Baldrick’s Tomb Designer Diaries – a look into the creation of 5th Street Games newest project

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By Ben Haskett

Editor’s Note: Baldrick’s Tomb is currently on Kickstarter and doing quite well! Be sure to check out the campaign and get this game funded!

Baldrick’s Tomb

Baldrick’s Tomb is a roguelike board game for 1-4 players, ages 8 and up, that plays in about 30-45 minutes. The game’s lore centers on an ancient tomb that is being thrashed by the ghost of an evil sorcerer. His spirit has taken to constantly churning the inner walls of his massive resting place, resulting in an ever-changing landscape on each floor. The goal is to be the player with the most gold at the end of the game. Recently, 5th Street Games decided to publish the Baldrick’s Tomb, giving it both a visual makeover and some welcome refinements in the process.

I first got the idea for Baldrick’s Tomb in February of last year (2012)–I remember that I was in bed, going over this pipe dream I had had in my head of one day designing a roguelike video game. This was, of course, hampered by the fact that I do not know the first thing about game development or programming. Nay, t’was but a twinkle in my eye; daydreaming about contrivances to explain away the many abstract mechanics in roguelikes, and justifying the randomly generated levels in a narrative sense. It was sort of a V8 moment when I realized that, despite my lack of know-how in the video game world, I could still create a game on cardboard.

This was at a time when board games were very new to me. At that point, the only game I had ever played outside the likes of Monopoly was The Settlers of Catan–and even that was only a few months prior. It wasn’t until I started developing Baldrick’s Tomb that I took a serious interest in board games, and I’ve managed to assemble a pretty sizable collection since.

The very first incarnation of Baldrick’s Tomb, complete with cardstock board and art taken from my favorite video games.
The very first incarnation of Baldrick’s Tomb, complete with cardstock board and art taken from my favorite video games.

The very first prototype I made for Baldrick’s Tomb was also, as it turns out, the first PnP game I’ve ever put together. I designed everything in Photoshop, and then plucked a bunch of assets from games I liked, such as Dark Souls and Dragon Quest (at that time, of course, this was just for personal use). I then took everything to FedEx and printed it on cardstock, before cutting it out and assembling what you see in the picture above. I got a couple of chances to play-test it with friends and family, and we enjoyed it, so I started looking for a way to take the game to the next level. I was admittedly clueless on where to even start. Before long, though, I stumbled upon The Game Crafter.

The prototype put together at The Game Crafter.
The prototype put together at The Game Crafter.

Well, truthfully, I stumbled upon The Game Crafter about a dozen times before I fully realized what I was looking at–was it a game store? Perhaps a small publisher with an Etsy component? It took me a long time to finally realize that TGC is basically a Cafe Press for tabletop games; you upload your stuff, and buy one-off copies whenever you want. I just couldn’t wrap my head around that at first; it seemed crazy that there was A: a small group of people who made a living out of on-demand board game manufacturing, and B: enough demand for such a thing to support that idea. Little did I know that TGC’s community is thousands strong, with new independent productions being released all the time.

It didn’t take too long to familiarize myself with TGC’s templates and designer features. When I felt comfortable, I basically took what I had already made and dumped it in the garbage—I wanted to start fresh, knowing the assets that I had simply wouldn’t cut it if I wanted to offer this to other people. A lot of awesome things happened at TGC, but to stay on topic I’ll sum things up by saying that The Game Crafter played host to the majority of the development of Baldrick’s Tomb, and facilitated a very creative environment filled with incredibly personable staff and an awesome community. Baldrick’s Tomb simply would not exist today without them.

Baldrick’s Tomb draws a lot of inspiration from Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon series.
Baldrick’s Tomb draws a lot of inspiration from Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon series.

I do have quite a bit more to say about Baldrick’s Tomb, but before I get into that, I should probably explain–to the best of my abilities–just what a roguelike is and why I like them so much. Roguelikes are a sub-genre of role playing video games characterized by randomly generated levels, a relatively short campaign, and permanent death–when/if you die, you lose all of your experience points and belongings, and get sent back to the very start of the game. The first roguelike I ever played was a re-release of an old Super Famicom game called Shiren the Wanderer. Shiren’s main campaign (a trek to the top of Table Mountain) had the player travel across various levels consisting of large rooms and narrow hallways, all randomly generated and populated. The scenery changed from time-to-time to look like forests, marshes, and dungeons, but the level design was mostly inconsequential; the game was focused largely on how the player was able to interact with the levels’ myriad inhabitants and items. Each time I played, the bulk of my experience–and my narrative–was constructed out of individual encounters. There was one instance where, almost at the very top of Table Mountain, I was turned into a rice ball and was doomed to hop around as a soggy lump of food until I met my end. Another time, facing the final boss, I used an item to turn the beast into a little rodent and defeat him with a single swing of my sword. Although luck always played a part, I could always at least stack the deck in my favor by knowing how and when to use what items.

Trying to recreate this experience in the form of a tabletop game was, in a sense, very easy because roguelikes play a bit like tabletop games to begin with. Truly, when you think about the makeup of a roguelike, it is essentially a dungeon crawling board game on a TV screen; randomly drawn tiles form each level, with each monster and item being randomly chosen from a list of possible results. Thus, at first reading, the term “Roguelike board game” seems like a bit of a misnomer. And yet, there are a couple of things that I don’t think translate directly very well. Chief among them are speed, and ease of play–most dungeon crawlers are named as such for a reason, whereas a typical floor in a roguelike takes only a couple of minutes. So, when I set out to design Baldrick’s Tomb, my first goal was making exportable levels that didn’t take too long to setup or place too much of a focus on the level itself.

Level design and Exploration

In order to keep Baldrick’s Tomb moving along, each floor consists of one large room.
In order to keep Baldrick’s Tomb moving along, each floor consists of one large room.

Although Baldrick’s Tomb started out with multiple rooms and corridors in mind, that setup didn’t really lend itself to a quick-playing game that could maintain momentum. To alleviate this, I eventually settled on an 8×8 grid–essentially, one large room per floor. I then numbered the grid to work with two 8-sided dice, so that even player placement would be randomized with the flick of the wrist. This allowed me to use a simple, reusable map design while still being able to capture a lot of the elements that make roguelikes so unique. Every floor is populated by 11 rubble tokens (these would be blips on a map in a traditional roguelike), each hiding something underneath. To explore the area, a player approaches a rubble token and flips it over to reveal one of six things: A treasure chest, which simply gives the player treasure points; a scroll, which lets the player cast various spells; a monster, which triggers an encounter; a trap, which will harm the player in various ways; a healing fountain, which will heal a player; or–a staple of roguelikes everywhere–the exit. It’s these different things that I hope will make up the bulk of a player’s experience.

Respawning Elements

The 5th Street version allows for items on the board to be reused, creating a respawning element which populates the board.
The 5th Street version allows for items on the board to be reused, creating a respawning element which populates the board.

Whenever a player interacts with a rubble token on his/her turn, the token is removed from the board and set aside. Then, at the end of that player’s turn, he/she quickly rolls the dice to replace–face-up–whatever tokens were just interacted with. This was actually an idea from 5th Street Games, and helps simulate how things respawn in a roguelike. It also, indirectly, can act as walls or obstacles; because stepping on either a face-up trap or a monster will trigger another encounter, players often opt to move around these tokens rather than walk over them.

Exiting the level

On each floor, hiding underneath one of the rubble tokens is an exit. This is how players move through the tomb from one floor to the next. Usually, roguelikes have a system in place that will punish a player for lingering on a level for too long. In the transition to tabletop, I sped this system up considerably, allowing only five rounds per floor before Baldrick causes the walls to cave in. This keeps things moving along at a fast clip, encouraging players to seek out the exit, collect whatever loot they can, and high-tail it outta there before they all become Jill sandwiches.

Combat

In addition to some snazzy new artwork from Erin Fusco, the 5th Street version also sports a streamlined combat system.
In addition to some snazzy new artwork from Erin Fusco, the 5th Street version also sports a streamlined combat system.

Combat occurs whenever a player steps on a rubble token with a monster on it, prompting the player to draw a monster card. This is another area in Baldrick’s Tomb that 5th Street Games helped refine. In the prototype, I had designed combat to use the same 2 two dice that players use for placement on the board. The player would roll both dice at once, and apply the result. At best, this method had the monster and the player attacking each other, wearing each other down until one of them croaked. At worst, however, this resulted in a lot of draws, where neither the monster nor the player would attack. With 5th Street, we decided on a “swing gauge,” where the player simply rolls one die and checks the monster card to see what happened. This is a much more streamlined method of combat, and allows us more opportunities to make monster encounters that feel unique.

Death

The concept of permanent death was out the door before even the planning stage ended. There are some games out there that, sure, that use elimination as a mechanic, but I felt that it wouldn’t really suit Baldrick’s Tomb. However, some sort of death mechanic had to exist in the game… it’s the rogelike’s most defining trait! So, players do not “die” when they are mauled by monsters or crushed from lingering too long on a level… instead, I opted to just hit players in their imaginary coin purses by taking half of their gold. This way, getting “knocked out” is still a thing to be avoided (since having the most gold is how you win the game!), but still keeps players in the game.

 Advancements in Movement

The prototype artwork, compared to the final artwork. In the 5th Street version, we wanted to let the art do more of the talking.
The prototype artwork, compared to the final artwork. In the 5th Street version, we wanted to let the art do more of the talking.

One of the first things I learned after creating the prototype for Baldrick’s Tomb is that most people don’t really care too much for the roll-and-move mechanic. This was how Baldrick’s Tomb was originally designed; a la Monopoly, each player rolled a six-sided die that would determine how many moves could be taken for that turn. I kind of liked this method since it was representative of difficult terrain, but it did not take a whole lot of feedback before I realized that the game would be better off without it. I switched to a set movement system, where every player had a pre-determined number of moves each turn.

Player Skills

Probably the biggest area that 5th Street influenced the game was in their idea for Skill Cards. You see, originally, each player had one defining characteristic to set them apart from one another. 5th had a great idea, though, to take away these preset skills and instead develop a deck of skill cards that dealt out at the start of each game. Not only did this serve to balance the game a bit more from character to character, but it also inserted a lot of replay value into the game. With 20 unique skill cards across four players, there are quite a few combinations to be found.

Well, that’s about it for now… Baldrick’s Tomb’s final art is still being created, and Phil & I are still refining the final rule set. I hope you’ve enjoyed this diary, and if you want to see more, you can check out Baldrick’s Tomb on Kickstarter!

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