Stacking the Fleet

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m in the business of space battles lately, because even Space Xenu knows that the world needs another fleet battle game. Snark aside, that line of thinking is what brought me to my current line of thinking. I had the realization that the world didn’t need the game I was making. Yes, it was going to be fine, but it wasn’t enough to stand out. I started thinking about space and what I could do uniquely to stand apart from Summoner Wars or Memoir ’44.

Before we discuss my current line of thinking, I want to catch you up on the gist of the game.

  • 2 player tactical fleet battle game with a focus on being an Admiral. Directing squadrons of ships (capital and fighter), not “this ship shoots this ship.”
  • Scenarios that you play within a persistent overarching campaign mode. Telling a story and evolving the game is key.
  • Ships will be identical in a rule sense, i.e. you don’t need to learn different behavior for a dreadnought or a fighter. Instead, I’ve designed a simple system where different ships will roll different dice (green, yellow, or red d6) and require different dice to be hit. So, a fighter may shoot weak green dice and only take a green to be destroyed. A dreadnought may shoot red die, which can’t hit fighters, but will pop destroyers quite nicely.
  • Formations play a big role in providing combat bonuses.

One of the biggest problems with the old system was that ships were represented by cards. If I had a fleet of 20 ships, that meant 20 cards. So, for two players that could mean 30-40 cards spread around that table. They took up far too much space and that limits the playability of the game.

There was also too much to read with too many orders scattered around. I knew I needed to fundamentally revise how the game was presented (what components, what the thing looks like) AND I wanted to do something to set it apart from flat, 2D battle games (like the two I mentioned above).

Space is 3 dimensional. There is forwards, backwards, left, right, but also up and down. How can I introduce an up and down without sending players screaming in anguish and pain? Attack Vector does this, with facing in all three dimensions (see below). But wow, it looks difficult.

I also thought about components. Could an entire squadron just be a single miniature? Is that satisfying? Can I stack cards or punchboard tokens? Would that even make sense? How would players even see the information. Stacking became the key verb. Stack. Stack. Stack.

Then I thought about Jenga. Specifically, Jenga‘s blocks.

These blocks have thickness, enough for simple shapes to be displayed. They can stack, which lets them be put in three dimensional formations. I started playing around with various ideas and shapes.

Firstly, I needed to figure out how I’d present the information. On the card version, the top would show color cubes to indicate what your rolled for combat. For example, 2 green squares would indicate you roll 2 green dice when firing. The bottom of the card would indicate what dice were needed to cause damage (and FYI, a 3+ is a hit for any color). For example, a fighter could be destroyed with a single yellow or green hit.

With the block component I introduced two new concepts:

  • Facing: The direction of your block indicates where it is heading. Which may dictate what weapons can fire.
  • Broadsides: Ships can fire lightly from the front, but much heavier from the side. In a game with laser batteries (not missiles), a good broadside made sense.

To me, this basic setup would allow me to quickly read ships and see what was going on. I then started creating basic formations. Just to see what shapes I could make that would make fictional sense.

I began thinking about conveying this information. Firstly, how do I bake defensive or offensive benefits into things? Change up rules, like a defensive formation requires hits of 4+ instead of 3+? That’s not too complex, but if you both have 3-5 squadrons, each with variations, that means a lot of double checking. Lame.

Also, yes, over time you would remember the shapes and what they meant. But for several games you’d…play a card down? “What does that formation do again?” “I dunno, check the card.” Lame.

A friend and long-time tester of my prototypes randomly threw out the suggestion that ships could have a “soft spot,” the Death Star exhaust ports that are vulnerable. This led us to discussing positioning. How do you cover your soft spots? And what’s the trade off? I started to think that your ship might have gun ports and soft spots. You can cover them with other ships, at the cost of losing firepower. Here’s a quick mock:

The ship next to the “1” has 3 Yellow batteries. That’s pretty impressive! But, it also has a soft spot, indicated by the red dot, in its center. Okay, well, I position my smaller ship alongside it to cover the soft spot. However, now I only have 2 Yellows firing, instead of a possible 4 between both of them combined.

This simple example led me to believe I could completely eliminate my designer created formations and rules. Instead, by creating ships with varying soft spots and armament I could let the players create their own formations. My hope is that player creativity and simply reading the UI on the ship guides you. The formation in the example is a very defensive formation. I could cover up this ship further, or string them along in a line so that all the guns are brought to bear. It may cost you, but that’s a risk you’re willing to take.

Let’s talk about fighters! A squadron will consist of 1-3 capital ships (longer blocks) and any number of fighters (square blocks, traditional war game shape). Each player will control (typically) 3-5 squadrons per scenario. Squadrons move together, rotate together, and will fire together. They are the control unit.

Whereas capital ships will move and maneuver sluggishly through the battle space, fighters will zip around willy nilly. They will be a finite and volatile resource that will turn the tide in a battle. My hope is that a good player will maneuver his capital ships such that he is bringing immense fire against his target while his fighters move against its flank to give him that 20% edge. Capital ships will be more strategic, fighters more tactical. I think stacking these little blocks on top of your enemy’s squadrons will be satisfying and visually exciting.

I’ve zipped through this in order to be brief. I haven’t even talked about squadron commanders, the story and campaign, and other elements. I’ll get there. For now, I wanted to write about the blocks and how the fleets will stack.

This is still fuzzy, so stick with me. Thoughts? Comments?

As a gift for reading, I invite you to take a visit to the Danger Zone.

Designer Diary: Intrigue

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

My oldest lasting game idea is a trick-taking card game where each suit belongs to a player. I’ve been working on variations of this game for over a decade. If that doesn’t sound like a very long time, you’re probably old like me. It was originally named Lords of the Realm, until I made a game for which that title was clearly a better fit. Then it was Shatterpact. In both cases, the theme was an epic Fantasy battle featuring heroes with personalities.

What Was

Shatterpact was a card game inspired by more traditional trick-taking games with three significant twists. Firstly, each player is the Lord or Lady of one of the races—all the cards of that suit benefit that player directly. The deck is dealt out randomly so you’ll have a hand full of enemy heroes as well as allied ones. The core of the gameplay revolves around playing the cards that help you when they help you the most and the cards that hurt you when they hurt you the least.

Secondly, your hand changes over the course of the game. You play two cards each round, then after scoring, you pick back up any one card. You can pick up heroes of your realm that other players have tossed out and shape your hand for future victory. You can also claim your enemy’s cards (so they can’t) or your ally’s cards. Which leads us to the third new idea: Each player wants to help the player to her left, but you have no stake in the player to your right. These one-sided alliances lead to numerous interesting decisions about when to help your ally, when to push for your own victory, and when to accept defeat—and how to mitigate the results.

What Could Have Been

In 2012, AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group) announced their Tempest IP: A game universe centered in the city-state of the same name, effectively Renaissance Venice. They announced it with three games lined up (Dominare, Courtier & Mercante) and an open call for further submissions. They’ve since released Love Letter and Guildhall. The former is pretty innovative in both form and function and the latter is hands-down my favorite game of the year. It would be an honor to be published in the same line.

As I read the design documents for Tempest, I was struck by a listing of characteristics that some of the games had already used and new games were encouraged to use if appropriate: Power, Wealth, Guile, and Influence. These lined up surprisingly well to the traits of characters from Shatterpact and I suddenly began mentally recasting the game as one of subtle intrigue and hidden power battles, rather than straight-up violence in yet another meaningless war. The mechanics and gameplay of Shatterpact turn out to make more sense as a Machiavellian game of manipulation.

It was never clear in Shatterpact why you were sending heroes of enemy realms to the battlefield, but manipulating enemy agents is exactly what the shadowy figures of Tempest do. How does one win an invisible conflict? By pulling strings that no one can see: manipulation, blackmail, and deceit. I submitted the idea and by a giant stroke of luck I had the opportunity to demonstrate the game in its pre-Tempest-ized state to the team at GenCon. I wouldn’t say it bombed, but the game we played did illuminate some of the game’s weaknesses:

The nature of the game makes it reasonable to imagine that many games will end in ties. While I know from hundreds of games of experience that’s not true, it doesn’t change the appearance and games are sold on appearance. It also happened that the last game ended with a player in a king-making position. He couldn’t win himself, but his play determined which of two other players would. I hate situations like that as much as anyone, and while the game doesn’t push toward that state, it doesn’t push away from it either.

What I Tried

I was determined to improve the game. On the flight home, I thought about the way allies and points worked. It was interesting and simple enough, but it wasn’t intuitive. Explaining it usually raised eyebrows, which is a warning sign that something’s a little off. I didn’t want to give up that aspect, because I am obsessed with games where players have to help each other in order to claim victory, but how could I make them care without hamfisting it the way I had been? What if each player needed to advance multiple agendas…Agendas shared with other players?

If a player cares about one side of three different conflicts, then the game becomes a series of ever-changing alliances because each player shares one agenda in common with each other player. I might work with Bob this turn to support the monarchy against the senate, but Anne next turn to fight for science over religion. After all, if I help any one player too much, they might score more than I do. This model lacks the novel asymmetry of Shatterpact, but instead sports a much more organic alliance mechanism, and one that has proven more dynamic as well.

I did a bunch of math to figure out how many cards the deck would have, how many factions would be present, and how many agendas they’d iterate between. There are 8 permutations on three dichotomies, so I found 8 factions in the Tempest IP that could headline the game (not to mention the three pairs of agendas that could define them). While a 60 card deck is always nice (because you can deal it evenly between 1-6 players), 15-card hands seem a bit much to ask for a 4-player game, so I went with a 48 card deck to support 3-4 players (and our 8 factions).

I found a piece of art for each faction (all by Levente Peterffy) that fit the setting and mocked up some cards. Originally, each card had one symbol for each of the three agendas that agent’s faction cares about and nothing else (because removing the rank simplifies the card). We would count up all the A symbols, compare them to the B symbols and determine which half of the A/B conflict won that round. It only took one test game to show that was way too much adding. We were playing cards simultaneously, but we had to reorient the cards to ease counting such that it was hard to track who played what or why. The game was miserable.

Don’t Forget Your Roots

I tried a couple more small variations of Intrigue that were nearly as poor before bringing Shatterpact out of storage for a refresher. Playing the original reminded me what was great about it that the new game was lacking. While it’s slower than the simultaneous turns I’d tried for Intrigue, playing cards in turn order led to much more interesting card play. The ranks on the cards helped stratify them, making each choice more meaningful. Finally, I had simplified the play-two-keep-one play style Shatterpact uses (into a series of overlapping rounds) and in so doing lost the ability for players to craft their hands over the course of the game. I played Shatterpact as the Lord of the Dwarves and started without a single Dwarf yet managed to win the game by playing what I did have well and picking up Dwarves from other players along the way. It was awesome.

And so I set out to make Intrigue more like Shatterpact. Or, if you prefer, to re-theme Shatterpact, but using the new shared-agenda model in place of asymmetrical allies.

I gave each agent a rank and changed the scoring method from counting the symbols across all the cards to simply determining which faction has the highest total rank and then scoring the three agendas that faction supports. Much simpler. In Shatterpact, the winning player captures an enemy agent (representing her victory point) before everyone chooses a card to put back in their hand. Under this new model, it is a faction that wins a round—not a player—so that option was out. I tried a couple games and the revision was playing much better, but the endgame was populated by only the highest ranked cards.

With no predation in the game ecosystem, the game would inevitably end that way every time. I was slowly working toward a solution when one of my playtesters, Josh IIRC, suggested an awesome one: Each player must kill one agent and keep one during the resolution phase, but the order she does it is up to her. It takes a bit more thought, but this keeps the game dynamic and offers an abundance of interesting choices. Do you kill an enemy 8 or save a friendly 7? Do you count on the next player to do what’s best for the pair of you? Can you force an opponent to save an agent friendly to you? The starting player for the current round chooses first and that can factor into which cards you’re willing to risk as well as mitigating the last-play advantage the ending player has.

Spicing it Up

With the core gameplay looking much better, I took a look at the advanced game. In Shatterpact, the advanced layer comes in the form of quests. At the beginning of each battle, you reveal the top card of the quest deck and it details the conditions for winning that card as another point, separate from winning the round. Most quests key off of character traits like Brave, Cunning or Swift. The characters with lower ranks have more of these traits so that cards that were strictly worse in the base game become better for this alternate strategy.

For Intrigue, I knew we would need an additional layer to really hammer home the flavor of secret plots and schemes, of quiet power struggles rippling throughout the city, of back-alley deals, and deadly double-crosses. A set of scenarios you could choose for each game and a board/map for each scenario would offer a variety of play and allow me to tell stories.

In one scenario, the Queen has just been accused of treason and is trying to escape. Those sworn to protect her are trying to secret her away while those set on imprisoning the Queen must catch her. A faction that supports the monarchy places cubes on a map trying to reach the escape boat whenever they win, while the factions supporting the senate place cubes that block and eventually trap her.

Another scenario was more generic, but requires players to play their cards to specific spaces on the board, each of which have a unique ability. One space doubled its faction’s score if they win, while another increases your agent’s rank and yet another lets you swap cards that have been played. That was neat but foreshadowed a long road of balance testing.

The Penultimate Version

The last major flaw in the design was that having 6 cards per suit across 8 suits meant that it was often hard to keep the cards most relevant in the endgame. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to remove the agenda icons from the agent cards so that there would be room to reintroduce traits. Even if the game didn’t need traits, having played with generic agents versus fleshed-out heroes showed that a big part of the fun of the game is learning about the characters and creating memorable stories about them through play. Getting individual card art as well as helping define their personalities through game-relevant traits was paramount to making that happen. (Sorry, I won’t share the art the prototype is currently using, out of respect for AEG’s IP guidelines.)

As is often the case in design, the best solutions answer multiple questions. Eliminating agendas gave the agents room for traits. Without agendas, the players have to key off of factions instead and the math that lets each player care about one faction that each other player cares about in a four-player game results in six factions. A few playtests convinced me this is a great setup to force the players to work together while making their choices simpler and more relevant. The traits inspired a set of scheme cards, not entirely unlike the old quest cards.

Each player chooses one of two secret schemes at the start of each trick and if the scheme’s condition is met, she can reveal it for an effect. Many trigger at the end of the trick and score you an extra point, but some trigger when agents of a particular faction or with a particular trait are deployed, letting you actively mess with the game-state. It feels very spy-ish without adding much time to the game and players seem delighted to scheme and gamble and keep secrets from each other. I may still introduce scenarios/maps as an add-on at some point, but I’m quite happy with the schemes for now. Ideally, schemes are one layer and maps could be another, letting you use either or both as you please.

I took the game to Metatopia where at least 12 players gave me more positive feedback than I’ve had before, to the extent that one of them told an attending publisher to get a demo of the game. I submitted the prototype to AEG at BGG Con, but they decided to pass on it.

The Game Today

I’ve played hundreds of games of Intrigue and I’m quite pleased with the depth of play, and the hilarious moments that can arise when players reveal their schemes. The core game has been stable for some time, but I iterated on the schemes quite a bit; I’ve printed up six different sets of ~50 scheme cards by now, removing the ones that don’t enhance the play experience and keeping the one that do. I want cards that are fun, flavorful, and interesting or that shore up weaknesses some players feel the core game has. For instance, there are a tons of schemes that score points, allowing players who have fallen behind in the very tight core game a chance to come back. A few cards offer as many as three points, but are much harder to pull off. That’s one place where having a flip side really shines—You can always choose a smaller, more reliably alternative if you’re not in the mood to gamble. Some cards offer rewards for long-term strategies and some shake up players’ hands to help you get out of a rut you may have slipped into.

There are a couple modes of play I still think have potential: Playing with hidden affiliations is really interesting; and I might still bring back maps/scenarios, but they’re clearly not necessary for the initial game. I think I’ll save them as bonus content once the game is out there.

I’ve sent Intrigue out for two blind playtests so far, and I’m really glad I did because they exposed a very serious problem with the rules presentation. What I’ve learned is that while casual players enjoy the core game, hardcore gamers dismiss it as trivial because the simple rules don’t seem interesting enough. They don’t even try the advanced game because they’ve already decided to hate the core game. I’ve never had this problem when teaching the game in person, and the difference is that I explain the game differently than the rules, highlighting the subtle strategies that make it play so differently from traditional trick-taking card games. I’ve done a few things to combat this:

Firstly, I added a strategy section to the back of the rulebook, plainly explaining the top layer of strategies that players tend to miss initially when left to their own devices. Next, I recommend that hardcore gamers add the scheme cards after just a few tricks. I find that the schemes are quirky and flavorful enough that they keep players engaged long enough to start noticing the intricacies of the core game. Finally, because I don’t expect every group to read the strategy section in the back of the rules, I’ve made an Explainer; a sheet separate from the rules that is meant to introduce the gameplay enough to get players started quickly as well as informally hinting at the sideways play that will help you to succeed in this game of manipulation. I just sent out a new copy with these tweaks, so I’m eager to see if that’ll do the trick.

I’ve never been so confident that I will find a publisher for this game. After over a decade, dozens of versions and hundreds of games, that’ll be nice.

Protospieling Dawn Sector

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I attended my first Protospiel this past weekend in Milwaukee. I spent 3 days hanging out with good friends, playing my game, Dawn Sector, and playing many of their outstanding prototypes. Originally, I planned on writing a post about their games, but I don’t think I can do it properly. Sure, I can share photos, but ultimately I don’t think it’s right to discuss someone else’s in-progress prototype in so public a forum as the internet. I don’t want to pass any judgement or opinions that could in any way hinder their game’s progress.

If I played your game at Protospiel, I’d love to have you write a guest post on this blog or if you’d like we could conduct a quick interview.

Instead, I’m going to write about Dawn Sector. I conducted 5 tests of the game: 3 with the generic faction and 2 with the real factions. Overall I think it was well-received and people seemed to enjoy it. However, I’m going to make two modest to big changes to the game that I think will really get me on the home stretch.

Draw Draw Draw: The first major change is the addition of a fifth turn Action — Draw a Card. For a long time the actions have been as follows:

  • Move
  • Build Fort
  • Declare Battle
  • Use a Spec Ops (essentially a really powerful action for which you spend cards)

Players could also pass, though this was never a good option (if you’re playing well) and if you passed on the first or second action round, you’d lose all remaining Actions. I really wanted to avoid players passing to force an opponent to blink. The Mexican stand off isn’t fun in most cases.

However, in a few instances, especially towards the end of the game, things often became quite tense and the game can come down to a single Action. Players would often be conflicted and some would simply pass to avoid making too gross an error. I didn’t like this, but I didn’t have a solution and it wasn’t so much of a problem that I was really worried.

In the very first test of the con I was given the suggestion to allow a Draw Card action. “Wow,” I thought immediately. That is a damn good idea. I added the action for every subsequent test and it was indeed a damn good idea. Drawing a card opens up the game in a variety of ways:

  • If you have a particularly bad hand or a hand that ALMOST gives you what you need, you can spend an Action to draw. 
  • It provides a moment of tension. Players NEED a card. When a really clutch draw occurred (i.e. they need a cavalry and drew one), it felt good.
  • It gives players a way to “pass” without passing. As a result, I’m removing the option to pass.

This can’t really be exploited as you still need to discard down to 5 cards before the end of a round. Basically, you can’t spend a round stockpiling only to have a crazy subsequent round. Plus, it is often still not the best idea to pass. Good players will learn when to hold or discard cards at the end of a round. The Draw Card will ultimately fill a nice hole but won’t be a crutch or a game breaker.

It’s a really great idea and attribution for it goes to Mr. Brett Myers of Nanuk fame. (Stay tuned for some of Brett’s upcoming games. One was presented to me and I was able to play another. Both were beautiful, tight, and well designed games.)

Withdraw Withdraw Withdraw: Before I explain the second major change, I want to discuss an idea that was presented that I considered and ultimately rejected. Ryan Metzler of the Dice Tower played in the first test. He suggested I add a “Remove Troops from Board” action.

Initially this seemed compelling. For the many of you who haven’t played Dawn Sector, you should know a few things. Firstly, every player has a finite until pool of 15 Units. At the beginning of each round (6 total), you may spend cards to add these Units to the board. Units are only removed as a result of battle (i.e. casualties), at which point they can be re-added via reinforcement.

Ryan felt like he was in a bad predicament. His units were spread about and he wanted to be able to remove them to add back via the next reinforcement phase. This seemed fine enough, until I thought through it.

For one, the action would be highly inefficient and therefore only useful for this in the direst of circumstances. You’d have to pull units off in order to add them back next round? That’s not really useful. Secondly, this greatly rewarded bad play (sorry Ryan) and would give people a crutch for getting lost in the wilds. Furthermore, the game already provides ways by which you can sync units back up, including faction abilities (like Double Time in Ryan’s game) and the spaceports, which let you move to any territory bordering the edge of the map.

Finally, they’d break the game. Imagine a scenario: I carefully build up units and maneuver them to attack you. Perhaps this round, perhaps the next. You see this, realize you’ll lose the battle, and withdrawal your troops. Now, I just wasted an entire round of maneuvering and you got away with only one action! Why would people not do this every time?

I honestly felt like the game didn’t need this and furthermore it’s not worth adding many other rules or tweaking many other things to allow it. If you aren’t too reckless, your units shouldn’t get too far astray. And if that happens? You still have ways to recover.

The Single Decker: Now, for the final significant change as a result of Protospiel. Yes, I’m tweaking some tuning, but this is the second big one. Currently, every faction uses a unique deck. All decks are comprised of cards with the same 5 Symbols (Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, Specialist, Commander) with numbers ranging from 1-3. All of the decks have a very similar level of potential reinforcements. However, the distribution of the card types (i.e. cavalry versus infantry) differs. Originally this was for thematic and balance purposes. For example, the Brigade should have a lot of mech cavalry, whereas the Militia has the most specialists.

Alas, over time this has added a layer of fiddliness that isn’t necessary. For one, all decks have cards with the same five symbols, but not all factions use every symbol. Without a fail, one new player asks “why do I have this card?” It’s a good question for which I don’t have a good answer. Furthermore, more serious players have to relearn and re-examine the subtly (and sometimes significantly) different distributions when they change factions. Instead of just learning new abilities, they have to also learn the deck.

This is a bit of oversight on my part. Now, all factions will use an identical deck of cards. Faction abilities will still be triggered differently based on the approximate difficulty of the ability and, where possible, along thematic reasoning. But, players will now be able to move between the games with the same deck of cards.

I fully believe this can be done and the system can be tuned. However, I think there will be some subtle balance issues that will take time to suss out.

In conclusion: If you played Dawn Sector at Protospiel I really appreciate it. By observing you and discussing the game with you I learned much. I shall improve Dawn Sector and hopefully make her even more appealing for a publisher.

I’m almost finished tweaking the revised player board and I have a first pass take on the new deck distribution. Now, I must apply that distribution with new tuning for the faction abilities. Following that, I’ll reprint all the cards.

My next step after that is updating the rule book with these changes AND introducing my “director’s commentary.” If you want to know what I intended with a feature or why I implemented something as I did, this should be a fun read.

Finally, I’m building a prototype copy for Jay Treat. He’s offered to do some long-term balance testing for me. I look forward to having him as a testing partner.


An Interview inside Baldrick’s Tomb

Friend and publisher of my game Farmageddon, Phil Kilcrease, is publishing a new game. The game is called Baldrick’s Tomb and it is currently seeking funding via Kickstarter. 

The game has a very interesting premise as it’s a competitive rogue-like. I asked Phil and the designer if they’d like to do an interview. Either due to my charm or threatening demeanor, they agreed. Read on to learn about this game and Phil and Ben Haskett’s process.

Hyperbole Games: Ben — tell me about yourself. Who are you?

Ben: I’m a judicial secretary for an Appellate Court. I live with my wife and dog in Elk Grove, California, and we’ve got our first little one due any day now. I love paintball, movies, and–of course–games. I’ve enjoyed video games for most of my life, but I’ve only been playing board games for a year or two. This newfound hobby started with The Settlers of Catan, but has quickly grown into a sizable library in my office. My most frequent gaming group buddies consist mostly of my family; my three brothers and I get together on a regular basis to play games.

Hyperbole Games: Give us a high level description of Baldrick’s Tomb.

Phil: I’ll give the basics, and Ben can add in, too. Baldrick’s Tomb plays 1 – 4 players in 30 minutes for ages eight and up. The key mechanics are action management for how you move during your turn, hand management in how spells and (eventually) items are used, and die rolling for combat resolution.

I’d say the two key things that make BT stand out are its ease of play and the character of the game Erin Fusco is evoking with the artwork. We gave her rough guidelines and told her to cut loose; she hasn’t disappointed. The characters all ooze charm and the monsters are fantastic: gentleman Scottish werewolves, boxing rats, sassy warthogs… it won’t be your typical dank, dark dungeon crawl.

Ben: Baldrick’s Tomb is a light-weight, dungeon-crawling board game for 1-4 players that should take somewhere around half an hour to play. It takes place over the course of seven short levels, where players travel down to the bottom of a large tomb to retrieve a cursed artifact, and then high-tail it back out with as much treasure as possible. The player with the most treasure points–or TP –at the end of the game wins. All the while, the tomb is being haunted by an evil spirit who is constantly changing the inside of the tomb.

Hyperbole Games: Did you have a primary inspiration to create the game? What were you hoping to accomplish?

Ben: Baldrick’s Tomb draws a lot of its inspiration from a sub-genre of role playing video games called rogue-likes. Specifically, a few years ago I was introduced to and fell in love with a little game called Shiren the Wanderer. What drew me to this unassuming game — a Nintendo DS port of the 1995 Super Famicom release — was its charm; bright and colorful visuals, endearing characters, upbeat music, and a fun premise. But what kept me engaged in its small world was its game play, which was then an entirely new experience for me. Despite its short campaign (about 45 minutes long, if you manage to beat it), Shiren manages to elicit tension every time I boot it up and death looms around every corner in the form of well-hidden traps and increasingly powerful enemies. Beating the game requires knowing when/how to properly use what items, knowing when to run from monsters, and, well, a heaping spoonful of luck.

What’s really impressive to me, though, is how Shiren manages to do so much with so little. Its levels are randomly generated with a small tile set, NPC characters have very little to say, and there is not a very wide range of enemies to encounter. Despite this, Shiren manages to create a new experience each time it’s played, and that experience is built on your interactions with the items, NPCs, traps, and monsters. I think this is why even non-graphical rogue-likes like Nethack can prove to be so exhilarating.

What I set out to do with Baldrick’s Tomb was to recreate the rogue-like experience in the form of a board game. Using an 8×8 grid and a handful of tokens, I was able to make a sort of randomly generated level complete with treasures, scrolls, traps, monsters, and a single exit that leads to the next floor. Similar to most rogue-likes, the goal was for the player’s experience to be built largely upon the encounters within–not necessarily the lore or the visuals. At the same time, I really wanted Baldrick’s Tomb to have an attractive and inviting visual design. I used vibrant colors and bold fonts to create sort of a goofy vibe in the graphic design. Then, I had a huge amount of help from an artist name Kevin Harris. Kevin provided dozens of colorful illustrations for BT, all in the interest of helping out a fellow game designer. Although the final version of Baldrick’s Tomb will have all-new (and stunning) artwork from Erin Fusco, Kevin’s original contributions helped create something that I was incredibly proud of, and I believe his handiwork was integral to BT‘s early successes and probably played a part in 5th Street taking a look at it.

Hyperbole Games: Your game was on The Game Crafter for some time, yes? How did it do?

Ben: At first, Baldrick’s Tomb didn’t really make a big splash. I had no idea how to market it, it was unproven, and it was one of the more expensive games in TGC’s store ($40). However, BT picked up steam, little by little, with the help of a few key events:

The first was winning TGC’s RPG design contest, which happened to coincide with BT‘s release. This being my first foray into the board game design, I really did not have any expectations of winning, so it was both incredibly surprising and flattering when the judge, Jason Tagmire (Pixel Lincoln), chose it as the winner out of about 30 entries. Many of those entries looked to be really great games, so it was an honor that BT received the top spot. This resulted in a fair amount of exposure and induction into TGC’s hall of fame.

Next was a review on Father Geek, which resulted in another surge of page views and a few sales. More importantly, however, is that the review contained some very constructive criticism that I used to make BT a better game. More than anything else, Cyrus’ gaming group did not care for the roll-and-move mechanic (a part of BT‘s original design), in which the number of moves a player was permitted on each turn was dictated by a die roll. It was Cyrus’ feedback that eventually led to a fair amount of changes to BT‘s design.

Finally, and what gave me the confidence to reach out to 5th Street, was a video review from The Gamers’ Table. They were sent the updated version of Baldrick’s Tomb (which was put together thanks to Father Geek’s feedback), and they rated it very favorably.

Hyperbole Games: What did you learn from your Game Crafter customers? How did you improve the game?

Ben: I learned a ton from TGC customers, who were all very forthcoming with feedback. The two biggest contributors were Cyrus from Father Geek, and fellow TGC user Jason Glover (Plague, Zogar’s Gaze). Cyrus’ review led to me dropping the roll-move-mechanic and replacing it with a set amount of moves for each character. Chain-reaction changes from this decision included the addition of healing fountains, extra tokens, and multiple difficulty modes. These changes were then fine-tuned with the help of Jason Glover. We spent a lot of time on TGC, chatting about how to improve BT and make it a tighter experience. Our conversations also led to a would-be expansion for BT in the form of additional cards. Many of these ideas will be making an appearance in the final version of Baldrick’s Tomb. Additional feedback came from TGC staff JT Smith and Tavis Parker.

Hyperbole Games: What makes your game special and unique when compared to similar games?

Phil: Artwork and ease of play. Erin struck true in making the art sing ‘5th Street’ in the style she used, and the rules are super easy to learn.

Players get four moves per turn to explore a dungeon and find the exit to the next level. Whenever an encounter token is landed on, a card matching the encounter type is drawn and resolved whether it be a sneaky trap or a big ole’ pile of treasure. If players take too long, though, they’ll fall through the unstable floor and lose half their treasure. After so many floors, whoever has the most treasure is the master treasure hunter!

Hyperbole Games: What attracted you and 5th Street to Baldrick’s Tomb, Phil? 

Phil: It looked really polished on Game Crafter with a novel take on a dungeon crawl. I actually passed on it initially as it was rated ages 12+. But, Ben reached out to me and after reading Father Geek’s review, I was hooked.

Ben: To turn it around, what attracted me to 5th Street was their dedication to making great-looking & affordable games that focused on including everyone. I felt confident that, in Phil’s hands, Baldrick’s Tomb would not only look great, receive a professional production run, and be refined into a better-playing game, but also be made available to a wider audience.

Thus far, Phil has proven to be professional, approachable, and honest. It is nothing at all like I imagined a publishing deal would go; that we would have so much 1-on-1 conversation, or that he would take such a personal interest in the game.

Hyperbole Games: Who would you say is the target player for Baldrick’s tomb? Who will love this game? 

Phil: Kids and older players looking for a light dungeon crawl that plays in half an hour.

Hyperbole Games: What was the most difficult aspect of the game to nail down? How did you solve the problem?

Ben: The most difficult aspect was combat — I had originally designed combat to be as close to a rogue-like experience as possible. This was done using two dice that were rolled simultaneously: one for the player and one for the monster. This spelled out the results of each bout. While this was a pretty accurate representation of the frantic and unpredictable combat in rogue-likes, with frequent misses and blows from both sides, is was also a very slavish depiction. 5th Street encouraged me to move away from this, towards simplified combat that would be easier for players to understand, faster, and, of course, more fun. With 5th Street’s help, we eventually settled on combat that would use only a single die and simple iconography.

Hyperbole Games: Did you have any ideas you cut or threw away? If so, why?

Ben: Most of the ideas that were born out of the slavish dedication to re-creating the rogue-like experience were thrown out. In a board game, especially a competitive one for this many players, elements like permanent death, immobilizing traps, and complete unpredictability are not conducive to a positive experience. Some of these elements were thrown out before the game’s first prototype existed. 5th Street helped take the game further, resulting in a board game that is easy to learn, fun to play, and fair, while still maintaining many of the elements that make rogue-likes unique.

Hyperbole Games: What are some of your favorite games to play?

Phil: Currently playing Netrunner, Flash Point, Plunder!, and TONS of prototypes.

Ben: For me, I’m mostly still catching up with the heavy hitters: Ticket to Ride, Bang!, and Dominion. I love Alien Frontiers, Lords of Waterdeep, and Incan Gold. Also a new fan of Castle Dash and The Resistance.

Hyperbole Games: Anything you’d like to add?

Phil: Sure do; three things. First, thanks for the interview, Grant! Second, give a read to Grant’s design journal for Dawn Sector. It’s a great look at the journey a game can take during development. Lastly, check out Baldrick’s Tomb and join us on the adventure of delving for treasure!!!!