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Interview: Roland MacDonald, Illustrator of Undaunted and Final Girl

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Board Game: Undaunted: Normandy
[Editors note: This interview, conducted by Neil Bunker, was first published on Diagonal Move in August 2022. —WEM]

Roland MacDonald joins Diagonal Move to talk about his work illustrating board games, including the Undaunted series and Final Girl.

DM: Thanks for joining us today, Roland. Your artistic career began in a video game environment. Can you tell us about that experience?

RM: I started as a 3D artist on PS2 games at Creative Assembly before moving to the Total War team. Computer games were a good place to get started, and I learned a lot of different skills. It gave me the time to become a real expert with Photoshop. After a while, I got tired of 3D modeling. I found it too creatively limiting, so I started drawing again. After a couple of years of hard practice, I was asked to join the Total War: Shogun 2 team as a concept artist and illustrator. This was a turning point for me. I got to draw every day and make a real impact on the project. I love Ukiyo-e printmaking, so making illustrations in that style and helping the team bring that flavor to the whole project was great.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Total War: Shogun 2

DM: When and why did you transfer from the video game industry to board game projects?

RM: Shogun 2 gave me the confidence and the skills to go freelance, which coincided with me moving from the UK to the Netherlands. Computer games were fun, but the prospect of working on more Total War iterations was not that exciting to me, and in truth I am more of a solo act than a team player. It took four years of working with all sorts of different clients before I decided to really pursue board games.

I had started playing a lot more board games around 2014 and thought it would be an enjoyable arena for more creative types of illustration. Up until then, a lot of my freelance work was commercial illustration. In 2015 I decided to go to SPIEL and try to talk to publishers. In order to get noticed, I made a very special "business card". I designed a card-based version of Cluedo (called "Suspicion"), fully illustrated it, and printed two hundred copies to give away. It was a big project and not cheap, but it made a big impact. Unlike a business card, it was unlikely to be thrown out, and it was both a portfolio and a talking point. It got me a lot of meetings even without appointments. (By the way, do make appointments!! Publishers are very busy at SPIEL.)

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: How much "carryover" is there from one medium to the other?

RM: Computer games at this stage is a very developed industry with hundreds of people contributing to a single project. It is very professional but is also cautious. Board games as a business is still very amateur and very small, even the bigger companies. The plus side is a wealth of creativity. Small teams mean your contributions have a real impact in shaping the product, and project lengths are much shorter, which I particularly appreciate. I worked on Shogun 2 for two years plus. Working on short projects is much more fun.

Technically, as an illustrator the job in either field is largely the same. I do everything digitally. Making the tiles for Undaunted uses a lot of the texture tiling techniques from games texturing. Item design and character are really not that different.

DM: In terms of a project, how do you develop artwork from an initial brief to a finished design?

RM: This depends so much on the client, the scale of the project, and the budget. Now that I am more experienced and have repeat clients who trust me to get good results, I often get a lot of freedom to develop a look and feel.

Research is the most overlooked part of the process and is a big stage of any project for me. For most projects I make a Pinterest board that I share with the client to explore ideas and get us on the same page. From a communication point of view, I like to run all of my projects via Trello (a free project management tool) as this removes the need for emails and keeps everything easy to find and discuss in one place. I like to update this regularly, so the client can keep up to date and so I can get quick feedback. I highly recommend it to other illustrators.

I usually fully work out one or two illustrations to establish color and style before returning to a more standard work mode of showing sketches, making small changes, then painting. My sketches are often quite loose as I like to work out details whilst painting. It keeps the whole process interesting.

If it is a big project, I will move between different parts of the project or switch between different projects to stop getting fatigued from repetition. For example, in Undaunted: Stalingrad there are a lot of soldiers as each troop has an upgraded version and often a reinforcement replacement, so when I got tired of drawing them, I worked on the map of Stalingrad, which was also an epic task. This time it is a single huge map, but most of the tiles have two of three different damage states. Switching between soldiers and tiles kept me fresh and engaged throughout.

I work digitally from sketch to final and almost exclusively in Photoshop, sketching and painting with a 27" Wacom Cintiq. If a project needs a lot of world-building, I do go to a café with a sketchbook and Pinterest and do some concept art on paper. I did this with Ruination a fair bit.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Roland's retheme of Battle Line

DM: How do you build on the work of others, for example for an expansion or for a retheme, such as Battle Line?

RM: Battle Line was a personal project that grew into a full production. I wasn't willing to pay for the original as I found it too ugly so that was just a complete overhaul. By contrast, I did an expansion case for Detective: City of Angels. That was originally illustrated by Vincent Dutrait, a real master, so that was very scary to do! There was no point trying to ape his style, but I wanted to make my work feel comfortable alongside the base game art. I tried doing some sketches for a more painterly style, but in the end found a middle ground that I am pleased with and tied in well with the original.

With Undaunted, each box has slightly different treatments. They all sit well together, but small adjustments keep it interesting for me to do the "same" project over and over. Stalingrad is grittier and epic, and the art reflects that. Working in a style you developed years ago when you have gotten a lot better over time can become frustrating, so it is also nice to be able to move on to new projects and try something fresh.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: How much research do you do for a historical game such as Undaunted, and how does this shape the final work?

RM: Research is a big part of the Undaunted series. Osprey supplies me with a few books and I do as much research as I can online. Time and budget are the limiting factors. For the most part, we try to get as much right as possible. There is a lot of conflicting, low-quality imagery out there, though, and I am not a WW2 buff, so I rely on the Osprey history nerds to catch errors. It is an enjoyable part of the process, but it is easy to get lost in it. I have way too many reference pictures of guys with guns.

DM: In addition to your work as an artist, you've designed your own game, Ruthless. Please tell us more about it and how the process of game design and development differs to the design and development of art?

RM: Ruthless a pirate-themed, deck-building and hand-management game that was published in 2018 after two years of development and illustration in my spare time. I started out by wanting to make a more involved deck-building game that was more think-y than just playing all five cards, rinse and repeat until someone wins. Players are competing over a series of rounds to build the best crews, with poker-style sets. You play only a "single" card from your hand each turn, which makes the decision space more involved, and timing and bluffing become important, making a more interactive game experience. Obviously there is a lot more to it than that. Last year I designed and published a big expansion to the game which I am very proud of.

Designing a game exercises some of the same creative muscles as illustrating and in some ways is also like playing a game or solving puzzles. The testing phase is a lot like developing a character or building a world. Lots of iterations and changes slowly improving the whole until everything comes together. Ruthless was very much a mechanics/experience-led design. The pirate theme just seemed to fit really well with the gameplay — which I was not happy with at first as pirates are so cliché, but in the end it comes together very well, and in the Tall Tales expansion, the theme was able to influence the mechanics much more, introducing the Kraken, famous pirates, and quests.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: What are your most memorable experiences, good and bad, from your career to date?

RM: Working on Final Girl Season 1 and Season 2 was a lot of fun. I know the guys at Van Ryder Games, and they trusted me to run wild with those projects and explore new ideas.

Ruination is a game where I had total free reign, and I had a blast. I got to go wild with color and world building — designing moons and doing all of the graphic design, too — and that project really pops.

I did the art for a football game back in 2011 that was pure hell. I totally undercharged. The designer wanted endless changes, and I don't even like football. It is my freelance horror story. I learned a lot the hard way on that one.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Are you able to tell us about any forthcoming games or pipeline projects you are working on?

RM: The biggest title on the way is, of course, Undaunted: Stalingrad, coming out in Q4 2022. This is a much more ambitious iteration of the Undaunted system where the outcome of games has a real impact. Troops can get experience and gain new skills or die permanently. Equally the battlefield will change depending on your own games. If you blow up a building, that tile will get replaced with a damaged version and may even be completely flattened, making way for tanks in future scenarios. Of course, all of these variations required a huge amount of extra drawings. It was as epic to work on as it will be to play. David and Trevor just keep knocking it out of the park.

Everything else is kinda still top secret. I am working with Bézier, Kolossal, and Van Ryder Games between now and February 2023, and there is more from Osprey in the pipeline, too.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Undaunted: Stalingrad

DM: What advice would you give to budding artists?

RM: I highly recommend doing your own version of a game you love to play but hate to look at. This will teach you how to work on a whole project and give you real design challenges. Making one-off characters or pictures is fine, but designing a series of illustrations that all come together and work in service of the gameplay is a big step towards being a professional.

If you are just getting started, then the advice is practice a lot, like every day whenever you have a break. When I was retraining myself to draw, I drew people waiting for the bus, sketched ideas over coffee, and did at least one hour of digital sketching / studies a day. You get out what you put in.

All images in this article were provided by Roland. You can read more about Roland at his website, Roland's Revenge.
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