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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Interview with Artist Ben Zweifel

One of my goals when I started writing for Outpost Zero was not just to write about our favorite games, but introduce some of the people and processes behind those games. That's why I'm proud to bring you guys  this interview with freelance artist Ben Zweifel.

While Ben now focuses primarily on the Star Wars RPG, X-Wing, and Armada, his work has been featured in the LotR LCG from the very beginning of the game. His artwork was among the first that many of us would have seen when we started the game, as his portfolio includes the 1st stage quest card for Passage Through Mirkwood.

Ben has also done work for Fantasy Flight's board game line, notably for the Warhammer 40,000 game Relic (basically the 40k version of Talisman). After enduring my pleading for artwork featuring Abaddon or Maugan Ra, he was kind enough to answer my questions...


What was your earliest introduction to Middle Earth? And for Warhammer 40,000?

I grew up with both of them. I was introduced to LOTR at a very early age, and I think I had read them a couple of times by the time 6th grade rolled around. 40k on the other hand was a bit later but at one point I was fielding fairly large Space Marine and Tyranid armies. However, I think I enjoyed the modelling/painting aspect of it a lot more than actually playing the game. I could probably count the number of times I played proper games on one hand as opposed to the countless hours hunched over a table holding tiny brushes or gluing sand to bases.

Do you have a favorite character or setting from Middle Earth and/or Warhammer 40k?

I can't say I really do. I mean, I've always enjoyed most of the exploits of the dwarf characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I like their eccentricities, similar to the humans and hobbits but a little bit more neurotic. Elves are just a bit hard to relate to. For Warhammer, as a player especially its always been about creating my own characters, making my own chapter, primarch, etc. However as general archetypes I really like a lot of the Inquisition stuff. I find the wide variety of different character types that fit in there really interesting.

How did you come to work on FFG's games? Was there an application/audition process?

Most companies that work with a large number of freelancers are always looking. I submitted my portfolio to their art drop eons ago but I imagine that it still functions in a similar fashion. Although I don't have a lot of insight on the subject, it basically boils down to submitting a cover letter and a link to a solid digital portfolio. 

You've been working on the LotR card game since the very beginning - has your method changed at all when working in that setting? Do you approach projects differently than you once did for LotR?

Well I haven't worked on the LotR LCG since mid-2013 (Ed. Note: Since Ben's work has been featured in the most recent AP, this gives us a good idea of just how far ahead the design team is planning the game, incredible!), it is however a pretty similar process to most of my other work for FFG.

As an illustrator you are always trying to improve your work but that's a pretty slow and incremental process. The biggest thing for me has been the development of a really good relationship with Zoë Robinson (she's one of the strong influences steering the visual look of a lot of FFG products and the art director I work with most frequently). Since we've worked together for years now we're able to communicate complex ideas very effectively. That shorthand allows us to get on the same page much faster and gives her more nuanced control over the end result.

Illustration for games is mostly problem solving. All of our art plays a supporting role to gameplay, it's designed to enhance the experience, so the question that usually needs answering is: What are we trying to evoke in the players? Most of the time it's about capturing a specific narrative moment that can bridge the gap between dry gameplay mechanics and an immersive experience that makes you feel like you're taking part in exploring your favorite universe. The problem is, it's not always clear how to achieve that effect, especially since there's lots of other artists working on a product and none of us have the big picture. Zoë has that overview and, more importantly, she usually has a crystal clear idea of what she needs her artists to do so we don't waste a lot of resources exploring dead ends. That's a totally indispensable skill in an AD and one that's actually not as common as you would think. 

Do you have a favorite card of yours for the LotR LCG?

I'm pretty happy with how the Doors of Durin turned out, it was interesting because it went through a bunch of revisions, but I like where we ended up. Ancient Forest and Sinking Bog are close seconds.

How much work can we expect from you for FFG's Warhammer 40,000 products? 
I'm sorry to say most of my recent work has taken me away from 40k. However one of the big things I've done recently is the entire game board for the Halls of Terra expansion for Relic (set in the 40k Universe) which consists of dozens of individual illustrations. I did the original board for Relic as well and one of the early drafts had Abaddon in the very center of the board but it was later abandoned in favor of the Chaos Star. It just made more sense from a gameplay perspective.

Do you play any of the games that you work on?
In the past few years I've been mostly working on a lot of X-Wing and StarWars RPG (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny) both of which I play. X-wing I play very casually and rather badly, partially because my fleet consists of contributor copies from ones I've worked on rather than a carefully selected army, leading to some rather wonky ship selections. I play the StarWars RPG pretty frequently as well.

What is your preferred medium for your art?
I work almost exclusively in Photoshop for any professional work. The volume of potential changes and the ease at which those are achieved simply makes it the most efficient and flexible.

Did you study art in any organized way? Or are you mostly self-taught?
I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the Ringling College of Art & Design. It was a great starting point, and it's not like your done when you graduate, you keep learning.

Any advice for artists who want a career like yours?
I could say something like: "learn good fundamentals, know your anatomy etc." But everyone knows that. I think communication is key. Being able to write and speak to people effectively is a learned skill, expressing really complex ideas in a way that other people can understand them has been invaluable. The other incredibly useful skill you can learn is to be hungry for information, don't know how something works, go find out, don't guess. Whether it's how light reflects off carbon fiber or how the biomechanics of a bird in flight work or how linear actuators in robotics function, all that information is really important in imaginative illustration because all those data points inform your design and allow you to create something thats fantastic or futuristic but grounded enough in reality for the viewer to understand it.

Where can we view more of your work? 
I have my own site:, and you can find me on Twitter @pixelgarbage 

Huge thanks to Ben for taking the time to answer some questions!

Want to join the conversation? Please sound off in the comments below, or let us know on our forum!

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