Interview designer, Mike Wokasch (aka Fairway, The Indie Game Report) on his new game, Starving Artists. Currently on Kickstarter, “Starving Artists is an award-winning, blind-drafting and resource management game…” for 1 to 4 players.

Mike, what got you into board games and why did you decide to start design them?

Mike: I think I’ve always been into board games. I have memories from when I was a kid and I designed a board game with some neighbor friends. If I remember it, it was inspired by Fireball Island.

I got back into them when my son turned five. He ate up games like Tonga Island and Labyrinth. I also started to look for other games with educational opportunities. I found some, but so many games missed obvious opportunities.

It was at that point that I started to think about designing my own games for real.

Your game, Starving Artists is on currently on Kickstarter. For those that may not know, what is Starving Artists?

Mike: Starving Artists is a blind drafting and resource management game in which players are paint-by-cube artists trying to become famous before they starve. Players collect transparent cubes and use them to complete paintings. The paintings are based on some of the greatest works of art of all time.

In the game, the players must buy canvases to paint, paint them using cubes, or draw new cubes from the paint bag. When they complete their canvases, they can sell them for more food and more paint.

While the mechanisms in the game are pretty straight forward, players must plan ahead, make efficient use of time, and have just enough luck to make it.

Starving Artists came out of Grey Gnome Games/The Game Crafter design challenge with the theme of Survival. What made you think about putting survival and art together?

Mike: I like to think of it as the creative process at work. It started out somewhat as a joke.  When the contest was announced, I realized that there would be a whole host of the standard sort of survival games: lost at sea or in the forest, stuck in space, chased by angry bees, and so forth. I knew if I was going to win I had to differentiate myself so I tried to think of unusual things to survive.

Starvation seemed a bit of taboo. But the idea of starvation lead right to concept of “starving artists.”

Early Proto

We have got to talk about one of the things that stands out most about the game – the paint-by-cube mechanic. What sparked this idea?

Mike: If painting was going to be the theme, I had to give the players some feeling of accomplishment. I needed some way to show the players doing the thing that a painter would do. Applying regular paint was sort of out of the question.

Very early concept pictures show that I roughly had the idea very early on that I might be able to use cubes to paint.

At first I thought it was going to be a sort of pixel art style–players would align a bunch of cubes and make patterns.  That quickly gave way to using beautiful works of art.

Several painting games includes paint mixing to make secondary colors, etc – however, you didn’t go that route. Was there a reason behind this or did you never entertain the idea?

Mike: I did think about it. The mixing mechanism was in one early version of the game, and it’s idea that’s been brought up a bunch in post-game ideas.  The real problem is that “mixing” to get other colors happens mostly between primary colors to produce the secondary colors.  So for this to work, I’d need to increase the frequency of the primary colors and reduce the secondary colors and somehow make the secondary colors fetchable. The result is a gigantic mess of confusion for players.

There might be a hard mode for the game where the only trade mechanism based on mixing, but that seems unlikely to appeal to many players.

What is your litmus test for choosing a painting for the game (outside of copyright status)? I mean it is more than just famous paintings – in fact the Mona Lisa isn’t even in the game. How did you go about picking the paintings in the game? And what is up not having arguably THE most famous painting in the world not being in the game?

Mike: It’s true, there’s no Mona Lisa. There’s a whole bunch of reasons I chose not to include it. When I was selecting the original paintings, I was generally looking for visually interesting, colorful, famous, diverse culturally and ethnically, and of a variety styles.

While the Mona Lisa is certainly famous, it didn’t really satisfy many of the other objectives. Most significantly, it doesn’t have much of a color palette that matched the cubes. It would basically be a black-paint-only canvas. I know how much you love cards with lots of black squares.

Why was it important to you to choose not just the typical paintings, but also make sure they are culturally/ethnically diverse?

Mike: Not everyone likes the same thing. I wanted the game to appeal to a lot more people. And there’s a large, world-wide tradition of fine art to pull from. If I focused on European or Impressionist paintings, I was afraid it’d be both boring and narrowly focused. So, while I included them, I intentionally sought out art from all over the world from all different kinds of genres.

When you went about looking for paintings, did you find any that made it into the game from artistst hat you didn’t know anything about or works of art that were new to you? Also, if so – how did you find these new art pieces – through art books or perhaps Google?

Mike: I did start with a Google search. My wife and I also took the kids to the Chicago Art Institute. I made copious notes about things that I thought would work well.

After awhile, I started scouring various websites for inspiration. I’ve probably looked at several thousand paintings looking for ones that fit my color and composition requirements.

What is your favorite piece of art that is in the base game, so far?

Mike: I have a real soft spot for Henri Rousseau’s The Mill because it was my very first prototype card. It had all the characteristics I was looking for with a nice set of colors that matched the cubes.

While there is a variety of different painting styles, one style that is noticeably missing is pop art. Is this due to copyright concerns?

Mike: The base game contains no pop art or anything most people would consider “modern” because of copyright concerns. I’m just too small to deal with all the potential copyright claims.  I have largely stuck with works from 1922 or before which puts them safely in the public domain.

After the Kickstarter, there’s a good chance we’ll have some art from current artists because they backed at the higher tier to feature their own art.

You are speaking of course of the $125 pledge option that includes you working with the pledger to get  a painting they select in the game. Will these being established paintings, or all from new artists or even a proud parent’s child’s drawing?

Mike: It’s easiest if it’s something from the public domain. My biggest concern is copyright and intellectual property rights.

However, if an artist wants to contribute an original work, I can work with them to make sure I can publish the game. It is a lot harder for me if someone wants to “put their friend’s work in” (I’ve gotten this a few times) or even a parent wanting to include their child’s art in the game.

Anyone interested in this tier should send me a message.

Throughout the campaign the backer community will get to vote for up to as many as 10 paintings to be in the game. Was it important to you to have the community involved with the final project?

Mike: One thing became very clear when I was designing the game: there’s tons of great art out there. I have a really hard time choosing what to include in the game. I want the community of backers to share some of the responsibility.

It also seems like an excellent way for people to be engaged in the process and feel like they ultimately got to contribute.

This question has already come up in the comments section of the Kickstarter and I thought it might be good to ask again. With the 10 paintings the community is voting on and also future painting stretch goal packs – how do you go about making sure the game stays balanced when it comes to the colors of the paint? For example we know that purple is rarer in the game than blue (note: there are 15 purple cubes but 30 blue cubes in the game). How will you make sure that it stays that way?

Mike: I have a spreadsheet. I won’t let the color balances get out of whack when paintings get added to the game. It may require that I go back and adjust some of the numbers on existing canvases, but I expect the proportions to stay roughly the same.

One of the cooler aspects of the campaign is that backers will have access to a create your own canvas type program. They can create cards and then have them printed on The Game Crafter. Did you have some tips for us that do create our own cards? What is a good rule of thumb when it comes to the VP – food – paints earned ratio of a painting?

Custom Card

Mike: This is probably the most complicated part of the game.  In essence, the math works out something like this:

  • For <6 Paint cubes:  1 Food, 4-8 Paint cubes, 1-2 stars.
  • For 7-9 Paint cubes: 1-2 Foods, 8-12 Paint cubes, 1-2 Stars.
  • For 10-12 Paint cubes: 2-3 Foods, 10-15 paint cubes, 1-3 stars.

Except for the easiest cards, you always net slightly more paint.  And then you get more food/points when a card contains less frequent colors: red and pink/purple. The more blues on a card, the lower the food/points.

Speaking of custom cards – is it true that you included 2 of your kids paintings in the game, and playtesters didn’t notice, they thought they belonged with all the other art?

Mike: Yes. No one noticed until I pointed it out. After the fact, some playtesters commented how unusual they were and that names like “Nothing. Just a Picture” seemed out of place. Yet the art of a 4 or 7 year old seemed to pass muster.

Starving Artists will include a solo-play mode? How will this work, is it just play until you starve and try to beat your high score?

Mike: I hadn’t really considered the last idea, sort of an arcade mode for the game. Good thought, Ryan.

In the current rules, you play basically the same way, including how you buy canvases, paint them, work for cubes, sell your completed paintings, and reduce your nutrition at the beginning of the day. You get the same number of actions per day.  The biggest difference is that at the end of the day any canvas in the one-paint slot is removed from the game taking with it any matching paint cubes from the market.  So, in the solo mode, you need to strategically buy canvases or let some go to maximize the market.

What was the most challenging part of designing the game?

Mike: Figuring out how to let people do the fun part: paint the canvases. I shed a lot of game mechanisms to focus on the thing people liked to do the most. It was hard. Really hard.

The irony is that some people looking at the game think I did the really simple thing or that the game lacks depth of choice.

Let’s adress that for a second. For those that want to know what are the kind of choices a player has to make in the game?

Mike: The whole game is about how to efficiently use your in-game time. Wasting actions, or not maximizing them, can have long term consequences. The most vexing choices often involve what to do to complete a painting, when to sell the painting, and whether you think you’re going to have the time to finish a painting.

What was the biggest lesson you learned in designing Starving Artists?

Mike: That some games have a very basic appeal that you can’t predict. In the case of Starving Artists, I recognized it right away when I showed it off at a Protospiel for the first time. People just stopped to look at the cards and the cubes. That was a first for me.

Do you worry that player elimination aspect of the game is going to turn people off at all from backing or from even trying out the game?

Mike: Yes. I struggled with the player elimination aspect a lot. I feel that the reason people dislike player elimination, however, aren’t present in the game any more.  For one thing, the moment a player starves, it triggers the end game. At least in theory, a starved player could end up winning. Although that’s unlikely.

I’ve also included an optional rule called The Last Supper. In this rule, a player can exchange a completed painting for food.  This might help a player who’s not that far behind but had a particularly unlucky set of turns or actions.

Before we go,  let’s talk about the first stretch goal – the wild cube expansion. To be up front – you and I designed it together. I personally really enjoy it, as it can help if you are having bad luck with paint draw. So, as a little preview to readers – would you share a little about how the wild (clear) cubes will work?

Mike: The wild paint stretch goal will add a set of clear cubes to the game. You can use a clear cube in place of any single square on a painting. So, if you have a wild paint cube and you’re missing just that one color, you don’t have to trade to the market, you can just use it.

Because the cubes are pretty powerful, if they are in the market, the rules make it so that you can only take one at a time when selling a painting.

When you step back and look at Starving Artists overall, what makes you the most proud that you designed it? 

Mike: That people enjoy playing the game. The feedback has been great.

Do you think, in the future you will make more games that use the cube on the card mechanic. Maybe something to do with photographs or some other type of art, for example glass or sculpture making?

Mike: I know you’d like that. I think there’s a high chance that I’ll offer some expansions that will make use of the cubes. I’m not sure I’m remaking a whole new game with the mechanic, though.

As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Mike: Just want to thank you for taking the time to interview me. I appreciate everything that The Inquisitive Meeple does for the board game community. I was introduced to a bunch of games via your site.


Thank you Mike, for taking the time out to do this interview. 

For those interested in checking out Starving Artists on Kickstarter can do  so by clicking on this link.