Kwanchai Moriya: Art in Board Games #50
Editors note: As much as this website is my own personal curation of art in the industry I don’t tend to throw around terms like “favorites” very often. However, Kwanchai is in my humble opinion, one of the absolute best in the industry right now. He was one of the very first people I tried to contact when launching my site and I’m so very glad we’ve finally got this interview to share with you. Enjoy the read and do yourself a favor, go check out his website afterwards, it’s a feast for the eyes.
Today I'm being joined by Kwanchai Moriya. 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?
Hi, thanks for having me! I'm an illustrator and painter, working mainly in board games and children’s books. I was born in New York to a Japanese father and Thai mother, both emigrated from their home countries. But mostly I grew up in the ‘burbs of LA and Chicago, in the 80’s and 90’s. Did some schoolin’ and ended up with a degree in history before sayings ‘oops’ and going for my BFA in illustration in Pasadena, California. I popped out the other side: nine years, lots of debt, and many part-time jobs later. I’ve been freelance illustrating for the past 9 years, though I’d say the last 4 years have been markedly different in terms of the growth and opportunity I’ve had. I currently live in Los Angeles with my wife and like to spice life up with board gaming, backpacking, travel, woodworking, etc.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
My first real gig illustrating board games was doing 11 half-inch counter illustrations for a little-known wargame called Heroes of the Gap. The publisher contacted me through Boardgamegeek, since I was quite active doing my own fan redesigns of games and posting the art there. In fact, my next two freelance gigs came through BGG’s Geekmail system: Catacombs 3rd edition and a game called Twin Tin Bots. The Catacombs gig I was offered specifically because I had done a fan redesign of the game with my own whimsical art and had posted it to BGG.
In 2010, I also started going to all the big conventions (Essen, Origins, Gen Con) with my portfolio and the widest grin I could muster. Back then, I’d bother every publisher booth on the floor and hopefully fly home with at least a project or two in tow. The first handful of games I illustrated were equal parts, nerve-wracking and thrilling. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an artist since then, and it’s hard to look at early projects without feeling squirmy. With my scant experience, publishers were apt to pay very little and over direct a project to death. Definitely a lot of stress in those early years was because I was learning the business side of freelancing on the go, while butchering my work/life balance, and flexing relatively weak artistic muscles.
For example, Catacombs 3rd edition was the first time I’d ever done something in that cartoony whimsical style, as I was primarily doing figurative oil paintings at the time. But, one thing that hasn’t changed is how exciting board games are for me, both playing them and being invited into the process of making them. I love being an illustrator in this industry and having a hand in so many varied and interesting projects.
Having worked in the board game industry now for a number of years, how has your relationship with clients changed as your reputation has grown?
It's awesome! In general, I get a very warm reception from folks working in this industry. Sometimes, just wearing my name badge at a convention will get me a sit down with someone important I wasn't even planning on meeting. That's nuts! Compare that to a couple of years ago, when I had to plead with people for a few minutes to look at my pitifully scant portfolio. The warmth I get is definitely attributable to the kind-hearted folks in this business, but I'm sure it also has something to do with the growing list of games I've been a part of. With my clients now, there's more trust that I can get a project wrapped on time and it can look good. Earlier projects did tend to be over-directed, with a lot of hand-holding. But I don’t blame publishers, as choosing an artist is one of the many risks they take on in the process of making a game.
A brand new illustrator thinks they are hot stuff, with a unique style and vision. Or at least, I did! And it takes a few projects to smash that down, and learn how to collaborate well and flow with others. Nowadays, I do get more say on what a project should look like, but of course it varies wildly from project to project. Some clients know exactly what they want, and some take me to the park and just want me to run and run. I like the ones that take me to the park.
The negative side of an increased reputation is an increased expectation from people. Or perhaps I have an increased expectation that other people have an increased expectation? For sure I’m harder on myself now, and more scared to make mistakes. I feel like I have to constantly hit home runs, even though I just learned how to play. Moreover, I feel like I've made a lot of different plays on almost all of my projects, visually, conceptually. Dinosaur Island looks totally different from Flipships, which looks totally different from Catacombs or Capital Lux. So I'm stressed, Ross, I'm stressed all the time.
When you're presented with illustrative work that is outside of your comfort zone and very different from what you've previously created, where do you start?
I love a challenge, though often I end up over-challenging myself. I try to pick one big project a year that I'm going to totally just throw myself off a cliff with. Either something that challenges my command of a medium or trying a new style or type of art. For example, one year that project was the thick paints and stylization in Flipships, another year it was the crazy colors and line art in Dinosaur Island. Those styles I'd never really tried before. I'm also a sucker for weird themes and new concepts.
I have a running 10-item list of themes, or styles or kernels of ideas that I want to try at some point: a bucket list of 'style-cliffs,' if I may.
Tantamount with any project, in or out of my comfort zone, is doing good research. Looking at what's been done before for that particular theme, or making sure there are facts in the factual part of a project. I feel out of my depth all the time, and oftentimes I am. Really being a freelance artist means being in your own head all the time, and a polite nudge or two from the art director or graphic designer is sometimes just the ticket to a solid piece of art.
Alright Kwanchai, you got me, what's currently at the top of that your art creation bucket list and will we see this soon?
Okay, I'll give you a few off my list.
1. Classic Gnomes. I really want to do a project that features little mischievous gnomes in red hats. You know blue shirts and tiny beards, the whole thing. I would just get a kick out of illustrating tons of little gnomes just going about their day, tormenting the house cat, stealing food from the fridge. I don't know why, I love it.
2. Really Creepy Ghosts. Have you seen Nate Hayden's games (Cave Evil, Psycho Raiders)? It's unsettling and weird and I love it. I've been jonesing to do a theme that is about ghosts or some kind of creepy supernatural thing, but not done in a cutesy style at all. Just straight terrifying and dark, with lots of heavy paint and scratchy ink lines. I have a lot of bright colors and friendly themes in my usual work and it'd be fun to throw that out the window.
3. Illustrative Type. So this would be illustrating components using only hand-drawn type and fonts. Like if a card is supposed to have a Man-eating Squirrel on it, I would hand-draw the words 'MAN-EATING SQUIRREL' on the card and illustrate the letters in a way that is thematic and immersive? Hah, I have no idea what this would end up looking like, but I've been thinking about it a lot.
4. Women's Baseball League. "A League of Their Own' the board game, or something akin to that. Love the history there.
On another note, a goal of mine is to design and illustrate my own game. I have two or three game designs that have I've been puttering around with for years. I think it would be really fun to do all the design work, play testing, pitching to publishers, graphic design, and artwork. Of course, everyone and their mom has a game design, and I'm sure anything I design would be mediocre at best. But I think going through the whole process would be a very valuable experience for me, since I've only really experienced one particular side of this industry.
You've illustrated some of the most distinctive and original board game box art in the industry, so tell me, what's your process when you come to work on a game cover and how is it different from creating other art?
Box cover art is usually the priciest line item in a project, and for good reason. It's the thing that wraps around the outside of all this important stuff. That stuff being: the designer's hopes and dreams for their baby, the publisher's investment in components, wrangling printers and scheduling, etc. So yea the cover is a big deal because it needs to speak to all the important things inside in one solid punch.
I usually begin planning a cover by looking at all the covers from any games, comics, or movies that share the genre. Then I try to cut sideways from the norm and try to come up with a concept that feels fresh. Sometimes that means using colors or a composition that atypical to the genre, or maybe using subjects that bend the stereotypes that genre. Most importantly, in my thinking, a cover needs to exude energy and investment. For example, on Bosk, a recent project with the theme of forests and trees, the publisher really wanted the forest itself to be the subject of the box cover. So I thought okay let's make the trees huge, and have a few tiny hikers in the composition just to exaggerate the scale of the trees. Or in Gorus Maximus, a game about gladiators, I wanted to make the covers just bonkers-level of dumb gore: brains popping out of helmets, crocodile sliced up like someone was playing Fruit Ninja. A composition needs to feel full of liveliness and thought. And although I don't always succeed, I think it's a far worse crime to deliver something that looks boring or typical.
As someone who started out as a figurative painter in art school, one of my crutches has always been to just throw a well-painted person on an illustration to give it that 'wow.' Lately I've been trying to get away from that crutch, wanting to see I can still do an awesome cover without a person, front and center. So for example, my recent cover for 'In the Hall of the Mountain King', it's three trolls marching into caverns on it. And I've only ever really drawn really cartoony trolls, like in Catacombs, so trying to do realistic ones was a really scary and I think it really paid off. Or in my redesign of 'The Game' for Pandasaurus, it was all just paper cut-out of shapes and abstract objects, no humans at all. I finished up the cover for Gil Hova's 'High Rise,' which is a cityscape with towering skyscrapers looming in the background. No hoomans, but still much wow I hope!
I've found success when I try to paint towards a feeling. For the cover of Bosk, I tried to assemble reference material and choose colors and a composition that reflected that feeling I get when I pass the trailhead sign on my way into a national park. For the cover of Dinosaur Island and its expansion Totally Liquid, I tried to tap into all my love of dinosaurs and growing up in the 90's: neon-dinosaur toys, Trapper Keepers covers, Capri-Sun, Disneyland, and Saturday morning cartoons. For the cover of Dual Powers, I tried to tap into the sadness of that last scene in Doctor Zhivago, a man drowning against the onward march of history and conflict.
Sensibly, publishers and game designers often want a cover to arithmetically reflect the contents of the game. They want to show every faction type in the game, the landscape, etc. This can crowd out the potential of a well-composed, beautiful piece of art. No publisher is that blunt, but given all the risks that a publisher takes on to make a product, the last thing they need is a cover that doesn't make sense or causes Kickstarter backers to form a mob, etc. But building a box cover illustration by just adding up what’s in the box and the rulebook is a total bummer for me. We poke fun at Euro box covers that have a merchant in the foreground gesturing back at a medieval city, but man there's still a lot of that going around. Just not for me. At least as an internal starting block, I believe it's crucial for an artist to paint towards an emotion, a feeling, a nostalgic moment. What comes out the other end might still end up just looking like a typical genre box cover, but I think those lofty, flamboyant inner goals are what keep me chugging along happily. There's a lot of technical things you can get good at, the longer you work in the biz: like friendly but pointed email writing, nailing deadlines while keeping buffers for personal life, etc. But I feel like the box cover is a tabletop artist's flagship product. It's the ship of the line, the cream of the crop. So you better enjoy it and you better make it sing.
The greatest critic is said to be ourselves so considering how you're always pushing yourself as an artist, are there any projects you previously worked on where you look back now and think you really nailed it?
Let me just point out that I'm not necessarily always pushing myself as an artist, though I would very much like everyone to think I am. I always try to try hard. But any given painting is a mix of blood, sweat, and tears; as well as whatever I ate that afternoon, how full my inbox is that morning, or if I've been outside more than usual that week. Moreover, the final product that sits on shelves is a larger mix of: how tight the project deadlines were, what the graphic designer did with my raw art, and how supportive and/or collaborative the publisher was during the whole process. So I can't really take credit for an amazing looking product, there's often a lot of hands that are in there and they all matter.
Frankly, I always look back on the last three projects I did and am usually the happiest with those. Anything further back, and I tend to cringe at some of the inexperience I can see evident in the artwork. So currently the last three projects are Bosk, High Rise, and In the Hall of the Mountain King. I’m really proud of those, in fact. I think they represent a good jump in my confidence and abilities that wasn't there before. In some past projects, I would approach a piece of art and truly not know if there was light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if that makes sense, but there were illustrations early in my career, with which I felt like I was drowning near the end and just couldn't get a face or a scene right no matter how hard I tried. I feel more confident in my recent work.
If I had to pick all-time favorite projects, I'd say any of my large-scale figurative paintings are probably the most objectively impressive things to look back on: Overlight RPG cover art, Galaxy Trucker poster, Capital Lux/Rebel Nox, Dual Powers etc. With my history as a figurative oil painter, I tend to lean heavily on those skill sets and the experience has some shine to it. I should mention that I happen to really like my earliest project, Catacombs. I still find the composition and colors of the box cover and components really appealing and fun.
Board game art can often play it a little safe, sticking to known themes or visual styles. So how important do you think diversity is in board game art and how would you like to see the industry change?
That's a big question! I think there’s a lot out there that looks same-y and homogenized, especially your 'European merchant trading something' game, or your 'lots of miniatures in oversized black box' sci-fi game. I am not the artist needed on a game like that, nor do I feel compelled to take on those projects when they show up in my inbox. But that's not to say that those publishers and designers don't know what they're doing. They are mainlining their target audiences with exactly what they want, and it's great that the board game world now has different mini-worlds that can argue and bicker and have opinions about who’s best. When I got into board games years ago, there were maybe a few dozen games you “had to buy” and that was it. So the glut is awesome.
As far as diversity, I think that's an even bigger question that I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer. From an art point of view, I think an easy way to add diversity to a project is to simply represent as many ethnicities, genders, or cultures in the world-building or characters. The more compelling way I've seen diversity approached are in games that delve wholly into specific niches of culture or history. For example, there was a game that came out a few years ago called Navajo Wars from GMT Games, and it was about the historical journey of the Dine (Navajo) peoples, from a specific era in history. I thought that was awesome, shining a light on a lesser-known part of history, rather than just another 101st Airborne game from a war game publisher. I think having a diverse cast of characters in a game is very cool but I think having a whole game be about something specific and unique, elevating something up and shining a light on lesser known corners of our world, is even more compelling. I'm not smart enough to come up with how that would work as a board game, but I'll definitely wax poetic on the subject!
In regards to that last question.. a final extra thought to tie into that. How much do you think Kickstarter has changed the landscape it comes to board game art?
Having worked with both Kickstarter projects and regular distribution publishing, I don't know that it makes much of a difference when it comes to doing the art. I think Kickstarter has given more opportunities for smaller publishers to get products to market, which in turn means that there's more opportunities for illustrators to get projects. So that's always good. A downside to Kickstarter, or any publishing presence on social media or BGG for that matter, is people's propensity to skewer art in a public forum. I mean, even some of the best covers I've seen get a few inane comments like: "eh, hate it" or "liked the old art better." Kickstarter is particularly bad in this regard, where some backers feel empowered to judge the art harshly. As an artist, it's crushing to see comments like that, after spending time and thought on a piece of art. Of course a piece of art should be judged on its discrete face value, especially one that is gracing a product meant to be sold. But, man, sometimes it's hard.
The people behind a lot of awesome games are often just a tiny ragtag team of: publisher, designer, artist, and graphic designer. It's easy to demand a lot from publishers and condemn failures. But I've found that overwhelmingly creators in this industry are thoughtful and emboldened to create fun things, often leaving other careers to do something they feel passionate about. I don't know what my point is there, or what I'm being defensive about. I guess, just please be nice to me all the time, is the moral to learn here.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work as an artist?
I went to a traditional art college. Let me be depressing for a moment. When I graduated from Art Center College of Design here in Pasadena, my program (like many other traditional illustration degree programs) was essentially grooming me to be an editorial illustrator. As in covers for books and magazines and the little illustrations in the Op-Ed section of a newspaper. Professors encouraged us to fly to New York and schedule meetings with print media agencies in order to drum up work, which I did twice. I didn’t find success by any metric. One book publisher did give me a pamphlet for their summer intern program. I was also taught to send out mailers using expensive databases of art director info. I sent out hundreds of mailers twice a year, punching out my cards with a corner rounder on the floor of my one-room studio, piles of letters all over my bed. Nothing shook loose for me, and it was very disheartening. I don’t think those methods are wrong, and I do think I had a very weak portfolio. But, those traditional methods now look very antiquated in the current world of illustration. It’s a wider world that includes everything from Pixar to Patreon.
At that point, I was turning 30 without a clear path, and absolutely buried in loans paid for private art school, and going through quite a bit in my personal life. I unsuccessfully applied for job after job on my college’s job board for anything art-related. The last one I tried for was an Archivist position at Yul Brynner's estate, scanning and digitizing photos. "I'm fascinated by the opportunity to work with photos from the Golden Age of Hollywood!" and "Can begin immediately!" I wrote. It was crushing after all the effort and hope I had drummed up in myself and my family and friends.
There were other graduates from my college that got work or hired by studios. They were better artists and made smarter choices during the program. But I gave up trying to be an illustrator and ended up working as a tutor at a Chinese after-school program nearby. They're a dime a dozen here. To go to work, I'd slap a laminated sign on the side of my car (Michael's Fine Art Classes!) and pick up kids from elementary school, and then help them with their homework. There was a ray of light during that time, I had managed to get into a handful of gallery shows in LA and Seattle. So I was still doing some art. They're awesome to be a part of, but I don’t think I was good enough, and it was unsustainable as a single source of income. In fact, I was still working at Michael’s Fine Art Classes two years later when the opportunity to illustrate Catacombs, my first big game, fell in my lap.
My point here is that I feel like I barely made it, and every step of this process has been jumping from one lily pad to the next. I don’t know what I’m doing. I think that’s important to say before I give any sage advice. So here goes, my five-step method to becoming a tabletop illustrator:
Step 1: Get loaded with debt at art college, and then work at a Chinese after-school program for two years.
Step 2: Go to lots of board game conventions and walk around bothering people with your portfolio.
Step 3: Hide your poor grasp of anatomy and perspective by adding tons of color and dialing up the composition to eleven. Empty space on the canvas? Here’s some geometric shapes for no reason! Magenta!
Step 4: Feel guilty about how hard your parents worked their blue-collar jobs and then transform that guilt into valuable energy. Harness energy in a myriad of ways like: trying to stop watching that Youtube video, or not napping at noon.
Step 5: Be old. Your poor choices and bad luck means you don’t have as much runway left as your youthful, smiling competitors.
But less sarcastically:
1. Explore a multitude of paths, and work whatever side jobs you need to. But when it’s go-time, make the jump and bring all your time and resources to bear.
2. Go to where the warm bodies are in this industry. Shake hands, meet people.
3. Bring energy and boldness to your art. Nuance and subtlety easily translate as boring in an industry where shelf appeal and table presence is important. Solid command of composition and values will win the day every time.
4. Treat your freelance job with integrity and respect, suit up and punch in every day.
5. Don’t waste time. A year can pass by and all you’ve done is illustrated two good pieces and checked how many likes they’ve gotten. Move and shake now, when it’s important to carve out a space for yourself.
What are some non-game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
I’ve been reading a lot of RPG books, stuff for Delta Green and OSR RPG stuff specifically. I run two RPG groups and of course a health amount of board gaming, so I’m often reading rulebooks, RPG stuff, and the like. Also, just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. Finished “The Caliphate” podcast series, very enlightening. I’ve been re-watching Parks & Rec for the zillionth time when I take breaks, since they’re quick fun bites. None of this necessarily fuels my work. As a freelancer, there’s just a ton of time spent totally alone in a room. So there’s always something I’m doing besides work, little projects, something on in the background.
Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
I usually have between 3 to 6 projects running concurrently. And there’s always a handful of wrapped project that haven’t been announced by the publisher yet. Fun stuff! But I can definitely mention High Rise, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Complexcity, Kodama 3D, and Pret-a-Porter that will be coming out in the next year or so. I’m particularly jazzed for Pret-a-Porter, because it was a big leap for me in terms of theme and working with a new publisher, Portal Games.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I’m on all the social media at @kwanchaimoriya, and my website has a full portfolio at www.kwanchaimoriya.com. I also frequent a lot of board game conventions and meetups, doing signings or panels or just walking around. I really like it when people say hi!
(All images copyright of Kwanchai Moriya)
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