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Welcome to the Wild West - A Developer Diary

Travis R. Chance
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Indiana
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When I set out to build the catalog for Kolossal Games, I wanted a game that not only lived up to our company's name but one that showed me something I had yet to see, which - of course - is no easy feat in the ever-growing world of gaming. Nonetheless, it was my charge to find such a game. As luck would have it, a mutual friend was kind enough to show me just what I was seeking.

Enter Western Legends, a genuine labor of love from talented first-time designer Hervé Lemaître. From the very first moment I laid eyes on the prototype, I knew the game was not only special but exactly what I wanted to be making as a publisher.

Firstly, it was a sandbox design, a genre that is populated with very few games. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, in short this the tabletop equivalent of an open world game in the video game world. Next, there was an incredible amount of decisions in gameplay, the majority of which had nothing to do with the oft-used pickup-and-deliver mechanism found in its contemporaries. Players weren't just occupants of the same world; they collided in this world, they eked out lives amidst hard times in a way that bled through the mechanisms into a very palpable theme. As some may know about my personal repertoire as a designer and developer, I absolutely love narrative in games. The potential to tell stories in this game was abundant and exciting. Further, Hervé was tackling another design obsession of mine in the game: the notion and meditation on morality.

From gallery of TRChance


Another facet that compelled me about the design was that, while it used a deck of poker cards that also had actions and abilities, it wasn’t just a game with poker cards set in the Wild West. These cards are integral to the design, but they don't live and die by it. Not at all. The cards are multi-use. Higher values are great for fighting, but also have powerful effects that encourage you to use them outside of scraps. Lower value cards, while not being as handy in fights, have a utility that modifies actions and provides bonuses. And, of course, you can play poker in the game--a modified, homebrew take on Texas Hold ‘Em. But this is just a part of the whole, not just an easy nod to an era.

From gallery of TRChance


Hervé also incorporated historical figures into the game, bringing real legends from the time together in a world where they could interact and compete for their stake in history. Moreover, these were not all the familiar figures of the time. There are some fascinating characters, both men and women, that I had the pleasure of researching while working on this project. Each is unique, not only having a unique ability, but also an asymmetrical start to the game. Some, like Billy the Kid and Jesse James, start Wanted, giving them the ability to score points from the onset, but at the price of being hunted by the Sheriff and would-be Marshals. Others, like Bass Reeves and Wyatt Earp, start as Marshals, eager to move up in status as peacekeepers by taking on bandits out in the red rocks beyond the town. The rest of the characters start on neither side of the law but make up for it with better weapons, more money, more cards, and special bonuses. Each character is different, but by no means are they scripted. Marshals can become outlaws. Outlaws can pay their penance after a night in jail. There's no one way to become a legend in this game. All opportunities are equal.

From gallery of TRChance


Naturally, we signed the game. Soon after, we began what has proven to be the most rewarding development experience of my career to date--by we, I mean my developer, AJ Lambeth; partner, Arnaud Charpentier; and of course Hervé. The core of Western Legends existed from moment one, but Hervé had ambitions for the elements of the game that had not been entirely realized yet. Having worked on numerous games over the years, I was more than excited to take on the challenge. After all, there is nothing, and I genuinely mean this, nothing more rewarding than in working with passionate people new to the industry.

Western Legends is extremely simple in overview: you take some combination of money and poker cards at the start of your turn and then you have three actions. But those three actions, that's where the beauty of this game is unrivaled in my opinion. Players have, quite literally, more than a dozen possible options on their turn: buy and upgrade items, play poker at the saloon, rustle or wrangle cattle, prospect for gold, rob the bank, rob players, fight bandits, arrest or duel other players, sell gold, visit the doc, complete goals, use actions on cards and items, and even revel at the cabaret. Within those myriad options, there are numerous overlapping decisions about how to score points, how you contribute to the story cards in the narrative of the game, whether you're pursuing a life as a Marshal or Wanted player. "Don't let the multitudinous options available deter you, though, for they are not as intimidating to navigate as one might assume. It takes, on average, less than three minutes for players of all skill levels to process and execute on a turn!

But as they say, “the last 20% takes 80% of the time.” Hervé had built this impressively elegant and visceral system, but the task at hand was twofold:

1. Fleshing out the differences in being a Marshal and Wanted.
2. Testing all of the above facets until we knew every option, the combination of options and value was dead on correct--in short, lots of math.

Testing, well that's just part of the job, so not much sense in recounting that part of the work. In short, we played, we played again, and we played about another 150 games between conventions, our internal team, and Hervé's group in Paris. In six months time, this was the most attention to detail I have ever seen applied to a game in my career. We were meticulous, we were unrelenting, and at the end of it all, the game was quite frankly the best one of which I have been a part.

Getting Marshal and Wanted players right, well, that was definitely the Herculean feat in development. I had broached this notion in one of my own games (Path of Light and Shadow) but in a much more binary approach. In a game with this much life, deciding which side of the law you would be on felt much more complex to tackle - more meaningful. It wasn't just two diverging tracks, but rather very different moral stakes. What does it mean to be good in a world that's mostly lawless? What does it mean to be bad in world that's struggling to maintain order? This was our challenge.

From gallery of TRChance


Oddly, the more difficult of the two was the first one we managed to get right. Being Wanted is a risk vs. reward strategy. The risk is being pursued by the Sheriff and Marshal players. The reward is earning LP (Legendary points) each and every turn you manage to stay Wanted. The more Wanted you are, the more points you can earn, which is a natural pacing mechanism in the game. It also highly encourages players to interact in a number of meaningful ways. Marshal players can arrest Wanted players. It encourages a subtle tug of war using the Sheriff, which only moves when story cards are resolved, or a player uses the Manhunt poker card--Marshals want to stop Wanted players while also depriving other Marshals the opportunity to arrest; Wanted players move the Sheriff, potentially at other Wanted players to lessen the competition.

The rub is, once you’re Wanted, you stay Wanted until you get arrested. When you get arrested, make sure you’re not carrying money and gold, because the Sheriff is gonna take half of it for his trouble. After a night in jail, you can try your hand as a Marshal, continue a life of crime, or just pursue your legacy through means unconcerned with the law altogether. At the end of the game, the most Wanted player scores 3LP, while each other outlaw only scores 1LP.

From gallery of TRChance


Marshal players use what I jokingly call "Eurogame track 101." It's simple, like the Wanted player they have a 9 point track. Where the Wanted player occasionally draws much-needed poker cards to fight off would-be captors, Marshals are earning an honest living. That's right, they make money and every third space they earn LP. While this is simple in theory, getting these values comparatively balanced against Wanted players was a bear to tackle. Marshal players have less risk, but their ability to gain Marshal points are less available than Wanted points.

Wanted players can rob players, perform a bank heist, and rustle cattle--often stealing from one rancher, only to turn around and rob the very rancher that paid them. Marshal players can defeat bandits, who are eager to dole out wounds using a system that allows the player to act as the bandit (as well as the guard at the bank, the Sheriff, and even the dealer at the saloon). Wrangling cattle is another means to earn Marshal points, but a harder road to travel--a metaphor for the arduous task of staying on the right and narrow. Of course, you can always try to arrest a Wanted player, but they are likely not going down without a fight.

The last bit of luster we added to the game was in story cards. It took many iterations and months of testing to lead us to the final mechanism for these cards, but it was worth the hard work. Story cards are a hybrid of event cards and public objectives. There are two decks of these cards, the backs of which show various conditions. If a player meets those conditions on their turn, they may add 1, and only 1, story cube of their color to a story card. When a story card has the requisite number of cubes on it, it is then resolved.

From gallery of TRChance


The first part of every story card is, well, a story. Some are musings from various narrators about the people and the time. Others recall actual historical figures and events. Others yet tell tales of bravery, tragedy, and luck. The players that contributed to the story card gain a reward and/or are exempt from a penalty. Bandits often repopulate the board, and the active player moves the Sheriff. There are moral decisions within some of these cards. Do you help a stranded prospector to town or unburden him from his gold? Do you give your hard-earned money to the church or steal the donation box?

Like everything in this game, there’s a number of reasons beyond the obvious to pursue contributing to story cards. Wanted players can send the Sheriff on a fool’s errand out on the mesa. Marshals can put a convenient end to a Wanted player’s lawlessness. And, of course, there are those exciting spoils to be had: free items, upgrades, cards, money, gold, you name it. With 40 unique cards, no two games will like to be the same.

And that’s what I have to share with all of you today - exactly three weeks from the launch of Kolossal’s very first game. It has been an honor and privilege to not only work on Western Legends but also to share with each and every one of you insight into how the game has evolved. Thank you so very much for taking the time to read this. I am happy to answer any questions you may have below. If you haven't marked your calendars, please do: January 9th. Looking forward to seeing you all over during the campaign!

Board Game: Western Legends
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