Justin Hillgrove's World of Monsters Creates Perfect Family Games for Adults

When Justin Hillgrove's world of Imps and Monsters meets board games, it hits all the right noteslarger than life creatures with stories waiting to be told, the inviting familiarity of Cartoon Network, and most importantly of all, great humor that doesn't take itself too seriously. Could a mash-up of children's illustration style and board games be the perfect combo for family-friendly games that even adults can enjoy?

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

I am a mostly self-taught artist from Snohomish, WA. I paint monsters, robots and the like and have been sharing my art at galleries, conventions and festivals since 2005. In 2015, I joined forces with Game designer David Gerrard and Graphic Designer Travis Torgerson to start making tabletop games.

Was becoming an artist always the most obvious path in mind? If not, what was the pivotal moment that led to pursuing art as a career?

I’ve known as far back as I can remember that I always wanted a career in art. To be frank, I wasn’t really good at anything else anyway so I kinda figured it would be art or nothing. When I first joined the workforce as an “adult” I aimed for something in graphic design rather than on the fine art or illustration side of things and ended up working as a designer for about 10 years. The fine art and illustration side was more of a hobby, which later became a career as I began sharing my work at conventions and festivals and eventually got so busy that I quit the day job as a design lead.

I read on your Twitter profile that you draw inspirations from Miyazaki, Ghibli, and Sendak. What is it about their work that you love and how have they shaped you as an artist?

I enjoy the imagination, weirdness and character design found in both Miyazaki and Sendak’s work. Growing up, I loved Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and spent a lot of time pouring over his illustrations and admiring all that crosshatching. I discovered Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli in 2000 around the same time as our first child showed up and we fell in love with his work. The character design is inspiring and worthy of study, and each film has so much soul to it. We raised our kids on the Studio Ghibli films, with “Howl’s Moving Castle” being the favorite at our house.

How would you describe your style?

I have always drawn creatures, though as a youth much of my focus was on more traditional fantasy from the various games my siblings, friends and I spent every free moment playing – like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer (40K, Fantasy, Epic, RPG), and countless others. When my kids arrived and I started painting again, I decided to create pieces that they could enjoy – creatures not unlike those I had been drawing, but made more friendly and approachable. From there I slowly transitioned my focus to telling a story with my art and creating characters that look they have history and that the viewer is just catching a snapshot of what’s going on.

Let's go back to Ghibli for a second (because I enjoy their films too). What would be your #1 Ghibli film and why?

I mentioned previously that “Howl’s Moving Castle” is our family favorite, and for me there are so many reasons. The characters are so great – with Calcifer being my all time favorite. The scenery and details are beautiful and the story is incredibly endearing. The film has so much repeat value too – I can just watch it over and over again.

Your children must adore you for your Imps and Monsters. How do you think your work might have influenced them in their creativity?

My kids love art and while I think I may have been a big influence, most of that influence is in the form of the love of creating. They see me work, have access to art supplies, and know that spending time creating is a valuable use of time that enriches one’s life in a way that few other things can.

Have you attended one of those "bring your parent to school" kind of day yet? I feel like you'd be a hero among the kids.

It’s been awhile but yeah, it is fun to show off in those situations – kids really appreciate a well drawn monster.

So, amidst of all of this, how did you end up entering the tabletop game industry? Also, before we dive deeper into your games, could you name some of your favorite games for us to have an idea of your tastes?

I started playing RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons and TMNT when I was 9 years old (back in the 80’s). I still enjoy RPG’s and am really enjoying the latest DnD 5th edition for its approachability with my kids. I play Magic the Gathering and love me a good deckbuilder – Dominion, Star Realms, Ascension, etc. I am really not too picky when it comes to games, though as I get older I’ve started to lose patience with games that take more time to set up than to play.

Back in 2015 an old acquaintance from High School, (who also opened and operated my local game store, Allegiance Games, for 10 years following school) showed up at my home and said (and I am paraphrasing) “Hey dude – I am a game designer and you’re an artist. We should make games…” I agreed wholeheartedly but insisted we bring on someone to help with design so I could focus on just the art. And thus a tabletop game company was born…

How was Junk Spirit Games named and how do you think the name captures the spirit of the sort of games you want to create?

The first game Dave brought to me was a set of mechanics for a mining game. I thought it would be fun if we were mining garbage and we borrowed characters and a setting from my comic, The Imp Lands, and it evolved into the game “JunKing.” Within this setting and showing up on many of the JunKing cards are little spirits I call Junk Spirits. They haunt the Junk Lands and can even possess or animate the garbage there, but are otherwise harmless spirits. With Junk Spirit Games we wanted to create games that adults could play with their kids if they chose to, that were still strategically deep and interesting. We felt that the junk spirits with their mysterious yet benign nature’s made for a good symbol.

With the exception of JunKing, it seems like all of your games so far have been rooted in the Tessandor universe. Could you share what this world is about?

We wanted to create a unique fantasy setting all our own, where different races and creatures mingled and lived together (in the style of Babylon 5) rather than keeping to themselves. We also wanted to avoid the classic fantasy villain races, replacing them with some new ones.

I enjoy character design and took the opportunity to do quite a bit of world-building and creature design and lore to go with them. David Gerrard and our friend Zach Vail wrote stories, created guilds and some history to go along with the Kingdom that is the setting of several of our games thus far, as you mentioned.

Do you plan to delve deeper into this universe through future games?

Though our next game has nothing to do with Tessandor, we will definitely be dropping in on Tessandor now and again, and are even planning a mini’s game sometime in the future.

I love the theme of Battle of the Bards. It reminds me of Guitar Hero days and the bard theme is just a very fun twist. How did you and David end up arriving at the theme of bards?

I love drawing DnD characters and I thought it would be a lot of fun to do a whole game based around bards. I did some quick dummied art and designed some mechanics to go along with it, but it was terrible and I re-learned that game design is hard… David was focusing on a different game at the time but he saw how excited I was about the idea and began designing a fantastic set of mechanics and play that fit the feel we wanted for the game. It’s my favorite to play of the games we’ve done so far.

One of the big appeals for me is the diversity of the bards in the game. There are humans, animals, monsters, trees/stumps, different clothing/instruments, and even very different poses. How do you manage to come up with such a wide range of designs? (any references? or is it all in your head?)

I did a lot of historical research into minstrels, troubadours and bards – looking at a lot of really old paintings, etchings and drawings. But for a lot of the poses I took inspiration from modern performers. I wanted each pose to be unique and for each character to look like there was a story to go along with them. And of course, some of the characters are from our game “By Order Of The Queen.”

Who is your favorite bard and how come?

One of my favorite bards is actually the basic illusionist – a froggish bard with a dagger in his mouth and playing cards splayed in his hands. His pose and personality were inspired by Gob from the TV show “Arrested Development” - so when I see him my brain starts playing “The Final Countdown” and I can hear him insisting “I am an ILLUSIONIST!”

What did you enjoy the most/the least while working on this game? Also, is there a challenge that is unique to working on tabletop games in comparison to other mediums?

I enjoyed the opportunity to create so many characters – each one unique. When I get excited about a project it is hard for me to reign myself in and wait to finish art until we actually know what we need. With play testing and revising, games can change drastically from inception to the time it goes to the factory. Some of those revisions can affect the art dimensions and elements and I often end up creating things that never get used or that have to be changed. Again, my own fault because I have a hard time being patient.

From galleries, to conventions and festivals, it seems like you've had nothing but success since your transition into this line of work. Could you describe for us the moment when you felt you had "made it" as an artist?

For me it was a year after I quit my day job. We made it thru a rough couple winter months before shows and income start up again and I realized - “Hey, I get to do this again next year” rather than having to go look for another job to keep us in groceries.

A moment that all beginning artists dream of, I'm sure (myself included!)

Before we wrap this up, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?

We are getting ready to launch our 5th game, “Slip Strike” on Kickstarter very soon (or, maybe its already out depending on when people are reading this. It’s a masterfully designed small box 2-player game that can be learned in minutes - I am very excited about it. It is not my usual style and has no connection to Tessandor, but I think gamers looking for a 2-player game will really like this one.

I also have a Children’s Book being released in 2020 through Sasquatch Books – it's been in the works for awhile so I’m excited to see that hit stores.

I’m not sure what my dream project would be - I know that probably seems weird. I would have said it would be to work on games, but we made that happen with help from those who backed our projects. If I get excited about something I like to learn about it, then do it - and then it no longer qualifies as a dream I suppose. I guess if I gotta throw something wild out there, I’d love to create a garden or other physical location full of life-size robots and creatures, some of which move. Somewhere you could be surrounded by characters and really feel immersed. No practical application, it would just be cool…

Thank you Justin for making your time! I'd love visit one of your exhibits some day. And I can easily see myself getting a collection of your fan art to hang up on my walls (especially that Kirby & Link combo I see).

Readers, here are links for you to follow Justin and Junk Spirit Games, or to get prints/originals of his awesome art: 

Thanks for the read as always and you can find more of my interviews below. It's a random selection of 3-4 of my past interviews:

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Supporter23 months ago

This is a great interview! I've never heard of any of the games that this artist has worked on. I do quite like his style. Phil it's clear you definitely took time to research your interviewee and had loads of excellent questions prepared. Great job!

Owner23 months ago

I always enjoy seeing board game art that doesn't follow the trends and goes by its own beat. And I love being able to introduce artists like Justin to everyone here.

Thanks Brian! Much appreciated, because I spend a lot of time on these hahaha

Supporter22 months ago

By order of the queen is on my wishlist and the art is a big part of it! Great interview!

Linked Games
Battle of the Bards
By Order of the Queen
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