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Designer Diary: The Battle at Kemble's Cascade, or Long Live the Shoot 'Em Up!

Anders Tyrland
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Do you feel lucky punk!
Do you remember the classic arcade shoot 'em up games? R-Type, Uridium, Gradius? Thunder Force III, Kingdom Grand Prix, Battle Squadron, Tyrian? DonPachi?

Did you ever hang out in the arcade game halls and spend lots of hard-earned ca$h to try to beat the final boss in that shoot 'em up game? How come no multiplayer PvP versions of these games ever existed? Why has no one ever made a solid boardgame adaptation of these games?

We have researched these questions for 1400 hours, and now we know why.

What Is the Game About?

The Battle at Kemble's Cascade is a boardgame adaptation of a classic shoot 'em up video game. In the game, you take on the role of a brave space pilot sweeping around in a nimble yet powerful fighter, searching the asteroid clusters for universal glory and ancient technology. Players compete to obtain the most glory, with glory resulting from carrying out missions, finding lost treasure in asteroid clusters, and destroying alien entities, not to mention other players.

In the game, players fly through an ever-scrolling space setting, which is represented by rows of cards. Each turn, the bottom row of cards is removed and a new row is added to the top. Players move their spaceships and resolve effects continuously, performing actions such as collecting power-ups and money, fighting alien cruisers and titans, blocking and shooting other players, and dodging asteroids and black holes. The players need to balance the use of their ships' energy as it's used for both absorbing enemy fire and boosting their movement speed and fire rate.

All player ships are fully upgradeable with four different weapon classes, engines, shields and more. Each player must buy the upgrades and navigate the path that best fits his chosen strategy in order to successfully complete his missions and attain the most glory.

In the Beginning There Was Astro

So let's see now. If we are to construct a shmup board game adaptation, which elements definitely need to be in it?

Scrolling background: Of course. Every brilliant shmup game has either a vertical or a horizontal scrolling background. It is common for many shmup games that the scrolling is relentless, meaning that if the player gets stuck behind a wall, the scroll push will somehow magically crush the player into oblivion.

Upgradeable fighters: Let's face it — half the fun of playing a shmup game is the fact that you can render your ship faster and deadlier in different ways. You can visit mid-space shops deep inside enemy territory that are clerked by aliens who are more than willing to exchange your valuable space crystals for upgrades that perfectly suit your vessel. Or you can just shoot an alien enemy, run over the remains, and instantly install the Laser Cannon that again somehow fits your ship like a glove.

Bullet hell: No good shmup is complete without the constant stress of being targeted by hundreds of bullets and the awe we all feel for the persistence of the invading aliens when they keep firing at the ever-dodging player at minigun rate.

But let's start from the beginning.

Like many of you readers, Christmases for us have always been about getting board games, opening presents, playing board games, eating food, and of course designing board games.

During Christmas 2010, Anders and our oldest brother Magnus presented two ideas, both sprung out of the world of retro shmups. Anders' idea was similar to Pixel Lincoln while Magnus had come up with a shmup game that used some Scrabble-based mechanisms. These two ideas quickly merged into one and thus the idea of "Astro" was born. The very first Christmas prototype can be seen below — simple as that, but lacking a bit of replayability...

It was decided pretty early that the game world should be constructed out of tiles that were placed one in front of the other to create the feeling of a scrolling background.

We quickly needed a role model shoot 'em up game, and it felt natural for us to select Tyrian since we have all enjoyed this game over and over again throughout the years.

With our game now in production in 2014, we can definitely see the benefit of having a paragon, a role model game that we could always glance at to see whether we were on the right track. That really helped us through the design process that has sometimes felt as an impossible task.

And, oh, wait! We'd like to add one more thing to the list of elements that HAD to be in this board game, namely Big Bad Bosses!

Single-Player Approach = Failure

The first version of Kemble's Cascade's bosses was not bad at all. We wanted to mimic the experience of a shmup in which the player arrives at the boss and suddenly the scrolling stops and it's like a mini game of its own. To the left, you can see a multiplayer boss fight in the second edition prototype of KC.

This pushed for a design in which the player would play through three distinctly different scrolling levels and after each level do a specific boss set-up and play a boss game in which the boss fight needed a specific rule set different from the scrolling level part.

It seemed like a good idea for a long time. With inspiration from the arcade shmup genre, all players ran their own vertical scrolling levels, though they would meet at the boss and try to outsmart each other to get the biggest rewards.

The drawbacks of this approach became clear to us when both Z-Man Games and another publisher rejected the game after a few playtests. They both thought it didn't have enough interactivity and the boss fights just weren't exciting enough. Very true.

An early prototype version; note the Boss in the upper-left corner called "NoMoon"

We tried to tweak the game, to revamp it, for two months. Bend the spoon.
We had some really great ideas.

But there was no bending of the spoon.

Olle even tried to hammer it, but it didn't help

Insights and the Multi-Player Challenge

In January 2012, we can read in our text-based log that we made a decision to completely redo the whole structure of the game. Basically, we wanted to give it a shot to put all players in the same game area.

For those of you who know what the published KC looks like, the excerpt from the log at right has some interesting points. Obviously, we thought of card placeholders already then, but didn't develop the idea further since we thought they would be too pricey to produce. The guys at Z-Man came up with the idea once again, and they are now included in the game.

As we can also see in the log, trying to put all players in the same area PvP style, which is unheard of in an arcade shmup, came with a long line of design challenges. When a player destroys a distant enemy, what keeps another player from collecting the reward for that enemy? Isn't it too easy to team up on one player and block him out? How do we support PvP fire that isn't way too deadly?

And also the question that kept us banging our heads to the table quite a few times: How is the player order decided? Who moves first? How can we avoid making it a huge benefit or a penalty to be the first to move after a new line of tiles/cards appears at the top of the game area?

And how in the almighty heavens can our board game mimic Bullet Hell with hundreds of bullets being targeted at the players?

Magic March!

The eureka moments of KC all came within twenty days in March 2012. We went back to using one of the best design tricks ever invented: lens #1 in the brilliant book The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell — that is, The Lens of Experience.

It was obvious to us right from the start that we could never use the same rules in a board game that are implemented in the CPU of an arcade game. Things like moving hundreds of bullets across the screen or collision detection could never directly translate well into a physical board game.

We needed a good abstraction of the bullets that would still stress the players.

We remember it like it was yesterday: 11 p.m. on March 6, 2012 in one of our many Skype sessions.

Arcade shmup enemy bullets somehow always move very slowly. The player has a short time to react to the bullets and dodge them. Each bullet that is not dodged will slam into the shield or hull of the player's spaceship and inflict damage.

What if we just make it into numbers? Let's say that all enemies automatically fire a bullet at players right next to them. Let's say that the player finishes each turn by counting the number of adjacent enemies and writes that number down. Let's say that the player has the whole next round to try to dodge those bullets; one move dodges one bullet, and each shield level absorbs one bullet. Undodged bullets cause one damage: Slam!

A few adjustments, along with graphics involving a scale and a token, resulted in what is now called "Threat level", and this definitely does its job in keeping the players at suspense throughout most of the game. Joy!

This change also fixed the deadliness of PvP. Players were now able to get the satisfaction of trying to shoot each other into oblivion while also still having the chance to dodge away at the last second. Gloating goes both ways, so to say.

After that, the big frustrating head-banger regarding player order was solved using an initiative mechanism similar to that found in RoboRally. No first player marker, automatically balanced and simple. More joy!

After the Magic March of 2012, things went smoothly and pieces fell in place one after the other. We managed to make bosses a part of the game without any specific rules. The image below shows an early stage of one of the bosses in the final game without stats. You can see the dividers that split each of the eight cards of the boss into two squares per card.

We also added the four weapon types that are in the game today as well as the missions and achievements.

Joining Forces with Z-Man Games

We revisited Essen, Germany for Spiel 2012 with a prototype of the third version of the game, full of confidence. Z-Man seemed to like the game a lot this time around and in the beginning of 2013 we signed a contract. After that, the incredibly talented Z-Man staff, led by Philippe Guérin, joined forces with us to revamp and streamline the game even further.

PvP had always been a bit of an issue in KC. Since destroying other players with a direct shot would be too deadly and would force players to play more defensively (not fun), we needed a way to make players benefit from firing upon each other. Thus we invented the mechanism in which a player who damages an opponent places a cube of his color on that damaged player, with each cube yielding one point when that player gets destroyed.

We also spiced up the game by adding the special cards Space Mosquito, Merchant and Space Bomb. Plus the Wormholes that completely alter the movement strategies in the section of the game with the same name.

And much more.

We are very excited that we will soon see the release of our beloved creation. Gen Con 2014 here we come! Check out this awesome trailer!

We also hope that you all will enjoy playing this game as much as we do! As for the replayability, if you ever feel that you have played the game enough to recognize all the situations that arise, drop us an email and we will be astonished and probably congratulate you.

Lessons Learned

So what did we learn from making this game?

-----• It takes a lot of time to design a game properly.
-----• It would be nice if the next game we design would be an easier challenge. [FAIL: Our game in progress right now, Voodoo, has swallowed 600 hours at version 1.]
-----• All hail the book The Art of Game Design, especially The Lens of Experience.
-----• There is a great strength in working with a prominent publisher. If we would have Kickstarted the game or published it ourselves, the game would be stuck at version 2 and we would be laughed at (for the wrong reasons).
-----• The struggle of pushing for a good game design made us fortunate enough to cross paths with some really great and friendly and helpful people in the business.

Fun Facts

• The name of the game
Look at that. That is Kemble's Cascade right there. It is a beautiful, real-life asterism in the sky. Check out this YouTube video for the story and how to find it — and now it's also a board game.

• The currency is called "Bellonium"? For real??
We wanted the name of the game currency to have to do with "war" or "battle", and so it does. Bellona is the [url=]Ancient Roman goddess of war[/url] — and of course, the name is also a bit of fun.

It is interesting to see how the name and look-and-feel of the currency has changed with the versions of the game. It is especially fun to see how we started out with a "gem", went to a piece of alien technology, then to a weird shining object, and to the final production that looks very much like...gems.

Since we keep logs of the hours and what we do with them, we can now give you some facts. We just love statistics.

• How much time did we spend on this game?

• What is the percentage of time that we have managed to spend on the creative/design part of making board games? (2011-2013 only)

Note that this article was written by me and my brother Olle Tyrland. We have also deliberately not written which games the screen shots come from. We wanted you to have the opportunity to guess, but if needed, then we will of course reveal those names later.

Some of the early prototype components such as 3D printed ships and first versions of cards
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