From MIT to Board Game Artist: How Ruwen Liu Illustrated Cake Duel

4 points

Sizigi Studios successfully Kickstarted Cake Duel on October 2016. So how did an MIT student end up illustrating one of the most deceptively simple bluffing games about... sheepies and cakes?

Hey Ruwen, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

It’s a pleasure to be here, Phil. I’m Ruwen, the creative director of Sizigi Studios, a small game/art studio based in San Francisco. Cake Duel was our first big production. 

What is your story leading up to becoming a professional artist?

Mine’s a pretty weird one. I got my degree in computer science from MIT, and I worked for a few years doing math for a 3D printing startup (yes, “doing math” is a real job). Nowadays, I do the art for our in-house projects and take the occasional freelance job.

I can relate because I also transitioned into art after 5 years of working as a structural engineer. What would be your advice to those out there who are debating whether to make a similar jump? Have you ever had regrets about your decision?

Here’s an unobvious one: Be alert for ways to get a leg-up in the art world with your engineering skills. If you’re considering this transition, you’ve probably got a more interesting life story to tell than most pure artists or pure engineers. Give a serious thought to not just making good art, but making art that only you can make! For example, check out this early CAD model of the Cake Duel box:

That plastic insert took me 3 months of painful iterations with a 3D printer and then a month more wrangling with a resin flow simulation (not really what you expect to be doing as an artist). I started with the whimsical idea of a sheep-shaped box for a sheep-themed game, but in the end, it was my engineering degree that made it a reality. I think of art as the purpose and engineering as the power. You go a bit farther when you can do both.

I’m really pleased with the final look of the box: it’s pretty true to the initial model!

One big thing to watch out for is RSI. You’ll want to support yourself with engineering while looking for your break in art, but two desk jobs is really rough on the fleshly vessel. If there’s one thing I regret, it’s not taking good care of myself. Remember to exercise and drink lots of water! Get yourself to the massage parlor once in a while!

Before we get into Cake Duel, I really wanted to share your artworks to the readers. I think I'm seeing some anime influences and I really like how your painting style reminds me of stained glass windows. So who/what were your biggest influences and what attracted you to them?

Haha, yup. If art were a language, I’m enamored with the grammar of anime, because it’s a really direct way to say what’s on your mind (I suspect it’s the large eyes). It’s a great tool for prototyping visual solutions.

My biggest influence growing up was Rumiko Takahashi, whose comics always grabbed me by the heartstrings. More than beauty, I’m especially drawn by pieces with an interesting premise! Even though the style of Cake Duel is very different from my usual art, I followed my guiding star for interesting, quirky characters whose actions really tell you a story.

After years of engineering studies, I'd imagine that working on a board game was quite a breath of fresh air. Could you share with us how Cake Duel came to be and give us a short description about the game?

It was very different. Cake Duel was self-published, which means we did the game, manufacturing, and marketing ourselves. I learned to be my own advocate. My first 12-hour sales shift was brutal: it was a big departure from my old job, where I’d sometimes go a day without saying a single word.

Cake Duel is a short, two-player bluffing game. You start with cake and silly sheep dressed in RPG outfits (Sheepie), and the objective is to take all of your opponent’s cake with your Sheepie. You can claim to have whatever card you can think of, as long as you don’t get caught. It’s a very simple concept with a surprising amount of depth. Winning is usually a combination of hard skills like card-counting and soft skills like intimidating, er, persuading your opponent to give up their cake.

My friend (mathematician, competitive programmer, poker fanatic) started the design as a joke to blow off some steam from a longer project. It went over surprisingly well in our friend group, so we got another friend who knew something about getting stuff made in a factory, and we decided to develop it.

It’s been a really wild ride. Production is a completely different beast from design. There’s an amazing story where the three of us drove across a mountain range to meet our manufacturers. We ended up getting stuck in standstill traffic for 10 hours in a blizzard (try putting on snow chains while wearing a hoodie in a snowstorm: It really makes you cross-examine your life choices). I’m really thankful that everything worked out in the end.

It's really made me realize that art and game design (what we traditionally think of as “the game”) is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of work that goes into the games that end up on our shelves!

I noticed there was a major shift in the art direction/theme throughout Cake Duel's development (from human characters to sheep). What was the main reason behind this change and how do you think this change impacted the final quality/success of the game?

Here’s a picture of the iteration process. I knew I wanted a cartoon-y theme to keep the game light-hearted. I thought about anime at first, but that wasn’t clicking quite right. With Sheepie, I had a bit more leeway with the style. They have expressive arms and faces that really tell you what they are thinking about. Drawing them gives me great joy: they are light and fluffy, just like cake.

I made a last-minute change for the card back right before production because a very surprising number of people went out of their way to write to me about how they disliked the hearts on the card back, haha.

The cute packaging does mean that most of our buyers are first-time bluffing-game players. At first, I was nervous, because the playtest group was mostly MIT poker club alumni, mathematicians, and other serious bluffing game gurus. Introducing people to bluffing games was an art: you have to ease them in gently. There’s always that initial cold splash of betrayal, but once they realize it’s just a game, though, they start having fun.

After a few hundred demos, we kept the theme because I found that I liked introducing new players to bluffing games. Our most avid fans are young children, which I guess speaks to the effectiveness of packaging: I hope that our game will teach them to have fun taking calculated risks once in a while!

What was your favorite part of working on the game art? What was your least favorite?

Figuring out the character personalities was a blast. The Sheepie have needlessly deep souls. When I’m drawing them, I think of them as braver, bolder versions of who we’d like to be. There is a character named Sir Wolfen Fluffy Paws II, and he is the best.

My least favorite was color-matching, one of the many inconveniences of publishing a game yourself. It means making sure that the same color shows up on the box (which is cardboard) as the insert (which is plastic) as the rulebook (which is paper) as the cards (which is cardstock). It means trying to explain over the phone to a poor lady in the factory that this purple is not “purpley enough.” I nearly died.

What do you think are the most fun moments that occur when playing Cake Duel? In what ways do you think your art enhances the experience?

For me, the best feeling is laying down a high-risk high-reward play. The best cards in Cake Duel are designed for this purpose, since they are all pretty situational.

Your buildup is creating the “situation”, and then your resolution is laying down the really strong card at the end. Since it’s a bluffing game, it feels even better when you play the strong card when you don’t actually have one. The very best feeling is when you play a strong card that doesn't even exist in the game, but somehow it’s legal when your opponent asks for it. (Which happens more often than you’d think, because there are so many different card abilities). The game is a stressful dance on the high-tension wire of intention and chance.

The best part of Cake Duel is that you can completely ignore everything that I’ve just said and still have fun. We have people who play for keeps and bet money on the outcomes. We have other people who play it as a half-delirious drinking game. We have still others who play it just because they can bake a cake and thematically eat it while playing. Everyone has their own idea of what the best Cake Duel game feels like.

Whatever type of game people play, I want to make sure that they never get intimidated by the game itself. We made Cake Duel to be very replayable, so the art is humorous and cute. It’s hard to feel sore with those blameless pink eyes staring at you, and the best way to enjoy a bluffing game is to not feel sore.

Do you want to work on more board games in the future? What kind of genre/category would you like to explore?

Definitely. I just finished art for Shuffle Grand Prix (100+ cards: I’m dead), which was recently published by Bicycle. I’ve also got a card or two in other titles still in production. For my next full game, I’m exploring the realm of two-player co-op. I enjoy low player-count games, because individual actions feel significant, and there’s a lot of person-to-person interaction. A good friend of mine mentions that he’d love to have a game to bring to a first date scenario. I’m working hard to tackle that, haha.

Are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?

I’m about halfway through a personal challenge to finish 365 pictures. The idea is to tell a story as quickly as possible in one picture. The brutal pace forces me to streamline my creative process and the pictures are all public, so that holds me somewhat accountable. I started doing this because I’m frustrated that I’m always so busy working that I don’t have real time to improve my art.

We’ve also got a few more cool game projects in the works, though they’re not quite dressed up yet for presentation. We’ll be showing them off at GenCon 2019. If you’re in the area, come drop by booth 568 and say hi! :)

And lastly, what is your dream project?

I’d love to do a tactical video game someday. Fire Emblem: Awakening is my all-time favorite. I’d love to be in charge of a game like that, where a perfect marriage of theme and numerical satisfaction just leaves its players with an incredible aftertaste! 

Thanks so much for the interview, Phil. Kind readers, please consider supporting our studio by purchasing a copy of Cake Duel! Since it’s a self-published game, all proceeds go directly to the creators.

Thanks Ruwen! Feels like I learned a lot about you in such a short span of time. Thank you for the awesome stories, insights, and intro into Cake Duel :)

And lovely readers! Please support Ruwen and her studio by following their works below:

Plus, you can leave comments below with:

  • Questions for Ruwen or anything related to Cake Duel
  • Suggestions for artists/designers/any other board game people to interview
  • Any feedback about the interviews so far
  • Ask me anything!

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