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Designer Diary: Asgard's Chosen, or Creatures and Heroes and Gods, Oh My!

Morgan Dontanville
United States
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Board Game Designer
Board Game Publisher
Plate of Shrimp.
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Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
Building My Dream House

I'm not sure how other designers approach games, but I tend to design games out of desperation. Usually it comes from a certain level of frustration when I want a kind of game to exist and despite trying every game I can find that might satisfy the itch, I get to the point where I realize that I will just have to design the darn thing myself. That's what happened with Asgard's Chosen.

I really love the concept of card-driven wargames (CDW), and a few rank as some of my absolute favorite games (Paths of Glory, For the People and Napoleonic Wars). But with CDWs there is also a ton of overhead and scripted history that forces some games to play on rails. (This is what happened, so clearly you must follow the same course of history.) With CDWs, carving out the time to play is an issue, and successful multiplayer environments are frequently difficult.

I also love deck-building games, which aren't that far of a cry from the CDW. The big difference is that deck-building trends toward deck construction – that is, deciding to use poor events to get rid of cards with bad operation/activation numbers or to refrain from using great events to keep high ops in your deck.

I was waiting for a game that used both of those features. Plus, I love games with movement and environments that you can interact with other than just yielding resource X.

Recently, I'd been getting into obscure folklore and I wanted to see a game feature fun creatures that we don't get to see all that often or at all. For the most part we see time and again either classic fantasy creatures or those from Greek mythology. Don't get me wrong – I'll take any good monster where I can find it, but I just wanted someone to change it up a bit. Of course, Asgard's Chosen has the traditional versions of both a vampire and a zombie, so who am I to judge?

After playing Thunderstone I realized that I was going to have to make the game I wanted for myself. I'm a sucker for monsters, and games with direct interaction and movement are just icing on the cake. I'm always ready to try a game that lets me run around and beat people up with creatures, and while Thunderstone never sold itself as that, I walked away from every game wishing it was.

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

It would be disrespectful of me to discuss Asgard's Chosen without praising the foundational designs and concepts that helped birth this game.

I remember trying Kings & Things* for the first time eons ago and was blown away by the diversity of the creatures and their interaction with the terrain. The modular board meant that you had to figure out new ways to overcome and take advantage of the environment each time you played (a big step up from Archon). Plus, I loved the fog of war in the game. For me, it ramped up Titan by eliminating the random rolls and giving players the privilege of free movement.

It also had quicker battles. This was a huge step up from Titan in my eyes, as Kings & Things* decreased the downtime that other players had to endure when two people would be off fighting their own private battle. Titan was a monumental, ground-breaking design, but Kings & Things* was the one that scratched the itch.

When approaching Asgard's Chosen, I was inspired by these games to have creatures tied to the land that they roam around on. My love of the Kings & Things* modular board runs deep, and I knew that it was how I wanted the board to ultimately work. Here's how it turned out:

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen

Don't Hit Me, Hit Him; Don't Hit Me, Hit Him

As much as I love multiplayer conflict games, I'm often torn because more times than not they are either too free-form or not free-form enough. If I have the flexibility to attack anyone, then the games frequently boil down to a bizarre negotiation game about who should be attacking whom. Then, as soon as there is blood in the water, everyone pounds on the weakest player until he is mercifully eliminated or forced to continue to play a submissive, ineffectual role to the bitter slow end.

With too much constraining form, your decisions are more times than not made by geography. For example, if you are playing a wargame set in Japan, and you are at one end of the banana, you aren't likely to get to your opponent at the other end. So you fight your way into the fray, beating your way through the front strictly because they are in your way. You benefit heavily by being next to unsuccessful opponents who act as a meat shield for you, and if you are between two fortunate players in the game, well, it's tough to be Pinky Tuscadero in the Malachi Crunch. I knew that Asgard's Chosen needed to address what I see as serious detrimental issues in multiplayer wargames.

For me, Nexus Ops really thumbed its nose up at the old paradigm. It brought the concept of flexible changing goals into the game and created a board where geography mattered, but wasn't so constraining that you couldn't mix it up where you wanted and with whom you wanted (given an appropriate amount of effort).

More importantly, this game gave you proper justification to do everything. When you attack in Nexus Ops, it usually is for a clear reason. Sure, you want to get on the mines so that you can get the currency to buy more troops and cards from the Monolith, but the driving force for you is to fulfill your Secret Mission Cards. If someone is attacking me rather than the player to his left, I know that it isn't likely just caprice; it's because there isn't time to futz around and players need to get on with winning. Even still, it is always worthwhile to attack people in the game because each victory, no matter how small, will get you one step closer to the end. The game design favors the attacker, and a turtling player is going to lose. The other great thing about the game is that the victory cards are banked, so the game always moves onward toward its conclusion.

The concept of the god cards being the objective for victory in Asgard's Chosen came from this game. Whenever I would find myself in a tight spot in my design, I would always look back to why I think Nexus Ops is so successful.

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen

The 250-Year-Old Mystery of Four-Player Chess

So I really love Dominion, and I played it like crazy. Of course, whenever anything that innovative comes out, we all become inspired. We all know how many games used the ideas that were brought to light in Dominion – some good, others less so.

Let's be honest here. I started my design with the intention of lifting heavily from Dominion, and just because I'm not the only one doing it, doesn't mean that I shouldn't give credit where it belongs. Donald X. Vaccarino, props to you. Now that that is out of the way, Asgard's Chosen tries to do something entirely different, and I'm not just talking about how I use seven cards instead of a five-card hand.

I was inspired to make Asgard's Chosen because I wanted to play with all the fun stuff that you can get from a deck builder, but with heroes running around on a map and creatures actually being used to fight not just the system, but other players as well. I liked the concept of Puzzle Strike, but while it is fun, it is about triage and point accumulation, where you just pick someone to hit. I wanted my tactics with a little bit of strategy.

I spent a lot of time scouring through northern and eastern European folklore looking for fun legends to put into my game. I compiled a huge list of them as inspiration and started to think how they'd interact within this kind of environment. I knew that these would be the backbone of my game and that it shouldn't just be flavor text with some number modifiers, if possible. These creatures should have powers that reflect what they did in legend.

When I began, I wanted to come up with a tile form that would allow for complete cardinal and ordinal movement. It always was one of my OCD frustrations with hex grids that if you could go north/south, you weren't able to go east/west or vice versa. With squares, you can get diagonal movement, but it cheats distance a bit.

I started exploring octagons and found that I could play with the negative space around them. In order for a more controlled stable board, I joined two octs with a square; this made for quite a bit of fun variety and would also allow for empty spaces on the board, which change the game dramatically from set-up to set-up. With the inset squares I could have special areas of the board that would function a little differently from terrain, so I came up with towns and enchanted lands. I wanted flexibility of movement, so I fell back on the rail movement from Imperial. You get to move as far as you want through any territory you control. In addition, I allowed for enchanted lands to be neutral so that anyone can pass through them if they're unoccupied. This opened the board up dramatically, but still forced strategic decisions in how you take territory. Near the end of the game's development, I realized that curved plusses and circles served the same function but also maintained orthogonal alignment and prevented people from setting up the board incorrectly. Here's the result:

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
About the terrain itself, at first I wanted to have the classic Battle Beast rock-paper-scissor thing where each terrain type would have an advantage over the next. I realized that I wanted to have six terrain types and with all the various creatures I figured that there would be an overload of information.

I decided, instead, to pair terrain together so that each terrain type has an opposing terrain. Instead of making creatures strong against one terrain, they are strong against all terrain, with the exception of one particular land: forest vs. mountain, hills vs. bog, and scrub vs. lakes. Creatures won't go into opposing terrain, and creatures won't allow themselves to be mustered by creatures from opposing terrain. With this set-up, creatures get bonuses for operating out of their home turf and more easily encourage creatures to join their side if they match terrain. Also, when creatures fight in their terrain, they get to use their powers. What I wanted was for people to use their powers liberally. Powers are fun.

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
In addition to control of lands allowing access to the powers of the creatures, they also allow access to the creatures themselves. Thus, the big objective in the game is to take land so that you can find the creatures that you need. If you want to recruit a troll, you need to have control of a hill terrain in order to have access to him. And if you have other hill creatures in hand he is more inclined to join your ranks. Likewise, controlling towns will give you access to items, and having your hero in enchanted lands will allow you to get enchanted items.

I wanted the game to have a sense of ebb and flow while still continually progressing forward. In deck-building I love the challenge of trying to get rid of your weak cards (copper/estates in Dominion, militia/apprentices in Ascension). I figured out that the cards needed to win the game should be the equivalent of coppers and in order to weed out your deck you need to fulfill the requirements on each of the cards. These are the god cards in the game, and everyone starts with the same deck. Each god wants you to do something different to appease them and in order to win you need to have appeased the most gods. To counter the fact that your deck is getting better and better, each god grants you a super power that you no longer have access to when you appease them, and each god requires you to deconstruct what you've built for them. Thus, the farther you are in the lead, the more you've blown apart your deck or destroyed your own position on the board.

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
I'm a big fan of events in games, stuff that comes along that changes the way that people interact with the game. Events in Asgard's Chosen are designed to disrupt the predictable without being too nutty or crippling and without giving one player too much of an advantage. I wanted to figure out a way for the events to come into play without being the same every time. To do this, I incorporated them into the main deck. Events trigger only when you are mustering creatures. They manipulate your position so that you have to make some choices in how to appease gods, and they change how the combat is going to be in the next round or suddenly give everyone a chance to get more creatures in the mustering phase. Events don't do anything to help you in the combat phase, so their presence means that defenders may not get help from militia, and then they are out of the game, so you may play the game quite a number of times before you see certain events trigger.

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
Give a Man a Free Hand and He'll Run It All Over You

One of the objectives in my design was to make the hand management decisions difficult. The game revolves around two main stages: Combat and Mustering. You need to take land so that you can muster creatures from it and appease gods. You need to muster creatures so that you can more efficiently take land and appease gods. Whatever cards you don't use to take land are what you have to use to muster more creatures, so a big battle or two may be what you need to appease gods, but then you have nothing to get more creatures with.

An important mantra when putting Asgard's Chosen together was that the attacker should always be incentivized. This is a fighting game. Fighting games should always encourage people to actually engage in combat. Players that aren't constantly fighting will lose the game. There are a number of booby prizes in the system so that if you get hammered too much as the defender you come out okay, but really, you need to attack the next guy as much as they need to attack you. Troops don't die from battle, so if you lose a couple of times, you are only losing a little momentum rather than being pushed turns behind a leader. I want people to feel okay with losing a few battles. No one should be blowing their morale check playing this.

I wanted combat to come mostly from your hand, but I also wanted some unexpected twists and a little luck to push battles one way or another. I decided that everything could be done by the cards themselves, so instead of just dice you are getting creatures joining your side in battles from the local militia.

Equally I wanted the game to ramp up as you get more powerful, so more powerful versions of creatures appear, more powerful items are available, and crazier events fire off.

Board Game: Asgard's Chosen
Getting Testy

Early on in the design, I realized that the game had no control rods in it at all. Namely cards could be played whenever things felt appropriate. I wanted people to feel the joy of playing zany combos whenever because the satisfaction of doing so was fun, but really it was just a mess. By controlling when cards could and couldn't be used, this naturally lead to clarity, but it also led me to the mindset that it's okay for cards to be overpowered because as long as there are limits to how they can be used, I can get away with making all the cards overpowered.

Because I already had the pieces, and because I like to be considerate of our lady players, I incorporated women pieces into the game so that each player is playing one male and one female hero. In playtesting, one of the playtesters was confused as to why I bothered with them if it wasn't going to have any relevance in the game. I realized then that there was a lot of folklore to be tapped into, so I created a number of gender-specific items that change the way you manipulate your heroes.

Andrew Parks played this with me and wondered whether there was a way to build armies that interacted with each other on an individual creature level rather that just by terrain. This idea inspired me to add a bunch of new cards to the game, but as there is so much to take in with the base game, I fear that I've had to remove this concept for now. That said, the idea led me to the next part.

One of my coworkers saw the design, loved it, but wanted a solitaire version. I figured out an easy way to play against the game itself, using some of the ideas for lateral army building. When we sat down together after playing a number solo games off on our own, I figured out that it was easy to turn this into a two-player co-op game as well.

For the most part, the design worked from the get-go. Playtesting was mostly just defining and redefining the cards for clarity – that, and culling them down to a manageable, sellable number.

House Rules!

I work for Mayfair Games, so they have first dibs on anything I design. A number of people at the company were taken by this, so it never left the house.

Goodie for me. That makes my life so much easier.

There should be some preview copies at Gen Con 2013, and the game should go on sale sometime in September 2013.

Morgan Dontanville
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