Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Tania Walker

Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Tania Walker

'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry.  Our guest this week is Tania Walker, the Art Director for Jellybean Games. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi. 

Tania, thanks for joining us, and before we get into your career, let's talk a bit about what kind of games you like to play! What are some of your earliest memories playing games? What were some recent favorites? 

I grew up on the same old classics as most: a bit of Cluedo, a lot of Scrabble, the gimmicky ones like Operation and Mousetrap, and the occasional frustrating attempt at playing a decent game of Monopoly. The first two are absolute classics and still stand shoulder to shoulder with the best games of today, but the rest didn't leave much of an impression on me. I didn't get into modern games until around 2007, when my friends and I got hooked on Killer Bunnies. I remember looking at the art on the cards and thinking, "I could do this. Someday, I'm going to do art for a card game." 

As for what I play nowadays, well, it isn't Killer Bunnies anymore. My taste is hard to pin down and is strongly tied to who I'm playing with: when I throw parties it's social deduction and shouty games like Secret Hitler and Monikers; when I'm with my partner it tends to be long thoughtful euros like Lords of Waterdeep and Terraforming Mars; and for leisurely games days I like co-op titles like Forbidden Island/Desert, Mysterium, and Betrayal at House on the Hill. I still play Scrabble often, and I'm a huge fan of word games like Codenames. Finally, I love games that are beautiful and/or involve some element of collecting - Splendor is a longtime favorite, I've recently gotten into Jaipur, and Azul is probably the game I've been most excited about recently. As for favorite designers: this is an odd one, but I absolutely love Oink Games. They pack a ton of value into these tiny boxes, and their design and illustration style is to die for. 

I'm also nuts for tabletop roleplaying games, and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn't discover these until adulthood.

What are some of your favorite RPGs? Are you playing any currently?

I came into RPGs quite late, during the recent renaissance of more nimble, lightweight systems. I love Dungeon World (and Apocalypse World, the engine it's based on) and I've really been enjoying D&D 5e since its release too, as it's streamlined and adopted some of the best parts of lighter systems. I've also had great fun with horror games in Dread -- the one you play with a Jenga tower instead of dice -- and a couple of memorable encounters with Lady Blackbird, both DMing and playing. Oh, and Mouse Guard is lovely too! Actually I could list systems forever -- it's an amazing time to be into RPGs. Right now I'm involved in a regular 5e campaign playing through Storm King's Thunder, and occasional more experimental one-shots with another group, as well as a once-yearly game during PAXAus with a group of some of my favorite people in the world. I've done a fair bit of DMing too -- for a year or so I ran a game with a rotating roster of over a dozen players (and on one memorable occasion I ran the game with all of them playing at once). 

I'm a huge fan of the format. Compared to boardgames, the flexibility has downsides and upsides. The downsides I see are the reliance of finding a great DM and solid group of players who are all on the same page; this is a much more important factor for TTRPGs than it is when playing board games. The upside is the creativity, the collaborative storytelling -- the ability to inhabit a person outside of yourself and explore entire worlds. Board games, video games, books; all of those touch on elements of this, but none scratch the itch quite like a great TTRPG with a quick-thinking DM and a group of players all committed to building amazing memories together.

Before becoming a board game artist, you worked as an animator at Disney, creating art for poker machine games, and creating toys and novelties. Tell us a bit about these experiences and how they've helped you evolve as an artist.

I was 21 when Disney accepted my application, on my second attempt (I applied for the first time while still in high school and in hindsight I'm glad I didn't get in then - stay in school, kids!). Back then I was a huge Disney fan; working for them was my life's dream, and their films had a powerful influence over my style. There's still a strong echo of it in my work. Even so, talking about it nowadays feels strange because it happened so long ago, I've done so much since, and I was only there for a year or so. I left for several reasons, some mundane - the job had required me to move alone to a very expensive city far away from everyone I knew and loved, but that wasn't the whole story. Disney is a well-oiled entertainment machine, and while what they do is marvellous and couldn't be accomplished any other way, it's easy to feel as though you're a small cog within it. Ultimately that was the other major reason I left. Artistically I wanted self-determination; I knew I could draw well but I also knew I had good ideas and multidisciplinary interests: I wanted to explore design, different styles, visual storytelling, character design - more than just animation (though animation is a deep, deep art form and you could absolutely spend a lifetime learning and still have plenty left to discover). Basically, I'd rather build my own tiny device than be a piece of someone else's vast and glorious machine. That's what Disney taught me. In fact it spun me out for a good while after that, as I tried to figure out how to get from where I was in my career to a place that would give me more power over what I was creating. It would take me many more jobs and years to get there.

It happened incrementally. The next notable job I had was working for a company that imported and designed toys and novelties, the sort you get in quirky gift shops. Singing fish, string-pull dolls that spat out witty zingers, shark slippers, that sort of thing. It was definitely multidisciplinary - brainstormed toy and product designs, drew turnarounds for 3D artists to model from, wrote jokes for sound chips, designed catalogs and packaging, and did the mundane stuff like editing product photography. All of it useful to this day. I don't think I understood that back then, how the execution of most anything creative boils down to no more than a bunch of mundane skills working in symphony.

After that, for my sins, I ended up in a job painting artwork for digital slot machines (we call them 'pokies' in Australia). I am firmly anti-pokies but when you're a young artist who needs to make a living, occasionally you have to choose 'paying the bills' over your own scruples. At that point my background and skillset was still wholly in cartooning, whereas pokies required digital painting, so I had a (terrible) crack at it in my application and somehow, miraculously, got a job doing a thing I didn't actually know how to do. That's the best kind of job to get because there are really only two outcomes: you fail, or you learn fast. That's how I learned digital painting and little tricks like edge-lighting to make the art 'pop'. 

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How did you break into and establish yourself in the board game art industry?

True story: it came about because I sold a man a fridge. That man was Peter C. Hayward, and this was way back in 2006. While picking up this secondhand fridge he'd bought from me, Peter decided he liked me based on my DVD collection, and added me on Facebook. We stayed in touch over the years, Peter watching me do my art thing, me watching Peter do a series of mad but vaguely entrepreneurial things. Eventually he launched his first game, Scuttle, and I backed the campaign to support him, and not long after that he approached me and asked me if I'd like to work on his next game. And I remembered playing Killer Bunnies and making a certain vow (oddly enough, that would have been around the time I sold the fridge), and of course I said yes.

At the time, I'd been freelancing as an illustrator and graphic designer in Tassie, mostly servicing small businesses and not scraping by. So I threw everything I had into Dracula's Feast, my first project with Jellybean - I had nothing to lose. We took some artistic risks on it, including basing the style on that of an artist who was popular some sixty years ago. Happily, the risks paid off and Dracula's Feast was a success on Kickstarter, enough that Peter could retain me for the next game. On The Lady and the Tiger I was art director, and I was given free rein to shape it from the ground up. What was initially meant to be a small filler game between major projects became my pride and joy. Visually, L&T is a bit of a showboat, and as such it opened further doors for me in the industry, and I began to receive other offers. These things tend to snowball, as publishers feel safer hiring artists with a proven track record, and they know artists who've already worked within the industry have already wrapped their heads around the assorted technical limitations that are particular to this industry.

It's unlikely you'll be magically given a chance to prove yourself. You have to prove yourself in order to earn that chance. So, step one: create a game as a portfolio piece. The point of this is to show your ability to work within the format, so do as much as you're able: art, graphic design, rule book design, box design; create it all to a formal print-ready level, because along the way you're going to learn a ton, and because it gives you something concrete to show people. Which leads me to step two: go to cons, meet publishers, show them what you've got. Remember that publishers are probably super busy while at a con, so if you can, email the companies you're interested in ahead of time, and ask them if there's an opportunity for you to show them your work, and check what day and time is convenient for them. Step three: join every game design association and Facebook group you can find and, if their rules allow it, post examples of your artwork and make it known you're available for hire. 

(Side note: you are likely to attract potential clients who want you to work for free. It's up to you, but I advise against it, as it sets up an expectation among clients that art is cheap, and that same expectation will bite you in the backside in five years time when you're trying to pay your rent doing this.)

You are currently the Art Director for Jellybean Games. What does your job as Art Director entail? How do interact with game designers and publishers in your role?

Because Jellybean is a small company, the artist I spend the most time directing is myself, though I have also been in charge of a degree of outsourcing and brief-writing on occasion. Where the job differs from being hired as an illustrator is that I'm not outright told what to do: I'm not given a brief that states the intended direction of the project and precisely what is expected of me. I have to come up with that myself - and it is glorious; it has finally given me the kind of creative scope I've been searching for since Disney. Setting the look-and-feel of each game is by far my favorite part of the job. I like to challenge myself and never take the same approach twice. I absolutely see board games as an art form, and believe that artistically we are only just beginning to push the boundaries. I'd love to see a move away from bland realistic Photoshop paintovers towards more experimental artistic approaches. There are several truly amazing artists in the industry who are clearly exploring each project in this way, and I'm so excited to see what they do next.

Game Designer / Publisher / Art Director are three sides of a triangle, with aligned but subtly different goals - all three want the best game possible, but the Game Designer's focus is that every other aspect of the game serves and clarifies the mechanics; the Art Director's goal is to make a game that will be standout beautiful on the shelf but also successfully present (on the cover) what a prospective buyer can expect of the game inside, and (through all components inside) clearly communicate the mechanics while wrapping them in an appealing package of visual narrative; and the Publisher must find a way to balance all the aforementioned while appealing to the marketplace and finding a way to create it all affordably. It's easy to see how these goals work together, but how they can sometimes butt heads: for instance, if I had my way, the components of the games I work on would be made of high quality natural materials like wood, glass and stone. Here it is the Publisher's job to point out that, in this instance, we can afford cardboard, and then it becomes the AD's job to figure out how to make cardboard as fun and attractive as possible. Likewise, a GD and AD may butt heads over a particular icon used in the game: the AD may argue it communicates the 'vibe' better and is more fun, but the GD may feel that the message of that symbol doesn't quite mesh with a particular mechanic in the game. One of the fiercest arguments we've had was over whether we could replace coins in a game with turnips. (I love my job.)

In short, we don't always agree, but the push and pull results in us shaping a better final product together: a game that is solid, mechanically consistent, and easy to use (thank you, GDs of the world!), a game that is beautiful and sellable and appealing to play (thanks, ADs of the world!), and a game that, well, exists as a quality physical product, after jumping through hundreds of practical hoops to get there (hats off to you, publishers!).

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You've mentioned diversity and representation being important to you. How do you use your position at Jellybean Games to further these goals?

The numbers have been crunched, and gaming in particular has a problem with the underrepresentation of "anyone who isn't a white male". I could spend hours trying to argue about this on the internet (and occasionally do) but it's more productive to use the power I have to even the balance. If a game calls for human characters I aim to represent gender parity, or a majority of women, and I aim to represent different skin tones, body shapes, ages, and modes of dress, as well as disability, sexuality and, whenever possible, characters who defy cliched gender norms. Jellybean fully supports and encourages this approach; inclusivity is an important part of our identity.

My scope for pushing diversity varies from game to game; for instance, in L&T the game by nature featured all women, making gender parity a non-issue. I'm currently working on a game featuring anthropomorphic animals (of roughly the Zootopia / Disney's Robin Hood style of anthropomorphization, what you might call the "pants-optional" level). Working with animals makes representing different body types a no-brainer, and it removes ethnicity as a consideration altogether, but it raises some interesting challenges regarding gender representation. I refuse to draw breasts and big eyelashes on animals to denote 'female', because frankly I object to the concept of the male body as "default", and the female as "default with frills" - but without these signifiers, there's a risk all the animals will be read as male, which is a pretty damning indictment of how we see the world. All this raises questions about how gender is 'performed', and I think about this sort of thing as I draw, and it's part of what makes this job so dang interesting.

There are areas I'm still working to improve: going forward, I'd like to see more disability representation in games as it is still often overlooked, including by me. 

Ultimately, even for those not on board with the idea of equal representation, there's one great reason to do it: it's not boring. It hasn't been done a million times before. It's not "yet another cookie-cutter redheaded elf woman spilling out of a tightly-laced leather bodice." Representing people who are different from the perceived "norm" is still new, and new is interesting, and those who ignore what's new risk being left behind. I want to make interesting games.

When you are doing artwork for games, what tools and techniques do you use? Do you create everything digitally or create it and then scan it in later?

I used to do roughs and cleanup on paper and then scan and color, but those days are long over. These days, aside from a lot of 'thinking out loud' in the form of thumbnails and doodles on notepads, I work digitally from start to finish. My primary art rig is a very new iMac with a very old Wacom Intuos 3 graphics tablet. I get impatient with computers, so it's good for my sanity to have a fast one, but when it comes to tablets I found my happy place some fifteen years ago and I've been using the same model of Wacom ever since. I recently had to replace it (with a still secondhand but much less worn out tablet of exactly the same make and model) because I had worn through the surface of mine through sheer volume of drawing. My other two art rigs are a Macbook Air + Wacom Intuos Pro for when I need to do serious work outside my home office (I cowork with other people a couple times per week to avoid Freelancer Insanity) , and an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil and the Procreate app, which I use for sketches and inking on the couch or when I want to travel super light.

Software-wise I'm locked in eternal servitude to the Adobe Suite. My process varies as the style of the game does, but for your average game it's something like this:

Procreate on iPad OR Photoshop (rough sketches) --> Photoshop (colors and finishing) --> Adobe Illustrator (icons, logos, some graphic design) --> Adobe InDesign (most graphic design, rule book layout, compiling everything into final print files). But this varies depending on the job; sometimes I work with vectors so it's all about Illustrator, and I'm thinking about trying to expand how much work I do in Procreate. 

Important but not glamorous: for file storage and organisation I work on Google Drive with Jellybean, and on Dropbox for other clients.

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With Jellybean Games, you have worked on Dracula's Feast, the Dracula's Feast: Cthulhu & Friends expansion, The Lady and the Tiger, and Show & Tile.  Tell us a bit about the process of working on each of these projects.

Process-wise it's a bit of a mish-mash in that I redevelop my techniques slightly from project to project. 

Overall, to establish a game's look-and-feel, I'll start by thinking about the theme/narrative and what art styles are associated with that, and I'll start to settle on an approach. If the publisher agrees, we're in business and I can start working on the card illustrations (while thinking about how the graphic design will fit in with them in advance, so I can create the art to suit). I'll usually do an initial card from start to finish as a proof-of-concept. In DF it was the Dracula card, and in L&T it was the Blue Lady with Parasol card. Recently I've moved away from this approach a bit and begun to favor doing all the sketches, then all the inks, then one proof-of-concept color job to be signed off on before I continue with the remainder. I'm making this change because I found I get better at the style as I go, which means if I do one card start-to-finish before starting any of the others, that one card will usually not look as good as the rest by the time I'm done. Apparently other people don't notice the quality difference, but it bothers me. Also, batching each stage of the process is always more efficient.

I generally develop the style of the cards first, and let all else - logo, graphic design, box, rule book - grow out of what I established there. 

Process for an individual card: I start by writing down a small description of what I'm picturing for each card, usually in a shared art brief document so the publisher can take a peek at it before I begin and let me know if they think I'm wildly off track. This is definitely a time-saver. After that, I usually thumbnail out the piece, then I'll sketch the rough... sometimes I get this right first time, but other times I have to take several passes. When I'm happy with that and it's been approved, there's usually a cleanup/inking phase, though this depends on the project; Lady and the Tiger was inked in Procreate, but Village Pillage was just loosely cleaned up in Photoshop to maintain a soft sketchy feel. I color in Photoshop, usually with bare-minimum a 'colors' layer, a 'shadows' layer, and an 'FX' layer where I deal with the added requirement for things like the shine on eyes and hair, and items of unusual texture like gems, glass, fire, water, transparent cloth, etc. In recent years I came to view my work as being a bit too clean, and looked for ways to soften and naturalize it, and what I do for each game now is pick a particular type of texture and incorporate that somehow into the art. In Dracula's Feast the texture was already there in the form of the hatched ink line-work. In L&T, I used a heavy spatter texture throughout. For VP, I went with a more subtle parchment texture. 

Once the card art is done, I nail down the graphic design and layouts on the cards, including dropping the text in so that further playtests can be done with cards in an almost final form (this helps catch any issues with the art or design). If other pieces are needed (eg turnips for Village Pillage) I'll create those from start to finish around now. I spend a day or two working on logo variants until I find one I like. Around this time I usually create the card backs too - I absolutely love making card backs; the tessellating Ladies and Tigers for L&T are my favorites so far. Then I create the illustration for the box (which is the same process as the one for the cards, only much bigger and usually far more detailed), then the graphic design for the box, and finally, the rule book, which is always a big undertaking - but I'm proud of my rule books; a lot of love goes into them. 

You also have a project on Kickstarter at the moment: Village Pillage. What can you share with us about this game?

This is far and away my favorite Jellybean game so far. I've always thought of it as "Game of Thrones if every character was played by Baldrick." It's fast-paced, shouty (and thus popular among my noisy friends) and has exactly the amount of silliness I love, and I've tried to make the artwork reflect that. It fills that narrow niche of "competitive without ever becoming nasty", which puts it right up my alley. And it's one of those games you can pick up and learn in a couple of minutes - something anyone can wrap their head around fast, but that develops surprising layers of tactical depth the more you play it. I had a great time creating the characters in this game too. The subject matter - create a whole village full of vaguely inept but well-meaning medieval folks - gave me way more scope than L&T, both in diversity and in sheer fun. 

In addition to the Jellybean Games projects, you are also working on some projects for Rule & Make. What can you tell us about this?

I can't say much at this stage, but the project with anthropomorphic animals I mentioned earlier is one of a set of three interlinked games I'm currently working on with them. I'm super excited about this approach for the design challenge: each game is different and must stand alone, but all three must also work visually as part of a trio. If I said any more I'd have to kill you, which would involve international air travel and be awfully inconvenient, so I'll leave it at that.

If you could work on any project, what would it be?

I have a bucket list like you wouldn't believe. Off the top of my head: 

1. A boardgame, with an actual board (I've been all-cards so far, and in part this is because my style is light and fun and so I've been retained for light and fun games, but I definitely have a boardgame in me!). 

2. I'd like to do a small, abstract card game - something experimental using shapes and colour; something that'll be timeless and beautiful. I'm hoping the success of Azul has been viewed by publishers as permission to experiment with visual abstraction, and if this is something you're thinking about: hello! Call me!

3. More work on tabletop roleplaying games, please! I've contributed illustrations to Grant Howitt's Goblin Quest and Jon Gilmour's Kids on Bikes and I'm hungry to do more. I'm a TTRPG fiend.

You are a published author of multiple short stories in SFF magazines, and have written a novel. Would you say it is the same creative force that pushes you to write, or something you do as a break in between your art projects?

The truth is, I started out wanting to be a writer. I've written stories as far back as I can recall. The art came later, and for ridiculous reasons: When I was eleven or so, I wanted to write Disney movies. I soon found out that (at the time) they weren't written so much as developed through storyboards, so I thought: if I want to make these movies, I have to learn to draw. So I did. Despite eventually realizing that I did not in fact want to make movies, or tell the kinds of stories Disney tells, the drawing has paid off beautifully and I couldn't love my current job more. I'm so fortunate that I get to do this for a living. Still, I never stopped writing. The relationship I have with art is calm, fond and healthy; I enjoy it while I'm making it, and don't stress about it too much the rest of the time, and it returns the energy I put into it with income and self-worth and the knowledge that I've made the world a slightly more beautiful place (though, beyond that, I feel I haven't yet found a way to say anything of substance through art). The relationship I have with writing runs far deeper. In no way is it a break from art, but the opposite; I find it far more challenging - the art is the break I take from writing. To me, writing is is all passion and drive, joy and frustration, and endless hard work. And it never returns my bloody calls. While I love art, I'm in love with writing.

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