Story Realms: An Interview with Escapade Games

I encountered Angie, like many folks, via the growing board game community on Twitter. For a long time, she’s been talking about this wondrous storytelling game called Story Realms. I offered to help, and over the past several months I’ve read over a few revisions of the rules to provide feedback.

Angie and the rest of her team have been working themselves nigh recklessly to revise, test, and produce Story Realms. The game is very unique and interesting and is worth a look if you have creative and imaginative kids, love RPGs but don’t have the time, or just want a good story. 

If you see HG, that’s me. EG are the folks from Escapade Games.

HG: Introduce yourselves! Tell us about Escapade Games.

EG: Escapade Games is a really a family effort. Julian and Angie have been friends for over a decade and are the designers of Story Realms.  Julian’s wife Chrissy does the web design and Angie’s husband Randy does media coordination.  Chrissy and Randy have also helped out with playtesting and developing the game.  We’ve been designing games together for years, but this is the first game we’ve been excited enough about to try and publish.

HG: Well, then, tell us about Story Realms!

EG: Story Realms is a cooperative storytelling adventure game that lets players go on grand adventures in about an hour.  One player takes on the role of Storyteller and runs the adventure while the rest of the players take on the role of heroes and try to save the day.  The players can try to do anything they can imagine to solve the challenges of the quest.  A simple skill system and Tracker cards make it easy to determine whether these ideas work and when the players have won or lost.

The game has loads of beautiful art to feed the imaginations of the players.  The board is a detailed map of Storm Hollow (the game’s setting).  There are Lore Cards for every major character or villain of the story and a Scene Card for each scene of every adventure.

HG: Who do you think would love to play Story Realms?

EG: The game was designed with families in mind, but it is our sincere hope that just about anybody can enjoy the game.  We’ve playtested with a lot of people and everyone seems to have a great time.  With Story Realms, we’ve really tried to make it a game that kids and newer gamers can play, but that parents and experienced games will still enjoy.  The simple mechanics and focus on story and imagination make it easy to get in to.  The artifacts and powers provide some depth and complexity.  Some players might be timid to try a storytelling game.  Experienced gamers might wonder about the simple mechanics.  However, we feel that anyone interested in the theme and willing to try Story Realms will find something to smile about.

HG: What is the best part about Story Realms? Do you have a great story or moment from the game?

EG: I think what I like best is how different the story is each time you play.  We’ve played the opening adventure with dozens of different groups and it never gets boring to run.  Each group comes up with their own fun solutions and their own imaginative stories to overcome the challenges of the adventure.  One scene involves getting down a huge waterfall.  We’ve seen players come up with all sorts of clever plans; including creating machines to fly down, build elevators with ropes and pulleys, and causing the trees at the bottom to grow and shape into enormous size so they could climb down.

One particularly amusing time, two players got back up the falls by freezing it and carving the ice into a slide. Then they used a shield as a sled, strapped mechanical wings on their backs, and shot themselves back up to the top of the falls with wind magic to arrive in style! Everyone was laughing and having a great time and the image of their exciting exploits has stuck with us for months! Also, watching our own young children dive into the game and the world, creating their own memorable stories and engaging with us in our favorite hobby has been immensely rewarding.

HG: I know you’ve been working on the rules endlessly for months (I’ve seen a handful of variations myself). What has been so challenging about writing the rules for a game like this?

EG: Since we are trying to make the game playable by kids and fun for experienced gamers, it has been a long effort to strike the right balance.  The game basics are intentionally simple to help bring imaginative ideas to life and make it easy for newer players and kids to get into the game.  However, the game includes powers, artifacts, status conditions, and other details to give enough depth to be fun for experienced gamers.   We want the rules to be an easy read, but offer enough guidance that new players feel comfortable running the game. We’ve been playtesting for months and adjusting the rules as we go along based on all the feedback.

In addition to all that, as educators and parents it is very important to us to make sure the game is accessible to kids and clear and easy to read. We’ve been working with the latest draft to improve the readability of all of the sections. This has no impact on the gameplay, the depth, and flexibility of the system, or the fun, it just makes it where kids can enjoy the lore, learn the rules, and run the game too!

We’re very proud of the educational opportunities Story Realms provides, and have made the entire rules, components, and flavor text read at a middle school level so that teachers can use the materials as part of a Language Arts curriculum. We’d like to get it down to a grade school reading level, but some of the fantasy themed game terms make it difficult.  Though to be clear, the game has been tested and successfully played by non-reading 5 and 6 year olds. You don’t have to be able to read to enjoy playing the game.

HG: Overall, what has been the biggest design challenge for the game? How did you solve it?

EG: I guess the biggest design challenges were how to allow creative solutions to the adventures so it wasn’t all hack and slash and how to help the storyteller run a variety of scenes in a simple way.  Skills and Trackers were the eventual answer, but getting them right took a lot of effort.  It wasn’t easy to find the right six skills and the best names for them so that they would cover everything we wanted to cover and be completely intuitive.  The names Move, Might, Magic, Explore, Talk, and Think were the results of a lot of discussion, brainstorming, and playtesting, believe it or not.

We also struggled over different probabilities for the skill dice and whether there should be different kinds of dice.  With the trackers, at one point we had different boards for different types of scenes.  Then we revised those boards.  Then threw them out and tried several different kinds of trackers.  Again it took a lot of playtesting and revision to discover that four simple trackers of Progress, Disaster, Threat, and Time would give us the versatility we needed to tell lots of different stories.  After this experience, it is our sincere belief that anytime you see something in a game that seems completely intuitive and absolutely simple that means someone put a lot of work into thinking about so you wouldn’t have to.

HG: Did you have any “ah ha!” or “eureka!” moments during development? If so, what were they?

EG: There have been a lot of those moments.  Character creation as a simple choice of heroic role and unique talent was one, but the precise implementation of that took a lot of work.  Probably the best “ah ha!” moment came from initial idea for Adventuring Kits.  Of all the elements of the game, that one is still pretty close to the original idea.  We knew we wanted a simplified version of adventuring equipment.  When the idea struck for a card that showed what you had and a simple rule about adding an extra die when you have the right tool for the job, it just felt right. Having the pocket spots allowed for creativity and flexibility without a lot of planning and looking things up ahead of time. While the specific items in the kits have undergone a lot of revision, the concept and mechanics for how they work is almost exactly the same as the initial concept.  It was a fantastic “Eureka!” idea that proved to be incredibly fun in playtesting and is still a favorite part of the game for many players.

HG: What were some of your inspirations for Story Realms?

EG: The overall concept of Story Realms was inspired by our desire to play a game with our kids that we honestly enjoyed as adults and didn’t take too long to play.  The concept of the world and the heroes was inspired by our love of folk and fairy tales, classic literature, and some of our favorite movies from childhood like Labyrinth and Neverending Story.

Mechanically, we drew inspiration from a variety of storytelling games; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Whitewolf Storyteller systems were big influences.  We also drew inspiration from D&D, Pathfinder, and Everway.  We discussed games like Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Tales of Arabian Nights for their ability to provide a variety of stories using simple board game systems.  Magic the Gathering was often discussed as a game that manages to communicate a lot of complex game design through intuitive and simple key words and thematic concepts.

HG: What are some of your favorite games?

EG: We love all kinds of games, but have slightly different tastes. Magic the Gathering, Pathfinder, and Dominion are all games that might make it onto both of our top 10 lists.  Both of us really like games that involve cool, strategic decision, but play in about an hour or less.  It can be hard to find the time with kids and family to play longer games.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

EG: We’d just like to thank our families for all the support they’ve given us through this game’s creation and development.  It’s been stressful at times, but their support has definitely kept us going.  We’d also like to thank the fine folks at Game Salute for believing in the game and helping us make it a reality.  Our art director Dann May and our character artist Kelly McClellan and cartographer Herwin Wielink have done a fantastic job creating stunning art for the game that has definitely helped it stand out and catch people’s attention.

And thank you, Grant, for giving us the opportunity to talk about Story Realms. This game has already come so much further than we could have ever imagined.  We feel very fortunate for the chance to develop and share this game with people, and incredibly excited about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

If you’re interested in Story Realms, check out the Kickstarter pageThe official Story Realms website is here.

Crafting a Story through Design

Benny and I have been design peers for a while. Both from his Twitter feed and his interview with Bellwether Games, it’s clear Benny approaches design from a different angle than I do. Benny’s all about story and theme, whereas I tend to be more mechanically driven.

I don’t necessarily agree with Benny’s approach, but I appreciate the perspective. Furthermore, it’s important to note that many of our customers purchase games based on theme alone! For this reason, I asked Benny to walk us through his approach using his game Streets of Laredo as a backdrop. If you’re like me, his post will get your mind whirring!

Guest Column by: Benny Sperling (@Benny275)

Game design and storytelling often reside at opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Some gamers would have you believe that games should be abstract creations where the players push cubes to score points. Or, at the very least, they find such things perfectly acceptable.  I disagree whole-heartedly!  I like the idea of creating a story and telling it as the game progresses.  To be clear, I’m not talking about storytelling games, although Daniel Solis’ Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is brilliant. I’m talking about bringing story to your board and card games.

As a designer, I want to weave a narrative from the players’ experiences that THEY can change with THEIR choices.  As a child, I was drawn to Choose Your Own Adventure books for this very reason.  At the onset, it is important to decide on a theme to help tell your story.  Is your theme something that has never been done?  Is it a theme that is near and dear to you?  Or is it a theme that capitalizes on an existing mechanic?

For me, Westerns are interesting. I admit I’ve fallen in love with my new home in Texas because it’s just as Larry McMurtry (the writer of Lonesome Dove) described: sweeping plains, cowboys, and good cheer. My latest game, Streets of Laredo, is about telling the story of the old west from my own perspective. Laredo came out of my desire to tell the tale of land developers hiring and building within a single town and making an effort to dissuade their competitor’s efforts… usually through gunfights.

In telling your own tale, be sure to avoid thematic holes. Thematic holes are gaps within the story, elements that are missing or done incorrectly.  These gaps create problems with flow and disrupt the narrative.  In game design, thematic holes represent a part of the story that doesn’t make sense or is missing, which can be disruptive to players who are really into the theme.  With Laredo, there were plenty of thematic holes early in development.  The game featured Bandits and Rustlers, but no way for the sheriff to “take care of them” and prevent them from hindering players. As a result, I implemented the Jail. The Jail allows players to kick the Bandits and Rustlers behind bars when they are causing trouble (if the player chooses to do so!).  Be very mindful while playtesting to look for those gaps in realism and the story.  Players will pick up on them if you don’t.

“Hiring a new sheriff to keep watch on your street? I don’t think so! That sheriff needs to come work for me.”  It’s great fun, because the players can actually act out their stories while they are playing Laredo.  Each card played represents a new chapter in the player’s tale. The Deputy helps a player by modifying a rolled die to create a matching pair of dice.  This is extremely helpful for players to create pairs, three of a kind, or four of a kind, not to mention it reduces the randomness that comes with dice rolling. Luck plays a role in games with dice and a random draw of cards.  The Deputy and many of the other cards in the game feature ways to reduce the luck and increase the strategy.

Essentially, if you’re taking pains to create a fiction and a world, make sure the fiction is sound enough to stand on its own.

How does one go about designing a mechanical framework for this story to dance upon? If you recall, I noted that game design and storytelling rest at two opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Game design is about thinking of ways to layer this story onto mechanical parts.  For Laredo, I chose poker dice, which are six-sided dice with a 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace.  They’re thematic, obviously, as cowboys played poker in saloons.  The players roll dice on their turns to attempt to form the best poker hand after 3 rolls.  Each of the cards features a poker hand and rolling that poker hand allows the player to play that card onto their street. By playing a card, players construct buildings, hire folks, or bring in livestock.  On the following turns, cards played to a player’s street provide a benefit to roll more dice, modify rolled dice, or affect the game in other ways.  For your design, ask yourself what would be an interesting thing in the world for players to do that also supports the fiction?

Next, I chose cards instead of pawns or figurines, because I knew I could convey the information more easily with cards. The theme comes alive with card art! Even when you’re using cheap clipart for early prototypes, you allow your players to connect to the game thematically: the dashing sheriff, the sly bandits, the pristine bank.

I then had to ask myself how the cards would make it to each players’ street to represent their hiring’s and holdings?  Back to the dice! In Laredo, business deals are made in the saloon. Rolling a poker hand of a set value (i.e. a pair, a straight, etc.) allows the player to play a card to his street. The card represents someone the player hired, a building the player constructed, or animals that were purchased.  Each card has to feel thematic!  The bandit cards copy existing buildings to indicate the bandits are robbing the building.  The sheriff cleans up the gunfight cards and takes one for his land developer.  The Bank supplies an extra activation for a price.

The last mechanic I chose to add was the gunfight mechanic.  Initially, it was too easy for one player to get lucky with their rolls and run away with the game.  When gunfighting, the players are trying to improve their own street, but also disrupt the streets of their opponents.  Each card was given a gunfight value which gave every card multiple purposes and the player a choice: You can gunfight or play the card to your street.

Consider your next game from a thematic perspective.  What kind of story are you going to have the players tell?  What elements fit that story?  How can you fit mechanics into the theme of your story?  Should you use meeples or cards?  Poker chips or dice?  What will help draw players into the story and make them feel like they are telling a story with the designer?

Once you find answers to these questions, you may find you’re not only creating a game, but a rich story.

For Love of the Tale

Cole Medeiros is the cunning designer responsible for Gubs, published by Gamewright. I’d explain why I used the word cunning, but it’s an inside joke. I’ve only known Cole for less than a year, but he’s become one of my best friends. He’s full of strange ideas and wondrous, is relentlessly in pursuit of creating something fun, and is always looking for ways to stretch himself creatively. Cole is a good designer.

Cole has helped me with so many of my designs and I hope this is but one of many columns he’ll write for Hyperbole Games. Cunning. As a side note, after you finish reading Cole’s guest column, check out this excellent TED talk on creating a great story.

Guest Column by: Cole Medeiros (Gubcards.com)

My passion is story and that is exactly how I came to find myself playing games. I love a good story. Everyone does. Humans communicate primarily through stories and almost all entertainment we enjoy the most revolves around an unfolding series of events. What will happen next? Who will win the game? Wait and see…

My favorite board games are the ones that tell stories. Off the top of my head I think of Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Warhammer Quest, Magic Realmand Twilight Imperium. Every time I’ve played any of these games the random cards and combinations of rules have dredged from the depths of my imagination a tale worth telling. One worth talking about long after it returns to the shelf. ‘Remember that time when…’ is a common phrase among my gamer friends, because we like to make memories out of these plastic bits and colorful cardboard.

For me a great board game is like a magical story generator. It has a bunch of moving parts, wheels, and cogs, like some mystical machine which grinds up your decisions and spits out a narrative. A good story connects people together. I like board games because I like that feeling of connection. I don’t game with someone who I wouldn’t enjoy getting a beer with. I want to push pieces around with friends around the table and laughter in the air.

A few things I’ve learned about story and board games:

1) Not everyone can appreciate a good story in a game. Some people are in it to win it and if they feel some random but epic event unraveled their carefully woven plan, they toss the game aside as a failure. Me, I once battled solo through an entire Warhammer Quest dungeon only to have my best warrior slip off a bridge and fall into a pit of lava. The culprit? Rolling two 1s in a row. I could not stop laughing.

2) Story does not mean flavor text. Actually, too much flavor can get in the way. Sometimes a card with just a picture and a game stat can spark so much more of the imagination. Magic Realm (which is an older game) has the most bland bits I’ve ever seen. For example, a treasure site called ‘The Pool’ is simply a chit with text on one side. But because of the amazing mechanics (and I would argue the lack of embellishment), my imagination goes wild, revealing a treacherous lake filled with a slimy guardian and glittering with unknown treasures.

3) All this being said, good story does not mean bad mechanics. No, a perfect game melds them together flawlessly, with story that fits with the mechanics so well it seems almost like a mnemonic device for remembering the rule’s specifics.

For some time now I’ve been working on a game which functions as a co-op RPG without a game master. I struggled for a while trying to force a ton of unique story elements into each card and each encounter. Then I realized something: it was completely unneeded. All I needed to do was make sure that the basic concepts fit together logically, and players would make their own stories. Random decks can accomplish this if they are assigned and designed correctly.

I draw three cards: Asteroid Field, Pirate, Damaged Engines. Suddenly I have a story! While traveling through an asteroid belt a stray rock struck my engines, damaging them, and making manuevering difficult. Which wouldn’t be a problem except it seems pirates are about to take advantage of the situation. If I survive the battle, it will be a nice epic little episode generated completely at random…