Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Jennifer Closson

Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Jennifer Closson

'In Focus: Women of Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights women in all facets of the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Jennifer Closson, the Creative Director of Greater Than Games. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi. 

Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to talk to us, especially since I know it is a busy time with the Legends of Sleepy Hollow Kickstarter running. Let me start by congratulating you on your recent three-year anniversary at Greater Than Games. What it is exactly is it that you do there as a Creative Director?

As Creative Director I have the opportunity to help mold the look and feel of our products. I work with the game designers to understand the theme and mechanics of the game, then I pull together what I feel would be strong art directions for the game as well as any unique production elements we can work into the game (such as creative box designs). I have the pleasure of being able to work with extremely talented people throughout every step of the process. For example, I work directly with our artists during creation of the game and with our videographer, Trevor Casterline, to create product videos for the kickstarter campaigns as well as marketing videos such as "Thinking Inside the Box". Internally I work closely with our Graphic Designer, SaRae Henderson, and our Sales and Marketing Manager, Mara Johannes-Graham, on marketing/promotional materials and booth layout/design to ensure that our brand is represented correctly and cohesively throughout all projects. I do a bit of project management for games and upcoming conventions. I have a very useful, but slightly terrifying, wall with calendars for every month of the year to help us plan out our upcoming releases, kickstarters, and conventions. And I also travel to conventions and industry trade-shows to connect with our retailers, distributors, other designers, and artists.

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Be honest, is the coolest thing about working at Greater Than Games having yourself illustrated by Adam Rebottaro? 

It's certainly a perk that every employee looks forward to! Watching yourself come to life on Adam's screen is pretty fun. He has an amazing memory for details and drew quite a few of us without any reference imagery. 

You've worked with some very talented artists, including Nolan Nasser and Abigail Larson. Any interesting stories from collaborating with them? 

Our company has probably worked with Nolan N . Nasser the most over the course of a few projects. He was always our "go-to-guy" when we needed art in a pinch. I can remember many meetings in my office that would end with: "Sure, but we'd need all that art in about three days." "Can we ask Nolan to do that?"  I have had such a wonderful time meeting and working with numerous talented artists over the past few years. Each one has been has been a joy to work with and I always get sad to see that portion of projects come to a close when we've had good experiences collaborating over a shared vision. 

With your position and experience, do you have any advice for artists that are looking to work in the board game industry?

The biggest piece of advice I can give any artist to know your time constraints. Know how long it will take you to do a project and know when your deadlines are approaching too fast. Nothing is more challenging to an Art Director or Creative Director than having an artist run late on a project and not communicate about it. If the Director knows ahead of time that you're not sure you'll be able to complete something, then they may be able to rework a schedule or prepare the next team member who's been waiting on your art - they may even be able to work with you on extensions. Being upfront and honest is going to leave a much better, lasting impression than not completing work on time and not being willing to talk about it. We're all human - we get that things come up and life happens.

Other than that: 

1) Know what you're worth. 
2) Know your style and your limits for experimenting with other art styles.
3) Craft a tight portfolio and don't be afraid to leave pieces out - art/creative directors have to sift through TONS of portfolios, so try to keep it concise. We will ask for more examples or work with you on creating a comp piece if we want to see something specific.
4) Network and communicate! Go to shows, talk to the people who stop by your table/booth, put your art out there, leave your card with anyone you can.
5) Create a card that makes you memorable -- put your most recognized piece of art or a piece that really embodies your style on your card so an art director or creative director can easily reference your aesthetic for a project without having to hunt down your portfolio.

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I know accessibility and diversity are important to you. As creative director, how are you able to make the games you work on more accessible and diverse? 

While this is a tough topic to break into in just a few paragraphs, I'll explain an overview of my goals the best that I can.
In every project I work on -- be it the artwork we commission, the layout of the game itself, the colors of the tokens, or the set up of our booth -- I try to make an active choice every day to find ways to help celebrate the diversity of the gaming community and the world around us. I work with the game designers to create back stories for characters, if they don't already exist, that try to break traditional molds of representation and instead include diversity in gender, race, sexual orientation, and other perceived stereotypes. One game that gave us great opportunities for this was Trick-Taking: The Trick-Taking Game. Thought the game itself is small, it presented multiple opportunities to break traditional character molds through the card art of the magicians -- some of whom are based upon actual magicians of the era that were groundbreaking in their own time. Jacqui Davis, is a wonderful artist who understands the beauty and empowerment of seeing diversity in game art. She was a great choice to bring that game to life. We also made a large focus on fighting stereotypes in the artwork of Spirit Island. There was a very heavy focus on creating the Dahan people in a way that was respectful and accurate to the rough region we were placing the island in.

When it comes to accessibility, this is an area that goes from the board game itself and through the set up of our demo spaces. We work hard to create games that are color-blind friendly and include double coding to make differentiation easier. We work to create alternate rules sets for games that might have a mechanic that are difficult for certain gamers due to physical limitations. We set up our booth and demo spaces keeping items such as wheelchairs in mind to allow all gamers access to play our games. We are working to set up rules videos for each game in our catalog so that players who may have trouble with small print or trying to learn through reading can easily connect with and learn our games. And we're just getting started. My goal is to continue to find new and innovative ways to make our games accessible to all gamers at all times.

Beyond the actual artwork of a game, I also make an effort to find and support the community of developers, artists, media members, and designers that are working to create projects that also support this endeavor. I try to work with artists and learn from industry individuals that share a similar frame of mind and passion to continue to push these goals in our community.  

There have been some very successful projects coming out of Greater Than Games recently, such as Fate of the Elder Gods, Spirit Island, and Lazer Ryderz. Did you work on all of these? Have any interesting stories you can share from their development?

I was directly tied with Spirit Island and Lazer Ryderz. I took over on Spirit Island roughly a third of the way through the project (it began the groundwork before I was hired). Adam Rebottaro had done a wonderful job of finding and commissioning the initial artwork. I came in and worked on the layout, with the help of Darrell Louder, and took over as the Managing Art Director. To date, this game is the most art-intensive game we've produced with pieces from 13 different artists. It had it's challenges, but we couldn't be happier with the way the game turned out.

Lazer Ryderz was the first game that presented the right opportunity to really break the mold with packaging. As soon as I talked to the creators, Nicole Kline and Anthony Amato, I knew I wanted to make the box look like VHS tapes. I pulled together bits of all of the Saturday morning cartoons and cheesy 80s movies that I knew and loved for reference. It was a radical labor of love to try to embody everything that was great about geometric shapes, lightning bolts, neon colors, big hair, and holographic Trapper Keepers. Speaking of Trapper Keepers - I don't generally think of myself as "old", but our Graphic Designer, SaRae, proved me wrong while working on the rulebook for this game. I walked into her office practically rocking leg warmers and a perm and said "OK, I want this rulebook to look like a Trapper Keeper including highlighted notes and 'stickers' of the game characters." Said looked at me and said "I'm sorry, a what?" Good gravy - I actually had to do an internet search for "Trapper Keepers" as a tool of enrichment and teaching as opposed to a tool for reliving that epic feeling of peeling open that roughly 11" long piece of silence piercing velcro along with everyone else in the class when your teacher said to "Get out your homework". But SaRae did an excellent job bringing that vision to life.

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Are you also working on the RPG side of things, with the Sentinels Comics RPG coming out? How different is that project from the others, due to its storytelling nature and being book-based?

Yes, I have been heavily involved in the layout of the Starter Kit (which we'll be releasing soon) as well as the RPG Core Rulebook (which I'm currently working on). Part of my background includes magazine layout, so working on these projects allows me to dust the cobwebs off a lot of prior knowledge and tricks of the trade that I don't get to utilize as often in board game layouts. I really enjoy the challenge of taking giant walls of text and charts and figuring out how to create visual cues that turn 1000s of words into easy-to-digest graphics and information. It's like a giant puzzle with half of the pieces waiting to be shaped and created. 

Speaking of storytelling, while it is not an RPG, Legends of Sleepy Hollow has a strong focus on storytelling. Tell us a bit about it, what you've done with the project, and how this campaign/storytelling element has impacted your work on it.

While I can't delve too deep into the story itself for fear of spoilers, I can say that the team of Ben Pinchback, Matt Riddle, and Chris Kirkman worked tirelessly to craft a deep and immersive storyline for the game to be revealed over the course of each chapter. Each character was given a rich backstory, which became the backbone of building out their looks. I pulled reference art for each character from historical imagery as well as modern day characters from TV shows or movies and wove those together with bits of the bios to help the artist truly understand who the characters were when creating them. We gave each character a specific color palette and clothing choices that visually embodied the words on the page. We did the same for the monsters, but pulled reference imagery from pictures of the forest and overgrowth to fuse with their descriptions in the story. The artist was already intimately familiar with the subject matter as a lover of the original Legend of Sleepy Hollow story. This allowed us to really explore and push the boundaries of what had already been done and how we could create something different. We wanted to game to feel eerie, and yet full of life and personality so that you never feel bogged down by the theme during your search. Usually in a game you get one piece of art to embody the entire story of one card, but in this game we get to expand the world of our characters in each playthrough giving them new equipment and skills along the way - each with unique artwork to help tell their tale.

Sleepy Hollow also has another game that comes with the Kickstarter pledge -- Lost in the Woods. What kind of game is this? How did it get put into the campaign?

Lost in the Woods is a single-player game that allows you to play as Ichabod Crane in the story line of Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. You are trying to race to the covered bridge after your evening at the Van Tassel mansion, but there are fiendish beasts in the woods that seek to slow you down as the Headless Horseman grows ever-closer. Time is not always on your side, and you must cross the bridge before the stroke of midnight. This game was included in the Kickstarter because we wanted to have a small homage to the original story that we all know and love since it's the foundation for where Legends of Sleepy Hollow begins. The art for this game, created by Jessi Olney, is based upon folk art and stained glass windows. As you build out Ichabod's path to, hopefully, victory you're creating a stained glass mural telling the tale of his fated encounter with the Headless Horseman. Some of the art has direct ties to the artwork done by Abigail Larson for Legends of Sleepy Hollow.

Stepping back for a moment, how has the merger between Greater Than Games and Dice Hate Me gone? Do you think there is brand confusion between the two brands, along with the Sentinels Comics and Fabled Nexus brand lines?

The merger between GTG and Dice Hate Me Games was completed a couple years ago and the process was quite exciting for both parties involved. Chris Kirkman has a great eye for talented designers and exciting games. As a part of the merger, we tried to create distinct imprints for our games to help assist our customers in knowing basic facts regarding the theme of the game before they play it. However, as we've continued to listen to the community, we've grown increasingly aware of how that has possibly created more confusion than it has solved. We have begun to pull back the use of those imprints to help create a more unified brand under Greater Than Games.  Between the games Chris brings to the company and our already solid catalog of games from internal designer, Christopher Badell, we've been able to improve the quality of and expand the quantity of great titles that we can bring to the gaming community.

When you're not working on all these games, what games do you most like to play? 

I have a bit of range when it comes to games that I enjoy playing. I tend to gravitate towards abstract or puzzle games, RPGs or story-based cooperative games, mid-tier strategy games, and light-hearted games. I also have games that I play just because they're so wonderful to look at. For me, gaming is all about having fun with the other people at the table. So, with that in mind, I tend to stay away from some of the heavier strategy or more cut-throat tactics games. I don't like having anyone at the table feeling like the game was against them or they had no chance of catching up due to one strategic error. It's all about balance, cooperative elements, intriguing themes, enough depth to keep the game challenging, and an overall enjoyable experience. The games I've played most recently include: The Captain is Dead, Ethnos, Unearth, and Kingdomino.

Anything else you'd like us to know about you? Any interesting hobbies or pastimes?

When not at work or playing games, I'm spending time investing in my friends and family - including our beloved rescue pets (two cats, one dog, and a bird). My husband and I also focus on activities such as enjoying movies, traveling, hiking, training at the gym, finding new trails to ride our bikes, reading books/comic books/graphic novels/anything else with words on a page, visiting every locally-run coffee shop we can find, and generally trying to squeeze the most out of life that we can. We've tried everything from boxing, to fencing, to beer brewing, to horse riding and we're not done yet. I also have a particular fondness for taking naps! Currently, I'm indescribably excited about Stranger Things Season 2. I make an effort to support foundations such as the ASPCA, Be The Match, and the ACLU, among others. You never know where in life you'll find inspiration or who you can learn something from. For me, the only way to find out is to take a step out my door and see what the day has to offer. (OK, so truthfully I generally have to drive my car out of the garage, but that just didn't seem to have the same ring to it.)

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