Tania Walker: Art in Board Games #25

Tania Walker: Art in Board Games #25

This week we have Tania Walker an art director, illustrator and graphic designer who has worked on games such as Dracula’s Feast, The Lady & the Tiger, and Goblin Quest, and with companies/publishers such as Jellybean Games, Rule & Make, and Greater Than Games.

Hello Tania, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, thanks for having me! Aside from spending most of my time making adorable games, I write as a sideline and have been published in several speculative fiction magazines. I live in Tasmania where it’s nice and cold (fun fact: parts of Australia are, occasionally, snowy!) and, outside of my assorted creative work, my proudest accomplishment has been teaching my cat to walk on a leash. I love tabletop roleplaying games and it’s a bit of a life’s dream to work as the Art Director on a project along those lines - so if you’re reading and you’ve developed something like that... (makes the ‘call me’ gesture). 

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?
At first, I wanted to be a vet, like James Herriot. Then I realised this would require putting down a substantial number of animals, and I’m too much of a softie for that. Next, I got obsessed with Disney films and decided I wanted to be a Disney animator. That one, I never grew out of – by the time I was 21 I was working for Walt Disney Animation Australia. 

So how did you first get involved in making board games?
Achieving my life’s dream at 21 was eye-opening. Setting aside the 70-hour working weeks, what I found at Disney was that I didn’t enjoy being a cog in an enormous machine. Turned out what I really wanted was not to work with a specific company, but rather, the chance to shape my creative work in a meaningful way. After that, I spent years bouncing from one kind of art job to the next, looking for the elusive role that would let me feel like I had creative freedom and trust within a team of like-minded people. 

During that time I also started playing modern tabletop games. Killer Bunnies was first. I recall looking at the art and deciding: “I could do a better job of it. I’d love to do this someday.” Yet it didn’t occur to me to aim for a job making boardgames; I didn’t think that was something you could do in Australia, and I had already decided against moving overseas for my career, as I love where I live.

So I continued freelancing and periodically working for companies in a wide variety of art and design jobs. One day an old acquaintance from Brisbane approached me – I’m sorry, this is the most Australian employment story ever – he was a guy who’d once bought a fridge from me, and he’d decided on the basis of my DVD collection that we should be friends, and added me on Facebook. We’d loosely kept tabs on one another ever since. That guy was Peter C. Hayward. He told me he’d started a boardgame company – Jellybean Games – and as he admired my art, would I like to come on board as a freelancer to work on a game called ‘Dracula’s Feast’? 

What I found at Jellybean was a team of like-minded people who shared my creative goals and sense of humour, and who valued my contributions. Jellybean quickly became my core client, and I’m extraordinarily proud of the games we’ve made together. 

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?
My role has deepened – initially, I was just a freelance illustrator with Jellybean, but as an art director I get a more substantial opportunity to shape the look and feel of our games. What I love about this role is that I get to think about the art of our games both from a macro and micro point of view – I have to consider how all the elements will work together as a package, but also have to zoom my attention close in to every tiny illustration and icon and border and make sure that each of these works individually. For tabletop games, illustrations in particular need to stand up to repeated scrutiny, because they’re going to be looked at again and again, sometimes for extended periods of time. If an illustration is low quality or if some detail is wrong, people will notice, and it’ll bother them.

So, at the start of a new project the whole team develops a theme for the game. It must reinforce the game's mechanics, must be relatively original (or at least be an original take on an old theme), and to be honest it has to be a theme we can all get excited about – because if we’re not interested in it, the art won’t be interesting and the players won’t be interested either. 

I then start to think about broad art decisions like what kind of style and colour palette communicates this theme best? Realistic? Stylised? Cartoony? Pastel watercolours? Dark and gritty digital painting? What feel does this choice create; what expectations will it set up about the nature of the game? There’s a whole world of choices and approaches out there. I also consider what else is currently in the marketplace, and how we can make this game stand out from that crowd. For this last reason, I avoid the straightforward ‘semi-realistic saturated digital painting’ style, because no matter how well it’s done, it’s so prevalent right now that any game using it will visually merge into every other game on the shelf. I also consider: what are my strengths as an artist, and am I the best artist to create the kind of art this game needs?

Once all this is nailed down to the team’s satisfaction, I begin to gather references and visual inspiration, and from there I create my first card for the game (or the box art, in games that aren’t as heavily card-based), and that becomes both my place to experiment with technique and, when it’s done, my touchstone for the game art that follows.

I also do a lot of the graphic design for Jellybean, and I tend to develop that in conjunction with the illustrations, which allows me to get a more visually cohesive approach going than you’ll often get when a designer comes along once the illustrations are done and just designs around/over them. 

There’s so much more to it than this, but you did say “briefly”, and I think I’ve blown past “brief” some time ago. I’ll add that the above encompasses what’s changed for me since I started with Jellybean: I’ve gone from creating illustrations on spec, to developing the look and feel of a game before I begin illustrating.  

You were involved in the creation of The Lady & The Tiger, so could you tell us a little bit about what that involved and what were the biggest challenges you faced? 
The great thing about L&T is that Peter just happened to approach me with this game idea that ticked all my personal creative boxes. I’ve always drawn cats of all kinds, and I adore drawing women, and here was a game entirely built around women and (very large) cats. Furthermore, we quickly agreed that my ‘core’ style – clean, bright and Disney-influenced – would be ideal for this game, which removed the usual start-of-project period I spend figuring out how to pull off a brand new style. 

I really do enjoy working in a variety of styles; the challenge is fun and it keeps me from getting bored. But it was so nice to go with the flow on this one. The clear dichotomies in the suits in this game – Lady/Tiger and Red/Blue – set limitations that fostered creativity, really. The limited colour palette, rather than constraining me, kept that side of the project fairly simple. Constraints foster creativity; never let anyone tell you otherwise. The scariest thing in the world is complete freedom and a blank sheet of paper.

Probably the biggest challenge in this project was that for every Lady in the game, there was a Tiger, and it was getting difficult to come up with new ideas for the tigers (there are eight in the game, and I wanted each of them to be distinct). With Ladies, you can work with distinct ages, body shapes, ethnicities, clothing, body decoration, hairstyles, etc. Tigers lack a lot of these differences, and while they really do have a lot of variety (after studying dozens of tiger photos, I can confirm this!), we’re not trained to notice it so much. So getting eight big stripey cats to look distinct from each other required a lot of jiggery-pokery. (That’s the technical term.)

What was the inspiration or core idea that drove your work on The Lady and the Tiger?
Peter’s interest in it was piqued by a combination of the famous story, The Lady and the Tiger, and the They Might Be Giants song based on the same. He popped that onto the game as a working theme, meaning to replace it later, but when I heard the premise I was so excited to work with it we ended up keeping it. 

Part of my excitement comes from the flipside of The Tiger Problem – the Ladies! Women are woefully underrepresented both in the board game industry and within games themselves. Generally, I aim to depict gender parity in every game I illustrate, but this one allowed me the opportunity to draw just women from start to finish: young, old, all different shapes and sizes and ethnicities and attitudes. Honestly, I wish I’d been able to draw even more – I had so many ideas I didn’t get to use!

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m constantly buried in a speculative fiction novel or two – just finished a streak of reading recent Australian YA post-apocalyptic books, and topped that off with ‘Who Fears Death’ by Nnedi Okorafor, and I’m listening to the audiobook of Stephen King’s ‘Sleeping Beauties’ now. Sadly I can’t listen to books while I work; it’s too distracting. Even music with lyrics is sometimes a bit much, so when working I tend to find one of those Youtube “eight hours of study music” compilations to put on in the background. 

I’m always looking at everything; I draw a lot of inspiration from the natural world where I live in Tasmania, and aside from that I encounter amazing artists and art daily on Twitter and Pinterest. I’ve also got my own big reference library of art technique books on illustration, character design, digital painting and so on, and I turn to that when I need to figure out how to do something specific I haven’t done before. Beyond that, there’s always Google.  

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?
Get your skills up. Chances are companies will need you to do a little of everything, so if you’re precious about only ever working with one style or one subject matter you’re gonna have a hard time. Master working digitally, as that’s how games are made now. For goodness sake, if you’re drawing only anime, stop. If you’re only drawing women with big boobies, move on from that too, because the industry is moving on and you don’t want to be that one embarrassing dinosaur left behind.

Take on all kinds of freelance work anywhere you can; every job teaches you something. Find mentors (formal or informal) in the industry and ask advice. Formal schooling is not a must-have, but it doesn’t hurt! If you decide against formal schooling, make sure you’re incredibly self-driven and constantly learning – technical books on the craft of illustration are increasingly in-depth and easy to find, and the internet is a rich resource for tutorials (but be critical about what advice you take, and find what works for you). Approach your work with humility and the understanding that you can always grow.  

Games art isn’t just about technical skills either. You’ll be working with (and for) others, so stow your ego. A game is a team effort. Your art will have a lot of fresh, critical eyes on it and they will notice things you don’t. Sometimes your piece will be technically great but simply doesn’t get across the message or feeling required for that part of the game, and you’ll need to take another run at it. The ability to listen to and apply constructive feedback will get you a long way. Nothing you make is so perfect it can’t be improved. 

Oh, and be kind to people. Not just the people ‘above’ you in the industry, but everyone. It’s a small industry. People talk. Make sure you give them nice things to say. 

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
I just finished up the design for Jellybean’s next release, ‘Show & Tile’. Imagine Pictionary but with tangram tiles, so you’re building artworks out of mostly triangles. It’s a big laugh both with kids and as a party game. Creating the art for it was fun; we went down an abstract colours-and-shapes route that’ll visually leap off the shelves. Nice change of pace!

Now I’ve switched over to working on Village Pillage, a card game of warring medieval villages, best described as “Game of Thrones if all the roles were played by Baldrick”. I’m going with a broad cartoony style for that, lots of super varied characters with extreme expressions. This puts me back into another part of my comfort zone so I’m having an absolute blast.

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I’m most active as @TaniaWalker on Twitter, where you’ll find a heady mix of art WIPs, daily life nonsense and inappropriate jokes. You could always keep an eye on my portfolio at www.taniawalker.com too, but know that I’m usually too busy making art to keep it properly updated, which is very naughty of me. Finally, keeping tabs on Jellybean Games at www.jellybean-games.com and on various social medias as @PlayJellybean is a great idea; they’re way better at promoting my art than I am! Be sure to visit our web store while you’re there. ;) 

(All images provided by and copyright of Tania Walker).

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