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Designer Interview: Tristan Hall on Gloom of Kilforth and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Board Game Designer: Tristan Hall
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Tristan Hall. —WEM]

Tristan Hall, designer of the Kilforth series and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the two strands of his design career:

DM: Hi, Tristan, thank you for joining us. You have designed a number of successful games in recent years. There seems to be two distinct strands to your work: dark fantasy and historical. What is it about those two themes that appeals to you?

TH: Thank you for having me. There is no single element of media that has had more of an enduring and positive influence on me than reading The Lord of the Rings. Revisiting this again with my son as bedtime reading has made for some of the most exciting and happiest moments of my life. Sharing and passing those stories on to him has been so rewarding. If I can contribute even a morsel of that sense of fulfillment to those who play my games, either alone or with their families and friends, then I'm delighted.

Of course, there is as much heroism and brutality and hope in our actual history as there is in fantasy. Trying to refract a sense of those epic historical struggles via the prism of gaming is a joyful exercise to me. And if people happen to learn something about these iconic moments in history in the process of playing a fun game, then that too is a pleasure!

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: 1066, Tears to Many Mothers is themed around the Norman Invasion of Britain while the forthcoming 1565, St. Elmo's Pay covers the Siege of Malta. Can you tell us why those two conflicts interest you?

TH: I suppose both conflicts are personal to me, in a way. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 is something that every school kid in the UK learns about growing up. It's such a tragically romantic story it stays with you forever.

This heroic warrior king, Harold, finally saves England from centuries of Danish invasions by destroying pretty much all of the Vikings in history — there are no Viking raids again after 1066 — only to be butchered by the Normans and have his throne stolen soon after, the Normans being Viking descendants themselves, of course, and led by Duke William, one of the most powerful and villainous leaders in history. The game gives you a chance to maybe redress that balance, or repeat history all over again.

The Great Siege of Malta — "The Greatest Siege in History" — captured my imagination when we visited Malta on holiday over a decade ago. To me, this battle — which determined the entire fate of the whole of Europe and the Mediterranean, and where a tiny army of Knights repelled an utterly overwhelming Ottoman invasion — just seems criminally overlooked by modern media, especially in gaming. It would make for an amazing movie or Netflix show.

It feels like shining a torch on these darker areas of history that some people maybe don't know as much about (including me). It also gives me the opportunity to bury my head in history books and geek out.

To continue this Historic Epic Battle System series of games, I'd love to alternate between lesser-known battles like Malta and more commonly known theaters of conflict, for example, our next game in the series — 1815, Scum of the Earth — will cover Waterloo.

DM: The card illustrations in both games depict historical figures and events. How closely does the art and the game design follow the history?

TH: Every design decision and piece of art behind the games is driven by the history. Every single card in each game is based on a real person, event, tactic, or unit that took part in the battle or events leading up to it. I spent years poring through history books with a highlighter pen and developing the flavor text for every single card, trying to pare its story down into a couple of sentences.

With the art, I gave strict instructions to our artists to follow the history. I bought and posted reference books to them to draw inspiration from. Occasionally I'd question the historical veracity of the artwork and be put in my place by our artists!

For example, in 1565, St. Elmo's Pay, one of the Knights is wielding pistols in each hand. I told our artist Arek that I thought it felt a little bit too "Hollywood action movie", so I asked whether he could replace the pistols with a more historically correct arquebus. He replied by email with a photograph of the same two dueling pistols from a Maltese museum that showed that they dated back to 1565!

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Why a hand-management/collectible card game type mechanism and not a more traditional conflict simulation mechanism such as blocks, hex and counter, minis, area control?

TH: Hexes, chits, and area control are fairly typical of war games, but I've never seen a history game presented in a beautifully illustrated Magic: The Gathering style. I wanted to employ one of our greatest assets — a team of world-class artists — to reach across the line and draw people into the history who might otherwise be put off by a heavy tactical game.

To that end, I aimed to deliver a super high quality, non-collectible card game on a visual par with Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars LCG, but with detailed flavor text on every card and hundreds of unique images to help immerse players in the history of the respective battles.

Board Game: 1066, Tears To Many Mothers

DM: Does the "timeline" of the games follow the historical timeline?

TH: The timelines of the games adhere closely to the history of the battles. The players must overcome a sequential series of historical objectives. The leaders they're playing as had to overcome these obstacles in order to reach their respective battles in the first place. For example, in 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, Harold has to defeat the Vikings in the north of England before he can march down to battle the Normans at Hastings.

In 1565, St. Elmo's Pay, Mustafa Pasha must gather his forces following the meeting of the Divan and successfully land his forces on the tiny island of Malta before the Great Siege takes place.

DM: Were mechanisms developed to reflect the historical position and strengths/weakness of the opposing forces?

TH: Being card games there is a huge degree of extrapolation in representing the history. Even so, each character or unit is richly researched and rated by their comparative influence and power over their battle.

For example, Robert Mortain is listed in the Domesday Book as having brought 120 ships to the Battle of Hastings. Statistically, that makes him one of the most powerful and expensive to play cards in the game. Whereas Remigius de Fécamp brought over one ship and twenty knights from Normandy, putting him much lower in the pecking order, which is again reflected in his game stats.

The Battle of Hastings was fought over three wedges of troops — each wedge card in the game represents several thousand warriors battling for that frontier — and players are rewarded for emulating the history by maneuvering their units into their respective historical placements.

Harold fought side by side with his housecarls in the front row, so the Saxon housecarl cards have an ability that increases their might if they're placed into the front row. Similarly, Duke William kept his cavalry in the rear flank, so if placed in the rear, cavalry units in 1066 earn a bonus, too.

Ranged units can be used to fire across the battlefield on either side, family cards make their brethren cheaper to play, cowardly units are easier to rout, and so on — every game ability is designed to follow the history where possible.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Moving to your dark fantasy work, the Kilforth games appear influenced by role-playing games (RPGs). If that is the case, why create a board game rather than an RPG?

TH: Until recently my role-playing days had long since expired. I still hold extremely fond nostalgia for my teen years spent role-playing and exploring dungeons and going on magnificent adventures with my friends.I wanted to harness and explore some of those moments once again.

When I originally designed Gloom of Kilforth, every fantasy adventure board game on the market was about killing monsters, stealing treasure, and leveling up. Whilst that can be fun, for me role-playing was more about exploring ancient shrines, encountering strange people, going on epic quests, and discovering beautiful fantasy worlds, with a sprinkling of combat thrown in for good measure.

Capturing those narrative moments was one of my key motivations in designing Gloom of Kilforth. Emergent storytelling is becoming huge in board games now, but games that require you to read out huge reams of text to your sleepy-eyed friends don't engage me in the same way as games that give me the narrative hooks to create exciting and memorable stories of my own. In that respect, there is still no game that creates narratives in the same way that the Kilforth games do, which I think explains why it's going into its fourth printing.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

What are the specific design challenges involved in creating a story-driven, character-based game compared to a historical game?

The Kilforth games took much longer to develop and playtest. They are much bigger games than 1066/1565. They have many more moving parts that need to knit together smoothly. For me personally, the mechanical aspects of game design go hand in hand with world-building and character creation.

A game's story — whether that's history, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or whatever — should absolutely feed into the mechanisms. The time spent on developing the "hands" of both mechanisms and theme should dovetail accordingly.

If you want a game that's great mechanisms with little theme, look to Reinier Knizia, and if you want a cool story almost to the expense of game mechanisms, look to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; for me, the best board games are balanced in the center of those two extremes.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Your latest game is the solitaire game Veilwraith. Please tell us more about it.

TH: Veilwraith is a fantasy card game that takes place after the end of all things! It plays in 30-40 minutes and has a multiplayer variant in which each player uses their own copy of the game. There is also a campaign mode where you string together a series of adventures or "vignettes" that you must complete in order. As the eponymous Veilwraith, you literally try to piece the memory of the world back together after it's fallen into absolute destruction and ruin.

I love and play a lot of solo games — and all our games are solo friendly. However, many shorter solo games have themes or art that I don't personally enjoy, so I wanted to offer something for gamers with similar tastes to me.

I have a lot of apocalyptic dreams, and several years ago I wrote a short story about the world ending and what might come after. I combined these ideas with the world of Kilforth and what would happen if the demons won, the heroes lost, and the world was destroyed.

DM: What games do you have in development?

TH: As mentioned, the next game in the Historic Epic Battle System will be 1815, Scum of the Earth, which covers the Battle of Waterloo.

There is at least one more Kilforth game in the works, as well as the small box New Tales expansion for Shadows of Kilforth that we're Kickstarting in mid-2020.

I also have a brand-new game, a horror opus called Sublime Dark that I want to share with the world.

And there are many more to come while our backers continue to join us in exploring strange new worlds and themes.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Finally, do you have any advice for budding designers and publishers?

TH: If I had to make one point it would be this: The difference between you having your first game published and your mate who says they have an idea for a game is that you went ahead and finished what you started, so see it through to the end.

If it stops being fun and feels like a chore, take a break. Come back to it when you're feeling it again. When you play a game, you can feel how much fun the designer had making it, so ensure that you maintain your own passion for what you love throughout the process, and most of all enjoy yourself, so you know that your players will, too.
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