Roland MacDonald joins Diagonal Move this month to talk about his work illustrating board games, including the Undaunted series and Final Girl.
Thanks for joining us today, Roland. Your artistic career began in a video game environment, can you tell us about that experience?
I started as a 3D artist on PS2 games at Creative assembly before moving to the Total War team. Computer games were a good place to get started and I learn a lot of different skills. It gave me the time to become a real expert with photoshop. After a while I got tired of 3D modelling. I found it too creatively limiting so I started drawing again. After a couple of years of hard practice, I was asked to join the Shogun 2 Total War team as a concept artist and illustrator. This was a turning point for me. I got to draw every day and make a real impact on the project. I love Ukiyo-e printmaking so making illustrations in that style and helping the team bring that flavour to the whole project was great.
When and why did you transfer from the video game industry to board game projects?
Shogun 2 gave me the confidence and the skills to go freelance. Which coincided with me moving from the UK to the Netherlands. Computer games were fun but the prospect of working on more Total War iterations was not that exciting to me and in truth I am more of a solo act than a team player. It took four years of working with all sorts of different clients before I decided to really pursue board games.
I had started playing a lot more board games around 2014 and thought it would be a really enjoyable arena for more creative types of illustration. Up until then a lot of my freelance work was commercial illustration. In 2015 I decided to go to Essen Spiel and try to talk to publishers. In order to get noticed I made a very special ‘business card’. I designed a card-based version of Cluedo (called Suspicion), fully illustrated it and printed two hundred copies to give away. It was a big project and not cheap, but it made a big impact. Unlike a business card it was unlikely to be thrown out and it was both a portfolio and a talking point. It got me a lot of meetings even without appointments (btw Do make appointments!! Publishers are very busy at Spiel)
How much ‘carry over’ is there from one medium to the other?
Computer games at this stage is a very developed industry with hundreds of people contributing to a single project. It is very professional but is also cautious. Board games as a business is still very amateur and very small. Even the bigger companies. The plus side is a wealth of creativity. Small teams mean your contributions have a real impact in shaping the product and project lengths a much shorter. Which I particularly appreciate. I worked on Shogun 2 for two years plus. Working on short projects is much more fun.
Technically, as an illustrator the job in either field is largely the same. I do everything digitally. Making the tiles for Undaunted uses a lot of the texture tiling techniques from games texturing. Item design and character are really not that different.
In terms of a project, how do you develop artwork from an initial brief to a finished design?
This depends so much on the client, the scale of the project and the budget. Now that I am more experienced and have repeat clients who trust me to get good results, I often get a lot of freedom to develop a look and feel.
Research is the most overlooked part of the process and is a big stage of any project for me. For most projects I make a Pinterest board that I share with the client to explore ideas and get us on the same page. From a communication point of view I like to run all of my projects via Trello (a project management tool for free) this removes the need for emails and keeps everything easy to find and discuss in one place. I like to update this regularly so the client can keep up to date and so I can get quick feedback. I highly recommend it to other illustrators.
I usually fully work out one or two illustrations to establish colour and style before returning to a more standard work mode of showing sketches, making small changes and then painting. My sketches are often quite loose as I like to work out details whilst painting. It keeps the whole process interesting.
If it is a big project I will move between different parts of the project or switch between different projects to stop getting fatigued from repetition. For example, in Undaunted Stalingrad there are a lot of soldiers as each troop has an upgraded version and often a reinforcement replacement. So when I got tired of drawing them I worked on the map of Stalingrad which was also an epic task. This time it is a single huge map but most of the tiles have two of three different damage states. Switching between Soldiers and tiles kept me fresh and engaged throughout.
I work digitally from sketch to final and almost exclusively in Photoshop. Sketching and painting with a 27” Wacom Cintiq. If a project needs a lot of worldbuilding I do go to a cafe with a sketchbook and Pinterest and do some concept art on paper. I did this with Ruination a fair bit.
How do you build on the work of others, for example for an expansion or for a retheme, such as Battle Line?
Battle Line was a personal project that grew into a full production. I wasn’t willing to pay for the original as I found it too ugly so that was just a complete overhaul. By contrast I did an expansion case for Detective City of Angels. That was originally illustrated by Vincent Dutrait! A real master. So that was very scary to do. There was no point trying to ape his style but I wanted to make my work feel comfortable alongside the base game art. I tried doing some sketches for a more painterly style but in the end found a middle ground that I am pleased with and tied in well with the original.
With Undaunted, each box has slightly different treatments. They all sit well together but small adjustments keep it interesting for me to do the ‘same’ project over and over. Stalingrad is grittier and epic and the art reflects that. Working in a style you developed years ago when you have gotten a lot better over time can become frustrating, so it is also nice to be able to move on to new projects and try something fresh.
How much research do you do for a historical game such as Undaunted and how does this shape the final work?
Research is a big part of the Undaunted series. Osprey supplies me with a few books and I do as much research as I can online. Time and budget are the limiting factors. For the most part we try and get as much right as possible. There is a lot of conflicting/low quality imagery out there though and I am not a WW2 buff, so I rely on the Osprey history nerds to catch errors. It is an enjoyable part of the process, but it is easy to get lost in it. I have way too many reference pictures of guys with guns.
In addition to your work as an artist, you’ve designed your own game, Ruthless. Please tell us more about it and how the process of game design and development differs to the design and development of art?
Ruthless a pirate themed deckbuiding/hand management game, was published in 2018 after two years of development and illustration in my spare time. I started out by wanting to make a more involved deckbuilding game that was more think-y than just playing all five cards, rinse and repeat until someone wins. Players are competing over a series of rounds to build the best crews, poker style sets. You only play a ‘single’ card from your hand each turn which makes the decision space more involved and timing and bluffing become important making a more interactive game experience. Obviously there is a lot more to it than that. Last year I designed and published a big expansion to the game which I am very proud of.
Designing a game exercises some of the same creative muscles as illustrating and in some ways is also like playing a game or solving puzzles. The testing phase is a lot like developing a character or building a world. Lots of iterations and changes slowly improving the whole until everything comes together. Ruthless was very much a mechanics/experience led design. The pirate theme just seemed to fit really well with the gameplay. Which I was not happy with at first as pirates are so cliche but in the end it comes together very well and in the expansion the theme was able to influence the mechanics much more. Introducing the Kraken, famous pirates and quests.
What are your most memorable experiences, good and bad, from your career to date?
Working on Final Girl Seasons 1 and 2 was a lot of fun. I know the guys at Van Ryder Games and they trusted me to run wild with those projects and explore new ideas.
Ruination is a game where I had total free reign and I had a blast. I got to go wild with colour and world building designing moons and doing all of the graphic design too and that project really pops.
I did the art for a football game back in 2011 that was pure hell. I totally undercharged. The designer wanted endless changes and I don’t even like football. It is my freelance horror story. I learned a lot the hard way on that one.
Are you able to tell us about any forthcoming games or pipeline projects you are working on?
The biggest title on the way is of course Undaunted Stalingrad. Coming out in Q4. This is a much more ambitious iteration of the Undaunted system. Where the outcome of games has a real impact. Troops can get experience and gain new skills or die permanently. Equally the battlefield will change depending on your own games. If you blow up a building that tile will get replaced with a damaged version and may even be completely flattened, making way for tanks in future scenarios. Of course, all of these variations required a huge amount of extra drawings. It was as epic to work on as it will be to play. David and Trevor just keep knocking it out of the park.
Everything else is kinda still top secret. I am working with Bezier, Kolossal and Van Ryder games between now and February and There is more from Osprey in the pipeline too
What advice would you give to budding artists?
I highly recommend doing your own version of a game you love to play but hate to look at. This will teach you how to work on a whole project and give you real design challenges. Making one off characters or picture is fine but designing a series of illustrations that all come together and work in service of the gameplay is a big step towards being a professional.
If you are only just getting started, then the advice is: practice a lot. Like every day whenever you have a break. When I was retraining myself to draw, I drew people waiting for the bus. Sketched ideas over coffee and did at least one hour of digital sketching / studies a day. You get out what you put in.
All images in this article were provided by Roland. You can read more about Roland at his website here.