DevelopmentSelf Publishing

“Art sells games.”

I’m not sure who originally said that but it’s a good saying.

I had a hard time figuring out an art style for Mothership. This post might not apply to you if you’re paying a real, honest-to-goodness artist to illustrate your game (and you’ll be better off for it). But if you’re like me and you stubbornly insist on having creative control over everything, then you’re in the right place.

You might be in the same position I was in: you want to do all the art yourself, but you’re a mediocre artist. As a mediocre artist, your mind can come up with wonderful visions of your game; how it’s going to look, how it’s going to blow away the competition, how middle-aged men will clamour over each other just to grab it off the shelves.

Problem is, your freaking hands can’t make those visions come true. BUT as a mediocre artist, you can come up with something. And in your mind something is better than paying for someone else to do it for you…

Setting the Mood

An early question I asked myself is, “how do I want my board game to feel?” If your game has a deep narrative then the story will probably set its tone. Is it in a dark and gritty post apocalyptic wasteland? Are you overthrowing a totalitarian government? Are you a rag-tag band of vomit knights trying to save a princess?

I gravitated towards tongue-in-cheek humor for Mothership, despite the story essentially being about…well, genocide isn’t the right word…but you’re a colony fleeing a war torn planet and blowing up other fleeing colonies for basically no reason. Doing a gritty Chris Nolan, Dark Knight-style game sets you up for high amount of scrutiny, such as “well that makes no sense – why would you be doing that?”

Anyway, I think you catch my drift.

Once you have a vague idea of how you want your game to feel:

Gather Concept Art

space quest

Space Quest – MS-DOS

I liked this part. Finding artwork that inspires you.

For me, there were A LOT of ups and downs during this time. Why was that? Back to my comment earlier about being a mediocre artist, I knew what game I wanted to make but my hands couldn’t illustrate it. I had to find a style that fit with what I could actually achieve.

My dream style, the first one I went straight for, was an oldschool, 16 colour pixel art style. I grew up playing MS-DOS games and instantly feel all warm and fuzzy when I look at old screenshots.


Overkill – MSDOS


My attempt at a pixel art ‘Afterburners’ card.

The time I blew trying to emulate / learn pixel art was immense. I had the basic game mechanics for Mothership down within 3 months. Stuffing around with pixel art? 6 months. So, that’s 6 months where I tried really hard to draw with 16 colours on a 500 x 300 pixel canvas only to scrap all my ideas in the end. Sigh.

Next style I considered was a retro, mid 20th century, cold war era, buck rogers rip-off. That didn’t really work either. While I thought it looked pretty rad, it still didn’t fit with my brightly coloured ideas. Plus, you’ll notice that back then in the far flung past of the 50’s and 60’s, artists had real talent. Look at the photo of that jigsaw puzzle below. I can’t draw that, who am I kidding? That brings me to my next section:

Work Within your Limitations

ripaBy now you might be thinking “Peter you idiot you should have just paid someone.” NO, I refuse! I consider myself to be an artist; I won’t let this beat me!

My main shtick has always been cartoons, so I made an attempt at fitting Mothership into a cartoon style. The game consists of action cards that are played to disrupt other players, boost stats etc. With over 30 different kinds of cards the time strain of fully illustrating each and every one would have killed me and I honestly would have lost interest in the whole project. Yeah, that didn’t happen.

After many, MANY failed attempts I came up with the following:

actions cards

UI style icons for each card. A big deciding factor is the consistency across cards, something I failed to achieve with cartoons. I felt it fit with my theme a lot better too. Also, flip they were so much easier to create than full paintings. SO much easier. Because it was relatively simple I was motivated to make as many as I could.

What lesson should you take from this? Work to your strengths. My goal was to make a board game and do everything myself. If your goal is the same, don’t look at a game like Citadels and get discouraged because you can’t draw like that. Think about what you can do, what you’re good at and try and fit your art style to that.

Soon, you’ll have the satisfaction of handing someone a box with your finished game inside and saying “everything in this box was made by me.”


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