More Games Please: Art in Board Games Interviews

Please find excerpts from my blog 'Art in Board Games' where I talk to different board game designers and illustrators about their work. It's a companion piece to my IG:
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Ian O'Toole: Art in Board Games #40

United Kingdom
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Below is an excerpt from the interview with Ian O'Toole on, you can read the full interview here.

Ian O'Toole: Art in Board Games #40

Editors note: This week I'm joined by one of my favorites in the industry and in fact one of the first people I contacted when launching this site. He's been involved in some of the best looking games out there, proven when he grabbed the top 2 places of my Best Board Game Art of 2017 public vote. I hope you enjoy hearing more from the man himself and if you have any questions just drop them in the comments below.

Hello Ian, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure! I was born in Ireland, where I grew up, received my education and met my wife, Sarah. We moved to Perth in Western Australia a little over a decade ago and have since had two children. I still have not acclimatized to the heat.

I read a lot of comics growing up, and my artistic development was always directed by that. I can’t remember entertaining the idea of doing anything else. When it came time to go to college I decided on Graphic Design because I knew there was a clear career path there, I could leave college and get a job. Fine Art was a little more nebulous, which didn’t entice me at all. I’ve worked as a graphic designer/illustrator for my entire professional life, in a wide variety of roles and industries, including marketing, advertising, packaging design, publication and spatial design.

For the past five years I’ve worked for myself, and board games have grown to occupy almost the entirety of my workload. This allows me to work at home which is ideal for me, giving me flexibility as well as the opportunity to see my kids more during the week.

I’ve always been a gamer to some degree, and played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons when I was a kid, as well as Games Workshop 40K games. I started playing modern board games about 9 years ago, when a friend bought me Catan, and shortly afterwards Dominion. I found a local gaming association and my interest in the hobby exploded from there.

As regards other hobbies, I really have very little time. I read when I can, and play guitar intermittently, but it’s mostly gaming.

So how did you first get involved in making board games?

When I decided to work for myself, I reached out to the community on in an effort to diversify my client base. At the time I was working mainly in designing exhibit booths for petroleum companies, so I was hoping for something a little more fulfilling to work on. That got a bit of interest, and I ended up working on a few games. Some were very small Kickstarters, like Mage Tower, for which I only created a small part of the artwork, and others were full board games such as Fool’s Gold.

I quickly realised that having skills as both a graphic designer and illustrator set me apart from a lot of others in the industry. Publishers were very happy to hear that I had years of experience working with printers and manufacturers, so I already knew all of the ins and outs of setting up punchboards, box dielines etc.

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At some stage early on I wrote to Vital Lacerda, one of my favourite designers, about some of his upcoming games, as I was considering dabbling in publishing at the time. That didn’t work out but he did need artwork created quickly for The Gallerist, and asked if I’d like to take a look at it. The Gallerist ended up being one of the games that most people know me for, so that was really down to luck, and being proactive in trying to create opportunities. It has led to a very fruitful working relationship with Vital, and we are just now completing our fifth game together, Escape Plan.

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Another such lucky opportunity was meeting Martin Wallace at PAX Australia, and joining him for a playtest of Ships. During the game we chatted and I told him about some of the work I’d been doing, and he asked if I’d be interested in working on the second edition of A Study in Emerald, to which I quickly said yes!

Working in games professionally also afforded me the opportunity to attend the Spiel in Essen in 2015, which would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. That was the year that I got to see most of my games for the first time, as coincidence saw a few of them being released there. It was the first time I saw The Gallerist, A Study in Emerald and Fool’s Gold in the flesh, and also got the opportunity to meet a lot of designers and publishers, so that was a big year for me.

Having stepped into the board gaming industry from a different background, what do you think the key differences are in how the work is created?

From the perspective of the work that I produce, the gaming industry allows the rare opportunity for me to create a complete product. For most of the games I work on, everything in the box, and the box itself, is designed by me (apart from the game itself of course!), and that level of ownership is pretty rare. It’s also the perfect industry for my particular blend of skills, which have struggled to find equal footing in other projects. Here, graphic design and illustration are both of very high importance.

Looking more widely at the industry itself, there really are no standards of any sort because it’s so young. Every publisher handles things differently. This can be especially apparent when it comes to discussions about licensing and contracts. It very much feels like it’s driven by passion rather than profit at the moment, and I think there are some growing pains on the horizon as the mean profitability of the industry creeps upwards due to its growth.

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What is your creative process when working on a board game? Can you talk us through it?

The first thing I always do is play the game. I’ll make a prototype, or sometimes the publisher will provide one, and I’ll get some people together and play it. During this I’m thinking about how the players interact with the pieces and the board. Is there a more elegant solution? Do we need all of those counters, or can we use a track instead? Is there a clearer way to present the information that will help players learn and play easier?

Then I start sketching ideas for each element, all rough thumbnails on paper. This is time for all of the big ideas. Do we need a board at all? Should the layout be portrait instead?

Depending on the game, there is sometimes a period of research involved at this point. For historical games I’ll look into the style of visual communication that was prevalent at the time, things like fabric patterns, building materials, costumes etc. Lisboa is a good example of this, as the artwork is very much rooted in the time period. Nemo’s War is another example of a game that needed a LOT of research, as I decided to find a reference for all 100+ ships depicted in the game.

After that I start to make....

This is an excerpt from the interview with Ian O'Toole on, you can read the full interview here.
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