Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Stephanie Gustafsson
'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 Stephanie Gustafsson, the graphic designer of Coup G54 Rebellion, One Night Revolution, Grifters, Colony, New York Slice, Whistle Stop, Lucidity, and many more. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
You are the graphic designer of some very well-known board games, but before we discuss that, do you enjoy playing board/card/role-playing games? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I'm a big fan of board gaming, role-playing and miniature war games. My husband introduced me 6 years ago and I've been hooked ever since. We play regularly with friends and some of my favourites are Gloomhaven, Chaos in the Old World, Kingdom Death Monster, Tanto Cuore, Lisboa, and Lobotomy. Games with cards and deck manipulation I enjoy the most. I enjoy the tactile feel of the cards in my hand. Probably from my habit of shuffle cards in my hand while playing Magic The Gathering.
You did the graphic design for Coup G54 Rebellion, One Night Revolution, Grifters, Colony, New York Slice, Whistle Stop, Lucidity, and many more games. Have you played the games that feature your artwork? If so, do you have any favorites?
Normally as part of my contract for design I'm sent a copy of the printed game for my personal records. So I've tried most of the games I've worked on. My favourites that have been published so far are Coup G54 Rebellion from IB&C and New York Slice by Bezier Games. They've been a hit with my gaming group between longer games and easy to pick up for my non-gamer friends.
Did you get to play early prototype versions of those games before they were published? If so, did it help inform your graphic design on those projects?
Since I'm located in Sweden and most of my clients are from the U.S. or overseas, I don't have the chance to play many prototypes. Sometimes the designers have a digital version on Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator, but most of the time I have to be satisfied with reading the rules and visualizing the game steps. Whistlestop was one game I did get to try during the middle of the project. The prototype had been updated before Essen and I got to sit down with Ted and try it out. It really helped confirm if I went in the right direction with the artwork, but honestly I had already started the concept work so it only affected the layouts of the player boards and some component sizes.
When you work, do you use pencils and pens on paper, paint on a canvas, or do you work digitally?
I usually don't do illustration work for games. But if I do, I work digitally using Photoshop and Clip Studio. I have a nice setup at home with a Wacom Intuos Tablet and color calibration hardware to ensure I'm viewing the correct colors in relation to it in print. My styles are high fantasy, anime and semi realistic.
For design I use the industry standards: Adobe Indesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. When I'm working I have all three running, and I jump between them regularly depending on the task.
The art style of Whistle Stop is very unique, with the white space and pastel colors. How did you come up with that look?
The idea behind it was to make a visually appealing train game that didn't look like anything else on the market. Other train games have very bright primary colors or heavy realistic textures. I found it difficult to rest my eyes on the boards, so I went with a more friendly pastel palette. I also wanted to appeal to gamers who were not particularly interested the train genre and would interest them enough to pick up the box. One of my favourite game graphic designers, Ian O'Toole, also does wonderful vintage vector style artwork, which helped inspire me to try to focus on a clean retro style crossed with Sim City.
What are the deadlines like when you work in the board game industry? Do you prefer doing larger pieces like working on boxes or boards, or working on smaller individual card art?
Deadlines can be quite strict for board games. Games are often booked months in advance with a printer, so it's important all the print files are ready to go. Otherwise the delay could push delivery back by months. Especially if the delay pushes into Chinese New Year celebrations. Publishers also like timing their games to be printed by August for Gen-con or October for Essen Spiel.
For design, my preference is with the cards and boards. Once I feel I've balanced the information that needs to be conveyed with the visual appeal, I start working on other items including the logo and box. Sometimes I'm just hired to do the concept work and I hand them over to the in-house graphic designer to refine, finalize and replicate. Other time's I've enjoyed having complete control over the design direction and I take the project from conception to completion.
You've done a lot of work for IB&C and Bezier. What is it like working for these two companies?
Bezier Games and IB&C have been great to work with. IB&C is actually the first publisher to work with me when I started in the board game industry. They really helped me get the foot in the door and gain valuable experience with the whole process. Travis from IB&C was also the one to introduce me to Ted at Bezier Games. They had just collaborated on One Night Revolution, which I worked on. The variety of work I've gotten from them has been central to building my portfolio to where it's at today. I've never been pegged into just one design style and I have the flexibility to experiment often.
You are the graphic designer for the upcoming Ultimate Werewolf Legacy, designed by Ted Alspach and Rob Daviau. Any inside info you can tell us about it?
Yes, I've worked on the initial concepts for UWL and I'm excited that UW is expanding into a legacy version. It feels like it really suits this format as it ties multiple sessions into a campaign. It's set in the 1600's and focuses around the events happening around your new settlement. You will be recording your progress in a "Diary" and characters can be upgraded over time. I had a chance to read the beta rules but I know the game has changed a lot so it will be a surprise even to me.
Are you working on any other upcoming board game projects that you can tell us about?
Whistle Stop is getting an expansion! I just finished the cover art last week and it's called the Rocky Mountains expansion. Unfortunately the game is still in prototyping so I don't know much more than that.
The other game I'm wrapping up for print is the really ambitious Middara. Its a dungeon crawler RPG game with a choose your own adventure story plot. The adventure is a mixture of scenarios, choices and story passages. I'm really hoping the game will be a success like Gloomhaven. It's really been a labour of love by Succubus Publishing. Just to give you a quick comparison as to the size of the game, it is currently weighing in at 10kg, which is the same as Gloomhaven.
Are you currently looking for more board game designer/publisher clients? If so, what is the best way for them to contact you?
Right now I estimate I'm fully booked until the end of March. But I'm always interested in new projects with different styles. People can best contact me via email (email@example.com) or Skype (stephaniegustafsson86).
Anything else you'd like to share with us before we let you go? Hobbies, interests or passions?
Apart from gaming and design I enjoy painting miniatures, painting anime resin kits, cross stitching, and reading fantasy novels. It's hard getting enough time in the week to fit things in, so I go through stages where I concentrate on one hobby for a month or two and cycle between my interests.
I also enjoy attending conventions and running game demos of games I've worked on. I'll actually be running a demo for Middara and KDM at a local board game convention in Sweden called Lin-con and if Succubus Publishing attends Essen, i'll be demoing there as well.