Some things in life go unnoticed unless they’re awful. That’s often the case with board game illustration. While the box always prominently displays the designer’s name, often the artist is only listed in the rule book’s credits. Sure, great illustrations can be noticed, but usually they work on a more subconscious level – making sales, attracting players, and immersing them in the game’s theme. More than the aesthetics, though, board game art is also a science. It must be functional and intuitive. Distracting artwork can be just as damaging as bad artwork. It requires a delicate balance. And even when praised, artists rarely receive enough credit. The Artist’s Valley series hopes to shed insight on the world of tabletop illustration and shine light on those who “bring a game to life.”
Today Tim Allen (no, not that Tim Allen) “sits down” with iSlaytheDragon to discuss his work in the board gaming hobby. Armed with Photoshop, dedicated self-training and a war gamer’s heart, he brings yet another intriguing aspect to our series on board gaming illustration…
First off, tell us a little about yourself.
Okay, but only a little (and only because there is so little to tell). My name is Tim Allen and I live in the wintery wilds of Canada. Well, it’s not that wild, really…but it is cold. I have played board games for as long as I can remember, and a war gamer since high school, so that’s about 35 years or war-gaming or 50+ of just gaming. By day I work in a library, but by night I am a player of games and maker of war game maps and graphics.
So, how did your career as an artist/illustrator develop?
Like most things in my life, I stumbled into game illustration. One day back around 2004 I was given a copy of Photoshop and told to learn it, so that I could make up maps for the library where I work. At about the same time a friend of mine living across the country wanted to start playing some games via email and Cyberboard. One of the games we played was an old Avalon Hill game called War At Sea. It was a great game, but the map was hideous. After some prodding I took on the project of redesigning the map over my lunch hours and coffee breaks, so we could enjoy a better gaming experience. That was my first foray into map making.
Now we need to jump ahead to 2007 where I found Alan Emrich and his little company called Victory Point Games. The very first game they published was Crisis 2020. I ordered it online and when I got it I immediately saw a map that I wanted to improve; so I fired up Photoshop, and a couple of days later had a map that I thought might be good enough for Alan to show off and have on his site as a freebie or something. I sent the map off to him and much to my surprise he liked it so much he swapped it out for the original. I have been making maps for them ever since. I have also made, in increasing amounts, graphics for game cards and counters. So, basically I have no formal training in graphics and it’s not my day job.
Do you delve into any non-gaming projects or other work?
I don’t really have any non-gaming, art-related projects. I do this because it’s fun, and I would do it even if I wasn’t paid. Although maybe not as much as I do now, since I get almost no time these days to actually sit down and play.
Let me also just say that I don’t really consider myself an artist. I think of myself as more of a graphic engineer. I have managed to educate myself enough so that I can use Photoshop to build maps and manipulate existing images, but I can’t actually create illustrations from scratch.
So describe the general process when designing one of your maps. Where do you begin, how does it evolve, and what determines that it’s finally finished?
Well Jason, I usually like to begin at the beginning, since starting at the end or in the middle means I have to back-track a lot.
Okay, I walked into that one!
All kidding aside, that is actually a good question. I haven’t talked to any graphics people in the broader gaming hobby, but I would think that designing a war game map is easier than a regular game map. War gamers are pretty forgiving in terms of graphic presentation if the game system itself is good. Early war games had very basic graphics and there are still many old gamers in the hobby who are immediately suspicious of a game that has a lot of flash and style.
Usually when someone wants me to make up a map, they will send me an image of the beta test map they have been using, and give me a few instructions on size and layout. If they have the rest of the components ready to go it’s usually a good idea to look at them too, but often these haven’t been finalized yet, either. I will then take the beta, open it in Photoshop, and begin to trace out the parts of the background needed for my map. Sometimes I can do this right off the beta but more often I have to do some google searches for maps with more detail. After that it’s a matter of layering on and working my way “up.” First the landmass and oceans, then rivers, then textures for the land, a hex field or other area movement regulator, then anything else the game needs like forests, mountains and towns.
I usually run thru about 15 to 20 versions of a map, with changes becoming ever more incremental. Getting the text and charts on are usually my final steps. Once that is done to the satisfaction of the designer/developer, it’s finished.
What are some of the more difficult terrain features to render?
The hardest terrain for me to get right is rough. It’s not mountains, it’s not hills, and it’s not plains; it’s something in between. I have usually managed to make something that looks okay, but so far I have as yet to find a definitive look or texture that says “Rough Terrain.” Cities can also be a challenge. Trying to create something that looks like a bunch of buildings with roads that are in a semi-grid pattern is never easy.
Do you do any historical “research” regarding a battlefield before or during the process?
I will usually do a quick google search of a battle before I start building a map for it. Generally though, I would only do more in-depth research if the topic interested me. I usually assume that the designer and developer have already done the necessary research, so there is no need for me to do more just to make up the map.
What do you hope to achieve with a map/illustration? What’s your goal, so to speak?
I treat this as a hobby. I am a map-a-holic. I just like maps. I like looking at them, playing on them, and now making them. If it ever stops being fun and more like work, I won’t do it anymore. So far that hasn’t happened.
How about speaking more broadly, do you see the map/board in a war game as purely functional? Or do you think it can or should bring some aesthetics in to enhance the game’s experience? If so, any example from your own work?
Ah, form vs. function! This is an age old war game question that will likely never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. The current style in the hobby is pretty basic and functional, while I tend to layer on more style…probably more than the average grognard would like.
An example of an early map I made up was for Soviet Dawn, a solitaire game where multiple threats are moving towards the center of the board. At the time I liked the idea of using old Soviet posters as part of the map. Now I find the whole thing a bit ugly. Interestingly, the main source of criticism I got from that map was the use of a faux Cyrillic font to add more theme. People who could actually read Cyrillic hated it, while those who couldn’t said it was too hard to read it as English.
A map that I think works well and does not go overboard with the graphics is the one I did for Cuba: The Splendid Little War. Now both of those had large amounts of blank area to work with. A typical hex-based map does not, so I usually have fewer embellishments on those. The map for Leuthen is a good example of them. You have to build the theme into the map terrain and background. It’s always difficult to get a good balance between art and functionality. I like to think that my later maps succeed in this.
I’ve played and reviewed Cuba: The Splendid Little War. Spatially, it’s an interesting map, because it’s essentially linear point-to-point movement, without blatantly appearing so or slapping it in your face. Do you like the more regional maps pertaining to strategic games? Or single, tactical-oriented battlefields? Or at least, what was your favorite map to work on and why?
Tactical battle maps are not that interesting to me. I love a map with strategic scope and area movement, probably due to playing too much Risk and Diplomacy as a kid. My favorite map I have worked on? Hard to say. Maybe the maps that went into the Star Borders series by VPG. Those were great fun to work on since, being science fiction, there were no limitations or expectations on what it should look like. I can definitely tell you which was my least favorite – the map for Deluxe Fortress Europa by PKG games. That map drove me nuts. It was large, fiddly, and the designer kept changing what he wanted on it.
I see most of your work is with Victory Point, though you are also credited on some titles with a couple of other companies. What are the relationships with those?
Yes, I work mostly with Victory Point Games. I like the style of games they put out. The game maps are usually of a manageable size. They are usually 1 or 2 11×17 sheets. I have made larger maps, but I find that to be more work than fun, so now I shy away from them. Of course there are exceptions. I am always ready to lend a hand to designer Hermann Luttmann. He is a great guy and we make a good team. Right now we are working on a game on the First World War for Compass Games; that map will be a more regular 22×34 size.
Do you work exclusively with maps? Or have you designed traditional style game boards, also?
Well, maps are my thing, so I mostly stick to that. I have not had an opportunity to do anything with non-war game related graphics.
How about counters, tokens, cards and other bits? Can you explain the process in designing or illustrating some of those?
I have recently had opportunities to branch out a bit and make up cards and counters to go with the maps. I was given the chance to do all the graphics for Greyhound vs. Bear by High Flying Dice Games. It was a small game so making up the counters and doing the artwork for the game cover and cards was fun without being overwhelming. I made cards along with the map for A Spoiled Victory by White Dog Games and will also be making up the cards and counters for Hermann’s WWI game.
Do you find designing and illustrating cards and counters easier or more challenging? Do they tend to serve even a more practical purpose than the maps?
To me, illustrating cards and counters is easier, since there are fewer limitations on what you can and can’t do. Sure you have to get all the card text on them, but usually you then have some room for flavor text and graphics, and you can put just about anything you can think of on them, as long as they conform with the theme of the game and the rule on the card.
I would not say that cards have a more practical purpose than maps, but they certainly ease play by allowing the transfer of rules from the rule book to the cards. Anything that cuts down on the number of pages in a rulebook is good.
You mention being a long-time gamer. What first got you into the hobby, what kind of war games have you traditionally gravitated towards, and what to you usually play now?
I played all the usual family games growing up, like Monopoly and various card games. I got into Risk in junior high and then discovered board war games in high school. Back then, when I had tons of free time, I was into large complex games. But now, 30 years later, I find I simply do not have the time or energy to figure those out anymore. These days games like Memoir ’44 or Fortress America, with simple rules and fun plastic bits, or the small – in terms of the number of parts, amount of time needed to play, and footprint – war games from VPG are more my speed. Oh, the irony! Back then I had tons of time, few games and no money. Now I have money, tons of games and no time.
And just to put you on the spot, what is your favorite game?
My favorite game is probably Russian Campaign. It was one of the first games I owned and even though I am not particularly good at it, I would still play it anytime, anywhere. It was the first war game where I was able to internalize the rules and play in an optimal manner, instead of just randomly moving units around to see what would happen.
Finally, everyone likes to know where any “artist” gets his/her inspiration! Is there anything particular you like to do to “get in that zone” before hammering out a map at the computer?
I can’t think of anything off-hand that gets me into the Graphic Zone. I do like to put on a pot of coffee and have it handy before I start in on a map, but once I get going that coffee will most likely get cold. I do like a good sized screen. We have one on our main computer but more and more these days my kids are doing their homework or playing games on it, so I am reduced to using my laptop. That can be frustrating because there is simply not enough room on the laptop screen to show everything. Having to constantly scroll through my layers in Photoshop really takes me out of The Zone. On the bigger screen I can just glance over and pick the one I want to work on.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Tim for spending time with us and providing some insight into board game illustration – a fascinating, but often over-looked, aspect to our diverse hobby. We can certainly see his passion in bringing war games to life, even if just a little! If you’d like to see more of Tim’s game maps, check out the link below: