Canvas might be the most visually stunning game I’ve ever seen, fitting for one that’s about art. An elegant game with simple rules that plays in about a half an hour, Canvas uses transparent cards and a card-crafting mechanism for players to try to assemble three paintings comprising three elements apiece, and while the art on the cards (and all the materials) doesn’t affect the mechanics or scoring, it makes it a far lovelier game to play.
Paintings in Canvas have five characteristics at the bottom, below the actual artwork and the title of the painting, on stripes of five colors. Each of those stripes will have one or more element icons—hue, shape, texture, or tone—or a bonus icon. You form these paintings by collecting three transparent Art cards, each of which shows two stripes on it, and then slide them in any order you want into a clear sleeve. Since there is only room for five stripes to show, some of the stripes on the cards you chose will be obscured by stripes on cards above them, so the order in which you place the cards does matter, and if you don’t have all five stripes on those three cards you’re unlikely to max out your scoring for your painting.
The scoring varies in each game depending on the four scoring cards you choose (or draw randomly), but all depend in some way on those four element icons. You might score if your painting has Variety, meaning it shows at least one of each of the four icons; Style, meaning it shows at least three texture icons; or Proportion, which requires having a full house of two icons, three of one type and two of another. Some scoring cards are simpler than others, with the most difficult ones requiring specific icon types next to each other (or not), or requiring that you show more of one icon type than the other three. Most can only be scored once per painting, although a few can be scored twice, such as the one requiring two shape icons—if your painting has four shape icons, you score double. The value of scoring the same card multiple times increases; for example, if you get one Style ribbon, it’s worth 4 points at game-end, while two ribbons are worth 10 points and three are worth 18 points, the most valuable bonus anywhere in the game. Paintings can also show bonus icons, which are independent of the style cards shown in each game. A bonus icon tells you to take one grey ribbon for each instance of a specific element icon on that painting, usually one to three icons of that type. Those ribbons are worth a flat two points each at game-end.
“Card-crafting” is not a new mechanic, and players of Mystic Vale are probably most familiar with the concept, where you combine multiple cards by overlaying them to create a completed card for scoring or for reuse later in the game. Canvas executes this mechanic, including the transparent card aspect, more elegantly than any game I’ve ever seen, with unusual attention to the artwork and layout on the cards so that the completed cards are both clear and appealing. You start the game with zero Art cards and will draw them from the row of five shown on the table, with the one farthest from the deck free to take, while each spot closer to the deck costs you one of your Inspiration tokens, with each player starting the game with four of these to spend. If you take an Art card with tokens on it, you get those, so there is a small tradeoff to consider when gunning for a certain card on the table, either for yourself (the best option) or to block an opponent (rarely useful).
Canvas doesn’t break any particularly new ground, instead choosing to take familiar mechanics and incorporate them into a gorgeous game that’s going to be very easy for players to learn regardless of their playing experience. If you’ve played a card-crafting game before, it’ll be a snap, but there’s also nothing especially novel or difficult about that idea, and it’s incredibly easy to explain because of Canvas’ components—just take three Art cards and combine them in a sleeve with one of the background cards (which are there just for aesthetic reasons) to show everyone how it works. You can also fine-tune the scoring to suit the players’ skill level, with nine suggested scenarios on the back of the rulebook ranging from “First Tie Playing” to “Family Game” to three complex scoring card combos. Great art doesn’t necessarily make a great game, but in Canvas, great art takes a very good game and makes it a masterpiece.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.