Justin Wallace: Art in Board Games #13

Justin Wallace: Art in Board Games #13

This week we have Justin Wallace, an artist who has worked with on games such as Private Die & The End is Nigh and works for independent publisher Mystic Ape Games.

Hello Justin thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m an artist working out of St. Louis making board games with an independent company with 3 of my friends called Mystic Ape Games. I grew up in Minneapolis, but moved to St. Louis for college, and I’m constantly being surprised at how large the board game community is here.

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?

As a kid I always loved video games and really wanted to be a game designer, before I even knew what that would entail. I remember being enamored with games like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot that created little capsulized world to explore, each rich with their own theme. As I grew up, I split that captivation into two parts. My day job involves a lot of coding & dealing with technology, but for Mystic Ape I get to explore the personal and organic interactions that make tabletop gaming special.

So how did you first get involved in making board games?

I got reeled in much like other people by getting invited to a board game night and playing increasingly complex games. Then at my day job I met Austin and got brought on to do some playtesting and artwork after he knew I had a good amount of experience with playing games.
After Private Die, and just before shipping The End is Nigh to backers, I got brought on as the fourth member of Mystic Ape Games.

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?

The first thing I keep in mind is the tone of the game, and what I would want the game to look like if I were playing it. It’s actually pretty difficult for me visualize exactly how a game will look before mechanics are about 70% concrete. The feel of the game while playing should match the visual aesthetic. I start with creating a folder full of inspiration images (interiors, people, colors, etc.) then refine the style over time based on how mechanics change.

I came into Private Die pretty late in the development stages, so everything was pretty final, and it has a very defined style. I actually picked up the artwork after it had already been started, so adapting to the decided-upon style was the biggest challenge there.

For The End is Nigh, I really got to decide early what the art would look like and somewhat selfishly choose a process that was most appealing to me. Most of the character art in The End is Nigh was done by sketching first and doing digital painting based on that sketch.

You were involved in the creation of The End is Nigh, so could you tell us a little bit about what that involved and what were the biggest challenges you faced?

Portraits and character illustration are some of my favorite types of art, so I felt right at home, yet still challenged by the diversity of characters. The most challenging, yet also the most fun part of doing artwork for The End is Nigh was the Quarantine Art Expansion Pack announced halfway through the Kickstarter campaign. This add-on provided alternate artwork for all of the refugees in the game, as well as all of the trait cards. The major challenge there was expanding all of the characters by determining how they’d handle a viral outbreak in a way that matched their character. This was a pretty big undertaking and time management got super important so that we could still deliver to Kickstarter backers by the promised deadlines.

What was the inspiration or core idea that drove your work on The End is Nigh?

I wanted to depict a diverse cast of characters, yet push each character just far enough to fit their given occupation/archetype.

I wanted each character to feel distinct, and I based them off of people, faces, or characters that are memorable to me. I tried to capture those features the way that I see them.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

Twin Peaks has been the most formative work of art in my life for a while. Especially with The End is Nigh, I tried to build the characters in the way David Lynch does for the residents of Twin Peaks. I’m really still waiting on a game that cultivates as rich of an atmosphere as Twin Peaks does.

Another thing that really motivates me is watching other artists progress and evolve. Mackenzie Schubert, Kyle Ferrin, and Cameron Stewart are some of the most socially active artists that I follow, and it’s intimidating and exciting at the same time to see the incredible work they’re putting out on an almost daily basis.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?

The most important thing I’d say is that being a game designer isn’t a passive job at all. Anything that you’re passionate about and want to get good at, is something you should be prepared to integrate into your life every day. For an artist, that means drawing, painting, or sketching with purpose every day.

The board game industry has lower barriers of entry than many other industries, and Kickstarter can be a great way to break in. It’s tempting to overestimate how much of a factor that luck will play in a successful Kickstarter, but hard work and careful implementation of feedback will go infinitely further than happenstance.

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?

Being an official member of Mystic Ape now means that I’m involved in pretty much every idea from the very first playtest. The game that is furthest along is tentatively titled “The Feral Frontier,” which is a worker placement all about exploring the furthest reaches of space after humanity has gone extinct and animals have reclaimed the universe. I’m really excited about the art direction we’re going for this. There are going to be at least 50 crew members in the game, which is a pretty huge amount of artwork necessary. To simplify the art, we’re going with a unique color palette for each crew member’s role (Pilot, Captain, etc.), then each set of crewmembers will be a distinct animal tribe. I’m really excited to challenge myself by going for a more stylized approach, and doing animal artwork instead of the humans I’m used to!

Also deeper in the concepting phase, we have a really promising time travel game, and another quick and fun game all about the cutthroat world of paleontology.

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?

I’m most active on my Instagram, at instagram.com/timeparadox

The most exciting game updates come from Mystic Apes official social media channels at:

And of course, our website at: mysticape.com

(All artwork and imagery supplied by Justin and Mystic Ape)

Justin Hillgrove: Art in Board Games #14

Justin Hillgrove: Art in Board Games #14

Jordi Roca: Art in Board Games #12

Jordi Roca: Art in Board Games #12