Joshua Cappel has been working as a board game illustrator for years. He’s also worked on a number of different game designs, but his first passion is illustration. You might have seen his work in Belfort, Energy Empire, Scoville, and Endeavor. He got his first break as so many do in the creative field, persistence, hustling, and taking advantage of the connections he had.
“I got started by offering art samples to game designer friends when they got games signed, asking them to pass the samples along to the publisher; eventually Zev from Z-Man Games took the bait, and that blossomed forth into the as-yet-endless trail of games I’ve worked on since then,” remembers Cappel.
Creating art for board games is notably different from personal projects. There are a lot of different factors to consider when working on the illustrations for a board game, and there’s often a lot of give and take between the artist, the designer, and the publisher.
“Honestly I haven’t done a purely creative project in around fifteen years, so it’s just a dim memory at this point,” says Cappel. “I consider carefully the effect that the art will have upon gameplay whenever I’m creating something, so it’s definitely a more thoughtful process. Also, game art usually has to run past a gaggle of approvers once you’ve done it, whereas a creative project has no oversight by anyone else.”
Cappel brings an extra asset to the table, being a game designer, himself. He uses that ability to assist in his board game illustrations.
“I really, really, really like making games better,” says Cappel. “Being a game designer at heart, as an artist I always look for ways for the components I create to improve gameplay and the whole experience for the player. It’s not just about making the game look good; it’s about making the game look good and making the game work better at the same time.”
Beautiful art is important for a game, but it also has to be functional. If an important rule or detail is lost in the art, then it doesn’t really matter how good it looks. It has taken away from the intended gameplay experience. On the other hand, good art can add to the gameplay, making it easier for players to figure out what their available options are, or how the flow of a round progresses.
When a board game is designed, it’s not enough to simply make the world within the game board. It has to spill out, grabbing the attention of the players and bringing them into the world.
Ethnos by Paolo Mori is set in a fantasy world full of mythical creatures. Who better to do the art than legendary J.R.R. Tolkien illustrator John Howe?
“Board game artwork often requires a slightly different approach from traditional cover art,” says Howe. “A good deal of attention has to be paid to the characters and races, much in the way actors in a movie can expect space on a film poster. In parallel to this, a certain scope must be accorded to the conflict, adventure, or competition that is the raison d’être of the game.”
Howe seeks to find a balance between a narrative story in his board game art, and the mechanical experience players will have in the game.
“The first aspect is static and expository, standing very close to the fourth wall. The second needs to be narrative and inclusive, providing a notion of the world and the storyline the player can expect in the game. Finding a convincing way to weave those two threads is not always easy, but it certainly is challenging,” explains Howe.
Without art, board games would be simply abstracts, like checkers or chess. Art gives life to the stories of the games we play. Sometimes it is crucial for the actual mechanics, and sometimes it just introduces us to the worlds where the action takes place. Art is one of the components that is necessary to create a complete game.