Book Review – How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps (By: Jared Blando)

How to Draw Fantasy Art & RPG Maps: A Step by Step Cartography for Gamers and Fans is a book with quite a long name that is aptly described by said title. It’s a “how-to” art book detailing the creation of fantasy or “medieval” maps for use generally with role-playing games. I picked a copy up mainly to get some inspiration from the included examples and not to actually get any solid drawing information from, as my in experience most “how-to (art)” books I’ve read don’t provide any real benefit other than that (the worst being the “Step 1: Draw a circle, Step 2: Perfectly draw a bunny then color it” kind). But does this one break the mold?

All first impressions indicate that this is a fairly standard, if nicely produced, how-to-draw book. The almost 8½ x 11” size is nice and fitting while the 128 page length is right in the middle of books of this type (most good ones at least). The cover stock is decent and the inside pages are heavy and well coated. The image quality is phenomenal; it’s all nicely printed and well laid out (and meant to look old on the covers. meaning the damage to the corners caused by shipping doesn’t show up as much)

The actual content of the book is where it seems to lose purpose. Not necessarily the art, which is very good if a bit overly specific, but in the writing, which spends most of the books length telling you “now sketch/draw/fill in X” without giving any real hints, tips or tricks. And sometimes I get that, maybe there aren’t any “tricks”, but at that point the text could just be omitted. It seems like the author was only writing most of the book because it was supposed to be a “book” and not show-and-tell, but I’m not necessarily against show-and-tell, especially in this context. The worst part is that even with all of the unnecessary text there are constantly little blocks like pop-up ads in book form that “inform” the reader of “free content” on the publishers website (that I’m sure will be around for as long as all physical copies of the book last). I personally haven’t looked to see (now I have, it’s not much) what’s there but they are used frequently enough (to fill space I’m guessing) that it almost seems like there’s a second book online I should be looking at (there isn’t, just wallpapers).

Still, there is some good stuff in the book; scattered around are helpful “aside” boxes that have useful information (generally better than the regular guidelines) and most of the information and images are on a solid foundation. The shield chapter is particularly nice (if short) one where many examples and color palettes are provided to give the reader some inspiration. This stands in sharp contrast to the previous icon chapter where little-to-no variation or creativity-inspiring options are presented, with boring text that at times (citadels) is directly in opposition to the drawing being displayed. This chapter is by far the worst example of the main problem with the book; that is, just stating the obvious about what is drawn. I have eyes and can see that that is a circle, I also know that the first step in drawing it is a circle, but the book explains that to me. I kept reading in the hope that some interesting fact or technique would be presented but none were (or very few at least). It’s still a problem, but much less so in other chapters where the drawings being directed are actually slightly complicated.

But that’s always been a problem art books have. They provide very few options because they can’t provide more. They don’t know exactly what you want, and when they start to provide the reader with options they lose their cohesiveness. Even this book, which is very straight forward and “constricting”, seems to be about how to make two very different styles of map, but they’re presented as one, in chapter order like you’re supposed to follow. But if you included each of the elements suggested in each chapter as you made the map, you’d have a hard time fitting everything in nicely and you’d end up with a graphically confused and cluttered map.

The book fulfills the purpose I bought it for in giving general inspiration and techniques for creating “fantasy” maps, and it’s an alright beginners tool. The author is a very good artist even if he wasn’t given the ability to flex his writing muscles (that may or may not be there) and the whole thing is nice looking and well produced. I think it would have been better served (like most art books) as a series of images to use as “suggestions” or to draw inspiration from, but if one knows about that (perceived) flaw in books like this going in it is no real problem. If one is looking for actual instruction, the sections on supplies, inking, and digital manipulation at the start and end of the book will do the job with little in the middle being particularly helpful. I am glad I got the book, but I’m not sure how much I could recommend it; it’s nothing special in the world of “how-to art” books and I’m not much of a fan of the (quite digital) aesthetic. So maybe take a look at all of that “free content” on the publisher’s website before making a decision (it just takes one to a page to enter their email address to get “wallpapers”, hardly worth it. I’d try and leaf through the book at the store or with an online “quick look” feature before considering it).

Lessons From Board Games – Xiangqi and Intimidation

Xiangqi is a hard game to get to the table, for various reasons. I could really have picked a lot of games here. But the simplicity and abstract character of Chinese Chess allow me to easily make points about what makes it difficult to get people interested in playing games.

Traditional Xiangqi Set

Traditional Xiangqi Set

Theme – While one could say Xiangqi has a war theme, it is fairly clear once one learns about the game that it is essentially theme-less. The theme is conflict in a general sense, and the pieces don’t really behave in ways their names would suggest. This is a problem as the theme of the game both serves to get people excited about playing it, and also to give them a grounding in reality for when they might not understand why certain game mechanisms are the way they are. Essentially the game is more fun after you’ve played it a few times. But why would you play it if it doesn’t seem interesting?

Iconography – To many people icons symbolize complexity. Games like Monopoly have words written on them. And when the game mechanisms require too many words to fit on the pieces and are replaced by pictures, people don’t want to deal with them. And when the icons are things the have to learn, like a foreign language in Xiganqi’s case, they tend to tune out and look for other things to do.

Strategy – Abstract games and European style games have a lot of depth and strategy, and while hardcore gamers (of both the video and board varieties) relish strategy, regular people tend to know when experienced people will beat them, and don’t want to commit the time to learning something complex that they will lose all of the time at and feel bad afterwards. Glancing at Xiangqi will make it seem simple, but really looking at it will reveal complexities people just don’t want to deal with.

Time Investment – Chess has a reputation for being a long game (an undeserved one in my opinion), and Chinese Chess comes with this baggage as well. People don’t want to commit much time to something new, especially if it has the previously mentioned problems.

Player Count – People don’t like things that require very specific numbers of people because they want to be inclusive and to socialize. Two player games are hard to play for this reason, but so would be games that only play five, or only play eight.

Really, Xiangqi is just a bad game to try to get people to play. If they already like chess and want to learn new things, teaching them might be fun, but playing with people who already know the game is best, either from their heritage, or from discovering it online. People need to be eased into games, especially abstract games. That’s why “gateway” games like Ticket to Ride, Love Letter, and Catan are so popular. People need to be introduced to games that you as the gamer might not like as much but can still enjoy. Starter abstracts like Gobblet and Blokus should be used before introducing some one to Chess and Xiangqi. It’s important that people know they like games before letting these ones intimidate them. And more people gaming means more fun for you.

Games That Teach – Axis & Allies and Short Term Planning

When talking about board games, games so old and still so loved as “Axis and Allies” are hard to find. With so many versions, updates, and house rules, defining the core that is “Axis and Allies” can be difficult at times. One of the core elements,though, is most definitely the controlling of factories to get points to build more units with. And while this mechanic (mechanism) might seem like it favors strategy and thinking over the long term, I’d argue that it really encourages planning in the short term, for your next turn and not for future turns.

The one I have isn't the greatest.

The one I have isn’t the greatest.

Let me try to explain before you scream at me for being wrong (or more likely just leave the page). The resources you get at the end of a turn will not be used until the beginning of your next turn or later. A player can save up for long periods of time but there is almost no point when you’re being punched in the face by you opponent’s pieces. The illusion of long-term consequences comes from this ability to save, but really the game is just about how many IPC’s (resources) a player can get at the end of this turn to have the most effective next turn. While a player deploys resources at the end of their turn, it still means that the maximum they are thinking is two turns ahead, and if they think farther than that (i.e. want a battleship or aircraft carrier, which are expensive) they are likely to get taken out by their opponent who didn’t do that and is fighting with superior strength.

This is also coupled with the fact that the ultimate goals of each side are placed only several spaces away, except for the United States, which is impossible to take and has to produce units and move them across an ocean to be effective (which is why they usually have China). Players don’t have the time to think about turns farther in the future because if they do they’ll be beaten by players who thought about the turn directly ahead.

Now I’m not going to say that this makes for a bad game, or an un-educational game. In fact, the game is quite fun and in certain cases even has the player going for historical objectives. I do think, though, that the idea of Axis and Allies being a grand strategy game is silly. It’s a tactical game on a strategic board, which in and of itself is quite a good way to teach people about proper resource uses in the short term. And saving a few IPCs each turn will lead to getting some more powerful units in the future if done right. I quite like the short-term resource management that Axis and Allies has. And I also like the fact that it has the realism of a series of tactical victories leading to a strategic victory. It definitely isn’t like chess where a series of tactical blunders could stumble you into a strategic success. I like games that reward short-term victories with long-term benefits, even if in some, if not most, will make you second-best to the person who thought through the whole game.

Really, though, “Axis and Allies” is just a good game for dice chucking and pretending to be some foreign super-power for a night with some friends. Even if it isn’t as deep as it looks, it still lasts for some time and holds one’s interest the whole way though (if the players like WWII.)

Games That Teach – Hive and Spatial Orientation

We’ve all played the classic abstract strategy games: chess, checkers and the like. But those are old games. In that last century board games became a family staple and became more colorful and extravagant. And in the last few decades they have advance tremendously in both fun and art design. The days of any new abstract strategy games coming out seemed to be over. Until, that is, Hive came out and opened up the genre again.

The Pieces of Hive
The Pieces of Hive

Hive has won tons of award and gotten some serious buzz (get it?). It’s an abstract that is even more abstracted because it doesn’t have a board. In theory it is played on an infinite grid of hexagons (which is how the game on the iOS and other devices is played) though this grid can only really be about 30 hexes in diameter because of the limitations of number of pieces.

It is also unique in the fact that it has no piece elimination. None of the pieces you play on the board can be eliminated. And you get to choose which pieces you put out first. The objective is to surround the enemy’s queen bee with six of any color piece. And it’s usually a very short game, the longest I’ve played being about ten minutes.

But in my opinion where hive really shines is in the spatial aspect. Each piece moves differently in the two dimensional plain. There are specific, but simple rules governing where you can and can’t move your pieces. It isn’t always obvious where your next move will be, and predicting your opponent’s move can be especially tricky.

Sample Game Unfinished
Sample Game Unfinished

Now I work with spatial things quite a lot, being a cartoonist and graphic designer. I also like to play chess a lot, though I’m not very good, which requires some spatial orientation. But even I can be baffled by Hive at times. It’s such a simple game, but it makes you think so hard, and that is what good games do. Of course you can play more casually as I and most people I play it with (they’re not very cerebral gamers, or even gamers) want to. But even then it’s still flexing your spatial brain muscle or whatever.

Now like, I said spatial resigning is only good in a handful of jobs (architect, graphic designer, artist) and this game really isn’t a teaching tool, it’s more of a practice thing. It helps you get in the zone for such things and it can really be quite relaxing in doing so. It’s one of those games where you marvel at how the other person won rather than being bitter about the fact that you lost. At least to me it is.

So if you already have one of the occupations I mentioned earlier, or are looking into one, try out Hive, it’s great and it can sometimes really help you and let you enjoy things you’ve learned. And you can brag to the people you beat about how your job actually gave you some skill.

Games that Teach – Tetris and Addiction Management

Tetris is an addiction. Of this there is no doubt in my mind. You just have to keep playing. It drives you to keep playing it. You can’t quit Tetris. But you must. Eventually everyone stops playing Tetris, even the best. Eventually you have to put the controller down. It’s when to put the controller down that Tetris helps with.

Some people don’t know when to stop. And Tetris is a way you can learn when to stop without any major consequences. I mean, you could end up playing Tetris all the time and doing nothing else, but that’s the case with almost any video game.

He saw the colors and was never heard from again.

He saw the colors and was never heard from again.

The real reason Tetris is so good is two reasons, really. First it has nothing that could be considered objectionable. It’s just organizing falling blocks. The second is that the game ends every ten minutes or so. Even if you’re super good, a game of more than 20 minutes is insane. The point is that the game ends, which gives you time to decide whether or not to continue.

Learning to quit earlier and earlier will teach you how to moderate and break your habit (and if you don’t, at least you get wicked awesome at Tetris). I know that’s not the most descriptive advise, but it is true. At least it works for some people. Even if you don’t quit, getting addicted to Tetris is one of the best addictions you can have, it won’t hurt your body directly and can probably improve your brain strength in some areas. And if you have friends they can always drink a beer and watch you play Tetris as your social activities.