More Games Please brings you interviews with the best board game artists and illustrators. With behind the scenes details into the development of the art and design you get a closer look than ever at the story behind the art you love.
Editors note: This interview was conducted earlier in the year but has taken a while longer than usual to appear on the site. I’m very happy to finally get to share mine and Bartłomiej’s chat. I hope you enjoy and if you have any questions don’t forget to leave them in the comments below.
Hi Bartłomiej, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hello! I'm very glad to share my passions with you. Together with my family, wife Natalia and two little girls, we live in Toruń in Poland. The youngest daughter Eliza is now two years old and the older Lidia is four and a half years old. For over four years my passion is to be a cool dad. My second passion is painting which I've been doing from a young age and I'm currently working as a board games illustrator.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
During my studies I painted a few illustrations for a collective card game "Veto". It was my first contact with a board game publisher. I had a lot of freedom in this creation so I could practice and develop my skills. At the time I bought my first tablet and I made my switch to digital art. Then after my studies ended, I started working for advertising and illustration agency. I have been working on many different projects from pizzeria leaflets, business cards to book covers and computer game arts.
After a few years I decided to look for my own jobs and I began working as a freelance illustrator. This, which I didn't mention earlier, helped me in my other passion which is board games. I love gaming and this is one of the nicest ways to spend time in good company. This is why I decided to send my portfolio to publishers and I got lucky. I managed to combine work with pleasure. At that time "Rebel" publishing house was looking for a new guy in the industry and it fell to me. I received a work order for my first big project - the Dream Home board game and from the beginning I was in constant contact with Rafał Szczepkowski a Game Development Coordinator at that time. He showed me in from the kitchen (back door) of this game industry and gave me a lot of good advice and tips.
Working on Dream Home took a long time. From the start to the end of the project it had been a year. I've never had to do over a hundred illustrations before, design layouts, box, tokens, the first player marker and so on. It was hard but with the aid of my wife (she is also an illustrator) we finished Dream Home. Many of the details which can be found in rooms were painted by Natalia. Working on this project was a big lesson for me and through this experience I realized how much time every phase of work consumes and also what rules support the visual side of board games.
Did the experience on Dream Home change how you approached your next projects?
In few aspects yes. First of all, I have become more aware of how to spread my time across the work and how fast I need to work too. Knowing how much time to spend on the box cover, how long on components I can therefore more precisely establish when my work will end end. My biggest challenge is the cover art and I'm always stressed because I know how important this is for developers. That's why I try to complete the cover concept first. Everything else is pure pleasure.
You've worked on a number of games released this year which have featured a collection of artists work. What do you think the major differences are when working as a solo artist compared to being part of a team of artists on a board game?
That is true, this year I have been working on a couple of team projects. There were projects where I had to simply adjust my work to the graphics prepared earlier and I had to work on their basis. This is harder but fortunately, that doesn't happen very often. In other projects where I was part of the team, each artist watched over a different aspect of the board game. So it was with the Spy Club board game. I illustrated cards, characters, the box cover and other artists were responsible for layouts, typography, compositions, game visualization, commercial, printing etc.
Of course, all these things make sense if there is an art director. Someone who watches over everything and has a vision of how a particular game should look, selecting the right people and paying attention to graphical coherency. This is very important and in the case of Spy Club, those people were Jason Kingsley and Randy Hoyt. I think that such an approach to the subject is the best way in big and time-consuming projects.
Working as a solo illustrator you have more control over the visual side of a board game. It's a bit more challenging because you need to take care of almost all graphic elements, but personally, I like this way better. I often choose what the board game will look like and this brings me greater satisfaction. In my case, these are typically small games such as Blossoms, Staropolski Wokabularz (Old Polishlexicon), O kocie w kłopocie (Cat in trouble).
Editors Note: I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of board games with anthropomorphic art, but not all of it is done well. When I saw the art for Untamed: Feral Factions on social media, I was reminded of my favorite cartoons growing up, in my eyes a pretty big compliment. This game is currently doing good work on Kickstarter (live until July 3rd), so if you like what you see, go take a look afterwards.
Hello there Jeremy Falger, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi Ross, thanks for having me! I'm a game designer living Utrecht, one of the bigger cities in the Netherlands. If you ever have to chance to visit, Utrecht is great place for board game lovers, as we have 4 board game shops within 50m of each other! I also work in one of the aforementioned shops part time. After my bachelor degree in History I realised that what I really wanted to do was make games. I had been designing games since I was about 14 years old, and though I had put it on the backburner during my studies it came back in full force a few years ago. That led me to pursue a master's degree in Game Design at the University of Amsterdam and this is also where I met some of the guys with whom I eventually started our company: Grumpy Owl Games. Within Grumpy Owl Games I'm (obviously) involved with the game design side of things, alongside our other designer: Milan Lefferts. Additionally I'm responsible for the art direction and visual design side of things.
As my master degree also focused on applied (or 'serious') game design, before I became a Grumpy Owl, I worked on games focused on children's healthcare and wellbeing, at the University of Turku, in Finland. And while we've always been working on our title, Untamed: Feral Factions, for the general, tabletop entertainment market, Grumpy Owl Games also continues to develop games as training tools for the healthcare and educational market. Aside and not ever sleeping because I'm always thinking about games, I enjoy riding my road bike (sorta) fast, spinning obscure funky house tracks as a DJ and checking out traditional tattoo flash.
Can you describe your Kickstarter game to us and what makes it interesting?
So Untamed: Feral Factions is a card battle game, think Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone. There's lots of games out there in that genre and I love the genre. However a lot of them require a significant buy-in, in the shape of time, or money, or both. I just wanted a game that's quick to setup and dive into, but still offers a level of agency as you choose your deck and your play style. Additionally I wanted a fairly balanced experience. In my opinion the shuffle-building mechanic is a perfect fit to accomplish this.
I don't claim to have reinvented to wheel together with my co-designer Milan Lefferts, but I think we took familiar elements and combined them in a package just feels really nice to play. There's a bunch of small mechanics that improve quality of life (or play?) I think. In addition to these smaller elements I also feel the 'bigger' Support mechanic adds a nice new twist to the genre by introducing a second, finite resource. It adds depth to the design without adding a bunch of extra 'stuff'. You're essentially using components you already have anyway and turn that into a second resource which you'll have to manage to get the most out of your cards and abilities. Furthermore I think the theme, artwork and graphic design is different from a lot of other games in the genre.
How long have you been working on this game? What made you launch the campaign now?
Work on the game started in early 2017. We hadn't set many limitations on ourselves except that we wanted to make a card battle game that was quick to set up and didn't have the traditional style of (fun yet time-consuming) deckbuilding. Still, this left us with a wide range of options.Thus we started experimenting with a wide range of mechanics and frameworks, most of which didn't work out in the end.
After realising we needed to set clear limitations and design goals, the design process actually progressed fairly quickly. We received loads of great feedback at Spiel 2018 and other playtest events and we kept tweaking and streamlining the design until we felt we couldn't streamline it any further. That's was when we felt confident enough to start prepping the Kickstarter.
What were some of the main design changes that took place?
We had a totally different resource system for the longest time which the whole turn structure and deck construction was built around. It was pretty novel with two sided resource cards but in the end it proved to be too limiting so we scrapped it and opted for a different combat system. I think we were actually pretty good in killing our darlings. I wrote down all mechanics we ever came up with, for future reference, but I was never really married to one particular idea, though I do love multi-use cards, so I tried to put that in anywhere possible. That's also what I enjoyed in designing together with Milan, I have a tendency to make big sweeping changes and Milan is way more conservative, so that balanced each other out nicely.
The art in Untamed: Feral Factions is anthropomorphic in style, why this theme and at what point in the process did this develop?
While we didn't really have any limits to the mechanics, we did commit to the art style and the theme early on. We felt that for a game in this genre, but without traditional deckbuilding, a different look would help distinguish itself and help communicate that this was intended to be a bit more of a casual affair yet still pique the interest of veterans of the genre. A fair amount of thought went into the theming as we wanted it to be recognisable and something that people could identify with.
I think that the downfall of a lot of high fantasy themed media is that you either love it or you're indifferent to it at best. However, everybody knows what a Tiger, a Panda or Rabbit is and a lot of people have some sort of connection with animals. I think this automatically lowers the barrier of entry and allows people to actually look further than the theme. Additionally I'm just naturally drawn to bright and vibrant artwork, so it was a natural choice to pursue this for the art style for the game.
Editors note: It should probably come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of street art. I’ve seen the restorative effects it had on Christchurch after the earthquakes. How it’s transformed parts of Berlin into a living breathing canvas. I’ve walked around countless cities marveling not only at the talent of the art but also the location and scale of some pieces. When Rafi and Tutti got in touch about their card game based around street art I had to admit I was intrigued. Enjoy the interview and you can find atommix on Kickstarter until 10th July. For those of you interested in seeing more from the artists involved there is a list of their Instagram accounts at the end of the interview.
Today I'm being joined by Rafi and Tutti creators of the card game 'atommix'. Thanks for joining me! Before we find out about the game itself could you tell our readers a bit about yourselves and what you do?"
We are a duo of street artists from Tel Aviv otherwise known as Extra Crunchy. We’re creating murals and traveling together around the world for 3 years, nomadic lifestyle. Recently we’ve settled down in Costa Rica. We painted at street art festivals and music festivals. While traveling, we got to meet some of the guest artists (on the game) and thought it would be rad to form a project with them. Rafi also has a background of 3d modeling and animation and we both love creating art and finding new sources of inspiration.
Let's talk about your art collaboration, Extra Crunchy. When did it start and what have been some of your personal highlights along the way?
We’ve been doing Extra Crunchy since we started traveling three years ago. We both come from different artistic backgrounds. Rafi’s artistic style is more 3d because of his background and I’m more illustrative and flows. It seemed like going on an adventure together and combining our styles was the most obvious thing to do. We started in Panama and continued to about 10 other countries on this planet. Basically following opportunity, wherever we could paint and had good friends and vibes. We got influenced by each other’s style throughout this journey, and shared different kinds of inspiration to create Extra Crunchy. It’s always fun to check art together and zoom in on techniques.
You’ve now collaborated to create a card game 'atommix'. What inspired you to create a game and what do you think makes it interesting?
It started with an illustration we decided to call ‘Helium’ and slowly continued to grow. We thought it would be fun to learn science by illustrating the elements. Later on we realized a game would be the perfect way to engage with the cards, so we started creating the gameplay. Most of us have long ago discarded the periodic table from memory. But in order for it to genuinely stick we have combined the Elemental properties with visual language, which is immediately interpreted by the brain. Our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than just plain text, so by placing powerful and beautiful images next to words our brains create an immediate connection between the two - just like in advertising - the same manipulation can be used for a better purpose.
You're working with artists from a variety of backgrounds on this game. How did you decide who to include and when it came to directing the artists what kind of brief did you give them?
While traveling we had the opportunity to meet many great artists from different fields, street art, visionary art, character design and whatever in between. We feel art is a high form of communication and big ideas should be shared through them. It felt more accessible to refer to them first. We were looking for artists who also resonated with the project and could express that. Some of the artists had a clear vision for the element they wanted, and some wanted us to pick for them. We sent them the characteristics of the element and let them tell a story from their point of view.
What kind of characteristics would you give for the elements?
We did a lot of research about the properties of elements and what makes them magical, and decided to focus on the most interesting chemistry information we found. For instance, if it’s magnetic or diamagnet, metal or nonmetal, high or low reactivity, electric conductivity, energy levels and families. We wondered what we would like to learn about the elements and what would be fun to translate into a symbol. The symbols ('or special effects') are serving different purposes throughout the game. They are inspired by actual Alchemic symbols.
So how did you get started as street artists?
We're both inspired by street art. We love the idea of large scale art on the street. Art shouldn't be in a museum where you need to go especially and pay money if you want to explore aesthetics, it should surround us. We started with our first piece three years ago in Tel Aviv central bus station and we've both been hooked ever since. It took us some time to learn to work together, how to give and receive critique and create for the being that is Extra Crunchy that allows us to deliver our message better.
What do you think are some of the differences between street art and that of other mediums?
Street art in our opinion has raised the bar in the last few years. Pieces being made these days are such high quality, we believe it's made by some of the greatest artists ever lived AND they are not dead yet :) People are doing 12 story building murals with super high skill and often it's a one man band. You can see how different styles are merging together on buildings in international cities; hyper realistic with calligraphy, graphic design with portraits and so on. It's a strong effort of one to communicate a message.
Looking back on our first piece, it was actually two separate pieces one next to the other also designed separately. We would definitely do it differently today, nowadays we just move the sketchbook/sketch pad back and forth fixing, correcting, and creating the story as we go. Large scale mural open and shut different options in terms of size. It's best to have a rough sketch, see the wall and shape it accordingly. We never really know how a final piece is going to look like exactly.
Editors note: As much as this website is my own personal curation of art in the industry I don’t tend to throw around terms like “favorites” very often. However, Kwanchai is in my humble opinion, one of the absolute best in the industry right now. He was one of the very first people I tried to contact when launching my site and I’m so very glad we’ve finally got this interview to share with you. Enjoy the read and do yourself a favor, go check out his website afterwards, it’s a feast for the eyes.
Today I'm being joined by Kwanchai Moriya. Thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi, thanks for having me! I'm an illustrator and painter, working mainly in board games and children’s books. I was born in New York to a Japanese father and Thai mother, both emigrated from their home countries. But mostly I grew up in the ‘burbs of LA and Chicago, in the 80’s and 90’s. Did some schoolin’ and ended up with a degree in history before sayings ‘oops’ and going for my BFA in illustration in Pasadena, California. I popped out the other side: nine years, lots of debt, and many part-time jobs later. I’ve been freelance illustrating for the past 9 years, though I’d say the last 4 years have been markedly different in terms of the growth and opportunity I’ve had. I currently live in Los Angeles with my wife and like to spice life up with board gaming, backpacking, travel, woodworking, etc.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
My first real gig illustrating board games was doing 11 half-inch counter illustrations for a little-known wargame called Heroes of the Gap. The publisher contacted me through Boardgamegeek, since I was quite active doing my own fan redesigns of games and posting the art there. In fact, my next two freelance gigs came through BGG’s Geekmail system: Catacombs 3rd edition and a game called Twin Tin Bots. The Catacombs gig I was offered specifically because I had done a fan redesign of the game with my own whimsical art and had posted it to BGG.
In 2010, I also started going to all the big conventions (Essen, Origins, Gen Con) with my portfolio and the widest grin I could muster. Back then, I’d bother every publisher booth on the floor and hopefully fly home with at least a project or two in tow. The first handful of games I illustrated were equal parts, nerve-wracking and thrilling. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an artist since then, and it’s hard to look at early projects without feeling squirmy. With my scant experience, publishers were apt to pay very little and over direct a project to death. Definitely a lot of stress in those early years was because I was learning the business side of freelancing on the go, while butchering my work/life balance, and flexing relatively weak artistic muscles.
For example, Catacombs 3rd edition was the first time I’d ever done something in that cartoony whimsical style, as I was primarily doing figurative oil paintings at the time. But, one thing that hasn’t changed is how exciting board games are for me, both playing them and being invited into the process of making them. I love being an illustrator in this industry and having a hand in so many varied and interesting projects.
Having worked in the board game industry now for a number of years, how has your relationship with clients changed as your reputation has grown?
It's awesome! In general, I get a very warm reception from folks working in this industry. Sometimes, just wearing my name badge at a convention will get me a sit down with someone important I wasn't even planning on meeting. That's nuts! Compare that to a couple of years ago, when I had to plead with people for a few minutes to look at my pitifully scant portfolio. The warmth I get is definitely attributable to the kind-hearted folks in this business, but I'm sure it also has something to do with the growing list of games I've been a part of. With my clients now, there's more trust that I can get a project wrapped on time and it can look good. Earlier projects did tend to be over-directed, with a lot of hand-holding. But I don’t blame publishers, as choosing an artist is one of the many risks they take on in the process of making a game.
A brand new illustrator thinks they are hot stuff, with a unique style and vision. Or at least, I did! And it takes a few projects to smash that down, and learn how to collaborate well and flow with others. Nowadays, I do get more say on what a project should look like, but of course it varies wildly from project to project. Some clients know exactly what they want, and some take me to the park and just want me to run and run. I like the ones that take me to the park.
The negative side of an increased reputation is an increased expectation from people. Or perhaps I have an increased expectation that other people have an increased expectation? For sure I’m harder on myself now, and more scared to make mistakes. I feel like I have to constantly hit home runs, even though I just learned how to play. Moreover, I feel like I've made a lot of different plays on almost all of my projects, visually, conceptually. Dinosaur Island looks totally different from Flipships, which looks totally different from Catacombs or Capital Lux. So I'm stressed, Ross, I'm stressed all the time.
When you're presented with illustrative work that is outside of your comfort zone and very different from what you've previously created, where do you start?
I love a challenge, though often I end up over-challenging myself. I try to pick one big project a year that I'm going to totally just throw myself off a cliff with. Either something that challenges my command of a medium or trying a new style or type of art. For example, one year that project was the thick paints and stylization in Flipships, another year it was the crazy colors and line art in Dinosaur Island. Those styles I'd never really tried before. I'm also a sucker for weird themes and new concepts.
I have a running 10-item list of themes, or styles or kernels of ideas that I want to try at some point: a bucket list of 'style-cliffs,' if I may.
Tantamount with any project, in or out of my comfort zone, is doing good research. Looking at what's been done before for that particular theme, or making sure there are facts in the factual part of a project. I feel out of my depth all the time, and oftentimes I am. Really being a freelance artist means being in your own head all the time, and a polite nudge or two from the art director or graphic designer is sometimes just the ticket to a solid piece of art.
Alright Kwanchai, you got me, what's currently at the top of that your art creation bucket list and will we see this soon?
Okay, I'll give you a few off my list.
1. Classic Gnomes. I really want to do a project that features little mischievous gnomes in red hats. You know blue shirts and tiny beards, the whole thing. I would just get a kick out of illustrating tons of little gnomes just going about their day, tormenting the house cat, stealing food from the fridge. I don't know why, I love it.
2. Really Creepy Ghosts. Have you seen Nate Hayden's games (Cave Evil, Psycho Raiders)? It's unsettling and weird and I love it. I've been jonesing to do a theme that is about ghosts or some kind of creepy supernatural thing, but not done in a cutesy style at all. Just straight terrifying and dark, with lots of heavy paint and scratchy ink lines. I have a lot of bright colors and friendly themes in my usual work and it'd be fun to throw that out the window.
3. Illustrative Type. So this would be illustrating components using only hand-drawn type and fonts. Like if a card is supposed to have a Man-eating Squirrel on it, I would hand-draw the words 'MAN-EATING SQUIRREL' on the card and illustrate the letters in a way that is thematic and immersive? Hah, I have no idea what this would end up looking like, but I've been thinking about it a lot.
4. Women's Baseball League. "A League of Their Own' the board game, or something akin to that. Love the history there.
On another note, a goal of mine is to design and illustrate my own game. I have two or three game designs that have I've been puttering around with for years. I think it would be really fun to do all the design work, play testing, pitching to publishers, graphic design, and artwork. Of course, everyone and their mom has a game design, and I'm sure anything I design would be mediocre at best. But I think going through the whole process would be a very valuable experience for me, since I've only really experienced one particular side of this industry.
You've illustrated some of the most distinctive and original board game box art in the industry, so tell me, what's your process when you come to work on a game cover and how is it different from creating other art?
Box cover art is usually the priciest line item in a project, and for good reason. It's the thing that wraps around the outside of all this important stuff. That stuff being: the designer's hopes and dreams for their baby, the publisher's investment in components, wrangling printers and scheduling, etc. So yea the cover is a big deal because it needs to speak to all the important things inside in one solid punch.
I usually begin planning a cover by looking at all the covers from any games, comics, or movies that share the genre. Then I try to cut sideways from the norm and try to come up with a concept that feels fresh. Sometimes that means using colors or a composition that atypical to the genre, or maybe using subjects that bend the stereotypes that genre. Most importantly, in my thinking, a cover needs to exude energy and investment. For example, on Bosk, a recent project with the theme of forests and trees, the publisher really wanted the forest itself to be the subject of the box cover. So I thought okay let's make the trees huge, and have a few tiny hikers in the composition just to exaggerate the scale of the trees. Or in Gorus Maximus, a game about gladiators, I wanted to make the covers just bonkers-level of dumb gore: brains popping out of helmets, crocodile sliced up like someone was playing Fruit Ninja. A composition needs to feel full of liveliness and thought. And although I don't always succeed, I think it's a far worse crime to deliver something that looks boring or typical.
As someone who started out as a figurative painter in art school, one of my crutches has always been to just throw a well-painted person on an illustration to give it that 'wow.' Lately I've been trying to get away from that..
Editors Note: I first noticed Matijos name on the Dinosaur Tea Party artwork and also happened to be one of the backers of Chronicles of Crime on Kickstarter. I knew I wanted to find out more about his particular style and of course that photo realistic work on Chronicles. Enjoy!
Hi Matijos, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi Ross, thank you for reaching out to me. Yes, I always wonder where to start with introducing myself- I'm a Pole, mulatto with Ethiopian Roots that was born in Sankt Petersburg, Russia. It usually works on job interviews as from the start everyone is curious about the combination.
I got my education in Poland and lived there from my early years. I've always been very passionate about drawing and expressing myself through illustrations. With the right mix of my other loves, cinematography and comics, I guess I figured out a characteristic art style for myself; cartoony and atmospheric with heavy outline. I also started experimenting with bringing my artwork to life and that led me to graduate from Polish National Film School in Łódź.
NetEnt character from Lost Relics game
This was a great place that gave me the skills to execute animation in a professional way. While still studying I moved to the capital city and started working on animated movies, then later on, mobile games. Then I traveled to Kraków and that happened to create many opportunities for me. As an Art Director there I guided teams and was creating slot games. But by night I continued on delivering freelance passion projects - like board games.
Right now, I'm quite fresh after a relocation to Malta where I continue to work on slot games, this time with some additions in game design along with the art.
Gandalf Set - Vikings Gone Wild
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
While moving to Krakow I was already in contact with Lucky Duck Games. Everything started with that company. Earlier I saw an ad that they were looking for a supportive artist for their new title Master of Elements, an expansion of the successful ‘Vikings Gone Wild’. I was attracted by the fantasy theme and cartoony art style that this game had and I knew it wouldn't be a problem for me to deliver something similar after hours. I drew a couple of cards for a start but soon the Kickstarter campaign turned out to be such a huge hit that fans started reaching almost every stretch goal planned within a day or even a few hours. New artwork for cards was needed to be done extremely quickly in order to update the campaign. It was a very pleasant time full of challenges and late night emails: 'We need 3 more!'.
When the dust has settled the CEO and Founder of Lucky Duck Games, Vincent Vergonejeanne invited me to the office with an offer of a wider collaboration. He showed me the prototype of Chronicles of Crime invented by David Cicurel with only placeholders on a print. Everything was yet to be filled with proper art and I was absolutely blown away by the whole gameplay concept and innovation.
Once again full artistic freedom was given to me by Vince with lots of trust and professionalism. In my previous experience that wasn't very common. So board games with LDG became my true passion!
Chronicles of Crime - photo taken by More Games Please
Your work spans quite a number of fields, from animation, film, concept and game art. How do you think this experience changes how you approach each new project? What key lessons do you think you've learned that you can apply throughout your work?
At the beginning I tried to grab almost every job opportunity in the industry there was. As they joke:
“So why do you want this job?” ”Well, I've always been passionate about not starving to death, sir”
My girlfriend at the time, now wife, supported me all the way in order to stay focused and on track no matter the obstacles. So I was always doing art. Art in different forms that each time brought me joy. My goal is to use cinematic eye wherever I can, to leave a characteristic mark on everything I do. Now I've got this privilege to get involved in new projects only because I'd like to, not because of necessity and board games are a perfect example of this.
I realized that in every job I have I use the same skill set package that is learned once. No matter if it's VFX for the film, costume or scenery design for a theater, mobile, slot or board game. It's always sketching, storyboards, polishing in different art styles and animating. Each field somehow needs to use those tools.
I loved to work on my own but as an Art Director I guess I've learned to focus on teamwork more and I like the different chemistry that it brings. Everyone learns from each other and push projects forward at a pace that you'd never achieve on your own.
Sketch art for Dino Tea Party
I first came across your work in ‘Dinosaur Tea Party’. It’s characters are larger than life, so how did you create them?
Thank you, glad to hear that. At first I was given the theme and a core idea: 'Let's imagine dinosaurs wearing Downton Abbey clothes having a tea party'. With my character design I aimed for something family friendly and witty. I suggested my take on a single outlined sketch, it depicted a dino wearing a bow-tie, a hat and a monocle holding a bubble pipe. Then Restoration Games were kind enough to leave the entire art approach to me afterwards.
I was provided with a list of Dinosaurs names, not species types, actual names like Betty or Bob, which were gathered in Excel. This list contained visual characteristics required for the game play, assets like hats, glasses, flowers, patterns on the skin etc. Then I did some research on the different dinosaurs looks for inspiration. In the end some of them are based on real species, but with some mix of features as my imagination dictated. I just tried not to repeat myself visually. For the polishing part I used a technique in Photoshop that was new to me at the time, grey-scale maps. It was worth taking a shot at using it, as it's an extremely time saving technique, good for tight deadlines and it helped to keep everything consistent in style.
Editors Note: I often keep a look out for new game artists, checking out new releases online or visiting my local games shop. In this case I saw Magda’s work in a display case at Essen Spiel 2018. I got in touch soon after and the interview below is the result of that conversation. I hope you enjoy.
Hi Magda, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi, Ross! I'm really happy to have this opportunity to speak with you. I started working as an illustrator and then also as a concept artist somewhere around 2008, so that would be almost for 10 years now. I work on board games, animations, advertising, applications.
I always wanted to be an artist but at that time and place (Poland in the '90s), I thought that this kind of dream would be completely beyond my reach. Also, my parents were against it. So I've abandoned that plan, and instead, I went to school that was chosen by them. Drawing was more like a hobby. So mostly I illustrated novels written by my younger sister, made sketches of animals or created designs for characters for our roleplaying game campaign.
And then, one day, when I was still in high school, I went to the cinema instead of taking classes. I was the only person in the cinema hall and the movie they showed was "Spirited Away". (I didn't hear about someone like Hayao Miyazaki at the time - whose films are now one of my greatest inspirations). That movie reminded me that I have always wanted and still want to illustrate such stories. That I want to work as an artist. Time passed, but I only got more determined. I learned everything on my own: anatomy, color theory, composition, etc. or software (like Photoshop or Flash). Thanks to this at some point something that was only a hobby was finally my job. Later, I started working in an animation studio in my hometown. And now I'm a freelancer.
Apart from art, I still love pen and paper RPGs, board games, samurai movies, and anime. I'm also very interested in anthropology, history and animal behaviorism.
You're part of a small collective called All Blue Studio, how do you think small studios help artists such as yourself and what are you hoping to achieve with the project?
As I mentioned before, even as children, we created stories along with my sister. She wrote scripts and I made illustrations. So our first serious project as All Blue Studio - which was 'The Thief of Wishes' interactive book for kids - was something that we always wanted to create together. The fact that my fiancé, who is a developer, also joined in, allowed us to finish this as family and friends. So we were very lucky that our skills are so compatible and perfect for this project. Of course, it was still a complex process and there were plenty of other difficulties.
At first, we had the ambition to create something much more advanced. But unfortunately, we did not have all the necessary resources to do it, only our own skills and will. It is not easy to sit down after a hard day of work (or simply on a day off) and continue working. But we have learned a lot during this project - also about our own limitations and how to cooperate with each other. A part of that it was extremely satisfying to see 'The Thief of Wishes' in AppStore. And we are so incredibly happy that now we can work on another app.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
I always wanted to illustrate board games, because this is also one of my hobbies. (We have an entire wardrobe filled with games). So when the opportunity came, I was very happy. The first project I made was a game for the Polish Customs Office. It was an educational game that's supposed to teach the players about the dangers of smuggling of animals and plants. After this, I started to work on a more commercial game with the title “3 Wishes”. Strawberry Studio contacted me and asked if I could create illustrations for the cards and the cover box. I received a list with phrases that described wishes and I was allowed to interpret them freely. I had a lot of fun with it. So I decided that the more devious the wishes would be, the more interesting result we will get. Just like as the wishes were fulfilled by some malicious genie. After that, I cooperated with Strawberry Studio also on other games.
Much of your work has a very painterly style full of beautiful textures. As a self-taught artist, how did you develop as an artist and what kinds of resources did you use to help you?
Thank you, Ross. That was very kind of you. To tell you the truth, when I started to work as an artist I decided to learn from the absolute basics. I spent almost the whole year, at least one hour each day, just learning anatomy (drawing each muscle and bone) from tutorials on the internet or books (like Classic Human Anatomy by Valerie L. Winslow and Figure Drawing for All It's Worth by Andrew Loomis). I also bought and read every book recommended by other artists whom I admire. At some point, I decided to try workshops and lectures (like CGMasterAcademy, Schoolism) and lately, I’ve discovered Gumroad.
I think that my style has evolved thanks to all of those sources. Previously I just focused on gathering knowledge and at some point, then I noticed I started to use a very particular colour pallet, or techniques, or brushes. Another thing is, I often spend a lot of time on one project (a few months or more). After some time of using a specific technique or style, I’m getting tired of it, and I try to do something completely new during the new project. (Just to learn more, see what I can change or do differently.)
What is your creative process when working on a board game? Can you talk us through it?
After I learn about a general idea, I always try to understand gameplay (or even test it) and see if I can suggest some solutions that can benefit a game designer. For example, what symbols or illustrations can we add or how to put texts on cards to make it more “player friendly”. It is something that we can call “user experience”, but only on the level of my competence as an artist.
Other than that, I gather as many references as possible. For example, if a game has a historical or anthropological theme (which are favorites of mine), I try to learn more about a topic to which game is referring. Once, when I worked on puzzles about old Slavic, I went to a historical fortification (which also happens to be a museum) and spoke with an archaeologist who worked there. I also always attempt to collect books, go to art galleries or other places which are inspirational to me or simply aid understanding the game.
After that, I try to create the game universe in my head. Conceptualize things such as: who are heroes, (if a game has them), what they are doing, what will make this universe more realistic. As far as that point, I also focus on things like lights and colours which should be used to get the desired effect – they help me to select the best style for the specific project. I often create the colour pallet at the same time as conceptual sketches.
Your character illustrations are filled with personality, so what do you think are some key things an artist should try to include to create memorable characters?
In the art book of the Tangled, Glen Keane mentioned that Ollie Johnston (who mentored him) was always wanting the idea, "What [are they] thinking," to be considered. I always try to remember this. As I mentioned before, from my childhood I created stories with my sister. Her characters gave an impression that they are real people and not just random heroes from books or RPG scenarios. So, I think that I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from her.
From a more technical perspective, the book which was the greatest help to me when it came to expressions was and continues to be The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression by Gary Faigin. I have really learned a lot from it. It made clear to me how to correctly emphasize a wide range of emotions by just using three correctly drawn lines.
Editors Note: I first spotted Sarah’s art due to her work on the Dark Cities Series by Facade Games which I ended up backing on Kickstarter in Feb 2018. As I own the games I figured it would be nice to take some photos of them to support this article. I really loved the art and production of these games so I’m over the moon she agreed to speak to me. I hope you enjoy!
Hi Sarah, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi Ross! Thanks for having me. First off I want to say, this is a really cool thing you are doing here. There are a lot of talented and amazing individuals you’ve brought together, and I’m really honored that you’ve invited me to answer your questions and be a part of this community.
Now, a little about me, I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (that drives a lot of my life and how and why I do the things I do) and I live in the great state of Utah in a cute little 1950’s home (with a sporadic layout and lots of add-ons) with my husband, Josh and two little daughters, Juliet and Sivenna. I don’t have a day job, so I work exclusively on my freelance work which consists of games, custom portraits, book covers and magazine illustrations as of late. When I’m not doing freelance work or spending time with my family, I’m learning how to cook something new, gardening, contemplating our next renovation designs, collecting coins, or working on my graphic novel, GreenThumb.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
My first board game, well card game, was Salem 1692 by Facade Games, but back then they weren’t Facade Games yet, they were just Travis and Holly Hancock, and they were fellow college students at Brigham Young University. I had never met them but they were looking for an artist for their first game so they posted a listing on the illustration job board. I saw the listing and I remember getting excited about it thinking it was fun, but then seriously debating on if it was a good idea to embark on such a project as a student.
At the time it sounded like a lot of work. And at the time for me it was. I was a student and things were already so busy, but again, it looked like it would be a lot of fun, so I did a sketch of Ann Putnam, sent it off, and they loved it. That sketch is now on the cover of the rule book but the character ended up being Mary Warren. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how much Salem would take off! Travis and Holly only imagined their friends and family playing it and supporting them. They had the funding goal of $6000 on Kickstarter, so when it reached $100k we were all absolutely blown away.
With hindsight, I think the tabletop game industry was in the beginnings of a boom with a subtle rebellion against screen time and with new crowdfunding platforms readily available to shift how new game designers could now get themselves published. Salem hit a nerve in the market. I see it being a big stroke of luck. From there Travis and Holly took advantage of the success and quickly got started on Tortuga 1667 and officially created Facade Games, which was another raging success from what our expectations were and now Deadwood 1876 yet again exceeded our expectations. They keep thinking it’s a fluke. And maybe it still is, but now they have loyal supporters and people who want everything they do. I think I’ll keep going with it.
In what way do you think your education prepared you for industry work and looking back how did you feel less prepared when starting?
It’s funny you ask this because going into the tabletop industry was not something I ever could have anticipated. My training was for doing visual development for video games and/or film. I don’t think any of my teachers even entertained the idea “oh you could do board games.” I don’t think they were against it or anything, it’s just more popular to dream of working for Pixar or Blizzard or even doing children's books and editorial work. Those industry’s seemed more “prestigious” maybe? Perhaps that’s not the best word. At the very least they are very structured and the path to success in a lot of those industries is clearly mapped out with lots of resources. There didn’t seem to be as easy access into finding out what industry standards were for the board game industry back when I first started or I just didn’t know where to find them. I think this site alone would have been a fantastic resource for someone like I was starting out.
I think maybe the Hancock’s struggled as far as what would be our standard as a business relationship between designer and illustrator. We learned a lot together, and now I think we have figured out a system that works for us. I feel like they trust me to do my best work and because of that every game I’ve done since Salem has felt like “mine” and I’ve got to push myself artistically a little bit more each time.
When it came to working on Salem 1692, how did the subject matter, the witch trials of this time, guide or affect the way you illustrated the characters themselves?
I did make a conscious effort to make all the characters moody. The Salem witch trials was a dark time in American history and there were a lot of innocent victims, self-righteous individuals and perpetrators. Lots of death, fear, lies and betrayal. Mary Warren (the first one I did, and the one I actually initially envisioned as Ann Putnam) was a perpetrator. She’s the one who started the witch hunt. When drawing her I wanted her character to feel ominous. Drawing her also set the tone for the rest of the art in the game.
Is the art and everything completely historically accurate? No, Not even close! While I did loosely reference images of individuals we were including in the game, those references were also another artists representation of what the actual individuals may have looked like. As there are no photos of that time period there was a lot of freedom for me to put my own twists into how these characters.. er.. people may have looked. I did have a few I kept close to their portraits, like character William Phipps for example.
I’m not sure whether the Hancock’s or I ever articulated this to each other, but for me the goal was not to be historically accurate. It was rather to simulate, to the best of our ability, the mood we wanted the players to feel while playing the game so that people could have fun and enjoy the game. The bios included in the rule book are the most accurate part.
I can imagine the first game presented plenty of challenges, both with time management and through the learning curve of the project. As you started on the follow-up Tortuga 1667, what did you look to do differently?
With Tortuga I was no longer a student, so I was ready to put my full and undivided attention into the game. Seeing the success Salem had, I knew I needed to step up my game. With Salem, I’ll be honest, I see a lot of flaws in my drawing skills in the art due to a combination of things like a lack of experience, feeling rushed, being a student and not being very good at managing my own time.
I was still familiarizing myself with digital painting programs like Photoshop, which is partly why the colors are so muted (aside from purposefully trying to keep things moody), things like that. It was no ones fault and it was the best I could do back then. With Tortuga though, I felt the urge to really push myself. and again I had quite a bit of freedom to just go for it in terms of taking charge of the direction for the style of the art. Plus, I had the time to do it. So I took my time and put a lot of love into those characters.
Editors Note: Feudum first caught my eye back in 2017 when it appeared on Kickstarter, with an art style that I absolutely adored. You voted it into your Top 10 Best board game art of 2018 on this very site and it’s recently had another very successful run on KS for the latest expansion Rudders and Ramparts. Whenever I cover KS related games I try and release them during the campaign, this one has missed that window so for those interested in picking up the game and the expansion you can jump in and late back right here. I hope you enjoy the interview and as always feel free to comment below!
Today I'm being joined by Mark and Justin, designer and illustrator on Feudum who will be telling us more about that game and it's upcoming expansion Rudders and Ramparts. Thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourselves and what you do?
Mark: Great to be here, Ross. I guess you could say I’m a toymaker, living in the suburbs in a small town named Columbia, Missouri. To me, tabletop games are toys—albeit advanced toys that stimulate your mind. I also have a side gig as a Professor teaching strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Justin: Hello Ross! I'm an artist living in Jackson, Mississippi. I work at an advertising agency during the day as a Sr. Art Digital Art Director and illustrate/design posters (and now, board games!) in the evenings.
How did you two first start working together? Can you remember those first few conversations?
Mark: This is going to sound a bit far-fetched, but it’s 100% true. I walked into an Ice Cream shop called “Sparky’s” and saw a poster for a band on the wall (some examples of these are above). It featured a giant monster traversing the countryside, and I immediately thought… “that has to be my artist!” When I found Justin’s email on the internet, I wrote a long and rambling email asking him to consider working on game art. To my surprise, he wrote back.
Justin: Yeah! Like Mark said, he sent me an email with something like "a guy with a dream" as the email title. I was like "oh great, here we go!" haha - just assuming it was another request for some free work for "exposure." But it really ended up being this thoughtful, heartfelt email about Mark's dream of creating a tabletop game. To an artist/designer, it sounded like a real dream project! Mark seemed very intelligent, creative, passionate and honest - so I was intrigued to say the least!
Marks Handmade Prototype - Feudum
Mark’s Daughter playtesting Feudum
Alright, elevator pitch time, what is Feudum and what makes it so special?
Mark: I had been playing Eurostyle (or German Board Games as they used to be called) for nearly 15 years. I immersed myself in the creations of Knizia, Teuber, Wallace and Seyfarth thinking that I’d find the holy grail of games! One with a working economy, with depth, with a wide open-world with multiple paths to victory. I couldn’t find what I was envisioning! So, I invented Feudum.
Justin: One thing that makes Feudum unique (design-wise) is the cohesion of the icons/graphics with the game itself. When researching tabletop games I was always baffled by the icons being completely detached from the rest of the design. Harsh outer glow effects and dark drop shadows on vector icons that were obviously designed without taking the original artwork into account. I suppose it was the result an illustrator not putting much thought into leaving "blank" areas for icons to live, and icon designers wanting to make sure their elements stood out - but to me, the end result looked like this mish-mash of design. Nothing felt like one complete, cohesive project - so one of my main goals artistically was to make sure Feudum felt like a timeless "artifact." Mark and I agreed that using iconography that was language independent was also important.
Let's talk for a moment about the world you've built with Feudum. Where did the initial idea for the theme come from and how did you decide on the visual style you ended up creating?
Mark: I discovered Eurostyle games in the late 90s and became a quick fan of legends like Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, Martin Wallace and Andreas Seyfarth. However, I was not satisfied. I kept envisioning the holy grail of games. One that was an open-world sandbox. One where you could eke out your medieval existence. One that featured a working, cyclical economy. I couldn’t find it, so I invented it! Many games influenced Feudum including the multiple roles in Puerto Rico, the action programming of Maharaja, the area control of El Grande, the resource gathering of Settlers of Catan. But, I knew I needed a unique mechanic that I could call my own. That’s when Feudum’s economic ecosystem was born! Once the mechanics were in place, I knew I needed striking art! I’ve always loved Expressionism with its thick black lines, etchings and muted color schemes. (French Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet in particular). This is probably why I like Alexandre Roche (Artist for the game Troyes), and of course, why i like my artist/illustrator Justin Schultz!
The very first image Justin sent Mark - Feudum
The second image Justin sent Mark - Feudum
Final Knight with colour - Feudum
Justin: When Mark and I discussed the art style, Mark had a very specific vision in mind, which can be a double-edged sword! A lot of people struggle with vision and don't know what they want (or don't want) until they see it. Mark knew exactly what he wanted, which may seem a little constrictive creatively, but he was always very open to my input and ideas. Plus, I really loved the world he had created and his feedback always improved my illustrations (as much as I hate to admit it, haha). Mark is also a pretty great artist in his own right! He had the board all laid out and the characters mostly concepted, so really I just had to "re-skin" his designs. I like to joke I can only draw about 25% better than Mark, which is how I got the gig! He also inundated me with hundreds (and hundreds, no kidding) of reference images! At one point, I asked him to narrow the references to maybe five-ish images per topic - which he agreed to - but then would be like "well... here's 20 more images that I think really help show what I'm trying to convey". When we were at SXSW recently, we went through a lot of the old images/references and laughed about the whole process. It was such a beast of a job, but definitely one I could not be more proud of.
Early full game board - Feudum
Early map planning - Feudum
The board is a huge part of any tabletop game, both in the sense of its presence but also in connecting players to the world and Feudums does a great job of selling the theme. How long did it take to create this board and how did it change during the initial projects development?
Mark: I started thinking about the archetypal medieval roles (farmer, merchant, alchemist, knight, noble and monk) and the symbiotic relationships one might have with the other. I drew a large circle on piece of poster board to plot everything out. (I still have this, actually). The original map I drew evolved a little over time as did the vessel routes. I was inspired by the length of the Shogun (based on Wallenstein) board and how it gave everyone ample space for their personal playmats! Originally the Guilds, Military Service Track and Epic Voyage Track were detached from the board.
Early Map Art - Feudum
After a year of playtesting this in this detached manner, I figured out a visually efficient way to combine everything. Playtesting with my friends was critical to its evolution! My friend Dan inspired the Tax action while my friend Andy inspired the individual vessel routes. I like that there are two games happening at once. Players must think about playing their dutiful role in the guilds, while minding the empires they are building on the map. I’m most proud of the integration between these two elements.
Game board final design - Feudum
Justin: This was all Mark! Like I was saying earlier, he had a very clear vision of what he wanted, I just tried not to mess it up! There were definitely a few iterations along the way, but the bulk of the board remained the same (by the time I was included in the process).
Editors Note: To create truly great board game art I believe you need to marry it with effective graphic design. So far on this site I’ve done a good job of covering the illustrations, but graphic design has thus far been sorely ignored. I’d like to change that and this interview (conducted late last year) is the first of many I’ll be doing to cover this area.
If you enjoy the interview below, let me know! With your feedback and guidance I’d love to make this site even better in 2019. Thanks all.
Hi Nick, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Thanks for having me Ross! I'm a graphic designer living in Hopkins (just outside of the Twin Cities) currently working as a graphic designer for Leder Games! Outside of board games I'm also really passionate about art toys and model making. Lately, I've been trying my hand at making molds and casting my own resin figures and have recently developed an obsession with Gundam models.
Where did it all begin, how did you work your way into the board game industry?
During my education and professional development, I always had in mind I wanted to be involved in tabletop games, but I never really knew what that would entail. I just knew I wanted to be involved in the process. Like many people my friends and I would attempt to make our own games but nothing that made it past the kitchen table. I had a couple interviews at Fantasy Flight Games that didn't go anywhere before I saw a job posting for Leder Games. Patrick and I had a brief back and forth then 2 weeks later he was asking me to start!
I was originally brought on with the main purpose of making and updating play-test kits for our upcoming title Vast: The Mysterious Manor, but as the position developed it was obvious that I could be more involved. As of late, an average day for me probably includes a meeting with Patrick or Cole discussing rules and developing ideas, then we break off and I’ll go and make any new game assets or changes that we'll need if we're play testing that day. I also may be coordinating with our foreign language partners to answer questions or creating marketing assets for our Sales Manager, Clay. I honestly couldn't have gotten luckier to be so involved in the game creation process - I know most companies don't operate like Leder but I think the process shows in the product.
Vast: Mysterious Manor - Prototype Set Up
Where was your experience based before joining Leder Games and how did that prepare you for the job?
Outside of freelance projects my largest experience doing graphic design was for a department at the University of Minnesota, where I graduated. I think that job was more stereotypical of what people think when they hear "Graphic Designer". Me and the team would plan new initiatives, create assets for fundraising campaigns, and coordinate with printing services. We operated like a marketing team, and in that setting, the amount of information we needed to communicate was often small as well as being simpler. Because of that, solutions were more varied and we were working on new things constantly.
My position at Leder Games on the other hand, is a combination of graphic designer and usability developer. I'm working on one game at a time where my focus currently is on clarity of information and mechanics. So when I'm designing components like player boards for example, my attention is on effective and clear communication rather than an amazing visual element (after all that’s why we have Kyle Ferrin). I've actually found working like this to be more similar to the work I did while pursuing my product design minor - it's about focusing the design on the person who's going to be using it. There are still similarities as well - our need to iterate rapidly, and quickly tear down and rebuild ideas (prototypes) feels more similar to my time at the university job.
Based on what you’ve learned so far at Leder, what do you think makes for good graphic design?
For me, its about successful communication of information. The last thing you want a user to experience is not knowing how to interpret what’s in front of them. To put it simply, board games are complicated and its my job to visually minimize that complexity. Compared to designing for advertising or logos, there's much less opportunity or reason to be "clever" and anyone who has done design stuff knows what I mean when I say "clever". Board game graphic design isn't the place for a logo that has two images hidden in it or an abstract representation for your icon. Board game graphic design is the time to be clear and concise, sometimes this means you don't get to do the "clever" idea and I think that's where a lot of board game graphic design fails.
Vast: Mysterious Manor - Prototype
When it comes to being clear and concise, what are some of the most important things you’ve discovered?
Tough question, and I mean I'm still very new at this but if I was going to name some of my biggest lessons. If something seems awkward to communicate, it probably is. Explaining something should never feel uncomfortable, if it is, try to express it differently or recognize the rule/mechanic is weak. Physical mechanics, written rules, and thematic components always need to work towards the same purpose and can often inform each other. I.E You can answer a lot of questions about how something should work mechanically by asking why it works thematically and so on. If people keep interpreting something "wrong" they may just be right. Its not always worth fighting against human nature. If people keep interpreting something a particular way, see if you can leverage that expectation.
The development of the Skeleton Player board:
This was one of the most satisfying to figure out! Early on, the board was swamped with text and explained every possible thing you could know about the skeletons. As we refined the role during development, we learned how we can split up the necessary information. also, escaping the common 8.5x11" board gave us the freedom needed to make the player board fit the role. (a theme that's repeated throughout the design)
Following on from this how much does play-testing and feedback shape your work?
Next to direct feedback from Patrick and Cole, I'd say our play-testers are the people with the largest impact on graphic design changes. I'm actually writing this at a time where our rules editor, Josh Yearsley, is in town, and we're doing what I believe is one of the most important steps in this process. We bring in as many groups as possible who have little to no experience with what we're working on (currently Vast: The Mysterious Manor) and we watch them learn to play the game. Often, it's completely blind - we ask one player to read the rules, then they teach the others, and they all play. We watch, take notes, and try to allow them to learn and figure things out themselves, only helping when necessary. Josh distills all that feedback and we work together to re-organize information to deal with any problems we saw. These are often small changes with huge positive impact, both in language and presentation. Additions of simple things like small arrows, adjusting leading between text, and word choice like "all" vs "every" can remove minutes of rules checking and frustration. And that’s always been one of my biggest personal goals working in the game industry - making games easier to learn and less frustrating for the players.
Is there a minimum amount of time you think should be spent on the feedback loop of play-testing and changes? How do you know when you've got to that sweet spot where the game is ready?
It is near impossible to give a time frame for testing - it is definitely more of a feeling, especially given how different every game's development is. That being said, I've made some observations about what to look for to know its ready (some of these would apply to many games, not just asymmetric ones!)
You should see questions being answered by the other people in the game and their own materials rather than referencing the rule book.
You should see people asking each other about their specific rules.
You should see people surprised/impressed/jealous of what others can do.
You shouldn't have any rules you don't like explaining.
You shouldn't see people attempting things just because other players can.
The development of the Spider Player boards:
I am showing these as a sort of counter point to the skeleton player board. Where the Skeleton board required less space, we found the most intuitive change for the Spider was actually giving them 3 separate player boards. Usually you want fewer components, but by splitting the forms into 3 boards and controlling exactly what information is accessible to the player, we've found it's easier to teach and understand.
Is there any advice you can pass on to those who are trying to get into the industry or find work as a professional graphic designer?
Be persistent, cast a wide net, attend local events, and play to your strengths. The gaming industry is busy and hectic - don't assume that because you haven't been contacted back its a dead end. It can feel discouraging when emails and applications don't get a reply, but seriously: follow up, and follow up again. I'm not recommending you spam your prospective employer, but sometimes it takes multiple weeks and emails for companies/teams/individual people to respond. Be patient, but be persistent. For attending events I've still found Facebook to be the best tool. I'll regularly visit the Events area and search "games" "game design" or "tabletop". These can vary week-to-week but most of the time you can find something going on - local designers play testing games (Protospiel anyone?) or indie video game jams - whatever it is you find, these are other people who are trying to work in the game industry also. Sign up for their newsletters, bring business cards, and stay in contact.
Current Gameplay (from December 2018)
What are some non game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
While I'm working I usually just put full albums on. This year has been a lot of Denzel Curry, Anderson, Paak and Kanye West - anything high energy to keep that forward momentum. For reading lately I've been loving Andrew MacLean's Headlopper comic and catching up on Hellboy as they reprint them all. For television I can't recommend 'Nirvanna the Band the Show' enough, a genre-bending buddy comedy with some of the most unique production I've ever seen.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work on or offline, where can we find you?
Best place to find me is on Twitter @BickNachmann and I very recently made an Instagram! I’m also currently working on an art toy in my free time and trying to post the progress, hopefully of some Gundam kits and possibly embroidered hats in the future!
All images supplied by and copyright of Nick Brachmann and Leder Games.
Did you enjoy this interview? Do you want to hear more about graphic design in board games? Let me know in the comments below!
EDITORS NOTE: Of course when Wingspan flew onto all our radars I very much wanted to know more. Initially this was an interview with just Jamey and Natalia but Elizabeth kindly jumped in at the last minute with some extra insight. I’ve included a few links to the Wingspan print shop but there’s no affiliate links or money changing hands, I just figured you’d all be interested. Enjoy the interview!
Today I'm being joined by Jamey Stegmaier (Publisher/Developer), Elizabeth Hargrave (Designer) and Natalia Rojas (Artist), who will be telling us more about the gorgeous new release Wingspan. Thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Jamey: I’m Jamey Stegmaier, and for the last 6 years I’ve run a board game publishing company called Stonemaier Games. I run this company full time from my home-office in St. Louis, Missouri, which is a fairly large midwestern city. In addition to designing games, playing games, and doing a lot of business-related stuff, I love to cook and try new food (and old favorites) at local restaurants, watch movies, read fiction, and play/watch soccer. I have 2 cats that demand quite a bit of time and attention as well.
Natalia: Thank you for having me. I am a 33-year old artist from Medellin, Colombia, currently living St. Louis, MO. I’ve been married for 13 years and we have two daughters (ages 7 and 4) and a cute puppy named Pinto. I’m a dedicated mother and work around their schedules as I don’t want to miss out in their childhood. I have a curious mind and like to learn about everything, so I read a lot and jump from one hobby to another. I do jewelry, watercolor painting, yoga, gym, and of course color pencil drawing. My family and my art are the most important things in my life. I do commission art work and Wingspan is my first big gig as a freelancer illustrator.
Elizabeth: I'm Elizabeth Hargrave, and I live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. I moved here to work for the federal government, but now I'm a freelance consultant, which gives me some flexibility to do game design work and also to travel. In addition to birding I'm an all around nature geek: I'm on the board of the local mushroom club and I help my spouse with his landscape design work.
Image of Wingspan board game - courtesy of Instagram @ellalovesboardgames
Natalia, as a self-taught illustrator, when did you start drawing and why did you start?
N: Drawing has always been something so natural to me that I never saw it as something special. I’ve always done it, but the first time someone mentioned how good I was at it was my kindergarten teacher. Drawing was something I did just to pass the time or to take my mind away from places. I’m an avid reader and I used to get in trouble during my scholar years for drawing and/or reading instead of doing classwork. I wasn’t very academic and used to get in trouble because my mind was always busy with drawing stuff or reading books (I love Stephen King, Ken Follett, and other authors who write historic novels).
Natalia’s art studio
I never really set my mind to learn how to draw, I would just try to copy an image I liked such as book covers or Dragon ball notebooks, people from magazines, or anything I could find. After graduating from high school I didn’t consider art as a career, I guess because my passion for books was bigger than my passion for art. So, I wanted to study philology but was discouraged by my parents because, like with art, it’s hard to make a living out of books. I tried three different careers including business administration and journalism and dropped them all. I’ve also had normal jobs, too; I’ve done customer support, finance, procurement, etc. However, some years ago I finally came to the realization that I’m a natural artist and that’s what brings me joy. It took me many years and several jobs to take art seriously but when I did, I found my calling. It’s a funny to think how art was always there and I kept ignoring it.
Natalia’s art studio
After my epiphany I decided to try to get better at drawing and I just knew I needed to take my time and work slow to get the level of detail I like. I started to follow some great artists like Jay Depalma and Ileana Hunter on social media. Sometimes they’d share tools and materials that I would get and use on my next little project. After moving to United States in 2012 I started going to an amazing art studio for painting nights and got more involved in the artistic community.
Even though I say I’m self-taught I’m thankful to have received great advice from other artists like Ana Martinez with whom I partnered to create the illustrations for Wingspan, and my husband who is always a tough critic, in a good way. He helps me see where I need to improve. I like to do research, and I use every available tool like books and videos but what has really worked for me is the practice and the patience to take my time in every piece.
I don’t really know how to explain it other than there’s a great connection between what I see and my ability to transfer it on paper.
Bird illustration by Natalia Rojas
The board game industry is dominated by popular themes and Wingspan is quite different to your average release. What inspired you to make a game about bird enthusiasts and what stage of the creation process was the theme introduced?
E: It was definitely theme first, and in direct reaction to the fact that I'm not particularly excited about any of the themes that show up most frequently on board games.
J: When she (Elizabeth) pitched it to me, I was entranced by the idea of collecting different combinations of beautiful birds that each had different mechanical impacts on my strategy. So the theme itself was never a question—it was birds from start to finish. As much as I loved the theme and thought it would capture peoples’ attention after they played it, I wasn’t sure how quickly it would catch on. So I went with a fairly conservative number of games for our first print run (10,000 is conservative for us), which has turned out to be far too low.
Image of Wingspan board game - courtesy of Instagram @ellalovesboardgames
So, can you describe Wingspan to us and what makes it interesting?
J: Wingspan is a bird-collection, card-driven, engine-building game for 1-5 players. It features 170 unique bird cards, each with its own art and unique abilities. You’ll use these bird cards to enhance the core abilities of your habitats while also continually comboing the abilities of cards you’ve played in each of those habitats.
What makes Wingspan interesting to me is the wide variety of birds, which leads to every game feeling different. I like that there are a number of paths to victory, but even if I don’t win, I have a strong sense of satisfaction from my birds and what they’ve done over the course of the game.
With a game so closely focused on birds, how did you look to bring that to the forefront in the production?
J: This is where the artwork and components came into play. I wanted an Audubon look to the game, as I thought that would best trigger that “collectors” aspect that originally drew me to the theme. Fortunately, Natalia’s style and attention to detail was a perfect match for this style.
N: From the very beginning I knew they were looking for realism art and Jamey mentioned Audubon so I started to research him, and I offered Jamey a colored pencil drawing of a bird so they could decide if I was a good fit for the project (I was competing with other artists I think).
J: As for the components, I like to publish products that have a special, tactile, and attractive table presence. I want component hooks, basically. Elizabeth thought of the birdfeeder dice tower, and I pursued the egg miniatures, the fancy insert, chunky wooden dice, and large, journal-like player mats.
Image of Wingspan board game - image cred Kim Euker (supplied by Jamey Stegmaier)
Natalia, what inspires you when illustrating birds and what are you looking for in each drawing of them?
N: Accuracy is key when doing scientific illustration. I do my research of the bird and the differences according to genre, season, location, age, etc. Ana and I always look for the image that best represents the bird’s characteristics. However, we also wanted to include images that would present a challenge so we can continue to learn and grow artistically. Elizabeth was a great coach and helped us learn about birds for this project. To be able to accurately illustrate birds we got in touch with wonderful wildlife photographers and we got permissions to draw from their pictures. Nevertheless, when we couldn’t find the perfect image we had to use several pictures and a lot of imagination to guarantee an unique illustration that would represent the bird as if it was alive. Birds are the perfect subject to learn how to draw and to practice. There are so many species, different looking, so many colors, textures, etc and that’s why I enjoy it. Every bird illustration offers new challenges and more learning opportunities.
Illustrations by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, featured in the board game – Wingspan are available to purchase via Natalia’s shop
Playtesting is the real litmus test for how close a game is to being ready. How long did Wingspan spend in this phase and how did it change both visually and mechanically during its development?
E: I worked on the game for a couple of years before pitching it to Jamey, and then back and forth with him on development for another year or so before sending it out for blind playtests. It got heavier over that time, but kept the streamlined feel of those simple base actions at its core. I tweaked the layout of my prototype cards a lot over that whole process, to make them as clear and user friendly as possible, based on what people had trouble with in playtests. That definitely helped from a UI perspective -- and Christine (the graphic designer) left a lot of things in the same positions they were in on my prototype after all those iterations. But then she made everything prettier and gave it a more cohesive feel.
Image of Wingspan board game - courtesy of Instagram @ellalovesboardgames
J: I’ll speak specifically to the blind playtesting part of the process, as local playtesting (mostly by Elizabeth, some by me) is very different than having a bunch of people around the world playing the game all at once. The blind playtest process for Wingspan actually only took about 3 months (1 month per wave), as the game was in good shape by that point. It was really all about fine-tuning it, testing different paths to victory, and making sure the rules and the text on the birds and bonus cards was as clear as possible. Natalia was working on the bird illustrations throughout the design and playtest process—we knew which birds were going to be in the game, so playtesting had no impact on the art (and vice versa). Even the player mat, which Beth Sobel illustrated, was firmly established before blind playtesting began, though we tweaked some of the graphic design elements of it as the result of blind playtesting.
N: I learned that creating a board game is a creative and complex process that requires great attention to detail and coordination in many different areas. When I started working on the illustrations I knew this project was a big jump in my career and I gave my best to make sure the art in Wingspan was a good representation of my work. In all honesty, I knew very little about board games from my childhood but it was a big surprise to learn how big the gamer community is. I just learned how to play wingspan a few days ago and it makes me very happy that not only I did part of the art but that is the first board game I ever played. It makes it extra special. Working with Stonemaier has taught me great lessons about managing my time..