Three years ago Steamforged Games did not exist; now, they are sitting proud at tabletop gaming’s high table, flush with success after the Kickstarter campaign for Dark Souls: The Board Game. We caught up with Steamforged co-founder and Lead Designer Rich Loxam and Bryce Johnston (Junior Designer on Dark Souls) at the UK Games Expo to talk all about it.
Dirge: So, first of all, how is work going on Dark Souls: The Board Game?
Rich Loxam: We literally have just come out of Kickstarter; we raised £3.77 million, which is the biggest board game Kickstarter ever, the most backers for a board game ever, most retail backers on a board game ever. Pretty much every record we managed to smash, so, we are over the moon. We couldn’t believe the success of it and we’re about to start getting it into production and getting it ready for next year.
Are you feeling a weight of expectation now?
RL: There’s a massive expectation, isn’t there, Bryce?
Bryce Johnston: Yeah, there is a reasonable amount of expectation, but we always knew, because it’s Dark Souls, that it was going to be popular. We just didn’t quite know how popular!
RL: I think the speed is what caught us, the speed of those first few hours. I mean, in three minutes we funded; and then in twenty-four hours we made a million dollars; in forty-eight hours we made a million pounds. But we so appreciate what Bandai Namco have done to give us this license and we’ve got to treat this license with respect, not only for them but for the fans. Although we’re creating this board game, the whole game itself is a fan’s game, and this world and these characters mean a lot to them. We need to make sure we not only replicate the quality of what they’re expecting in the miniatures and how they look, but we also want to replicate the gaming experience that they’ve come to expect from Dark Souls.
BJ: That’s one of my favourite things about doing the demos, literally everyone comes away from it going “That really feels like Dark Souls,” which is one of the most important things, to make it feel like it is a Dark Souls game.
In Dark Souls the video game there is a lot of grinding, learning moves, that kind of repetitive action – how have you managed to get that into the board game with creating a really frustrating experience?
BJ: Well, for the grinding aspect and for exploration, you start on a bonfire tile and explore out, and as you move onto a new tile, you flip a card from the encounter deck which reveals which grunts (low-powered enemies) are on that tile. You will explore through three or four tiles and kill the grunts as you go, but if you die, you go back to the bonfire and the grunts get reset, because this is Dark Souls and that’s how it works in the video game. You have to learn how the grunts are going to respond, where they’re going to come in, so even with the grunts you are learning how to fight them, and the bosses exemplify this approach even more, which is exactly what the video game feels like.
RL: Yeah, and as you go back to the bonfire, you can take the souls you’ve been gathering, you’ll get some gear to level up, like the video game. The good thing about it is that we haven’t got five hundred zombies or hollows coming onto the board because that’s not Dark Souls. It’s all about having three or four models there, and what we try to encapsulate is that feeling that you are on the knife’s edge, because these two or three grunts, with the AI deck we’ve built, they can get you. So you have to look at all the vectors and all the angles that they’re going to come at you from, just like the real game. You can’t just blindly go through and think you’re going to be alright when you finally get to the boss.
So you’re aiming for a deep, tactical experience?
RL: Yeah, dynamic movement is one of our key phrases that we have. The game isn’t your typical dungeon-crawler; it’s not one where you go into a room, you walk towards the enemy, they walk towards you, you roll a load of dice and that’s it. In Dark Souls, everything is constantly moving, the whole board is flexing, you have to keep looking at your positions, you have to know where the other players are if you’re playing multiplayer so you can protect them as well. You have to think really, really carefully about what you’re doing at every stage because one small mistake will take you out.
I liked how even movement costs you resources, so there is always a decision to be made about whether you’re doing the right thing or not.
BJ: One of the things I love just in the demo games is when you get people sitting there for two or three minutes going, “We need to move here, but then the boss has got this attack coming next, have we remembered the A.I. deck correctly…”
RL: But with the boss fight demo we put up, it shows the boss mechanics and the A.I., but those mechanics are throughout the game, so what you see there gives you a very good rundown of how the actual mechanics of the game flow. A lot of people are praising us on the unique nature of these, and we’re starting to break a few barriers in what people expect from a board game.
I did like the way you brought in the video game feel of having to learn the moves. Could you explain a little bit more about how the A.I. deck works?
BJ: So, basically, every time you fight a boss you will draw five of its boss behaviour cards, shuffle them randomly, and put them down. Every time that boss takes a turn you flip a card and it takes the action on the card, which could be anything from running towards you and taking an attack to setting everything around it on fire. Once you’ve run through the deck you don’t shuffle it, you just turn it back around. So, the first time the deck goes round you learn what it does, and then you try to remember the cards and their order in the deck so that you can avoid the big attacks and where they’re coming from, attack the weak points of the boss, and you can adapt accordingly.
RL: There are also gravestones that you can access that actually give you a bit of information before you reach the boss. So, by the time you get there you might have seen the first two cards, which will help you prepare for the fight.
BJ: Watching people do the mental gymnastics is really fun.
How did the license come about?
RL: Back in October we went to a licensing fair. We had a few key I.P.s that we wanted to talk to and Dark Souls was one of them. We dropped our details off and Bandai Namco got in touch with us. Matt (Hart, Steamforged co-founder) has worked in the video game industry for a long time, including working for Bandai Namco in the past, and that helped us a little bit because they recognised his name. We got a pitch together, they loved the pitch, they sent it to From Software and they said fantastic. So we got a prototype together, went down there, showed the prototype, and at that point we signed the deal. After that we started working on the game, from January this year.
Did you get a nice sneak peek at Dark Souls 3 before it came out?
RL: Yeah, we managed to sit down and have a go before anyone had played it so that was nice. It was fun to see the game and we got a good insight because obviously we needed to know about it before it went out so we could plan the movements and mechanics so we could make sure that Dark Souls 3, the most modern version of the video game mechanics, was represented in our game. We were very conscious, as well, of not spoiling Dark Souls 3, and throughout the Kickstarter we had people saying “Why not do X boss from Dark Souls 3?” And you will probably see them at retail, in twelve months time, when Dark Souls 3 has been out for a year, but we were very conscious that we protected it right now for the fans.
Is it still available for people to get behind?
RL: We still have a month left for late pledges, so if you haven’t got it yet, get in now, because after that goes the only chance will be at retail in twelve months time.
BJ: Currently, if you back it for £80 you get what will be about £200 worth of kit at retail, so you’re saving £120. Just in terms of models alone you’ll get about eighty models, some that are huge; you get a ton of extra stuff.
RL: You’re also guaranteeing a copy, because the demand for this product is very high. Although we’re trying as best we can to make sure we make print runs and meet demand, there is a chance that at retail it could sell out, so getting in now will guarantee you get that copy.
Steamforged are still a relatively new company; you started off by Kickstarting Guild Ball a couple years ago, but did you see yourselves being this successful?
RL: I never thought two years ago that I’d be here doing this full-time as a job, I never thought I’d be here with my junior designer Bryce or to have a team of designers working for Steamforged. It’s a dream come true not just for me but for Matt, who started the company with me, and it’s a dream to have so many employees and to give them an opportunity in life to go forward. So we are super proud and super happy about the support we’ve had and we’ll continue to try and do our very best to put out absolutely quality games.
Thanks for your time!
You can back Dark Souls: The Board Game here.