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The redesign of popular city-building board game, Suburbia

Brett Stebbins is a professional illustrator based on the Space Coast of Florida. An avid board game player, he was thrilled when Bézier Games approached him to illustrate the Collector’s Edition of popular city-building game, Suburbia.

Originally published in 2012 and designed by Ted Alspach, Suburbia has gained a massive fan base around the world. And now, thanks to a tremendously successful Kickstarter campaign—over a million dollars was pledged in just seven minutes—Bézier Games is releasing Suburbia Collector’s Edition in October 2019.

Tasked with illustrating 176 individual tiles for the game, Brett gives us an inside look into his workflow, some of the challenges he faced and explains why Affinity Designer was the perfect tool for the job.

Brett, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I am Brett Stebbins, a professional illustrator who has lived my entire life on the Space Coast of Florida watching space shuttle launches from my front yard as a kid. Now I am married with a wonderful wife and five kids! I started my career as a graphic designer before Adobe Photoshop had layers. After 15 years of design I had the opportunity to expand my career making environments and assets for mobile games and other media as an independent 3D artist. Almost ten years after that I changed my focus again towards 2D illustration where as an independent artist I create artwork for board and mobile games. I find my greatest pleasure in creating 2D artwork.

How did you come to be involved with the Suburbia Collector’s Edition project?

The head graphic designer of Bézier Games was scouting for an artist to work on the game. He saw my illustration work on my website and reached out to me. He asked me to do a test piece to see how I interpreted the artwork they needed created. They loved it and the rest is history!

Tiles fit together to form a borough as the game is played
Can you tell us about the brief you were given?

Bézier Games was looking to make a collector’s edition of their popular city building board game, Suburbia, that they published back in 2012. They wanted the revised version to “look better and generally give the whole game an updated design”. Bezier Games liked some of my 3D work, which is what they noticed most about my portfolio. They loved how the 3D work didn’t look sterile but was warm and fun. Also, SimCity 2000 and 3000 were some references they gave me when considering how I would style the artwork.

Haunted House tile illustration created in Affinity Designer
What made you choose Affinity Designer to create the illustrations?

Two years prior to creating Suburbia Collector’s Edition board game, I cancelled my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription and dove in the deep end with Affinity Designer. I loved its user friendly UI and its straightforward workflow. Being able to work with both vector and pixel elements easily was a game changer. It made doing digital illustration fun again, which is exactly what a creative person needs when making their art. Also, I was tired of paying a subscription for every piece of software I used. I wanted to own software again. It has been a breath of fresh air. I love it!

“I loved its user friendly UI and its straightforward workflow. Being able to work with both vector and pixel elements easily was a game changer. It made doing digital illustration fun again, which is exactly what a creative person needs when making their art.”

Brett Stebbins on working with Affinity Designer
The project involved making 176 tile illustrations for the game. How did you plan for such a vast number of illustrations?

176 illustrations! Yes, this was a daunting task, but like any project, you start with the first step and just keep taking the next step. Suburbia is made up of hexagonal tiles. So, I created four tile templates that represented the four tile categories in the game. For each template, I set up the perspective grid, colour scheme and base road and ground. This way I could easily open up a tile template and get started. I also thought about repeatable elements I could turn into assets that could be used over and over. This helped to keep me from setting up and remaking the same things each time I went to create a tile.

Assets for Bungie Bridge game tile illustration
Tell us a bit about your process for creating the tiles (creating assets, perspective, adding colour/detail etc).

Perspective: Each tile in the collector’s edition was to have the same basic elements as the original game tiles as well as the same perspective. I started by importing an original game tile into Affinity Designer and setting up the grid for the perspective. The original artwork was not in a typical isometric perspective, so I had to make a custom grid. I also set up basic shapes, in the correct perspective to be my starting point for creating buildings in the scene, such as rectangles and circles. These shapes were then added to the Asset Panel where I could easily pull them into the scene and manipulate them from there. This way I wasn’t constantly putting those shapes into the correct perspective over and over again with each scene.

Colour and Lighting: Next I established the lighting of the different coloured tiles. Each tile falls into one of four categories and each category is defined by a colour (blue, green, grey and yellow). So, for each tile I created a layer with one of the four colours and set it to either a Hard Light, Soft Light or Colour Blend Mode, whatever seemed to work well. This would give the overall artwork a tint of one of those four colours. This way I didn’t have to keep adjusting colours within the illustration towards blue, green, grey or yellow. This helped cut out tedious colour adjustments.

Asset Panel: I realised that there would be repeatable assets throughout all the tiles in the game like cars, light posts, street signs, trees, bushes, rocks, windows, rooftop features etc. So, as I created an asset that could be reused on other tiles, I added it to the Assets Panel. This was a huge time saver. I can’t say enough about this.

Asset Panel

Textures and Gradient Overlays: If you take a close look at the artwork on the tiles, I added some subtle textures. Mostly you will see them in the ground, roads and sidewalks. I find that when creating vector artwork it is always a good idea to use some textures somewhere to break up the clean look of the vector art. I also used the Gradient Overlay layer effect on most buildings. I would set the Gradient Overlay from a warm orange colour to a cool blue colour. I would then set it to an Overlay Blend Mode. This would give a subtle impression of sunlight hitting on one side of the building while casting the other side of the building in shadow. I like to add these kinds of effects on top of what is already there. It adds something more to the illustration. In a very subtle way, you are adding more complexity to the colour and lighting. Details like textures and the Gradient Overlays give the artwork something more that pushes it to the next level.

Shadows: Shadows are an important part of the lighting. I love adding them because they make the whole scene on the tile pop. It gives the artwork dimension and depth. It helps to separate the buildings, cars, lamp posts and other assets from each other and the ground. Plus, you help the viewer know the scale or height of an object like a building. It creates a dramatic effect.

Island Resort game tile illustration
What tools in Affinity Designer did you use most for the project?

The various shape tools like the Rectangle Tool or Ellipse Tool were the tools I used the most. The Pen Tool comes a close second. Once the shapes were created, I might use the Gradient Tool and Transparency Tool to affect how the shape looked. The Corner Tool was used occasionally too. Other than various Layer Effects and Blend Modes those were the tools I used the most.

You were tasked with illustrating some of the world’s most iconic landmarks. How did you ensure they fitted in with the design style of the game?

As I was researching each building and looking at various pictures I found online, I was faced with the challenge of how much detail from the original buildings was necessary. I wanted people to recognise the building, but it also needed to look simplified and clean. I tried to identify aspects of the architecture that made that building recognisable. Sometimes this meant I needed to give the impression of that detail, not an exact reproduction of it. It is easy to add details that won’t be seen when printed because of the ability to zoom into the artwork while creating it, but I couldn’t help myself and added some of those details anyway.

Westminster Abbey game tile
What was the most complex illustration you had to create and how long did it take?

That one is easy! Duomo di Milano of Italy was the longest and most challenging of the illustrations. After spending hours establishing templates and repeatable assets for the tiles, most tiles took two to four hours on average to complete. Duomo di Milano took me around two days to complete if not more. I kept running into some perspective issues. The amount of details a gothic building has is overwhelming. I definitely spent too long on this one!

Details on Duomo di Milano board game tile
We noticed a few hidden details in the illustrations—a ghostly face in a window on the Haunted Asylum tile and the ‘So it goes’ Slaughterhouse-Five quote on the Slaughterhouse tile. Were they part of the brief?

These were added internally by Bézier Games after I had completed all the tiles as a last minute idea I think or maybe they planned on doing that all along, but I was not a part of those additions to the artwork.

The production of the game was made a reality through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Did you follow the progress of the campaign?

Yes, I followed the progress and was pleasantly surprised at how successful it was. Bézier Games has made a great game regardless of the artwork. The artwork I created was finally the visual enhancement that the game deserved. Suburbia has such a huge fan base and reading their comments and seeing their excitement was truly amazing!

Crystal Caverns game tile illustration
What is your all-time favourite board game?

That’s a hard one to answer. There are so many board games to like and each of them appeal to me for different reasons, but I would probably say my current favourite is Mysterium. I love the artwork. It is gorgeous and the concept of a ghost, who was murdered, sending visions to a group of psychic detectives to help them solve its murder is really fun. It is like Clue but way cooler!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have several things I really like doing. Hanging out with my kids, I have five of them, is one of my favourite things to do. I love watching movies and playing board games with my family. I also really enjoy reading books to my kids. Sometimes I get together with some guys to get a craft beer and smoke a cigar at our local cigar shop. We discuss world events, our opinions on the latest Marvel movie or Brandon Sanderson novel or the finer points of cigar smoking. After all that is why we are there. When I am by myself, I love to sit down with my iPad Pro and try new things. Drawing and illustrating are in my blood. I love to create. Another hobby of mine is to grow all kinds of edible plants. It is one way I get away from the digital world and enjoy getting outside.

If you could create an illustration for any client in the world what would be your dream commission?

Hmm, this definitely is not easy to answer. I really don’t think about this in specifics. I think if I could create something of my own, like my own board game or product, that would be my dream project for which to make illustrations. But as all freelancers know, finding time for your own projects is not easy.

Helipad game tile illustration
Will you continue to use Affinity apps as part of your professional workflow?

Absolutely! I use Affinity apps on the desktop and iPad Pro. They are the only applications I use for illustration and design besides Procreate. I am excited about the future. With Affinity Publisher recently launched and so much potential still yet to come with Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo, I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Finally, what tips would you give to fellow designers and illustrators who might be considering using Affinity for their work?

First of all, don’t be afraid of change. There will always be challenges to switching to a new software, but Affinity Designer is so enjoyable to use that it is worth the minimal learning curve you go through. Its UI and workflow fit the current way we do work as professionals. You can also find great tutorials on the Affinity website that can quickly get you going. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others that are using it in their workflow. The Affinity community is always willing to help.