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 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 Artists Valley series hopes to shed insight on the world of tabletop illustration and shine light on those who “bring a game to life.”
Illustrator Dennis Lohausen agreed to “sit down” with iSlaytheDragon to discuss his work and career and the board gaming hobby. He came into the industry from a different route, but has since developed a prolific portfolio in the German games industry…
First off, tell us a little about yourself.
I’m 39 years old. I studied graphic design and I’ve been working for 12 years as a freelancing illustrator. I live in Cologne with my girlfriend and a bunch of birds (2 parrots, 3 lovebirds, and 5 cockatiels). I’m fond of animals and I support various animal and environment protection programs. When I’m not working, I’m reading a lot and watching movies and TV shows. If time permits, I like to hike and go to concerts.
How did your career as an artist develop? What sorts of non-gaming projects or work are typical for you?
My illustrations teacher suggested I go into business for myself after my studies. At the beginning, I accepted any work I could get – coloring of advertising comics, product drawings and ghastly sweet stuffed animals for baby products. I made my living as a clerk at a punk/rocker/gothic store. At that time, I was actively looking for orders in the skateboard branch, because I enjoyed skateboard graphics a lot.
Back then, I sent a portfolio of my own motives to Titus Skateboards. After nine months of tubborn inquiries, I could sell multiple motives for t-shirts and helmets overnight. This boosted my confidence and so I tried the same approach in the board gaming industry.
For us laypeople, are “motives” a skateboarding term, or more general in illustration work?
Hmm, maybe I just used the wrong word? I meant the artwork and illustrations in the skateboarding industry, like on the boards, t-shirts and stuff like helmets. I design the illustrations that are later put on helmets.
I prepared a portfolio of cover illustrations with various themes and made 15 copies. I attended the fair in Essen and presented myself to various small companies (I was a little scared of the big ones). In this way I got to know publisher Argentum, who are also from Cologne and who were looking for a new illustrator at that time.
I got to illustrate my very first game and the next year I had that to back me up and some other experience as well, which got me in contact with Adlung Spiele, which in turn lead to relations with Schmidt Spiele. Inka and Markus Brand, friends of Argentum owner Roman Mathar, wanted me to illustrate their first Amigo title, Der Palast von Eschnapur(2009), which introduced me to the bigger companies and the more “challenging” games. Amigo helped me get in contact with Eggert Spiele, which led to Village (2011), which became a great, and now I’m set!
Now I have so much work in the board gaming industry that I can barely take other orders. Though I do reserve some time for my clients in the skating industry to draw some motives. For a time, I tried different stuff like children’s books or tableware with gothic motives, but nothing permanent came out of it.
Is there a particular artist’s work/style that has inspired you or informed your own life and work?
There are a few trends that left a serious mark on me. For instance the incredible album covers of bands like Iron Maiden and later Skyclad. Even though, as a child, I did not know their music, I was very fascinated by the horror/fantasy look.
Skateboard graphics by Powell Peralta and Santa Cruz left a similar mark on me, because they are as whacked out and trippy and simply exemplary.
Then a few friends of mine and I discovered the world of role-playing games. When I first saw the illustrations and artwork of the AD&D rule books, it appeared to me that this is what I would love doing myself professionally. I believe the works of Larry Elmore, Keith Parkinson and Brom have informed my life the most.
What was the first board game you did illustrations for and how did you get connected with that project?
It was Top oder Flop (2006) by Argentum. It was a lucky coincidence. The publisher needed an illustrator and the illustrator needed a publisher and both were from the same city! Shortly after Essen, we sat down together working out the conditions of our cooperation. It became apparent that Roman and I get along pretty nicely. Today we call ourselves friends rather than business partners.
1001 Karawane was supposed to be the first game, but then Top oder Flop was brought forward. Admittedly, not the best title for your first game but obviously it didn’t hurt my career!
How many board games have you done artwork for, and what types?
By now I’ve done just over 100 titles. For most of these I did both the illustrations and graphic design (and I often even typeset the rules). But there are a few games for which I only did the cover, or specific Dominion cards, or a partial design of game components. I’ve had my hands in almost all genres – card games, board games, abstract games, party games, strategy games, light family games and etc.
Only tabletop and role-playing games are missing from this list but I haven’t actively pursued those. Next year, I’ll do my first children’s game if everything goes well.
What’s your personal favorite project you’ve worked on?
Among the bigger projects, I’d definitely name Terra Mystica as my favorite. For one thing, working with Feuerland is just great. TM was the first Feuerland title and so I not only illustrated the game itself, but I also did the company logo, the basic look of the game boxes and rules. For another thing, this game was quite challenging due to its many factions and landscapes. The two designers did tell me how they imagined certain factions to look like, but apart from that I could totally do my own thing. My goal was to give each faction a unique look and feel by using different gestures, facial expressions and clothing. And last but not least, I think we did a great job with the icons and how we guide the players through the game.
How does illustrating for tabletop games differ from other projects? How about any differences between individual board games that you’ve worked on?
I’m always amazed by the amount of work and effort that is put into most games, be it via countless play-test sessions and the editors’ hard work right up to the often very elaborate graphic and artistic design. Illustrating a game is not only making it look good but also ensuring that it is playable, which is another whole level of work. This can only work if both editor and illustrator are working closely together. With skateboard motives, you only want the illustrations to look cool on a helmet. People may or may not like the design but the helmet will serve its purpose regardless.
Haha…very true – that just struck me as very funny!
It’s different with games – no two are the same. Each game poses a new set of challenges, be it through the theme, the need for language-independent icons or sophisticated depictions (like foreshortening architecture). Sometimes a challenging game may run absolutely smoothly and the supposedly easy one turns out to be full of problems.
When doing the artwork for a board game, do you take any direction or artistic suggestions – maybe even some requirements – from the game’s designer/publisher? How much of a free license to you have?
It depends. Some games have a strong theme as a prototype already. These kinds of games require a professional realization of what is already there. In most cases I have free reign over what I do, of course within the constraints of theme, components and rules. I usually have a say in the thematic embedding of certain components, the layout of graphics relevant to the game, as well as the composition of the punchboards.
What is one game that ended up proving more challenging than you thought it would be?
In one of my first games, Albion by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, we couldn’t agree on the cover. It needed like twelve drafts, even though I was already happy with the first three. Nowadays I’d probably defend my position more.
In the Eggert game, Express 01, the first game published on the German crowdfunding site Spieleschmiede (literally, game forge), we almost got mad with the production. The cards form a continuous railway network in which the tracks go over the card edges. We had to arrange the cards on the print sheets in such a fashion that there were no interruptions and all the cards had to be precisely set within a tenth of a millimeter. Viktor, of Eggert Spiele, and I were emailing and calling each other back and forth from Cologne and Hamburg for three nights into the early mornings. Considering the card layout should have been pretty simple, this was a grotesque effort.
I imagine balancing aesthetics and function can be challenging, too? Any thoughts on walking that tightrope? I’m particularly interested as a big fan of Steampunk, of which that concept is one of the genre’s core tenets!
This really is an interesting topic. In historic eras, and in Steampunk as well, aesthetics usually beats out function. Most things look nicer than the actual meaning would suggest. For instance, in the 19th century mining buildings were designed aesthetically as though they were palaces or even sacred places. More often than not this was far from convenient, but it shows how proud men from that time were of their creations.
Later, the motto “ornament is a felony” became popular in Germany and a more functional design took over (Bauhaus), in which workers and their labor were not exploited for vain aesthetics. I can get behind this line of thinking, especially from the historic perspective, but I still think it’s a shame. Ornament makes life beautiful – there’s a reason why flats in older buildings with artistic entrances and stucco ceilings are so desired in big cities.
In board game illustrations, function and aesthetics should form a harmonic unit, making the mechanics understandable while helping the player immerse in the game’s world. The former can be achieved by clear symbolism and optic clues, where necessary. The latter via appealing and lovely illustrations in all other areas, preferably accurate in every detail. In Village Port, we could have gone with the same portrait of the captain on all thirty captain cards. For the purpose of function alone this would have sufficed. It mattered to us, though, that the players saw a different character on every single card, and that they could tell why one was more valuable than the other by looking at the illustration. Games, for sure, are an aesthetic experience. Appealing components increase the joy that we have with them.
Are you a gamer yourself? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I wouldn’t call myself a gamer. Since I’m working in the hobby, I usually only play prototypes of future projects. Illustrating these games takes so much of my time that I’d rather do something else in my free time. Otherwise there’d be no time left for my girlfriend, hiking, watching a movie in the cinema or reading a book. I also have to take care of my “bunch of birds” – the animals that live with us come from bad husbandry. They’ve been neglected and/or are chronically ill or physically impaired. This is why they need all the love and attention they can get, especially the parrots.
When a student and during university I played a lot though, or else I wouldn’t have strived for a job as a game illustrator. Back then my favorite game was Full Metal Planet.
Are there any specific game illustrators you know of whose work you particularly enjoy?
Franz Vohwinkel is definitely one of my heroes. His work is what inspired me to join this genre myself. I also enjoy the works of Michael Menzel. Lately, the artwork of Scythe has knocked my socks off.
If you could choose one theme or subject for a future game that you have not illustrated before, what would that be?
I’d like to work on a big game that is solely about animals, along the lines of Watership Down if this ever gets implemented as a board game. Apart from that, I’d like to do a horror theme, specifically something from H. P. Lovecraft; Cthulhu ftagn!
And, finally, we all have this idea that artists go to a special place for inspiration. Where is that place for you?
My girlfriend, of course. She forced me to say that. I’m joking! She really is a great source of inspiration, because I can talk with her about thematic ideas and problems. Sometimes she models for me, ending up in one of my illustrations, for example as a witch in Terra Mystica.
That’s amazing! Have you ever illustrated your birds, too, and sneaked in a representation of one in a game?
I do make photo parodies of them from time to time, which we use to hang up in the kitchen. And in Village Port my since dead cockatiel, Jack, is sitting on the captain’s shoulder. For High Tide, published by Queen Games this year, Lola – a 53-year old amazon and my absolute favorite – almost made it on the cover! Unfortunately, the cover design was changed completely, though.
But if you’re referring to inspiration in a more general sense, then I’d say all of the positives about my line of work. I made my hobby my profession so that there’s no strict line between work and private life. I don’t have to wear suits and I’ve never had a job interview in the strict sense. Basically, I’m doing professionally what I’ve done as a child and young man already. I’m free to be exactly what I want to be, which automatically results in a more inspired life. When I watch a movie, read a book or listen to music, these impressions influence my mindscape providing food for thought on my latest projects.
Keep represnting the birds! iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Dennis for spending some time with us and providing some insight into board game illustration – a fascinating, but often over-looked, aspect to our diverse hobby. If you’d like to get to know Dennis a little bit more, or look through his diverse work, please visit the links below: