Kwanchai Moriya talks board game art in February’s Diagonal Move interview.
DM: Hi Kwanchai, thank you for joining us today. Many readers will be familiar with artwork you have created for well-known games such as Flipships and Dinosaur Island. Can you tell us how art and board games crossed over for you to become a career?
KM: Hello and thank you for speaking with me! My career had quite a few twists and turns. I cobbled together two degrees, History and Illustration, from a handful of different colleges and universities and had many odd jobs. Eventually I found myself in Los Angeles, with very little opportunities at the time. I was working as an afterschool English and Math tutor to make rent, while doing odd gallery shows here and there. Board games had already been a big hobby of mine for some time, and eventually through a few lucky breaks I eventually got my first real gig, Catacombs 3rd edition, illustrating characters and boards for it late into the night after getting home from work. From there, I took that one board game I had done, and started attending tabletop conventions and meeting with publishers, trying to get more work, and my career steadily built up from there.
DM: Much of your board game work is sci-fi and fantasy based…have you developed this this an extension of your own interests or has this developed because of the games you have been are asked to work on?
KM: I have been a big fan of science fiction and fantasy books and shows since I was very young, especially older stuff like Isaac Asimov’s Robot series and Foundation series. I like to re-read the Lord of the Rings every few years. So yea, consuming fantastic worlds is definitely a part of my hobby and it surely bleeds into my work. For example, I get a lot of project pitches that have some sort of retro sci-fi art direction, and I think that’s likely because I have a lot of personal work that leans in that direction.
DM: Are there specific techniques or styles that you use when designing artwork for games?
KM: I like to try new things and styles constantly. In tabletop publishing, everything needs to end up as a digital file, but the way you start a project does greatly influence the process and the final look. So sometimes I might start a painting with oils and real paintbrushes and then scan it, and finish it digitally. But for the most part, it’s an entirely digital process done primarily in Photoshop and employing the use of a good set of custom Photoshop brushes.
DM: Could you describe the process game art undergoes to take it from commission to published work?
KM: It varies wildly. A small card game might need just a box cover wrap and a dozen cards, which I’d estimate at around two months or so. A typical sized board game would require a gameboard, player boards, a box cover, cards, and more, and might take up to 5 or 6 months, even a year sometimes. The quickest turnaround I’ve ever done is probably The Game for Pandasaurus Games. They needed a quick turnaround to make a print deadline for the holidays, and I just ran with it. I’ve found that very quick turnarounds or very long turnarounds make for the best artwork, for some reason. Like Bosk, was a super quick few weeks, but is one of my favourite looking projects. And then something like 7 Summits was almost a year or a year and half in the end because of a delay in the project, but I had so much time to go back and rework the box cover.
DM: As an artist your work is usually the first thing a player sees, on the box cover or on the board. How do you conjure the feeling of playing the game using your art – or does your art serve to create that feeling?
KM: It’s an illustrator’s job, I think, to give the game a presence, a world. The cover and everything inside are each opportunities to reinforce and invigorate that world. Usually quite a lot is left up to me, once a general art brief and theme has been given. And I’ve found that as I’ve grown as an artist, clients have become more and more trusting of my intuition, and there is less hand-holding happening. The most freedom I’ve ever had on a project is probably Curious Cargo by Capstone Games. They had all the bones of a shipping/receiving theme but needed more “stuff.” So Brigette Indelicato, a fantastic graphic designer I often work with, and I came up with three playful types of animated goods and kind of built an atmosphere around them. Super fun!
DM: Could you highlight some examples of board game art that stand out for you and why?
There’s an abundance of top of the line artwork in board games these days. So much illustration and design to be inspired by and to look towards for inspiration. Off-hand I’d say anything by Mr. Cuddington, Ian O’Toole, and Andrew Bosley, to name just a few. Vincent Dutrait’s command of traditional mediums in Robinson Crusoe and Lewis & Clark were early inspirations for me. The colors and expressiveness in use with Jacqui Davis’ work, like Colosseum and Ex Libris. There’s so much to feel inspired and also challenged by!
DM: You have worked with games from many genres. Are some genres more challenging to create art for?
Genres that have very specific details, perhaps historical or factual, or a setting that requires particular details to be right geographically, etc. are harder to nail down. It takes more research beforehand to make sure you are getting things right. The original Cryptid game and its new cousin Cryptid: Urban Legends were both really exciting to research, because who doesn’t like looking up urban myths and supernatural folk creatures? To do research for those games, I would put on a Bigfoot podcast and just deep dive into some library books on the matter. All sorts of weird, interesting bits to look at.
DM: How do you weave functionality/ease of use into your art?
Functionality and ease of use is a part of my job, but it is much more key for the graphic designer. Although I have done the dual duty of illustration and graphic design on smaller games, I usually leave that job to much more capable hands.
DM: You’ve also created art for new editions of previously released games, for example, The Game. Are there any special considerations when working with games already in the public consciousness?
The consideration to be made when working on a new edition of a well-loved game is two-fold. First, you need to identify the things that really “work” about the existing edition, whether it be certain visuals or the importance of certain physical components. And then secondly, you need to focus as much of your creativity in making those key elements really stand out with great artwork, while chopping away all the elements that didn’t work or detracted. A lot of times, though, I’m brought on to a project because there’s just a serious need for more art on the new edition. Like The Game, which was plain white numbers on identical cards, there was quite a lot of space to create and innovate.
DM: Can you tell us anything about projects you are currently working on?
I’m working on so many fun projects, it’s hard to keep track when one finishes and another begins. I just finished working on a game called Rolling Heights published by AEG which should be coming out this month, it’s a really fun design by John D. Clair. I’m also working on another game by John, with Brotherwise Games, called Empire’s End, which might be one of the more complex box covers I’ve done. I’m also working on a few expansions for some of the better-known games that I’ve done in the past. Lots of great stuff.
DM: Finally, do you have any tips for artists looking to begin a career working in the board game industry?
I would say the biggest thing that’s helped me grow a career is to reach out to publishers at tabletop conventions. It’s still a small world in this industry, and I think pounding pavement with your portfolio is a very honest and trustworthy way to test your mettle.
You can read more about Kwanchai’s work on his website here.