Kyle Ferrin: Art in Board Games #31

Kyle Ferrin: Art in Board Games #31

Quick editors note: I've recently changed the format of how I conduct my interviews. Previously I had always stuck to a predetermined list of questions (with follow up ones hidden behind the scenes) which was a decision I made when trying to get the site up and running with a good amount of regular content. As the site has now passed the grand old age of 9 months I've decided to move away from that fixed format a little into more organic and personal questions. Below is the first fruits of this and I hope you enjoy the results. 

Hi Kyle, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Yeah! I'm a board game illustrator that works for Leder Games. I illustrated Vast: The Crystal Caverns and I'm currently working on Root and Vast: The Mysterious Manor. I've also done work for Norwester Games on their "Stitches" title, and a few other commission jobs that should be revealed soon! I live, (and work) just north of Salt Lake City, Utah with my wife and 4 kids. 

When you start work on a new project what are the first few things that you do?
If I have my choice I like to be heavily involved in the theme of a game. I get a rough idea in my head of what I'd like the game to look like and then it's a matter of making a lot of sketches and collecting references to run by the game designers/publishers. I'm constantly in my sketchbook and in some cases, like with Root, it was a case of building a concept around sketches that I'd already made. I was going through a small animal with swords phase and I had multiple people ask me on twitter if the characters I was posting were from anything. I guess they are now!

You mentioned you were going through a small animal with swords phase, where do you think that came from and how did it develop?
My 5th Grade teacher read Redwall by Brian Jacques to our little class and I think I read a sizable chunk of the series into junior high school. I don't remember a lot of details but I remember the feeling it gave me and that overall vibe has been something I've enjoyed revisiting. Other influences include David Petersen's wonderful Mouse Guard comics and my obsession with Disney's Robin Hood. I can still quote pretty much ALL of Robin Hood, including background music and sound effects. Obviously what we ended doing for Root is still a pretty far departure from those art styles, but those worlds were pivot points when I was doodling little warrior creatures for my kids or for myself.

Your first board game project was VAST so how did you get involved and what do you remember about the project?
Vast was my first big foray into board game illustration. It was originally called "Trove" and the original designer, David Somerville, was looking for goblin art to accompany his work. He found a goblin illustration I did for the RPG Dungeon World, and when David sold the game to Patrick Leder, my name came along as an option. Patrick and I work on the same wavelength and I've been on the Leder Games team ever since. I started out as a contractor, but when Vast saw the success that it did I was hired on full time to work for Patrick. 

The thing about board game illustration is that if you are working closely with the game designers then some things that you've worked really hard on get axed. Play-testing reveals that a certain card doesn't work, or the production constraints restrict the number or tokens that can be printed affordably. It's better to have an overarching vision of what you want the game to look like than to be married to any particular aspect.

I was also very fortunate to have people relate to my Vast art. There are SO MANY new board games, and a huge spectrum of art styles. To help us stand out I tried to embrace a line-art heavy style a la Advanced Dungeon & Dragons monster manuals, but with a vibrant color palette. We wanted to keep Vast looking accessible and family-friendly, which meant keeping the goblins looking more mischievous than violent, and making sure the heroine protagonist was fully clothed. I get a lot of comments from the board game community about how appreciative they are about the sensible armor for the Knight. 

Vast was when I first started going to game conventions too. That was a whole new world for me. I think if you would have asked me 10 years ago how many people there were in the US that were REALLY into board games I would have estimated less than a thousand, haha. I just had no idea! I've always loved board games but most of my experience was with Risk and Monopoly and whatever was in my grandma's closet. I'll never forget my first Gen Con on that Thursday morning when an older gentleman struggled a little to lift up the Vast box and asked "How much is this?" and I sheepishly answered $60, not wanting to break his heart. He said, "I'll take one" and his son rounded the corner with 2 enormous bags full to bursting with what must have been thousands of dollars of board games. On Thursday Morning. The first few minutes of the convention! I've fully embraced the board game lifestyle since then, and I have a modest little collection of games, mostly for playing with my wife, my siblings and my adult friends since my kids are all pretty little. 

How has playtesting your art influenced what you create? What lessons have you learned and is there anything in particular you're more mindful of now?
It's fun to see people play test a board game while you're still working on the art for it because you get almost immediate feedback on what people are interested in. Especially with Vast, when the rules for each player are so different, players are choosing roles based on theme and aesthetic. Unless you have a pretty good understanding of how Vast: The Crystal Caverns Goblins work going in, you probably aren't going to say "Oh, I'll be the green guys because I like push your luck mechanics." You're a lot more likely to hear something like "Oh! I want to be this Dragon" because of the theme and the art. That's where I think it's important that you're doing the game designer's work justice. How a game works isn't always immediately clear, but you can say a lot about what the players will feel like by giving them at-a-glance information through visual communication. 

What I've learned about the game-making process and how I work is that it's pretty crucial that I understand how the game plays on some level before I can illustrate it. I can save myself a lot of time with revisions if I understand the intent of the game designers. The tone is important. Accessibility is important. Card dimensions are important. It's all important.

Were you surprised by the communities reaction to the artwork on Vast?
Yes! I was also really pleased with what I had made with Patrick and David and the gang. It wasn't a case of "Oh wow this thing I did in my spare time is a hit" so much as "Thank goodness people like this so much, I put a bananas amount of effort into this as someone that has a day job and 3 kids" haha. When we sold out of everything we brought to that first Gen Con I was stunned. We had a few really positive reviews that were timed perfectly before the convention and it was pretty surreal to see our pile of games with my drawings on them disappear.  

Did your experience creating Vast change your approach when it came to Root?
The biggest difference was time. When I was working on Vast it was at night after my kids went to bed, email back and forth, and then during the day I had to switch gears in a major way because I was working as a graphic designer for a fun run management company. After Leder Games hired me on full time I haven't had to switch gears as much and that's been an enormous boon for my workflow. 

I had undiagnosed ADHD up until about the time I graduated high school when my parents and I got a diagnosis. Because of that time spent in school with a problem I didn't know I had, I have a lot of little weird coping mechanisms for trying to stay on-task, and it's gotten a lot better as I've gotten older, but if I can just "zone in," (or maybe it's better described as "zoning out,") I can get a lot more work done. Working full time on illustration has been an incredible blessing and it's what I would wish for anyone who can make it work. My wife, Meredith, works full-time nights, and we get health insurance through the hospital where she works. It's not always a perfect arrangement but it's a big improvement from the creative atmosphere I was in 2 or 3 years ago. It's a team effort and I'd be remiss not to factor in how much what my wife does makes what I do possible. Money is horrible and it would be nice if we could all make fun things and help people we are able to right now. We are very privileged, and we try to pay it forward where we're able.

Okay, ROOT! haha, sorry. Working with Cole Wehrle has been great, and part of the reason is because he cares about theme so much. With Root we wanted to make a war game that wasn't tied to any specific historical context, so because of that we had to make our own world rules. Leder Games has more titles in the works with anthropomorphic animals, and Patrick agreed that setting would be a good fit, so it was just a matter of establishing factions and roles that lend themselves well to the archetypes we wanted to include. I was STOKED to be a part of this process. I got to help establish the woodland creatures that we would include, and the cats being the ruling usurpers, and the raccoon vagabond, etc. It was a new approach to creating the theme for me because I got to be pretty heavily involved in the early shaping. Instead of trying to match a vision I had the opportunity to pitch ideas and sketches and I think that holistic way of making the game's style benefits the overall quality of the end product. 

One of my favorite aspects of your art is the colors you use. When it you're choosing them is it purely an aesthetic thing or are you trying to convey a theme or feeling also?
Thank you! I feel like I'm still trying to find my stride with color, it doesn't always come naturally to me. I took color theory courses in college and watercolor painting classes when I was a teenager, and I think those things inform a lot of my decisions when it comes to the values I work with even I'm coloring digitally. I like to see paper texture and I like to use heavy line art and hatching when I use ink, so that means that my values tend to be lighter so I don't lose that detail. I don't want to stick to those methods forever but that's been a go-to for me on a technical level. 

As far as conveying a theme I think color is a wonderful way to do that, and that was my intent with the Root art. Most of the color pallet for the board art in Root is sampled from autumn foliage photography. I get inspired by fantasy settings and playing tabletop games in the fall as the weather changes. Those are powerful emotions for me and Root gave me a chance to create an autumn forest for people to relate to. I hope that comes across for other people the way it speaks to me. 

I'm the kind of person who gets interested in a game for aesthetics first, so contrast and temperature and color composition are important from a first-glance perspective. Especially at conventions I try to think about table presence. I think it's just as important as being able to read the game state. Would you want to see what the game was? Would you move in closer to check out the details? I think color is the first thing that communicates that. It breaks my heart to see games that look interesting and otherwise well-made that have uninspired color schemes, so I'm trying to avoid that. 

I will also say that I'm happy to see more people in the industry making an effort to have their board games be accessible to color-blind players and that balancing of what I want it to look like vs. what makes the best sense for a wider audience isn't always easy but always feels worthwhile. 

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I am *currently* listening to Tame Impala's album "Currents" I can't imagine working at a desk without some kind of music subscription service. I come from two schools of thought about listening to music while drawing. I had some professors who swore by having the radio on constantly for productivity purposes and some professors who didn't want us wearing headphones because they believed it affecting what we were working on too much. I think I kind of believe both? haha. If I'm coloring or just doodling for fun I'll listen to all kinds of music. If I'm inking conceptual art for the first time or trying to nail down a composition I'll get more choosy. The Conan the Barbarian soundtrack is pretty consistent fuel source when I'm focusing on fantasy.
As far as the media I'm into right now, I watch a lot of HGTV and Food Network with Meredith when we have time just hang out together, I don't know if that's informing my drawing hand at all, haha. I can't wait for the weather to get a little warmer so I can spend more time outside with my family. That's my biggest source of inspiration. 

Board game-wise I've been pretty into Rising Sun. I think I've played it 6 times already with a few different groups. It's a beautiful game with a surprising amount of depth. 

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Leder Games is just finishing preparations for Root to go production, and my focus is shifting to Vast: The Mysterious Manor. Vast: TMM will be a standalone sequel to The Crystal Caverns that adds even more to the variety if you have both games. You can play as a Paladin, a horde of Skeletons, a giant shape-shifting Spider, a sneaky Enchanter, or even as the haunted Manor itself. Watch for that to come to Kickstarter soon. Leder Games has a bunch of other great stuff in the pipeline that I probably shouldn't talk about yet. ;)

I also illustrated a little solo game for Golden Bell called "Die Trying" that's designed by David Somerville. It's a solo survival mountaineering about trying to climb a lethal mountainside. It sounds dire but it's actually very tongue-in-cheek and I think people will find it very cute. That's coming soon but I'm not sure about the timeline there. 

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I'm always on twitter, it's a problem! My handle on Twitter and Instagram is @d20plusmodifier. If you follow me there you'll see works in progress, process stuff, and the occasional political rant. I also post what conventions I'll be attending if anyone wants to say hey in real life or hear me have a political rant in real life. I also have a little shop at if you'd like to check out shirts and whatnot. :) 

(All images supplied by Kyle Ferrin, 2018)

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