability text (13) is now expanded and has gone up a font size, possibly we’ll bring it up another. The text on the card above is wrong (It’s for Bornholms ‘loyal friend’ power) but we switched to using the longest ability we had in order to make sure any new layout could fit the text for any card on.

Beyond the efficiency changes there are also various graphical changes as hinted at the star of the post, but these aren’t really relevant to this discussion of how to cut away the needless elements in a design (in this case a graphic design but the same principles apply to rules and every other part of the project).

So did it work? Well there’s only one way to find out – we’ll do the same thing we do every night – more playtesting!



Particularly I’m concerned that removing the item names works in theory but may not work in practice. Whether players are identifying character-item matches by image or name is not something that’s been explicitly tested before and the notion that most player are (or even can) use this method is theory rather than knowledge.

These steps seem appropriate to any attempt to find things to remove, whether you’re uncluttering a card design or removing complexity from your rules:

  1. List each element.
  2. Identify why it it exists.
  3. Look for items that have a purpose that’s not necessary to your game and remove them.
  4. Look for items that can be expanded to cover the purpose of another item, expand the first and remove the second.
  5. Work out the shape of the wiggle room this creates and move everything else around to take best advantage of it.
  6. If anything is creating “useless space” then consider putting it back in for clarity / thoroughness.
  7. Test the result and see if it’s any good.

In this specific instance there’s still work to do on the cards, but I feel like this process is bringing us much closer to the final look of the game.

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