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End Times 2023: The Bizarre, the Eerie and the Wild

I strongly believe that Fantasy is potent. It enables our mind to touch a realm of possibilities we would have thought unreachable. We don't come back from it unchanged. Fantasy endows us with the ability to see more in ourselves, in our place in the world. Tolkien himself touched on these matters in his excellent essay, On Fairy Stories - as he calls them.

There are two trends I particularly dislike with Fantasy. The first one is that Fantasy has to be realistic. You want people to behave in a way that psychologically makes sense, to be dressed in a way suited for their function. But Fantasy is a land of symbols and magic. You are more protected by the sheltering whisper of the Fairy Queen than you may be by a heavy armor. Things are not what they seem in the faërie land. This lust for realism also goes so far as to make the Fantasy world look like our own world. In the end, Fantasy becomes just a big cosplay event where people dress up weirdly to have fun and live silly adventures.

The second trend is that, in Fantasy, there are no rules, and everything can be. "It's okay, it's Fantasy." Although this discussion has been embedded within social considerations, which makes it tricky to criticize, I believe, from an aesthetic point of view, that this is very, very wrong. It basically denies any legitimacy to Fantasy; it despises it. But Fantasy is the backbone of human imagination. All cultures across our world, across our diversity of folks and people, have developed their own strands of Fantasy. And I find it very arrogant to dismiss Fantasy as something which has no intrinsic legitimacy, and therefore that sanctions any fancy one may have. Fantasy has rules. Always.

Which brings me to Fantasy art in board games. Fantasy art also reflects these trends: you have, on the one hand, realistic Fantasy. Sometimes it has a good classical old-fashioned style that even I can appreciate, as in Oltréé. And you also have art that indulges into utter silliness, like Goblivion. But these two strands don't convey a sense of Fantasy, a feeling of the otherworldly.

To exemplify what I mean by a sense of Fantasy, I will go through three "veins" of Fantasy art that, in my eyes, satisfyingly convey a sense of awe, a feeling that we have truly left our old and worn world behind, and that the land of perils and wonders is now in our grasp.

The Bizarre

One way to completely stray away from our usual frames of reference is to engage merrily into a world of weirdness and oddities. Yet the point of this vein is not to say "anything can happen in Fantasy", since they retain a strong aesthetical consistency, they convey an atmosphere. With their profusion of details and curious creatures, they embark us into a surreal fresco with its own internal logic, yet a distorted and tortuous one, utterly alien to our human minds.

The world of Dark Venture revels in this, and this cover for Battle of the Ancients is the perfect example of what I mean. Everything feels strange, unusual, to the point that I feel at a loss of words to describe any of it. Oath and The Old King's Crown are close from one another in terms of aesthetics, and they both feature a strange world, with improbable buildings, enigmatic ruins, and for Oath at least, intriguing denizens.

Betwixt and Between is a bit different. First of all, it purposely aims at capturing that feeling of the "world between the worlds", and it succeeds at so quite competently. Although it features all sort of curious creatures and adheres to a general inclination for profusion, which is typical of the "bizarre" aesthetic, there is something else to it - a fleeting sense that something is off, that you are fooled at the same time as you are awed. This is our introduction to the Eerie aethetic.

The Eerie

The Eerie aesthetic is probably the most akin to the idea of Fantasy as a venture into the "faërie world", a world of misleading delusions, of fugitive presences in the mist, of moving shadows and awaken dreams. Of all the three aesthetics it is by far my favorite, the one which is the most susceptible to make me buy a board game blindly. There is a fundamental sense of irrealis in these games, even though they usually proceed with a scarcity of means - and the sudden apperance of a monster becomes then all the more terrifying.

Of course, Of Dreams and Shadows is the perfect example of it! I am also very fond of the expansion's cover, for two reasons: first, the character is almost fused into the snow, and you sense she could disappear while you blink, which reinforces the sense of elusiveness characteristic of the eerie aesthetic. But most of all, there is this threatening reflect in the cold grey waters, which on second sight, reveals that the character is not what your senses are telling you she is. I believe Pauper's Ladder, in its own "naive" artwork, achieves a bit of this eeriness, and I love how these looming Moon Towers exert their silent rule over a countryside that is otherwise all but quiet and normal. Finally, I believe Forgotten Depths is also a beautiful example of the eerie aesthetic, and the ruins it invites you to visit are enigmatically still and empty of life, until you suddenly meet face to face with a staring sentinel, a lifeless body ready to strike you to your death.

The Wild

Sometimes, you want Fantasy to completely break the limits of our world. To feature paroxystic events, to blow things out of proportions. When you start striding this path, the more grandiose and majestic it gets, the better. There is a reason why Frazetta's take on Conan the Barbarian became so successful and influential. It's not because it is sexist and conveys a male-driven narrative of power and domination. Well... It may be in part because of it (and some of its art is way beyond questionable)... But if it had been only this, it wouldn't have had the authority it achieved. It works because, on the one hand, it dives headfirst into a mythical world in nothing, just nothing, can be toned down, everything has to be utterly hyperbolic; and second, it resonates very well with its source matter, the tales of Robert E. Howard, that take place in a mythified, excessive, and fantasmatic uchronic past of our world.

This aesthetic, unfortunately, is probably fundamentally sexist because it over-emphasizes the men and the women traits that are sung and celebrated in the old tales of boasting heroes and battle deeds. Of course it is not a good reference for our present-day societies! Of course we may accuse it of further entrenching views that have become a burden and a plague in our modern lives! But that would be, I think, missing the point. Do I dream of being an athletic warrior fighting half-nude, covered in blood and dirt on the battlefield? No, a thousand times no! But it has a cathartic effect. All these narratives, all these figures that come from the depths of our neolithic cultures, they underlie our psyche; to let them out in their whole twisted and majestic mythicality is to recognize how deeply inapplicable and undesirable they are in our times. Clearly, these are not role models.

But mostly, and more importantly: it disrupts so much our frame of normality that it throws us into a world where mortals are not mere humans, but insane heroes who live for the hubristic exorbitance of their own feats.

Anastyr is probably one of the best examples of that trend. It is full of savageness, of warriors without restraints, of desperate fights where the fearless emerges miraculously unscathed upon a pile of dead bodies. I grant you that it verges on the tasteless, but at least this cover is, in its own aesthetic, a success. You just can't imagine that you will plant carrots and trade your way to success in this game. It shatters the mould of realism as violently as it can. In a lesser, more sutble way, Zerywia also belongs to that aesthetic. It is darker; it has some eerie shades in it, but all heroes are extraordinary beings of might and tragic fate. I included Valka, which has its own way of bursting out any real-world limitation. And I ended with Trudvang Legends - the leading artist, Paul Bonner, is a master of the Wild genre, and his cover of the upcoming CMON dungeon crawler, The Dead Keep, is another token of testimony to that artstyle. I really love Trudvang Legends' artwork, with the exception of the character artwork, which prevented me to back it when it was live on Kickstarter, aeons ego.

That's the downside of the Wild art style: its brutal and unbounded character is great for a punchy cover, but in the end, when it comes to pick up a hero and play, I prefer more humble characters. This lack of identifiability also explains why I typically prefer the Eerie style: while the Wild style is rooted in vivid epics and glorious tales of heroes, the Eerie style is rooted in folktales - tales of the poor, of the humble, whose heart is their light and wits their weapons. And these are the tales I want to live ultimately.

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Cadet Stimpy
Cadet Stimpy
Jan 01

Z, you and Snow are the Profound Pair, in my 'unprofound' opinion. 🙂

For the latest Miyazaki movie, are you referring to The Boy and the Heron?

Jan 02
Replying to

Yes, that's the one!


Dec 29, 2023

Interesting take on the fantasy from you. I always love to read your views, because I know you're a fan of fantasy. I've been heard to stay away from it for the most part and it's because there are trends that bug me. And I think there's some overlap with what you describe, but a bit different. One thing I appreciate very much you mentioning is realism. Fantasy has become a bit of a "tool" to depict middle ages, but in a more "favourable" light. In the end no matter what, you have hoomans or humanoids doing hooman things. Even if you have different "races" that come from animal origins, they do the same thing. They have 2 legs, 2…

Jan 05
Replying to

I'll keep rambling about magic because I love that topic.

I think we need to distinguish magic as a narrative device (in which case, I pretty much entirely agree with you), and magic as an "atmospheric" component of a special vein of Fantasy, which is what I am trying to pinpoint here.

Magic is not a technology. It cannot replace physics as a way to explain the basic causal relationships of our world. Magic requires the premise that there are, however, hidden relations between things. To perform magic is to meddle with these hidden relationships. It's to exert causality based on how things are related with each other indirectly and unconsistently through an "otherworld".

Moreover, there are beings, entities, that…

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