It’s Season Six of The Eleven, and rather than kick it off with a new installment of Designers You Should Know, we’re just going straight into this year’s theme – game art. Back in 2013, I posted The Eleven: Artists You Should Know, which has gotten a lot of good feedback over the years. So this year, I want to take a more in-depth look at some of the best artists out there. We’ll start with one of the first guys most people think about when they think of great game art…
Michael Menzel is an artist from Germany who has made a name for himself over the last 15 years with some of the most beautiful art in board games. It’s often very easy to tell if Michael Menzel has had his hands on your game – his art has a high level of detail to it, is very colorful, and really adds to the aesthetic of a game. Usually, even if people don’t like a game with Menzel art, the phrase “At least the art was nice” probably will escape their lips. Menzel is also a Kennerspiel award winning designer, having created 2012’s Legends of Andor. But today, we’re going to talk about his art, so let’s start with…
One of the first games Menzel illustrated was the 2004 two-player economic game Jambo, designed by Rüdiger Dorn. The game is set in Africa, and players are buying and selling goods to make money. Each turn, you get five actions to get new cards and play them as you try to build your market and make a profit. The game is card driven:
There are five types of cards in the game – wares, market stalls, animals, people, and utility cards. The animals, utilities, and people cards all feature a portrait of the subject in question. The game is really good to begin with, but the level of detail on each card really adds to the quality of the experience. I really hope this game gets reprinted some day – mostly because I want them to also reprint the second expansion. Menzel also illustrated the 2013 sequel Asante.
It was 2006’s The Pillars of the Earth that really brought Menzel’s art to most people’s attention. Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler designed the game based on Ken Follett’s novel about the construction of a cathedral in medieval England. It’s a worker placement game where players are collecting resources and trying to earn the points needed to win. The whole game centers around the board:
Each round, actions get resolved in sequential order, moving around the board. But instead of just making little spots, Menzel put together a vibrant recreation of Kingsbridge, with detailed landscapes and buildings so you really got a sense of the story as you moved around the board. It was a great bit of graphic design work, looked gorgeous on the table, and really established Menzel as a guy to watch. He would later also illustrate the follow-up games, World Without End (2009) and A Column of Fire (2017).
Cuba came out in 2007 from the designers of Pillars of the Earth. It’s a game that I haven’t played and don’t really know much about it, other than it’s often referred to as a mashup of Puerto Rico and Caylus, among others. Today, I’m more interested in the art:
I really like the look of this board. There’s clearly places for cards, markers, possibly even tiles, but there’s still a sense of setting. That’s one thing I really get out of most of Menzel’s work – that sense that you’re in a real place. This is really evident with Cuba:
That’s El Capitolio in Havana, Cuba. As you can see, the art matches reality quite well.
Thebes began life as Jenseits von Theben, an independently produced game by Peter Prinz that was released in 2004. Queen’s 2007 edition was more widely distributed and featured art by Michael Menzel. In the game, you are archaeologists running around to different dig sites and trying to collect treasures. It is well known for being one of the first time track games – that is, actions take a certain amount of time, and turn order is determined by the position of people on the time track (the one in the back of the pack typically is the one whose turn it is). Thebes features what I consider to be an uncharacteristically bland board from Menzel:
Because the background is sparse, it makes the locations pop out at you a little bit more, which is the point. This is a graphic design that I think really goes more for function over form. To get more of the sense of the Menzel art style, you have to look at some of the smaller components:
Here, you can see more of the detail Menzel is known for. What’s really impressive with the detail on these bits is that those are small sized cards. It’s a lot of illustration for very little space.
The 2008 game A Castle for All Seasons is one of the earlier games from the multi-Kennerpiel award winning duo of Inka and Markus Brand. This is another one that I have not played, but it’s one I really want to check out because it features my favorite art from Michael Menzel:
That in itself is really a cool board, and probably one of the most frameworthy I’ve seen. But that’s just one side of the board. Here’s the other:
One is great, but the two together just floor me. Michael Menzel has a history of doing some really amazing work, but these two together are my absolute favorites of anything he has done.
Stone Age is a 2008 game from designer Bernd Brunnhofer. This was one of the lighter worker placement games that had come out at this point. The idea is that you’re collecting resources to turn in through points. It added dice to worker placement as the amount of resources you get depends on the roll of the dice. As with Pillars of the Earth, the board is the centerpiece of the action:
While not as linear as Pillars of the Earth, the board still gives that sense of setting and every place is clearly illustrated – the hunting fields for food, the forest for wood, the mountains for stone, and of course, the infamous mating hut. It’s yet another beautiful board from the master.
Dragonheart is another two-player game from Rüdiger Dorn, this one from 2010. This is a card game where you’re trying to score points. Dwarves score for being a set, the ogre scores for capturing the princess, the princess scores from taking the treasure, the knight scores for defeating the ogre, the dragon tries to get treasure, the archer tries to kill the dragon, and so on. Cards are played to the board:
The board is really nothing more than a flow chart showing you how each card scores. But the art tells the story so much better than a straight chart would. If this were just a straight card game, I don’t think it would be as interesting as it is with the board.
Firenze is a 2010 game from designer Andreas Steding. It’s a tower building game, where you’re putting up levels of the towers and turning them in for points. It’s got some cool wooden blocks in it, but I’m not here to talk about component quality. Here’s the board:
Again, it’s a very functional board, but there’s a lot of detail. This one definitely has a very Renaissance look to it, which is very cool.
Santiago de Cuba is a 2011 game by Michael Rieneck. In this one, you’re moving around Santiago, trying to pick up resources and score points. Every player is moving the same car, so you’re trying not to set your opponents up too much. Of course, since you’re moving around Santiago, you need a map of Santiago:
The track goes around the harbor and ends there, where dice determine what goods can be turned in for points. Again, it’s highly detailed, very well constructed, and quite lovely to look at.
Rococo is a Kennerspiel-nominated game from 2013. It was designed by Matthias Cramer, Louis Malz and Stefan Malz. In the game, you’re making dresses for a big gala, which is not the most common theme out there. And of course, with all that lavishness, you probably want some art by Michael Menzel:
Throughout the game, you’re trying to collect materials to make your dresses, and then you’re placing them out on the board. As you can see, it’s a big mansion, but it fills up quickly. There’s even a spot on the roof to watch the fireworks.
Porta Nigra is a 2015 game from Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. It’s all about putting buildings up around a ring, collecting resources and trying to score points. It uses the 3D pieces previously used in another Kramer-Kiesling game, Torres. Here’s the board:
This is unusual for Michael Menzel in that it’s a bird’s eye view of the game – most of his art is from the front. And as a result, you get a little less detail than you usually do, but there’s still quite a bit, including the blueprints in the corners.
And that’s the list. Of course, I skipped a bunch of Menzel’s work – he’s pretty prolific. Let me know what I missed. I hope you liked this format for The Eleven – I enjoyed putting it together. Thanks for reading!