Ossi Hiekkala: Art in Board Games #11

Ossi Hiekkala: Art in Board Games #11

This week we have Ossi Hiekkala, an illustrator, who has worked with on games such as Eclipse, Nations, Flamme Rouge and Honshu with the game company Lautapelit.fi.

Hello Ossi, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, thanks for talking to me. I am an illustrator from Finland and I have been in the business officially since 2005. Before that I had been living and studying in Japan for three years. My portfolio is full of every kind of assignment, from food and beverage illustrations to book covers and stamps. Board games are just one part of what I do, albeit a very pleasant one.

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 am not lying if I said I wanted to be a comic artist and illustrator. Drawing has been my passion since I was a kid. Now that my first comics album has been published, I can also say I am a comic artist too.

So how did you first get involved in making board games?
It was somewhere around 2009 when lautapelit.fi first approached me and asked if I wanted to illustrate their upcoming game Hornet, by the Moliis Brothers. I have no recollection how they ended up choosing me, but it was a very interesting assignment as I had never done anything related to board games before. I’m always eager to try different things. It apparently went well as they wanted me to illustrate another game after that. 

It also showed me that illustrating board games is a group project and I had to expect lots of changes during the process. Illustrations, like graphics, have to be tested. Sometimes you hit it with the first shot, sometimes it takes more tries. I like board games as a format for illustration and their big boxes allow large size art. It’s like comparing CD’s and vinyl albums. It becomes an appealing object in itself.

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 am grateful that my clients trust me to propose visual ideas. It is often the best part of the project, sketching and brainstorming. In comparison when working in advertising more often than little thought is expected from the illustrator, which is kind of waste. 

Making the art is group work. The designer, graphic designer and publisher all want their needs to fulfilled, so illustrator has to learn to listen too. I want to make the games visually appealing but also true to the rules and spirit. That’s why I don’t want to force the visuals to fit my style but rather try to think what kind of visuals would fit this game the best. Sometimes it’s more polished, sometimes more painterly. I want there to be a story in the pictures, if possible - especially on the cover. 

I start with the quick idea sketches, after which we proceed to more detailed sketches. When those are accepted, I start the final piece. It still might have to be tweaked here and there before it goes to the printer. It is also good if the typography and other graphics are done hand in hand with the illustrations, so they can support each other.

You were involved in the creation of Flamme Rouge, so could you tell us a little bit about what that involved and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
When I was asked if I would like to make illustrations for a bicycle racing game, it didn’t take me more that half a second to say ”YES!”. As a road bicycling enthusiast the subject was more than pleasing, but when I playtested it, I was thrilled. It really was a game that suited my tastes. Fast to learn and fun to play. Asger Granerud, the designer of the game, did manage to create a game that simulates the racing in a simple but pleasing way. I have enjoyed playing all the games I have been involved with, but this game I just love. 

There were many possible ideas for the visual style, but I am happy that my suggestion to make the game a bit more retro in style was well accepted. The cover came pretty easily, but the cards, player boards and the track pieces took more tries. They had to be tested and improved. There was a lot of emailing back and forth with lautapelit.fi’s graphic designer Jere Kasanen to work on this until everything was finished. What I like about making board game art is the slower pace for producing the illustrations. You have time to think and plan what you can do.

What was the inspiration or core idea that drove your work on Flamme Rouge?
I guess my own passion for bicycling was the greatest inspiration, as was my love for older illustrations from the 1900’s. I collect art books and they provide me lots of inspiration. I just stop for a moment, have a cup of coffee and sit down in my armchair with a few selected books.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I have a small baby boy who keeps me away from idleness. But if I can, I love to spend my spare time reading non-fiction or watching documentaries about history or art history. I am big fan of history and I have been lucky that I have had opportunities to portray it in the board games I have illustrated. Luckily I can also listen to podcasts while I am working, and many of those podcasts are about history. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to play board games, for the aforementioned reason.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?
It’s a world full of people who would love to do the same thing you would love to do, so the competition is tough. I’ve been lucky to have been involved with lautapelit.fi’s great people and taken part in designing games that have been gone on to be critical and commercial successes.

My advice is to try to meet an individual game designer looking for an artist for his or her project and get your foot in the door. For an illustrator, understanding what a graphic designer does is essential, so you can communicate with each other. Also, work with the professionals, if possible, since they will know what is commercially possible and value same qualities in others.

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about? 
I am happy to tell that while I was writing this lautapelit.fi made it public that Flamme Rouge’s first expansion Flamme Rouge - Peloton will arrive (hopefully) to Essen, so here is the cover. There are other games waiting to get to a printer, and some underway, and some at the drawing table. But unfortunately I am not able to say anything about those yet. What I can say though is that I have enjoyed working on every one of these, and I hope it will show.

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I have my own homepage and blog in www.archipictor.com
I also have an Instagram account I try to update regularly: www.instagram.com/ossihiekkalaillustration/
And of course Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Kuvittaja/

(Illustrations and artwork provided by Ossi Hiekkala, product shots by More Games Please).

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