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Game Design

How I saved hundreds of dollars by learning the basics of one graphic design program

Several years ago, I was working on my solo game, Relics of Rajavihara, and getting it ready to bring to Kickstarter. I hired an amazing artist, Tristam Rossin, to develop all the art and graphic design for the cards, board, and box. I normally wouldn’t advise investing in all this to other designers unless you know for sure that you’ll be self-publishing the game. I knew that having really attractive art would help to bring in playtesters along with backers once I launched my campaign. And he uses a really helpful program…

But art and graphic design aren’t cheap. Plus, I knew that some of the levels and cards for my game could change as I did further playtesting and made improvements.

Fortunately, Tristam provided not only the image files but also the Photoshop files, so that I could make minor changes myself, rather than have to take up his time and cost me $50 an hour for updates.

However, I’m far from being an artist or graphic designer. Oh, and I had never used Photoshop before. I didn’t even own a copy.

Sometimes you just have to step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Here’s what I did and how it saved me hundreds of dollars (not to mention several hours of Tristam’s time).

It doesn’t need to be brand spanking new

When I started to look into Photoshop, I saw there were a number of different versions you could buy. Each step up allowed for more options and features.

But I had no idea which one to buy. I’d never even used it before!

This program can also get quite costly, as it’s now only sold as software as a service (SAAS), meaning there is a monthly fee to use it.

I found a free online version offered by Adobe that just allowed for editing. I thought I’d be all set… Until I tried it and found out that I could not edit any of the files Tristam gave me. The format was not compatible.

I spoke to Tristam about which online version I should get, and his response surprised me.

He said, “None of them.”

He was actually using an older version himself that was perfectly capable of everything he needed to do. He suggested I look for the same version on eBay or another site.

The best part about this version was it was only a one-time purchase. So, I did some research and found someone online selling legitimate copies of Photoshop CS6, the same version that Tristam uses. For just 60 bucks (only a little more than an hour of Tristam’s time or about the same as a few months subscription to the online program), I got everything I would need without having to pay an ongoing monthly fee.

Learning curve

As I mentioned, I’ve never used Photoshop before (or any similar program), and I’m definitely no artist or graphic designer.

I opened up the program to try it out. I was able to load up one of the cards and view it.

So far, so good.

But that’s as far as I got. I tried clicking on images on the card to move them around, but no luck. I had no idea what I was doing.

That’s when I realized it was time to phone a friend. Or better yet, visit that friend in person.

You see, I had a friend who was formerly a graphic designer, and I was already planning to visit him very soon, just to hang out. So, I let him know I needed a bit of help to get started and he was glad to show me the basics.

He walked me through the process of viewing the layers, moving icons around, and editing text. Fortunately, that’s all I needed to know. I was just doing minor editing to existing cards, not creating anything new.

A huge time and money saver

By learning the basics of Photoshop and asking a few questions of Tristam and my friend, I was able to completely revise a number of cards that changed as a result of feedback from playtesters.

Rather than take up Tristam’s time and have this cost me a lot more money, I was able to do this myself at a minimal cost.

Sure, it was slow at first, and I’m sure Tristam could make the same changes in a fraction of the time that I took, but I can now easily make these changes on the fly, not having to rely on anyone else, and I’ve saved myself a lot of money along the way. I even used what I learned to create all the level cards for the expansion, Montalo’s Revenge. All I needed was a few new assets from Tristam that I was introducing for these new levels.

We’re always learning

Don’t be afraid of learning a new program or technique. What might be scary and intimidating at first could save you a ton of time, money, and effort.

That’s how we get better at anything we do.

What tool or program have you learned recently that saved you a lot of time or money?

Leave me a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear all about it.

Did you know you can download my 10 Minute Board Game Design Blueprint for free? It’s the fastest way to get your game started and stay focused on your end goal.

Just click HERE to download the blueprint for free.

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    I use CorelDraw Home edition to create all my games before lasercutting, even some print and play games.

    Interesting. I’ve never used CorelDraw. Thanks for sharing this, Mark!

    Since I don’t have a PC, I have always used :

    Index cards
    Large Card board boxes
    Colored pencils
    Black permanent markers
    Graph paper booklets

    I draw my own artwork for all of my games. To me, its the little things of materials that allow me to hone in on my skills for 25 years.

    Nothing wrong with sticking to the usual tools and physical prototypes, Jesse!

    it was very interesting to read and read the learning process, i have a motto for my day to be good, or i learn something or teach something, if you ever need help with photoshop or something else related to design, just say

    Thanks so much, Ricardo! I just might take you up on that one day. 🙂

    Try out Affinity Photo! It’s only $50, no subscription(and is on sale half off now!). I use the latest version of Photoshop for work, so unfortunately I need to have it, but otherwise I’d probably be going with Affinity. It’s nearly got everything Photoshop has. Especially for hobbyist or beginners, it’s really worth trying out! Anyway, I don’t have any affiliation with them or anything lol, I’m just wanting to point people towards them as they’re a great alternative, and are a smaller company that seem to be headed in the right direction 🙂 They also have 2 other softwares which are great for game design as well(Affinity Designer & Publisher–Adobe Illustrator and Indesign equivalents). I use Affinity Publisher to make our rulebooks!

    Thanks for the heads-up, Maura! I’ll have to check out Affinity Photo.

    I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop everyday for my work. I understand the expense of using the subscription versions. The older standalone Photoshop CS6 version you bought is more than enough to do what is needed, but I would suggest learning Adobe Illustrator as well. You can assemble a mechanical / print file in Photoshop, but the files can get rather large and possibly bog down your computer. It’s not the ideal way to do graphic design.

    Illustrator is vector based so there is no degradation to the artwork when you resize. Preferably, you would create artwork elements or illustrations in Photoshop, then place them into the Illustrator file. Your copy (aside from decorative logos) should also be vector so it is crisp and clean.

    Moving & adjusting elements is easier in Illustrator, but more importantly, creating die-lines and getting your measurements spot-on is where Illustrator surpasses Photoshop. I also find Illustrator to be really fast when creating simple play-test pieces (cards, game boards, etc.) I can map out playing cards, drop in some vector clip-art, and add text very quickly.

    I believe I created a tutorial for your blog a couple years ago showing how to use Illustrator symbols to create an artwork base for a card game. By editing the symbol, you could update all of your cards in a deck globally. Just one of the time-saving features in Illustrator.

    There is definitely a learning curve, but well worth it if you plan on doing some of the graphic design yourself. I hope this info help.

    Btw – Great posts as always, Joe! 🙂

    Hey, Chris! Thanks for the comment. Yes, you wrote an amazing article on Illustrator which had so much helpful information. I wish I had the time to learn everything about it but graphic design is not my forte, so I’ll just continue to dabble with the little skills that I have. 🙂 Thanks so much!

    Try GIMP. It’s free.

    Definitely another option. Often difficult to switch from one system to another but I have heard GIMP is great if you’re starting out and want to try something new.

    Hi Joe,
    I’m new to all of this but I’m able to use Canva for most all of my needs. So far, so good. I don’t have a lot of heavy graphics, but it meets my needs.

    Thanks, Keith! Yes, Canva is great for lots of things and is also free.

    Here are some additional resources that might be of interest for game graphic design;

    If one wants Adobe capabilities but at a tiny fraction of the cost, Affinity is a powerful competitor. When Adobe went to their subscription/hostageware model, I switched over to Affinity at work (which was willing to pay for the Adobe subscription) and at home for web and graphic design. Outside of Illustrator’s Appearance panel, I didn’t lose anything meaningful. I gained what I consider to be better-designed applications (and very integrated with each other) at a tiny fraction of Adobe’s subscription price. Sometimes, they even go on sale. When I upgraded to version 2 of their software, I could do so for $99 for 9 applications: all 3 for Mac, Windows, and iPad.

    Affinity Photo (compare to Photoshop)

    Affinity Designer (compare to Illustrator)

    Affinity Publisher (compare to InDesign)

    As of today, June 10th, 2024, they have a 50% off flash sale.

    Here is some more info:

    Parka Blogs: Announcement of Affinity Version 2

    Affinity Version 2 – What’s New

    Affinity Photo 2 – WORTH the UPGRADE?

    (The only caveat is that Adobe usage is so widespread that one needs to check to ensure that compatibility is maintained when working with Adobe-centric shops.)

    One might also consider web design software such as Sketch (Mac only), Adobe XD, and Figma. This is interesting since web “design systems” seem to have much in common with game “design systems.”

    One of the frontend web developers I follow, Jesse Showalter, has an excellent segment in one of his videos on using Sketch and Figma for game design that may be of interest. (Note: These types of applications can also be used for user/player flow design.)

    Jesse Showalter

    When I was in web development, I saw Figma become the predominantly recommended application, which has a very capable free tier. It is platform-independent since it is generally used in a web browser (but has downloadable apps as well). Figma quickly became my choice as well.


    Adobe XD


    Being a professional artist for the last 15 years, I have never paid for software, I once traded for it (commission for disk and code) but honestly I use GIMP for 95% of my post painting work, like digitalization, color correcting, print run clean up, etc & the other 5% is Inkscape. I wouldn’t think of anything other than self publishing. I love control. And I plan of having some pretty slick prototypes.