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Illustrator Diary: The Battle at Kemble's Cascade

Philippe Guérin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
I'm a video gamer. Yes, I love and play lots of board games, but my gaming heart truly beats for video games. I've been playing them for almost thirty years now. I wouldn't say I spent most of my childhood living in the 8-bit and 16-bit dimensions, but I was and still am obsessed by video games.

Easy to say then that The Battle at Kemble's Cascade was the perfect project for artist Chris Quilliams and me. We both grew up in the 1980s, and our affection for that era is still really strong. I remember back in the 1990s, there was a negative stigma around the 80s: bad haircuts, ugly clothes, soulless music (don't get me wrong as I don't believe that anymore!), the beginning of cheap manufacturing and bad graphic design, etc.

Now, looking back at this once-hated period, I see almost nothing but greatness and an infinite source of inspiration. And looking at the last few years of fashion, music and indie video games, it seems like I'm not the only one revering my childhood era. There is something about it, right? The dirty-looking film grain, the Commodore 64, TV shows based of children's toys, cotton sweatpants, black leather jackets, mustaches, Harrison Ford, arcades, video games, and of course Cyndi Lauper.

Here was the pitch Z-Man Games gave us when they put this game on our table to illustrate and design: This game is a board game representation of a classic shoot 'em up video game. And I said: Great! I'm gonna design it as a pixel art shoot 'em up video game on a classic board game mimicking a classic shoot 'em up video game. Ohhhh boy! That was a venture I underestimated. Neither one of us had ever done anything like this, and we honestly didn't know how to proceed.

We also had to convince our team that it was the best idea for the game. As it turned out, that was pretty easy compared to actually delivering on the promise. Pixel art is a complex and really sophisticated way of designing and illustrating. Essentially, you're stuck with small squares on a small grid, and you need to figure out how to draw something that will look like what you have in mind. Oh, and you need it to look cool as well. That part was probably the hardest part, and although we're really proud of what we could achieve, but it's nothing compared to what experienced pixel art artists can create.

Here is a simple example: At first what I would usually do was draw something really quick — a shape basically — then fill that shape with squares.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


Eventually, we were much faster at drawing directly on the grid without references and could go for more complex designs:

From gallery of W Eric Martin


You can also see that the more we worked on the game, the more we blended both 8-bit and 16-bit styles of pixel art. Since we were learning how to do it all, we just didn't realize it at first but it eventually jumped in front of our eyes: We needed to bring it all back together the best we could — which we did, of course, as you will see in the final product. There are still bits and pieces that sort of belong to two different eras, but it all works fine. The player board is a good example of that as the background elements are from an 8-bit era and the captain is more from an early 16-bit period. As you can see, it all works.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


So after some head scratching, researching and of course lots of swearing (!), we refined our work and got much faster:

From gallery of W Eric Martin


Yes! Bosses! Anybody who played these shoot 'em up games back in the day, or even nowadays for that matter, knows that bosses were a big part of the appeal and challenge. Capturing the design and look of those usually big, but mostly grotesque creatures/entities/robots was crucial. I'm pretty sure Chris nailed that one.

Another concept we thought was cool would be to separate the elements into two categories, which would then be reflected on the cover as well as elsewhere in the game – you'll find that out later. Some elements would be "in game/on screen" and others would be outside of the screen, as if some elements would be parts of the real world like an arcade cabinet and some elements would be literally elements of a game you would see on screen.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


It's funny that I've decided to end this diary with the cover because it's actually the first thing we worked on. Again, we wanted to give it a 1980s feel, but it needed to also look and feel contemporary. We don't want people mistaking the game for an old game when spotting the art on the store shelves, so at first I gave Chris a frame to work around — this is literally what I sent:

From gallery of W Eric Martin


Then we started iterating on it, drafting monsters to fit the space:

From gallery of W Eric Martin


And then inserting some design elements:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin


And off for the final stretch. When Chris presented the central illustration to me I knew we had something, but still not exactly what I wanted. It missed that "grittiness" that some of the 1980s Japanese covers had, so I asked him to refine all the lines and drop some of the "paint brush" feel. On my side, I finished the title and graphics all around it to make it look like and feel like an old arcade cabinet. Aaaaaannnnd there it was, the cover was finished!

Philippe Guérin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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