Jim Fitzpatrick is amused that many of his new fans assume he is an up-and-comer.
“They think they have discovered some new, young artist,” says the 70-year-old Dubliner, best known for his iconic portrait of Che Guevara.
The designs he has done for the Celtic-themed board game Inis showcases his mythical artwork, and it’s proving popular in the US. “It’s bringing my work to a whole new audience that I know nothing about,” he says.
The Art of the Board Game
For connoisseurs, the imagery and illustrations on a board game can be as important as the mechanics of how it is played and the flavour or theme.
“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But I think that, on the whole, you should judge a board game by its art,” says Jamie Gibbs, creator of the Welsh geek-culture site Geeks in Wales.
Fitzpatrick says that the art is just as important as the games. “If they don’t like the art, they don’t like the game,” he says.
Board-game enthusiasts agree on this. “We judge books by their cover all the time. If it has a good cover you are more likely to look at a book, and it is the same with board games,” says Fergal MacCarthaigh, who organises board-game nights in Dublin.
That’s a logical thing to do, says Gibbs of Geeks in Wales: “A game’s aesthetic goes hand in hand with its theme and for most, it’s a great indicator of how the game will suit your tastes.”
A comical dungeon-crawler like Munchkin uses sketched characters and humorous cartoons. An atmospheric, immersive game like Mysterium requires high-quality, detailed art, he says.
On the other hand, cartoon-style art work is associated with fun-themed games, says MacCarthaigh. “Small World is a game where they go with really cutesy art and that really helps to sell the game,” he says.
There are some exceptions, of course.
Says Gibbs: “A game based on HP Lovecraft will be inherently dark, whereas something that’s inspired by Eastern cultures will take artistic inspiration from those same cultures.”
As Gibbs sees it, crowd-funding is one of the drivers behind what some argue is an improvement in the quality of board-game art.
“Potential players need to see something hugely polished before they part with their cash,” he says.
People will always buy popular games like Monopoly, he says, but the less well-known games need to give themselves an edge to attract customers. They need their peacock feathers.
“I think that good art has always been an integral part of non-mass-market board games,” says Gibbs.
A Celtic Hit
For some of Dublin’s artists, board games – and video games – may provide a new avenue for work and that’s great to see, says Fitzpatrick.
Kate O’Moore, who did the artwork for Garden of Bees, a board game invented by the Dublin-based start-up Decking Awesome Games, was delighted with the commission.
They invented a new character especially for the front of the box, she said. “To do a creative game is great fun, eyes lit up.”
Most work for board games is done on Photoshop nowadays, says Fitzpatrick. Which is perhaps why his hand-drawn work has stood out.
“It doesn’t look like anybody else’s work, so I think they are intrigued by it,” he says. (Inis was nominated in three categories for the 2016 Board Game Geek Awards, which is run by popular vote.)
About three years ago, the French board-game publisher Matagot, approached him to do the art work for Inis.
The cards for the game mostly used his existing paintings, but the company also commissioned some original work too, including the game’s cover, he says.
There was a lot of freedom with it. “It was a nice experience for me. I’m used to dealing with people who hassle about everything, but these guys just let me do what I want,” he says.
Inis is a four-player board game and players win by being elected King of the Island. Paths to victory include battle, accumulating lands, or spreading your religion. In other words, by firepower, or hearts and minds.
But Fitzpatrick hasn’t played the game himself. “I’m not a board gamer or a gamer at all, deliberately, because I have a totally addictive personality,” he says, laughing. “I come from a long line of very artistic alcoholics.”
He got addicted to one of the first computer games he played, he says. “I realised no, just don’t do it.”
These days, games look different. “The games are getting so beautiful and so much more involved,” he says.
So when Matagot gave him a big box full of sets of Inis, he gave away several sets to kids and he has had some feedback on what the game is like.
“I gave it to Philip Lynott’s daughter Cathleen, who was here about a month ago, for her ten-year-old son,” he says.
“So, Philip’s ex-wife Caroline has posted pictures of them all (Cathleen’s four children) playing this very elaborate game, that took two or three days to complete,” he says.