List of great artists for your tabletop game

Gallery of experienced board game artists you can work with

Are you looking for an awesome freelance artist for your tabletop, board or card game? There’s a lot of mediocre art from artists that don’t understand tabletop games, so I spent a few hours looking for fantastic artists that worked in tabletop games. And I wanted to record my research in a public place for others to use.

So here’s a big list of working tabletop game artists (many of which were at GenCon this year), along with one image that seems typical of their style. I thought these were beautiful or applicable for my own tabletop game about vampires, and I hope they are useful for your project too!

Click any of the thumbnails below to see more of the artist’s work or get in touch. Maybe they’re available for a quick test?

Finally, this thread looks in-depth at the process of revisions and the back and forths and tradeoffs when working with an artist and graphic designer. I think it gives a good idea of what the process of developing art for a tabletop game might look like in practice.

If your art is here and don’t want to be listed, or if you know of other great artists that should be, please let me know.

 

The Lean Startup for board games

Update: Putting this into practice with my new board game, Moonlight.

One of the most mind-blowing business books I’ve ever read is The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries (hopefully his new book will be half as good). The book has many examples of people building businesses incredibly fast. Instead of spending months or years writing code, or starting your business in a traditional or obvious way, the book encourages people to build something tiny and to launch that in some way, in order to learn more about the business before committing months, years and thousands to it.

I come from the world of video game development, which has quite naturally taken on lean principles in the form of Steam Early Access. The idea is to release the game before it’s done and to let players buy it and give you feedback while it’s cheap and not too difficult to TAKE that feedback. We’ve been doing this at my company for close to 10 years now, mostly by necessity, but now because we think it’s a way to build superior games.

Recently, I’ve been getting more serious about designing board games as well. The board game industry is notoriously difficult to make money with, especially because distribution requires inventory costs and because changes can’t be made to a game that’s already physical. So it seems like board games are about as “anti-lean” as it gets. Or are they?

That’s when I saw how Cards Against Humanity got their start. They released a “print and play” on their web site for free. I’m not sure if it was part of the original version, but their current print and play (which is STILL free) has the most wonderfully beautiful and simple instructions for actually making this (click for .pdf):

Cards Against Humanity print

I don’t know about you, but when I see this, I want to run to Kinko’s and print it up. It’s so simple and immediate, this makes me believe that print and play can work. Not only that, but the fact that even after selling so many copies, the fact that they continue to offer this game for free makes me realize what an amazing way it is to market a game and grow it. Reading the card text is half the fun and the fact that you’ll get a laugh and a small part of the experience just by looking at the PDF seems like a radical and powerful marketing move. Once you have the ability to “electronically distribute” a paper game, the requirements for lean principles are met.

With this in mind, here’s my plan for a vampire-themed “Comic Encounter light” game I’ve been working on. At each stage, I’m hoping to build in player feedback (because ultimately, having the best quality game is the most important) and market validation. I’m hoping to use the “traction” gained at each stage to build up to the next stage:

  1. Iterate on single hand-built prototype. Play lots more with different groups. Develop vampire roles to be really memorable and flavorful. Clarify thinking on starting blood, maximum blood and starting influence. Nail the core the best I can with in-person testing and relatively deep (but ultimately sparse) feedback.
  2. Write blog entry about game: what is is and why I’m making it. Garfield’s Cosmic Poker, the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, Mike Selinker and Cards Against Humanity. Write about this lean process and plan also (this article, check!).
  3. Create ultra-simple WP site with forums. Release simple .pdf as print and play.
  4. Include e-mail signup (“Would you like to be notified when a commercial version is available?”). Include clear instructions for print and play and direct link to buy counters and/or container. Include small version number on every card.
  5. Ask players to tell me their favorite vampire roles. Choose only the best and cut/delay the others. As I iterate on rules and cards, e-mail current users with big version updates to keep them in the loop.
  6. Once at 1,000 to 2,000 signups, commission artist to create cards. Maybe work with <name omitted> to do overall graphic design.
  7. Submit to Tabletop Deathmatch (ttdm@cardsagainsthumanity.com).
  8. Research more about Fulfillment by Amazon to make sure it will work for Kickstarter. Ask David Sirlin about his experience with it.
  9. Possibly launch on Kickstarter. Make it short, just a week or two. Make it around $5k and include some awesome limited-edition rewards. Model after other successful Kickstarters. E-mail existing print and players that have asked to be told about a physical version: I hope they will make the campaign successful. With some luck, it could be very successful and provide all the funding for a significant first print run.
  10. Make first print run from Kickstarter funds and send to backers. Continue selling through Amazon store and word of mouth. Print some extra copies and send to industry friends for their feedback and to prime the pump for speaking to publishers.
  11. If/once I hit 10k+ units sold, and revenue is steady or growing, start talking to publishers for potential distribution deal. This deal will be much better than a normal deal, because the game would be much better than most that publishers see by now, because it has been through dozens or hundreds of versions. Possibly talk to others to license better IP and launch it to international or worldwide distribution.

At any step of the way, I can pull the plug if the game isn’t good enough and I can’t figure out a way to make it better. At every step of the way, players are involved with giving feedback (the most important thing for any game) and I’m risking very little or no money.

I’m hoping that by writing this, I can help other board game designers think about ways they can test and improve their ideas before spending too much time or money on them. I’m also hoping all of you have other ideas and resources that you can leave here in the comments, so we can all use this as a resource for building much better games much more quickly!

The Valve mindset

Some insight into how a gaming great thinks

DOTA 2 logo

Some members of our team just attended the first Steam Dev Days, which was a small new conference put on by Valve in Seattle. They gave us what appeared to be full access to the development methodologies, experiences, plans and opinions. Perhaps most valuable of all, they showed us how they think, which not only is quite different than most of the game industry, but which seems to be a huge component of their success.

Here are some things they did NOT talk about:

  • Free to play being the best model, or “the future”
  • Pay to win being the devil
  • Any kind of business or revenue model being better than any other model
  • ARPU, monetization or user acquisition
  • Cosmetics/game-changing upgrades/consumables
  • The evils of Zynga/Clash of Clans/Latest P2W game

I found it interesting that they obviously didn’t hate any of these subjects, like many industry vets do. They weren’t impulseively moving away from them – they just find them irrelevant. It was as if a chemical had been added to the Seattle water supply and we now suddenly spoke different languages.

Here is a company that is one of the most successful and respected video game companies in the world, one that has always been on the forefront of innovation and one that has increasingly made their games free. And here is a company that not only didn’t talk about the things that the industry seems obsessed with, but they were totally agnostic towards them. They seem to view games altogether differently and this blog entry attempts to synthesizing it into something practical for the rest of us.

Here is what they DID talk about:

#1 – The Scientific Method (in games)

  1. Goal is game that makes customers happy
  2. Game design is a hypothesis
  3. Playtests are experiments
  4. Evaluate designs based off external playtests
  5. Go to #1

This is a simplification and specialization of The Scientific Method, applied to game development. It also applies some rigor and humility to something that is normally considered mostly an art (not a science). This feels very different to me than the auteur-style method of game development, where an creator is mostly concerned with expressing themselves.

But the scientific method was also used more broadly, when running experiments and measuring the results, and data-centered decision-making. Admittedly this sounds like Zynga, but Valve do it while maintaining artistic integrity.

#2 – Incremental experiments

Instead of trying to do big things that take longer, they release small low-cost “experiments”. For instance, the first hat they sold in TF2 was actually hacked in using their achievement system! If you had that achievement, you were wearing the hat. They didn’t create a back-end to serve up hats to the world – that would’ve been too expensive and too slow, and they didn’t know if anyone wanted hats. For a few hours of work, they got real data about the viability of hats in TF2 – and we know how that turned out.

Or when talking about the Steam box, Valve repeatedly mentioned that “it’s just an update to Steam”. They were trying to drive home the point that this isn’t a “new console launch” – this is one incremental step towards allowing Steam customers to play in the living room. Even the Steam controller isn’t “done” – it will continue to evolve as they learn more about how customers use it. They are taking frequent, light, reversible steps toward their goal.

Releasing experiments is fun and can build momentum quickly. It can also reduce waste by testing the viability of an idea before significant resources are devoted to it. These stories convinced us to immediately take a step towards releasing a Natural Selection 2 mod commercially and releasing a chunk of Subnautica on Steam way before the rest of the game is ready. The energy shift is palpable.

#3 – The “regret test”

They have a guiding principle that helps them navigate many decisions around customer interactions with their games. They simply ask people a day or a week later if they regretted their interaction with their game. Ie, after players trashed all their TF2 items in the hope of getting a more valuable item (and didn’t), did they regret having done so? Nope – so item-recycle program can stay.

Many games violate this rule. They obfuscate currencies through points or gems. They add pay walls to unlock clearly artificial barriers. In the end, Valve seems to believe in the long-term value of their customers. So they customers aren’t enjoying something, they would rather fix it instead of making money in the short-term. Also, they mentioned that revenue is actually a poor heuristic for success (they use no-regret, player retention and many others).

#4 – Pay to win can be great

Their argument for pay to win actually being OK or even beneficial is simple. As long as it doesn’t negatively affect the experience of others, it’s fine. They cited War Thunder as a great game that did this well (that speaker played a lot of). This complements the regret test, and together starts to paint a picture of how they see the world.

#5 – Create positive externalities

This was the most mind-expanding part. A positive externality is a benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that benefit. Imagine a beekeeper keeping bees for honey, but whose bees pollinate nearby crops. Crop pollination is unintended, and the value generated it may actually be higher than the honey. Valve creates systems that naturally create these positive externalities, making everything they touch more valuable. Here’s a clever example from DOTA 2:

  • Playing DOTA 2 is free. Players are rewarded by playing with randomly dropped chests that contain new character models. These chests can only be opened by purchasing a key from Valve for a few bucks.
  • Players can also create their own character models, which they can upload to the Steam Workshop. Other players can rate those models.
  • Valve curates these models and chooses some of them to be added to the game officially to the in-game store, so they can be purchased directly by players. A percentage of these sales proceeds go directly to the creator.
  • All items can be traded between players.

These systems interlink beautifully and create a compelling win-win-win scenario:

  • Players win because they get many high-quality models to choose from. They are also happy to buy models in the store because they know some of their money goes to the artist (and because they’ve been playing for free they might feel “it’s only right” to pay something).
  • Valve wins makes money by taking a cut of the model sales and by selling keys to open the lockboxes.
  • Artists win by making tons of money by selling their work in a vibrant and growing marketplace.
  • The game wins by feeling fresh and rich with this influx of content.
  • Players who play but don’t pay much win, because they can open their chests and trade the contents to other players for something they want more (the other trading player wins too because they got what they wanted). Or, they can make real  money by selling their items for cash (!).
  • The overall game economy wins too: artists create beautiful character models which increase supply and with their mere presence, non-paying players create demand.

The mindset behind this is very different from the traditional “make your game free to maximize audience then add artificial friction to get some % to pay”. This is about creating systems where the participation in each system creates value in each other system. Every element adds more value to every other element. No wonder they are so successful.

Takeaway

In discussing these ideas with others, I hear grumbles like:

“It must be nice to be Valve”

It’s easy to dismiss these ideas and imagine that they only work in a world where you have the resources/talent/IP/Steam that Valve do. But having that mindset makes us powerless and dejected.

Why not try on this new mindset and conduct a few of your own experiments instead?

Further reading