An Appointed Hand: Darren Donahue on Sculpting the Game of Thrones Collector’s Chess Set – Designer Diary

Game of Thrones Chess available now

For a notable portion of the last two years, USAopoly’s 3D Design Manager Darren Donahue immersed himself in another world—the lands of HBO’s critically acclaimed series Game of Thrones—watching it as keenly as its 13+ million other viewers. But on top of taking in the storyline, he was observing the show’s characters, from their outward maturing to the subtlest costume adjustments along the way. Keeping an eye on these details became a part of the artist’s viewing experience as each dramatic season lapsed and he came closer to an objective of his own—sculpting the actors’ likenesses for The Op’s highly anticipated Game of Thrones Collector’s Chess Set.

Donahue’s work is seen in the game’s custom Chess pieces, which conveys Game of Thrones season eight’s fateful battle between Westeros and the White Walkers. “We worked with HBO to create a chess set with characters that would carry on the lasting impact they had on the storyline and with fans,” he says. Doing so would entail analyzing, and re-analyzing the episodes, ideating with different sketches, and a trial and error painting process to ensure consistency through not just the game components, but with the worlds of the show itself.

Having shipped a fair share of licensed game tokens, dice cups, and collectibles in his previous role of Lead Sculptor, Donahue was no stranger to keeping works in progress under wraps. But as an avid Thrones fan, it was both exciting and daunting to remain tight-lipped. “Development was a lot of hard work, and it had a lot more to go. I didn’t want to jinx myself before we were done.” Subsequent to the game’s announcement, The OP’s designer now speaks proudly to his involvement in putting the battle for the Throne in the hands of fellow fans.

Meticulous attention to detail was paramount for the resin and vinyl figures, predisposing the set as a robust collector’s item to be both played and displayed. For Donahue, this meant having to decide between fully body or bust-style movers. “We asked ourselves what the fans would want,” he begins. “With the pieces’ heads being only ¼”, we were dedicated to capturing the characters’ likenesses, and having days’ worth of sculpting come through.” That involves not only facial traits, but scales, insignias, and manual line work for every nuance of the “Mother of Dragons’” interlaced locks, which took on an evolution all their own.

“Almost after every battle, her braids change. Like how the Dothraki only cut their braids when they’re defeated, after every victory there’s always more braids than there were before. Doing this kind of research, you study things you wouldn’t otherwise notice.” Donahue found himself surrounded by images simultaneously on his TV and computer monitors for resources, as well as helpful angles from online articles and fan theory-based forums. “The uber fans are the ones who pay attention to those details, so digging into that really shows that we care about the licensed product and the actor or actress you’re sculpting.”

The eye-catching dragon of the White Walker’s side, undead and battle worn Viserion, represents the improvisational scaling down of a large-scale character which, as the imposing Queen, was requested in full-winged force. “It couldn’t be the same size as Drogon and Rhaegal because those were head-bust style sculpts. The quick solve was to pare the wings in a way that still exposed rips, the damage to the neck and eye.” Refining the dragons involved sculpting even their teeth to meet safety regulations. “That was a pretty fun one to do,” he adds. “Because how often do you really get to see an undead dragon?”

Homing in Jon Snow’s final appearance posed different challenges, apropos of the character’s reinventions. The hairstyling echoed a familiar subject of scrupulous study. “It may remind people of Ned Stark because it’s pulled back,” he gestures. “But unlike Ned, Jon wears it in a bun.” Jon Snow’s costuming also began with his sculpt in a Night’s Watch-inspired fur of six different variations—all of which were passed up for a less bulky, leather armor and breast plate (not unlike that of his opposite’s piece, the Night King). Due to the hand-sculpting aspect of correcting the fur, Donahue considered such wardrobe changes to be the biggest challenge. But it’s for this kind of creative sacrifice that he reminds aspiring artists to prepare for constructive feedback. “Don’t get too attached,” he advises in a fashion almost too reminiscent of a certain author’s storytelling. “It’s important to kill your darlings.”

The Game of Thrones Chess Collector’s Chess Set is available this fall from your favorite local game store and features 32 custom sculpted pieces, including Kings Jon Snow and the Night King, Queens Daenerys Targaryen and Viserion, Knights Jaime Lannister & Brienne of Tarth and White Horses, Tormund Giantsbane, Tyrion Lannister, and White Walkers as Bishops, Drogon, Rhaegal, and Wight Giant as Rooks, and the Unsullied and Wights as Pawns. For more information, go to TheOp.Games.


Article originally published in November 2019 Meeple Monthly Magazine print edition

Darren Donahue is the 3D Design Manager for USAopoly (also known as “The Op”). His works include Thanos Rising – Avengers: Infinity War and Court of the Dead: Mourners Call, among many others. When not sculpting, he enjoys craft beer and music festivals, home cooking, and water recreation.

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