Updated: Jan 23
When I started my journey into game design I had zero experience in graphic design, very little spare income, and a really good idea. If you're like I was then I have a few things you might want to know.
First of all you should consider your end goal. Are you seeking mass manufacture and global distribution? or are you content with just a few copies for friends and family?
I was in the latter category before Bandroom Blitz ended up getting a stellar response from the people I showed it to. So I did all my graphic design work myself in the GIMP. Which is free. Like most open source software, its not the most user friendly interface but I figured it out well enough. I got all my templates for cards and the box from The Game Crafter, which is where I also planned to print my game. Thing is, the game crafter will print whatever you send them. Even if you forgot to remove the die- lines from your image file.
They also accept PNG files. So for an amateur game designer looking for a small print run, the game crafter is a pretty great service. And while the Game Crafter is fantastic for prototyping or small batches of games its not at all feasible for large runs. If I were to print 100 copies of Bandroom Blitz, each copy would cost $21.50 USD. That's quadruple the manufacture cost per copy I could get from a large scale manufacturer. So clearly The game crafter isn't a good choice for someone looking to do a large scale run.
(a small note: the game crafter does have a graphic design tool called component studio, though I have not used it and can't speak to its usability or compatibility with large manufacturers)
So what to use? Well if you ask PANDA game manufacturing (scythe, pandemic, terra mystica) or Ad Magic (cards against humanity, exploding kittens, joking hazard) you should use adobe photoshop and illustrator. Which as I said before, was out of my price range. Why this software specifically? Why is GIMP not good enough?
(EDIT: The following paragraph, as I have now learned, is incorrect. Raster images of sufficient resolution will work just fine. Color profile is still very important though)
Well what I learned was that GIMP and Photoshop are what are called Raster Editors. They map the image using pixels. But the issue with Raster images is that you can scale them down just fine, but not up. If you're going for a print run you need to either make REALLY big raster images (1080 pixels, the length of one vertical strip of pixels on a high def TV, equates to only 3.6 inches in print) or a vector image. A vector image doesn't use pixels, but lines that correspond to a mathematical formula. Because of this they can be scaled up or down into infinity.
The logo on the left is a vector image. Nice n' smooth. The one on the right is a raster image. Rough, course, not good enough for professional printing.
So whats out there for free or cheap? Well at first I tried Inkscape, which is a free vector image design program. And while it seemed about on par with GIMP for usability something about it didn't quite "click" with me. Though I'm sure its a very nice program. I know how that may sound but I'm sure you've encountered a UI that you didn't mesh with either. no? ok maybe its just me. But more importantly PANDA game manufacturing requires your color profile be set to US Sheetfed Uncoated V2 and both PANDA and Ad Magic require a CMYK color mode
A computer displays color by combining light, and print by combining pigments. This means if your image is in RGB (for screens) the colors won't come out quite right in print (CMYK). And to add to that the color of the paper you print on affects that as well. If you match up your settings to what the manufacturer has you get the best results. Unfortunately Inkscape does not have US Sheetfed Uncoated V2 as a default and I couldn't find any way to add it into the software. So for a while I shopped around for a graphic designer to convert all my raster images for me. The quotes I got were all over the place. The lowest I got was from a student that quoted $30 to convert all my images for me, mid range was a guy who worked full time as a graphic designer and quoted $300, the highest was the graphic design/print shop next to my day job (who have been a huge help to me throughout this project) that quoted $900. So I had no idea what the true value of the work was. I then found affinity designer. For pro software that is a beyond reasonable price. Affinity has the color profiles I needed and best of all, for some reason, Affinity and I just "clicked". On my second round with it (the first being a general introduction) I was able to make the vector logo above. Mind you I did it by tracing the raster version, but hey, whatever works right?
(EDIT: Though Affinity has proven useful Band Room Blitz was ultimately finished by a hired graphic designer to save time) There are other options out there like Pixelmator, paint.net, and Paint Shop Pro (all listed on the game crafters help section) But I haven't used them and I'm not comfortable recommending or not recommending based on a shallow inspection. So please, by all means find what works best for you. Are there any that I missed? let me know!