Because prototypes — especially those you’re showing publicly — should not exist on text alone.
[First published on 28 Sept 2018 – Last updated 24 Feb 2022]
You’re probably aware that you can’t just take an image you find on Google and use it however you want. You’re also aware that some contests or publishers will require you to have licenses for all the artwork you use. But I don’t have money for art just for prototypes!, you say.
It’s time to get acquainted with the vast worlds of the public domain and the Creative Commons.
First things first: all resources mentioned here are free (or low-cost), legitimate, and are resources I have used or would use myself.
Before we jump in, a few definitions:
Public Domain — the name for a thing that’s freely available to anyone for any purpose. No permission, credit, or license needed. The gold standard of stuff available online.
Creative Commons — abbreviated to ‘CC’, it’s the name for a thing that’s free to use (as money goes), but has some strings attached. Restrictions or requirements for works in the Creative Commons often have some additional terms — ‘BY’ means you have to give credit, ‘ND’ means No Derivatives (don’t change it), ‘NC’ means Non-Commercial (don’t use it in a thing you’ll sell / make money off of), and ‘SA’ means ShareAlike (change or remix it, but you must give credit and release your changes under the same license). This might sound complex, but a majority of graphic stuff I’ve come across is just ‘BY’ (credit the maker). Learn more about the licenses here.
CC0 — a way for creators for waive copyrights — a ‘no rights’ reserved system — put forth by Creative Commons. While similar to the public domain, things are proactively given a ‘CC0’ designation by their creator. More about this term here.
Without further ado…
You know what these are. Simple, one or two- color icons can communicate a ton of information, and are very much an element seen in virtually every board and card game out there.
- http://game-icons.net — over 3,000 icons common to games. Sort by tags, game genres, or search for the exact kind of sword you want. Change the colors of the foreground and background, break apart the different elements of the icon, then download it in SVG or PNG format. Creative Commons licenses apply here.
- http://thenounproject.com — the front page says “over a million curated icons”, and I don’t doubt it for a second. This is easily the largest collection I’ve ever come across, and the only reason it’s second in this list is because the first resource is specific to games. The Noun Project also covers plenty of verbs and adjectives, as well.The standard icons are all black-and-white by default, and Creative Commons licenses apply to most icons (e.g. give credit). If you upgrade ($10/month or $40/year), you get a commercial royalty-free license to the artwork in question, and can download it in the exact color (hex code) of your choice. And yes, if you’re the sort that’s on a super-tight budget, $10 does give you access to the all-you-can-download plan, and your license to use those icons perpetually, even after canceling your account. The site does have some Public Domain icons, but the focus is really on Creative Commons or upgrading you to a paid account.
- http://publicicons.org/ — simple, universal icons. Not a ton of them, and they’re not specific to game development, but they’re public domain and of a uniform style. Public domain.
- https://www.iconfinder.com/free_icons — 2.8 million icons and over 100,000 free icons, but ‘free’ here often means giving credit or a link to the creator. Read carefully. Purchase the sets or a la carte. Give credit or pay a couple of bucks.
- https://www.rawpixel.com/board/539757/vintage-illustrations?sort=curated&premium=free&rating_filter=all&mode=shop&page=1 — a small but high-quality of icons released to the public domain.
- https://kenney.nl/assets/board-game-info — A ZIP file of icons for indicating the game length, number of players, appropriate age, and so on. Just the latest in a long line of excellence from Kenney (join their Patreon or donate via Itch.io)
Y’know, those things taken with a camera. While photos aren’t commonly used in board game, starting with a public domain image and altering it in some way is pretty common.
- https://pixabay.com/ — this is my first stop for public domain pictures. Public domain.
- https://unsplash.com — another exceptional choice. Public domain.
- https://pixnio.com/ — yet another great choice. Public domain.
- https://www.pexels.com — more public domain photos.
https://www.freepik.com — more public domain photos.
https://www.vecteezy.com — more public domain photos.
https://www.pxfuel.com — more public domain photos.
https://www.pxhere.com — more public domain photos.
- https://ccsearch.creativecommons.org — this search engine is organized by the same entity that runs Creative Commons, and is meant to show just how much stuff is available under these licensing terms. It’s fair to say over a billion objects are available, Search for your thing of choice, click the thumbnail, then see the source and the credit text (which can be copied in a click). It’s not always clear how to download the full-size photos, though, and you might need to leave this site to the original source. Creative Commons.
- http://flickr.com/creativecommons/ — I place this here for the sake of completion. If you’re searching the Creative Commons above, it already includes the Flickr search results. The Flickr version will only search the pictures in its database, but there are some more advanced filters (including a color search, a pattern search, a date search, and so on). Creative Commons.
Scans or high-quality photographs of works of art.
- https://www.si.edu/openaccess — The Smithsonian Institution offers “more than 3 million 2D and 3D digital items from our collections—with many more to come. This includes images and data from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo.”
- https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection — The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, complete with provenance records (a great way to add some flavor text, perhaps)
- https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio — Make a free account and access plenty of art from this Dutch museum. Stuff not in the public domain can’t be downloaded, but everything that is will have a download button. Need ultra-high resolutions? Fill out a form on their website.
- https://images.nga.gov/en/page/show_home_page.html — The USA’s National Gallery of Art has plenty of public domain images to download. It uses the term ‘open access’, but explicitly says “Images of these works are now available free of charge for any use, commercial or non-commercial. Users do not need to contact the Gallery for authorization to use these images.”
- https://search.getty.edu/gateway/search?q=&cat=highlight&f=%22Open+Content+Images%22&rows=10&srt=a&dir=s&pg=1 — The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California calls them ‘Open Content Images’, and there are 150,000+ of them. You’ll want to search or narrow down via browsing, then open the image in a new tab or right-click to save it.
- https://thewalters.org/experience/virtual/ — plenty of art and digitized manuscripts to be found here, including on their Flickr stream. Everything here is CC0 / public domain.
- https://www.oldbookillustrations.com — exactly what’s suggested in the URL, old book illustrations.
- https://creativelawcenter.com/museums-open-access-images — an excellent read on why (in the USA) a picture of a public domain work of art is also considered public domain. Also links to a number of museums that offer public domain collections. Even more sources are here as well.
Space, underwater, and other exotic locations
- https://images.nasa.gov — most of what NASA makes is in the public domain, though you’ll have to avoid using the NASA logo, the staff, astronauts, and some other common-sense stuff.
- https://photolib.noaa.gov — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s photos are in the public domain (see their ‘About‘ page). Browse via their Collections or their Flickr.
If you prefer the term ‘clip art’, you’ll be at home here. Thankfully, there’s plenty out there that doesn’t look cheesy or dated.
- https://openclipart.org — plenty of graphics available, from icons to photos and clipart (naturally). Various levels of image quality, but plenty of download options. Bypass the size options you see below the ‘Download’ button and type in the exact pixel size you want in the PNG box. The site will convert the SVG file to a PNG of that size behind the scenes, then displays the PNG on the next page to download. Per the ‘License‘ page at the bottom, “All Clipart are Released into the Public Domain.”
- https://commons.wikimedia.org — “a collection of 65,570,039 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute”. Browse common categories by scrolling down.
- https://www.flaticon.com/ – colorful, simple icons. Requires attribution for free icons, but not for paid subscriptions.
- https://texture.ninja — over 5,000 textures and carefully categorized by type of material. Great for backgrounds.
- https://www.textures.com — wood, stone, doors, grounds, and tons more. Great for backgrounds. Free members can download up to 15 images every day, or upgrade to Premium Access for larger versions or more downloads. Per their License Questions page, the closest thing to board games would be ‘Printed Media’, which says, “”You do not need to pay us any royalties, and there are no restrictions on the number of copies or the regions in which the product is released. You do not need to mention our website as the source of the materials.”
- https://azgaar.github.io/Fantasy-Map-Generator/ — give you one guess what this site makes. If you haven’t guessed, look up. This is a pretty serious tool, with tons of options to procedurally generate, customize, and change virtually every aspect of a map. The project is open-source and features an active Reddit community, but I wasn’t able to 100% confirm the copyright nature of what you create. Feel free to e-mail the creator or ask on the Reddit group.
- https://inkarnate.com/ — has a free version, but the pro version (at $5/month or $25/year) is the version that allows for commercial use.
- https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator — Create a city map with plenty of changes to make. From the website: “You can use maps created by the generator as you like: copy, modify, include in your commercial rpg adventures etc. Attribution is appreciated, but not required.” This same author has several other interesting projects on their itch.io page.
- http://rollforfantasy.com/tools/map-creator.php — another awesome-looking map creator if you’re looking to make Carcassone-like tiles that can be rotated. You’ll need to click and drag your way to a map created with their tools, but that just means you get total control. From the website: “You’re free to use maps you’ve created in books, games, and similar projects as long as my site’s credited. This site has a number of other fun tools — check out the Flag Creator, the Outfit Creator, and plenty more.
- http://www.gozzys.com/dungeon-maps — random dungeon map generator with some background color and size selections. Look for a Wilderness map generator and Cave map generator in the menu as well. Available under a Creative Commons license — see the ‘About’ page for details.
Other cool stuff
As you might guess, this is stuff that I’ve bookmarked that doesn’t fit into any other category.
- https://www.entrogames.com/2021/12/creating-prototype-art-with-ai/ — Another post to bookmark, specifically for places that use AI to generate art based on a word prompt. These can be hit-or-miss, but can also be a lot of fun. I specifically sought out the services that explicitly allowed commercial use of the images they create. Some have a small fee for larger images or more iterations (these options are more computationally intensive).
- https://kenney.nl/assets/board-game-info — A ZIP file of icons for indicating the game length, number of players, appropriate age, and so on. Just the latest in a long line of excellence from Kenney (join their Patreon or donate via Itch.io). (No, you’re not imagining things – it’s also in the ‘icons’ section. It’s that good.)
- http://sinisterdesign.net/open-source-board-game-box-art-icons — you know those icons on the box that show the length of gameplay, the number of players, and the ideal age? It seems everyone makes their own… but these are standardized and free to use. Available as a CC0 license.
- https://editor.freelogodesign.org/?lang=EN — make a logo. The free option here is a small PNG download of your creation (200 pixels square), while the high-res option gives you the full size and several file format options. Conveniently, it’s pretty simple to upgrade if you decide you want the larger size.
Over to you
What public domain or Creative Commons tools have you used?