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Hey Jamey, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi! I’m Jamey Stegmaier, and I run a tabletop-game publishing company called Stonemaier Games. I work out of my home/office in St. Louis.
What is your origin story as a board game designer? Can you recall the first game you had designed?
The very first game I designed was called Medieval Quest. I designed it when I was in elementary school.
Are there any unique/strange habits you've developed over the years due to your occupation as a game designer? (for example, do you drift off into your own world thinking of ideas while playing games with your friends?)
Funny you should say that, because for a while I got into the bad habit of doing exactly that (often even stepping away to take notes). I realized that wasn’t providing a good experience for my friends, so even though I’m frequently thinking about game design when I play games, I try to keep it secret. :)
Is there a pet mechanic that you always have on the back pocket to try and include in a future game?
I have a few favorite mechanisms that I haven’t used in a game yet, with the top item on the list being I-cut-you-choose (or I-price-you-choose).
How many prototypes or full games have you thrown away because they weren't good enough? Is that just a part of the process you learn to accept and move on or is it still difficult?
Many, many prototypes. For every 100 game ideas I have, maybe 10 of them make it to the prototype stage, and only 1 of them ends up being a game I actually pursue. It’s just part of the process—sometimes it’s good to know that something just isn’t all that compelling so I feel good spending my time elsewhere.
Which part of the game development process is your favorite and how come?
I still love the brainstorming stage of game design. That’s when anything and everything is possible and I’m finding ways to match theme and mechanisms.
Have you developed a sixth sense to gauge how successful a game might be? (whether your own or others')
Since I both design and publish games, I’m always thinking about marketing and the consumer. It also helps that I’m an avid gamer. Though I always think my sixth sense could be stronger—I have a lot of room to grow. As for games from other publishers/designers, it’s harder to tell, because there are lots of ways for a company to mess up the potential for a great game.
Do you think Wingspan would've been as successful if it was your first Stonemaier game?
Definitely not. When we were just starting out, we had 100 e-newsletter subscribers, no distribution, no localization partners, no reputation, no money… I think we could have gotten Wingspan to fund on Kickstarter, and it would have eventually become a hit, but it would have taken a lot longer.
I recently played Viticulture and it's a beauty of a game! And it makes me wonder, what was your inspiration and how much time do you normally spend researching the source material?
Thanks! I designed Viticulture back in 2011 because I wanted a game that appealed to gamers and non-gamers alike (there are many such games now, but not as many back then). I spent around a month on the research and initial brainstorming process for Viticulture.
What is your usual process for finding an artist and who was the most memorable to work with?
I wouldn’t say I have a usual process, as it’s varied widely from game to game. Sometimes there’s an artist I really want to work with, and the game is inspired by their art. Sometimes I target a specific artist for a specific game; they may be someone who has worked on games in the past, or they might be a random artist who has contacted me or whose work I’ve noticed on the internet. I maintain a master list of artists I love here.
Could you describe for us the exact moment when you felt you had "made it" as a designer?
I’m not sure I’ve ever really felt that way. :) Like, there have certainly been moments that surprised me or made me grateful to have this career, but I don’t think there’s been a moment where I’ve thought, “Up until now I haven’t really made it, but now I have!” It’s more of an ongoing journey. :)
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? Will there ever be a light Stonemaier game? And what would be your dream project?
There is a light Stonemaier game—it’s called Between Two Cities. :) Our next product is the Scythe modular board, and I’m really excited to see the stories that emerge from it. I’ve actually gotten to work on several dream projects already, including my legacy game and my upcoming civilization game. I have several other dream projects in the works.
Additional questions from our users:
How do you feel about the tunnels in Scythe? Do you think they make the board too accessible from everywhere?
I’m biased, but I love the tunnels in Scythe. They make a big board smaller than it appears, which means we don’t need different boards for different player counts.
Do you ever see offering new boxes of your premium bits or will they always just be sold individually now?
I think there’s the possibility of more treasure chests being made by our realistic resource partner, Top Shelf Gamer.
How do you feel about Kickstarter for game sales? Are you done with Kickstarter?
My company wouldn’t exist without Kickstarter, so I’m grateful for the platform, and I think it’s neat to see other creators innovate on it and use it to launch new products. I’m still an avid backer, but the last project I ran on Kickstarter was in 2015, and I have no plans to return.
Click here for Jamey's extensive coverage of his Kickstarter experience.
Click here for Jamey's reflections on his post-Kickstarter phase of his company.
Thanks Jamey for making your time for us and sharing your thoughts! Thank you also to those who read and please comment below with any questions for Jamey, any of your thoughts about the games mentioned, suggestions for future artists/designers/publishers to interview, or anything!
You can also read my past interviews or keep up with my weekly post by following my account on this site or by following us on instagram @boardgameatlas.
Below are links to past interviews:
Current schedule for next week:
Catherine is a renowned bird watcher/artist with a stroke of genius for capturing the beauty of wildlife. While her pursuits leave her practically homeless half of the year, it's pretty clear by now that no one's forcing her to do this. In 2014, her beautiful watercolor unexpectedly crossed over into the tabletop games industry and breathed life into the award-winning game Evolution (2014), thus beginning the years of the perfect mashup of board games and nature.
Hey Catherine, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Phil, thanks for interviewing!
About me: I’m an artist, always have been, with degrees in painting and illustration. I used to teach painting and drawing at the Rhode Island School of Design, before heading out to be a full time artist. I’m also a professional birder (crazy!) and I lead birding and sketching tours around the world.
From what I've gathered, traveling is a big part of your work. How often do you travel and for how long? Could you share with us one of your most memorable/extreme travel moments?
On average, I do one signiﬁcant trip a month, usually nine days to two weeks in duration. It could be to another country for natural history, such as Ecuador or Panama, or on a full scale expedition to a place like Nagaland, India, or to a conservation project such as visiting Northern Bald Ibis colonies in Morocco to make a short ﬁlm. I mention those last two because they were really memorable! For the Nagaland, India trip, we braved landslides on crazy Himalayan foothill roads, and then stayed in a wonderful village with no refrigeration and little electricity. In Morocco, I climbed down cliffs to paint and observe one of the rarest birds in the world, with a small ﬁlm crew there to ﬁlm me painting and drawing.
What are some challenges that are unique to drawing from wildlife and how have you learned to overcome them through experience?
I guess I’d say that a big challenge is to draw something that looks like it might do something, to portray a creature that is capable of movement and surprises, something that will do something in the moment after it is drawn. It’s about capturing a sense of life. To attempt to get that across in my work (perhaps more obvious in my ﬁne art than in the illustration work), I’ve done years and years of life drawing, and I do a lot of photography and video to study movements I might miss with the naked eye.
Oceans recently ended its successful Kickstarter. While there's no question that you were the perfect match for the Evolution series, could you share the story behind how you came on board?
Well, Dom and I have been friends since 7th grade, when we used to create visual narratives and games in the back of the classroom, passing a piece of paper back and forth so the other person could add on to it and change the story… that’s probably where it all started. Sorry, Mrs. (? - maybe Dom remembers)! I had already been a part of a D&D group at that point, and was drawing fantasy creatures, and later joined a game night group once I was out of college. So the day, many years later, that Dom called me up and said he had a perfect project for me to work on, I was fairly prepared! Even though at the time I wasn’t working within the gaming industry at all.
I'd imagine working on a board game was quite a change of pace. How was your experience with the overall process?
I think my biggest challenge was to try and push the fantasy element to make my gaming clients happy, when what I really wanted was to keep it as subtle as possible. I wanted to have creatures that could actually be real, but were not, and that might fool people into thinking that they were real. So my goal was to synthesize believable traits into creatures that could exist, but do not.
Were the illustrations done in actual watercolor or with a digital watercolor brush? And just out of curiosity, have you ever considered trying digital watercolor?
As per North Star Games’s request, all of the work was done as original watercolors! I have nothing against working digitally, and do for various projects, but they really wanted the whole thing to have a very hand drawn feel to it. You can mimic the exterior aesthetic of watercolor digitally, but your mind works in different ways when you are working with a piece of paper, and I think that shows in the ﬁnal drawings.
Another part that stands out in Evolution is the use of vibrant colors. For artists out there who have difﬁculty with color, could you explain your process in how you choose one color versus the other?
I think of color in terms of palettes and mood and light, but I’m not sure I really choose one color over another in an easily explicable way. For instance, when working on a physical watercolor, certain pigments have different properties, e.g. some reds are great for transparency and glazing to get a certain glow, while others are heavier and more opaque and can show great effects of granulation. This is true across the entire spectrum of colors at hand, so I pick and choose instinctively to get the effects I am looking for.
Although every single illustration in the Evolution series is just a marvel to look at, which piece did you enjoy illustrating the most? How come?
There are a few hidden “real” species in and amongst the fantasy creatures, and while the actual painting of them wasn’t really any different, I quite liked that a couple traits that look less real are actually a true species… Other than that, there were a few faves across the entire line for me; can I actually pick one? The original Carnivore creature was really fun to work on because I felt like I was in high school again, though I think I like the Pack Hunting weird carnivorous otter things with African wild dog patterning better—when wild dogs hunt together, they are incredibly brutal, so I really wanted to reference them for that trait! As a whole, Oceans was a treat to work on, though it’s hard to make anything in the ocean environment any weirder than reality!
Evolution is one of the rare gems that garnered the attention of not just the board game community, but from the scientiﬁc community as well. In addition to the illustrations grounded in realism, what aspects about the game would you attribute to its success/recognition?
I think that one of the coolest things about the game is that the theme of evolution is thoroughly integrated into the actual game play.
Would you be open to working on other board games in the future besides Evolution?
Lastly, where do you see yourself ten years from now? What would be your dream project?
I’m currently working on a couple of book proposals, one might be a graphic novel, one an illustrated memoir of crazy travels, or maybe both combined. I’d love to explore a visual narrative in a book format!
Thank you Catherine for making your time! We hope to see more of your awesome watercolors on the Evolution series in the future :)
Readers, you can follow more of her works here.
Below are my links to past interviews:
Martin is a renowned board game designer who is consistently ranked among the Top 25 designers in the world. Here you can find the stories behind his origin, his design approach, and the depth of insight gained from surviving through the waves of changes that have passed through the board game industry over the past decades.
Hey Martin, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My pleasure. OK, born in 1962 in Hampshire, UK. Moved to Manchester in 1969, where I lived until 2013 when I moved to New Zealand. Since October 2017 I have been resident in Australia, living just south of Brisbane.
I started gaming properly when I was 14, cutting my teeth on wargames from companies such as SPI and Avalon Hill. I was introduced to D&D at Sixth Form college in 1978. One of my first jobs was working as a sales assistant for Games Workshop at their Manchester shop.
I started designing games around 1990. I self-published my first design in 1993, which was Lords of Creation. I first visited the Spiel in Essen in 1994, with a reprint of this game. Since then I have been churning out games every year, including Age of Steam/Steam, A Few Acres of Snow, Discworld Ankh-Morpork and Brass. I used to run my own games company, Warfrog Games, which then morphed into Treefrog Games. Now I focus on licensing games to other companies.
For anyone who might not be familiar with your games, could you describe what makes up a signature Martin Wallace game?
I like to think I design a wide range of games but most people know me for my heavier designs, such as Brass and Age of Steam. My aim has always been to blend the elegance of the Euro style of design with the thematic emersion that you find in American games. For me theme comes before mechanisms.
Which American game have you played that particularly stands out for its theme?
Apart from role-playing most of my early gaming involved wargames, which by definition have to be closely based on their subject material. Particular games that stand out are Advanced Squad Leader, Breakout Normandy and Across Five Aprils. Having more free time we could also fit in games such as Empires of the Middle Ages, which is pretty much mostly theme as you a really along for the ride.
Your games tend to feature a variety of historical settings. Is historical theme your favorite? and is there a certain timeline that you want to try and incorporate in the future?
I find it easier to design a game around a clearly defined story, whether this be from history or a work of fiction. History is so rich in interesting stories that there is no end to the games you could come up with. At the moment I’m doing a lot of reading on ancient history. I have an itch to design a good civilization game. A lot of those on the market strike me as being far too abstract in design. I want to create something that feels a lot closer to the actual history of the period.
What is your favorite mechanic and how do you think it relates to your personality?
I’m not sure I have a favourite mechanic, as generally I try not to think in those terms. A lot of my games employ a simple two-action per turn format. I think it is important to present players with simple choices that have complex consequences.
What was the first board game you had published? Looking back on it now, how would you rate the game vs. your more recent games?
My first board game was Lords of Creation, which I self-published in 2003. Compared to my more recent games this would be considered rather simple fare. It is a cut above Risk in terms of complexity. The first game I had published by another company was Und Tchuss, by Goldsieber in 1998.
What is one of your lesser known works that you'd love to see get more attention? Could you tell us a bit about that game?
I feel that A Study in Emerald, in both its versions, has not really gained the attention that I thought it deserved. The game riffs off of a short story by Neil Gaiman and blends the fantasy of H.P. Lovecraft with literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes and real persons from history, such as Bismarck and Prince Kropotkin. Players are either fighting for the good guys or the Old Ones and must both try to identify who they are fighting against as well as who is on their side.
As someone who's been around a while, what are some of the major industry shifts you experienced? Is there another game changer that has been on your radar?
The major shift would be Kickstarter. It has massively transformed the industry and its effects are ongoing. It’s very difficult to accurately predict future changes. I’m not convinced that traditional board games are ever going to be successfully integrated with computer technology. My own feelings about the future is that mechanisms will take second place to story-telling. You can already see that happening with the number of Legacy games on the market.
In what ways did you have to adapt to these changes in order to survive in the industry? Have you had to make any changes to your design process, networking, marketing, selection of theme/art, etc?
I have certainly had to adapt by carefully choosing which types of games I design. Fortunately for me it is now possible to design heavier games and have them be financially profitable, Brass being a good example of this. Kickstarter means you can bring games to the market which would not normally work through traditional channels. Marketing and networking are far more important than they used to be, which from my point of view means I need to work with others who have those skill sets.
To what would you attribute the current heyday of the board game industry?
I think the explosion we have seen in board game publishing is due to the combined effects of Kickstarter, changes in print technology that have reduced the costs of production, and the internet for allowing access to a world market.
Would you say that Kickstarter has leveled the playing field for everyone? Does this make it easier or harder for the amateur designer?
I would agree that it has made it easier for an individual to bring their design to the market. Gloomhaven is proof of that, a design that could never have been published under the old system. I’m not sure the situation is harder for the amateur designer, more of a case that you have to work a lot harder on the social side of things now. The fact remains that there is now a body of known game designers who have built their reputations on games they themselves have produced and presented via Kickstarter.
Could you expand a bit more on what you mentioned about the "old system"? What has changed that makes a game like Gloomhaven more viable/marketable today?
Kickstarter is all about direct sales. The production costs of a game like Gloomhaven would make it uneconomic if you simply sold via the normal distribution path. Now, I know that shops do sell Gloomhaven, but that has only been after it proved itself through successful direct sales. Generally your MSRP is six or seven times your production cost, so a game retailing for $70 has to come in at around $10 production price. Without Kickstarter I do not think any publisher would have taken a chance on Gloomhaven as the final MSRP would have been far too high.
Do you think that the quality of artwork can make or break the success of a game?
Today yes, in the old days no. With so many games on the market first glance impression is more significant than ever. When I first started there were so few gamers and games around that you did not need decent artwork, if any at all. Now you must focus as much on the presentation of a game as the mechanisms within it.
Even as a veteran, are there same struggles that never seem to go away?
Still struggling with making a living, so no changes there! You still have the same issues of how to make the market aware of your product, just a lot more noise to cut through now.
If you don't mind, could you expand a bit more on 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?
I cannot speak for other game designers but the reality of my existence is that I have to keep coming up with new, fresh designs knowing that the majority of them may only make me a few thousand dollars. Generally an advance is in the region of $3000. You then have to wait for a few years before you receive further royalties. If a game is not reprinted then you are looking at making possibly $5000 from a design. If you work out the hours it takes to create a new game then the average game designer is working for less than minimum wage. On top of that you have to pay to attend various trade events, without which you simply cannot do business. I have to fly to Europe at least once a year, for the Spiel, and now the US, for Gen Con. I also need to attend smaller conventions in Australia to get playtesting done. It all adds up to a lot of outgoings. The majority of designers who make good money are those that have an evergreen that brings in a steady amount of money.
For those wishing to break in to the market then I would advise the path that such designers such as Jamey Stegmaier, Ryan Laukat and Isaac Childres have taken, which is the KS path. However, to be successful you have to be prepared to put an awful lot of work in. You also have to have some sort of talent to design, which not all folks have. It really is not as easy as it looks. My final piece of advice would be not to give up the day job.
What is your favorite part of being a board game designer that never gets old?
I love that I get to have an idea, then shape it and eventually see something tangible enter the world. There is something highly satisfying in a defined beginning, middle and end to a process.
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 think the thing most designers aspire to is to create an evergreen game, one that folks will be playing for many years from now. I almost had one with Discworld until I lost the license. That still remains my main goal, to create a game or system that takes on a life of its own.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
I always have to be careful when answering questions like these as now all of my work is for other companies, and they like to keep things under wrap until ready to go public. What I can say is that I am working on a number of major games that are tied to computer game licenses. I also have another design which may be my evergreen, but not sure yet. The unusual thing about this game is that it is not a board game, it’s a role playing game.
Thanks for inviting me to take part in this interview.
Thanks Martin for taking your time to share your story and your insights!
Readers, please feel free to leave comments below with any of your questions/comments for Martin or for any of the games mentioned! I am always open for feedback on these interviews and for suggestions on who I should interview in the future!
Below are my links to past interviews:
Back in January (2019), Dan and Connie completed their highly successful Kickstarter campaign for Chai and simultaneously gained 1K+ Facebook members. So what was the key to their success?
Hey Dan and Connie, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Thanks for having us, Phil! For sure. We're a husband and wife team out of Calgary, AB (near Banff) in Canada. It's a bit weird talking about ourselves in the 3rd person, but we're both gamers. Dan was in humanitarian aid and community development for five years, and Connie is currently in her second year of teaching junior high special needs. We're both avid gamers and on the side we shoot a bit of wedding photography, which has a nice carryover into shooting board game pictures.
It's my first time interviewing a couple! So if you don't mind me asking, how did the two of you meet? Was tea involved? :)
Hah, you're right! Our first date actually involved ordering London Fogs (Earl Grey tea with steamed milk and a touch of honey or condensed milk) at Starbucks. Connie worked at the University of Calgary as a Resident Advisor after graduating at Queen's in Ontario. We met through church and Dan offered Connie a book to read. She invited him to talk about the book and "get to know each other a bit more." Dan wasn't the brightest at the time, but on the drive realized she was asking him on a date instead of a book study. We were engaged nine months later, and after a summer wedding (with an outdoor giant chess board, of course!) we've been married for nearly four years.
All couples have their own unique dynamic, so I'm curious, how do the both of you balance out one another as a team?
Connie is wonderful at giving constructive feedback as she's able to identify gaps. Dan's really good at finding innovative ways to solve problems and create, and Connie helps curve this ideation in a helpful way. Connie is great at figuring out strategic pathways, and if anything is the string while Dan is the idealist balloon! It was fascinating taking the StrengthsFinder test to see where we both excel at, instead of approaching things from a deficit perspective (what we're bad at) and trying to improve those.
Now let's talk about Chai! For those who might not be aware, could you give us a short overview of the game?
Absolutely. Chai is an immersive game of combining tea flavours to make your perfect blend as a tea merchant. It's geared towards families as it plays 1-5, but we've designed it with the gamer in mind. If you mixed Splendor and Century: Spice Road together with some abilities players can use, and a bit of the popular phone game Bejewelled, you'd sip something like Chai. On a player's turn, you're able to visit the market to purchase ingredients such as jasmine, mint, berries, lavender, lemon or ginger. Tiles that match up can be bought for the same price, which is a neat puzzle mechanic. You could instead go to your pantry and select honey, milk, vanilla, chai spices, or sugar, which are requested ingredients for some customers. Lastly, you can reserve a customer for your tea shop while performing a special ability (with new ones cycling each round). At the end of your turn you can optionally complete a communal order or fill the cup of a customer in your tea shop. People love clanking the bits into physical tea cups before flipping over a tip token!
What was the trigger behind the initial ideas about the game—did the theme come first, or the mechanic?
Great question! Dan attended a board game design conference early last year with a submarine game (hopefully we'll release it in the next few years), and we figured it'd be better to work on a more accessible design first. To our surprise there were little tea games out there, so we brainstormed different mechanics that would fit the theme. "Chai" is a word that means tea in many languages, so we're glad that people can easily discern what our wee tea game is all about by just glancing at the box cover. We realize a lot of designers work from mechanics towards theme, and just prefer to start with the theme first.
What do you think are the main strengths of the game and what kind of audience does it tend to draw?
We set out to create a game for five players that plays in under an hour, and are really excited to have reached that goal. Vibrant colours in the box art and game graphics were also a must, which has helped it feel a bit whimsical, especially with characters like Van Gogh and Alice in Wonderland each craving a cuppa. Our theme is definitely a strength, and we've had the most interest in the sliding mechanic we use in the main market board for purchasing tea ingredients. This part is interactive too, as other players usually chime in with different combinations they see to help the current player. Chai is also really inclusive, featuring women and men from different nationalities, and we especially wanted our game to be illustrated by ladies. Sahana Vj is from India, and Mary Haasdyk is here in Calgary, Canada. Diversity is beautiful!
What was the biggest hurdle you faced during the campaign? Is there anything you'd do differently in your next campaigns to prevent this issue?
To be completely honest, we weren't sure how to incorporate stretch goals at the start! We put them up the next day after a strong showing on Day 1, but we needed to quickly brainstorm new ones in the weeks to come as we went through the initial ones very quickly. A good problem to have, and our communi-tea offered great feedback to suggest relevant things they wanted to add. We're glad that we reached all of them, and the playmat has especially been very well received. A local friend is working on a Chai companion app too, which we're really excited about.
One thing that particularly stood out to me was that Chai was created to be color blind friendly and language independent. What led to this decision and how much extra work/time does it take to make this into a reality? Would you say it was worthwhile to achieve this?
Thanks for the compliment! Yes, having Chai be colourblind friendly and language independent were two design goals we had from the start. We're just working out some localization and distribution deals internationally right now, so printing copies with just a changed box and rulebook will speed up the process. We have many friends who are colourblind (and interestingly there's a higher percentage in the gaming community), so we had some excellent feedback initially to make sure that the eleven ingredient colours and five unique tea tokens all featured different iconography. It's hard to see every game become colourblind and language independent, but it's wonderful seeing the industry moving towards this within the broader inclusivity discussion.
There's an aroma about Chai that is warm and inviting, and the same quality seems permeated throughout your fanbase. Could you share some instances of when the level of support from your community surprised you?
We truly couldn't have produced Chai without our incredible communi-tea! They've blown us away in all respects. From strangers editing the rulebook, to sharing tea recipes, to introducing family and friends to help playtest the game, the 1K+ members have made the game a reality. If it takes a village to raise a child, our community certainly helped with our wee game. By the start of the Kickstarter, over a thousand unique people had given Chai a try, which was essential in helping blind playtest. Having the rules and mechanisms played by so many people has helped tweak different things, such as one oolong card not having a needed ingredient to help properly balance the game.
What would be your advice to many Kickstarter hopefuls out there who'd love to have such a wonderful community backing them?
It's been quite the adventure! It normally takes a few years for a game to reach the market, and we tried our best to make it happen in nine months. Each day we're learning something new, so don't be overwhelmed at the number of soft-skills you'll need to continue developing as we continue to as well on the journey. We're a bit more introverted, so we realized we had to be more active on social media. Augment your strengths, and bring in other people to help where you have blindspots. For example, we're definitely going to bring in a customer service person on our next project, as it's been challenging answering all the inquiries while working on other priorities. We're trying to enjoy the journey and be honest and open about feedback and where the game needs to be improved. Although we're perfectionists, we're making sure we set some deadlines to guarantee we complete different tasks. While working on our game(s), we're also looking for ways to give back to the board game community as well. Volunteer, play in local meetups and conventions, and have an open attitude as you figure out what makes other games successful, and the expectations we all bring to the table.
What was your most memorable moment working on Chai?
We'll never forget the adrenaline we experienced pressing the "launch button" on Kickstarter! Dan was at PAX Unplugged and got home the night before on a delayed flight, so we worked through the night to bring everything together. It was incredible seeing the project come alive; the culmination of our work and the community's over the past few months. Seeing people's print and plays pop up across the world has also been extremely humbling and rewarding. Just to see different gamers enjoy Chai has been a dream come true.
What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
We're honoured you'd take the time to read or listen to us and our story! We're gamers first of all, so we hope to meet in person. Come say hi to us at an upcoming convention like GenCon, SHUX, and Essen, or if you're in Calgary visiting the Canadian Rockies. Maybe we can squeeze in a game or a tea!
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
It's perfect timing to announce that we're just launching the print and play for Chai: Tea for 2 this week! Mary Haasdyk (who did Chai's box art) has sent us the box drafts already, so we're eager to hear the community's preferences and how blind playtesting goes. If everything goes smoothly we'll be launching the Kickstarter late this year. We're working on a bubble tea expansion for the base game as well, plus a few other steeping ideas. It'll be an exciting next few years!
Thanks Dan & Connie for making your time to share about Chai and your awesome communi-tea! I know for sure my wife would be thrilled at the idea of a Boba expansion :)
And lovely readers, what do you think was the key to their success? The approachable theme, accessibility of the game, the duo's authenticity, or is it perhaps Dan's inspiring dedication to his puns? Comment below with your thoughts and feel free to give feedback/suggestions for future interviews!
Please support Dan & Connie by following the links below:
- Dan and Connie's social media: twitter, instagram, facebook
- Website: http://www.steepedgames.com/
- Chai Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CHAI.game/
Below are my links to past interviews:
- Victoria Ying, artist of Bargain Quest
- Alexandr Elichev, artist of Gloomhaven
- Atha Kanaani, artist of the Pandemic series
- Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games
- Victor Pérez Corbella, artist of Champions of Midgard
- Sabrina Miramon, artist of Photosynthesis
- Ruwen Liu, artist of Cake Duel
- Kyle Ferrin, artist of Root
Kyle's story is all too common among artists—juggling multiple hats to make ends meet, the harsh reality of having zero visibility, and what seems like eons to finally "make it." Here's how the winner of the 2018 Golden Geek Best Board Game Artwork got there.
Hey Kyle, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure! I’m Kyle Ferrin, I’m a board game artist and illustrator working for Leder Games, an independent board game publisher responsible for Root and the Vast series of games. I’ve also done some work for smaller card games like Dungeon Mayhem by Wizards of the Coast. I live in Utah with my wife, Meredith, and our 4 kiddos.
Your artstyle/linework gives me an impression that you've had tons of mileage on doodling in classes. Is this true? And were you always known among your peers/family as the "art guy"?
I’ve always doodled, it’s true. I’m the oldest of 8 kids and even though I loved drawing from a very early age my parents didn’t find that exceptional in any way until I went to kindergarten and my teacher let them know that I spent a lot of time drawing compared to the other kids. I used to draw Garfield from memory and make up superheroes and comic strips. “Art Guy” is a pretty good way to describe my role in a lot of different settings, haha.
Was becoming an artist always the most obvious path in mind? If not, what was the pivotal moment that led you to pursue art as a career? Were there any times you felt the pressure to have other jobs to support yourself?
From May 2006 to May 2008 I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and during that time I didn’t draw much. It was definitely allowed, I just thought it might be kind of a distraction if I did anything too time consuming. Mostly I doodled in margins for a couple years. Then in 2009 I started attending college with the goal of an English Teaching degree. I wasn’t very passionate about it but I found success in a non-major Graphic Design class. After failing a few literature classes I switched majors and pursued a Visual Communication degree. I now have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in VisComm which I mostly used to get Graphic Design jobs until I had the opportunity to make illustration my main hustle. There were a lot of years of working manual labor and food service jobs before I got graphic design work, and then more years of that before my after hours commissions became a realistic day job.
One of the most frequent questions asked by amateur artists is "how to find my style". First, how would you answer that question? Second, what kind of style are you recognized for?
Your style finds you. You strive to improve your craft and as you develop an artistic taste you begin to settle into what looks like “you” to you. I believe the style of most artists is just the result of leaning into your strengths and embracing your more aesthetically pleasing weaknesses. Todd MacFarlane couldn’t draw anatomy well for a long time, so he drew Spawn with huge capes and that became part of his style.
I’m probably recognized most for my pen and ink sketch-style linework. It’s an aesthetic born from not doing pencil sketches when I doodle most of the time. I like how you just have to commit when you work that way. You don’t get to erase and erase and erase, you just kind of have to live with it, which is one of the reasons I like ink and watercolor. It kind of bakes itself in as you work and if you don’t like it you have to start over.
Who/what were your biggest influences to your style? Who are you inspired by these days?
Quentin Blake is a big influence. Bill Watterson for sure. Both of them have a graphic quality to their work that doesn’t rely on realism but conveys a lot of emotion. These days I love following the work of Jeffrey Alan Love, Kate Beaton, and David Peterson’s work on Mouse Guard. Dustin Harbin and Sam Bosma are wonderful as well. I follow a lot of artists on twitter, it’s a tremendous inspiration for me.
As an artist, I personally experienced a burst of creativity after my wife and I had our son (now 10 months old!). In what ways do you think having kids impacted you as an artist?
I draw a lot of animals for my kids, and I use simple shapes with large areas for them to color if that’s what they’re interested in. It forces me to be fast and emotive and the goal is always about trying to keep someone happy. I think those qualities all translate into my work in some way or another.
So how exactly did you end up transitioning into the board game industry and what was the first board game you had worked on? Could you share how that experience was?
I’ve always loved board games and card games. The first board game I worked on was Vast: The Crystal Caverns, that was called “Trove” at the time. They came to me having seen some of my Dungeons and Dragons commissions and some goblin art I did for the RPG Dungeon World. When Vast ended up being a success, Patrick Leder flew me out to a few conventions. We worked so well together that he hired me full time to be an in-studio illustrator for his company. Board games are a lot of work, with different considerations than making a book or poster, but it’s been fun to create art objects that people interact with and connect with in that different way. I had no idea the hobby was so big until I did my first Gen Con, I’m happy to be a part of it.
How were you first approached by Leder Games? What was the team's main vision behind the art on Root and how do you think your style/experience helped accomplish that vision?
They first reached out to me on twitter with Vast. Root was a group effort that came to being after I was already a full time employee and I got to work on it from the beginning. I helped come up with the theming and setting and worked closely with Cole and Patrick on the feel and aesthetic of the game. The main goal was to make an asymmetric war game without historical baggage, a war game for people who didn’t know they liked war games yet. I think the chance I had to work on it from such an early time in Root’s development helped the whole product become a more holistic experience. I created the meeples and the board as the game was being designed. The game and the art helped inform each other as we went.
What is your typical workflow like? Is everything done digitally?
Most of the work I do is drawn/inked traditionally and then colored digitally. Usually I’ll get a list of card names, for example, and then I interpret them into sketches or sometimes just take them all the way to ink and color if we are tight on time.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on Root? What was your favorite part?
The hardest part was the turnaround. I was drawing cards as cards were being created and that meant having public facing print and play material with as much art in it as possible for our Kickstarter backers. My favorite part is seeing people play Root. I love walking around free play tables at conventions to see people with rulebooks and boxes open.
Which faction do you play as the most and how do you think that reflects your personality?
I sometimes joke that that the Marquise de Cat is kind of like being a parent, because it’s mostly about trying to put out fires, haha. I play the Woodland Alliance a lot because I think they have the steepest learning curve and I am usually teaching new people to play. Maybe that just says that I’m nice? haha
Are all of the factions equally loved by you or was there a particular faction you enjoyed illustrating the most?
I love drawing the birds. The Eyrie was fun to illustrate but especially the bird cards make me happy. I’m glad the Underworld Expansion includes crows so I can revisit my bird friends.
What was your most memorable moment working on Root?
I think when we sold out at Gen Con in 2018 that was the most memorable thing. We made stuffed animals of the Vagabond Raccoon, which was kind of a silly passion project, and we even sold out of those! I think that was the first moment that I realized that people really connected with this game so strongly.
What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Thanks for your support! You’re the reason I have a job! You put gas in my minivan and keep the breakfast cereal on the table for my kids. Thank you thank you thank you.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
Most of the things I’m working on are still under wraps. The official release of Vast: The Mysterious Manor is this Summer and I can’t wait for folk to play it. The minis look so good and the gameplay is next level. I feel like I’m already living the dream. I hope to just keep doing this and improve my craft as I go.
Thanks Kyle! Appreciate you making your time for us and we look forward to your continued work in future board games! It's always inspiring to see artists who've kept up their craft all these years and it's a personal reminder for me to be more diligent with my art as well.
Lovely Readers! Please support Kyle by following the links below:
- Kyle's social media: twitter, instagram
- Kyle's Artist Shop: https://kyleferrin.threadless.com/ (check out the awesome Root merch)
Below are my links to past interviews:
- Victoria Ying, artist of Bargain Quest
- Alexandr Elichev, artist of Gloomhaven
- Atha Kanaani, artist of the Pandemic series
- Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games
- Victor Pérez Corbella, artist of Champions of Midgard
- Sabrina Miramon, artist of Photosynthesis
- Ruwen Liu, artist of Cake Duel
Plus, you can leave comments below with:
- Suggestions for artists/designers/any other board game people to interview
- Any feedback about the interviews so far
- Comments about the games mentioned
- Ask me anything!
Hey Victoria, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Thanks for having me! I'm an illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. I graduated from Art Center College of Design and then went on to work at Disney Feature Animation for 8 years before transitioning into publishing and freelance work.
From film to board games, that's quite a leap! So how exactly did you end up working on Bargain Quest?
Bargain Quest was a real dream project for me. My brother and I are both creatives and he came up with a prototype for a game that was really fun and exciting to play. At the time, I had just left the film industry and had time on my hands between client work and volunteered to do the artwork for this project. I was just lucky that my brother is an awesome game designer!
What was the main vision behind Bargain Quest's art that you and your brother wanted to achieve?
We both love traditional fantasy, but we also saw the flaw in it because people like us were rarely represented. We wanted to have an inclusive world where everyone could feel like they belonged and had a part to play. I remember watching my brother play through Ocarina of Time on the N64 when we were kids and the world was just so fun to watch. We wanted to create a family friendly, inclusive version of the fantasy worlds we grew up loving.
How did you go about deciding what kind of art style/mood would be the most appropriate?
Since we were aiming for fun above all else, we tried not to stick too strictly to any specific fantasy world. Jon is great at thinking of cultural influences for each of the heroes so he would throw me ideas and I would sketch them out. We were on the same page most of the time for the artwork, so he turned out to be one of my easiest clients. Plus it helped that we still had the sibling-factor, so I could voice my opinions without feeling like I was overstepping the director.
One of the many things I like about Bargain Quest's art is the personality behind not just the characters, but also in the shops and the items. Could you share some tips on how you achieve this?
Jon was a big help on a lot of the items, there were so many to design that splitting it between us helped a lot. I would take cues from what he was doing to insert them into my own items. I'm not as much of a gamer as my brother, so he was able to show me more inspiration that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
References to classic RPG elements always bring up great childhood memories. Are there any games you played before that helped with inspiration?
I mentioned Zelda earlier, and that was huge for us, and for me, literature and books that took place in fantasy always held my interest. I loved the Earthsea novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, and all the Harry Potter books. They all had a huge influence on this project.
Among all of your character, shop, and item illustrations, which was your favorite? And which of the characters do you most identify yourself with?
I did a little witch girl in the first deck and she's my favorite. I always loved witches because they were a power fantasy that always included girls and women. She's cheerful and sweet like Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service! I also love the witch shop that's included in the new expansion for the same reasons. I like to think that that would be mine if I lived in that world.
What was a unique aspect of illustrating for board games that you liked? Was there anything you didn't like or found challenging?
Board games have a LOT of art, and that's both a good thing and a bad thing. The breadth of the characters we were able to put in the game is one of my favorite things. When I play Bargain Quest, I notice that people start to make up their own lore for the characters and the employees which always makes me smile. The downside of there being a lot of art is that THERE IS A LOT OF ART. It was fun to do, but also daunting in terms of its scope. There were times when I had to get help with certain elements of the art, like getting help with flatting or props.
As someone who seems to challenge new territories again and again (children's book, film, comics, board game, etc), what are some advice you could give to artists out there who may be afraid of taking that first step?
You're good enough. The thing that holds us back from trying to do new things is usually the feeling that we aren't 'ready' enough to do or make them. When you're trying to work for a publisher or a studio, that may be the case, but you have to start producing the work before anyone will notice you. If you like comics, make indie comics, if you like concept art, make concept art. Don't wait until you're good enough, you're already ready.
Lastly, what's something new you'd like to explore in the future?
With comics I've been dipping my toe more into prose writing and screenwriting. If I ever return to film/TV, I think I would love to be a writer. Someday, I would also like to write a prose novel, like some of my favorites from my childhood.
That's all, folks!
You can see more of Victoria's incredible works @ http://www.victoriaying.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @victoriaying
On July 11, 2015, Eric posted his first review of Catan and kicked off "What's Eric Playing," a blog dedicated to tabletop game reviews. Now past review #450 after only four years, Eric leads a double life of software engineer by day and prolific reviewer/photographer by night. He is known by many for his approachable feedback on games and for introducing the most aesthetically pleasing circular patterns known to mankind (at least among this community anyway).
Hey Eric, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
- Hm, I never have a cogent answer for this. I usually just say my name’s Eric and then I trail off for a bit because I’m not sure if y’all want to know more about, like, my hobbies or job or whatsit. Thankfully, this is over text and not audio, so that five-minute existential pause I just had basically doesn’t exist. Lemme try again. My name’s Eric, and in my day-to-day, I’m a software engineer focused on educational technology. When I’m not doing that, well, I’m generally doing this, board game reviews, photography, and miscellaneous extras. I used to be more of a video gamer, but I missed the in-person interactions, so I switched over shortly after college. And I do mostly that, now. I also watch a fair amount of TV, and have a soft spot for aquariums? That’s about it, offhand.
What was the most "geeky" thing you've done in your life?
- I really gotta assume it was “start a board game reviewing website”.
What did pre-board game blogging Eric look like? As in... what were you up to before starting your blog?
- Not a whole lot; I started it shortly after I graduated college, when I was still settling into “how does one have hobbies after graduate school?”.
- It was a complex time, so, I guess the answer was graduate school?
Could you share about the genesis of "What's Eric Playing?" Like... how did you decide on the title? (please be honest, did you actually take time thinking about it? xD). What motivated you to start the blog? How did photography come into play?
- I hate naming things. It took me two weeks to come up with What’s Eric Playing? and I still really don’t think I love it. Bleh. Oh well, stuck with it now. I kind of wish I had come up with something that was only 15 characters for Twitter handle reasons, but, again, bleh.
- I had a lot of free time post-grad school, and my friend was working on her FFXIV food blog (wild), and she asked if I had ever considered writing. I said I had no formal experience, and she told me to just … do it. And so that’s what I did. Wrote up the first 15 posts or so and started releasing them on a regular cycle.
- The photography came into play when I realized it was probably not a great look for me to just take photos from BGG and use them on my website (I assumed [correctly, nice] that I could do that if I just wanted to post to BGG, but in general it seemed kinda sketchy). Now, I make my photos shareable under a Creative Commons license (non-commercial / share-alike / with attribution) so that people who are getting started on their own sites don’t have to do all the heavy lifting I did (unless they want to!!!).
I wasn't trying to make fun of the title by the way (I think it's a great original title and goes with your approachable vibe). Moving on, I feel like anyone looking for board game content on social media would've stumbled onto your photography at some point (they're BEAUTIFUL by the way). So what was the intent behind your unique photography setups?
- It’s fine; I make fun of the title quite a bit, since it’s … pretty straightforward. But thank you for the compliment.
- Yeah, a fair number of times I stumble on my own photography when I’m browsing social media, which is always … interesting. I really got inspired by some of the work I saw in other mediums (and board games) and I wanted to try and do something that was kinda … my own thing. So I focused a lot on circles and here we are. Doesn’t work for everything (and that’s always interesting) but it works a lot of the time.
What is your approach or philosophy behind reviewing board games?
- Good question. Lately, my approach has been “what have I already agreed to review”, but in The Before Times a lot of it was what games am I most excited to talk about. There’s a really interesting point that we could spend a whole interview on about audience expectations for reviews—I think there’s a nonzero number of people out there who expect your average review score to be a 5, whereas in reality for a lot of people it’s probably between a 7 and an 8. On one hand, there’s an argument there that many / most games are “good”, at minimum, but I think there’s also a bit of selection bias at play. Especially if you’re not full-time, you’re mostly reviewing games in your collection or games you like, which tends to nudge the average more positive. It’s not some Grand Conspiracy as much as it is the casual nature of you try to buy games that you like, so if you reviewed your entire collection you’d assume that the average score would be slightly higher. It’s a really interesting psychology thing. But I got off track.
- My philosophy is generally that every game has something I like, something I’m lukewarm on, and something I wish it had. After I’ve gone through that, I usually have a pretty good sense of what bucket it falls into, relative to other games (I usually just do “at the moment, would I rather play X or Y more?” and sift until I find games that are roughly equivalent). That’s gotten me through the first 450, so I’m pretty happy with my approach and style.
What was the most visually stunning game you reviewed that also delivered in its gameplay?
- Depends on what you mean by visually stunning. Artistically impressive, I still gotta give a shout-out to Millennium Blades for just making so many moving parts work. Aesthetically, Catch the Moon is still one of my favorites for being simple with great components. The ladders look great when they’re being used. For just general art, I usually give a shout-out to Near and Far and Sol: Last Days of a Star—both are beautiful games in their own right, with Near and Far shooting for a wistful storybook and Sol being a more meditative orbiting experience. All of those games are, in my opinion, excellent, both mechanically and artistically.
Let's go to the other end. Did you ever have a game that you tried to review that was frankly... ugly and difficult to photograph in an appealing way? If so, how did you deal with it?
- Yeah. In the interest of not clowning games, I’ve had several instances where games were either too large and unwieldy, had too many or too few pieces, or frankly just had an aesthetic that wasn’t really my jam, so I’ll not deal too much in specifics, here. I generally have a system that I use for getting through a game’s photos, so you just kinda adhere to the system as best as you can, even if you aren’t super jazzed about it. I will happily admit it takes me two or three times as long to do photos / writing for games I’m not really enthusiastic about, which is always fun. Hard to budget for that.
What is a lesser known board game that you'd like to give a shoutout to the most? What do you love about the game? What do you think is the reason behind its lack of presence?
- Ironically, I hadn’t read this question and had a whole Twitter thread about it, yesterday. There are probably five, I’d say, honestly. Cursed Court, Sol: Last Days of a Star, Kintsugi, The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena, and Spy Club. There are a lot of reasons for these, I think. Out of the five, only Spy Club has a really dedicated social media presence, for one. I haven’t seen a lot of press for any of the five, and even now, I still don’t see much about it. I think there may be other reasons they never really took off (some people have noted that they struggled with Korra’s rulebook, and others suggested that Spy Club’s best content is tucked into the modules, so demoers at cons wouldn’t necessarily get past the first game), so it’s worth considering how you promote your game through its entire life-cycle. A lot of great games get released, these days, and a lot of them can fly under the radar if you’re not careful.
You seem to be actively engaged with other content creators through Twitter. Who is a fellow content creator you've gotten to know that you'd especially like to give a shoutout to?
- Nettersplays is awesome. She makes videos, makes awesome component trays, has a great bird, and plays a ton of heavy games that are wildly outside of my comfort zone and scope. It means that I relish the opportunities we get to team up. :)
As of this interview, you're at #450 in total reviews since starting your blog. Congrats!! Did you always expect yourself to have stuck through with this for so long?
- I feel like the arbitrary milestone was probably 100; once I got through that I assumed that I would probably be on the hook forever. I think what I didn’t expect was to go from one review every two weeks (~2 / month) to five reviews every week (~20 / month). It’s a bit of a faster pace than is probably sustainable, but, games to review, you know?
By this point, is there any superpower you've developed from doing so many reviews? Also, having observed pros and cons across hundreds of games, have you ever thought about making a game of your own?
- The key is time management, haha. I have a lot of spreadsheet work I’ve done, and I know how to allocate work such that I always have something to do. The other “superpower” I guess is a better understanding of myself and how I work. I try not to force myself to do anything, otherwise it comes out badly, so I gotta have a good sense of how I’m feeling (or will likely feel) at any given point so I can predict how much work I can wring out of myself. For instance, last night I did 5 games’ worth of photos while watching TV. I can do that and edit photos with TV on; I can’t necessarily write a review while that’s happening. If I have a night that I don’t feel like doing TV, I can now go and write the reviews that correspond to those.
- I have, several times, and I have three designs that I’ve done some work on. I do not enjoy the game design process, so, they’re kind of bunk. If someone wants to make a game off of a half-baked idea, hit me up.
What are some ways in which your influence in this community has grown to a point that it surprised you?
- Hahaha, I’m not sure, honestly. I’m still surprised that I can get a press pass to conventions, is probably the thing.
Do you wish to make this into your full-time job? How close are you and what would it take to get to that point?
- Hard pass, haha. The area I live in is far too expensive for that kind of lifestyle. Also, even though I do a bit too much right now, I do try to think about this as something that I enjoy, and depending on my audience for my actual livelihood would probably stress me out too much. No disrespect to people who are doing it; I really respect the hustle. It’s just not for me.
Do you foresee any changes in the direction of your blog/content in the near future?
- I’m currently doing a few other things that I’m going to put in an Other Thoughts tab, but that content is always going to be secondary compared to my primary review content. Then again, ask me when I’m a bit closer to review #1000 and I might have different thoughts, hahaha.
As we near the end of this talk, what are some changes in the board game industry/media that you'd like to see the most? What would be your solution for the changes to occur?
- I still think board games and board game media have a ways to go on representation. The hobby isn’t nearly as diverse as it could be, and though we’re seeing a lot of good progress, I think some paradigm shifts are still necessary. Part of that is that we really gotta internalize the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats and start working with up-and-coming diverse content creators; be the change and all that. Simply cutting yourself off from the media landscape and arguing it’s a meritocracy ignores a lot of real issues facing people trying to break into the space (the imbalanced expectations of childcare, societally; the requirement for both a significant additional income and extra free time outside of work and other responsibilities; the pressure to always have and make content for the newest and latest titles). It’s tough, and I think it actively discourages folks who could really provide new voices. And even when they do, against all odds, get into the space, it’s not always super welcoming; sometimes it’s even pretty insular. It’s a tough problem to solve, and while I think we’re making progress, we’re not there yet.
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?
- Heh, I think about this a lot, but, as cliche as it’s going to sound, I think the best mark of success is whether or not I’m proud of the work I’m doing. And I am, you know? Like, I’m happy to have done this many reviews and gotten to check out this many cool games, but I’ve also had the opportunity through this whole thing to meet some amazing people (some of whom are some of my closest friends), and I’m really thankful for that. Gratitude is a really positive emotion. Chasing metrics is a good way to microadjust content, but, at the end of the day, I don’t have that much macro-level control over whether or not I get 1000+ views in a day or hit 10,000 followers, and trying to put that all on me is a great way to stress myself out. So I try to focus on what I can control, which is whether or not I’m putting out work that I feel like I can be proud of. And that’s been good enough for me.
Thanks Eric for making your time!
(All images have been provided with permission from Eric)
Before we close, here's a fun little section I prepared...
What Do Fellow Content Creators Say About Eric?
Ross @ More Games Please:
"I'm pretty sure Eric is actually 15 interns he doesn't credit due to the output of his blog. I'm joking of course but seriously, it's an amazing output level."
Annette @ Nettersplays:
"Not only is Eric one of the dearest, funniest and most honest friends in the board game world, but he's also one of the hardest workers. This may be due to the fact that he's a robot in disguise. How else can he explain coming out with 4-5 reviews a week consistently for months on end?"
Suzanne @ 425suzanne:
"If you want a thoughtfully crafted, entertaining-to-read game review that features lovely photographs - then you have to be reading What's Eric Playing. I'm glad he decided to go with just "What's Eric Playing" instead of my suggestion 'What's Eric Playing Today' with its unfortunate acronym. See? Smart moves like that shows how smart he really is."
....And That's All for Today!
Readers, if you haven't done so already, check out more of Eric's reviews here.
You can also support Eric's work on his Patreon.
Thanks for the read and you can also find more of my interviews below. Instead of my usual list of ALL of my interviews... it's a random selection of three of my past interviews. Now if you really want to binge on all of my past interviews, feel free to do so by sifting through my past posts here.
- Board Game Meets Wildlife—How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series
- Legacy of Martin Wallace and How Kickstarter Transformed the Board Game Industry
- From MIT to Board Game Artist: How Ruwen Liu Illustrated Cake Duel
Sandy is a prolific game designer with an impressive track record. His fingerprints are all over household names such as Doom and Age of Empires, and his dedication to Lovecraftian horror has not only produced the wildly successful Cthulhu Wars, but also led the late author H. P. Lovecraft out of obscurity.
Hey Sandy, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I live in Texas, with my wife of 40 years and two mongrel dogs. The only full-time jobs I’ve ever had as an adult had to do with game design. I’m an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My favorite food is lobster.
For those who might not be aware, what are some notable games you have worked on?
The Call of Cthulhu RPG, also the first Lovecraft game. I was chief developer on Richard Launius’s Arkham Horror. In the digital field, I worked on Doom, Doom 2, Quake, and the entire Age of Empires series. I also contributed to the original Civilization computer game. Since founding my own game company, I’ve published several successful games. The best known is Cthulhu Wars.
With only 10 weeks left before the 1993 release of Doom, you joined id Software and designed 19 of the levels. First, could you share with us the story behind how you joined the team at such a strange timing? Second, what aspects of level design do you learn to prioritize vs. sacrifice when you're in such a time crunch?
Well I can’t speak to why id Software wanted to hire a new designer and give him so many of the levels, but it might be because they were already planning to pay off Tom Hall, and I was the intended replacement. I had never designed a 3D level before of course so had no idea what to focus on. Turned out my solution was to (1) think of a theme. (2) Expand and iterate. For example—the idea behind E3M4 “House of Pain” was for the early part to resemble a human viscera—lungs, stomach, etc. E2M2 was a warehouse. Then I’d play through the level again and again, adding sections sequentially, until I felt it was “long enough”. I also had (and still have) a habit of incorporating my nightmares as inspiration. Several levels are straight from my dreams.
Storytelling seems to be one of your strong suits. Would you say this is true? How did you incorporate storytelling in your level designs for Doom? Also, is it easier or more difficult to incorporate storytelling aspects in a video game or a board game?
I’m keenly interested in having a strong backstory in my products. I often have lots of subtleties and odd tidbits based on same. For example, my Dire Nodens figure has a prosthetic claw, because “Nodens” is connected to the celtic “Nuada of the Silver Hand”. But I’m not interested in the story being overtly told, necessarily. Unless it needs it, as in Call of Cthulhu. In another example, the fictional world of Glorantha is full of stories, which my game The Gods War permits you to recreate. Fans of the world will see where I’ve reflected these myths. But nowhere do I force them in the player.
Before we talk about some of your recent games, I just have a few more questions: In 2013, you received the "Howie" award for Lifetime Achievement and contributions to the Lovecraftian genre. When/how did you become a fan of H. P. Lovecraft and what about his work fascinates you? For anyone unfamiliar with this genre, could you describe the core elements they would find in a Lovecraftian game?
I read my first two Lovecraft tales at the age of 8. They were The Outsider & Pickman’s Model (not sure which order). I had never read anything like it. To this day, what rivets me to Lovecraft is how intricately he puts together his tale, how alien his creatures are, and how incredibly he pushes his ideas? A whole town of monsters? A sentient color? A guy who has sex with a gorilla? It’s all in Lovecraft. The core elements in a properly Lovecraft game are: (1) The concept that humans are limited and unimportant. (2) The concept that true horror comes from Beyond—outer space, other dimensions, the distant past. (3) A materialistic view of the universe. Lovecraft’s cults never have a real theology - always there is some tangible benefit from worship.
Cthulhu seems to have entered the mainstream culture in the recent years (there are currently 448 projects on Kickstarter with the keyword "Cthulhu"). Would you agree with this and if so, how would you explain the sudden popularity and what appears to be society's growing openness and interest toward this genre?
When I won my Howie, the MC explained that in 1980, Lovecraft was pathetically obscure, which I knew. Everyone I knew personally who knew of Lovecraft had learned of him through me. In 1981, Call of Cthulhu, the RPG, appeared, and began seeping through gamer nerd culture. Dozens of expansions followed. Thousands have told me they read HPL because of my game. In 1985, Stuart Gordon released Re-Animator, then From Beyond - the first actually good HPL films. These, then, began influencing horror nerd culture. Moving in both directions, the lore of Lovecraft spread and spread. Also in the same time frame, S.T.Joshi’s analyses of HPL started making being a fan defensible intellectually.
Your Kickstarter for Cthulhu Wars was a smashing success with over $1.4M raised. Did you anticipate this level of support from the beginning? To what do you attribute its success?
I expected and hoped for about 200-300k. I think it succeeded because of three factors. (1) My name, to be blunt. I am a fairly well-liked designer with a resume as long as your arm. And I’m closely associated with Lovecraft. (2) The amazing art quality. We walked the walk. (3) It was one of the first “Luxury” games. First-rate price, add-ons, quality, figures, etc. While not every game should be a $175 behemoth, it’s also ok for you to have at least one “Cadillac” on your shelf, instead of just a string of Honda Civics.
Are there any tough problems you have to deal with when a project becomes "too successful"?How do you deal with the pressure of needing to produce another hit?
Yes. I have a game night every Saturday. I take care to periodically unwind. My most important support system is my angel wife.
Your latest project is called the "Eternal Adversary". Could you give us a short overview of the game?
It’s a light, short battle game incorporating character advancement, about a war between Order and Chaos. There are two teams. Order are heroes from alternate timelines, such as a universe where the Aztec Empire survived to modern times. Chaos are legends from many continent: the Kelpie, Ghoul, Kappa, etc. The teams have different tasks, and different fundamentals—beyond mere game flavor.
What was your inspiration behind the game's design and theme? Are you on the side of ORDER or CHAOS?
Well actually the game’s initial concepts came from Ben Donges, and my son Lincoln did much of the development. So I can only take 30-40% of the credit. I guess I fight for Chaos because originally the game was a co-op in which all players fought for Order, and we added a playable Chaos.
Every hero and monster has such a unique background/lore. How much time do you invest for worldbuilding to make a believable story of conflict?
I read a lot, mostly non-fiction, and watch eclectic movies, so a huge store of esoteric, nominally useless lore is in my head. While I do look up stuff when I need to, mostly the background ideas I want are there. Also for Eternal Adversary a lot of the legwork was done by my co-developers.
Which part of this game's development process was your favorite and how come?
Sitting down with my son Lincoln and hammering out the most difficult design concepts. How should dice work? What should monsters do? How do heroes advance? These took hours of back and forth creative debate and was really productive.
What do you think are some of the most memorable/fun moments players will have with this game?
Well, some such moments we’ve had so far were: failing to find a single Healing Shrine throughout the game and still (barely) pulling off a win; ending the game by killing the arch evil with only one remaining hero with 1 HP left; summoning three Erinyes in a row and completely surrounding an oblivious Order hero who was focused on closing a Rift and didn’t notice what was happening.
What do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
The most basic level is I must earn enough cash to keep Petersen Games afloat. Three of my future goals are to produce a successful game without Kickstarting it, to do a successful non-figure game, and to do someday a classic war game. All are in the works.
And lastly, what is your dream project?
My ultimate dream project was Cthulhu Wars. Not sure if that makes me a success or a has-been. I also am quite proud of Planet Apocalypse, Hyperspace, and The Gods War. I guess every project is my dream project while I’m working towards it.
Thank you Sandy for making your time!
Readers, please feel free to leave comments/questions below for Sandy, any of the games mentioned, or for myself!
Below are my links to past interviews:
Mihajlo (a.k.a. The Mico) is one of the top board game illustrators in the industry who created a niche around his striking art style. If you want your board game to make a bold statement among a sea of board games, he's the right person for the job.
Hey Mihajlo, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Mihajlo Dimitrievski and I'm an illustrator from Bitola—which is a city in Macedonia—which is a country on Balkans. The Mico is my nickname (signature) and it is pronounced The MiCHo (CH like in CHEchnya or CHe Guevara or something like that) :)
Drawing is what I do for living. I'm happily married and I have two children that share my interest in drawing and toys. And I'm hoping to have some time in the future to play all the games I draw, read all the books I have, and play on Playstation (because I buy those games too). I should live like 400 years with all these things to do :)
Have you always pictured yourself doing art for board games? What other career paths have you considered in the past?
I started as a comic book artist in middle school for one of the oldest and coolest papers for college students which was called “Studentski Zbor”—I'm counting it as my start because I got payed significant amount of money for a 17 years old kid. After that I began to illustrate a lot and I got into tablets and digital stuff so the process started to be faster. I worked (and still work) on lots of books, school books and stuff like that.
Later, there was a 3D animated series in development that got my interest so I sent my stuff. They accepted me. But I had actually sent my portfolio to an advertising company instead of the animation studio (mixed the names) so I ended up doing (and still do) stuff connected to advertising (storyboards and illustrations). After that I started working for children's magazines for a long period too. This was all out of my city in Macedonian capitol—Skopje. Luckily, broadband internet was starting in that period (yes I'm old) and I had an opportunity—having met and becoming friends with millions of people—to return to my hometown to work from there. And one day, I started to work on board games :)
I didn’t know that board games actually existed even a few year ago. Naturally I knew some of them because I love artwork and illustrations and I love Warhammer, Blizzard, MtG, and Monopoly but I really hadn't had the slightest idea about the whole community. Was and I'm still surprised with the whole thing, that I'm deeply involved in a million projects now. Actually I have always imagined myself as an illustrator—maybe as a comic book artist, but mostly as someone who draws things, and I can say that I'm one of the lucky ones who can really live from it—don’t have expensive cars or pools—but I do have couple false edge swords :) SO I'm really having a hobby for a job, and job for a hobby. If I don’t draw I'll possibly be a physical worker. Because drawing is only thing that I can probably do :)
You know, I guess mix-ups like that aren't that uncommon. Atha Kananni (artist on Pandemic series) also had a story to tell about a mix-up that ended up really well :)
Anyhow, why do your fans refer to you as The Mico? How does it feel to have fans who regularly support your work?
Well as previously answered that’s my nickname—or my signature.
Except... They call me The Miko—but what can I say—I don’t have problem with that :)
About fans, it's really cool. I really don't consider myself a star nor I can be one. But people really do sometimes make me feel like that (this is coming from dude working in studio basement 12 hours a day). Really people, thank you. Part of my job is to bring happiness and smiles to people, so yeah it feels good. Every nice word is great support for me—I'm cool guy—but everybody likes to PM sometimes saying thank you you makes us happy and stuff. Of course games are done by lots of people and everybody has a part of the product, but individual recognition feels nice.
Ways of showing support? They buy stuff that I draw. Don't think that there is a bigger support from people. If I don’t draw for people—I wouldn’t draw at all. SO thank you :). This goes for my coworkers too, game designers, publishers, family, friends, and even to those couple of people who really don't like me :)
You have a distinct style that allows the board games you work on to stand out among the crowd. Who/what were your biggest influences and what attracted you to them?
As you can see, I don’t stand well with anatomy so I'm using every cartooning trick that I can think of to do more enjoyable and funny stuff. I draw what I would like to see or buy. I do read a lot of comics, I do watch a lot of movies and cartoons. I'm super influenced by Frank Miller, Simon Bisley, Genaddy Tartakowsky, Craig McCracken, Don Rosa, John Howe, Alan Lee, Frank Frazetta, Hogarth, Hugo Pratt, and Moebius, to name a few :). I do enjoy 2D animation—a lot of old school cartoon network like Samurai Jack, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory, SpongeBob, Asterix, etc. So I'm trying to make my drawings as abstract and as original with character as I can.
What would be your advice for amateur artists who want to get into this industry?
We as humans learn during our entire life, and every new day is a new thing learned—new song, new movie, new person, new brush in Photoshop, new bill to pay. So my advice for every artist or other profession there is—work. And don’t be an asshole. We are all people. If it doesn’t work, we don’t work. If it works for everybody, great. Work, learn, be kind. And try to sleep, and live healthy life (that doesn’t usually go well with this type of professions).
Style is a stamp, something to be known for, a face—so I'm more than happy that people recognize more of my stuff. I think I can manage to work in couple of styles and techniques but I'm mostly called for my style that you're all used to, and I really try to expand it in my own borders. There are million better artists who can draw way better than me—but this is me. As I work on comics and animation, I really think I can do more stuff, but illustrations and games, that’s me :). I'm happy that now and in the future you'll probably see more 3D stuff from me—in forms of minies and figurines and toys. SO that is next level :)
I see, so while artists should have an arsenal of different styles and techniques, it's good to have one distinct style that others will continually hire you for.
So how exactly do you go about finding your style?
Man, draw as much as you can and like, try to be different as much as you can. If they compare you with a good artist, you are well on your way. The important part is for you to feel happy and to enjoy what you do. Sure sometimes you'll have to redraw stuff back and forth, but that’s the part of a profession. I personally enjoy drawing every day. Style can change in time. Purpose of drawing can change in time—storyboards, editorial art, children's illustration, concept art, character design… different stuff to draw, but what you draw when you have some spare time and makes you happy—that’s your style. In time people will probably know you by that. Again I'm more than happy that I'm recognized :)
Hmm... you touched up on something very valuable. As an artist myself, it's easy to get focused on drawing for others that I forget to have fun!
Okay, so let's move onto talking about one of your signature works, the North Sea series. Could you share with us the story behind how you joined up with Shem Phillips for the start of the series? How has the game's success impacted your career?
Got mail from Shem—do I want to draw characters for something called board game—I said yes. Evidently the game is awesome, people really liked it and I got unusually more mails than I used to. As I said I used to be a comic book artist but I literally have done everything connected with drawing—so yeah this last thing with board games really brought me closer to people which by itself (being close to more and more people from around the world) is a reward. It has a great impact on my career. I get to draw different themes whole day. I'm art directing animated movie, animated show, etc, so I do a lot of different stuff. But board gaming does, at least for me, bring people closer. Because there are less people involved in production and a lot people playing the stuff. So yeah, I'm happy—for the job I have, and people I met and will be meeting in future, whether in person or online.
You've worked on a string of successful games since Raiders of the North Sea. What were some adjustments you had made based on lessons learned/mistakes from Raiders? What were some approaches you kept the same based on positive reactions from fans?
I really don’t think that there were any mistakes there. Or at least not that I know of :) Maybe only problem as for everyone working with deadlines is time. And I'm late with some stuff—but I'm trying to do everything on time. So yeah only problem or a mistake is that I'm really trying to do everything on time and things don’t always go as planned. Luckily for me (evidently I'm very lucky) I do work with awesome people. So again… I don’t think I recall of any problem working in board game industry… hm… that’s a thing to think about actually :). And every positive reaction I get (and there are a lot) is one more happy brush stroke from me on the art. Feedback is nice and it does help a lot. Even if you don’t have good day, when you want to rest, when you don’t want to work, when you want to play on PS… nice word can really get you up and working.
What is your formula for a great character design? How detailed of a brief do you get for each character and how do you approach making that character come to life?
Try to make it cool. Parrot with a helmet, fish with an umbrella, bottle with a sword… whatever makes that character to be cool and nice do it. I try to draw as much different people as I can. Big noses, small noses, ugly noses... whatever to make them different. As a kid I used to sit on a balcony and draw people passing by my street. Every human is different so I try to draw them different. Make it recognizable (unless is otherwise noted) on a first glance, or try in a best way I can. Surprise people.
Mostly I like short briefs so I can use my imagination to draw some stuff. But that depends on publishers and designers—I usually get free pass for everything I do, unless it has to be something specific, person or an animal or a creature. Drawing for games is a job, and even if it is art, it is a job with rules. So I work with stuff I get. Technical things are a must—dimensions, bleeds, deadlines, etc. So I can know how much space I have—where the bleed is, how big is the card, what will you see, what will you not see, positioning of the icons, etc.
What are the toughest challenges you face while working on board game art? Is it always about the art or are there other unexpected challenges as well?
There are a lot of challenges, but they are not all connected with drawing. Drawing is actually the easiest thing to do. But having the time (most precious element) to do them is essential. Keeping the normal life with tight deadlines is challenging. Kids go to school. You get sick. So yeah everyday problems can really be setback for a day or two. If by chance you don’t have internet for a day, that’s a problem :). As I mentioned, this is a profession that’s done with lot of sitting and eating a lot of unhealthy stuff (pizza) so that can be a problem sometimes. But again If you try to find balance I think and I know it is manageable. My biggest problem perhaps is that I do work a lot and I don’t really have a lot of time to spend with my family. But I try to balance that with vacations and not missing taking my kids to bed every day (when I'm home).
What is your most memorable/fun moment working on the Raiders series?
Getting mail from Shem :). Actually I'm hoping for that moment to happen some time in the future (hopefully soon) when I meet Shem and other beautiful people I know live and we sit and we drink all the coffees I have promised. So cheers to fun moments we have to live yet :)
Could you describe for us the exact moment when you felt you had "made it" as an artist?
When I feel it I will describe it to you :). It is every day man. And I'm happy for it :)
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
I don’t share things the publishers don’t share first :). I'm trying to be as professional as I can :). I can promise a lot of games, cartoons, movies, comics and a lot of photos of my toys and comics collection—and hopefully in the future a lot of photos with all of you wonderful people that give me support every day and I can't wait to meet you in person. Thank you all and see you ASAP :)
Thank you The Mico for making your time! It was well worth pursuing you for the past 4 months xD Love the work you do and I look forward to seeing your illustrations on other awesome titles in the future.
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. Now if you really want to binge on all of my past interviews, feel free to do so by sifting through my past posts here.
- How Former Disney Artist Victoria Ying Illustrated a Fantasy World For All (Bargain Quest)
- Behind the Scenes of "What's Eric Playing?" with Board Game Reviewer Eric Yurko
- Board Game Meets Wildlife—How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series
- Atha Kanaani's Journey From Rejection to Illustrating One of the Top Selling Board Game Series (Pandemic)
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:
Hello Atha, thank you for making your time for us! First up, what is your story leading up to becoming a professional artist?
Hello, thanks a lot for having me! So, after graduating from high school in France, I had no idea what to do next. I liked to draw or copy the drawings from video games, but I wasn’t aware of the possibility to work full-time as an illustrator. The majority of people I met at that time thought that art is just a hobby and can’t be a real job. Last year of college, I saw a poster for an art school and my mum told me that I could try to get into the "Beaux Art" (fine art schools where they teach contemporary art, but we didn’t know at that time). I tried, but I was rejected because of my lack of contemporary art knowledge and my very bad art skills. Disappointed, I enrolled in an art history class for a year, because… there is "art" in the title :)
Meanwhile, I decided to take a chance at the school I’ve seen on the poster: Emile Cohl school. I had to learn the basics of drawing to present a portfolio. So during the same year, I took a drawing class in a little art studio in my city. They did everything to get me into the school. Finally, I passed the test and I started my study the very next year. Four years later, I graduated from this school in illustration. When I was in art school, I was like in a bubble where I spent all my time drawing and the outside world didn't exist. After graduating and coming out into the world, I was all by myself to find a way to sell my art. I contacted a lot of editors at first, but I was rejected every time. The first responses were quite hard to shake off, but you get used to it. You just have to keep going, knowing that there is someone who needs your art somewhere in the world. Art school was hard for me but I met some very passionate people and teachers, and I learned a lot very fast, so it was a great experience. This is how I became a professional artist. I’m just at the beginning of my career, but I hope to work for more fun and big projects!
Have you always pictured yourself doing art for board games? What draws you into continuously working in this industry?
Not at all! When I was looking for people to work with, and being rejected a lot, I remembered that a teacher (Vincent Dutrait) told us about the board game industry growing bigger and bigger. He said that we should take a chance and contact the studios. I decided to make a list of all the "french" board game studios I could find, and ask them if my art could be useful for their creations. My portfolio was very poor at this time and I did not get a lot of replies. But by chance, one of the studios asked me to work on a game, because the illustrator they were working with at the time wasn’t able to finish the work. That’s how I worked on my very first board game: Traders of Osaka, for F2Z Entertainment (Filosofia, Z-Man Games). It was a great experience and they were happy with what I did. Some time later, I received an e-mail from them asking me if I was willing to work for them full-time. The only "problem" was that I had to work in-house, and they were located in Canada, Quebec to be precise. I added them in my list of french studios by mistake because being in Quebec, they speak french :)
So that "mistake" took me to Montréal for two years with my girlfriend, thousands of miles from our families. After a year in Canada, F2Z Entertainment was sold to Asmodée (a french studio). Today I’m back in France but I’m still a full-time illustrator for Z-Man Games in the U.S. and I’m really happy to work with them! I have the opportunity to work on very different games like Pandemic, Smile, Mesozooic, Through the Desert… and a lot more coming soon!
What was the most challenging game for you to illustrate and how come?
I think the most challenging game I had to work on was Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. I had to illustrate the board and it was my first time for a board of this size and complexity. It’s hard to think about the illustration style itself, how to make all the different places easily readable by the player, where to put the elements to get enough space to place the tokens on it while keeping it understandable… Thankfully, the art director was there to help me and we worked together. I’m quite happy with the result when I remember the beginning of it with just a prototype full of dots, lines and explanation of all parts of it.
You have been an integral part of the wildly successful Pandemic series. What do you think was the big plus in you getting hired for the job? Was there a specific style they were looking for?
When I started to work for F2Z, I was the second illustrator and what they wanted was someone capable of working in different styles. I like to learn so exploring different way to paint is a pleasure for me. I think it was something that helped me to get the job at first (as long as the artist had the capacity to finish in time and work with the art director nicely). I had the chance to be a part of the team who made Pandemic. Chris Quilliams, the illustrator behind it, was there to help me when I started to draw on the series. He is a fantastic artist, it’s a pleasure to draw with him and he has a lot of knowledge to share! Because I had the time to observe and get to understand how to paint for a Pandemic with Chris, it was easier for me to work on this product when Asmodee bought F2Z. Right now, Chris works for Plan B studio, and he still does amazing art like on Azul or Coimbra.
What are some things illustrators have to bear in mind when working on games that are heavily grounded in reality such as Pandemic?
Pandemic style is based on reality and the covers have a signature composition that became established through the years. It’s quite difficult to put new ideas in a brand that already has a strong identity. Almost every time, we have characters on the top in a costume representative of the time and location of the game, and below we can see a scene in relation with the main historical fact we are dealing with in the game. But even if there is a strong identity, I always find ways to have fun doing it! I love looking for accurate costumes, detailing a lot, learning about different cultures and trying to illustrate them the best I can.
To work on a Pandemic game, like a lot of games I think, you have to juggle with the deadlines, the historical research and the time to actually do the illustrations. For Fall of Rome, the time period was well-defined and I did the most research I could do about the costumes, locations, or history. I just have to be careful to not take too much time on this part (I love learning and I can spend a lot of time looking for details I could add to the illustration).
Sometimes I have to "cheat" a little bit with reality. For example, the Roman guy on the cover is supposed to live in the end of the Roman Empire. This kind of helmet was not used anymore. The historically accurate helmet looks more like the ones we find on the head of the knight in the Middle Age. But I had to use one that is most recognized as Roman, sacrificing a little bit of historical accuracy. It's just that when you see the cover, you have to immediately understand what it is talking about. I also take a lot of pictures of myself or my girlfriend with everything I can find as a costume. It’s useful to get the light or little details that make the final illustration look more real. With this style, you need to be very careful about the anatomy, perspective and all the fundamentals of drawing.
When you work on a game like this, you have to keep in mind all the elements that make the series recognizable, and what you are authorized to do on it. So you know what kind of composition you can do without taking too much risk. I always try to do 1 or 2 very basic, 1 or 2 completely different but very fun to do, and 1 or 2 where I mix to get a chance to put some fun and new elements in it :)
I love how you share the behind the scenes process of the cover arts on your artstation account. Taking the cover art for Pandemic: Rising Tide as an example, was there a brief you were trying to address? And could you share with us some of the thought process and decision-making that went into each step starting from concept sketches to final cover?
When I start to work on a new Pandemic game, I usually have access to the prototype, designer's notes about the story, location and all details already available. At this point, I must keep in mind the precedent version of the series to stay in line. I always try to add some new composition but almost every time the classic composition is chosen.
I start by reading and analyzing all the components and how the game is played. Sometimes, even when I'm just working on the cover, knowing how to play helps me immerse into the project. In Rising Tide, I had to learn the history of the Netherlands, how they took lands from the sea with the help of the famous windmills… I love learning this way, it’s much more enjoyable for me than when I was at school. Once I've filled my mind with enough knowledge and pictures, I put them aside to start working on the thumbnail compositions. I try to generate a lot of ideas, most of the time I’m the only one who can read them. It’s not pretty drawings at all, it’s just for me. When I have enough or I have no more ideas, I select the 3 or 6 I like most and I work on them to make it readable. Then, I send it to the art director who is going to look if one is usable or he can take some parts he likes in different sketches to make a new one. If he hesitates between the two, I will have to work on them both until either he is more satisfied with one design or other directors above him helps choose the better one. When the final composition is chosen, I can do some color sketches for them to choose the ambiance of the cover. After that, I have all I need to do the final render of the cover.
Which Pandemic game did you enjoy illustrating the most and how come?
Rising Tide was the one I enjoyed the most until now because it’s the last one I did with my Quebeckers colleagues. I took them as models for the character cards and it was fun to make them pose to take pictures. The cover was fun because it’s a little bit different, it’s more active with the underwater view of the fish swimming away but right into the viewer's face. I enjoyed looking for a costume for my girlfriend and painting her for the cover. I just had to change her hair color because the art director wanted a blond girl to represent the Netherlands.
What is it like to be the illustrator behind one of the most widely recognized games? Is it all fun and games or are there downsides as well?
It is nice to think that a lot of people are going to play on my illustrations! It’s hard for me to really see the impact of it because I never had the chance to meet anyone who actually played on one of "my games". But people on forums look like they enjoyed the Pandemic series, so at the end that's what matters. It’s not all fun because the style is very defined, but I always find ways to have fun doing it. Just the fact of learning and drawing new period of time or country that I never visited is a source of joy. Seeing my illustration going all over the world is very nice to see because I’m just a little guy in a little town in the middle of France. I hope people enjoy the art as well as playing the game because I always do my best to give them the best I can every time.
What kind of advice would you give to amateur illustrators out there who would love to be in your shoes?
Take a chance, you never know! :) Today it’s easy to contact studios or people on the social media all over the world. If you really want to work for a specific studio, you have to take care of your portfolio and make it in accordance with the style they are using on their games. For example, I had no idea what to do after my graduation, so I just took a chance by contacting every studio I could and by chance, one of them needed me at that specific time. It was almost by chance but it got me into this industry, and it required taking a step to provoke that chance. Believe in yourself, be nice, make great art and most importantly, take action!
What are some games you've played lately that has great art and gameplay?
I’m quite new to the game industry but I’m a big fan of Abyss. We played it a lot with my girlfriend and the art by Xavier Colette is beyond amazing ! I also love Mysterium, the visuals are also fantastic and the gameplay is very fun. I was attracted by the art at first but I love discovering new games!
Lastly, what are some game genres/categories or mediums you'd like to explore in the future?
I would love working on fantasy or science fiction games with a realistic style. I’m a big fan of illustrations like the ones on Rising Sun or Sçythe. These are some of the top illustration styles for me in board games. It's also the kind of style I would like to explore in the future.
Thank you Atha for sharing your stories and showing us the "behind the scenes" tour of Pandemic! It was a real treat :)
Thank you also to those who read and please comment below with any questions for Atha, any of your thoughts about the games mentioned, suggestions for future artist to interview, or anything! You can also read my past interviews or keep up with my weekly interview post by following my account on this site or by following us on instagram @boardgameatlas.
Below are some links if you'd like to see more of Atha's amazing art:
Main Website: https://kanaani-atha.com/
This is typically where I insert a short description of my interviewee. This time though, I'm making an exception and copy pasting Jonathan's own description of himself on his website: "Jonathan Ying is a savage creature that appears to have the body of a giant Bear and the head of an Owl. It has a razor sharp beak and dagger-like claws and is extremely strong and tough. Also it appears to make a habit of designing games, writing books and scribbling pictures of cowboys and superheroes."
I think this already tells a lot about Jonathan. But read on ahead if you want to discover more about this fascinating creature :)
Hey Jonathan, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Happy to be here! My name is Jonathan Ying, I’m a game designer, children’s book author and illustrator. I grew up in California but my education and work have taken me to New York, Minnesota and a few other places. Overall, as one might expect, I’m a huge nerd. I read a lot of comics and watch a lot of cartoons.
You have a colorful resume that stretches across writing books, working for DreamWorks Feature Animation, and designing some of the most beloved board games in the industry. Could you share the story behind how you ended up pursuing game design as a career?
So game design was a hobby for a long time. I’ve always had a sort of casual interest in the subject via shows like Extra Credits and attending the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. While I grew up playing Yu-Gi-Oh! Magic the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and Go, I never really got into board games as a hobby until I started watching Shut Up and Sit Down back when they were on Penny Arcade TV, and from there it was off to the races.
I had a few ideas and prototypes built but it was mostly a hobby project until I saw a post on the r/boardgames subreddit that pointed out Fantasy Flight Games was hiring designers. At the time it was a bit of a shot in the dark, but things worked out pretty well. My design test was well-received and the interview went well. I wasn’t sure how successful or long-term this career would be at the time, but I count myself supremely lucky to have gotten such an opportunity.
If you had never been let go by DreamWorks, do you think the game designer side of you would've eventually bubbled up to the surface? Or would you have continued to nurture the artist/illustrator in you as a career?
I honestly suspect that I would have stuck to writing and drawing and attempted to pursue a career in animation. It’s possible I might have pivoted to video-games or game design eventually but it’s hard to say with any kind of certainty. There’s a lot of crossover within the various creative industries and I know a lot of folks with pretty eccentric career trajectories, myself included.
In the end, you seem to be a born creator brimming with ideas. So how do you manage to reign it all in when working alongside a team of designers, developers, etc.?
I think that right there is definitely the most important lesson I learned at FFG. Proper collaboration. I think the fact that I worked in an office environment before was something that helped me since they knew that I knew what it was like to operate in an environment with coworkers. Many designers are pretty isolated by the nature of the job and so it can be tricky to learn how to collaborate and let some of your precious ideas go.
I learned pretty quickly that while I certainly had a lot of ideas, it took a fair amount of skill to be able to keep them in line with a project’s scope and needs. A lot of things I wanted to implement were things that would be super cool, but might work better in future projects, or they were simply unfeasible or poorly considered when weighed against the product as a whole.
Working with industry veterans at FFG was really helpful for reining in my own ego and seeing the decision making process up close helped me calibrate my own design sensibilities going forward. It’s hard work to maintain a strong core vision while still making all the compromises you need to.
I feel like the writer, artist, and designer in you all come through in Bargain Quest. How did the idea of the game come about and what was it like to have full creative control over the project?
It was honestly pretty overwhelming. At FFG I only had to worry about a comparatively small slice of the game’s overall direction. We focused on the design, meanwhile the art, production, and marketing of the game was someone else’s problem. Often by the time a game was released we’d already moved on to another project! I reached out to some of the designers who I knew had done similar projects like Tim Fowers and Luke Crane and they were invaluable in showing me the ropes of being an independent designer. The absolute creative control of the project was pretty wild, I was able to make whatever aesthetic or design calls I wanted throughout the whole process. Of course on the other hand, I also was responsible for a lot of the production and logistics behind the scenes which was pretty exhausting.
I admit that part of the impetus for doing Bargain Quest the way that I did was to see if I could do something like this on my own. If it hadn’t worked out I’d have possibly left game design entirely to pursue another career.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. Bargain Quest was kickstarted to a modest success and then really blew up after the Shut Up and Sit Down review.
Ah, yes, I remember watching that video as well and I was instantly sold on the game! (Readers, if you haven't seen it yet, keep scrolling down for the video).
I feel like one of the main "hooks" of Bargain Quest is that you've given a spin onto the hero genre and placed spotlight onto the "NPC's," where it feels like the writer side of you is coming out to tell a story about the life of the shopkeepers. What are the core mechanics of the game and examples of "flavor" that enhances the players' immersion into the mind of the shopkeeper?
We did a few subtle things to make sure that players got into the correct mood during the gameplay. Having each shop be aesthetically unique helped give players a sense of ownership over their little shop. “This one is mine, and it’s not like the other shops.” making sure that we didn’t give any of the heroes names, only referring to them as “Fighter” or “Paladin” etc. was important to depersonalize the adventurers. As far as the shop is concerned they are simply customers.
One of the bigger odd flavor choices was the currency. The smallest unit in the game is actually a 5, there’s no smaller denomination. That’s a bit odd since it would make math somewhat simpler if we used smaller numbers, but conceptually the idea of selling a suit of armor for a measly 4 coins or a longsword for 2 just felt wrong. The larger denominations made it feel significantly more like you were amassing some significant wealth.
From interviewing your sister Victoria, it seemed like you also ended up illustrating some parts of the game. What was it like to return to your "artist side" during that time?
It was quite enjoyable! I had to do some work trying to match my sister’s style for the game and I met with some mixed success. You can see below an example of some items illustrated by her vs the ones that I did. Folks who know our work can spot the differences in style but we did our best to try and keep the shapes and elements consistent.
Bargain Quest's campaign for the 2nd printing and expansion did remarkably better in comparison to the 1st campaign. What do you think were the biggest differences that attributed to this?
Far and away it was the positive review by Shut Up & Sit Down. We got a lot of positive press in the lead up, showing the game at SXSW and PAX South, earning some accolades and special recognition as an up and coming title.
Were there any marketing (or any other) strategies learned from your experience at FFG that you utilized for Bargain Quest? By the way, I already love the art by Victoria but the guest art on the Chaotic Goods pack is a brilliant touch!
I probably should have paid better attention to the marketing department while I was at FFG as that was one area where I sort of had to figure things out on my own. I got to speak with a lot of industry veterans like Tim Fowers and Patrick Leder about putting together the marketing and getting word out about Bargain Quest. Your resources are really different when working independently as I didn’t have a relationship with a lot of Games Media outlets or Reviewers the way that FFG did. We mostly operated through word of mouth, going to conventions and showing off the game. The Chaotic Goods Pack was mostly a result of Vicky having a lot of friends who were also popular artists and board game fans who were willing to do us a favor. It was pretty awesome and I think added a lot of character to the game.
Going back to your work at FFG, you're known for designing fantastic games around IP's with a large fanbase. What are some unique challenges behind working on such games? Which one was the most challenging in terms of having the most restrictions placed by the license owner?
I’ve done a few talks about this subject and honestly I could probably burn the rest of the interview discussing licensing stuff. Designing for a franchise with an existing fanbase is always a bit tricky as you want to make sure that the game can be enjoyed by fans without being too esoteric and difficult for other players to understand. Generally I find that it’s often best to focus in on making sure the game FEELS right and keeping fan-specific knowledge as easter eggs that a dedicated fan will catch and feel good about.
I find it really useful to have this preexisting setting to work with because it provides a solid framework and direction for the game. “Does this FEEL like Power Rangers? Does this FEEL like Doom?” these questions allow me to move past a lot of indecision because I can focus in on the theme as an overall target. I’ve worked with a lot of different licensors over the years and they all have different approaches. Some companies like Lucasfilm or HBO have actor contracts and other media to consider which can affect what choices are available to us and what art pieces we can use.
As a designer, how do you "get into character" when working on such games? As in, do you hit the books or watch the movies to get as familiar with the topic as much as possible?
Oh yeah, it’s really important that I immerse myself in the media as much as possible. I try very hard to make sure that whatever licensed projects I work on are things I am personally a fan of. Passion is hard to fake, and it helps a lot to be genuinely enthusiastic about doing the research.
It seems like Star Wars: Imperial Assault was your first project after joining FFG. How did it feel to be a part of the design team behind one of the most popular franchises around?
It was incredibly daunting and also pretty surreal. I got to design the mechanics for the STORMTROOPER of all things. I think the craziest moment was when I overheard some players discussing characters and Gideon Argus, a character I both designed and named, was mentioned in the same sentence as Han Solo. It was crazy, but I will forever be grateful to have had the chance to make my own small contribution to this franchise that has brought me so much joy growing up.
What did you enjoy the most/the least while working on Star Wars: Imperial Assault?
My favorite part of Imperial Assault personally was getting the chance to design the various Hero characters. Giving them each a unique mechanical identity and theme is something that I find really personally engaging and satisfying. It’s sort of an indulgent exercise, like coming up with the backstory for a favorite D&D character.
There wasn’t much about working on Imperial Assault that I didn’t enjoy, but I will say it was very difficult to pass the reins of the game on to the Development Team. After the base game was released I slowly transitioned over to other projects and developers like Paul and Todd took over creating expansion content for Imperial Assault. It was hard for me to let go and give them room to work and I’d often wander by their desks and check in to see how it was going.
I read that you are a big Power Rangers fan! So what was it like when you were given the opportunity to work on Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid with Renegade Game Studios?
When Scott Gaeta mentioned that Renegade had gotten the license and were looking into creating a Power Rangers game I can honestly say my heart skipped a beat. I remember my first thought was just “Don’t screw this up. Don’t screw this up.” as I stated in no uncertain terms that I was a huge Power Rangers fan and that I would love to be the one to design the game. Thankfully I was actually the top of Scott’s list of potential designers so I didn’t have to fight anyone else for the job.
What were some noticeable differences between working on this game vs. all other games from the past that also featured an IP? Did being a true fan of the work (rather than just having a good knowledge of the source material) affect your design process/quality of the blending of theme and mechanic?
It was honestly pretty similar to working on Star Wars for me, since they occupy similar levels of personal fandom for me. However being in total control of the game, I felt tremendous pressure to get it right and to create the sort of Power Rangers game I always wanted as a kid. My knowledge of the franchise was a tremendous boon in helping me figure out exactly how to make the characters feel appropriate to their role in the show while matching them to more traditional mechanical roles. (Like Leader, Tank, Damage Dealer etc.)
There were some struggles of course, certain characters who are either canonically particularly powerful (Like the Green and White Rangers) or characters who I was personally fond of (Like Adam Park) were difficult to keep balanced. Expressing what made them powerful while not making them overpowered was tricky, and I had to work hard to rein in my own biases as well.
What is your favorite style of combat in the game and does it coincide with your favorite Ranger?
The short answer is “Yes”. I really like functioning as a high-damage sweeper and playing into big risk vs reward mechanics. Both of which I am happy to say were well suited to Zack Taylor, my favorite among the original Mighty Morphin’ team. Adam Park as Zeo Ranger IV was another character who I designed with a specific mechanical gimmick in mind that was inspired by digital Fighting Games like Marvel vs Capcom and Street Fighter, which I’m a huge fan of.
I thought Power Rangers could have been a gamble in having a large target audience, but in the end, the Kickstarter campaign was a massive success (~$705K pledged with close to 3800 backers). Did you expect the campaign to do as well as it did? What do you think was the key to its success?
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. As big a Power Rangers fan as I was, I wasn’t sure if this sort of game would resonate with that community. In particular the Power Rangers have seen so many iterations over the years, the fanbase is remarkably varied in both age and in favorite seasons. I think it wasn’t until we got to show it off at Power Morphicon (a Power Rangers convention held in Anaheim) that I got to see PR fans play the game and be excited about it in person!
I think the high production value and respect for the source material and audience were all huge factors in its success. The art by Dan Mora is pitch perfect for making the Rangers look cool while still retaining a colorful and lighthearted style.
What do you think are some unexpected IP's that are filled with untapped potential for a board game adaptation?
Hrm, that’s tricky. I for one would love to do a game based on Disney’s Gargoyles cartoon from the 90s.
With so many hopeful board game designers out there, what would be your #1 advice for those who'd love to be in your shoes?
Playtest your rulebooks. I’ve seen so many amazing prototypes with strong concepts and interesting core systems that were let down by a difficult to read or wholly incomprehensible rulebook. It’s definitely the thing I see novice designers trip up on most often.
Now that you have years of experience under your belt, what do you think is your own design philosophy?
Oof, that’s a tough one. My design philosophy has evolved a lot over the years and to be honest I feel like I’m still learning a lot every day. One thing I try to keep in mind whenever I’m designing is to make sure that the game has a consistent and clear vision. Early on in a game’s design there’s so many cool ideas that it’s hard to pick and choose. There’s a lot of interesting mechanics or concepts that end up on the cutting room floor because they distracted from where I wanted the player focusing during the game. I used to be really anxious and precious about cutting these ideas but I’ve gotten a lot better about it lately. I recognize that I’m not cutting these mechanics, but shelving them. If they’re really that good, then they can show up in expansions down the line or even expand out into their own entire games!
I try not to judge my games too much based on their financial success. (They can’t all have “Star Wars” in the title, after all.) But it is deeply emotionally validating to see positive posts and reactions online of players enjoying my games. There’s so many amazing Imperial Assault and Bargain Quest stories, it makes me giddy just thinking about them!
I don’t tend to think in terms of specific milestones but these days I’d love to get a chance to work with a superhero license like Marvel or DC.
Power Rangers is doing well enough that we’re continuing to support the game line for a while yet, which is pretty exciting. Beyond that I’ve got some upcoming ideas for Bargain Quest and other stuff that I’m excited to share but need to keep quiet for now!
Questions from Our Users
/u/BenjaminK: What is your favorite game? (Or one of your favorites.)
Android: Netrunner will always be near and dear to my heart. It’s such a fascinating piece of design and it was one of the first games I was taught by my coworkers at FFG!
/u/sdirrane: I'm so fascinated by Imperial Assault's ability to make maps with all the pieces. It feels like it'd be such a puzzle. How much time does it take?
It’s been a while since I’ve made one but it can take a bit of time. There was always a bit of a running joke in early development where you can tell who made which map by their particular habits. Justin Kempainen liked to make big maps that looped in on each other with minimal use of the little end-caps. Corey would do maps with lots of weird branches and pathways, and I had a weird tendency to make linear maps that were kind of gun-shaped.
Assembling maps was always kind of a fun exercise and you wanted to try to make sure that you conveyed the right elements of the mission with each construction.
/u/sdirrane: How many playtests do campaign missions go through to ensure the map is right with the theme?
Imperial Assault maps would generally go through at least a dozen playtests over time though often the early tests don’t resemble the final form very closely at all. We try to make sure to run each mission through its paces with a few different heroes and, if they’re side missions, at both early and late game gear/experience levels. It’s a pretty long process and honestly we never have as much time for testing as we’d like, but we do our best.
/u/BenjaminK: Games like Imperial Assault and Bargain Quest seem vastly different from each other. With that in mind, is there a certain type of game you prefer to work on? What is it?
The one thing that they definitely have in common is a strong emphasis on theme. I definitely feel much more comfortable designing thematic games rather than more abstract experiences. I am a huge fan of games like Arboretum or Splendor and it blows my mind how those designers can create such engaging games with just a bunch of colors and numbers!
Thanks again Jonathan for making your time for us!
Readers, here are links for you to stay up to date with Jonathan:
You can find more of my interviews here.
Like many other Kickstarter hopefuls, Artem took his passion for board games beyond hobby and into the creative scene beginning with "Cauldron". After its successful delivery, Artem went on to create "Unbroken," a highly anticipated solo game of survival that went on to become one of the most controversial titles in the board game world alongside Golden Bell Studios.
Hey Artem, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Glad to, Phil. It was awfully kind to approach me to do this and I’m excited to contribute to the great resource you have going.
I am a big fan of games of all kinds – have always found games to be a wonderful medium to tell stories, engage imagination and make your brain work in a fun and interesting environment. Having always enjoyed tinkering with game systems and creating things – a few years ago I tried my hand at designing board games and loved the experience of making games come to life for others to enjoy.
I live in Toronto, Canada with my awesomely patient and supporting wife and our two sons. We like to spend time out in nature, especially if there’s a beautiful Canadian lake to swim in. No matter how much I try to nudge my love of Pixar films onto the kids they still prefer the Illumination movies. Among other things we love playing games as a family (well, the 1.5 year old mostly tries to eat the pieces, does that count?).
My other hobbies include running, aquariums and songwriting, though I dearly I wish I had more time and energy for all three.
Hmm... well that's too bad, but hang in there! I'm sure they'll turn to Pixar eventually :)
So, what was the spark that led to your decision to design board games? How did your family react to your decision at the time?
I encountered the wonderful world of modern board games in 2011-12 (with titles like Catan and Munchkin) and my appreciation of the amazing possibilities presented by these new games kept growing. I have always enjoyed creating things and thought I had a pretty good feeling for what makes games click, further supported by a background in statistics and ability to map out the mathy part of game mechanics. So I decided to give it a shot.
In addition to just designing a game I needed a lot of support and was very grateful to receive it from friends and family. I am fortunate to be surrounded and supported by wonderful talented individuals who are generous with their time, so I had a ton of support in terms of illustration, graphic design, production and marketing. As a nobody starting out in an emerging hobby it’s super helpful to not need to outsource!
I’m very grateful for the tons of work those people put into our first game. It would never be possible without their passion and commitment.
Your first Kickstarter, Cauldron, was successfully funded back in 2015. Could you share what the game is about?
Cauldron is a game about competing potion brewers duking it out for the supremacy in the field of alchemy. It pits potion masters from different folklore traditions (like the Slavic Baba Yaga vs. a more traditional pseudoscience-focused Alchemist) as they collect icky ingredients, steal from each other and lob spells to hinder others and further their own interests.
It is basically resource management based on sequential collection of resources from a joint pool, with a lot of take-that thrown in. Lords of Waterdeep meets Munchkin, the way I found it helpful to describe for the campaign. It is also a game for people who are very comfortable with confrontation – it offers lots and lots of opportunities to interact with others, to the point where some people found it to be a bit too mean. On one hand I agree with the assessment. On another I kind of wear it as a token of distinction for the game as something that sets it aside :).
How actively were you and your family keeping track of the campaign funding? How did it feel when it finally hit the 100% mark?
Oh, you know, an active Kickstarter is a full-time mental activity. It took a while to fund (a couple of weeks) and it was a gradual process, so it felt really deserved at the time. I remember feeling a great deal of relief when we finally surpassed the funding goal – it made demoing the game so much easier for me, knowing that the base goal is met – before there was a lot of pressure on every opportunity to get a backer.
The core group of family and friends that I described above as helping with the process was very involved all the way through, but there wasn’t really a full feeling of celebration at that time – we knew that it was just a start of lots of hard work in the journey to get the game made and delivered. The celebration only kicked in once we could mark the project as complete.
A quick glance at the comment section reflects happy backers satisfied with the game as well as the early shipping. What do you think was the key to the campaign's success?
I think the small size of the campaign made it manageable for me as a first-time creator. Cauldron had about a thousand backers and we did not really encounter any major difficulties with the production process. Shipping ended up being significantly more expensive than I estimated (cue portentous music hinting at things about to get dark in upcoming questions), but because of the project’s size – I could basically cover the overage through personal finances. Many issues are solved if you’re willing to spend a little bit more and that was the case with Cauldron.
Looking back, how was your experience with your first ever Kickstarter?
It’s a good question that’s kind of hard to answer now, given that I’m so far past that point and so engulfed in my second Kickstarter (portentous music intensifies!). I think the biggest benefit was just experiencing the entire journey from concept to creation of art and graphic design to rule writing to getting prototypes out for review to running a campaign to production and finally the fulfillment. The first time going through that you are kind of feeling your way through it blind (even if you do it after reading the wealth of knowledge compiled by Jamey Stegmaier and the late, great James Mathe) with a lot of anxiety between initiating a step and then seeing it come to fruition. Every time I went to a bank to wire thousands of dollars to China, I thought I’d never hear from them again. Just normal first-time jitters I suppose. Knowing the process really gave me the confidence in being able to repeat them in the future. Perhaps too much confidence as we’ll see.
Unbroken was your next project, and it went very differently in comparison to Cauldron's, to say the least. But before we get into that, could you tell us more about the game?
Absolutely. Unbroken is a solo game of survival and revenge that tells a sad story of an adventuring party that descends into the perilous underground only to be ambushed and, for the most part, killed. You, the player, take on the role of the sole survivor of the doomed expedition as you wake up wounded an unarmed, in hostile territory with monsters still after you. Your goal is to find your way, make weapons out of scraps you find and battle the monsters using a mix of your strength and cunning.
It was created as a dedicated solo game with an emphasis on integration of theme and mechanics, based on resource management with emphasis on strategy rather than random outcomes (e.g. dice). It was also made to be a very quick-playing game – most Unbroken games will only take 20-30 minutes. In that I tried to create an experience that was as accessible as possible for people like me who were busy with work and family and likely didn’t have time to enjoy a four-hour stress-filled analysis paralysis over a game of Mage Knight.
Given the game’s success I think it really found its place as a quick solo game but also as an option specifically dedicated to solo gamers – one that didn’t make them feel like an afterthought but shone a spotlight on this side of the hobby.
You mentioned earlier about your background in statistics. How does mathematics come into play when designing a game like Unbroken and how do you go about masking it behind the theme? Are probabilities something that you actively think about when playing games with others?
Well, in Unbroken’s case it’s actually not probability that matters most but the mathematics of changing values of resources based on circumstances. The challenge was to have a strong baseline model that attached a value to each resource and then design a series of special cases where those values would change, depending on circumstances (e.g. your awesome high-damage axe isn’t much use if your target can only take a certain number of wounds per round).
Connecting those special challenges to game’s theme was a really fun challenge. For example, normally there is no need for the player to collect wood or metal for the final stage of the game (presumably after their weapon have already been upgraded). But I wanted to introduce the potential of that not being the case, so two of the game’s final bosses do require metal and wood for the battle. Specifically, Metal can help you avoid the Basilisk’s petrifying gaze (as you look into the reflection) and you need a piece of Wood to stake the Vampire through the heart. This translation of theme into mechanics was probably one of my favourite parts of designing Unbroken.
This approach also helps build the internal logic of the game and increases the level of immersion, so that players feel like what they’re doing is more than just sliding cubes along trackers.
Unbroken was a highly anticipated game even before the campaign started. How did you go about spreading the word on the game and growing your fanbase?
Oh, you know what, I totally forgot to mention that in the “lessons learned” question before. One thing you learn is the unofficial structure of the board gaming community – the Facebook groups, the Twitter personalities, the right forums on BGG, the way to not get kicked off r/boardgames on Reddit. That awareness really helps in knowing when and how to talk about your game.
The first rule of thumb that I always followed was to make it about more than just your campaign. I tried hard to first and foremost be an active and selfless participant in any community I was going to promote to so that when I would be telling people about my game – I would be a known quantity. I particularly want to highlight the Solo Board Gamers group on Facebook as being a fantastic community with so many dedicated and passionate people generous with their time and advice. Shawn and Syndey Bristol do a bang-up job maintaining it, along with the rest of the admins.
I also made it a priority to make the game as accessible as possible through sharing of evolving Print and Plays throughout the game’s development. It was very special to get the game to people who have been with the project ever since it was a bunch of cards hastily assembled using my awesome PowerPoint graphic design skills. I put the game up for contests like the Solo PnP Contest (ran annually by the awesome Chris Hansen on BGG). I tried my best to showcase both the gameplay and art assets of the game as much as possible and I think over time it really gathered a lot of interest.
(speaking of which – the game really benefited from the exceptional work of the illustrator, Nikolai Ostertag who brought the dark fantasy of Unbroken with the terrifying monsters, treacherous catacombs and beat-up characters to life so vividly).
As someone who doesn't play solo games, it's amazing to see the kind of numbers reached by Unbroken's campaign (16,531 backers pledging nearly $600k). What do you think was the key to successfully market a solo game like Unbroken?
I think the primary reason for this success was that it was a dedicated solo game created to be a solo game first and foremost, celebrating solo gamers rather than treating them as also-rans. Really allowed the community to get behind it (which made the difficulties it ran into all the more disheartening later on).
Another solid reason is that it was made to look good. Between Nikolai’s wonderful illustrations and the superb job on the austere, stark graphic design by Alina Marchewka – I think Unbroken benefitted from a very eye-catching KS page, which is really a requirement for success nowadays.
Finally – it was significantly cheaper than it should have been, especially in terms of shipping costs. In my attempts to attract backers I have made some very optimistic calculations in terms of shipping costs and allowed the margins of error to be way too thin. What resulted was a very attractive product at a very low price – wonderful for getting backers on board, disastrous for fulfilling the project.
How much of this success had you anticipated? What was the most difficult part in handling a project of this scale?
I expected Unbroken to succeed, even to do very well. Realistically my very optimistic estimate was for it to make upwards of $80k. The fact that it made seven and a half times that left my head spinning and full of anxiety regarding the ability to fulfill such a huge project.
Despite the campaign's massive success, Unbroken was soon wrapped up in controversy involving all parties―the publisher (Golden Bell Studios), the customers, and you. Could you shed some light on how and when and for what reason Golden Bell Studios came on board?
Ah, hello and welcome to all our readers who skipped straight to the juicy part! Yes, I am perfectly aware that right now majority of discussions around Unbroken are not focused around the game itself and have much more to do with the difficulties that the campaign encountered with fulfillment outside of North America. So, let’s take care of that.
Towards the end of the Kickstarter campaign I made a decision to relinquish the publisher role for Unbroken and transfer it over to Golden Bell Studios – a publisher/distributor that I worked with previously on Cauldron (post-Kickstarter). Because of this change my role with the project now is mostly that of game designer, though I try to do whatever I can to provide information and answer backers’ questions to the best of my ability.
Golden Bell taking over the campaign meant that certain changes had to be applied to the process. Specifically – the preparation of the materials to be print-ready took a few additional months as new art assets were added by GBS artists, mostly Rachel Korsen. Every card received flavor text and the rulebook got expanded with many additional examples and explanations. There were also additions of QuickStart reference guides to help learn the game. This process took time and an immense amount of work and back and forth, which I found frustrating at the time, especially since this added to the project completion timeline.
However, with this being done already – many backers point out these specific additions as something they appreciate about the finished product, so I am glad that ultimately the extra effort was applied.
There were some questionable practices made by the publisher including the use of media mail and in their unprofessional replies to backlash from the backers on Kickstarter's comment section. First, were you aware of such practices prior to it becoming public knowledge? What was going through your head as these events unfolded?
And also... What is your relationship with Golden Bell Studios like at the moment and will there be any changes moving forward? In what ways have you been mitigating this situation for the customers? What keeps you from putting a stop to all of this and moving forward?
(Editor's note: Artem provided a single response that addresses all of my questions on Golden Bell Studios so I put all of the questions together here instead of awkwardly inserting them between his responses)
As we continued working on the campaign it became obvious that some of the arrangements we had in place would need to be changed, particularly those that had to do with importing games into Europe. At the same time getting close to the fulfillment and getting some specific quotes – the costs to distribute the games to backers seemed to significantly exceed what was originally planned for. We described the situation to backers in a project update and GBS made a decision to ask for optional additional funds to cover some of this differences.
The goal was to make sure financial constraints would not keep them from fulfilling the rest of the campaign, while keeping the nature of extra costs optional. As that was happening, GBS were searching for arrangements to deliver the games to all the regions, with the Australian/Asian portion being in place (although ultimately more expensive than expected) and UK (as of this writing) being in final stages of agreement negotiation. The European portion is where GBS faced the biggest challenge because of the large volume of games to ship and limited budget. The agreement for that region is not in place mostly because the options explored were too expensive given the limited budget the project had remaining.
Considering these delays unacceptable, GBS made a decision to pause and collect additional funding to enable the fulfillment. The details of that collection are being worked out and will be provided in an upcoming update by GBS and will include ways that all parties can pitch in to push things along. On their end, GBS is pursuing retail sales of the game in the regions that were already fulfilled (US/Canada) to fund the shipping. On my end – I intend to run a personal fundraising campaign and forward all money raised to further support the distribution to backers. Backers will also have the opportunity to contribute extra funds to speed up the shipment of games. Details of this plan are to be presented by GBS in late August.
All of this is far from ideal. The project is late, and it will take some more time still before all of it is delivered. It has people feeling angry and frustrated and to some extent I understand these feelings. I take responsibility for some of these issues too. Regardless of this – Unbroken is not an abandoned project. It is facing challenges; the publisher is working through the challenges. As long as that’s the case I will do whatever I can to help them get games to backers. I do apologize to all backers who are yet to receive their game and especially those who feel slighted by the project. I’m sorry the experience has been so negative.
Finally, a word on style of communications. Throughout the process there were many instances of tempers flaring and the kinds of exchanges that were taking place around the project were not the type I’d ever want to see. GBS has their own style that I continue to disagree with. They stand by it and invite backers to decide whether they want to be involved on future projects with them. I can only echo that invitation. My goal continues to be to treat everyone with respect and expecting the same in return.
Phew. There we go. I am certain that will leave some folks dissatisfied, but that’s what I can share in my current capacity.
If you could expand just a little bit more... In your relationship with Golden Bell Studios, how much of a voice/power do you have in influencing their work process? Would you want to work with Golden Bell Studios again in the future?
I speak to GBS frequently, probably almost every day and they do ask for my opinion on how to proceed with certain things. I provide my advice as candidly as I can, and we do not always agree, mostly because our goals in our respective roles do not line up 100%.
Ultimately all final decisions regarding the game’s production and delivery logistics, as well as finances, come down to GBS. It is for that reason that I am not always able to answer questions backer continue to address my way (e.g. production of extra copies for retail, timing of realization of shipping undercharge). Which, to be fair, I think is the expected relationship between the designer and publisher. I do feel that I have good control over the mechanics of the game where there was not a single instance when something was changed over my objections.
As for the future – I am signed on to do an expansion for Unbroken, so if that ends up coming together – that’s at least one more piece that I will be designing working with GBS. As for any collaborations past that – I am not making any plans now (as I mention, I’m not really in a state to think new projects right now). I will evaluate future options once Unbroken is delivered.
Have you begun any work on the expansion? How are you managing to work through the design while this controversy is going on?
I am not. The negativity associated with the controversy and the managing of many disillusioned messages I get daily do not leave much mind space for design. I do have a fair bit of design notes from before (including a co-op mode) that will need to be revisited, but at this time the design is on a bit of a hold. Given the uncertain financial future of Unbroken I am not even confident that the expansion will ever see the light of day as a physical product. The content will be there either way and we’ll find a way to release it to engaged Unbroken players one way or another.
To what extent has all this drama impacted you and your family? In what ways have you been getting support from your family and fans throughout all of this?
It impacted me to a significant extent and unfortunately almost entirely negatively. I’m not going to go into details of personal stories here, but needless to say – managing of online controversies require time and attention and that’s time and attention that I was not dedicating to my wife, children, parents and friends.
All negativity that gets imprinted on me through the online interactions I carry with me and try my best to not let it come through, but it’s difficult and sometimes it does get out and it feels terrible.
My wife has been an absolute rock of support throughout all this, as understanding and patient as a human being could possibly be, and extended family really stepped in to help too, which made me really appreciate all the amazing people I have in my life.
Moreover, I’ve been extremely grateful to receive supportive message from many folks online through social media, BGG and other channel. Some of it comes from my close online friends that I interact with regularly (and whose support continues to humble me). Some of it comes from complete strangers and these random kind messages are a huge help in getting through some of the tougher periods.
It is a good reminder that we as people have an active role to play in the kind of discourse we want to see both online and in the real world. Kindness breeds kindness.
What do you think is the next step for you to get past this hurdle and turn it all around?
Next step? Understanding that this is not my project to turn around anymore and being comfortable with it. I will continue to do what I can to support GBS in the work they do, but without direct control over the progress and decisions – continuing to obsess over it will only damage my mental health and that’s not a direction I’m interested in exploring.
The only thing that will see the project get some much-needed closure and positivity is the ability to get games to backers across the world. It will take time, but I am confident that once backers will start seeing the games on the move and make it into the hands of gamers in Europe, Asia and other regions – their trust and comfort level will grow. I understand that this will not erase all the negative experiences people had with the campaign, but at this point closure is the best goal to work towards for all involved.
As for me – I intend to distance myself from the details of the delivery process and dedicate the time and attention that frees up to my family, who have been deprived of it over the past year.
There have been people sharing their positive experience with the game in an effort to give Unbroken a fair assessment. Could we hope to see you stick around in this industry to create more fantastic games like Unbroken?
It has been very rewarding for me to see that in cases where the game does get to people – majority seem to be really enjoying Unbroken. Ultimately – seeing my work bring people joy and engage them in a fun and meaningful way was always my number one goal.
Having said that – this experience in its entirety has taken a heavy toll on me and I will definitely be taking a long break from designing more games. There are still ideas I want to pursue as a designer, but at this point it’s far from a priority for me.
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?
I think given where the Unbroken campaign is now the only mark of success that matters is every backer having their game(s) in their hand.
Oh, and I suppose having Unbroken ranking come up to a 7 on BGG would also be pretty sweet. Lots of people have been using the “1” ranking as a way to express their frustration and seeing that number (currently at an awesome 5.3!) come up would be a good metric of public opinion of Unbroken and everything associated with it.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some of this stuff, Phil, it’s been an interesting experience reflecting on some of these questions. You feature some amazing board game personalities on your website – I feel humbled to be in such fine company. I hope the future holds bright and exciting things for the Atlas!
Thank you Artem for making your time and continuing to do what you can for the rest of the backers! What a headache it must be... but I'm glad you have great people around you and hope that you'll bounce back fast with another great title in the future.
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:
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:
- Board Game Meets Wildlife - How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series
- How Former Disney Artist Victoria Ying Illustrated a Fantasy World For All (Bargain Quest)
- Why Phil Walker-Harding Created a Game About Sushi (A Look at Sushi Go!, Imhotep, + More)
- Legacy of Martin Wallace and How Kickstarter Transformed the Board Game Industry
In a market so saturated with new tabletop games released every month, a great cover is a must. Here's a look at Everdell and other fantastic works of Andrew, the man responsible for illustrating one of the most beautiful board game art of 2018.
Hey Andrew, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure! Well, I’m a freelance illustrator and concept artist working, primarily, in the tabletop and video game industries. I graduated from San Jose State University in 2006 with a BFA in Illustration, then moved to North Carolina to work full-time for Ubisoft on their many different brands. In 2013, I left Ubisoft to work as a freelancer and moved to Arizona. I continue to do a lot of concept work and marketing illustration for video games, but, for the past year, my client work has been 90% board games. I have a wonderful wife and 5 great and wild kids and we’re all board gamers. When I’m not working on client projects and spending time with my family, I’m dreaming up worlds, stories, and games of my own.
One of the most frequently asked questions by amateur artists is "how to find my style". How would you answer that question?
I think all artists ask that at some point. The best counsel on the subject I’ve ever received is that your style emerges on its own after hundreds of hours of working on a deadline when you don’t have time to think about your style. It’s not unimportant, but you can’t force style. A more fruitful pursuit is academic knowledge and practice. Drawing skill is something you develop independent of style. Drawing is the foundation of every medium, traditional or digital. If you learn to draw well, you’ll be a better artist and style will come on its own.
This is more of a personal question but... When you have five kids, is there such a thing as work-life balance? :) How do you do it? (I have a 1 year old who overruns my life haha).
Great question! It’s not easy, but I’ve definitely had to develop a very clear work/home boundary. When I first started freelancing full-time, I worked in my closet. It was small and I could hear everything that was going on with the family. If there was a problem, it was hard to not stop and help. Now, I’m fortunate enough to have a separate space in building next to my house. Every day, I leave the house, go to work, and I’m there until the day is done. It’s better for my wife—who likes to have her own space—and it’s better for getting things done. When it’s closing time, I leave work in my office and come home and put my dad hat on. Help with homework and chores. Play games. Help my wife in any way I can. After the kids are in bed and my wife and I are cooling down in front of the TV, I sometimes get in a little more work in. The boundaries are important. On top of that, I’m a very strict scheduler of my time which is important for balancing home and work, but also balancing multiple projects at one time.
Has working on board games impacted the way you relate with your kids?
A little perhaps. We certainly play more board games than ever before. But board games have been a family hobby long before I was involved in the industry.
How exactly did you end up transitioning into the board game industry and what was the first game you had worked on?
After a couple years of working in video games, I started developing freelance opportunities on the side. That started in RPG fantasy illustration and I stayed there for a very long time. Then one of the companies I had worked with for a while, Fantasy Flight Games, contacted me about a board game opportunity. They were rebooting Bruno Faidutti’s Mission: Red Planet and thought my style would fit well. I had a great time with that and I was fortunate enough to be asked to do something similar the following year with Bruno’s Citadels. Those opened the doors to Everdell and Everdell has opened the door to a completely new direction in my career.
What is one of your lesser known works that you'd love to see get more attention? Could you tell us a bit about that game?
Well, I’m actually very proud of Planecrafters, which I both illustrated and designed (with a partner). It’s got great reviews from lots of industry leaders (Ryan Laukat, Bruno Faidutti, David Somerville, etc.), but just didn’t get the circulation it deserved. We funded on KS, fulfilled to everyone, but now we have a surplus of games just sitting around :(
Now let's talk about Everdell—What was the main vision behind the art and how do you think your style/experience helped accomplish that vision?
All of us on the team were fans of the Redwall book series and that was a great common inspiration. I read the series when I was a kid and I loved the whimsical setting and characters combined with somewhat realistic danger and drama. While Everdell is much less dangerous, I thought adding a little bit of that realism in the style would really allow the players to feel enveloped in a world of the game, in addition to fun gameplay.
I really like the whimsical, subtle humour behind your illustrations on Everdell. Were you given a very detailed brief for the illustrations or is this just your inner child on display?
There were briefs, given by art director Dann May, but they were very loose. Dann and the team really gave me the freedom to take the illustrations where I wanted to go.
A little off topic but... Have you ever considered making your own children's book?
Yes... I’m actually working on one right now. I love world building and the story of this particular world has been in the works for a while. When I get the chance, it’s a world I want to see in children’s books, games, and other mediums.
Which scenery/character did you enjoy illustrating the most while working on Everdell?
The Ranger will always be my favorite. He’s subtle, but he’s got a long story :)
What was the most challenging aspect of working on Everdell? How did you deal with it and did it play out any differently when working on the expansion?
Frankly, the biggest challenge for both was time. Creatively, I got to play with both in the most ideal way. Dann was an amazing art director that way. But I was limited on time to accomplish both, Pearlbrook in particular, as I was already busy with other client work when I was tasked with the work.
What was your most memorable moment working on Everdell? In general, what do you find most rewarding about working on board games?
Creating the cover for Everdell was a huge highlight! It's the piece that sums it all up and ties all the other together. I don’t always play highly thematic games, but, as an illustrator, those are my bread and butter. And I believe board games are a new medium perfect for getting lost in the experience, similar to film, books, and video games. When I get to help people have that sort of experience, and Everdell has done that to a smaller degree, it's extremely rewarding.
Do you want to work on more board games in the future? What kind of genre/category would you like to explore?
I hope to be in board games for the rest of my life. I’ve always been a fan and I love the community! The mechanics of the games I work on are less important to me. As long as I can create something that feels epic in scale, I’m excited.
Are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
Yes! I’m developing some more games of my own, as well as some bigger plans that I have to keep the lid on for the moment. But those that want to be in the know first, should sign up for my newsletter at bosleyart.com.
And lastly, what is your dream project?
Anything epic and whimsical!
Thank you Andrew for making your time!
Readers, please feel free to leave comments/questions below for Andrew, any of the games mentioned, or for myself!
If you'd like to see more of Andrew's awesome art, follow him below:
Below are my links to past interviews:
- Victoria Ying, artist of Bargain Quest
- Alexandr Elichev, artist of Gloomhaven
- Atha Kanaani, artist of the Pandemic series
- Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games
- Victor Pérez Corbella, artist of Champions of Midgard
- Sabrina Miramon, artist of Photosynthesis
- Ruwen Liu, artist of Cake Duel
- Kyle Ferrin, artist of Root
- Dan and Connie Kazmaier, designers of Chai
- Martin Wallace, designer of Brass
- Phil Walker-Harding, designer of Sushi Go!
- Sandy Petersen, designer of Cthulhu Wars
Just who is this man who constantly posts about his Commissioner Ralph Trophy on The Boardgame Group on Facebook? Let's find out (pro tip: click on the link on the captions below images to get the full story behind them).
Hey Phillip, thank you for making your time available for this interview! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Thank you for asking me to talk about the wonderful world of board gaming. I’m a New Yorker who has been living in the DC diaspora for the past 16 years with my wife and (now grown) children. I’m a former Wall Street executive who currently works as a federal financial regulator. Before getting into modern board games, I participated in amateur improvisational theater for 7 years. My trophy pictures are a testament to my improv background.
How did you get into the hobby and what are some of your most memorable moments from that time?
Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and wargames in middle school and high school. My earliest tabletop games were Ogre from Steve Jackson games and Feudal from Avalon Hill Games. In college and during my early working career, I was too busy to play games. My first child was born in the early 1990s while my wife was in law school, and whatever time I might have had evaporated. When my kids were a little older, we did play some games, but it was mostly Once Upon a Time, Set, Ticket to Ride and Guillotine. What child doesn’t like to behead French citizens?
I got into modern board games in 2012, after my work responsibilities changed and I was required to travel over 100 nights a year. I could no longer participate in Improv because I couldn’t practice with my troupe nor make weekday performances. In searching for something to do, I stumbled across a website called Kickstarter and found two games that caught my attention: Ogre: Designer’s Edition and Francis Drake. Francis Drake was especially appealing because of the theme and the lack of dice. I was stunned that a game could be made without cards or dice. Then I heard about a website called BoardGameGeek.com and I was hooked.
My most memorable moment was going to my first Board Game Geek Con in Dallas. I was terrified as I didn’t know anyone there. I had no idea what games I would play nor with who I would play. My first con was fantastic. I learned how to play Francis Drake from Peter Hawes, who traveled from Australia to attend. I met fascinating people who introduced me to games like Lewis & Clark and Quantum. I had an amazing time and have yet to miss a BGGCon since then. I now have made many real life friends whom I met either waiting in line at 5am for registration to open or playing games with them.
Since then, what would you say was the most exciting news or a welcome change in the hobby world?
The biggest, best and most welcome change in the board game hobby is the dramatically higher level of inclusion. I see the world as a symphony. Would anyone want to hear a musical piece with just one instrument? I wouldn’t. I want to hear all instruments of a symphony not just the saxophone. Secondly is the massive improvement of the quality of games including components, art, theme and mechanics.
Before we dive deeper into other topics, let's pause for a bit so that we can get to know your gaming preferences:
What are some of your favorite thematic games to date?
While technically an omnigamer, I tend to prefer soulless eurogames with amazing mechanics. My top 3 favorite games with excellent thematic elements: Baseball Highlights 2045, Viticulture, Lisboa, and a newcomer Detective: City of Angels. I’ve always been a sucker for film noir.
What does it take for a game to receive a 10/10 rating from you and what are they?
The game needs to have interesting decisions, fantastic mechanics, theme, if it exists, most be well integrated, and lastly be replayable. My current rated 10 games are Baseball Highlights 2045, Francis Drake, Concordia, Age of Steam, and Viticulture with the Tuscany expansion.
What is one game you cannot stop talking about whether for good or bad and for what reason?
Baseball Highlights 2045. As a two-time consecutive World Champion, my fans ask me about the game quite often.
When I’m not inhabiting my role as socially clueless board game champion, I talk about Concordia. This game has the most elegant of mechanics with the most fascinating decision trees. While the theme is pasted on, the mechanics and sheer replayability of this game makes me think of it frequently.
You seem to have quite a busy schedule due to your profession. How often do you have to travel for work and are there some top of the line local game stores you discovered along the way? And what are your "must-attend" events/cons that you always make time for?
Prior to October 2019, I was traveling roughly 100 nights a year throughout the United States on government business. I was so busy that I rarely had a chance to go to a local game store. The only one that I went to outside of DC, was the Compleat Strategist in New York City. My childhood was spent going to that store at least once a week to browse new RPG material.
The three cons that I always make time for (in order of priority): BGGCon (best playing con), WashingCon (Excellent small local DC con) and Pax Unplugged (good mix of buying games and playing them).
Despite your busy schedule, you became one of the administrators on The Board Game Group on Facebook. What was your reason for joining this cause?
Masochism I think. The Boardgame Group is important to me because of the great people and the interesting content (my trophy pictures not withstanding). As with all things internet, the 18 admins have their hands full dealing with all sorts of issues from deleting bots to booting bullies. We have a philosophy of letting people have their say (good or bad) but we draw the line on bullying, threats and biased speech. I want to be part of fostering a place where all gamers can talk about games fully with other hobbyists.
You're now an iconic figure in the group with your Baseball Highlights: 2045 posts. For those who aren't aware of what I'm talking about, could you share its origin story?
After I won the 2018 Baseball Highlights 2045 tournament at Dice Tower Con in Orlando, Alex Goldsmith (of the Dukes of Dice), Evan Scussel and I decided to run a 32-person competition and call it a World Championship. We bought umpire shirts and, based on a suggestion from Kathleen Mercury, a pre-WW2 trophy. (The trophy actually is from 1938). For reasons I still can’t fathom, I won the tournament with a 16-2 record and a 12-game winning streak.
Afterwards, Alex Goldsmith interviewed me (Episode #204) for the Dukes of Dice Podcast. As the interview proceeded, an improv bit naturally evolved. Alex became more and more annoyed with me as I continued to talk about my win. The next day we took a picture of Kathleen handing me the Trophy in front of a dejected Alex.
At that moment, Tom Vasel walked by and asked what was going on. We told him and he asked if I wanted to picture. I said yes but asked Tom to look like he didn’t want to be next to me and the meme was born.
At what point did it hit you that the level of popularity for your posts is more than just a one-time thing?
I’m not really sure to be honest. It started as a random joke and just grew because I wanted to see how far I could take it. I took a picture with my boss looking disgusted with me and that was the picture that really showed me that people really enjoy this silly soft humor. I go out of my way to use the most gentle self-effacing humor possible. I hope it shines through.
So I have to ask, how do you go about taking those pictures? (For example... how much context do you provide to the person before taking the picture?)
Early on I had to explain the joke and the set up. Now (with the exception of people outside the hobby) I get asked to take pictures with the trophy. Really, the joke is easily explained.
Which of your encounters was the most memorable and how come?
On my way from the Philadelphia Convention center after setting up for Pax Unplugged, a gentleman from across the street yelled “Hey Mr. Baseball Champion!! Can I get a picture with you?” I had never had that happen to me before and it was a bit surreal.
You were featured on the promo banner for Baseball Highlights 2045 at BGG Con 2019. How did it feel to see this in person?
Very strange and very meta. I thank Randall Lloyd of Eagle Gryphon Games for getting the art done. It was truly amazing. I don’t know how to feel other than it was an excellent addition to the running joke.
I suppose it's the nature of this industry, but board game professionals and personalities come from all sorts of unexpected backgrounds. For your case, how does your profession give you a unique knowledge/insight into the board game industry? What do you think are the most common misconceptions related to the economics of the industry?
The biggest misconception I see in the board gaming industry is the actual profit margins versus being much smaller than most people assume. Very few designers can publish games full time due to the lack of large-scale hits. Most publishing companies have thin profit margins and have very few full-time employees. As a niche, non-essential industry that caters to the middle and upper middle class (primarily), the level of revenue given the number of games produced is tight. The industry is primarily made up of hobbyists with no background in business, finance or economics. The only two exceptions I know of are Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games (MBA from Washington University, St. Louis) and Debbie Moynihan of White Wizard Games (Management MIT).
Many very good game companies are poorly run due to a lack of business acumen from its owners and or executives. Mayfair games is a perfect example. These poorly run companies are ripe acquisition targets for companies like Asmodee.
Interesting that you mentioned Jamey Stegmaier. In what ways do you see his business model stand out ahead of other publishers out there?
Mr. Stegmaier understands that our hobby is a luxury and therefore knows he has to create value to be successful. He creates value for his fans by doing three things extremely well: relatable games, high production quality, and customer engagement. While I’ve seen other publishers do one of these three well, I have not seen other boardgame publishers do all three well.
For example, Stonemaier’s initial production estimate for Wingspan was a mistake that created a public relations nightmare for Mr. Stegmaier. In response to many people not being able to get a copy, he took ownership of the issue, apologized for it, and sent out monthly communications on when the next production runs would be available for purchase. He spent a great deal of time talking about the issue on many platforms and didn’t avoid the issue.
Mr. Stegmaier’s online presence is amazing. He responds to questions and concerns promptly. Stonemaier’s policy of component replacement is excellent. The large size of his fan base is due to his social media engagement and the accessibility of his games like Wingspan, Viticulture and Scythe. The popularity of these games are directly due to the confidence of hobbyists in Mr. Stegmaier himself.
What are some trends (by board game designers, publishers, or in terms of technology) that you'd like to see more of in 2020?
Too many games in 2019 had severe quality control errors, even from these companies that had previously produced high quality work. In games that I acquired in 2019, I’ve encountered extremely poor readability in the components, errors in printing, ambiguous (at best) rulebooks, warped boards and etc. I really hope that 2020 ushers in a new era of enhanced quality control. Too many games have post publishing errata that thoughtful proof reading would have cured. Too many publishing companies rushed their product out of China, probably to avoid a possible tariff.
This is a random question, but—would you ever consider running a board game cafe? (I can already imagine the interior design for the place).
Oh heck no. My interests tend to run more macro-economic.
I've interviewed a cafe owner before and it sure seemed like you'd have to manage lots of little details, so I can see where you're coming from.
In that case, could you expand a bit on that last part? I recall you've been on and off with your podcast recordings, but is this something you will be pursuing further in 2020? Or are there some other business ventures you have in mind?
My colleague and I are bringing back our podcast (Generic Boardgame Podcast). However, my big push in the hobby for 2020 is to develop and possibly start the publishing of a boardgame. I’m not doing this to make a lot of money (I know how thin the profit margins are in this hobby) but, like climbing Mt. Everest, to see if I can do it. I can’t go into much detail but one game will be heavy Euro race game with a unique theme and the other would be a more accessible Euro.
As we close, if you could show off your trophy to anyone in the world (and take the obligatory picture) for 2020, who would it be and why?
Bob Uecker. Bob Uecker was a major league catcher for five years and broadcaster for most of his life. He was also very funny and was featured in a series of Miller Light Commercials where he was always happy and “knew” his fans loved him no matter what their expression. The whole trophy joke is an homage to Bob Uecker and the Stanley Cup. I’d love to get a picture with him for this series.
Thanks again Phillip! My favorite has got to be the one with you and Zee Garcia from Dice Tower :)
Readers, if you'd like to see more of Phillip's past posts or keep up to date for future ones, make sure to head over to The Boardgame Group on Facebook.
Plus, you can find more of my interviews here. Thanks for the read!
Hey Alexandr, thank you for making your time! First up, I noticed while stalking through your artstation account that you have quite the Cinderella story! Could you share with us your journey leading up to becoming a freelance artist?
Hello! I am an illustrator artist for video games, board games and books. Most often, I draw illustrations for tabletop games. It is very popular now. Every known universe in the world wants to make its desktop. My video game love originates from console games and a little later it was acquaintance with D&D. I plunged into the world of CRPG and I'm still a fan of them. Although at that time I could not even imagine that I would draw pictures and concepts for real games. I studied at the college of design and thought that I would do house interiors. I even learned to work well in 3D programs, I modeled beautiful buildings. But the crisis struck, there was less work and I started looking for something new. At first I thought to work in the printing industry, but I did not really like it and my first work in the field of games was unsuccessful. I decided to look for work online but everything went very badly until Fantasy Flight Games contacted me. I started drawing art for cards in such cool universes like The Lord of the Rings, Warhammer 40k, Star Wars and others. I began to receive a lot of orders as crowdfunding sites got popular and many people had opportunity to start projects. So I got an order from Isaac for Gloomhaven project.
So when you finally became a freelance artist, did it turn out to be everything you expected? What were some of the toughest challenges you faced? What was the most rewarding?
At the beginning of my freelance career, I was not looking for a job in other countries. Our local customers often did not behave very well, and I had little experience to stand up for myself. I learned to negotiate and conduct work and I got a job at a firm to study. It was fun, so great to discuss the project and the news of games every day. But in the end I wanted to draw something new. This is a big freelance plus, that you yourself choose what to draw. Today I can draw ancient ruins, tomorrow demons or cyberpunk eyes concept art for my own project.
Let's start talking about Gloomhaven. Did you anticipate the game's massive success from the beginning?
The success of Gloomhaven was unexpected for me. It was the first big board game in which I drew the whole characters illustrations. I was very happy when the game began to collect good funding and when Isaac open second reprint was hard to believe, I was very happy about the project.
How do you think your art style, experience, and skills made you a great fit for handling Gloomhaven's art?
I think my style was good fit for the game and I think the players liked the illustrations. Although this is not the main thing in the game, as far as I know, the players have enjoyed the gameplay the most.
How detailed were the briefs for each of the characters? Were you able to exercise a lot of creative freedom or was there a clear direction for the desired look?
Isaac is a real creator, he came up with all the races and how they should look. We discussed every detail, shared the reference, what should be their clothing, culture, architecture. I am very pleased that each race was unique and new, it was a good opportunity to prove myself. This was the first sketch I did for the cover art.
Which character was your favorite and why? Could you use that character as an example to share with us your typical design process from start to finish?
All races in Gloomhaven are very interesting. Although one is very unusual - Aesther. After the cataclysm in their homeland, they became semi-ghost. They half exist in the world, their clothes and they are translucent. On the one hand, they are human-like, but they had to be made unusual. I tried to add all sorts of unusual colors, glitches, black bottomless eyes, as if in them only emptiness.
What do you think makes a good character design that will be loved by many people?
This is a pretty hard question. Do you remember how Miranda Presley a character from The Devil Wears Prada explained to the main character how difficult it is to find the right blue color? I think to create an up-to-date design, you need to follow all modern trends. You need to dive into games with a similar style, explore design, modern fashion, know the history of costumes, watch a lot of movies to know how it all works. We must try to make unusual combinations of colors, fabrics, anatomy, even the state of the surrounding world such as time of day, weather, lighting, so that each illustration is different from the previous one. At the same time, the artist should try to keep everything in the same style and color scale. I was very surprised when I learned that one artist Michiyo Yasuda was responsible for the colors of all the Ghibli films. I review them every year and get inspired by them.
How many alternate designs did you have to come up with for your characters?
As far as I remember, all the sketches were liked by Isaac from the first sketch. Isaac knew exactly what he wanted, it's a great quality for a client to have, and I guess my experience with fantasy style paid off. All the work was very interesting and it was very much enjoyable even though it was hard work. I worked on the principle one illustration per day. Now I am working on a new game and I am doing a lot of sketches and variations of one creature, while the client prescribes the lore and mythology behind the game's world.
Now that Gloomhaven's been released all over the world, is there anything you wish you would've altered in your art before production?
When the game was released, we immediately began to make add-ons and Founders of Gloomhaven game in the same world. I had almost no time to think that I wanted to change. Probably every artist would like to change his art after some time when he grew up as an artist. Probably I would like to spend more time on each illustration and make them even better and more realistic.
How has Gloomhaven's success impacted your career and you as an artist? Has it been all good? or are there downsides as well?
I think the overall success of the game influenced me well. I heard a lot of good reviews, it is always very nice and motivates me to draw. More people signed up on my Instagram. There are more orders for board games from indie authors. But I think this is both a plus and a minus, I would like to be engaged in projects in other styles as well. It's busy but for relaxation I most often play on my PC or PS4. I would really like to work on such games as Dishonored, TES or Deus Ex.
What are your next steps in your career? Are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
I have a lot of good work now. Recently, I made the backgrounds for a project I have been working for a long time and I will finish it soon, I hope it will be interesting and will please the players. You can check some updates on Kickstarter. And as I mentioned before, I started working on a new desktop project that will be very diverse and amazing in illustrations, I vouch for this.
And lastly, what is your dream project?
I dream to draw my comics and make the game in cyberpunk style. The working title is Entropy Hunter. You can follow the tag #entropyhunter on instagram and see the concepts that I've been drawing in recent years. I draw them less often, but I try not to throw away the idea. This genre is not very popular and it is not often possible to find inspiration in games, movies or music for this, but major sources such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Akira become truly cult with time. I hope that I can do something similarly successful in the future.
Thank you for reading!
"Soloing a board game? Why.....?" you might ask. At least, that was me when I first heard of this form of entertainment. Fast forward 1.5 years, I have Too Many Bones and Nemo's War proudly sitting at the top of my wishlist. And now I'm talking with Liz, one of the biggest proponents of solo gaming in the industry.
Hey Liz, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure! I review solo board games for my own site, Beyond Solitaire, and for The Dice Tower. I also create solo tutorials on my YouTube channel, as well as interview interesting people about board game history and culture on my podcast. Both are, shockingly, called Beyond Solitaire. In regular life, I am a high school Latin teacher.
Teachers are awesome (in hindsight). How has that experience been for you and if you were to go back, would you still choose to teach high school students? (I teach high school students too by the way!)
I will admit that COVID has me feeling a little less enthusiastic about my job at the moment—I am currently doing “concurrent” teaching, which means I have some students physically in the room with me while others are online. I teach both groups simultaneously. It’s not a sustainable way to teach. But in a normal year? Being a teacher is awesome, and I particularly love to teach high schoolers. They are great because they are starting to develop more “adult” opinions and perspectives, but also have a lot of growing to do. Plus, teenagers are hilarious.
How aware are your students about your love for board games? (Have they subscribed to your YouTube channel?!) Also, have you ever tried using board games (or its concepts) as an example when teaching?
In a normal year, students know I love board games because I play with them all the time! (Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now.) I’m actually pretty open about the fact that I have a YouTube channel because once the kids know about it, it’s not interesting to them at all anymore, and they leave me be. I have no interest in interacting online with students who have not graduated yet. I haven’t fully had the opportunity, but I want to play more games with the kids in Latin. I’ve made a Latin UNO deck before, but I have a draft translation of “Love Letter” that I’m dying to test out.
What is your "teaching philosophy" and do you find that it carries over into how you approach the "how-to" videos on your channel?
My teaching philosophy is that every student can learn Latin, if they are supported and allowed to learn at their own pace. I also believe that learning should be enjoyable. I try to break games down into digestible chunks on my YouTube channel, just as I would any concept for class. My gaming and teaching philosophies also line up in the sense that I believe that everyone can learn games and enjoy gaming. But my “real life” classes are a lot more interactive than my YouTube channel.
What has been the most rewarding part of running your YouTube channel and what is your vision for the channel?
Just having a channel and watching it grow is tremendously rewarding. I think I get more enjoyment out of my games by communing with them and then interacting with others about them. But my vision for my channel is constantly in flux. At first I thought I just wanted to do tutorials, but I’ve really started to enjoy interviewing people, and my interest in historical games is evolving in some unknown direction. My podcast is my favorite project I have done to date, because I’m having so much fun looking at and thinking about games on a deeper level and with such great conversation partners.
My solo transition isn’t all that exciting. I may cover only solo games, but I play both alone and in groups. The simplest version of the story is that I really loved to play Magic: The Gathering, but it was too expensive and annoying to keep collecting all of the cards. I switched to the Lord of the RIngs LCG to scratch that deck construction itch, discovered I could play it by myself, and boom, I was a solo gamer.
What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to solo gaming? (whether for people not yet into solo gaming or for solo gamers)
I think there are two main barriers. The first is that it’s a pain in the butt to learn a bunch of games all by yourself. It is far easier to have someone teach you a game. I personally like to be taught by others whenever possible. The second is that I think people still struggle with the idea of doing most things by themselves. I value my alone time, and I was willing to go to the movies or eat in restaurants by myself before I discovered solo gaming. I think that made it easier for me to give it a shot.
The "soloness" of Liz's gaming is debatable :)
Despite the "barriers," solo gaming has gained a lot of traction over the years, where it now seems almost criminal for a game to not have a solo mode. What do you think are the main reasons behind this trend?
People like to pretend that solo gaming is some weird niche activity, but in reality, it is hugely popular. The solo community is huge and vibrant—just take a look at the 1 Player Guild on BGG, or the Solo Board Gamers group on Facebook. We solo players are enthusiastic about games, we play a lot of them, we gather to discuss them online. There is no online gaming community I’d rather be a part of. To me, it makes perfect sense that a publisher would want to capture a little of that magic.
There are all sorts of different solo modes these days. What's your favorite and why? Actually, do you happen to have a favorite designer whose ideas always seem to resonate with you?
Overall, Mage Knight is my most beloved solo board game and I don’t see any other game unseating it. That said, I particularly like board games that are truly designed for solo players, and I like to play against some kind of game system. I don’t necessarily have a favorite designer, but I do love Chip Theory Games. I also adore solo war games designed by David Thompson (Pavlov’s House, Castle Itter) and Robert Deleskie (Wars of Marcus Aurelius).
Have you ever had a designer approach you and ask for feedback on their solo mode? What do you think are your personal criteria in judging whether a solo mode is good or bad?
I’ve been approached to playtest but I hate doing it. I prefer to review a finished product. For me, a solo mode is good if it is engaging and full of interesting choices, and I like it even better if it plays very smoothly. A solo mode is bad if it’s needlessly complicated, unclear, clunky, or an underdeveloped tack-on to a multiplayer game.
Let's say I had a friend who is new to board games but enjoys a puzzly kind of experience. Which game(s) would you recommend? How about for a friend who is a polar opposite of that and wants an epic experience under 2 hours?
These are really questions for 1PG or the Solo Board Gamers Facebook group. But if you want a puzzle, go for a Euro. If you want a thematic experience, go for a fantasy adventure or a wargame.
You've been a Dice Tower contributor for a while, but it was my first time seeing you featured on one of their Top 10 videos (which I loved by the way!) How was the experience and if you were to go back, would you do anything differently?
I loved doing those Top 10 videos for Dice Tower! The entire Dice Tower crew is friendly, relaxed, and fun to be around, and it’s been really nice to get to know them better over the last year or two. I don’t think I would do anything differently—it was a blast!
If you could do another Top "X" video on The Dice Tower, what would you love to talk about and who would you like to have join you?
I actually am not a great person to ask about this because I am not actually a big fan of Top 10 lists. (Heresy!) They are just arbitrary fun, and my rankings change all the time. It might be fun to do a Top 10 of games set in the ancient world, with Morgane Gouyon-Rety (Pendragon), Robert DeLeskie (Wars of Marcus Aurelius, Stilicho), and Tom Russell (Agricola, Master of Britain and much more).
If you could change anything about your favorite solo game (Mage Knight), what would it be and why?
I would not change Mage Knight. I would change my schedule so that I had more time to play Mage Knight.
I love that answer.
Which game has been on your radar for 2021, and what makes you excited about it? Also, which game do you think has the highest potential to make big leaps in rankings on the Solo Guild's Top 100 games for 2021?
My big game for 2021, barring a huge surprise, is going to be Hoplomachus: Victorum from Chip Theory Games. I am a huge Hoplo fan, and I absolutely cannot wait to see how they renew/rework the game system I know and love. Honestly, whatever makes a surprise leap onto the Solo Guild’s Top 100 will be a game that gets a lot of press, and I’m terrible at predicting that. My feeling is that the upper end of that list is fairly static, and as you get further down, you see more games that rise and fall dramatically due to reprints, representation on Facebook or BGG, etc.
Is there a super underappreciated game that deserves more attention? If so, please make your case on why we should try it out!
Everyone acts like war games are so brutal and scary, and they have been falling off of the People’s Choice Top 100 at an alarming rate. I say go ahead and try one—Thunderbolt: Apache Leader gets less love these days than I think it deserves, as do many DVG games (Cards of Cthulhu, David Thompson’s Valiant Defense Series…) Also, if you haven’t tried something from Hollandspiele yet, do it. Don’t expect luxury components. Do expect a thought-provoking experience and a sassy rulebook.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you would like to share with us? What would be your dream project? (Please let us know how we can stay up to date with you too)
I’m working on Season 2 of my podcast right now, and it’s going to be awesome! I’m reworking how I want to approach my YouTube channel, but definitely expect more tutorials, and maybe more deep dives into the history behind some of my favorite games. Also, I read as much as I game, and I finally started a BookTube channel so I could talk about books. You can find me pretty much anywhere as Beyond Solitaire (and as Beyond Solitaire Books if reading is your thing).
Thanks again Liz! Loved hearing your thoughts when I watched you on Dice Tower's Top 10 and I knew I had to reach out. And I'm grateful for your tutorial on soloing Pax Pamir (Second Edition), it came in very handy and you were absolutely right—it was a real treat :)
Thanks for the read everyone and here are some links for you to stay up to date with Liz:
For those who are new, you can find the rest of my interviews here: https://www.boardgameatlas.com/topic/fFPci5qT1d/bga-interviews