Conversation With A Gaming Innovator #5: Eric J. Carter

EricSketch_5x5[1]By Peter Ruth II

Well, it’s time again for another of my jaunts into proper journalism, and this week we have another game designing, illustrating, and graphic designing phenomenon, the great Eric J. Carter. Who, you ask, is this? This is one of the best illustrators out there right now, that’s who. He’s worked for Tasty Minstrel on their upcoming Eminent Domain project as well as on a little, obscure game you may not have heard of: Dominion. Let’s get the show on the road!

SFC: Eric, thanks for taking the time to chat with the likes of the Superfly Circus today! Let’s start out with an easy question to get warmed up. How did you get involved with Dominion? What was it like working with one of the biggest properties out there?

Talisman_EricJCarter_web[1]EJC: I saw that Dominion, like Magic, used several different artists, so I hoped that Rio Grande Games would be open to trying out new people . I gathered up my courage and sent off an email to Jay at RGG offering to do a card for a future expansion. Jay’s positive response was exciting , and he said he’d contact me after the holidays. New Year’s came and went, as well as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter. Just when I had given up hope I got an email from Jay that May giving me the assignment to do the Talisman card for Prosperity.

I spent 25 hours working on that image, which other card artists will recognize as a non-profitable amount of time, but I wanted my first professional fantasy art job to be perfect. Jay had no changes for either my rough sketch or final color work and paid quite promptly. According to the NDA I was allowed to say that I had a card in the game, but I just couldn’t show the image or tell anyone what it was called. Besides that, I decided not to tell anyone about it, anyway due to the universe being out to get me.

I envisioned something going wrong during the process. However, I had this vision of my friends finding out ‘accidentally,’ so I kept mum about it completely all the way through GenCon, where my friends who were in attendance missed their chance to buy a copy.

Now at the time I kept one thought in my head to kind of mediate my excitement over being in my favorite game. I remember Donald X. Vaccarino sharing that they had accidentally commissioned two images for the Market card, so I kept telling myself that being included wasn’t guaranteed. Yes, I had been thanked for my work and yes, I had cashed the check, but a part of me kept saying “something could still go wrong.” So that night when I saw the spoiler images in Board Game Geek and my art was in there, I was beyond ecstatic. From that point on my self-doubts were gone and I was ready to embrace a dream I had given up years ago.

SFC: Wow, that’s a “I love it when a plan comes together” series of events, huh? I’m glad to see that perseverance paid off. Incidentally, the art that you did was amazing, and I can see why Tasty Minstrel wanted you on the team. The art for Eminent Domain is pretty spectacular. How did you hook up with Michael at Tasty Minstrel?
EJC: Not long after Prosperity was out I saw the promotion going on for another deckbuilding game, Eminent Domain. I and a couple of game buddies went in together on a Kickstarter sponsorship. The Tasty Minstrel people have been very open about the game’s creation and pre-production through their site and on BGG, and it was in one of those Forum discussions back in November that I mentioned at the end of my post “BTW, need any artwork?” It wasn’t but a few minutes later that I heard from them by email.

Terraforming_web[1]They had seen my Dominion card on my site, but not much sci-fi. So I offered to do one image as a try-out, which was the Weapon’s Emporium card. After sending them the final version of that I was offered the whole slate of 27 cards. If I was able to work on it full-time I would’ve gladly taken that on, but as it is I could only devote a few hours a night (plus weekends) and they wanted them done in about a month. I calculated that I could do 8 more cards in the time allowed, so TMG put out the word that they needed more artists. Ryan Johnson and Patrick McEvoy was then brought on board. Later Jeremy Deveraturda and James Wolf Strehle were added as the deadline approached. That is an incredible stable of talent and I’m pleased to be listed among them. As I turned in more cards I was given more to do, right up to the deadline. In all I’ll have 12 cards in the base game.

Logistics is one of the last cards I worked on, and Gavan Brown (the graphic artist and the AD for the project) posted the final version of it on BGG with the text and graphic treatment. Gavan’s work is just brilliant and I think it’s going to make everyone who gets a copy really pleased with their purchase. I was very happy to see more than one comment on there that said they were going to buy the game based on the posted image. Gavan, Seth and Michael of Tasty Minstrel knows the two things that artists need to survive: Money (which was promptly paid) and Praise (which was given quite often). As of now Eminent Domain has been at the printers for a couple of weeks and I’m extremely eager to see my copy.

Logistics[1]SFC: So you’re really just like me in the sense that you don’t care about following “normal channels” or whatever…you see an opportunity and just stick yourself right in there. That’s awesome. It’s funny, but a little initiative goes an incredibly long way. I don’t know about Gavan’s stuff, but the cards I have seen, specifically the Terraforming and Dr. Mayhem’s stuff on BGG, is really good.
Let me ask you about your deep, dark, seedy past now. Are you just a natural, or did you go to an art school or something?

EJC: I’ve drawn since childhood. I remember copying characters out of the newspaper’s comics page, trying to get all the details right. Throughout Elementary school and High school art classes were always my favorite. While I never went to ‘Art’ school, I did attend a state college that had an excellent arts program. While I was there they developed a Commercial Illustration degree which suited me perfectly. During college I believed I was destined to be a comic book artist/writer. No. After college I thought I’d be a comic strip artist/writer. No. After those failures I really believed that there’d be a perfect fit for me artistically, something that just fit like a glove. Web design, sculpture, architectural rendering, stained glass… I tried my hand at all of them, too, but none of those led to “OMG-Instant Success” as I naively believed was supposed to happen.
Marriage and kids exposed me to the harsh reality of bills and insurance, so the next decade saw me employed as a graphic artist with no hopes of doing much more than that. During that time I learned a few things:

  1. Hard work and talent are fine, but to make things happen you have to know the right people. “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” as the old saying goes. All my life I didn’t want to believe that was true, but it certainly is. My hermit-like ways were my biggest obstacle, so to succeed I must overcome that.
  2. Nobody starts out great… It’s only through years of practice that one gets even close to just ‘pretty good’ let alone great. I kept thinking that there was something I was great at artistically but I just hadn’t come across it yet, and then things would just happen on their own.
  3. Nothing happens on its own…Again, I had learned an old adage – “You make your own luck.” I had kept waiting for an art career to find me instead of going out to find the career for myself. These are all lessons I wish I had learned when I was in my 20s instead of my late 30s.

WeaponEmporium_web[2]So now, at the tender age of 40, I am just entering the fantasy art industry, a place I wanted to be long ago. I attribute this due to the combination of an old friend and a new one. I found out that Dan Scott, someone I knew when we were teenagers, is a successful fantasy artist. He has done covers for DC and Dark Horse comics, he’s one of WotC’s go-to guys for Magic cards and has been featured in ImagineFX magazine. Seeing all of that was inspiring… it made me realize that it’s an attainable goal. Suddenly artists weren’t ‘other people’ that had some special advantages I didn’t, but were real people who earned success through hard work and practice.

The new friend that made me take the plunge is a member of our local board gaming group, Scott Sader. He is a guy who speaks his mind and doesn’t hide his opinion in B.S. He had seen my work and asked me why I wasn’t doing art for games or books because, as he put it, I was certainly good enough to do so. He removed that last obstacle I had, the self-doubt. I owe him a world of thanks for that, but I think he’ll have to settle for the dozens of times he’s kicked my ass at just about every board game we’ve ever played together. It was shortly after that happened that I sent my enquiry to Jay at Rio Grande.

SFC: Wow, that’s an amazing turn of events, man. Seems like a recurring theme in your life. It sounds like you chalk a lot up to luck, but I disagree. You put in the time, too, and it sounds like you are literally the ‘real deal’ that was born into this world to illustrate as well as any of the top tier artists you see working in the industry. It’s sad that your low self esteem stopped you for all of these years, because no lie, you are an incredibly talented illustrator. Speaking of that, I want to point out that you were the first interviewee who elected not to send a head shot. If my bald, fat, talentless ass got on camera and had someone shoot a 2″ cannon at me, you sure as hell could’ve sent me a snapshot, Mr. Camera Shy. How are your adoring fans going to recognize you at GenCon?

Anyway, just messing with you, brother. Now that I’ve stroked your ego a bit, let’s move onto something more compelling. I know you a bit, and I and some of our mutual friends have heard you talking about a couple of really slick game ideas, some that I’d never heard before and that I thought were amazing. The one that really gave me “cube” was the post-apocalyptic one. How come I’m not seeing your name on a box as the designer? You have some seriously great ideas, and the fact that you don’t have to pay an illustrator has to be a huge cost-savings. So, what up?

EJC: Whenever I find something I enjoy I end up wanting to be more than just a consumer of it, but a creator of it as well. When I first enrolled in college I went with a double-major for art and mass media with the intent of being in the movie business. Comics? Yep, I wanted to write and draw comic books. After finishing a good book I want to start outlining a novel. In fact this coming November I may just do that. So when I got involved in board gaming as a hobby the itch to create one came as no surprise. I have the design resources to create nice-looking prototypes but my biggest hurdle is the question “Is it fun?” Of all the dozen or so designs I’ve written up or gotten to play-testing stage, that question is the ultimate hammer and so far I haven’t come up with anything that I think answers back “Yes, it’s fun!” One or two ideas have gotten as far as multiple playtests and a redesign or two, but that’s it so far. However, making prototypes is enjoyable in and of itself. Some of my designs are tile-based so I’ve developed a system to create good-looking double-sided square chipboard tiles. I’ve been sending emails to Hobby Lobby asking them to sell wooden hexagons in their craft aisle because I have a few designs that call for hexes.

But for now, I’m shelving game design for two reasons. 1) I want to turn my part-time freelancing into full-time freelancing and 2) I want to experience more gaming mechanics because I find myself relying on some concepts too heavily – cards, tiles, victory points, resource gathering, etc. I fully expect to one day revisit an old design and rework it with a new gaming system and I’ll finally have something that _I_ want to play. Maybe it’ll take another dozen or more bad designs before I finally get to that good one.

SFC: Yes, I completely understand the phenomenon that causes game making to impede your ability to actually get anything else done! You’re going to have to share that chit-making technique sometime…there’s a lot of people who, like myself, are having a hard time making good quality double-sided chits.
Now back to your artwork, since that’s what brought me to you, what are you working on now that Eminent Domain is at the presses? Do you have a project coming up? Are you looking for some more work, and if so, what kind?

EJC: I’ve got a sci-fi cover commission to work on during the next few weeks. It’s not my first book cover, but it is my first genre one, so I’m excited about that. Some logo work is waiting on a committee to give me the go-ahead… I also have a long-standing project that’s nearing the finish line. A few years ago I was contacted by someone who had an idea for a series of educational children’s books and needed an illustrator. I’ve been collaborating with him on it since then. Each book is 40 pages and there are 11 books, so we had a huge cast of characters to design and each book went through 2 full mockups before I began creating the final artwork. We’ve got 9 of the 11 books in a finished form and I’m halfway through the tenth. I expect to be done with the last book by the end of the summer, then by the end of the year we’ll have finished any modifications the previous books need.

Hopefully sometime in 2012 that project will be available for purchase to school districts nationwide. Between now and then I want to be in contact with some publishing companies and use those books as a way of securing other children’s book projects. And, yes, I have ideas for my own children’s books as well. I really wish the scientific community would get that immortality pill in production because there is so much stuff I want to do before I start decomposing.

SFC: So it sounds like you’ve got all kinds of irons in the fire! I can feel your pain as getting older makes you look back and think about how you might’ve done things differently. I’m quite honestly pretty satisfied with what I’ve done, aside from the one time I caught the clap, but I’ve always been ruled by my own moral “bushido” code and have never deviated, so I really have very, very few regrets. I’m just a little too impulsive sometimes, but hell, I figure that goes in the plus section!

So now onto my final question: what kind of games do you like, and how did you get mixed up in this crazy world of hobby gaming?

GurpsLowTech_p99_web[2]EJC: In college I played Talisman a lot. That was my first cool board game purchase. Then Magic: The Gathering came out – that was great fun for a few years. I bought and played that game all the way up to the Tempest set. It was years later that I saw Heroscape on a store shelf… that lovely little addiction threw me into the deep end of the gaming pool. I found myself on on a daily basis, then onto… and suddenly I was buying game after game after game.

I went from one half-shelf of games to three full bookcases. The gateways came first – Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. Then Last Night on Earth and Zooloretto. Now I have Dominion and all of its expansions, Race for the Galaxy, four different train games, Galactic Emperor (which I bought because Twilight Imperium is too damn long), the entire Thunderstone collection, both Ravenloft and Ashardalon, and a very gorgeous Hilinski Crokinole board. I’m looking forward to more Dominion releases, Battleship Galaxies, and, of course, Eminent Domain.

SFC: Don’t get me started on Crokinole boards…or for that matter, Heroscape! One last question, though, that I forgot to ask and I wanted to mention. I heard you just hosted a Con out in Kansas, “EricCon”, and was wondering how hard that was to put together, and how it worked out?

EJC: That was more of a game day/party than a con. For my 40th my wife rented a hotel’s meeting room. It was big enough to hold 4-6 folding tables and some snacks. I had a dozen friends show up and we played from noon Saturday until early in the morning Sunday. We played Crokinole, Dominion, Innovation, Andromeda, Crokinole, Ashardalon, Tumblin’ Dice, Crokinole (on my sweet, _sweet_ Hilinski board), and ended with a few rounds of Werewolf, during which we were hushed by the hotel clerk around 3am for being _unruly_. I loved every minute of it.

SFC: Yeah, now I wish I’d have made it out, man. Sounds like it was a blast, and it would not be the first time I was asked to leave by a hotel employee. Thanks again for graciously putting up with me and allowing The Circus some insight into the mind of a genius. You’re a hell of an illustrator, and I wish you every success both personally and profesionally.

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