If you read previous YAAH! issues you may know me as one of game reviewers, but professionally I am a freelance graphic artist who works for wargaming companies. When Tom Russell requested this time an article about my work instead of a review, my first thought was that this will be the most boring piece of writing I’ve committed so far. Who (besides some graphics nerds) would like to read about bezier’s curves and anchors placing? If asked how my process looks like, my answer would be: I’m getting a project, I think about it, sometimes conduct some research and then I do it in Adobe Illustrator as best as I can. End of story. Now I just need something to fill another two-thousands-something words. But what?
I turn for a help to my best friend – Danusia, who I love dearly, but who has no interest in the boardgames whatsoever (no one is perfect, right?). And in just one short phone call, she managed to come up with sixteen things she would like to know about my work. In the next hour, she sent me an e-mail with another twenty or so questions. Surprised I turned to more friends and they came up with a bunch of things too. Few questions appeared in many responses and I decided to try to follow on those. I cross my fingers (and it is very hard to type that way) that I won’t bore you, dear reader, and I hope that next time my review game will come to me on time.
NARNIA OF MINER’S DAUGHTER
or why I started to work in wargames industry.
I started to work on wargames relatively recently – in 2014 – but I was a graphic designer long before that happened. However working on logotypes, websites, ads, even posters wasn’t particularly satisfying for me. It was just a job. But I was very passionate about boardgames. I played them, I read and write about them, discuss them on BGG and CSW. So when opportunity came to make a graphic for one of them I thought that was it! Well, that’s not exactly true… My first thought was “NO!”. I concluded that I’m not Mark Simonitch or Charles Kibler and I don’t know how to do this kind of graphics right, so better not to do it at all. However some time of self-doubt and couple of panic attacks later, I decided to give it a try. Temptation of doing something I actually care about and like was simply too great.
And I love maps! Maps fascinated me and were part of my life since I was little. My father was a surveyor and cartographer in a black coal mine. When I was a child he used to bring home huge sheets of rolled paper with black and white plotter printed maps of Katowice. I was able to see how the city looked like – both over and under the ground. I quickly learnt how to read those maps – building, roads, parks, but also shafts, coal beds, tunnels. I wasn’t even six when I already knew how to read depth of coal deposits. And for me all of this had an amazing three-dimensional, fairy-tale-like feel! Narnia of miner’s daughter.
My father used to borrow my colored pencils to adjust those prints. Later I became his tireless helper in putting those corrections on the maps. I colored different levels of coal beds, green terrains, rivers. All put with even pressure and with high accuracy, of course. Otherwise I would be dismissed. This is how perfectionism is born, you know.
So as you can see love for maps has to me a sentimental value and is rooted deep into me. How could I deny myself working on maps? Impossible.
or how do I start my work on a project.
You know that feeling when you are excited like a child before opening Christmas presents? I do. I have that feeling every time Jon Compton from One Small Step Games sends me a message that new projects sit in our shared Dropbox folder. Taking a first look inside is always like unwrapping a gift. And like in Christmas, sometimes inside the (drop)box there is a pair of socks and sometimes a shiny bicycle. But in contrary to the real life, in terms of new projects, for me socks are far better than any bicycle. Why? The best files to start with are the simplest ones. Best if totally ugly, hand-drawn sketches. Having those to start with is basically giving my imagination a complete freedom to work on its own. You can easily say that by handing me over a “socks project”, my imagination is like Harry Potter’s Dobby – set free.
Every project is a bit different and what I’m starting with variates from abstract blotches on hexes, through scans of historical lithographs, to fully developed board game maps from the ’70s. Usually, I’m also provided with a rulebook or at least a draft of one. Otherwise, I tire a developer with too many questions.
Surprisingly seldom I’m also given designer’s specific wishes regarding how the map should look like. Most of the times I have a pretty much open field for my interpretation. But don’t you even think that guidance is a bad or disheartening thing for me, as it is not. A shared experience of such a board game design veteran as for example Ty Bomba cannot be less than educative. Even if sometimes it may not be right up your alley but then only by leaving our comfort zone we may learn something truly new.
In rare cases, there is a need for some extra research. That often turns out to be a tricky bit of work, as there are not as many historical maps on the internet as I would like to find. Most difficult to find turned out to be maps of cities from very specific times. Cities, as strange as it may sounds, are quite organic in its growth and they are evolving very fast. Buildings are raised then torn up, streets change their names with every new government system. Those informations need to be precise. To my help come friendly librarians and amazing gamers society. With maps of wider terrain, google earth is just irreplaceable. But it’s always good to double check some features with books. Or at least I sleep sounder when they are.
ANCHORS PLACING AND LINES BENDING
or how creating a new map looks like.
When base files are ready, I proceed to Adobe Illustrator where most of the magic is happening. Illustrator in contrary to popular Photoshop isn’t a raster program, but a vector one. This means that in Photoshop line or any object is constructed with pixels, while in Illustrator line is composed of two control points (anchors) connected by computer algorithm to form of a path. Random fact about my work: averagely my wargame map consists of 5000 objects and those are made from 85.000 anchors – a lot of clicking.
Enough of technical mambo-jumbo! Lets go to the process. But first, I would like to remark that how I work, is my way of doing things. I don’t know if this is the right way or the best one, but it suits me.
In every graphic project I follow one basic rule – start from generality and work towards details. With maps, the first thing to do is making sure that scale, proportions and composition are right. Which means preparing hex grid which would cover paper sheet best and to make sure that counters would fit inside the hexes nicely. In the area or point-to-point maps it means to prepare shape of the land – most often shorelines – and all the areas, which need to be big enough to make a play comfortable. At that point is also good to think about spared space which would be used for a title and possible charts and tables.
My Illustrator draft usually looks like a drunk spider’s web. I mark all borders, roads, rivers, cities, level of ground and other terrain features with different colors, yet completely simple lines. All of those things, which later will share the same visual style (so they will have the same color, textures, shades, etc.) are drawn in separate layers in strict order they will appear on the screen. This means that layer with, what later will become, rivers and streams will be over a layer with grass, but under a layer which contains bridges and roads, etc.
This is the most focus-needed stage of my work, as it is utterly important to lead roads and rivers through right hexes, not to miss any hexsides changes of ground levels and place all cities in the right spots. When that precise work is done, then fun and creativity start. This is the time to put some simple TV series on the second monitor and start to go through layers of graphic and consequently made all those lines look like they should – like a terrain.
Rivers need to have more organic shape, so I use width tool to make springs thinner, deltas wider and banks more irregular. Then from most back layer to front one I add colors, textures, shadows, inner glows and other subtle things. Things which you as a customer won’t probably even consciously notice, but without which terrain would look flat or simply incorrect. As my friend and fellow graphic artist, Tim Allen once said about that part of the job: “if one screw this, rivers will appeared to others as long lines of blue toothpaste” and that says it all.
Of course every map, unless is a part of a series, needs to have a special look. I try not to use same colors and textures configurations twice and that makes me to experiment a lot. This is a fun but time consuming work which sometimes may be a bit frustrating as you try to do the same thing for thirty second time but differently than every time before. When all terrain is ready then it is a time to take care of all names, a title and tables.
That is pretty much it. I send a file to developer and/or designer and they send me back theirs comments. Usually it takes two to three files exchanges to correct small issues or to add some ideas. I really appreciate good feedback as it usually meliorate final product considerably.
I haven’t mentioned here a process of working on counters. Well, if I thought that reading about making maps may bore you, dear reader, then I’m completely positive that reading about making counters would put you in a coma. Why? Because making counter is all about two things – mathematical precision and contrast.
or various things you may not know about wargaming industry.
I mentioned briefly the importance of a good feedback. During my work, communication is crucial to the success of a project. There are often some questions regarding rules, there are some ideas which need to be backed up or dismissed and sometimes there are some disagreements regarding the functionality of some elements which need to be resolved. This is work of a game developer. You see their names on the boxes and you often think that this is the person who just read rules, signed contracts and put his or her name on the box. A good game developer is, however, a bridge between all involved parties, a master of communication and well-organized project manager – Nick Fury of board games publishers.
Often people in this industry are very passionate about their jobs (hell I am!), and then for a game designer and a graphic artist current project is the apple of their eyes. Sometimes designer and a graphic artist may think that different solutions are best for the game. Truth is that no-one (definitely not me) has the monopoly for being right but both parties care about the project. The role of a game developer is to decide how to resolve such difference of opinions, the role is to conduct a constructive dialogue between involved people and to finally decide what is in the best interest of a gamer. When a game works and looks really nice, then it’s often thanks to a game developer’s merit. So don’t you ever undervalue that name on the box!
And speaking of people. As I wrote at the beginning I have been a graphic designer for much longer than I work on wargames. What surprises me a great deal about that particular market are people. I have never before experienced such a freedom of creativity. And before working for the gaming industry, I have never encountered such open-minded and straightforward employers. But what is absolutely amazing for me is an attitude of other boardgames graphic artists. They are not only very supportive and ready to share their knowledge and give you the most valuable professional feedback but will also recommend you to their publishers or re-direct their projects to you. Wow! What a difference after years spent in the all-competitive world of business graphic.
In conclusion, I really love my work. I wouldn’t change it for anything else, even if I could. Well, maybe except for commanding USS Enterprise but I doubt that will ever happen to me. I like to work with maps, I find work-relations very positive and open and hey, I’m getting free games too. But I have to admit, that gamers reactions to my work are most rewarding. All the feedback and words of support I’m receiving from you is just amazing. Thank you!