Over the past few years, as I have explored more and more wargames, I have noticed the same few new names coming up over and over again in the area of graphic design. Ania Ziolkowska has done games for some of my favorite publishers, including One Small Step Games, Hollandspiele, Flying Pig Games and Tiny Battle Publishing, and she is very good at what she does. We reached out to her and she graciously accepted our offer to do this interview about her work.
Grant: First off Ania, please tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live? What are your hobbies and interests? What types of games do you enjoy playing?
Ania: First of all, I would like to thank The Player’s Aid crew for choosing me as an interviewee. It’s an honour!
Right. Now, I’m from Poland, but I live in Norway. I love playing all kinds of games – from boardgames, through wargames, to video games. I enjoy best two to three player competitive games with cut-throat aspects such as Innovation, but also wargames based on ancient and medieval history (like Men of Iron Series) and all kinds of sci-fi themed games whatsoever (from Space Empires to Elite Dangerous). When I’m not gaming in my free time, I either read (so many books, so little time!), write or learn new things.
Grant: What is your profession? How did you get into wargame graphic design?
Ania: I’m an advertisement specialist and journalist by trade. Since 2005, I have been a graphic designer, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t much like what I was doing – it was boring. I was passionate about boardgaming, and I was pretty active on BoardGameGeek. There I met a lot of people, and some of them were already industry insiders. At the end of 2013, I was asked to make the graphics for a solitaire wargame, and I agreed. The game was never published, so it happened that I did what no graphic artist ever should – I did a project just for my portfolio. But I created a Facebook page with samples of that work, asked my gaming friends to spread the word, and in two or three weeks, I had received my first wargaming (paying) contract.
Grant: What is your favorite part about the graphic design process? Conversely, what do you struggle with?
Ania: I think I have two favourite parts. One is research. Some games need to have a distinctive look which would reflect a history behind the game. In the process, I often learn so much not only about the times but also about art trends, specific tools and pigments which were used back then. I find this to be fascinating.
My second favourite part of the design process is a moment when everything starts to work together, and the overall look and feel (atmosphere) of the map is finally visible.
What do I struggle with the most? That’s a tricky question. If I would have to name something, then I would say it will be mailing back and forth. Sometimes, when more than one person is in communication with me about the project, it may create a lot of information noise, which can be very time-consuming to straighten out.
Grant: If you are given strict design parameters for a specific game, does this stifle your creativity?
Ania: Not at all. Making a project with full creative freedom is fun, but it also takes more time and energy. When I have a good description for the project, I can get right in, without worrying about style, colour palette or fonts. Such, as you say “strict parameters” often push me out of my graphic design comfort zone, which is educative.
Grant: How long does it usually take to fully design the graphics for a wargame? What is the starting point for the whole process?
Ania: The time varies from project to project and depends on the elements of the project, amount of each different type of component, the complexity of those components, style which is required, if there is a descriptive brief from the designer sharing his vision and how well it is prepared, but also the quality of the communication.
As mundane as this may sound, the starting point for all my projects is a Google Docs file. I gather all the information I have about the game – from the proper title and credits box, through sheet sizes, to historical background and my notes and questions. If I have a brief from the designer/developer, I have most of the information already, but this file grows with time. It keeps me organised and on track through the whole process.
Grant: Where do you obtain information from to ensure the accuracy of the maps, terrain, etc.?
Ania: In cases of hex-grid maps, I trust that the designer knows best. I used to check all the places and named features on the original files, but I’m neither a historian nor a history buff, and it took me ages to do that. Often it turned out that my found discrepancies were just design choices. So I stopped doing that. If it comes to point-to-point and area movement maps, I use my atlases and books from the local library. I also thrive on sites like www.davidrumsey.com and other digitalised libraries.
Grant: How does the design process for counters compare to the process for maps? What is your goal with the look of counters?
Ania: There is no comparison really between designing a map and counters. Both processes are very different. Creating good counters is like baking – you just follow the recipe, and they turn out good, if you break the rules, they will be useless, ugly or both. To continue this culinary parallel, creating maps is like cooking, which is a much more creative process. Some rules apply there too, but you are allowed to experiment, tweak and make something truly unique.
What the counters will look like is strictly dictated by the amount of information it has to show to the players and by the designer/developer’s choice of the icons used on it. So my primary goal is to present all the mechanically important information as clearly as possible and to make sure that all the numbers are clearly associated with their roles.
Grant: What do you think are the most important qualities in a graphic designer?
Ania: What an interesting question! Besides the obvious directly graphic-related qualities, such as sense of aesthetics or proportions, I would say that good communication skills are most important. You need that to extract all the information from a client, to do the job as close to their expectations as possible, and to estimate the right price for the project.
Grant: What wargame companies have you worked with in the past? What games have you been involved in?
Ania: I’ve made graphics for 25 different games published by One Small Step Games – among those are Ty Bomba’s NATO, Nukes & Nazis and Brian Train’s Algeria: The War of Independence 1954-1962. Eight games for Hollandspiele – like Tom Russell’s Supply Lines of the American Revolution, Charlemagne, Master of Europe or Shields & Swords II Series, as well as Richard H. Berg’s Dynasty: The Era of the Five Dynasties. I also have worked with Flying Pig Games and their sister-company Tiny Battle Publishing.
Grant: What game’s graphics are you most proud of? Is there one game that you would like another crack at to improve or simply do differently?
Ania: I think that being proud of the work you do, is a pretty foreign concept to someone raised in Poland. But I certainly like some of my graphics. My favourites, in no particular order, are:
– wintery, hex-grid map with 3D elements of Ty Bomba’s 1941: What If;
– ornament driven point-to-point map of Tom Russell’s Agricola: Master of Britain and the battle display;
– both maps of Supply Lines of the American Revolution (The Northern Theater and The Southern Strategy);
– and an all elements of Arc of the Kaiser’s Last Raider – the game designed by Joseph Miranda and soon to be published by One Small Step.
You ask if I would like to take another crack at any of my projects? No. I see what I could have done better in some cases, especially at the beginning of my journey in the wargaming industry. But, I have also learned new things and techniques. But I think that once something is out of my hands, it is also out of my control and lives its own life. If I would like to improve my projects, accordingly to my increasing knowledge and skill, then I would never stop working on any one piece. So it’s pointless.
Grant: What graphic designers out there have influenced your style? Do you spend a lot of time studying other’s work?
Ania: I don’t think my graphics represent one particular style, but I admire wargame graphics veterans like Mark Simonitch and Charlie Kibler. Do I study others people work? When I play games, I often notice how an artist made terrain features, and I take mental notes when I find something particularly nice. But for example, when I work on the project, I never search for similarly themed games to look for inspiration. That kills creativity, and you end up copying someone’s work. However, I did purchase three games, not for the mechanic, designer or theme (in fact, those games were far from what I like to play) but I wanted to take a closer look at the extraordinary job their artists have done. I believe those three games have the best wargame graphics I have ever seen – To the Last Man! (artist: Christophe Sancy), Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel (artist: Steve Paschal) and Old School Tactical (designer & artist: Shayne Logan).
Grant: What role does a good map play in a proper wargame? How does it help tell the narrative of the battle depicted?
Ania: A wargame map is first and foremost a tool which should help a player to execute mechanics of the game with ease and lack of doubt. But I believe that there is always a way to incorporate a game’s theme into its components. The magic is in the details, in my opinion. For example, for historical games, I often use ornaments right to the game’s times and cultures, background textures which look like materials artist back then were using to draw on, traditional colour pallets and fonts appropriate to depicted times. I draw a lot of inspiration from historical maps and art. You can see what I mean by reading this Hollandspiele blog article: https://hollandspiele.com/blogs/hollandazed-thoughts-ideas-and-miscellany/on-publishing-bergs-dynasty
Grant: What games are you currently busily working on?
Ania: I always work on one game at a time, to give the design my uninterrupted focus and maximum energy. At the moment, I am working on the map to Joseph Miranda’s War in the Megacity game which will be published in CounterFact Magazine later this year.
Grant: Where do you see your wargaming design career in 5 years?
Ania: I don’t look that far ahead. I tend to live in the present.
Grant: What is your grail design? Any specific company that you would love to design for but just haven’t had the opportunity yet?
Ania: I would love to make graphics for a sci-fi themed game.
Grant: What type of software and hardware do you use for design?
Ania: I do vector graphics, so my primary tool is Adobe Illustrator CC 2018. Additionally, I also use Adobe Photoshop CC 2018 and Blender 3D. Sometimes I hand-trace historical maps, and for that, I use Calque Satin Canson 70g/m2 and a Stabilo Point 88 fine 0.4 pen (black). You can see how all those media work together in my latest video “From a Sketch to Vectors – Making Shorelines And Rivers for the Supply Lines (The Southern Strategy)” (http://bit.ly/YT_SketchToVector)
Ania, we thank you for your time, even in the midst of a stressful move, and for your magnificent work. I love wargaming but am a very visual person and when I play a well illustrated and graphically pleasing game, it makes the experience that much more enjoyable and immersive and helps me to better understand the struggle that is being depicted. One of my favorite maps that you have done is for Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater from Hollandspiele. I actually feel like a supply commander in that time period struggling to find a clear path to provide my troops with the needed food and ammunition and your map makes that experience that much more rich and reinforces that feeling with your choice of color, style and even the paper chosen for the final version. Bravo!
If you are interested in seeing some more of Ania’s work, please visit here website at the following link: http://www.aniabz.com/ I look forward to seeing more of her work in future games and wish her the very best of luck in pursuing her craft.