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Designer Diary: Super Fantasy, or Hacking & Slashing Over the Top

marco valtriani
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The Beginning

Everything begins somewhere. A game is often made by combining a lot of elements, making it difficult to understand how the whole thing started, but sometimes there's a clear-cut moment you can identify as the "starting point" of an idea.

Super Fantasy was born with a phone call.

The phone call came from Mario Cortese in early 2013. Mario and I had been acquaintances for about twenty years, and we've talked a lot about games and ideas, as we discovered that we shared similar opinions about gaming and making games. In that call, he told me he was working for Red Glove, a well-known Italian company. They were in need of a dungeon crawler, a game that would feature a flexible system with some kind of innovative mechanism, a game with something different from the adventure\task-based point of view of most dungeon crawlers, a game easy to learn (age 8+) but with many modular elements to intrigue experienced players, a game playable with or without a GM, a game with a strong humorous-but-not-idiotic theme.

Lots of boundaries, which aren't a bad thing — but there was another problem: The game was scheduled for release at the upcoming Spiel convention. Accepting such an assignment would simply be insane.

"Sanity? Sorry, but I don't remember having such a useless thing in the first place." —Zaraki Kenpachi

Core Mechanisms

I talked with Mario about the project boundaries, glad to have some. They were precise but not weird, so it was okay for me. Designing a game from a blank page — hoping to get something that someone else wishes to play (and hopefully to publish) — can be really frustrating. I always try to talk with publishers about what they need before beginning the design process or at least before "real" development. In this case, Red Glove gave me just a bit of restrictions on game materials: "Don't worry about cardboard", they said, and from my point of view it was like in The Matrix when Neo asks for "Guns, lots of guns".

So I needed to find a focus, something that the game had to revolve around, and I immediately thought about video games.

At a sheer design level, I think board games have a lot to learn from video games. I am a great fan of RPG video games and also a great fan of hack & slash ones. I think the game that I've played most in my life is the first Diablo, so I started to wonder how to transfer that kind of experience to a board game. Thus, I got my focus almost immediately: I wanted action.

The theme wasn't a big problem. I immediately thought about a funny version of Torchlight, the indie video game, with some elements of parody, exaggerated characters and grotesque enemies. I thought about sets of monsters and I took the first one that came in my mind: the Ugly Snouts, a tribe of orc-like creatures with really ugly faces, but so stupid that they cover them with equally ugly masks. The theme was later enhanced and expanded by the publisher with stories and funny details and much more, but I'm happy that my first idea set the tone for the whole game.

But let's go through the hard part: mechanisms.

I admire Vlaada Chvatil's Mage Knight Board Game because it's a deep, rich fantasy adventure with a strong engine that keeps the gameplay always engaging: simple basic rules, with a lot of elements on multiple levels that add complexity and variety. All differences considered, and at an obviously different level of depth, I wanted something like this.

After a short think, I designed a simple dice engine based on risk management as a core mechanism. Each turn, a player has six dice, with each die having sides of 1-1-2-2-X-X. When you perform a basic action, you choose how many dice you want to roll, and you must score at least a 6. The "X" on the die is worth the points of the stat your Hero is using (strength, magic, and so on); stats range from 1 to 4, so the "X" side of the die depends on who you are and what you do. Obviously, if you use a die you "spend" it, and when you've used all your dice, the turn ends.
There are some elements to consider — for example, whether you want to keep dice for defense or you need to move before or after an action — so you always have to think "how much" you can spend to do something.
Attacking a monster is a bit more complex, with more variables depending on the monster and on the attack type, but the principle is similar.

The first version of the game included some actions that have been removed, such as disengaging and sneaking; they become part of sub-mechanisms to keep the basic system as simple as possible.

"In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." —Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Side Mechanisms

The same process of streamlining took place with side mechanisms. The most important sub-mechanism in Super Fantasy works this way: Each time you roll a "X", or when you use dice to perform a "power up" action, you "charge" the Power Bar of one of your three special abilities, which are unique and related to the character; when a special ability is fully charged, you can use it anytime you want — no roll needed — then you empty the power bar of that ability.

The game includes other important sets of rules: Monster behavior (which is another dice management system if you play with a game master, or a sort of AI system if you play all-versus-the-game), the way you find items, the way you level up, and so on. All of these sub-systems have been streamlined, initially by talking with my testers — I have to thank them all, especially Diego Cerreti, who threw in some good ideas — and most importantly by talking with Federico Dumas, the boss of Red Glove and editor of the game.

The first prototypes, for example, included a set of items for each character so that if you opened a chest, you found something good for you. Weapons were defined by range, strength, and other stats. It was nice, but a bit fiddly; the set-up was clunky, and it took a lot of space on the table. I redesigned all of the items, streamlining the way they work, and now they are all in a single pile: They are always good for anyone who finds them, even if they obviously fit better with a specific character. Finding a magic bow, for example, is really good if the Huntress is in the party, but the other characters can also take advantage of the bow because it's still a long range weapon with some bonus. After all, shooting a monster that has heavy hand-to-hand abilities with a bow is a good idea even if you're not Robin Hood.

Also, because players face a load of monsters in Super Fantasy, every item must be useful as Ugly Snouts tend to pop up from every spot.

"They're coming outta the walls. They're coming outta the goddamn walls!" —Bill Paxton in Aliens

Emergent Gameplay

Level design took place in three steps. First, I created guidelines for me to follow while designing levels, to test all the basic dynamics and to test players' behavior while facing specific situations. It's not easy to predict how people (and people of different ages and style of play) will react against traps, huge monsters, and time that's running out.

As a designer, I build an artifact — the game — to try to convey an experience. I can reward the behaviors I want to encourage and somewhat "punish" what I don't want players to do, but I have to carefully balance things to avoid frustration, one of the most feared enemies of a game inventor. It depends on the kind of game, but normally short-term rewards should be frequent and somewhat easy to achieve, while long-term rewards can be more tricky or even merely difficult to obtain. Both of them must keep the level of challenge and the engagement of players at an optimal level. The gameplay should be interesting, funny, and challenging, but must avoid generating anxiety (which is cool in a horror game, but probably less appreciated in a humorous fantasy game).

The second step was testing all of this stuff in a wide array of ways. I created pre-made scenarios, completely random dungeons, and randomly generated monsters to test the amount of emergent gameplay allowed by the game, and how much it is encouraged. As you may know, "emergent gameplay" is the whole range of complex situations that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple mechanisms. I like when players feel free to experiment, to do new things, and to learn new strategies, and that's what I tried to tune in this phase.

Playing the prototype during FirenzeGioca 2013

The last step was final level design. It was the first time I designed a game with scenarios. I had to both study and experiment a bit, and it was a lot of fun. I took ideas from video games (especially for monster abilities and sub-quests), and I greatly appreciated Federico's suggestions. From my point of view, it was like every scenario was a standalone game sharing the same system with the others. They must be fun, but also various, and they must be replayable many times, so there are two levels of difficulty, a system of "achievements", and as the icing on the cake two competitive scenarios.

"Egg whites are good for a lot of things: lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, and clogging up radiators." —Richard Dean Anderson in MacGyver

Hack & Slash!

In the meantime, Guido Favaro made the great illustrations you can see on the BGG game page, the story took shape, and in the end we got a wonderful hack and slash board game: hordes of both funny and lethal monsters swarming against six heroes with astonishing powers. You can run on the walls, smash columns and barrels with the head of your enemies, become a shadow and sneak through closed doors, blast monsters with a bazooka, unleash spectral wolves against your foes, teleport beyond enemy lines — all with just six dice and a bit of strategy.

I'm proud of my work on this game. I think it's really fun and it can transmit a kind of experience slightly different in comparison to dungeon crawlers born from a pen-and-paper RPG structure. I hope you enjoy the game, and it was nice to report here some bits of my design document.

So no more talking. It's time for action, time for some good ol' hack & slash in the Super Fantasy world.

Marco Valtriani

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