Feudum: Art in Board Games

November 17, 2022
Odd Bird
10 minutes

Telling the story behind the art in board games

by Mark Swanson

April 8, 2019 | Originally posted in More Games Please

Today I’m being joined by Mark and Justin, designer and illustrator on Feudum who will be telling us more about that game and it’s upcoming expansion Rudders and Ramparts. Thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren’t aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourselves and what you do?

Mark: Great to be here, Ross. I guess you could say I’m a toymaker, living in the suburbs in a small town named Columbia, Missouri. To me, tabletop games are toys—albeit advanced toys that stimulate your mind. I also have a side gig as a Professor teaching strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Justin: Hello Ross! I’m an artist living in Jackson, Mississippi. I work at an advertising agency during the day as a Sr. Art Digital Art Director and illustrate/design posters (and now, board games!) in the evenings.


How did you two first start working together? Can you remember those first few conversations?

Mark: This is going to sound a bit far-fetched, but it’s 100% true. I walked into an Ice Cream shop called “Sparky’s” and saw a poster for a band on the wall (some examples of these are above). It featured a giant monster traversing the countryside, and I immediately thought… “that has to be my artist!” When I found Justin’s email on the internet, I wrote a long and rambling email asking him to consider working on game art. To my surprise, he wrote back.

Justin: Yeah! Like Mark said, he sent me an email with something like “a guy with a dream” as the email title. I was like “oh great, here we go!” haha – just assuming it was another request for some free work for “exposure.” But it really ended up being this thoughtful, heartfelt email about Mark’s dream of creating a tabletop game. To an artist/designer, it sounded like a real dream project! Mark seemed very intelligent, creative, passionate and honest – so I was intrigued to say the least!

Marks Handmade Prototype – Feudum
Mark’s Daughter playtesting Feudum

Alright, elevator pitch time, what is Feudum and what makes it so special?

Mark: I had been playing Eurostyle (or German Board Games as they used to be called) for nearly 15 years. I immersed myself in the creations of Knizia, Teuber, Wallace and Seyfarth thinking that I’d find the holy grail of games! One with a working economy, with depth, with a wide open-world with multiple paths to victory. I couldn’t find what I was envisioning! So, I invented Feudum.

Justin: One thing that makes Feudum unique (design-wise) is the cohesion of the icons/graphics with the game itself. When researching tabletop games I was always baffled by the icons being completely detached from the rest of the design. Harsh outer glow effects and dark drop shadows on vector icons that were obviously designed without taking the original artwork into account. I suppose it was the result an illustrator not putting much thought into leaving “blank” areas for icons to live, and icon designers wanting to make sure their elements stood out – but to me, the end result looked like this mish-mash of design. Nothing felt like one complete, cohesive project – so one of my main goals artistically was to make sure Feudum felt like a timeless “artifact.” Mark and I agreed that using iconography that was language independent was also important.


Let’s talk for a moment about the world you’ve built with Feudum. Where did the initial idea for the theme come from and how did you decide on the visual style you ended up creating?

Mark: I discovered Eurostyle games in the late 90s and became a quick fan of legends like Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, Martin Wallace and Andreas Seyfarth. However, I was not satisfied. I kept envisioning the holy grail of games. One that was an open-world sandbox. One where you could eke out your medieval existence. One that featured a working, cyclical economy. I couldn’t find it, so I invented it! Many games influenced Feudum including the multiple roles in Puerto Rico, the action programming of Maharaja, the area control of El Grande, the resource gathering of Settlers of Catan. But, I knew I needed a unique mechanic that I could call my own. That’s when Feudum’s economic ecosystem was born! Once the mechanics were in place, I knew I needed striking art! I’ve always loved Expressionism with its thick black lines, etchings and muted color schemes. (French Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet in particular). This is probably why I like Alexandre Roche (Artist for the game Troyes), and of course, why i like my artist/illustrator Justin Schultz!

The second knight Justin presented.
Final Knight with colour – Feudum

Justin: When Mark and I discussed the art style, Mark had a very specific vision in mind, which can be a double-edged sword! A lot of people struggle with vision and don’t know what they want (or don’t want) until they see it. Mark knew exactly what he wanted, which may seem a little constrictive creatively, but he was always very open to my input and ideas. Plus, I really loved the world he had created and his feedback always improved my illustrations (as much as I hate to admit it, haha). Mark is also a pretty great artist in his own right! He had the board all laid out and the characters mostly concepted, so really I just had to “re-skin” his designs. I like to joke I can only draw about 25% better than Mark, which is how I got the gig! He also inundated me with hundreds (and hundreds, no kidding) of reference images! At one point, I asked him to narrow the references to maybe five-ish images per topic – which he agreed to – but then would be like “well… here’s 20 more images that I think really help show what I’m trying to convey”. When we were at SXSW recently, we went through a lot of the old images/references and laughed about the whole process. It was such a beast of a job, but definitely one I could not be more proud of.

The board is a huge part of any tabletop game, both in the sense of its presence but also in connecting players to the world and Feudums does a great job of selling the theme. How long did it take to create this board and how did it change during the initial projects development?

Mark: I started thinking about the archetypal medieval roles (farmer, merchant, alchemist, knight, noble and monk) and the symbiotic relationships one might have with the other. I drew a large circle on piece of poster board to plot everything out. (I still have this, actually). The original map I drew evolved a little over time as did the vessel routes. I was inspired by the length of the Shogun (based on Wallenstein) board and how it gave everyone ample space for their personal playmats! Originally the Guilds, Military Service Track and Epic Voyage Track were detached from the board.

After a year of playtesting this in this detached manner, I figured out a visually efficient way to combine everything. Playtesting with my friends was critical to its evolution! My friend Dan inspired the Tax action while my friend Andy inspired the individual vessel routes. I like that there are two games happening at once. Players must think about playing their dutiful role in the guilds, while minding the empires they are building on the map. I’m most proud of the integration between these two elements.

Game Board Final Design

Justin: This was all Mark! Like I was saying earlier, he had a very clear vision of what he wanted, I just tried not to mess it up! There were definitely a few iterations along the way, but the bulk of the board remained the same (by the time I was included in the process).


Rudders and Ramparts is now your third Feudum Kickstarter, so what do you think this process has taught you about game design and about crowdfunding in general?

Mark: I never planned on launching three Feudum-related Kickstarter campaigns! It all happened organically. Midway through the first campaign, people began insisting that I create a solo variant—so The Queen’s Army was born. Then, midway through that campaign, one of my fans emailed me to show me some 3D components he designed. I asked if we could bring my artist into the mix to improve upon his design, and suddenly, Rudders & Ramparts was born! I’ve learned to be flexible, listen to fans and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Feudum’s worldwide success took me by surprise! The epic theme and mechanics of the game captivated people from many cultures. The game is offered in German, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish and Korean! Needless to say, building relationships with localization partners around the world is very rewarding…and time consuming. There are lots of stakeholders I must satisfy including distributors, retailers and customers. I never want to let anyone down!

Justin: Like Mark said, I’ve learned to be open, be more flexible. He’s such a good listener and really takes the fans requests seriously. I’ve tried to be more like him and just go more with the flow as of late. In the beginning, it was challenging, but by RaR, I’ve realized it’s just part of the process!

The new expansion Rudders and Ramparts just funded on Kickstarter, congratulations! How do you think it expands and improves the base game?

Mark: Artist and miniatures painter Bruce Monson partnered with 3D sculptor Scott Ryan to create custom, fan-made Feudum vessels and castles. I was so enamored with their work, that we began to discuss how my artist, Justin Schultz might be able to put add Feudum’s signature art style to the pieces. After the pieces were born, I was inspired to create a combat variant of the game to capture both form and function. Because the base game features enough complexity, all Feudum expansions, including Rudders and Ramparts, add light, yet elegant nuances to the game! In particular, this expansion rewards the pursuit of fuedums (Latin for fiefdoms).

Early Carvings
Starting player marker – Feudum

Justin: I was just happy to be involved! When I saw Bruce & Scott’s original vessels and castles, I was floored! I gave the tiniest amount of feedback so they’d match the game a little more is about all I can take credit for! I also have to say they are some of my favorite elements of the game.

Feudum has some of the most distinctive “bits” of any game I’ve seen so far. What inspired you to invest so much time and creative energy into their design?

Mark’s early sketches – Feudum
Feudum – Game pieces

Mark: One of the joys of playing tabletop games is their tactile nature. There’s just something mesmerizing about handling wooden cubes, resin figures and colorful punchboard. Because of this love for componentry, I was determined to work with Justin to create something that reflected the highest level of craftsmanship. Both Justin and I shared the vision of creating—not just a game—but a work of art. This meant lots of trial and error. Lots of revisions. And, lots of samples from Panda Manufacturing (who also deserves lots of credit for helping us realize our visions). As an example, the vessels underwent several revisions so that they reflected the artwork of the game, while still being functional. To capture the detail I wanted, each mini has an impressive number of hand-painted applications.

Game pieces art – Feudum

Justin: It was an extremely fun (and unique) opportunity. I mean, how often does a designer get to design bits for a game!?! It was definitely intentional that the bits be unique from other games (and like Mark said, major props to Panda for being patient with us also!) We wanted the pieces to have a weight to them. To feel authentic, and handmade, like perhaps they had been through the test of time already. I like the idea that someone in the far future may come across Feudum and not be quite sure of the time or location from whence it came.

Do you have any advice for those interested in launching their own Kickstarter game?

Mark: You want to make sure you’ve built sufficient community around your game. This means that you’ve been posting game progress on places like Facebook, Instagram, twitter, Reddit, BoardGameGeek and the BGG Designer’s Forum. Second, you want to make sure you have your art ready, manufacturing quotes in place and shipping all planned out beforehand so that you can focus on being responsive to backers during the launch. Building rapport with your following is a critical part of building a favorable brand!

Justin: Try to make your page as informative as possible. Be responsive (Mark is great at this!) Have everything ready in advance, including lots of stretch goal options. Share it in advance (before it launches to get feedback). Most importantly, just go for it!


Photography by BoardGameShot

What are some non game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?

Mark: I’m watching the final season of Adventure Time. I’m reading Piers Anthony. I’m playing lots of worker placement games! Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A lot of it happens by osmosis after immersing myself in art and pop culture.

Justin: I just finished 1Q84 by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and am working on Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy (frontman for the band Wilco). I’ve been listening to the band Khruangbin a lot lately. They are an amazing instrumental 3-piece out of Houston (TX). I also can’t stop listening to this great metal band Witch that J Mascis (from Dinosaur Jr.) plays drums in.

Feudum with Rudders and Ramparts expansion – photography by Anthony Jinson

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?

Mark: Follow me on Facebook or @oddbirdgames on Instagram and Twitter. This year I’ll be at SXSW Gaming Expo and Geekway and Gen Con after that!