Todd Sanders: Art in Board Games #22

Todd Sanders: Art in Board Games #22

This week we have Todd Sanders an artist and designer who has designed games such as IUNU, They Who Were 8 and Aether Captains with companies such as LudiCreations and MAGE Company. He’s created a variety of Print and Play (PnP) games, best known of which are: Mr. Cabbageheads Garden, Odin Quest and his Shadows Upon Lassadar series. He’s also provided graphic design for Trick of the Rails for Terra Nova Games and has done the artwork for many Age of Steam maps for Alban Viard of AV Game Studios.

Hello Todd, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I live in Pittsburgh where I work as a graphic designer, furniture maker and publisher. I have a degree in architecture but have worked as a graphic designer for over 25 years. My publishing company, Air and Nothingness Press (which is also the name I design games under - publishes translations of French surrealist poetry, science fiction, and fantasy, and makes handmade artist books.

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?
From an early age I always wanted to be an architect. I was an architectural designer for a few years upon graduation but then moved into graphic design due to the work availability in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s.

So how did you first get involved in making board games?
I began by redesigning older games and I’m most known for my re-visions of Barbarian Prince (over 3000 downloads on and for Hammer of Thor. Both of these were originally released in the early 1980s, long before computers or better printing techniques and there is a mystique about them, but both are long out of print and therefore inaccessible to most players.

Barbarian Prince is one a lot of people wish would be reprinted. You play a barbarian trying to find gold to save your kingdom, wandering a map of various terrain types, rolling dice to find events and encounters on various tables. It combines aspects of wargames, RPGs, and Choose-Your-Own Adventure style games. I completely redesigned the entire map, created new rule and events books and a series of player sheets and counters to give the game a better scope. It took me a couple of months to complete but I think the changes make it feel more like a modern game.

Hammer of Thor is a very strange game from around ‘83 that can apparently support between 1 and 65 players, although 1 or 2 players is probably best. You play Viking gods and visit locations throughout the nine realms encountering various types of creatures and humans. You combat these beings and in turn, can make them part of your clan. The game mainly uses cards (which were originally badly printed on construction paper) and a large map of Yggdrasil, the world tree of Viking myth. My work included redesigning (and correcting the errors of) over 720 cards, designing 1100 counters and I updated/redrew the map. On top of this, I completely rewrote the rulebook to remove a huge number of errors in the original text and updated the language for modern board gamers. It was over 6 months work and I really didn’t design anything for many months afterward because the task left me exhausted.

For both games what appealed to me was the challenge of taking older games and giving them a fresh modern look. As a graphic designer, I am attracted to projects where a design overhaul can give a value and prominence to games in our history that are overlooked by many. For Barbarian Prince I also wanted a copy to play and this was a fun way for me to make that happen.

From there I entered several of the designer contests that the Print and Play community sponsors and slowly began learning to process of design games. There are several of these contests every year on BGG. The Solitaire PnP contest (every summer), the PnP Wargame contest, the 18 card contest, and the Mint Tin contest where all components must fit inside of an Altoids tin. In the past there have also been game contests with constraints like only using dice, fitting the game on a single sheet of paper, or only being able to use 9 cards. 

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?
I tend to work on both the structure and mechanics of the game while doing the artwork. It’s a very organic process and both elements grow together. I am not an ‘artist’ artist, meaning I don’t really draw or illustrate anything by hand ever, I do all my work on the computer using InDesign and Photoshop, often using those applications as you would Adobe Illustrator (but I don’t own a copy of that).
Early on I tended to do redesigns of earlier games. In taking apart another designer’s work and re-visioning it, you learn the inner workings of the mechanics and how the game is put together, thereby learning something about the design process. I suppose the best thing I have learned is to be open with my work and let people interact with it as it is being designed. Everyone has different experiences and knowledge. Their input can only make a game stronger, especially since one tends to design in a bubble so you can quickly convince yourself that something works. This is because in your head it does, but you often find that once you write rules other people find holes in this logic as you didn’t impart that understanding within the framework of the game itself.

You were involved in the creation of IUNU, so could you tell us a little bit about what that involved and what were the biggest challenges you faced? 
IUNU, which made its debut at Essen 2017 is a game where the basic idea came very quickly: 9 types of cards where the point value of the card is the direct inverse of the number of cards in the deck. The game spent about a year of development with LudiCreations and I’m lucky in that I am the graphic design/artist for my own games with LC. Part of the appeal of these games is my minimalist artwork. LudiCreations staff and I work pretty well together after several years of my doing graphic design for other games in their catalog. 

There were no real challenges but we ended up increasing the number of Afterlife cards and this meant doing a lot of research into Egyptian dynasties (which I found quite interesting) and then matching historical points in that timeline with bonus actions for the game. For example, one card gives bonus sets of bakers, merchants, and farmers in your tableaux. These are all lower ranking citizens and the dynasty of Amenhotep was one in which the people had more power and there was a golden age. Another example is that the bonus cards Peret, Akhet, and Shemu are seasons in ancient Egypt which cycle around the rise and fall of the Nile river, celebrating abundance and harvest times. This idea matched cards where you gain a bonus if you have a majority of one type of citizen at the game’s end. I like to, as much as I can, match real facts/events with the mechanics in my games to strengthen the game narrative and thematic elements

What was the inspiration or core idea that drove your work on IUNU?
Often I find this is the case with my designs – the best and most elegant games come fully formed in under a half hour. As previously mentioned, I conceived of an idea where the kind of cards and their frequency in the deck had an inverse relationship to their value. So one Pharaoh is worth 9 points, 2 Scribes are each worth 8 points, three Nobles are each worth 7 points and so on down to nine Farmers each being worth 1 point.

The Egyptian theme for the game was suggested by this idea of 9 which is three 3s or the three main pyramids at Giza in Egypt. This tied nicely into three 4-sided dice, a great visual link to Ancient Egypt thematically. A quick bit of research led me to 9 types of citizens and their hierarchical order, and from there I was off and running. Each of these types of citizens then meant I could have a separate action for each, thematically tied into their caste when the cards are played in sets.

Also, the money in the game is labeled as ‘debts’. The ancient Egyptians didn’t have coins, instead, they used slugs of copper of various sizes as their monetary unit, equaling the weights to the worth of goods or services. So it wouldn’t have made sense to use coins as we know them. In my original PnP version, I sourced out small wooden ingots in a muddy brown and orange because the copper that was more refined was worth more and so the color difference suggests this.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I listen mostly to ambient electronica. I find the rhythm of the beat helps my design process. Currently I am reading Virconium by M. John Harrison that my friend, the author Steph Swainston, sent me a copy of. I read 2-3 books a week and this is a wide-ranging mix of fantasy, science fiction, books about landscape and nature, fairy tales and books on interesting ideas floating around in the world. All of this input does suggest game ideas to me as it all mixes together in the background.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?
Read all the rulebooks you can get your hands on. Understand not only how a designer creates a game but also how the rules explain those ideas. Learn both from the success and mistakes in these texts. Finally, never feel afraid to share your work. No one is going to steal it. Share and receive back tenfold.

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
I am currently working with Alban Viard and his AVGS imprint to bring my PnP game – Pulp Detective- to print. I am currently converting the artwork over to print-ready status while creating a 2 player variant and going back and forth, day to day, with Alban, as his team does playtests, to adjust and strengthen the game mechanics. This game has been under PnP development for over 2 years (one of my longest n the drawing board) and I am very happy to finally get it to the stage where it will be ready for players.

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I maintain a very large and rambling current projects thread on BGG. I also actively post on my blog. You can find some of my illustration work at and finally, I am on twitter at @lackriver.

(All images provided by Todd Sanders 2017).

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