Ian O'Toole: Art in Board Games #40
Editors note: This week I'm joined by one of my favorites in the industry and in fact one of the first people I contacted when launching this site. He's been involved in some of the best looking games out there, proven when he grabbed the top 2 places of my Best Board Game Art of 2017 public vote. I hope you enjoy hearing more from the man himself and if you have any questions just drop them in the comments below.
Hello Ian, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! I was born in Ireland, where I grew up, received my education and met my wife, Sarah. We moved to Perth in Western Australia a little over a decade ago and have since had two children. I still have not acclimatized to the heat.
I read a lot of comics growing up, and my artistic development was always directed by that. I can’t remember entertaining the idea of doing anything else. When it came time to go to college I decided on Graphic Design because I knew there was a clear career path there, I could leave college and get a job. Fine Art was a little more nebulous, which didn’t entice me at all. I’ve worked as a graphic designer/illustrator for my entire professional life, in a wide variety of roles and industries, including marketing, advertising, packaging design, publication and spatial design.
For the past five years I’ve worked for myself, and board games have grown to occupy almost the entirety of my workload. This allows me to work at home which is ideal for me, giving me flexibility as well as the opportunity to see my kids more during the week.
I’ve always been a gamer to some degree, and played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons when I was a kid, as well as Games Workshop 40K games. I started playing modern board games about 9 years ago, when a friend bought me Catan, and shortly afterwards Dominion. I found a local gaming association and my interest in the hobby exploded from there.
As regards other hobbies, I really have very little time. I read when I can, and play guitar intermittently, but it’s mostly gaming.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
When I decided to work for myself, I reached out to the community on Boardgamegeek.com in an effort to diversify my client base. At the time I was working mainly in designing exhibit booths for petroleum companies, so I was hoping for something a little more fulfilling to work on. That got a bit of interest, and I ended up working on a few games. Some were very small Kickstarters, like Mage Tower, for which I only created a small part of the artwork, and others were full board games such as Fool’s Gold.
I quickly realised that having skills as both a graphic designer and illustrator set me apart from a lot of others in the industry. Publishers were very happy to hear that I had years of experience working with printers and manufacturers, so I already knew all of the ins and outs of setting up punchboards, box dielines etc.
At some stage early on I wrote to Vital Lacerda, one of my favourite designers, about some of his upcoming games, as I was considering dabbling in publishing at the time. That didn’t work out but he did need artwork created quickly for The Gallerist, and asked if I’d like to take a look at it. The Gallerist ended up being one of the games that most people know me for, so that was really down to luck, and being proactive in trying to create opportunities. It has led to a very fruitful working relationship with Vital, and we are just now completing our fifth game together, Escape Plan.
Another such lucky opportunity was meeting Martin Wallace at PAX Australia, and joining him for a playtest of Ships. During the game we chatted and I told him about some of the work I’d been doing, and he asked if I’d be interested in working on the second edition of A Study in Emerald, to which I quickly said yes!
Working in games professionally also afforded me the opportunity to attend the Spiel in Essen in 2015, which would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. That was the year that I got to see most of my games for the first time, as coincidence saw a few of them being released there. It was the first time I saw The Gallerist, A Study in Emerald and Fool’s Gold in the flesh, and also got the opportunity to meet a lot of designers and publishers, so that was a big year for me.
Having stepped into the board gaming industry from a different background, what do you think the key differences are in how the work is created?
From the perspective of the work that I produce, the gaming industry allows the rare opportunity for me to create a complete product. For most of the games I work on, everything in the box, and the box itself, is designed by me (apart from the game itself of course!), and that level of ownership is pretty rare. It’s also the perfect industry for my particular blend of skills, which have struggled to find equal footing in other projects. Here, graphic design and illustration are both of very high importance.
Looking more widely at the industry itself, there really are no standards of any sort because it’s so young. Every publisher handles things differently. This can be especially apparent when it comes to discussions about licensing and contracts. It very much feels like it’s driven by passion rather than profit at the moment, and I think there are some growing pains on the horizon as the mean profitability of the industry creeps upwards due to its growth.
What is your creative process when working on a board game? Can you talk us through it?
The first thing I always do is play the game. I’ll make a prototype, or sometimes the publisher will provide one, and I’ll get some people together and play it. During this I’m thinking about how the players interact with the pieces and the board. Is there a more elegant solution? Do we need all of those counters, or can we use a track instead? Is there a clearer way to present the information that will help players learn and play easier?
Then I start sketching ideas for each element, all rough thumbnails on paper. This is time for all of the big ideas. Do we need a board at all? Should the layout be portrait instead?
Depending on the game, there is sometimes a period of research involved at this point. For historical games I’ll look into the style of visual communication that was prevalent at the time, things like fabric patterns, building materials, costumes etc. Lisboa is a good example of this, as the artwork is very much rooted in the time period. Nemo’s War is another example of a game that needed a LOT of research, as I decided to find a reference for all 100+ ships depicted in the game.
After that I start to make a very rudimentary layout, using only boxes and circles to denote spaces etc. No “artwork” whatsoever. Depending on the complexity of the game I’ll usually make another prototype at this stage. The game should be fully playable, and this gives me a sense of the changes I’ve made to the ergonomics of the prototype.
If I’m happy with that, then it’s just a case of tackling the finished artwork in the most logical way. Sometimes that’s iconography first, or card layouts, or maybe the board. I tend to vary my style a lot for each game, so there’s always a stage of visual development and experimentation as well. I don’t tend to submit options on style or layout, preferring to commit and put my effort behind the solution I think will work best. The other reason for this is that the style often emerges during the first few hours of development, so creating a sketch in advance is often impossible, as I myself don’t know what it will end up looking like.
Once the game is almost finished, I’ll make another prototype and play it again, to catch little things that only become apparent when you ask people to play it.
As regards tools, I use a pen and sketchbook a lot. Once I move to the computer I use the Adobe Creative Suite, primarily Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. I also do some 3D work in Cinema 4D. I typically build a 3D version of the game as I’m developing it, as I like to see how each element looks as part of the whole.
If you want to read more about the process of creating Lisboa, I’ve written a post on boardgamegeek detailing the development of the visual style, as well as the changes that were made to gameplay as a result of graphical solutions. You can find that here.
You mentioned finding references for all the ships in Nemo’s War, so in broad terms how much of a project do you spend on research, and how important is this phase in shaping what you create?
Reference is really important to me, if it’s available. For any game that even dips its toe in the real world I want to look at as much relevant reference as possible. Design styles of the time, common pattern forms, fashionable colours etc. Sometimes that reference becomes the heart of the visual identity of the project (Lisboa is the obvious example of this). Sometimes I will mix it with other anachronistic elements, such as in The Scarlet Pimpernel. It all depends on how important I feel that authenticity is to the game experience itself.
For Nemo’s War, it’s not enormously important that each ship is 100% accurate to its real-life counterpart, but what is important is that the seas are populated by ships that are unique, so that the narrative of the game comes to life that little bit more. Given that all of the ships did exist in real life though, it seemed obvious that seeking real reference was the thing to do.
You’ve been working on Stephenson’s Rocket recently so could you tell us a little bit more about it?
Stephenson’s Rocket was an interesting project for me, because the game already existed, fully formed. So it was easy enough for me to play it and assess the game very quickly. The very first thing that occurred to me was that the game felt old fashioned. This was mostly down to the fiddly nature of using paper money and stock cards, which kept the banker very busy. It became clear very quickly that the money was entirely unneeded, as players never spent it during the course of the game, it was simply points, so my first suggestion was to ditch it and move to a points track on the board.
Another feature that bugged me was constantly having to visually check, or ask for, the number of shares in each company that a player was currently holding, so that was also removed for share tracks on the board, making all of that information easy to access and track.
The last, and somewhat more tricky part of the puzzle was the industry markers. In the original game, every city has three industry markers, each depicting one of a number of industries. The markers are small cardboards tokens, with the colour of the city and its name in very small writing. During setup, all of these need to be sorted and placed out on the board, it’s a big pain, and feels really clunky. After a bit of experimentation, I came up with a table system that lives on the main board, onto which players place their cubes instead of claiming markers. This has many benefits for gameplay. Firstly, it completely eliminates setup entirely. Secondly, the players can very easily see which cities provide which industry, and lastly, it allows the assessments of majorities in each of the industry types (for which points are awarded at the end of the game) very quick. The other benefit that this solution offers is that, as more maps are created for Stephenson’s Rocket, new industry markers are not required to maintain thematic accuracy (this is also true for currency).
The last element that was added was a player board, featuring an iconographic guide to the various scoring methods of the game, which can be a little tricky to remember at first. Other interesting elements to the project included creating a miniature for the famous locomotive, and coming up with a wooden design for the stations that could be placed on a hex at the same time as a locomotive. I also designed a pair of custom passenger meeples, replacing the tokens of the original game, which I think add a nice element of character to the overall presentation. We also added track joiner tiles as an aesthetic upgrade.
All of these changes leads to Stephenson’s Rocket feeling a lot more modern without actually changing any rules (only the expression of them). Overall Stephenson’s Rocket was very enjoyable to work on, and Grail Games were very supportive of me taking a wrecking ball to a much-loved game.
This interview isn't the first time you've been featured on my site, gaining the top two places for my best Board Game Art of 2017 public vote. Without votes like these, how easy is it to gauge the feeling towards your work in the community? Also, how important is that feedback to you and are there any ways you seek it out yourself?
I’m fairly active on Twitter, so I usually get pretty immediate feedback when my work is released. Users on Boardgamegeek are also never shy about sharing their feelings! Good feedback is always really important. I’m pretty isolated over here in Australia, and only get to travel and meet most of my gaming contacts once a year at Spiel, so keeping in touch online is essential.
Hearing players get excited about the games I’m working on is also really gratifying, and of course, seeing them being played all around the world is really rewarding as well. I subscribe to all of my games on BGG, and do keep an eye on the threads. As long as feedback comes from a good place, and is respectful, I’m always happy to engage with players.
Certainly awards such as the ones you’ve created provide a nice opportunity for me to stop and reflect on the fact that players are enjoying my work, so that’s really great.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m reading Authority, the second book of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, which I’ve only just started. I liked Annihilation a lot (and also loved the film). Before that I had just finished the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown, which I enjoyed a lot. I’ve also just finished reading The Hobbit to my kids, which was a big deal for me.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in the board game industry?
Get to know as many people as you can, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Try to help other people as much as possible and support what they’re doing. Engage with content creators, designers, other artists. Not just about work but about the games they’re playing and the things they create. That’s how opportunities are made. And speaking of opportunities, don’t wait for them to come knocking, you have to go out and make them happen.
Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Yes! Stephenson’s Rocket should be going into distribution very soon. Also hitting distribution soon is Smiths of Winterforge, from Rule & Make and Passport Games, for whom I’m also wrapping up on Hand of Fate. I’m almost done with Escape Plan, Vital Lacerda’s newest game about escaping a city after a bank heist gone wrong. The last game I worked on with Vital, CO2: Second Chance, should be going into production very soon. I’ve also finished up The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Brian Kelley and Eagle Gryphon Games. Victoriana is a cooperative game from Games Afoot that was funded on Kickstarter that I’m also finishing up, after completing many many card illustrations.
I’ve just wrapped on the graphic design for The Reckoners, an adaptation of the book series by Brandon Sanderson, by Nauvoo Games. Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection is a light push-your-luck game from Reiner Knizia and Chaosium that’s wrapping up its crowdfunding campaign soon. I’m right in the middle of Black Angel, the spiritual successor to Troyes, coming from Pearl Games. As well as all that there are about six other games I can’t talk about! Some of which will be announced soon I believe, others are more long term.
Phew deep breath, that was a lot of games. Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
(All images supplied by and copyright of Ian O'Toole)