The genesis of board game Scythe dates back to nearly a decade ago, after game designer Jamey Stegmaier visited Kotaku and encountered the world of 1920+, as depicted in Jakub Różalski’s series of paintings. Now Stegmaier and Różalski have teamed up once more for Expeditions, a stand-alone sequel to the 2016 strategy game that tells the story of an alternate European world that turns north after a long series of wars to explore the wilds of Siberia. While we don’t know a whole lot about how the game will play, one thing remains consistent: Różalski’s powerful imagery, and its ability to evoke wonder and inspire storytelling.
While he’s dabbled in other subject matter, at the core of Różalski’s work is the exploration of pastoral settings seasoned with towering, almost alien weapons of war. It is a world filled with the bright blue glow of electrical plasma, steampunk engineering, and World War I ballistics — but also with young bathers, elderly farmers, and stout women in babushkas. Its contrasts have served as inspiration for Stegmaier of course, but also the video game developers behind Iron Harvest, and even Neill Blomkamp’s own experimental film studio.
In an email interview with Polygon from his home in Poland, Różalski revisits his body of work and reflects on how the world around him has changed so dramatically since his breakout board game hit.
Our exchange has been edited and formatted for readability.
Polygon: I’ve been attracted to your work since I first encountered it. I even have one of your pieces here on the wall of my office, and I treasure it. That being said, while playing Scythe with friends we have always left the table somewhat wistful, always wanting more. The world that you have created in 1920+ is so rich and inviting that we can’t help but tell its stories together as we play.
From your notes on ArtStation, it sounds like you’ve had the chance to really dig in narratively this time around and flesh that world out of Scythe for yourself. For a long while, your work in the 1920+ space has felt like looking back toward a simpler time. Beautiful rural scenes filled with humble people going about their work. But it was always contrasted by those towering war machines.
In your work, armed conflict has literally always been seen just over the horizon. It must be so very difficult now, with what’s happening to the east of you, to look back on your own work.
There’s clearly been a shift in what you’ve shown publicly since a year ago. But it also seems like your work on Expeditions predates the invasion of Ukraine. My main question is: How have you used your time on Expeditions and in your art since this time last year to explore a postwar space?
What does that space feel like to inhabit? After the sound of artillery has died down in the world of Scythe, what comes next? What are you trying to show your audience? And what are you trying to tell yourself through your work?
Jakub Różalski: Thank you very much. The “White dress” painting is still one of my favorites, after all these years, so I’m very happy that you like it.
Yes, now it feels like it was in another life, already a decade ago, crazy. Storytelling through my work has always been the most important thing for me. For me art has always been an escape from the gray reality and the world to which I never fit. So now I try to create these portals to other worlds, not only for myself but also for the recipients of my art. Take them on this journey with me.
From my childhood I remember the withdrawal of Soviet troops from my country. Convoys and trains. It certainly had a huge impact on me and the creation of the 1920+ world. Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by the Tunguska event from 1908, as well as the early exploration of the Arctic and the wild vast expanses of Siberia. I also wanted to introduce a slightly darker and otherworldly aspect to my 1920+ world. I also grew up on Sienkiewicz Street (In Desert & Wilderness was one of my favorite books in my childhood). That, plus Indiana Jones movies and The Thing are all influences that I think will be visible in Expeditions.
I still can’t believe that a decade after I started working on my alternative world of 1920+, my illustrations have become almost prophetic… with tanks roaming through the countryside, people dying and bombs falling, literally a few hundred miles from my home. It’s like my darkest nightmares come true! This war also had a very real impact on my life. My wife comes from Tatarstan, we have family in Russia, many friends in and from Ukraine. This is a huge tragedy.
I started working on Expeditions long before the war broke out, so it had no direct impact on my work and vision. Rather it became for me, once again, an escape from the sad and tragic reality in which we found ourselves.
This time I just wanted to go on an adventure about what I always dreamed, and take my viewers with me. After the sounds of artillery and fighting mechs died down, life returned to normality. Our heroes did not quite know how to find themselves in this new reality, to find their place in the new world. Fortunately for them, the world was still full of secrets and undiscovered, unexplored places. And even something out of this world.
You can read more about Różalski’s work on ArtStation, which includes detailed breakdowns and vivid work-in-progress images of his recent work. Expect more details on Expeditions on the Stonemaier Games website soon.