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Vincent Dutrait on After Us and The A.R.T. Project

by Vincent Dutrait

The worlds created by board games are rich and diverse, and every element — from the rules to the design of the components — contributes to immersing players in a unique gaming experience.

Among these elements, illustration plays a key role. It is the player’s first contact with the game and often depicts its universe, atmosphere and tone. More than just decoration, or even “nice drawings” as we sometimes hear, the illustrations shape the perception of the game, stimulate the imagination, and heighten the gaming experience.

In this article, Catch Up Games and Lumberjacks Studio ask Vincent Dutrait about these notions, so that you can immerse yourself in the worlds of After Us and The A.R.T. Project.

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Q: Hi, Vincent! I don’t think you need an introduction, but before we start talking about specific games, could you tell us which projects have stayed with you throughout your long career as an illustrator, whether board game related or not?

A: I’ve worked on illustrations for over a hundred games. Choosing some titles over others is always a delicate affair…but the first games that spring to mind are Lewis & Clark and Discoveries, which allowed me to transfer an important part of American history into images by fully exploring the theme, graphics and visuals.

Detective: City of Angels was an enormous playground for me, allowing me to experiment with new approaches. The game featured a strong relationship between the text and the images, the narration, and the development of mixed techniques that allowed us to obtain a retro-vintage rendering.

Most recently, The Quest for El Dorado and its expansions gave me the chance to develop an entire universe, its locations, and its characters from scratch. I was given complete freedom because the publishing work was done only after the illustrations were finished, not before or during that process as is usually the case. I delivered “turnkey” packs to publishers and distributors of the game around the world.

Q: We’re curious to find out what goes on inside an illustrator’s notebook. Could you tell us what your main steps are for a project?

A: To start with, I like to have a deep understanding of the game. That includes its rules, but also the point of view of the publisher and the designers. Any 3D views, or pictures of game sessions or the game’s set-up, will help me tremendously to immerse myself in the game and understand its spatialization — even with prototypes that have preliminary artwork or none at all. This allows me to better define the impact and function the illustrations will have in the game.

Character development for The A.R.T. Project

Once the final list of illustrations has been defined, to support my creative process I spend a lot of time researching and collecting documentation and references about the theme. I do that online, but I also read books and watch movies. To create a credible environment, I always work in a documented way that’s not too dissimilar from documentary fiction. This is followed by a phase of sketching and montage, which further develops the idea I have in mind and the direction I would like to go in.

In-progress cover for The A.R.T. Project

Once this step has been approved, I start coloring. I’ve always worked in a traditional manner, with pencils, brushes, and paintings on paper. Having to make modifications afterwards can be very delicate and dangerous, so I always take my precautions to avoid complications on finalized images.

As a last step, after scanning and scaling them according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, I hand over the final illustrations to the publisher. At this point, the illustrations are ready for the desktop publishing process, and finally for printing.

Cover drafts for After Us

Q: The universe of After Us, like that of The A.R.T. Project, seems original and grounded in a certain realism while referencing popular imagined worlds. How do you manage to strike a balance between realism and fiction? What unique contribution can you bring to these already strong paper-based universes?

A: It’s never easy to find the right balance. I like to say that my illustrations are more “believable” than “realistic”. It’s all about the approach. I always work in a well-documented manner as if I were working on a docudrama. This allows me to establish the reality that needs to be depicted in the images and make it tangible. Viewers will thus recognize things and conventions that surround them, supporting their immersion — and that’s where it becomes interesting because I will subtly deviate from this reality by adding to the image what should not or could not be possible.

Final cover

It seems to me that this is the question illustrators should ask themselves: What do I want to convey and share? And how can I achieve that? It’s a fine line, a fragile frontier, and it can be easy to tip towards representations that are difficult for the majority to access, sometimes too intricate or sophisticated, cryptic, or overly referential. The precise and detailed grounding in reality allows me to reassure the viewers, then take them by the hand, guide them, and introduce them to these unique and original worlds to explore.

Q: About The A.R.T. Project, is a game with art as its main theme exciting for an illustrator to work on?

A: With Museum, I had worked on a board game with an artistic theme before. I knew it could be exciting, but that it could also turn out to be complex. You can’t just do whatever you like with it, you have to be respectful towards history, cultures, civilizations, and their works of art.

We therefore decided to take a mixed approach, with representations of existing artworks and others that were done “in the same style”. This gave us the leeway we needed to create the original universe that is The A.R.T. Project. We wanted to maintain some fantasy elements, and make sure the illustrations weren’t so heavy that they distracted players from the game’s experience.

Q: What would you say was your biggest challenge when creating The A.R.T. Project? Looking at the amount of detail and references on each board, it’s a stunning achievement!

A: The main challenge was in the game’s components. There are no cards or tokens, which makes it difficult to show locations, environments, artworks, etc. The boards were all I had to work with, and that was tough because they first and foremost serve as play areas on which the players move their meeples.

I had to pull some rabbits out of my hat in terms of composition, structure, and staging. I tried centralizing as much information as possible to create an immersive experience for the players. I used pictures and postcards, images inside of images, objects placed on the country maps of the boards… They’re practically on a 1:1 scale, which helps to create a sensation of “reality” around the boards: a bit like a trompe l’œil or a mise en abyme.

Japan game board in The A.R.T. Project

The goal was to breathe life into the game in a patchwork sort of way, a bit like a Russian doll. I wanted to give each board its own identity and unique traits, while at the same time supporting the idea of discovery, exploration, travel, and adventure!

Q: The monkeys and apes in After Us are admirable for their realistic traits and expressions. Did you have any prior experience illustrating these animals, or did you have to do extensive research for each of the five species in the game?

A: I’m a big fan of Planet of the Apes, the novel by Pierre Boulle, as well as the first series of films from the 1960s and 1970s. I had created a tribute to the movie for an exhibition, but I had never had the opportunity to develop a complete series of illustrations on monkeys until After Us came along!

Dutrait’s original homage to Planet of the Apes

There aren’t fifty species of monkeys in the game, and on the cards, for example, we finally have only a few variations and views to represent them. It was quite a challenge and an interesting exercise to try to capture the essence of these animals. I’m not sure if we can call it “artistic semantics”, but fundamentally, I aimed to represent chimpanzees as a species, rather than A chimpanzee, and the same goes for the gorillas and the mandrills — especially since in this game, each species is linked to an action, an effect. Therefore, I needed to find the right gesture, the right pose to support the gameplay mechanisms and highlight the apes in their most symbolic and iconic forms.

The player boards allowed me to contextualize the monkeys, have them interact with their environment and with each other, and create a narrative — small stories about their daily lives and their new way of living in this post-event world.

Q: For some foreign editions, you adapted the cover of After Us by replacing our beloved Eiffel Tower with another iconic building from their respective country. Can you tell us more about the process and the challenges it may have posed?

A: We were fortunate to have a cover structure and layout that allowed for these adaptations. The idea was that if our partners wished, they could have a very localized version of the game! This can certainly help players in these markets better identify and immerse themselves in the world of After Us. On the contrary, keeping the Eiffel Tower can also be exotic and unfamiliar for others, emphasizing the dystopian aspect of our story.

Technically, it wasn’t always straightforward, and it could pose some challenges at times. To maintain the original composition of the cover and not disrupt its balance, we needed a building that would fit in height, in the space to the left of the title, and whose scale could integrate into the scene — but that’s not the kind of thing that can deter me, and on the contrary, while exploring the world, it spiced up this unexpected extension of the work on After Us, and I’m very proud of this unique series of covers!

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