Phil Walker-Harding is a board game designer from Sydney, Australia. He started out by self-publishing for around 7 years, and has since focused on game design and worked with publishers to come out with hit titles such as Sushi Go!, Gizmos, and Barenpark.
From an idea to the table, the process of creating a board game can be vast and intimidating at first glance. Every piece on the board, every card, the board itself, the rule book, the box, even the little baggies are all deliberate in their design, material, and function. The process is definitely more complex than starting a Kickstarter page and hoping for the best, but when it is laid out step by step in detail, the journey starts to feel more tangible. All you need is an inspired idea, the perseverance to face challenges head on, and lots of luck. This series of articles will walk through the steps designers take to turn a simple thought into an experience that is shared with potentially thousands of people.
So let's start from the very beginning. The first piece of knowledge I will share with you is:
The beginning can be the hardest part.
However, Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of games such as Sushi Go!, Gizmos, and Imhotep, has given us some advice which can help guide you as you take these first steps.
Why are you making this game. What kind of game do you want to make. What experience do you want to take players on? What innovative game mechanic do you want to share? A good game is built on a solid core foundation. If you don't have an idea that you think other people would genuinely enjoy or find interesting, it will be much more difficult to create, pitch, and market in the future. If you don't think it sounds fun, other people probably won't either.
It may be hard to come up with an awesome game concept out of thin air, so finding inspiration from outside of your own brain can be helpful. When asked, where do you find inspiration for the games you design? Where have been some places you have found inspiration for games you have designed in the past, Phil Walker-Harding answered:"The most common inspiration for me comes from playing other games. Finding something in a game that is fresh or exciting often gets my brain going in new directions. Sometimes something I don’t like in a game can be the trigger. I will ask myself, how could that have been better? Or what could fix that element of the game? In terms of themes, I try to pick settings for my games that are things I really enjoy and know a little bit about - whether that be sushi or Egyptology!"
It may sound simple, but through playing a wide variety of board games with different themes and game mechanics, you can discover new aspects that you can incorporate into your own games. Through playing other games you also can get a grasp on what has already been done and make sure your great ideas haven't already been created. It also gives you the opportunity to observe how different player counts affects games and can help you find what type of games you personally like playing and why. If you know what makes games fun, it'll be easier for you to make a fun game yourself.
In terms of starting the game design process, we asked Phil, When brainstorming, what exactly is the first thing you try to come up with? In short, what is the first goal of your brainstorming process? He told us:"My main goal at this early stage of design is to get the game to a first playable prototype, so my early brainstorming is usually about figuring out whatever details are required to get to that point. I like to write and draw out ideas in a notebook when I begin work on a new game concept. I might sketch some components, write out a possible turn structure, things like that. I guess I am trying to visualize how the game might play out in various ways to put the idea through its first paces. Sometimes the concept can fall apart right here - it already seems too derivative or uninteresting. If not, then when I have the details of a first version mapped out on paper I will use these notes to make the first prototype."
Board games usually stem from a central idea of either a theme or game mechanics. In his article, Themes and Mechanics 1.0 that was originally published in the Des Jeux Sur un Plateau magazine in 2005, French historian and sociologist Bruno Faidutti explores the difference in the games where designers start with themes or mechanics.
When designers start with a theme, the rules, game mechanics, look, setting, and almost every aspect of the game is created to reflect the theme with the "purpose of reproducing (sometimes with maniacal detail) a historic or literary situation." For example, if you wanted to make a game with the theme of baking pies (I'm hungry), the goal of the game could possibly be collecting the necessary ingredients to bake the most pies or as many different pies as you can or to score different combos with certain types of pies. Mechanically, the game probably wouldn't involve grid movement or or area control (though it could!) because people don't usually think of a games like Risk or Zombicide when baking a pie (or they could! I don't know). Instead, the game could use mechanics that can easily incorporate baking, such as card drafting or hand management. As Faidutti phrases it, "the theme is not only the starting point, but is also firmly imbedded in the centers of the play."
However, when games are centered around mechanics, "the theme is almost a decorative element." The focus is put more on how the game is played, rather than how it feels. "Their success relies upon the simplicity of the game rules and the internal coherence of their mechanisms." For example, games like Munchkin and Exploding Kittens rely heavily on the different effects on each of their cards, and if every cards' name and art were changed, the games would work basically the same way. Since Munchkin's mechanics can work in so many different contexts, the game has created a wide range of different variants and expansions, such as Munchkin Fu, Munchkin Cthulhu, Munchkin Steampunk, and Munchkin: Harry Potter.
We asked Phil, there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to what the core of board games should be: Theme or mechanics. When you design games, do you find yourself leaning more towards one over the other? Do you see one having more benefits than the other? He answered:"Because most of my games are relatively simple and low on mechanical detail, multiple themes can usually work to present the gameplay. For example, the prototype for Bärenpark was actually about building an amusement park. So the choice of theme is usually a bit less crucial for me than for someone designing multiple-hour narrative-driven games. I think both theme or mechanism can be the starting point for developing a game idea. Usually, it is a novel mechanism that gets me inspired, although more and more I find myself thinking about player experience as a first broad step, and then finding both mechanisms and a theme that can generate that."
As Phil and Bruno Faidutti pointed out, a good game is able to "create a synergy between theme and mechanics, whose universe sticks to its rules, and whose rules stick to its universe." If a game has interesting mechanics, but the theme seems last minute and awkwardly stuck on, the players' immersion can be ruined and the game can lose its effect. If the game has a super interesting world and concept, but isn't fun to play, it will just stay on people's shelves and look pretty. Games should feel like the rules and gameplay make sense in the context of a compelling and interesting theme.
Once you have the core and the beginnings to a game, Phil tell us:"Once I have the initial idea for a game I usually start writing about it in a notebook. I’ll jot down possible mechanisms as they pop into my head, sketch out ideas for cards or pieces, and write out how I want the players to feel or react to certain things. The few times I have collaborated with other designers discussion plays a similar role. Bouncing ideas around to see what sticks."
So once you have the core idea in mind, it's time to come up with how the game actually works. This process will be different for each individual game, but the knowledge of other games you have played before can provide points of reference. If your game is based on a mechanic, come up with the factors that mediates the mechanic. You will need to come up with basic information, such as playtime and number of players, and test what works best with your game. Some materials that may be helpful are a blank deck of cards (if your game includes cards), sharpies (the fat ones so you are forced to write less and be more concise), and cardboard (if your game includes a board). We asked Phil if there are materials that are absolutely essential for him when creating prototypes for games and if he had any suggestions for people who have no idea how to make a prototype. He said:"I think first prototypes should be as simple as possible so you can figure out quickly if the core idea of the game is going to work. So I often use 200 gsm card stock which I cut up, and thick colored markers. If there’s more complexity to the components I’ll mock up something quickly on the computer and print it out. You can use a basic word processor to make simple cards and a board without too much know-how. And then of course I have a stash of wooden cubes and other components ready to use. But my advice would be to just get something to the table and worry about making it attractive later on in the process."
One method by which to start turning an idea into a prototype that Jamey Stegmaier, the designer of games such as Viticulture, Euphoria, and Scythe, suggests is rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping is a process where you create as many variants of your game as you can and playtest them right away. It is a good idea to playtest these early prototypes against yourself so you can understand both sides of the gameplay and not have to ask anyone to play half thought out possibilities. Through going through countless variations of rules and game styles you can start to understand how you want your game to work as well as the different limitations and rules you have to set to keep the game balanced and well paced. Writing out all the rules for these prototypes can help you check if everything actually makes sense or if anything is overly complicated.
After going through early prototypes until you find a set of rules and mechanics that are actually fun and you feel comfortable with, invite other humans that are close to you to playtest it with you. The advice of other people is the most valuable thing you can receive as you continue to refine your prototype. They may discover flaws in the rules that you have overlooked, suggest ways to make the game more interesting, or let you know if things do not make sense. It's a good idea to start out with people who you trust and care about you so that their advice is with your best interests in mind. Through playing the game with these people, receiving their feedback, and adjusting the game accordingly, the next step is to create a more refined prototype that includes how the game will look visually and how every aspect comes together. You don't need to worry about art yet, but you should start thinking about how you want the game to look graphically. If cards are involved, how are they formatted? What about the board? Once this prototype gets to the point where you are willing to show strangers...show strangers.
The last part of prototyping should be seeking out blind playtesters. Blind playtesters are complete strangers who you have just met or never met before who are not afraid to hurt your feelings and give you honest criticism. They are the most valuable source of feedback because they are essentially the real world consumers you are making the game for in the first place. If they don't understand your game or find it fun, that's the tough reality. It is beneficial to let the rule book teach them the game, as in don't explain the game to them at all. This will allow you to identify any flaws in the way the rules are written and refine them until new players can understand the game by reading them alone. To make the game better and better, have as many people as you can playtest your game and address every issue or problem players report. There are many places to find strangers, a few being college campuses, libraries, and online on websites like Board Game Geek and the board game subreddit. College campuses are great because there are a multitude of students who are bored and would enjoy taking a break from studying (I can attest), coffee shops may let you put up posters asking if people would like to play a new board game, and community centers, such as churches, are also places you can find people to ask.
How can you translate gameplay to improvements? We asked Phil, when observing people playtest your prototypes, what are the things you are looking for and paying attention to? How do you translate these observations into revisions? His answer was:"I usually get more out of watching people play rather than the discussion after. For example, you can usually tell how engaged someone is by watching their body language and how excited they are to take each of their turns. Which parts of the game are frustrating the players is also usually pretty clear to see. This usually doesn’t result in specific revisions, but more a sense of where more work needs to be done, or where the system just isn’t generating the response you intended. Of course, sometimes playtesters have specific suggestions too. These are obviously much easier to action, but it is a good skill to learn which suggestions are worth testing. I think over time you develop a gut instinct about whether a new proposal might solve a problem, or if the playtester hasn’t quite grasped something about the overall design."
As Phil said, the most valuable information you can receive from playtesters is their body language and their first reaction to the game. However, it is also a good idea to ask questions and have a discussion afterwards. You should try to be absolutely silent throughout the playtesters' whole entire gaming experience, whether they play with a wrong understanding of the rules or not, so after they finish is a good time to have conversations. A few questions that can help guide these discussions are:
Keep playtesting the game until almost everyone who plays it has a good time. Keep refining the rules until they are concise and understandable, keep modifying different aspects until every part of the game feels balanced, and keep asking for as much feedback as you can. Basically, the more you playtest, the more problems you can solve about the game which will in turn make your game better and better.
So you have a refined prototype you are proud of and has been playtested thousands of times. Now, the obstacle you face is how you are going to turn this simple prototype into a beautiful final project that consumers will insta-buy on Amazon. How you ask? Stay tuned for the next article in this series!
Phil is a rising star among the industry's best tabletop game designers. His singular pursuit of creating accessible games led to the wildly successful Sushi Go! and introduced thousands of gamers into the hobby. So what does it take to create games that are loved by people of all background and age?
Hey Phil, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi! My name is Phil Walker-Harding and I am a game designer from Sydney, Australia. I have been designing since 2007, when I put out my first self-published game called Archaeology. I self-published for around 7 years, putting out my own titles in small print runs, and occasionally having a title picked up by a bigger publisher. A few years ago, I decided to focus just on game design, and since then I have worked with a whole lot of great publishers—the Sushi Go! series with Gamewright, Imhotep with Kosmos, Gizmos with CMON, Bärenpark and Gingerbread House with Lookout. I also work part-time for my church, where I do pastoral work with a non-traditional congregation. It is an interesting and satisfying combination of jobs to have!
A common thread across your interviews are the keywords accessibility and components. First, how do you define accessibility and how did it become such a big part of your design philosophy?
Yes, accessibility is very important to me in game design. I would say a game is accessible if it can be easily learned and played by a large range of players—in age, background, and gaming experience. I think if someone can absorb the rules by watching a game being played and then join in, that is a pretty good sign that there are a few barriers to entry. I suppose this has become central for me because I love how tabletop games can bring all different types of people together for a shared play experience. This is something I love to see, so I hope my games can promote this happening! I also generally prefer lighter games, so my design style quite naturally evolved in this way.
Taking some of your games as an example, what are some things you consider to make an accessible game? Which of your games do you think best showcases accessibility?
One of the biggest barriers to people playing games is having to learn the rules. I think for people who aren’t used to it having to learn rules and then play with them can feel stressful, almost like a surprise quiz at school! So a huge part of accessibility is that the game is quick and easy to learn. Ideally, it can be learned by simply watching others play, or it can explained in just a few minutes. Take for example, Sushi Go! and 7 Wonders. Mechanically, they are quite similar to play, but 7 Wonders has a lot of rules overhead you need to digest before you begin (of course, this allows for more strategic depth in the game!) This means that a big part of design for me is boiling down the core mechanisms so they work as a clear and simple system.
Players also need to feel comfortable that they understand what they are supposed to do on their turn. So I always try and have only few options to select from, very clear decision points, and quick feedback loops. That is, players can opaquely see the results of their actions soon after they take them. For example, to play a turn in Sushi Go! you simply choose one card from your hand and pass it on. After five minutes, the first round ends and you will see how all your cards score. This teaches the player how the combinations work, and then they have two more rounds to try again and improve. You also can’t really make a “wrong” move, even just picking cards because you like the pictures will get you some points! To again compare this to 7 Wonders, it really takes a full game to conceptualise how the different cards play out and interact with each other across the three rounds. This is part of what makes it a more advanced game despite its simple mechanisms.
Another key factor in accessibility is clear and intuitive graphic design. I think it’s important that players don’t have to expend mental energy on figuring out what the components do or how they work. I love the components in Gingerbread House, and the way that the player boards direct the players where to put certain things, and how many of each they are allowed to store. Having all this information openly available and presented in a visually obvious way lowers the amount of rules a player needs to keep in their head. Another small example of this is in Sushi Go!, where I designed the tempura and sashimi cards to subtly remind you how they score. There are 2 tempura depicted, and 3 sashimi, indicating that 2 and 3 cards are needed for a set, respectively.
Given the nature of your games, have there been times when you felt motivated by stories of your games bringing people together? Could you share some of them with us?
For sure! I suppose the main experience I have of this is seeing photos of people playing Sushi Go! on social media from all around the world. There has also been some amazing fan art too - sushi pictures by kids, sushi cakes, and even a sushi dress! So knowing that the game is being enjoyed by a wide range of people is really fulfilling, and motivates me to keep making games.
What are your top three favorite components and which board games are they from? Is there a component that you've taken an interest in recently?
Wow, great question. I think I’ll go with the board from Stone Age, the stone statues from Tobago, and the humungous 3D board from Fireball Island. All three do an amazing job of transporting you into the game world.
Recently, I have been trying to create a kids dexterity game. So I have been exploring all sorts of different components, especially objects that feel more like toys than traditional game pieces. So I have been playing around with marbles, ramps and plastic animals!
Barring all practical concerns or questioning from publishers, which of your games out there would you love to go back and make a massive upgrade in its component quality?
I am actually pretty happy with the production of my games! In fact, the final versions of Gizmos, Imhotep and Gingerbread House really exceeded my expectations. My original edition of Archaeology: The Card Game was pretty rudimentary, but this was greatly improved with the wonderful Z-Man reprint, Archaeology: The New Expedition. Many years ago, I self-published a little game called Cannonball Colony that by necessity had very plain components. I would like to re-work it and see how it could do with really nice tiles and 3D buildings.
Which of your games were designed around a theme? Were any of these games initially centered on a completely different theme than what we know them by today and if so, what was the reason for the change?
Imhotep is the best example of when I set out to make a game about a particular theme. I have always been interested in the mystery of how the pyramids were built, and so I started designing a game around this idea where the players would actually build the pyramids with large wooden blocks. Sushi Go! very quickly became about sushi, as soon as I made the connection between passing cards around the table and seeing dishes move around a sushi train. However, because my games are relatively simple and low on thematic detail, a few of them have changed themes during development. For example, Bärenpark was originally about building an amusement park, but the publisher wanted to go in a more unique direction and chose the new theme. Gizmos was originally about building up an ancient civilisation, but as I designed it I realised it felt more like building machines and having them set off chain reactions.
Have there been times when you invested a lot of time and thought into an idea that turned out to be a dud? On the flip side, are there times when a simple idea ended up being a surprise golden egg?
Both are very true of my experience! There are many game ideas that I have been chipping away at on and off for years. At various points I have been really excited about getting them to work, only to get stuck and have to put them back on the shelf, or throw them away entirely. One example is an area control game that is set in a kingdom in the clouds. As the players try and control areas of the board, they can also blow wind to move parts of the board around. The main mechanism works well, but I have never been able to get the whole game to gel together. But a great irony of game design is that sometimes good concepts come together with surprisingly little effort! For example, I recently had a first playtest of a party game that just popped into my head one day, and the system was already pretty good.
What are some common headaches that designers experience that most people don't realize/expect?
A big part of game design is iterating on a design to solve problems with it and finely tune the experience. This usually means a lot of repetitive testing, failing, and throwing out things that took a lot of work to create - which really is not that much fun! There are of course some enjoyable moments of creativity and inspiration, but behind the scenes there is a whole lot of grunt work which, for me at least, can be quite tiring. The process of development with a publisher is also an interesting interpersonal collaborative part of the process. While I’m thankful that I’ve had mainly very good experiences, these industry relationships can be a bit complex to navigate at times.
Do you ever see yourself going back to self-publishing? Have you ever considered Kickstarting your own game?
No, I am very happy building relationships with publishers and letting them do all the things that they are best at! I enjoyed many aspects of self-publishing, but in the end it took so much time and (even more importantly) headspace away from actual game design that I was happy to let them go. I did use crowdfunding back when I was self-publishing, and it was an amazing tool for funding and marketing a game, but again, running a campaign takes a lot of your energy and focus. So at the moment I am very thankful that I get to focus on just game design.
If you don't mind, could you share about the realities of making a living as a board game designer? What would you say to all of the amateur designers out there who are dying to transition into game design full-time?
When I started out designing and self-publishing I viewed it just as a hobby, which meant it was okay that it didn't really make any profit for a while. Relying on making money from design is tough because royalties are intermittent and not always reliable, and you just never know how a game is going to do out there in this crowded market. I transitioned very slowly from hobbyist to part-time to now almost full-time, and I only really took each step when the royalties I had coming in were reliable enough to do it. I was fortunate to be in a position with my other work where there was enough flexibility for it to be possible to make these moves. But I do recommend that you only make changes to your working situation when income from design allows for it. I think just jumping in and deciding to be full-time off the bat can be very risky.
Having an "evergreen" game is also really important for going full-time as well. For me, reliable income over time from a well-selling game, and a few others with decent sales, has been the key. It is much easier said than done, but aiming to make an evergreen title (or line of games) is an important goal. Ongoing sales, even if not huge, allow you to plan and build for the future. I think smaller niche publishers accomplish something similar by relying on customer loyalty and brand recognition of their particular style of game, so this can work too. So any planning you can do for a continuing stream of income, even if it starts small, will be really helpful.
What do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
I suppose every designer has their own goals, but for me I am inspired by the idea of “evergreen” games. That is, titles that are played widely enough and for long enough that in some way they enter the shared culture. To create a game that people know around the world, pass on to others, and play after I’m gone would be amazing. A lofty goal, but something that does motivate me for sure. To bring things back down to earth, in the more immediate future I’m hoping to create games in genres I haven’t worked in before - especially a kids game and a social deduction game. I think it is important to keep stretching yourself as a designer so you can grow in new areas.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
You bet. The expansion for Bärenpark is due out soon. It brings grizzly bears and monorails to the game! Imhotep: The Duel has just come out in english too. It is a 2-player only twist on the Imhotep system which I hope fans will enjoy. Also, the Adventure Games series has just been released in Germany and will be out in english soon. This is a line of story-driven co-operative games that I designed with Matthew Dunstan. In each game, the players are exploring locations, finding items, solving puzzles, and discovering an unfolding storyline. We wanted to create a narrative experience for players that gives the feeling of freely exploring a world and interacting with it. I am super excited to see how players respond to the first two title in the series - The Dungeon and Monochrome Inc.
Thank you Phil for making your time! I still remember playing Sushi Go! with my in-laws during Thanksgiving about two years ago. There really is nothing like a casual game of fun to help break the ice :)
Readers, please feel free to leave comments/questions below for Phil, any of the games mentioned, or for myself!
Below are my links to past interviews:
The true test of friendship starts after high school. In the case of Ana and Natalia, the two withstood the test of time and distance, as Natalia moved from Colombia to Costa Rica, and to the U.S. soon after. And their commitment to one another eventually leads to an opportunity of a lifetime—illustrating the best board game of 2019, Wingspan.
Hey Ana and Natalia, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Hi, everybody! Thank you for this wonderful invitation. Well, let’s begin with my full name. I’m Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo. I’m from Medellin Colombia and I live here. I’m 35 years old (…in full bloom of youth… hehehe).
I’m single and live with my parents and sister Catalina. I’m an artist, graduated from the University of Antioquia. I have a master’s degree in childhood education. For several years I have worked in the field of art in childhood education but I’m currently enjoying working as a full-time illustrator.
Thank you for having me. Of course! I’m Natalia Rojas Gomez and I am from Medellin-Colombia currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. I’m a self-taught illustrator, married for 13 years and I have two young girls (7 and 4 yo). I work from home while raising my children with an attachment parenting approach.
I read that the two of you go way back! Where and when did it all start and how would you describe your friendship?
We are friends since high school. We were 16 and 17 years old when we first met. We were in 10th grade of high school. Natalia was sitting right in front of me and we started chatting coinciding with some musical taste (Rock), books (we are Stephen King fans), and common friends. We used to go to the same places to hang out with friends. We graduated from high school in 2002 and even though we went to different universities and were on our own, we never lost contact and would still get together. In 2005 Natalia moved to Costa Rica but we were always checking on each other with video calls every now and then. Every time Natalia visited Colombia, we would get together to have fun and catch up.
What has characterized our friendship is the sense of humor, sarcasm, happiness and the fact that even though we were not physically together we could always count on each other.
How did the home decor business idea come about and what was the experience like?
The story of working together started when I was going through my master’s degree. At the time I didn’t have a job and was in debt, reason why I created a company to sell canvas paintings featuring my own designs about wildlife and pets. I had the vision to sell them via Etsy, so I reached out to Natalia to ask if she’d be interested in helping me with the printing and distribution in United States. She was not only interested in helping me out, but she wanted to be a part of the company and start creating her own designs. “I’m excited because I feel this is a great idea for the future. I don’t really have the need to make money out of it right now, but I’d like to partner up with you because together we can create pretty interesting stuff,” she said to me in February 9th 2017.
That’s how our small project of Nature Canvas was born. We both started to promote the prints in our social media, and we believe that’s how Alan met our work through Natalia’s facebook.
It's interesting how life plays out sometimes, and your business venture actually led to working alongside Stonemaier Games. Natalia, what was your honest reaction after Alan Stone, co-founder of Stonemaier Games, had reached out to you? And Ana, how did you respond after hearing the news?
I still need to ask Jay (Allan Stone) what moved him to ask me about me being an artist, but this is how it went.
I met Allan through our kids’ school and one day while our children played after school, he asked about me being an artist and told me about a project he had for a board game and if I would be interested. At the time I had no idea what Stonemaier Games was, but I was super excited about the possibility of getting commissioned artwork as I was just venturing into making a career of what had always being a hobby. I offered to send some samples of our work and went home to tell Ana about the news. She prepared an email with our best artwork at the time to send Allan who forwarded it to Jamey, and we started talking.
In all honesty, I had no idea how big the board games world is and hadn’t even googled what Stonemaier was. In this case ignorance is bliss because had I known the magnitude of this project and who these guys were, I would have totally freaked out lol.
I had a lot of mixed feelings. On one side I was so happy because I couldn’t believe that Jamey was interested in my work, our work. Besides to my happiness was added astonishment because we had no previous experience in illustrating board games. I thought it was unbelievable (like winning the lottery). On the other hand, I was very stressed because when Jamey let us know they were ready to start creating art for the game in Sept 2017 I was finishing the fourth semester for my master’s degree and didn’t have the time to illustrate but fortunately we managed to make it work and the time flew amazingly well.
What was the main vision for the art behind Wingspan and what sort of skills or background did you have to accomplish this?
The first information we had was that they were looking for realistic artwork inspired by Audubon’s work. Later, we had access to digital samples of the cards.
We were very confident that we had the abilities to meet the expectations. We both are very good at drawing, are detail-oriented and we are constantly giving feedback to each other to improve. We are fast learners and throughout the years we have kept an assertive and effective communication.
Natalia has great social skills (besides her artistic skills). She used to work on finances where she acquired expertise in handling information in a clear, concise and opportune manner. These abilities helped from the beginning to keep good communication with Jamey. On my side, I have great technical abilities and I take care of all the digital and post-production part. My education as an artist and scientific illustration courses I’ve taken, helped to make the best use of our illustration skills to adapt them for the required needs of the project.
When Jamey told me about Audubon inspired artwork, I knew I could do it because I love realistic artwork, I made a sample for them that was the Marsh Wren and I put all my talents and efforts in it and Ana edited it enhancing colors and erasing the background. I tried to make it realistic but still looking as a drawing.
I think we make a great team because we complement each other. I’m still learning how to use Photoshop, but Ana enjoys the digital artwork and is pretty good at it too and because I have worked with people from many different countries and have a cultural background from working with big companies and living in three different countries, I can bring in an international vision that facilitates the business relationships. Teaming up with Ana was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made because we can offer a very complete package of talents.
There are 170 unique bird cards in Wingspan (wow). How much time were you given and were you pretty confident that you'd be able to achieve this?
In February 2017, when we had the first conversations with Jamey, we talked about 50 cards to get ready in 2 to 3 months and sent in the sample bird drawing (Marsh Wren) but they had not chosen an artist yet.
I asked Jamey to share with me a few more bird names so I could work on them for my personal use with no strings attached and I drew the cardinal, ruby throated hummingbird and a blue jay that didn’t make it into the game. We used those to continue the creation of designs for canvas prints and I guess it helped Jamey to choose us as artists for the project.
Then, in September, he contacted us again, with a list of 160 to complete in 4 months (that is, in December). The list was increasing, and time frames became very tight. When we accepted the project, Natalia started by herself because I was finishing my master's degree. In this sense, she was drawing alone during October and November.
I was so eager to take this opportunity that I jumped right in even though Ana was busy at the time and couldn’t draw. I begged her to help me with the editing so we could get started because I couldn’t risk losing the project. Luckily, she accepted, and I started drawing.
At the end of November, I was able to join in and we began an intense work during the month of December. We were making 10 drawings per week. It was very hard but very beautiful because Natalia had the opportunity to travel to Medellin, where we could do many drawings sitting at the same table.
In December we also had some setbacks (some drawings took 8 hours and another 20) we needed to ask Jamey for more time, and it was necessary to extend the project until March 2018.
How did you distribute the birds among the two of you and how did you ensure consistency between your styles/approach?
At the beginning, the distribution was done according to the skills to draw certain types of birds. For example, Natalia is very good with pigeons, quails, wren, and in general small birds while I was more pleased to draw birds of prey and raptors such as vultures, eagles, hawks, etc. We always try to make both of us to draw the same number of birds and that we both agree in which ones. There were even birds that neither of us wanted to draw, and we left them for last. We distributed them equally. We have always presented similar styles; we are both very detailed and handle the same medium. In fact, this was something Jamey considered when reviewing the illustrations and thinking about us both for this project.
So, even if both of you are doing scientific illustrations of the birds, are there ways in which you differ in your approach? For example: which part of the bird do you start drawing/coloring from? Which feature of the bird do you tend to concentrate on to bring out its character? Is there a difference in your strengths/weaknesses?
There are several aspects that differentiate us. On one hand, Natalia works with Faber Castell colors; these, having a harder consistency, their technique consists more of an interlacing of small lines (it is for this reason that the wrens are so beautiful). On the other hand, I work with Prismacolor and use a thick-colored paste as a base, usually cream color. These colors, being greasier, their technique is more to blur and intermingle the colors, as if you were painting in oil. Despite this difference, I have learned to include in my drawings Natalia’s way of handling color and Natalia has also included some tricks I’ve shared with her (such as scraping with a blade) in the resolution of her drawings. When I start to define a bird (color it), I usually start with its beak, except with the birds that are in flight that I always start with the wings. I usually concentrate on all its parts, including perches and surroundings, since each piece is part of a whole. Even after the game came out, I wondered if Natalia's style and mine were distinguishable. I would like to know what people think ... if they think there are marked differences, people who can see those differences ... things like that.
I always start with the beak as I feel its the hardest part to achieve and the key to identify a bird, then I move to the eyes as they need to look alive and have a certain spark. If I’m happy with those two aspects I can move on with the drawing. The beak is what takes me the longest (two hours) to illustrate. One of the biggest differences for me is that because Ana has the educational background she is more flexible to incorporate different materials and techniques into the artwork but I tend to stick to what I know and just grow and learn using the materials and techniques I feel comfortable with.
Which bird did you enjoy illustrating the most?
I enjoyed drawing many (if not all) ... because I love to draw ... but I particularly enjoyed drawing the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) for being the first ... I had all the expectations there, the desire and as I drew it without much time pressure, I enjoyed it a lot ... apart from my favorite. I really enjoyed the wood duck (Aix sponsa) for its difficulty in achieving Its iridescent colors.
My absolute favorite is the Barn owl because I had no idea on how to approach it. I remember looking at it and thinking, "This is too hard…" It took me the longest time and I feel like it drew itself. I just started working on it not knowing how to achieve the texture and the whites on his face but strangely I didn’t need to erase one bit. It was pure magic, like my hand knew what to do and my brain was just catching up. I drew for more than 20 hours straight, barely eating or taking breaks because I was so fascinated and into it. The coolest part is that what I learnt from it helped me to achieve other illustrations without the doubt or uncertainty.
My other favorite to draw was the peregrine falcon because I knew it was Jamey’s favorite and I wanted to impress him, so I gave all my best and gave it all. It turned out to be my husband’s favorite too and up to date he says is the best one I’ve ever made, so of course he got to keep it and now is framed and hung in its special place at home.
Stonemaier Games are often praised for their attention to detail, and the bird cards are packed full of interesting info to fully tie-in the bird theme. What was the most random/new/interesting bird fact you gained as a result of working on the bird cards?
I remember that it caused me a lot of astonishment with the Purple Gallinule because its main feature is to walk on water. I wanted this to remain in the illustration and it was difficult to find a beautiful image with this description, so it was necessary to build the entire image from several references. I was also struck by a bird that Natalia was illustrating that her characteristic is to impale her prey in sharp objects like twigs and barbed wire.
It's funny because I wasn’t into birding prior to this project and now, I know a ton and I feel like I acquired all this knowledge without trying. I remember telling friends about birds and cool facts like how the Loggerhead Shrike impales mice or how some birds change colors depending on the season or how the cowbird lays its eggs in nests of other species, and I remember thinking, "OMG, what is happening to me?" I have always said that it was like I was possessed by a birder because I knew all this stuff out of the blue. I never looked for the birds but they came to me and that’s super cool.
Since working on a board game was an entirely new experience for both of you, I imagine it must've been an interesting experience for your surrounding friends and family as well. What sort of impact did working on Wingspan have on them, if any at all?
At first for my family, especially my dad and my mom, it seemed very nice that I was drawing little birds ... but I think they did not realize the magnitude of this project until an uncle in Spain called my dad to tell him that he had seen the board game in this country. With my siblings and friends, they were glad from the beginning that my work was valued in the United States. However, I think they did not picture the greatness of this achievement (nor did I) until the game was published. At that time, several friends from the world of board games in Medellín began to congratulate me and the networks began to move so much and with such incredible reception. Whenever anyone made a comment on the Wingspan Facebook page about the illustrations, I ran to show it to my sister. Now it is too beautiful that many friends (some who have never played any board games) ask me to play, many others ask me where to buy it (which unfortunately is not here in Medellin).
The impact has been life changing not only for me but for my parents and family. Because I work from home and my youngest was two (busy years) at the time I needed extra support so I got to bring my mom from Costa Rica and she was key in all of this because I was very reluctant to send my youngest daughter to daycare. I didn’t want to miss out on this crucial time in her life and I wasn’t ready to let her go either. I’m an extremely dedicated mother and my family is my priority so without my mom who was willing to make a pause in her life to come over and help me for months, I don’t think I could have achieved what I did. My husband has also been super supportive, and he is my biggest fan who brags about my work and is always ready to show my Instagram to everybody.
Also, we are now full into birding and my daughters know a lot about identifying birds and is super cute to hear a 4-year old telling the correct names of the birds that visit our backyards. They draw birds with me and tend the feeders. They have started a collection of bird figures and dress up as birds; It’s the cutest thing.
How has working on Wingspan changed you as an artist and what sort of changes has it brought to your career?
This game has given my career a complete turn. As I mentioned earlier, I had been working with art in early childhood education (in fact the Master's degree I have is in Childhood Studies) and drawing was my greatest passion, but on weekends. Now, a month ago I found myself in need of quitting my job to devote myself completely to illustrate. I never really thought that I could live from this, from drawing, since in Colombia there are very few opportunities and the value that is given to this type of thing. It is so much that no media has contacted us for an interview, even when Wingspan won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2019. At the time the only medium interested in us has been a podcast called LA MESA, they contacted us immediately as soon as they learned that we were the illustrators and to whom we thank them very much for their interest and support.
Wingspan is the before and after in my career. It marks the exact moment when I passed from doing art as a hobby to see myself as a real artist.
I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but I had struggled with my career choices and working opportunities. Drawing was something very natural to me; I never saw it as something special or something to pursue. I just liked to draw but because I don’t like to paint or sculpt, I didn’t see myself as an artist. I changed careers three times but didn’t finish any for different reasons. It's like I couldn’t find my calling in life and never thought of art even though I’ve always drawn. That was my one constant in life, but I didn’t see it. I hope it makes sense!
In 2017 I had the big revelation that I was an artist from the heart and I just hadn’t realized yet even when everybody around me could see it clearly. I kept moving apart from art, but my pencils kept bringing me back every time. I just needed to accept who I was from birth. Once I said it out loud and saw myself as an artist, everything just came to me. The commissions, the partnership with Ana and Wingspan flew its way to me helping me realize what is my path in life and where I belong. I’m getting too emotional and happy tears are flowing as I type this! Thank you for this interview. Expressing this out loud is very healing.
I'm glad you found this interview enjoyable! It really means a lot to hear that. As an artist who's also in the middle of a career transition, both of your sharing resonates with me in multiple ways, so thank you!
Before we close, congratulations on Wingspan winning Kennerspiel des Jahres 2019! How do you feel?
I feel very happy and extremely fortunate to be part of the Wingspan family; because for me it is a great honor to work with a woman as creative and ingenious as Elizabeth; to have a director for this project a man as rigorous with the work but as understanding and human as Jamey is and for having been able to work hand in hand with a great artist and one of my best friends, Natalia. They are very difficult things to find together but I feel that each of these pieces made this great triumph. I really congratulate everyone because it is very well-deserved, and I hope to continue working with them on future projects.
There are just no words! Everything related to Wingspan is so surreal and when I think that’s the best it could get, we receive more impressive news. Thanks to all the attention for the Kennerspiel, I decided to go to Gen Con where I got to meet Elizabeth and hang out with her for many hours. I still can’t believe the excitement and joy that Wingspan brings to people. For two days I had my cheek hurting from smiling, hearing all the stories from people and how they got into birding or gaming because of the game or birds. I can’t believe people wanted me to sign their copies or just meet me and say hi or shake my hand. I’m beyond grateful to be a part of this wonderful community.
The entire team that Stonemaier has managed to put together is incredible and I’m humbled to be included. I feel so lucky to be among such pure loving souls who help and support each other and that’s what I’m most grateful for; Being a part of something as incredible as the gaming/birding/artistic community. What an honor is knowing I was chosen to work alongside such creative and smart people with the company of my dear Ana.
Are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us?
Expansions are coming and we are very happy that Jamey wants us to remain the illustrators. At the moment the whole team is working hard on it, and unfortunately, we cannot give more details.
These days we are planning an exhibition of the original drawings at the Audubon Center (exhibition that was planned for the end of June but for reasons of bad weather, had to be postponed). At the moment there is no fixed date, but we hope that it will happen by the fall of this year.
Thanks to the reception that the game has had, we have both had commissions. In addition, sales of prints and originals have been well-received in the United States and many parts of Europe and the world.
Lastly, what do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
A personal milestone that I would like to reach is being recognized internationally as a great scientific illustrator and that great publishers are interested in my work to publish books on natural sciences. Although, in fact, Wingspan is my biggest milestone.
I don’t really have great goals to mark success in my life. I’m a very simple person and as long as I can work on what I like, be happy with little and have peace of mind, I can say I have enough. After Wingspan, I already feel like I have a legacy. My passion for drawing is so great that I’m sure, many other great things will come my way but if it doesn’t, I’m also at peace with what I’ve accomplished so far. I’ll keep working hard and doing the best I can because that’s who I am.
Thank you Ana and Natalia for sharing your story! It puts a smile on my face every time I hear artists getting more recognition :)
We'll be patiently waiting for future updates on the Wingspan expansion (another 170 birds?) and after this interview, I think I'll be reminded of both of you every time I see those cards! :)
Readers, keep yourselves updated with Ana and Natalia's awesome work by following them below!
Thanks for the read and you can also find more of my interviews below. It's a random selection of 3-4 of my past interviews:
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