An Interview on Salvation Road
Editor's Note: I recently watched both Mad Max and the sequel, The Road Warrior, for a few reasons. For one, my favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, references it all the time. Secondly, I saw the trailer for Fury Road. And thirdly, my good friend AJ was publishing a game about surviving in the post apocalyptic wasteland -- Salvation Road. I’m so excited for this game and the timing couldn't be more perfect on AJ’s part. I knew I had to interview these guys.
Welcome AJ Porfirio (Publisher) and the co-designers Peter Gousis and Michael D. Kelley! My questions are prefaced with HG.
HG: Before we go too far, can all of you introduce yourselves? Tell us a little about who you are and any important details.
AJ: I’m the guy behind Van Ryder Games. Or the guy on top of the Van, however you want to look at it. It is such a great time for VRG with Salvation Road launching on Kickstarter and Hostage Negotiator on the verge of release.
HG: There is some really nice buzz for Hostage Negotiator. I'll need to buy a copy from you soon.
Mike: I’m Michael Kelley, the lead designer of the game. I’m a high school English teacher by day, and I used to be a professional actor. Peter and I formed MVP Boardgames several years ago while working on another design, and it’s been only good feelings and good times since then.
Peter: I’m Peter Gousis (pronounced Gooses). I am in pharmaceutical sales for my day job, father of a 7 and 4 year old as my second job, and when everyone in the house is asleep I get to design with Mike. This is such a thrill for me (and Mike too). We have worked very hard on this design the last few years and I am excited for everyone else to get to try it.
HG: Give me the high level pitch for Salvation Road. I’m walking past your booth at a convention...what do I need to know?
AJ: Well surely you’ll notice the gorgeous artwork from artist Venessa Kelley. Then we’ll tell you about how you are just trying to survive in a world where fuel is priceless, and food, medical supplies, and ammunition are scarce. And there is constant danger from not only the elements, but also vicious marauders who kill for what they want. The unique wound/inventory system will be new and exciting for gamers and the tension leading up to beginning the final journey to Salvation will leave them wanting more.
HG:This looks to me like a very good fit for Van Ryder Games: highly thematic, a little dark, and it's a cooperative game with a solo component. AJ -- what most appealed to you about Salvation Road? Why did you need to sign it?
AJ: I look for two things when scouting for games… a great thematic game and great people. With Salvation Road I found both. Michael and Peter are so passionate about the design. Grant, you hit on a lot of the things in your question, these all excited me. I love the theme, I love the pressure that the game puts on you (a great sign of a quality co-op/solo), and I love the variety of the experience you get from game to game.
HG: If I recall correctly, this game was signed a bit over a year ago. What have you been doing to finish the game? What were some key issues you solved, or key enhancements?
Mike: We streamlined set-up, balanced the game better for different player counts, came up with more characters and locations, made the Apocalypse Cards more varied, added a toll at the end of the game, gave a few more action options.
None of these were major “issues” per se. The game worked great. But now it’s faster, better balanced, and more varied. Definitely a big upgrade!
AJ: We went through a lot of variations and changes as Mike mentioned. It was quite a lot actually. I think because Mike has a natural talent of quickly testing and sifting through ideas it might not seem like as much. But we made some really key changes that have taken it from good to great!
HG: In my experience, quick issues like faster setup can make a big difference. Variety is definitely a huge deal in a cooperative experience.
Good co-operative games need a compelling and tough to solve back pressure. Something that’s always staring back at you, even when you succeed. What is making life difficult for me in Salvation Road?
Mike: Oh man, what isn't making life difficult! I’ll tell you the truth, it is not an easy game to win. We didn't want it to be. You can always take some handicaps or play the game on easy mode if you really need to win consistently. But that’s not how I approach co-ops. I want you to truly cheer when you finally succeed.
So the dangers include:
- Marauders surrounding your compound, threatening at any moment to break in and torch the place.
- Marauders roaming the locations around your compound, shooting at you on most turns, in ever-increasing numbers.
- A reactor inside of the compound (represented by a limited deck of Apocalypse Cards) that will blow you all up if you take too long to leave.
- Wounds being dealt by marauders, starvation, radiation, untreated wounds from previous attacks, all threatening to finish off your already beleaguered characters.
- The road itself. Once you make the choice to travel, there’s no turning back. Only marauders wait behind you. If you don’t have the food, the bullets, the medicine, and of course the fuel you need, that’s all she wrote!
It’s a harsh world out there. Isn't that how the end of the world is supposed to be?
Peter: And don’t forget the Survivors. These are characters you use that help you win the game, but they have annoying traits that always seem to crop up at the wrong time. You may be sneaking around with Rashid Amir (AKA: the screamer) trying to gather a little more fuel then the Marauders attack, he yells causing the marauders to hit you for some extra wounds.
HG: I'm not sure I'm a fan of this Rashid dude. You guys clearly love Mad Max. What else inspired the gameplay and the art for this?
Mike: Yeah, the overall concepts of the game, attacking marauders, the big ending with the truck racing through all kinds of danger, are highly inspired by The Road Warrior.
The other main inspirations for the theme and the gameplay are The Walking Dead season 1 (the game series from Telltale Games, not the comics/show), and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. My one criticism of Mad Max’s world is that it seems far too easy for everyone to be well-fed, surviving easily unless they are attacked. But in both of these other sources, the constant need to find food and shelter brings that true post-apocalyptic survival feel to life.
As for the art, Venessa was inspired by Mad Max, but also by costumes at Burning Man, and also by the Fallout series of video games.
HG: Burning man is fascinating to me, and it totally makes sense. I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago fresh out of college in Oklahoma. I lived in a house with 7 rather weird people, and I remember the first week I moved in watching them build this elaborate cocoon thing for their Burning Man art piece. It’s a crazy thing I’m glad exists, though I’m not sure it’s for me.
I’m a little surprised you haven’t mentioned Fallout more. Is that game just a miss for you, or does it not quite have what you’re looking for?
Mike: Fallout is one of my absolute favorite game series. I’ve played all of them, including Fallout: Tactics. Like I said above, it certainly inspired some of the artwork.
But I wanted this game to align much more with Mad Max and The Road. And that means no widespread mutation, no random wandering around completing quests, no secret conspiracies by the President of the United States, no Chinese invasions… you get the idea.
This isn't an adventure game with character advancement. This is a no-holds battle for survival. Fallout is a great series, but you can basically wander the wastes forever with your power armor and sniper rifle and have nothing to fear. None of that safety here!
HG: Nice. Very interesting distinction. What makes Salvation Road unique? What’s your favorite part of the game?
Mike: In terms of uniqueness, we have a lot of mechanics that I don’t think have been done before.
- Each player controls two characters, and one of them has a negative ability, which is unique.
- The wound tokens and resource tokens both fill the same circles on character cards, so we get a nice inventory system that also models the increasing injuries of the characters.
- And the way the wounds are revealed at times, with different effects, used to be unique. Eldritch Horror came out with a similar mechanic after our game was mostly developed. Ah well, nothing stays new for long!
- The endgame is also unique, with the players trying to last as long as possible, and gather as many resources as they can, but never quite enough to be sure they’ll survive the road to Salvation.
- And then there are the multiple uses of resources, the four types of Apocalypse Cards leading to some predictability in events.
Really, the game has a ton of stuff I think is being done for the first time.
AJ: Mike did a good job covering a lot of the unique elements. For me it is the use of Survivor characters… the ones with hindering abilities. You need their actions, they are helpful in that sense, but the abilities you have to deal with sometimes have you rolling your eyes at them as they bring pain and death to your group. So cool.
HG: I noticed the game has a solo component. Tell me about this. What, if anything, did you do to make this a true solo experience?
AJ: We tried several things before ultimately landing on having the solo player control 2 (or more) sets of characters. I know there are some solo players that don’t like having to control and manage so many characters, so I challenged the guys to come up with a way to play with just 2 characters. Ultimately it didn't work out, it just wasn't compelling or functionally sound (or fun) to have so few characters to work with. So with a few minor differences, the solo game is very similar to the multi-player experience.
HG: I’ll take it the other direction now. How does the game change with scale? What are some of the things you did, if any, to make it compelling with 2 players versus 4?
AJ: Mike you want to take this one?
Mike: First of all, it was very important to us to have the game scale well at all player counts. We all know how inconsistent most co-ops are with this. You play Eldritch with 2 characters, and it feels completely different in balance to playing it with 4. Some games become extremely easy, or impossible, based on player count.
We also wanted the game to play quickly regardless. Even with 8 players, the game can still be completed in about an hour. Compare that to something like Arkham Horror, where playing with 8 players makes the game take at least an entire evening!
But in terms of actual gameplay changes for scale, with more players several things change. There are more locations to visit, but enough to always make you feel cramped. There are more marauders brought out each turn, but more of you to fight them. You have to travel a lot farther on the road, and pay a higher toll.
But most of the mechanics are self-balancing. Apocalypse Cards generally affect every character who hasn't fulfilled some requirement, regardless of player count. Dice that cause wounds from threat rolls are based on the number of characters at a location, so the more characters, the more wounds.
Peter: Another thing that makes the game sing with higher player counts are the quick player turns. Each character only gets 2 Actions, so a single character turn only takes about 20 seconds. You have 2 characters so you always have lots of choices to make, but you only activate one at a time so the downtime is very low.
HG: I really like how you have good characters, then baggage characters. For example, a guy that screams and draws more attention to the area. Tell me about some of your favorite experiences involving this concept?
Mike: Ah, those poor survivors. They always get the raw end of the stick in this game. For example, I’ll leave Susannah (she’s in a wheelchair) in one spot, and she’ll wave to the marauders as a stream of other characters run back and forth ferrying her goods to the truck.
And Rashid, who screams and attracts more marauder attacks, often spends a lot of his time at the compound. Nobody wants that guy along.
Heck, sometimes you just need to leave the survivors to die. Of course, this is a terrible early-game strategy. Despite their flaws, they are people too… meaning they have two actions each round, just like the heroes, and you need to use those actions if you want a chance of surviving.
HG: What were some of the games that inspired Salvation Road? Where did you borrow mechanical or experience ideas?
Mike: This is a bit hard to remember! Of course I love games co-ops and team-based games like Battlestar Galactica, Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, Forbidden Island… the list goes on.
But most of the mechanics came as adjustments on other games. I wanted to make event cards or “evil cards” that are drawn at the end of each turn a bit more predictable, which led to the four types of apocalypse cards.
I guess the wound tokens might have been partially inspired by Winds of War. The endgame is a bit similar to the jumps in Battlestar, I guess, but that’s something I can see in retrospect, not something I thought of at the time. The marauders came mostly from the catapults in Shadows Over Camelot.
I liked a lot of the ideas in Mall of Horror, including the screamers who would draw zombies every turn. I’m sure that informed the idea for half the characters having negative abilities.
HG: Let’s talk publishing for a second. I’m about to publish my first title and it’s very challenging. This looks like your biggest and most ambitious publication to date, AJ. What were some of the things that stood out to you as particularly challenging in bringing this to market?
AJ: Scope and cost are the biggest thing with doing a big box game. I wonder if the $35k goal will scare people - it scares me! But that truly is what we need to get it made and in the hands of people. Doing a full size board is new for me, so working through the design and art direction for that has been interesting and fun.
HG: Who would love Salvation Road? Who is it for?
Mike: The game has been a hit with game groups both on the very casual side and the very geeky side. Our most passionate playtest group was made up of three high school students who have never seen a Mad Max movie, and who hadn’t played anything tougher than Forbidden Island.
The game is quick enough and straightforward enough that I think almost anyone could enjoy it. Chris Kirkman from Dice Hate Me Games is not typically a big fan of co-op games, and he absolutely loved his first play of Salvation Road!
Editor’s Note: This comment is Kirkman approved.
HG: Anything else you want to add about Salvation Road?
AJ: Just that we hope to see everyone over at the Kickstarter page! We hope you find the game interesting and at least worth looking into in more detail on the Kickstarter.
Salvation Road is currently funding on Kickstarter. The cost to obtain a copy of this big, thematic co-op is $49.