The following was also posted in parts on AEG's website.
In The Beginning
Vangelis Bagiartakis (VB): After designing Dice City, I knew that the "dice-crafting" mechanism it had could find many uses in other games as well. That’s why, even before Dice City was actually released, I began to explore other options to see where I could go with this "system" I had come up with.
At its core, the mechanism in Dice City is about "crafting" your dice. Each die is represented by six cards (one for each side) and by placing new cards on your board, possibly on top of existing cards, you are effectively changing the faces of your die. As a concept, this could theoretically apply to all kinds of games that use dice.
The idea that I initially wanted to explore was that of a dungeon-crawler. Going with that idea would also define the first characteristic of the game: This would be a cooperative game (as opposed to the competitive nature of Dice City). The players would not compete with each other, but would work together instead. In turn, this would allow the core mechanism to be tweaked a bit to give players the option to interact more with each other. For example, you could spend one of your dice to move one of another player's if needed.
Another key characteristic also came from the theme. Since the dice would correspond to various attributes of the characters (like speed, combat, magic, etc.), why have a single board for all of them and not separate ones? If one die, for example, was the race, another one the class, another the weapon, etc., why not allow the possibility of mixing-and-matching? Not only would this increase replayability, it made perfect sense with the theme as each player would be able to create their own character as in a role-playing game, a hero with the attributes they'd want.
I made a rough prototype and started testing the idea. I sketched some rooms with tiles, I came up with rules for their placement, I made a few quick enemies and some simple player abilities and started playing. Although way too early in the process, the experience was fun and I knew this could lead to something good. To check whether I was on the right track, I showed the prototype to some people and explained the concept behind it. EVERYONE loved the idea behind the modular boards. It was really cool and seemed very promising. However, they weren't thrilled with the dungeon board. As one friend put it: "There are actually two games on the table. One here (pointing to the player boards with the dice and the character abilities) and one there (pointing to the board with the mock-up enemies)." There was simply too much stuff going on for the game to be viable. Not only would it be insane production-wise — tons of boards, cards, miniatures, etc. with less than half of the game being more than all of Dice City — it would also ask a lot from the players, especially in their first games.
Thus, a decision was made to make the "dungeon-crawling" a bit simpler. Perhaps just cards that would be drawn or something along those lines in order to keep the focus on the advancement of the character in front of you.
So the goals of the game were more or less set:
• Dungeon-crawling theme
• Cooperative game
• Modular player boards (and as a consequence variable player powers)
• Relatively simple (card-based perhaps?) mechanism for the dungeon/enemies
• Multiple paths to victory
And that's how this journey began…
The Designers' Trials
With the goals in place, I started exploring how the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game would work. Around that time, my friend Tassos (whose full name is Anastasios, but we call him Tassos) got the chance to see the rough prototype in action and loved the idea. He has vast (and when I say vast, I mean vaaaaaaast) experience in role-playing games, so when he expressed interest in helping with the game, I immediately agreed to bring him on board. His experience would prove to be very important while designing the game.
Anastasios Grigoriadis (AG): I've loved the idea of dice-crafting since the beginning. I'm a huge fun of Dice City and I've worked successfully in the past on many projects with Vangelis, so when I actually put into the basket the words "dice-crafting", "RPG" and "Bagiartakis", I knew that this would be an awesome journey!
VB: For our first attempt, we took the rough version I had initially made and tried to adapt it. Since we were working with cards, the "dungeon" became more abstract. The enemies would be cards that would be placed on rows, simulating enemies coming to you in a dungeon corridor.
The player boards represented the characters and the first problem we had to deal with was what the players' "resources" were going to be. In the first rough prototype I had gone with Strength, Dexterity, Mana, Cunning and Movement. For this version, some changes needed to be made (like the removal of movement as it no longer made sense) and we ended up with Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Mana and Defense. The goal was to have each player be able to specialize in one and pursue a different strategy.
Regarding the enemies, each monster would give you XP after being killed and you would spend those to upgrade your character with new cards (abilities).
AG: Basically we needed to create a board game that would simulate an RPG session in an hour. You live your adventure, you gather experience, and you upgrade your character. Sounds simple, but it is not.
VB: We did some playtests with this version, and while there was some potential in it, there were many things bugging us. The most important one was the resources.
AG: We knew from the beginning that Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Magic and Defense were not working as resources, but we had to start with something to reach our goal. The basic problems were:
• Melee Damage and Ranged Damage were almost the same thing.
• Magic was essentially the only attribute that you could call a resource as it was producing mana, but again only to do damage.
• Defense had the same problem as Damage as it was not a resource to be spent.
In other words the main problem was that there was no economy based on the resources that players gathered and needed to spend in order to achieve goals and upgrade their player boards. In a sense, we had only Damage, which was not enough to build a game around.
VB: Defense was the most awkward of all the attributes. It didn't help you win; it just prevented the damage you would be getting. While it could be important in the game — for example, a character could play the role of the "tank" and absorb damage while the rest of the players would attack the enemies — it wasn't very fun to play with and it also wasn't a viable strategy on its own. You couldn't play solo and win just with a "defender".
This inconsistency in the resources also made creating new abilities problematic. While it was normal to say "I have five mana", it was weird to say "I have five Melee Damage". Damage should be the outcome of your actions, not something you accumulate to spend. What's more, the way mana worked also had a few issues. The spells you had on your character required mana to be used. That meant that not only did you have to land on them, you also had to land on mana-producing spaces with your other dice to cast them — double the work for something that should be much simpler.
We knew we could do better, so we decided to start from scratch and try a different approach.
VB: For our second attempt, we decided to examine everything from the beginning. The basic goals were still there, but the approach could be anything we wanted; we wouldn't be tied to the previous version. The brainstorming started with what was creating the most problems last time: the resources. They had to be thematic and fit with the dungeon-crawling theme, and they had to allow for different strategies. A fighter and a wizard, for example, would focus on different ones, but they should both be able to defeat enemies and win the game somehow.
AG: When something doesn't work, you go back to basics. The goal now was that each player would chose a different class — basic archetypes: fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue — and all together would fight the big bad boss at the end of the game. We agreed on Combat, Dexterity, Magic, Holy, and Cunning as the resources that would be used based on what the characters could produce and what they would need to defeat the monsters. Those five attributes could create various combos and thus different sets of actions for each class, allowing each player to interact in different ways with the monsters.
VB: For the monsters, we decided to go with a very different approach. Enemy cards would be drawn each round and they would have three options on them: Evade, Push, Defeat. Evade (which would require few resources) would allow the players to prevent the damage the monster would deal. Push (costing slightly more) would be a temporary solution to the problem; you would scare the monster away, but you would have to deal with it later. Finally, Defeat would be a permanent solution; it would get rid of the monster forever but would require the most resources to do it.
The concept behind this approach was that each monster would ask for different "resources" on each level, which in turn would allow each character to deal with them differently. Some of the monsters, for example, would require a lot of Combat in order to be defeated, which the fighter would be able to easily provide. The wizard, on the other hand, would have a hard time defeating them through combat, but would be able to drive them away via Magic or just evade them. Similarly, against monsters like ghosts Combat would be useless but Magic or Holy would be very useful. Depending on how you dealt with each monster, you would draw cards that would be the upgrades for the players' characters.
When the final boss would appear, it would be accompanied by all the monsters the players pushed. It would have to be dealt with differently compared to the monsters, but the players would still be provided with some options (so that each class would have a chance against it).
AG: This implementation was closer to what we wanted and the feeling was much better. Now the players were focusing on how to advance their characters and how to interact with the monsters which was closer to the basic concept of dice-crafting: roll the dice, do something (in our case: fight the monsters), upgrade your character.
VB: We did numerous playtests with this build, but once again the actual game turned out differently compared to what sounded cool in theory. If you made the monsters easy to defeat for one class, the others would struggle too much. If we made monsters meant to be defeated by all classes (containing different combinations of all the resources), then every class would struggle since they wouldn't be able to produce everything. Therefore, there would be enemies that could not be defeated and would have to either be evaded constantly or driven away, only to make it even harder to win at the end.
AG: Welcome to asymmetric balancing! In RPGs, every player usually has a different role that works in different ways from the others. Players should feel important during the game no matter the role they play, and characters must be balanced and (most importantly) feel balanced even when they do totally different things. RPGs usually are played in groups of 4-5 players plus a narrator, and in my groups when someone is missing, we play a board game or do something else because the absence of that player will have a significant impact in our game.
Board games accommodating 2-4 players, on the other hand, must give the same gaming experience whether you play it with two or four players. That means that with two players you are lacking two characters and what they bring to the party. Usually this is not a problem, but when a game wants to be theme-driven and has different roles, then you have issues that need to be addressed.
Another issue was the resources that our characters were producing. Although closer to our goal, the economy of the game was again not solid. Removing a class was weakening a resource. The classes that were played were trying to match up the lack of other classes but not very effectively, and that lead to weaker characters overall, characters that could not interact in a proper way with the game.
VB: Essentially what we had was not necessarily resources but different types of attacks. It still was a bit weird to say "I get five Holy", but if everything else played all right, we would have worked with it. Unfortunately, everything else didn't play like we wanted. Players weren't as excited as we'd like, and it gave the impression that it was lacking something.
Back to the drawing board…
VB: Once again, we started from scratch and again the brainstorming focused on the resources. We knew that it was the most crucial part of the game, and if we could fix that, the rest would easily follow from the theme. We needed resources that you could gather, resources that made sense having a lot of them, that it was intuitive to say "I have three of X". Up to now, the only one that came close to that description was mana. With that as a basis, we decided to explore the option of having different types of mana. We could go the "elemental warrior" path which would mean four different types of mana: earth, fire, water, air. The players' abilities would then all be spells, each requiring different mana and focusing on different aspects. This also meant a change in the theme. Instead of "sword-and-sorcery" fantasy, we would go to eastern fantasy with a focus on the elements and different types of magic. That was not necessarily a bad thing since sword-and-sorcery has been overused in gaming and something different would look more appealing.
As far as the mechanisms were concerned, we also tried another approach. Dice City had a system with three resources and it worked. You would spend those resources to get new cards on your board (which in turn did not require resources to use them). You could also use those resources to get closer to winning (Trade Ships). The abilities you got would grant you other things (like Army strength or VP) which would also lead you to win through other means. Was there a way this approach could be applied to this game? Why try to re-invent the wheel when you have something that works well?
Fire, Earth, Water, Air: The four types of mana we used
We started with the abilities. Each would cost an amount of mana to "build" on your character just like in Dice City. Some of these abilities would generate damage which would be used against minions, a similar approach to the army strength and the minions of Dice City. This covered one way to win, but there needed to be more. An interesting thought we had was of large spells with a big effect for which you had to spend a big amount of mana in order to cast them. This was something similar to the way Trade Ships in Dice City made use of resources. In the end, we changed it a bit and instead of them being spells, we had the cards represent Magical Seals that granted abilities to the boss, making it uber-powerful. You would be able to break these Seals before reaching the boss, thus weakening it enough to kill it more easily. That added another strategy. Could we do one more?
Dice City also has the cultural strategy, that is, building locations that don't do something when you land on them as they just grant you many victory points. Since we wanted to have a rogue-like character, we combined the two and ended up with another strategy: What if you were able to search the dungeon you were in and come up with magical artifacts? You would add them to your character and they would grant passive abilities (like deal one damage for free wherever you want, get free mana, etc.). It made sense thematically, and if you were to focus on it, you would become powerful enough to overcome even the boss.
So the basis of the game was this:
• Players explore a dungeon, and each round they are in a different area/room.
• They are attacked by minions which they need to destroy.
• They can search the rooms they are in to find artifacts.
• They can break magical seals that make the boss very powerful.
• After a finite amount of time, they come upon the boss and they must destroy it.
AG: Abandoning the classic path of fantasy RPGs was the right call, and it was not the only one. Keeping basic mechanisms from Dice City actually solved most of our problems. This greatly affected the way we designed the game: If we wanted to have different roles, equally important in the game, we needed to create different ways to interact with it.
In the end, we had four different types of resources and three key characteristics that players advanced in to interact with the game: Damage, Insight and Health. Based on that, we instantly knew that we had created four distinctive roles in the game:
• The character that would focus on damage — They would deal with the minions and apply a lot of pressure to the final boss, despite it being very powerful.
• The character that would focus on gathering mana — They would break the boss' seals and make it much weaker.
• The character that would focus on items — They would search each room, getting a lot of magical artifacts that would "work on their own". Effectively that character would become "Robocop" (as Vangelis used to joke) before getting to the boss, dealing damage and generating mana without even needing to roll the dice.
• The character that would focus on the group's Health — They wοuld ensure that the party would reach the boss in good-enough shape to have a chance of defeating it.
Although this is almost the classic archetype of fantasy RPG with wizard, fighter, rogue and cleric, our characters were using different types of mana that they needed to produce and spend in different ways to activate their cool powers.
VB: After some tests, it was clear we were on the right path. Going with mana solved all the problems we had with resources, and the different paths to explore made each character unique and interesting to play with. That was obviously the way to go.
VB: With the game's basics in place, it was now time to deal with the difficult part: the details. The first thing to do was define our setting and the exact way the resources would work. Having played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, I was aware of the importance of a "color wheel". Each type of mana should have its own identity. It would be associated with certain things, and the various classes would have different access to it.
For example, fire mana would be used mainly for abilities that caused damage, while water would be used mainly for healing. The earth mana would be associated with mana generation/conversion, while air would be used to stun/disorient the opponent along with searching the rooms.
Since we had shifted to elemental warriors, we spent quite some time examining what the races should be. At some point we realized that in the theme we had chosen, it made more sense to go with monastic Orders instead of races.
AG: Every resource should be used differently inside the game, but at the same time they should all have equal value: Fire=Air=Water=Earth. In the color wheel, no resource is above any other. All are equal, but at the same time they have a different impact on the "world". Also, based on the wheel we could safely say that:
• Fire is the opposite of Water
• Earth is the opposite of Air
VB: What we needed to settle on pretty early was how the "mix-and-match" of the boards was going to work. In other words, what was each part of your board (class/order/weapon) bringing to the table? What abilities would they have?
This was important because we wanted every combination to be viable. However, that was harder than it sounded. We had assigned some characteristics to each type of mana and as a result, each class was focused on one of them (based on the same characteristics). But what about the Orders? If we also focused the Orders on the types of mana, then there would be certain combinations that would be way more advantageous. The other important aspect that we needed to nail down was what exactly their abilities would be. The abilities between all three separate boards needed to be distinct to let them have their own identity. If we were going to focus the damage-related abilities on the fire-class, then what would go on an Order ability? And how would we make them feel different?
After a lot of brainstorming and many playtests, we settled on this: What would define each character would be the class. That's where most of the abilities that would determine each strategy would be. Then the Orders would all have the same abilities but in different quantities. Each Order would be focused on two of the mana types, and it would offer higher quantities of the abilities that required them. It would still have the rest of the abilities (in small quantities) to give access to everyone if they so wanted.
This solution offered some important advantages:
• The Orders had focus but were not limiting the class you could match them with.
• Having the same abilities in all of the Orders made learning the game easier as you had less information to overwhelm you when trying a different combination.
• It gave us more flexibility with the design of the classes' abilities. We didn't have to worry about putting a new ability on an order.
• When combining a class with an order that focused on other types of mana, it allowed you to play the same character differently and do new things. That was exactly what we wanted in the first place!
AG: In RPGs, the races are actually templates that can be used to alter the way classes are played, e.g., Elf Warrior and Half Orc Warrior. This was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the Orders. In our game, our heroes are trained differently in each Monastery Order. They all share a basic training but focus on a different path and obtain a different mastery. In game terms, we needed to create a pool of abilities that would be bound to a certain color, then distributed to each Order based on their focus. It was again harder than we thought because we needed to create four universal (for our game) thematically driven powers. If I remember correctly, all but one changed — some of them more than once!
We also did another cool thing with the Orders. We added a static ("ongoing") ability to each of them, which we called "Masteries". Each Order's mastery is unique, and they give a special ability that actually changes the way a player interacts with the game.
VB: The next problem that we had to solve was that of scaling. Changing the numbers of minions drawn each round or the seals that the players would have to break was the easy part. The biggest problem was elsewhere, rooted in the game's design.
The "threat" in the game consisted of mainly two parts: the minions drawn each round, and the boss at the end. The minions would have to take damage in order to be defeated, which meant having the fighter-class (which we ended up naming "Avenger") was crucial. The boss, on the other hand, was made powerful through the seals that needed mana in order to be broken, which made the mana generating-class (a.k.a., the "Mystic") very important. But what about the other two? What were they adding to the game? Moreover, if the first two classes were that crucial, was there a point into playing the other two races in a two-player game?
We considered various solutions to this problem. One thought we had was to dictate the exact classes that the players would get at each player count. Unfortunately, that was a very bad solution as it meant that certain classes would never be played in a two-player game and it made them feel like lower-class citizens.
What we needed was for the classes to be equal. Each of them should be able to hold its own and be fully playable, offering a different experience/playing style. They should all have equal chances of beating the game, regardless of the players' combinations.
AG: One of the most important things that we try to keep in mind when developing a game is that the number of players must not affect the experience you get from a game. In RPGs, the narrator reveals the challenge of the party following certain rules, e.g., how many are playing and what their current level is, thus keeping the session challenging. In board games, we have plenty of examples where the number of turns, the number of VP that you need to score, or the number of foes and obstacles change based on the number of players. In our case, this was more complex since classes have equal roles in the game but are totally different at the same time:
• All classes can do damage but none can be as good as the Avenger.
• All classes can generate mana but none can be as good as the Mystic.
• All classes can heal themselves but none can sustain an entire party as well as the Warden.
• All classes can try to search rooms and improve their characters with artifacts but none is as good as the Loremaster.
We decided that since the class affects the way our players interact with the game, then the challenge rating would be created by two things:
• The minions (in quality and numbers) are generated by the classes that participate in a game.
• The seals (in quality and numbers) are generated by the number of players that are playing.
VB: The main problem in scaling was the minions drawn. If the Avenger was in play, things were easy as he would deal with them and everyone else would be able to advance their character as needed to achieve their own goals: the Mystic would add mana-generating abilities to their board, the Loremaster would generate Insight to search rooms, and the Warden — the healer of the group — would work on those crucial healing spells. However, when the Avenger was not in play, the rest of the classes would have to compensate, but the threat was so big that everyone needed to focus on dealing damage, neglecting their previous focus. Even when they weren't losing horribly, the experience was not fun.
Since the problem was in the minions, the solution that we settled on was based on them. The minion deck would change its contents depending on the classes present in the game. If the Avenger was present, it would include more difficult-to-beat monsters. If the Mystic and the Warden were the only ones playing, it would contain mostly small monsters which would be easier for the players to handle. They would still pose a threat, but not one that would distract them from their main goal.
Although we were a bit skeptical to try this solution, it worked like a charm. It achieved exactly what we needed and helped the different classes to stand out. We were no longer worried about the class combinations. Each and every one of them could stand its own.
While the Avenger and the Mystic were quite straightforward, the Loremaster — the character that searched the rooms — was trickier to design. We had settled on having another resource in the game called Insight. Players would gather Insight and that would be used to search the rooms. It would work similarly to damage in that, if unused, it would reset at the end of the round. If a character matched the room's Insight difficulty, then they would draw Artifact cards that would grant them powerful ongoing abilities.
Even though the Loremaster would have no trouble gathering Insight and using it to get more artifacts, the other players would completely ignore it. That wasn't necessarily a problem, but it would get worse due to another factor: After a point, experienced players would become quite powerful and near the final rounds they would generate a lot of Insight, but they would no longer need it as much.
It was clear that we needed to find other uses for Insight as well.
Around the same time, we had another problem to deal with. They way the Seals worked, one player had to generate enough mana to break them. More often than not, that player was the Mystic. However, inexperienced players would have a hard time generating enough mana for the more expensive Seals. Since they were the more powerful ones, not dealing with them usually spelled their doom.
During development, we examined a solution that solved both of these problems. What if you could spend Insight in order to "unlock" the Seals and allow everyone to spend mana on them? That provided another use for Insight (which all of the classes could use on the small seals) and interesting options for the Loremaster (Do I go for another artifact, or do I help the group by unlocking a seal?), while making it less demanding for the Mystic who now didn't have to generate all that mana on their own.
AG: Although this is a dice-rolling game, we love the idea of "tough" decisions. During your play, you will always have to decide whether to spend the resources you gathered to remove an obstacle or to improve your character? With the new approach to Insight, it became the party tool to deal with high level seals. Insight was now an equal answer to threats and was helping the party to interact with the seals more efficiently.
VB: Near the end, most of the issues had been solved and we were happy with how the game was playing. Although it was already quite challenging, we even thought of some additional hurdles to throw to the players who wanted more.
There was now only one thing remaining: the solo game.
With the game being cooperative, we knew that it was suitable for solo play. The problem was that it would be difficult for a single character to deal with everything that was happening in the game. Not only that, but since each class focused on different things, the experience would be different with each of them. If we were to make the game easier, one of the classes would still struggle while another one would find it way too easy. On top of that, we wanted the players to play differently with every class. If only one was present in the game, they would all have to play the same way to defeat the game.
That's when it hit me. Why not change the requirements? For each character, the goal would be different. The Avenger (who couldn't easily generate a lot of mana) would focus on killing minions and would have to kill the powerful boss. The Mystic (who could easily generate a lot of mana but had trouble with dealing damage) would not have to worry about killing the minions or the boss, but would have to break numerous Seals in order to win. The Loremaster would need to gather as many artifacts as possible, while the Warden would bring a companion along and would have to make sure they stayed alive.
This way, not only would each character play the way they would in multiplayer, the game would offer four different solo experiences. It felt very different with each class, and we knew the solo gamers would absolutely love it!
AG: Regarding the solo version of the game, I wanted three things:
• To be fun and challenging for all classes
• To be an excellent tutorial for new players who wanted to explore the game before playing with their friends
• To give players the opportunity to explore all aspects of a class
I strongly feel that we addressed all the above.
AG & VB:: All in all, we are very excited with how the game turned out. It went through a lot of rough periods, with many changes and complete overhauls, but in the end we created something that we are really proud of. The work we put into this game is probably more than what we've put in any other game we've worked on, but it was totally worth it.
As soon as you open the box, we are sure you will agree!