Jade Shames and Ben Bronstein: Art in Board Games #20
This week we have Jade Shames and Ben Bronstein, game creators who are launching their first game, Side Effects.
Hello, Jade and Ben, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jade: Sure. I’m 31, and I live in Brooklyn. Oh, also, I came up with the concept and most of the game mechanics for Side Effects, a mental-illness-themed card game. In my day job, I work as a copywriter. And I also write and play music.
Ben: I’m the illustrator and designer for our company pillbox games. Outside of that, I work as an illustrator, retoucher and production artist in advertising. I also like to cook and bake.
Now we know a little more about you, I have to ask, as a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
Jade: As far back as I can remember, I’ve been making games. I used to find old boardgames in the trash and glue paper over them just so I could use the boards to make my own games. I remember working really hard on a game called Diamonds which had something to do with poker cards and a board, and I remember that I was obsessed with the idea that the whole board flips upside down during a portion of the game. I think I saw a commercial for a game that did this, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the universe. Sadly, I can't find any game that exists today with this feature. If you find one let me know.
Ben: I’ve always been a fan of a lot of game genres. Especially more artistic/experimental games like anything by Fumito Ueda, TiNYTOUCHTALES, Monument Valley plus the board game Secret Hitler and wanted to work on one, but this is my first proper project. Jade showed me and a few friends a test play deck he had made and I told him I’d love to do the art for it.
When you are working on the art of a board game can you give us a quick overview of your creative or thought process and has this changed at all since you first started?
Jade: I was never a designer. Working with Ben Bronstein has been a real treat because he IS a real designer and his illustrations make the game. He approached me, asking if he could help design the cards, and when I looked through his portfolio I thought I had won the lottery. It was a perfect match.
Ben: The creative process started with some research on historical game design and also pharmaceutical packaging from the late 19th, early 20th century. During this research, I made some exploratory sketches, mostly comped together digitally. After I was happy with some of my designs we reviewed all the images as a group, made proofs and then playtested them, gradually refining the designs.
As the game started to mature, I weaned myself off looking at reference points, more focusing on refining the existing designs we had in a direction that revealed itself through play and testing. It was a really interesting process because I had to focus on keeping a consistent style through all the cards, all the while making sure the game was as clear and playable as possible
You were involved in the creation of Side Effects, so could you tell us a little bit about what that involved and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Jade: The biggest challenges were balancing the feedback we were getting with what we wanted the game to look and feel like. You can’t just ignore feedback, but it’s how you choose to solve the problems it presents that makes a successful project. For instance, I would often get suggestions for new cards. But to add new cards meant sacrificing the simplicity of the game mechanics, and they would add to the time it took to explain the rules. I knew from the get-go that the rules should be super easy to learn. On the other hand, I got feedback that said some of the copy was difficult to read—that’s an adjustment that made the game easier to play and didn’t sacrifice our overall vision. So, sometimes you have to say, “Ok, we’ll use this feedback to make changes.” And sometimes you have to say, “No, we have to preserve our original intention.” Knowing when to use which is tricky.
Ben: I completely agree with Jade here. We wanted to keep the game fairly casual which means refining the rules down to a certain level of simplicity which was not easy. If we did everything someone else suggested it would have been a mess. While making the art of the game, the biggest challenge we ended up having to let go of was making the cards be ambigrams. We thought it’d be great if the cards read both for the active player and the opponent. Though an interesting idea, in execution it became very limiting as the skeletons and words would always need to be symmetrical. What was preserved from that exercise is the text message on both sides of the cards and the design still being far more symmetrical than most games. The other interesting challenge was making the game functional for colorblind players. We played with a friend that was colorblind and that’s what inspired the symbols for each disease.
What was the inspiration or core idea that drove your work on Side Effects?
Jade: I’ve had a lot of tragic experiences with mental illness, and I have a very dark sense of humor. Knowing that many of the drugs we’re prescribed to make us well also cause us to become sick in other ways, I started to develop a game where you were racing other players to treat a series of diseases. I think my decision to focus on mental illness was birthed from my frustration that people don’t like to talk—or even address—mental illness. So, I guess you can say it’s part satire, but mostly I wanted to make a fun game that looked cool and could be played at a bar.
Ben: For the art, we looked at a lot of apothecary/booze labels, art deco and nouveau poster design, and tarot cards. Initially, I made some variations of the two most common types of cards of the game, diseases, and medications, and eventually refined those into two hero designs that all the later cards matched. The art was mostly built in photoshop and some illustrator, and then very importantly we printed and playtested the cards numerous times (even rounding corners by hand) until we arrived on the design that we have now.
What are you currently reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?
Jade: Hmm, that’s a difficult question. For Side Effects specifically? Maybe Miss Lonelyhearts, Tom Waits, Art Nouveau, old medicine and liquor bottles, medical textbooks. The game mechanics of Mille Bornes definitely inspired part of the mechanics of Side Effects.
Ben: Comics artists are a big influence for my artwork, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, David B, Winsor McCay are a few I looked at in the context of the game, along with the earlier mentioned inspiration. Also, I’ve recently discovered and been super inspired by Tinytouchtales iOS card games.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?
Jade: Make the game you’d want to play.
Ben: Don’t worry about or try to compete with what other people are making.
Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Jade: You can check out a short story I wrote for the X-Files expanded universe. It features me, as a character, having a bad weed experience with Mulder and Scully. The story is called Give Up the Ghost and you can read it in X-Files: Secret Agendas. My album, CONDUCTOR, is available online. I’m working on a short, animated film based my short story The Backward Astronomer, which appears in the 2013 Fall/Winter issue of HOW art and literary journal. And, of course, I’m really excited to debut the Side Effects expansion packs, which should be coming out sometime next year. But it really depends on if we can get the funding we need during our Kickstarter.
Ben: I’m always working on freelance illustration projects and sketchbook-ing, links for those things are below, and like Jade, I’m very excited to be working on future games.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
Side Effects and related game projects: Pillboxgames.com & twitter.com/pillboxgames
For Jade’s other work: Jadeshames.com & twitter.com/jadeshames
For Ben’s work: Benbronstein.com & instagram.com/benbron
And if you’re not into the whole internet thing, we all live in Brooklyn, NY.
Side Effects is available on Kickstarter until Thursday, December 7th, 2017 via this link.
(All images and illustrations supplied by Pillbox Games 2017)