Portrait of a Board Game Artist
This article is based on an interview with Iveta, the DIEA Games illustrator and graphic designer, during which she talked about the specifics of this role with Michal.
Whether there is an artist looking for work or a publisher striving to replace placeholder images with proper artwork, the foundation for a successful search is having a clear idea of what both sides want. It doesn’t come down to just finding an illustrator willing to draw a couple of pictures for a game. The artistic vision must connect the theme and aim of the game with the style and ability of the illustrator. The best results are achieved not when the artist exerts themselves trying to accomplish the task but when they genuinely enjoy what they do. For Iveta, the road towards DIEA Games was clear from the beginning of her career, as she has always been an avid gamer and was specifically looking to work in the gaming industry, be it digital or with boards.
What I love about working on games is that the effort leads to a tangible, functional product that you can hold in your hand and play with rather than just hang on a wall.
On the other hand, Tadeáš, the lead designer of Euthia: Torment of Resurrection, knew he wanted to create a game that would emulate the feeling of the classic RPG video games not only by gameplay but also by visual characteristics. This effectively meant not creating a new, distinct, fantasy world, but recreating a familiar one anchored deep within the memory of people all around the world. It is a world with immediately recognizable tropes, teeming with Orcs marauding villages, Kobold Shamans conjuring glowing orbs of lighting to pass the time, and a chest overflowing with gold in every den of a winged creature that strives to be worthy of being called a dragon. Yes, it’s exactly that one familiar world you’re thinking of.
Illustrating a game isn’t just about drawing a bunch of individual pictures. It’s about building a world through a consistent style that helps support the lore and invites immersion. One way to do this is to create specifically themed elements that stay consistent throughout the game. Take color-coding of magic, for instance.
There is more to consistency than just the drawing style. In Euthia, different gem effects have their own assigned color cues based on the kind of magic they represent. Since using a sapphire can help heroes move faster, even the movement icon has a blue glare to it.
Besides making sure that the artistic style reinforces the theme of the game, there are plenty of opportunities for the illustrator to mold the world in which the players find themselves. Depicting monsters in static poses without any context completely misses the opportunity to breathe life into the game. Illustrations have the power to dispatch heroes on an adventure against a gold-hoarding griffin living at the top of a steep cliff, or to make the players immediately respect an aging knight if they see his strikes retaining deadly speed as he is just about to chop somebody’s head off with a longsword.
I don’t think art is what makes games good. But it makes them memorable, engaging, and reinforces the gameplay experience.
An artist for a board game company is, depending on its size, often a role that encompasses several specializations in one. It is an inherent aspect of small publishers in particular that a single person has to wear multiple hats. It is often either because there isn’t enough work that would create the opportunity to specialize or, even more often, because someone just has to cover those bases. On the other hand, having just one person covering multiple roles streamlines everything, especially communication.
The fact that I do both illustration and graphic design makes everything so much easier. When I work on illustrations for cards or on packaging design, I already know where the illustrations have to make room for text, symbols, and other elements.
The general idea is that the job of an illustrator is to draw and that of a graphic designer is to do the layout. At first sight, illustration and graphic design have a lot in common, but they are still two separate fields with specific rules even though there are things such as the color theory that apply to both. While the purpose of illustrations is to help players lose themselves in the game, the graphic design helps them navigate its rules. It is all about functionality and simplicity. For instance, iconography should help players make connections and better internalize gameplay elements.
Both the artist and the publisher need to have a clear general vision of what they are creating and why, although every illustration can be assigned with a different level of artistic freedom. Depending on how finalized the publisher’s idea for a specific artwork already is, it can range from the artist having very specific instructions with example pictures to follow, to being provided just the name of a card and getting free rein.
The fact that I sometimes have complete freedom in what I draw is pleasant. Since I am a core member of the team, I am aware of what the project aims towards, and I know the people I work with much better than I would if I was a contractor. I know what is expected of me, which makes the transfer of information that much easier.
Communication is essential as the artist works closely with the rest of the team, usually through multiple iterations of every image as ideas eventually end up in the final product or get discarded once it is clear that something just won’t work. Saying goodbye to a piece of artwork is not always easy for the artist, but in the end, it’s all about creating a final product in which the function of the visual and gameplay elements support each other.
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