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Talking The Kingswoods with Alan Wong

The Inquisitive Meeple
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The Inquisitive Meeple
Talking The Kingswoods with Alan Wong

Interview with Canadian designer, Alan Wong, on his game, The Kingswood which currently on Kickstarter. "The Kingswood is a tile placement and role choosing game for 2-4 players."

Alan, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?

Alan: Like a lot of gamers, I always loved board games as a kid. I was the kid always trying to get the other kids to play Monopoly, or Clue, or the Game of Life.

I played quite a bit with my sisters. Personal Preference was a favourite, where you’re trying to guess the order in which someone would rate 4 random things, most to least. I also must have loved Game of Life, because I based my first designed game, ‘Little Fighters’ after it, when I was 9.

Outside of siblings, however, most of my childhood friends weren’t that fond of board games. Video games were the usual fair, with a good deal of Warhammer 40k, the miniatures game throughout high school.

That didn’t change until just after university, when my friends and I discovered Settlers of Catan. I remember the first time we played, it was a Sunday. It made such an impression on us that we stayed up until 3am playing, despite having to go to work the next day. That was the beginning, for a lot of us.

What are some of your current favorite games to play?

Alan: Honestly, one of the favourite things about board games is that you can play a new, great game every time you sit down at a table to play. I always want to play the new game.

That said, there are a few games that have grown on me:

Being a miniatures gamer, Warmachine is the big one for me. It’s very memorization heavy, but the depth of gameplay is great. Plus, not to compliment myself and my paint jobs and conversions, but it’s beautiful to see on the table. I try to play every week.

I would also never turn down a game of Star Realms or Lords of Waterdeep. Warhammer 40k Conquest, the LCG has also been creeping into my thoughts - party because I love the universe, partly because it’s really well designed.

Finally, I’ve been meaning to get a game of Settlers of Catan in again. I really love that game.

What do you look for in games that you purchase for your collection?

Alan: First, it has to look great. I think that board games are a very visual medium, and so I want ones that are pleasing to my eye.

Second, it has to be a game that compliments my current games or replaces one. Because I play all manners of games, I don’t have the time to play 5 different types of deck builders or worker placement games. That’s not to say I haven’t played tons of those types of games - it just means I play other people’s copies!

Finally, the game obviously has to be enjoyable. But not just me, it has to be enjoyable to the people I play with as well. Games to me are a social experience, so I want everyone to be having fun.

Currently on Kickstarter, you are asking for funding for your game Crossroads of Kingswood. Could you tell us a little bit about what type of game it is and give us an overview on how it is played?

Alan: Sure! The Kingswood is a board game of roles, roads, and sly subversion. In it, you’re a Merchant House trying to create paths to the treasure at the heart of the Kingswood, to get enough gold to buy the deed for the Kingswood itself and win the game. You do this by creating paths, subverting the paths of your opponents, and outthinking your opponents when choosing the roles you take each round.

Each round, you will secretly choose a role that determines play order, and also has a special ability that helps you in a unique way. Things like playing an extra road, or getting extra gold.

You all reveal your role simultaneously, but if you choose the same role as an opponent, you won’t get to use the role’s best ability.

Then in order, you each get to play 2 road tiles onto the board, even on spots already played on, and collect gold from 1 of the 8 treasure gates. This allows you to switch entire paths from your opponents to you.

After everyone plays, the remaining gates are collected from as well. This creates different incentives to going first or last. Not only does each role have a different ability, but going first allows you to get the most valuable gates, while going last sets you up to collect best from the gates remaining.

This results in a game where you’re both trying to next-level your opponents, but also puzzle out the best way to lay your tiles onto the board - which while only 6x6, can get pretty crazy.

What is the story behind the creation of the game?

Alan: I’ve been creating small games for a while now, occasionally getting my friends to play them. Some had nuggets of coolness, some less so. They were usually pretty complicated.

The game that would become The Kingswood came in a flash of insight one night. I had in my head a game set in the near future, where an ancient spaceship is discovered, and you are a corporation racing into the ship, trying to gain control of it before anyone else. I wanted this game to be more accessible, since it’s always a hard to get your friends to play. As such, I decided there wouldn’t be direct ‘take that’ destruction. Instead, I envisioned each corporation at different computer terminals, swapping access channels to the main engines of the ship.

The more I thought about it, the more interesting - and simple - I thought the game could be. The amount of change swapping one tile on the board could do was really intriguing to me. I created a prototype that night, and the next day, I got one of my friends at work to play it during lunch.

We had a lot of fun, but my friend (and later, the others I showed it to) had 1 main complaint - the theme didn’t seem to fit. To him, it was less trying to create ‘connections’ to the engine room of a spaceship, and more like you’re trying to create roads to a treasure. After a while (longer than I care to admit), I had to agree. The theme the mechanics were built for didn’t quite fit. After shooting around cool retheme ideas with my friend, we caught on the idea of having it be cute medieval animals - but not the usual suspects. The weird, outlier animals that make you grin just looking at them. With that theme, I was hooked, and had to finish it. And so The Kingswood was born.

In The Kingswood there are different role cards that you play. What kind of roles can we expect to play?

Alan: Each Round, you choose 1 of 5 Roles. Merchant, Foreman, Soldier, Spy, and Real Estate Agent. They each have a power that relates to their name, and helps you in a different way. The Merchant gives you straight Gold, the Soldier stops other players from messing with road tiles, the Real Estate Agent swaps two forts, etc. Each of the Merchant houses has their own art for their set of 5 roles, but they’re functionally the same.

What do roles bring to the gameplay?

Alan: The roles were not actually in the first few versions of the game. The original game was all about tile replacement. However, it became clear that there was a real difference in power between the player who placed at the beginning of the round, and the player who played at the end of the round, that needed to be addressed.

I never really liked the idea of play going in ‘clockwise order,’ because that meant seating order mattered. It bugged me that sitting next to the right person could end up being a meta game just as important to winning as your strategy in game.

Through a lot of iteration, we came on the idea of simultaneous role choosing (with randomized tie breaker). This meant that you each choose your role secretly and reveal the order all at the same time. If you’re smart about it, you can choose whether you go first or last, depending on which is better for you at the time, and also which role’s ability will help you the most.

Each role ability is very useful in getting you ahead, and combating bad situations that occur during a game. Got dealt a bad hand? Take the Foreman to get more tiles, or the Spy to steal one from an opponent. Players cut off the access to one of your forts? Take the Real Estate Agent to swap that fort with one of your opponents. Afraid your opponent will mess with your paths? Choose the Merchant and go first, or take the Soldier and protect those tiles.

The great power of these roles, however, only comes into play if you are the only person to choose it - and certain roles are also good at countering others. So you can go for the role that’s most obviously powerful in the situation - but if two players choose that role, you’re both not going to get access to power you wanted.

The end result is that the roles add a fun way to resolve turn order, give answers to issues that happen during the roads phase, and most importantly add a lot of strategy where you’re trying to next-level your opponent, by predicting what they take, so that the role you select works best for you.

The game also has some special tiles – the Fairy and Mercenary tiles – what do they do and what do they add to the gameplay?

Alan: We experimented with a lot of different types of tiles, and the two we have now are the ones I like the most.

The Fairy adds 1 to the value of any gate it connects to. This can be a very big multiplier, especially when it connects to multiple Forts. They create focal points for players to fight over, and also add variety and variance to the tiles you pick up. It helps make picking up tiles interesting, and also keeps opponents on their toes, as they’re unsure of how much you can swing certain gates. Two ‘1’ value gates aren’t worth that much normally, but if a Fairy is connected to both of them, they suddenly double in value.

The Mercenary tile fulfills another function entirely. It costs gold to replace a Mercenary tile - acting as a disincentive to a player wanting to replace it. This gives players a way to protect their paths - or really make destroying an opponent’s path hurt. This helps give the paths a bit more stability, so that you can plan better for the future. You can’t get too complacent, though, because a player can still pay the cost to replace the road tile.

How do players interact with each other in The Kingswood?

Alan: While there is no head-butting exactly, such as you sending out your hero to fight your opponent’s units, this is still definitely a lot of player interaction.

Despite being simultaneous, how good the role you choose is, is directly related to what your opponents choose. Taking the merchant is great if you want to go first, but if everyone choose roles 3 or later, maybe choosing the Real Estate Agent is better. You would still go first, but now you get to swap 2 forts. Worse though, is if you choose the same role as an opponent. Then, you’re not even getting the power you likely choose the role for. As such, when you choose your role, you are always trying to next level your opponents, so the Roles they choose won’t mess with your plans.

The main interaction, however, is definitely when you play your road tiles. In Kingswood, you can replace any tile on the board (barring soldier intervention). This means that any player’s connection between their fort and the treasure can be severed by another player - preferably connecting one of your forts to a gate in the process. On top of that, the 1 gate you collect from during the road phase closes the gate, so other players can’t collect gold from it. Thus, there is a lot of ways you can mess with other players - in fact; it’s usually in your best interest to do so.

However, you can only lay so many tiles. Sometimes it’s better to leave a player connected, and instead try to connect yourself to other paths, than to sever everyone off. With such power to swap paths, it becomes very important to pick your battles - and who you mess with.

Let’s talk art. Ada Robinson did the art and she has really made the game look unique – did she have a lot of input in the design and how was it working with her for the game?

Alan: Working with Ada has been great, she’s really made the game come to life. While I did the concept work, she did all the final work and polishing - and in many cases, she redesigned entire pieces.

I basically gave her the concepts, and said “Make this look great!” And she did. I love the work she’s done.

The treasure tile and sloth fort guard design, for example, were significantly changed by her. I or she would basically say “This doesn’t look right,” or “This could be better.” And then she’d send me a few revisions of how she thought it would/should look. And it was always mountains better.

My favourite look is the painted portraits of the animals on the role cards. These are larger pieces, so while the design for most of them stayed the same; it gave her a lot of room to work her magic.

I always look forward to seeing what she works on next. She recently redid the background 'coin' imprint I have, which depicts the King (a mole). She really knocked it out of the park on that one.

The game uses anamorphic animals instead of just normal people, was this something you knew you wanted to do from the start?

Alan: The original design was crashed alien spaceship themed, but as soon as I changed it over to medieval road building, I immediately seized on animals - especially the less popular ones.

When I finally gave up on my original theme, a medieval world run by ostriches, sloths, and manatees made me smile so much, I knew it had to be the theme.

I was very deliberate, however, in not changing the proportions of the animals to be human-animal hybrids. The world I envisioned has animals living a human-like existence - more like animal farm, than Looney Toons. Having an ostrich-shaped ostrich in full armour and somehow carrying a sword was something I knew I wanted in the game.

How did you come to choose the animals that you did? You certainly didn't choose "traditional" animals.

Alan: Honestly, I just like new and different things. When we hit on the idea of animals as the merchants (which was immediately after we decided to go with the medieval theme), my mind went immediately to silly animals that your average person wouldn't think of when they thought of powerful merchant houses.

That immediately disqualified lions, tigers, bears, oh my, cats, and dogs.

We tried to come up with animals that would make each other laugh. The more 'non-traditional' and docile, the better.

Once we came up with House Manatee, there was no turning back.

The other animals that didn't make the cut were House Salamander and House Meerkat. House Salamander would have been too different from the others. I really like the idea of House Meerkat though.

How does the 2-player game differ in rules or overall feel compared to the 4-player game of The Kingswood?

Alan: There is 1 rules change, in that during the rush phase, each player only chooses 2 more gates to collect from, instead of all of them. This is so that the rush phase stays relatively the same in power level as the 3 or 4-player game.

Besides that, there are a number of changes that happen organically when you go to 2-players.

In the 3-4 player game, you need to balance your gains with your opponents - it’s more important to avoid fighting over roles and paths with your opponents. If you’re falling behind, you can team up with other players, gaining gold together to both get ahead.

In a 2-player game, it’s less about being diplomatic and much more about smart role selection and clever tile play.

The only player who is going to mess with your plans is your opponent, and the only player who can mess with your opponent’s plans is you.

The result is a much more intense, tit-for-tat game.

For a long time the game was called “Crossroads of Kingswood,” but just before the Kickstarter launched, it was shorten to just The Kingswood. Why the name change?

Alan: 'Crossroads of Kingswood' was just too long for people to remember. We loved it, and I fought it a lot because I liked the alliteration. I compared it to 'Settlers of Catan'. But then I realised that everyone calls that game 'Catan' or 'Settlers', So I decided the game needed that short name: "The Kingswood".

What was the best piece of feedback you received from a play tester when you were still prototyping the game?

Alan: Wow. There were so many.

It’s hard to choose, but I’ll give 2.

The best piece of feedback was, “The game is good, but I feel more like I’m building roads to a treasure than connections to the engines of an ancient space ship.” That’s how the game became medieval animal themed, and it made the game much easier for people to understand and get into.

The other best piece of feedback I got was “This feels too counter-intuitive/ fiddly/ complicated.” I got this a lot, for a lot of mechanics that I liked, and thought were integral to making sure the gameplay was strategic and balanced. I would test the game without it, however, just in case, and usually, I would be surprised at how it not only made the game smoother, but also did not break the game.

It took a while, but I realised that simpler and more intuitive was almost always better, and cutting excess rules is more important than adding cool mechanics. A board game needs each player to understand all the rules to play correctly - every ounce of brain power used on just understanding the rules or playing correctly takes away from brain power they can use for strategy and enjoying the game.

What was your favorite part of designing The Kingswood?

Alan: The entire process is fun - from brainstorming, to testing, to iterating - even pruning rules is fun, as long as you can test them out regularly to see if your small changes were good ones.

If I had to choose, though, I love the initial creation the best. When you’re starting fresh, and just throwing things together, it feels the most freely creative, and like anything is possible.

What was the most challenging part of designing it?

Alan: Getting testing done. Creating a good, balanced game takes a LOT of testing - especially when you need to balance pieces against each other. The issue when you’re starting out is that you don’t necessarily have a group to test the game out with. Your friends are a great resource, but if you’re bringing a prototype game out at game night, your friends may tire of playing the same game again and again.

What you need is some friends or people that are willing to meet regularly, and are there to TEST the game. This game wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground if I hadn’t found friends who were willing to do this.

It also helps if you have multiple groups where you can bring your game out for playtest.

Finding out about the Snakes & Lattes Game Designer Night was like striking gold for me. It’s once a month, but it’s filled with designers willing to play and give feedback for your game, at any level of development. You also get to play other designer’s games, which is at the same time intimidating, inspiring, and a great learning experience.

Once you get your game to that ‘Fun’ level, things become easier, because you can feel confident enough to ask a wider group of people to play your game, and not worry so much that they’re going to hold it against you next time. Hmmm. I wonder if you can make do just with more confidence.

One thing that also helps you get that initial testing done, that I kick myself for not realising before, is that you can test by yourself. Just playing your game by yourself (all the sides) will catch a LOT of things that you need testing for. Not everything, obviously, but it can help save precious ‘group testing hours’ for the things that need group testing to be caught.

What is the biggest change you made to the game from earlier prototypes to the now finished game?

Alan: The biggest change in gameplay was when during playtest, that going first had a significant difference in power level to going last. To be honest, I can’t remember which was more powerful at that time - I believe it was going first.

To counteract that, we added roles that effected play order, and were balanced by each having a bonus ability. That grew and evolved over iterations to the role cards in Kingswood today. They’re now such an integral part of the game, it wouldn’t be The Kingswood without them.

Game Contents

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your journey designing The Kingswood?

Alan: There are a ton of lessons I’ve learned… The biggest is probably that crafting a good product takes a lot of time, and a lot of help.

Even if you throw more hours at a game, there are some things that just need time to get done. Testing, for example. If you make a change to a part of the game, there’s only so much else you can do until you have tested that change to make sure it’s working correctly, and what other parts of the game that change has affected.

Testing requires outside help, and so does a lot of other parts of creating a board game. Realising that I can reach out to others and ask for help, and that there are people out there who would be happy to help, was a great step for me. And not a take take relationship - I find that when you both give and take, everyone ends up gaining way more than they give.

When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed this game?

Alan: That I went from start to finish, and worked on almost every part of the game.

Mechanic-wise, I really like how the role selection turned out, and how pairs well with the tile laying of the game. I also like that there is a lot of player interaction, that is very in your face without actual killing. I also love how the animals came out, and the character they add to the game.

I think I can talk about what I’m proud of for a long time - Forgive the cliché, but it really is a labour of love.

Finish this sentence in 12 words or less. The Kingswood is ________.

Alan: I guess “a board game of roles, road, and sly subversion.” is obvious, so I’ll go with

“A fun, pretty game that belies its aggressive, slyly subversive, strategic nature.”

As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Alan: Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to…

Wait, that’s not it. I’d just like to say thanks for your time, this interview has been really enjoyable and doing it has given me a lot food for thought. I love reading your interviews, and I hope my words are interesting and entertaining as well.

I’d also like to thank the community, and everyone who has helped me with the design of this game. The community, both online and locally, have been what has made designing board games, and the possibility of publishing them, possible. If you’re interested in making a board game, print up a prototype, test it, and open up to the community. Even if it only ever gets played there, the experience is worth the time and effort.

Thanks a lot, Alan.

For those interested in checking out The Kingwood's Kickstarter, you can do so by clicking on this link.

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You may want to check out these links:

The Kingswood Official Website

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