The Illustrations of Five Ravens

This is the second part of a designer diary series on Five Ravens. You can read the rules here. You can download the Print and Play here

Art in a board game is absurdly important to me. I will probably always publish games in some format simply to scratch the itch of directing the visuals of a new game. You could almost say I design in order to give my ideas a platform on which to have art applied. It's incredibly important to me. 

I also think there are huge opportunities in the visual space of tabletop games. If you step back and examine the euros on your shelf, most of them look like a euro. Ignoring the brown brown (brown) euros, you still see a genre that mostly resembles Caverna. Natural earth tones, subdued colors, realistic approximations of people and time periods. While some artists in multiple genres stand out more than others with their style or use of color, you don't see too many truly distinct games. This makes sense! Shelf appearance is vital for potential customers grabbing a game off the shelf. Go too far? Get too weird? It'll never get picked up. Still, I think we can explore more.

As I noted in the previous article concerning the origins of Five Ravens, my thematic point of origin was Thief. Yes, the classic PC game Thief. But, sticking to that doesn't give me a lot of room for visual distinction. Dear me can you imagine me putting forth a generic fantasy game? No, that wouldn't do. I considered cyberpunk, like a hacking heist. But, Android: Netrunner is still so dominant (and beautiful), and with the new Blade Runner releasing in October, it seemed foolish to tread in that space. 

I thought about it for quite some time. I was a bit lost.

I did have a few ideas lingering at the back of my mind. Ideas that guided me towards the solution.

Firstly, I wanted to explore a monochromatic experience. A game that uses mostly black and white with limited color. This seemed fascinating and exciting to me. I also thought about the use of negative space. I think this is done best in the cover for T.I.M.E. Stories, which in my opinion is the best aspect of that game. But, especially as we're discussing thievery, I thought about the use of dark negative space. Blackness. I thought about this through the thematic underpinnings of limited light. For example, what would a bedroom look like, lit only by candlelight, with just a small amount exposed from a thief in the room? This seemed haunting. Scary. Dark.

Those three adjectives point to a very common style: Gothic. Yes, most often used to describe cathedrals, but if you google the term, you'll see haunting gargoyles and terrifying spires. While browsing the Gothic images, I had another idea: Poe. As in, Edgar Allen Poe, the famous author from pre-Civil War America. Writer of the Cask of Amontillado, the Raven, and more. 

I googled "Edgar Allen Poe Illustrations" and immediately came across a stunning body of work by Harry Clarke for a 1919 publication of Poe's work titled Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Let me share one below:

Stunning! Haunting! So vivid without any color. I knew this was my desired style. I knew this would make Five Ravens stand out. I also knew it would go over well with my comrade in tiny weird games, John Ariosa. To put it bluntly, John is into Gothic stuff. He's also very good at exploring different styles and adding his own twist to the idea. I knew that I could show John the works of Clarke, describe the game, the vision, and he'd be able to create something special. I knew we were on the right track when John started sending me sketches three weeks before he said he'd be able to start work. 

I knew I wanted the cards to be heavily focused on the illustration and the characters. Also, by focusing on the characters (and not backgrounds or scenes) it keeps the illustrations simple, which keeps costs down. I knew I wanted an illustration for each of the nine characters. I also wanted an assortment of treasures, one for each type. We were excited by dark, spooky relics, the weird ones that the medieval Catholic church would seek out. The finger bone of a saint, the skull of a martyr, and so forth. We also thought about typical Gothic imagery. Things like a haunting grandfather's clock or elaborate necklace of Victorian jewels. 

I wrote descriptions of all the characters for John. Who they are, what role they fill in the gang, what kind of things they will do. If I had a specific pose, I'd mention it. It was around this time I pulled the trigger on a lingering thought I had for a while: I made everyone in the gang a woman. Once I switched the theme to that of a world of Poe, I knew the word Ravens would factor in. I liked the idea of the members of the gang being called Ravens. This seemed to me like a feminine term, but it also seemed fun and different to have a gang of women freedom fighters in this weird world. I don't know why, it just seemed fun.

Perhaps it has to do with many of my favorite characters in books recently. I love The Expanse series, and three of its best characters, if not its best characters, are Naomi, Chrisjen, and Bobbie. If you look at the Muscle card, she's heavily inspired by Bobbie Draper and Arya Stark. 

John's work thrilled me at every drop. He used the stark lack of colors I requested. He created nine visually diverse women performing their roles in the gang. He pursued the woodcut style embraced by Clarke. He helped me tell a story with the cards. While the game itself isn't super thematic, you can look at the cardback to see its sense of place, the characters to know the who, the relics and gems to see an ominous why, and the ticking clock to know time is of the essence.

I think Five Ravens is by far the most visually distinct game I've had the opportunity to create, and the best work from John Ariosa so far. I think it's a marvelous looking game and one that looks beautiful on the table. But, and this is key: the illustrations alone won't sell the visuals. These illustrations had to be paired with text. The images needed to subtly communicate function. It all needed to be wrapped together cohesively. 

Thankfully, this is where Fredrik Skarstedt stepped in. We'll dive into this tomorrow.