“My dream for a long time was to develop a video game actually.”Kris Rees, Game Designer.
Game design intrigues me. I love to see how a game takes shape as it leaves the designers mind and eventually becomes reality. There are so many aspects that one never thinks about when playing the game, like how a certain game mechanism, hardly noticed during game play, can affect the entire balance of the game. Or how the images we see on the cards in front of us ever came to be.
For a new designer it must be a daunting task, thinking where to begin? Designing your first game must be like taking a journey into the unknown; though you may think you know where you’re going, you’re never quite certain until you get there!
So, I was delighted to be given the chance to chat to new games designer, Kris Rees, and talk about his experiences of designing his first game, Damnation: The Gothic Game.
1992 is a lifetime a way in game design terms; so much has changed; so much has been left behind. But, for first time designer, Kris Rees, the past holds a key to the future, “…I owned a copy of The Gothic Game when I was younger. I used to enjoy playing it, as I loved the theme – I’ve always been a big fan of Dracula! – and I’ve always preferred competitive games to cooperative… The Gothic Game emphatically ticked those two boxes for me.”
It wasn’t just playing The Gothic Game that started Kris on his gaming journey, though, like many of us, he started in an all too familiar fashion. “I got into games from a young age. One of my closest childhood friends used to play D&D with his dad and his brother. And when I’d go and stay, I’d join in. Tony (the guy’s dad) was an incredible DM, he really was. He had all these painted miniatures, he would act out different voices, and it was always hilarious. He was also incredibly brutal! I would have been about 8 at this time and I don’t think my character ever survived beyond a single session. This was pretty upsetting (ha-ha!) to say the least, but I could see the funny side. And if my character ever did survive for a decent time, it felt so much more rewarding. These are some of my fondest memories from growing up.”
Playing games is one thing, but designing them is something different altogether, “I’ve always wanted to develop a game. My dream for a long time was to develop a video game actually. For a university project, I developed a game design document for a turn-based strategy based on Game of Thrones. This was before it exploded. I even contacted G. R. R. Martin and got his permission (with the understanding he wasn’t granting me any rights!). I enjoyed the process of design, but my lack of artistic and programming skills pretty much led me to think that designing a video game would be unrealistic.”
With the idea of designing a game always in the back of his mind, Kris sought inspiration from his love of board games. “In 2016, I read about Adam Poots and what he had accomplished with Kingdom Death Monster. I purchased a copy of that game (Jealous! – TSM) when he launched the 1.5 Kickstarter.” Kingdom Death Monster had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign that has seen over $12,000,000 raised! “His story and what he achieved was incredibly inspirational to me… I love how uncompromising he was in his vision. He put together a game that was unparalleled in terms of production quality and scope. Conventional wisdom would suggest a game like Kingdom Death Monster would be a gigantic flop, but look what happened. He was not prepared to give an inch when it came to quality, and I respect that enormously.”
“Around that time, I was playing a lot of older games with my gaming group – like Talisman and Dungeonquest – and was trying to find The Gothic Game. Unfortunately my copy had vanished somewhere and so I started looking online for another copy. That’s when I realised that the game had something of a cult following and was notoriously difficult to find. I saw that some people were selling copies for up to $250. I eventually managed to track one down by contacting one of the game’s designers, Robert Wynne-Simmons (Who wrote the screenplay of Blood on Satan’s claw). Robert very graciously sold me a copy of the game.”
With a copy of The Gothic Game now in his hands, and the motivation gained from Adam Poots’ success, all he needed to do now was put the two together. “Something about those two events – Adam Poots’ story, and the rarity of The Gothic Game – got me thinking about the idea of re-releasing The Gothic Game through Kickstarter. I contacted Robert with my proposal, outlining my ideas. After a long period of discussion and due diligence, we came to an agreement and I founded Blackletter Games Ltd to publish a new version of the game.”
The original, The Gothic Game, was essentially a roll and move game with the object being to ‘Murder’ the other players! The game took place in a haunted mansion, and there was a good chance you’d get chased around by Dracula. You could acquire weapons or, more likely than not, end up on the receiving end of some fiendishly evil torture device.
Kris always had in mind staying true to the games heritage. “Creating a second edition of an old game has come with its own set of challenges. For example, I didn’t want to ‘modernise’ the game to the point where the spirit of the original has been lost. This has been a balancing act right from the very beginning! There have been occasions where I really wish I’d just created an original game from scratch. It certainly would have given me more flexibility.”
Remaining true to the original, though, means that the game will feature some often frowned upon game mechanisms, “After experimenting with a host of movement systems, I ended up going back to roll and move. I’ve added an additional die that players will roll, which can modify the movement for the player’s turn… But I fear that for lots of people, they won’t be able to see past rolling to move.”
One of the things he tried was a card based movement system, “…And I felt good about it. Then I playtested it with a local design group and they pretty much tore into it – it was brutal, and tough to hear, but the feedback was incredibly valuable. Essentially they felt that the additional options provided by the cards, along with time players would spend mulling over their options was hugely detrimental to the game. From that point on I decided to try and laser focus in on setting a quick pace for each turn. Adding the extra die provided a little more theme, options, and danger for players – plus it’s always fun to roll an extra die!”
It isn’t just roll-to-move either, “Another controversial mechanic I’ve retained is player elimination. Personally it doesn’t bother me, but again, I know for many people this is the ultimate turn off.” As true as that may be, there are still plenty of games that feature player elimination, and many have found ways to play it down – Kris has his own ideas, “I’ve tried to address this by speeding up the game. So every time a player is eliminated, a card is drawn from a specific deck of cards, which makes the game deadlier (like jumping from a lions den into a snake pit? – TSM). So the time it takes for each player to be eliminated should reduce exponentially after the first person is out.”
“I find player elimination to be an interesting mechanic. Personally I think it’s perfectly suited to a horror theme – I love the ‘weight’ it adds to the actions and consequences during a game. It generates a certain tension that I don’t think can be replicated. Right from day one though, I knew I wanted to speed the game up where possible.”
Realising that this still may not be to everybody’s taste, he also added some different game modes that don’t include player elimination. Instead, they see players ‘re-spawn’ with the object now being to reach a certain number of kills!
Designing your first game is always going to be full of hurdles to jump and lessons to learn, and one of the biggest things Kris learnt early on, “… is that you can’t please everyone. This has been difficult for me to accept, because I’m naturally quite a people pleaser. Even just getting the art lined up, I had people agreeing and disagreeing with what I was doing – regardless of the quality. Eventually I realised that I was looking for something that didn’t exist – an art direction that would please everyone, mechanics that pleased everyone etc… I’m more at peace now with the idea that this game won’t be for everyone.”
The artwork and graphic design used throughout the game is something Kris is especially pleased with, though it doesn’t follow the original’s styling. “The artwork for the original was actually developed by the same person who did the branding of The London Dungeon. While I like it a lot, I was open to overhauling the visual aesthetic of the game for the new edition. There is a game that has incorporated a similar art style to the original, which is Escape the Dark Castle. It’s such a striking style that on hindsight I think it’s a good thing that we went in a different direction.”
Wanting the game to have a visual impact, he needed an artist who could bring the game to life, create a thematic atmosphere, and yet also involve a subtle humour within the gothic rendering, but where to start? “When I started looking for artists to be involved I didn’t have a particular style in mind. I was more concerned with finding a talented artist within budget and be able to work to the timeframe. This was a really long process – mainly because I had extremely high standards in terms of what I was looking for. I literally spent months scouring art portfolio websites, until eventually I got in touch with a hugely talented artist from Romania called Hue Teo.”
“Hue and I spoke about a style and ended up with a list of inspirations for the game’s art. These were, Darkest Dungeon, Bloodborne, Dracula, Dishonoured, and the artwork of Mike Mignola. All of this, blended together with Hue’s vision and talent is where the art style for the game came from.”
So, having found his artist and armed with plenty of inspirational ideas, the next step was creating the actually images for the game. “I’d never had experience of art direction in the past, but had strong ideas on how the cards could be visualised. The way we would work was that Hue would sketch three images for each card, and I would then choose one to be taken forward. We developed a working arrangement whereby I would ask for a certain sketch for a certain card, giving Hue the freedom to develop his own interpretation for at least a couple of the sketches. This worked really well and quite often we’d go with Hue’s ideas. His creativity was really something I wanted to tap into from the very beginning, so to that extent, I don’t think giving Hue a fixed format would have worked. Certainly, I think the overall quality would have suffered if I had.”
Take a look at some of the artwork and I’m sure you’ll agree that Hue did a brilliant job; it was certainly something for Kris to savour. “Working with Hue and seeing the art come in was probably the most rewarding part of the process for me personally. Receiving the latest batch of sketches was always the highlight of my week. We worked together for over a year on the game and we’ve become good friends. I actually went over to Romania to meet with Hue, as well as visit Dracula’s Castle, which was pretty special. I really hope that I can work with him again in the future.”
With the artwork nailed down he now required the skills of a graphic designer to bring it all together. “…I followed the same path as before and eventually found Anca Albu, another Romanian artist, who as chance would have it, knew Hue – they’d worked together previously! I remember Anca’s first art submission absolutely blew me away! She basically nailed it on the first attempt. Since then we’ve worked together on lots of other aspects – Anca’s fingerprints are all over the game and she deserves enormous credit. I am incredibly proud of the artwork for the game, and that comes from the skill, vision and hard work of two fantastic artists. I really can’t speak highly enough of both of them.”
Kris is still working hard on refining the game, and is constantly pushing to get it as good as it possibly can be, whilst still retaining the feel of the original. ” I want to dedicate a good period of time to some additional playtesting post Kickstarter, including more blind testing. I might even draft in another, more experienced designer to do some consultancy on it. It’s really important to me to get this right – to the point where I myself feel like it’s super tight. It’s not there yet, but I don’t feel it’s a million miles from where I want it to be either.”
In the run up to the campaign he’s been busy putting together prototypes to send out to budding previewers, and this has kept him pretty busy. “If you live in the US, Gamecrafter seems to be a decent option for putting together fairly cheap prototypes. I’m doing it a different way. Basically there’s a company that does bespoke dice, a book binder for the board, a local printer, I’m going to be mounting and laser cutting the tokens myself. I’ll also be cutting and rounding the cards myself too.”
It’s taken a lot of hard work, dedication and passion to get this far, and all for his love of a game that few will now remember. He’s taken the soul of The Gothic Game and created something more presentable to a modern audience, and yet he’s still been able to retain those mechanisms that were at the very core of the original.
It hasn’t been easy, and the Kickstarter campaign may prove the biggest hurdle of them all, but designing and producing your first game is never a simple thing, but the lessons one learns from it are possibly the most valuable!
“It’s been a rollercoaster! I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complaining though – It’s been an incredible experience. I just hope I get the chance to do it again. I’d certainly do a few things differently!”
That just leaves me to say a big thank you to Kris, for taking the time to share his experiences with us, and to wish him all the very best for the Kickstarter campaign – hopefully we’ll be hearing more from him very soon.
You can read my preview of the game HERE, and please show your support by following the link below to take a look at his Kickstarter page…
All images courtesy of Blackletter Games