“I’m constantly trying to outdo myself”: Dinosaur Island and Cryptid artist on the rise of board game illustrators and the struggle to innovate
“I need to slow down, but it's not happening.”
It’s 1am in the morning in Kwanchai Moriya’s neck of the woods and, yet, the board game artist is wide awake and intends to remain so for the next few hours. “I’ll probably be in bed by like 5am,” he says. “I’ve had such crazy deadlines this past month.”
The illustrator behind the likes of Dinosaur Island, Cryptid, Flip Ships and Overlight - to name but a few - Moriya has become a bit of a minor celebrity in the tabletop gaming community in recent years, having had his name printed on notable title after notable title. This has led to Moriya being recognised at board game conventions; “It still shocks me to run into good folks at conventions who bring me their box tops to sign or just know what I looked like. [...] It’s very, very flattering.”
I was once a fan looking at names of artists who were related to board games, so I understand the fervour.
Though his newfound fame continues to remain a mystery to Moriya, it’s no surprise that players are taking notice of the illustrator. In recent years, thanks to the rising popularity of tabletop gaming and the increase in quality of artwork, the creators behind board game and RPG illustrations have been getting more recognition in general, with names like Kyle Ferrin - the artist responsible for Root and Oath - Beth Sobel (Wingspan and Viticulture) and North Sea trilogy artist Mihajlo ‘The Mico’ Dimitrievski being used as a selling point for new releases.
Tabletop artists are now receiving a comparable level of adoration from fans as designers have been enjoying for several years now. “I was once a fan looking at names of artists who were related to board games, so I understand the fervour,” Moriya admits. Just as a particular group of designers have risen to superstar status amongst the tabletop gaming community - like Cole Wehrle, Reiner Knizia and Elizabeth Hargrave - it seems that a selection of illustrators are being seen in a similarly appreciative light.
I wasn’t thinking that it [board game illustration] would be a thing that would be so all-encompassing.
Asked why illustrators are finding more fame in recent years, Moriya notes the unique way that board games are able to present an artist’s talents, from the front cover to the components inside: “There are quite a lot of different parts of a physical game that four or five people will interact with over the course of an evening that gives an illustrator the opportunity to show off their skills.”
For Moriya, getting those illustrative skills meant going to college, before embarking on a freelance career that was initially intended to be largely focused on gallery work. “Back then, I was what we’d call a gallery painter - and a board game illustrator on the side,” he explains. “I wasn’t thinking that it [board game illustration] would be a thing that would be so all-encompassing as it is now.” However, after completing the artwork for the third edition of dexterity game Catacombs, Moriya quickly found himself taking on more and more commissions for board games and RPGs, discovering that a vocation he once struggled to imagine “could be a full time career” had become something that he had “a lot of passion for”.
I feel like I can’t just do as good as the last thing I’ve done and I can’t do the same thing.
About 20 board games later, Moriya has found himself struggling with an innate desire to push himself creatively. “I’ve run into this issue where I feel like I can’t just do as good as the last thing I’ve done and I can’t do the same thing,” he expresses. “I’m constantly trying to outdo myself.” Not content with producing similar artwork for multiple different projects, Moriya is determined to stretch his creative muscles as much as he can, admitting that he has stuck to his artistic comfort zones far too often for his liking.
“Before, almost all the time it was going to be a human figure, usually one of my friends modelling for me, and there’d be a blown-up face real close from the side,” Morya explains, referencing the likes of Dinosaur Island, Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall and his Galaxy Trucker poster for BoardGameGeek’s series of posters as examples of this. “There’s some people who can do one style really, really well,” he says, “but I feel like I can do a few things kind of good.”
When I’ve tried to do something really different, it has failed at least two times.
Since his realisation, Moriya has deliberately attempted to move away from these creative comfort zones and take on commissions that force him to experiment with different styles and subject matters. After completing work on titles like High Rise, In the Hall of the Mountain King and Cryptid, Moriya has felt more confident in experimenting - even if it hasn’t always turned out exactly how he’d planned.
“When I’ve tried to do something really different, it has failed at least two times,” admits Moriya. The artist references a commission for a “lightweight family game” he decided to take a risk on by incorporating some photographic and figurative pieces. However, the final product had ended up being something that “wasn’t as accessible as it should be for a game of that calibre”.
There’s a lot more things that I’d say no to than I’d say yes to.
Even though the artist has experienced challenges in the past and sometimes struggles to meet deadlines - “Please give me the deadline that you want for the art and then add two weeks to that” - Moriya continues to get requests from publishers who are eager for his talents, to the point he’s begun to turn down work that he isn’t interested enough in. “There’s a lot more things that I’d say no to than I’d say yes to - luckily enough, I can be in the position to turn down work.”
The commissions that Moriya has been working on now have offered him the opportunity to indulge in the things he loves - such as the sci-fi artwork for Flip Ships and Dinosaur Island - and explore aspects about himself that he hasn’t previously, which Moriya was able to do when creating the art for Jiangshi. “It was an interesting project because it forced me to look at my own Asian identity. [...] That cover was very emotionally interesting to tackle.”
I’m just so excited to do a board game every time a publisher contacts me.
Thanks to the quality of his previous work, his ability to produce a variety of different styles and his growing fame, Moriya has been receiving more commissions than ever before, to the point he is having to hold himself back from just doing everything that tickles his fancy. “I need to slow down, Alex, honestly,” he confesses. “But it’s not happening - I’m just so excited to do a board game every time a publisher contacts me.”
It’s hard not to be enamored by Moriya’s raw enthusiasm and absolute passion for what he does, as well as his genuine friendliness - he asks how my job is going, where I’m based and discusses the time he ended up in a farm somewhere in Slough (despite living in LA). He’s the kind of creator that you want to see achieve success, whilst simultaneously praying that he doesn’t burn himself out. Tabletop artists such as Moriya deserve recognition, and one can hope that other illustrators who are unsure whether creating art for board games is a viable full-time career will look to him as an example that, yes, it absolutely can be.