Pre­pare To Dice

How a team of board game de­sign­ers turned From Soft­ware’s Dark Souls se­ries into a Kick­starter smash

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - BY WILL FREE­MAN

How a small team of board game de­sign­ers turned FromSoft­ware’s Dark Souls into a Kick­starter smash

But­ton mash­ing won’t get you far in Dark Souls, where re­ly­ing on a lucky strike is rarely a strat­egy that stacks up. FromSoft­ware’s se­ries is no­to­ri­ous for the ex­act­ing de­mands it makes on play­ers, re­quir­ing them to learn the in­tri­ca­cies of at­tacks, po­si­tion­ing and coun­ters, so why would it make a good can­di­date for a board game reimag­in­ing? Table­top realms are places where rules and math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tems are the game, re­alised in card­board and plas­tic, and played with an or­derly, me­thod­i­cal ap­proach. Aside from the dex­ter­ity sub-cat­e­gory of board games, where flick­ing and throw­ing pieces is the norm, typ­i­cally table­top ex­pe­ri­ences in­clude lit­tle to no ‘ac­tion’, and cap­tur­ing a sense of nu­anced twitch com­bat in these con­texts is sim­ply un­work­able in most cases. If you’ve been keep­ing an eye on Kick­starter re­cently, how­ever, you prob­a­bly no­ticed that an of­fi­cially li­censed Dark Souls board game con­founded ex­pec­ta­tions and did rather well for it­self. The team be­hind the cam­paign, Steam­forged Games, sought £50,000 to make its spin on Dark Souls a com­mer­cial re­al­ity. That tar­get was reached in some three min­utes. Fund­ing even­tu­ally cleared £3.7 mil­lion, with late pledges con­tin­u­ing to trickle over the line at the time of writ­ing.

And it was pos­si­ble, the Steam­forged team be­lieves, be­cause Dark Souls is not a but­ton masher’s pur­suit. To un­der­stand that logic, we need to look back to the be­gin­ning.

Seven or so months be­fore Dark Souls – The Board Game emerged as the Steam­forged team’s day job, a hand­ful of the team were al­ready look­ing at table­top gam­ing’s own ver­sion of ‘but­ton mash­ing’ – that is, an over-re­liance on hand­fuls of dice as a luck me­chanic that might just get play­ers through if they per­sist for long enough. At that time, Steam­forged de­signer Mat

Hart, a co-founder of the UK-based com­pany,

had been toy­ing with a pro­to­type that he hap­pily refers to today as a “generic dun­geon crawler”. It was an ex­er­cise in in­no­vat­ing within the genre, and although he might not have re­alised it at the time, he was work­ing on some­thing that would share many par­al­lels with the Dark Souls videogames.

“I’d played a few of the other games of the dun­geon-crawler type out on the mar­ket today, and I’d started to be­come a lit­tle frus­trated by them,” he ex­plains. “I wasn’t find­ing them as in­ter­est­ing as I felt they could be, or that I wanted them to be. They cer­tainly weren’t feel­ing as in­ter­est­ing as clas­sic games of that type, like HeroQuest back in the day.”

The table­top games that so dis­ap­pointed Hart were of­ten repet­i­tive, too re­liant on luck, and com­monly boiled down to the fall of the dice – ‘dice mash­ing games’, if you like. So the de­signer did all he could to re­verse those short­com­ings, never quite sure how the game might end up.

And then Hart met with an old friend from his many years work­ing in pro­duc­tion on videogame projects (his CV in­cludes stints at Kuju En­ter­tain­ment and Ninja The­ory). That ac­quain­tance hap­pened to be em­ployed at Namco Bandai, which it­self was keen to find a board game de­signer to ex­plore the world of Dark Souls in a new for­mat.

“That could have been the end of the story,” Hart re­flects. “If I’d have just pitched the game idea I was work­ing on then, as it was, I’m not sure it would have gone any­where. So what we ac­tu­ally did for the pitch was stop and an­a­lyse what makes Dark Souls the game it is. We had to con­sider which el­e­ments from

Dark Souls could make the tran­si­tion from elec­tronic me­dia into phys­i­cal me­dia, be­fore go­ing back to Bandai Namco.”

It didn’t take Hart very long to re­alise that he might have a per­fect match. Here was a videogame se­ries that de­manded its play­ers do more than mash but­tons, and a fledg­ling dun­geon-crawler de­sign ex­plor­ing ways to es­cape the monotony of the dice roll.

“We re­alised our board game could ask play­ers to think, to be clever, to learn, be­cause that’s what Dark Souls is, in a way,” Hart says. “You can’t just go rush­ing in to

Dark Souls. We’ve tried to make a board game equiv­a­lent of a think­ing man’s fight­ing game. We didn’t want play­ers ‘but­ton mash­ing’ [our board game], I guess, be­cause Dark Souls won’t let you do that.”

With its start­ing point set, the Steam­forged de­sign­ers could strip back Hart’s pro­to­type and re­build it as a Dark Souls prop­erty, plun­der­ing FromSoft­ware’s beloved se­ries for suit­able me­chan­ics and all of the aes­thetic el­e­ments they could pos­si­bly need. The de­sign­ers had char­ac­ter types to repli­cate as minia­tures, com­bat sys­tems to re­work, and a back­story to use as their foun­da­tion.

But they also had game­play dif­fi­culty to con­sider. Steam­forged knew it wanted to de­liver a co-op­er­a­tive minia­tures-based ex­plo­ration board game, but how to trans­late

Dark Souls’ in­fa­mous de­gree of chal­lenge? A tough board game that is still pleas­ant to play is a con­sid­er­ably dif­fer­ent beast to a de­mand­ing vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence.

“That was prob­a­bly the hard­est thing here, if I’m hon­est,” Hart says. “The game needs to be chal­leng­ing, but it needs to be a chal­leng­ing game you en­joy – that you can beat with skill and ex­pe­ri­ence, and maybe a tiny bit of luck.”

Hart and his col­leagues also wanted to avoid what he calls the “Who Wants To Be A Mil­lion­aire? syn­drome”, where some­thing is “easy if you know it”. Steam­forged needed to shape an ex­pe­ri­ence that didn’t risk be­com­ing a walkover be­cause of a win-all strat­egy nes­tled at its heart.

“The dif­fi­culty [in our game] comes from de­ci­sion-mak­ing,” ex­plains Richard Loxam, another Steam­forged co-founder and de­signer, on ze­ro­ing in on how to make Dark Souls ap­pro­pri­ately tax­ing when ren­dered in card­board and plas­tic. “We looked at how learn­ing be­hav­iours – and un­der­stand­ing how to win – is es­sen­tially the core of why Dark

Souls is hard, and we’ve tried to fo­cus on trans­lat­ing that. We’ve in­tro­duced Boss Be­hav­iour decks that repli­cate learn­ing the move sets, along­side po­si­tion­ing via our node sys­tem on the board be­ing cru­cial choices be­tween life and in­evitable death.”

“WE’VE TRIED TO MAKE A BOARD GAME EQUIV­A­LENT OF A THINK­ING MAN’S FIGHT­ING GAME”

The game’s gen­er­ous piece-count made the most af­ford­able pledge level £75. It wasn’t so pricey as to dis­suade over 31,000 back­ers

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