Chris Quilliams: Art in Board Games #19
This week we have Chris Quilliams an artist who has worked on games such as Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy, Carcassonne, Merchants and Marauders, Flick ‘Em Up! and Azul with companies such as Z-Man games and Plan B games.
Hello Chris, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure no problem, starting at the beginning, I was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. My family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba when I was about 3 years old and that’s the city that I really grew up in. Ever since I can remember I’ve always loved drawing, from what I’ve been told starting at about a year and a half. My grandmother and father were both very big influences and both of them were artists, so I had constant inspiration around me. Through school I was always the class artist and after high school I went through the fine arts program at the University of Manitoba wanting to become a comic book artist. In the last couple of years of University I focused heavily on sequential art, especially in my thesis year.
One of my biggest influences was a friend I met at a local comic book convention, Doug Wheatley. In the early days before we were employed as artists we would hang out and just try to develop and hone our skills. It’s funny how in those days we would look to the future at our possible careers and of course now I look back at those days with such fond memories... now that we both have our careers. Haha!
My first big break I guess came from Beckett, a trading card company, I did some stints illustrating sports comics with Mickey Mantle and Cal Ripken Jr. but it wasn’t full time work. That would come later when I started illustrating for Games Workshop working on their Black Library line. Doug has since gone on to become a well know artist working many years on the Star Wars comics among many other things.
Recently I’ve held an office job for Z-Man games as a staff illustrator, so I’ve been living in Quebec (where the company is located) for the last five years. I’m married to my lovely wife Annie, we have two dogs and now I work in Rigaud Quebec at Plan B games, a fairly new company to the game industry. We have some amazing games coming in the production line developed by our incredibly experienced, talented staff.
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?
I’ve always wanted to be some kind of artist, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t driven in that direction, it was just a given. I think anyone in my family would say there was never any doubt. Ever since I can remember I obsessively wanted to draw. There was even talk of holding me back a grade in my kindergarten class because I didn’t care about anything besides drawing and painting. I didn’t want to learn anything else. Of course there are times when I don’t feel like drawing but it’s rare.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
I first got involved in the game industry through Zev Schlasinger. At the time he was the owner of Z-Man Games in the U.S. I had illustrated many Conan RPG covers for Mongoose Publishing over a few years and I guess they had made a deal with Zev to use that art for the Conan card game he was creating. After he produced this game he contacted me to work on some of his other productions. I started with another card game called Shadowfist and this game was the reason that Zev started his company. After that it didn’t take long to develop a client base in the tabletop industry, especially after I worked on Merchants & Marauders which won the Board Game Geek art award in 2011. I found this gave a real lift to my career and it became much easier to have a steady workflow.
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?
Well, at the beginning of my career I was illustrating comics for a short while as I mentioned before. I’d get a script, create thumbnails planning the frames per page for composition and storytelling, and then render tight pencil drawings from the thumbnails. Other people would ink and color the work though, and I found the art would evolve into something that I didn’t recognize anymore. When I started on the Daemonifuge storylines for Games Workshop I was able illustrate the work to full completion, having the confidence to ink the pages as well as use ink washes for tone. I’ve never been a great inker but I found this completely satisfying. This process is quite different than what I go through now though.
When I began game illustration I started with rpg covers and interior art, and this creative process is much more similar to what I do now. I was paid a lot more for the covers and as such I could spend more time developing a refined image. I would not only do several thumbnails, but also color guides and sometimes even character designs, as well as research and gather references. I really believe in the process. For the interiors I would just go straight to the drawing, get approval and then start inking. The goal was to keep the time limit down because I was paid a lot less for these. Then, when I switched to game illustration I would create multiple thumbnails and color guides, again a very similar process to my rpg work. All this pre-visualization work could easily be edited without affecting the final draft.
I developed a nice working relationship with Sophie Gravel the then owner of Filosofia. They had just purchased Z-man games from Zev and she had really liked my Merchants & Marauders illustrations, eventually offering me a full time position to work for her company. I accepted and within two months moved to Quebec, Canada to work in the Z-Man games office and I had to adapt once again. Here I was working closely with a team of people (keep in mind I worked in isolation for 13 years) and had much more interaction, which I really wasn’t used to. This included playing the games, but also a lot more constant changes to the artwork. This meant the art evolved quite differently. Another thing I had to get used to was a 7 or 8 hour work day as opposed to 12-14 hrs a day.I now prefer working with a team rather than being in seclusion as I find the process much more exciting compared to when I was on my own. It also means that my work has become much more of a team effort throughout the process. At first it was difficult, but now I find I really rely on the feedback and creative influence from others and produce a lot more work in a shorter period of time.
You were involved in the creation of Pandemic Legacy season 1 and 2, so could you tell us a little bit about what that involved and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
After working on the relaunch of the very successful Pandemic franchise I had the opportunity to work on Pandemic Legacy with my Z-Man team. I knew about the Legacy system at the time but had never played Risk Legacy, so I really knew nothing about the game mechanics. Everybody knew the game was going to be special, which really added to the excitement. So because of that there was a bit of extra pressure, although I think it was the healthy kind of pressure. Luckily, I had a good team and 100% trust in my art director Philippe Guerin. His understanding of the visualization needed for games is incredible.
The hardest task was coming up with a concept for the box cover, which was the largest undertaking of the art process. We already knew there were going to be two different boxes for the game and that they would need to be fairly large to house all the components. On top of this was the pressure of a tight deadline, I had come up with a few ideas but they didn’t really showcase the thematic concept. Finally, Phil talked to me about a clock concept (this is where it helps working with a team) and this changed the entire direction of the artwork. The boxes would now be connected as a single image. This got me really excited because it meant I’d get to work on an epic cinematic image.
The next phase was to incorporate the games storytelling and thematic nature into the concept and I decided to focus on the drama of certain situations. After this a style had to be found as well. We go from style to style with every project and this is probably the most difficult part of my job but also the most fun because there’s always so much exploration and learning.
What was the inspiration or core idea that drove your work on the Pandemic Legacy games?
Pandemic has a very cinematic universe. In fact, I can imagine Pandemic Legacy as a film series because in my eyes that’s really what the games are. This is a game about heroes and heroics, trying to work together and save humanity. There’s a bit of a dark undertone to the game too but that wasn’t quite right for the illustrations. The game had to focus more on the characters than the viruses. These are just regular people, doing real world jobs, but on a global scale. The viral threat and the tension caused by it is something I had to be able to incorporate within the compositions.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’ve been listening to Schoolism podcasts a lot for both inspiration and knowledge. Schoolism is a really great website that offers cheap art courses for a monthly fee taught by world class professionals. It’s an amazing source for art education.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?
I work in a lot of styles, so I have to understand style and that comes from understanding art fundamentals. When I worked freelance I had pretty much no time to practice so now that my day job affords me more time in the evenings I’ve been trying to work on different learning exercises, both digitally and traditionally. The nice thing about this is I can work on creative ideas of my own, as well as study what I consider the great artists and illustrators. When I’m not dealing with certain fundamentals at work I can practice for an hour in the evening. It’s amazing how fast you can get rusty.
Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Yes! There is a great new game we’re producing at Plan B Games by Michael Kiesling called Azul. It’s being released at Essen this year. The theme comes from the Azulejo tiles of Portugal. It’s really an abstract game but with this theme it’s been given a special feel. It’s not typically the type of illustration or cover work that I do and for this project I was able to design the titles on the box as well, which I’m not always apart of. I’m usually just so focused on the illustration alone. As a team we were really happy the way the design and art came together.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
Thanks so much for the interview Ross.
(All images supplied by and belong to Chris Quilliams. 2017.)