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Fall of the Mountain King: Designer Diary

I figured with the Kickstarter happening on Tuesday I should probably write about how Fall of the Mountain King came to be. I used my Twitter posts to remind me along the way and to share pictures as well. As far as I can tell it started in the Fall of 2016. I was also reading The Last Kingdom book series by Bernard Cornwell. It’s about Alfred the Great, Uhtred, the constant threat of the Danes, and how ancestry plays a vital role in the political machinations of the day. I was inspired!

Time Out: Just a quick overview of Fall of the Mountain King as you read through this. Players are trying to fend off the Gnomes and gain the most honour to lead the Trolls from their Mountain home. You build an Ancestry of overlapping cards that powers the actions you can take including Advancing, Bolstering, Influencing Champions, or utilizing the Gnome Wheel (which is kind of a mashup of the previous actions). Directly mess with players, try to control Great Halls by dominating adjacent caverns, and get the Clans to vote you in as their leader!

I began reading more about Alfred the Great and his time and learned about what we now call the Heptarchy - essentially 7 kingdoms before they became England. Even that term is a very loose one that we’ve placed on that time of history. It did get my mind churning about making a game about uniting England just like Uhtred was reluctantly trying to help Alfred do in the books. A central map, trying to get the seven kingdoms to follow you, using your ancestry to make your actions more powerful, and having great leaders wage war against the onslaught of the Danes.

Fast forward approximately 3 1/2 years to the winter of 2020 (before the you-know-what) and the game was really coming together. Still though for a game of this size and magnitude it was slow going for me with the once a month play testing at my house, the once a month local group, family plays, and ProtoSpiel. I was realizing that I had taken it as far as I could, but I would absolutely need a publisher with more resources and time to see what the game could become and get it to the finish line.

Then COVID hit. No Origins to attend and pitch games - so I decided to reach out and pitch remotely via video. Helaina Cappel (who runs Kids Table Board Games and Burnt Island Games) is someone I'd met in 2019 and so I was excited when she was interested in seeing a smaller game that I'd designed. I figured while I was at it though I should also set up what was then Heptarchy on the table as well. I showed Helaina the smaller game and then in the last couple minutes showed her Heptarchy explaining that the smaller game was a focus of the Ancestry mechanic, so this one was a lot bigger and she probably wouldn't be interested. It almost felt like a throwaway, here is this, but I think you'll be interested in this other one. A couple weeks later she came back and said KTBG wasn't interested in the smaller game, but Burnt Island was very interested in Heptarchy! (See you never know where someone will find interest or for what reason - so just gotta get it out there!)

The Development

I was pumped! I knew the game was fun. I also knew that I needed help and thought Helaina and team would be great to make it a reality. We spoke about putting it into the Mountain King universe, which made perfect sense of an outside force constantly coming in and bickering clans fighting amongst themselves as you try to become the chosen leader. As for development goals that would need to be tackled it seemed the same ones that have been a challenge in the game the whole time: The map, the battles, and how Gnomes work.

The Map

When I first made the map I had a lot of squares connected by black lines to represent villages (caverns) and then those villages were connected by green lines to burhs (great halls). This made for a real mess. After playtesting for a while and continuing to make it look better and better I couldn't chalk it up to my bad graphic design - it was just not a well designed map. This is when I decided to go with hexes (and how I showed it to Burnt Island) in order to make ease of play the top priority. It worked very well, but took the soul out of the game. I love hexes, don't get me wrong, but there is something about them that make them feel less real when it comes to maps. We playtested the game a lot with hexes knowing we were going to change it and finally it came to the point with battles (more on that later) where the change had to be made. I hand drew over lunch what I imagined a cut out of the mountain might look like with wavy lines and more real feel and then Josh Cappel (who is a great developer and graphic designer and someone's whose work I've always admired) took that hand drawn map idea and ran with it making it even better to play test on. Tweaks continued and we've arrived at what you see today with the amazing art, the volcano in the centre, and caverns that you just want to control! You can see in below picture how I was concerned about the "soul" of the game with hex map - no longer with the amazing final map!

The Battles

Resolving player conflict in caverns is something that I wanted in the game and yet at the same time had the most difficult time making it right.

The current version is just simple. Remove the conflict and make the game area-majority instead of only one player per cavern. This was a tough cut for me - but a necessary one. Players already have enough to keep track of that we found they didn't even think about how the battle worked until it was happening - so taking that out and letting them simply focus on the board helped streamline and make it about taking over and not all about removing units.

The Gnomes

The game has always been about this outside force attacking and messing with the players - a mutual enemy that players aren't above working with if it'll benefit them to get ahead. The design challenge with this is the Gnomes cannot be so powerful you can't do anything to stop them and at the same time so weak that you don't really care about them. They have to walk a knife's edge to be a real threat, but know that you can still beat them as a group and hold them back. In play testing we've had several variations on how they invade from player controlled (which was just too powerful for whoever went last) to being stopped by fortifications (now gone and replaced with bolstering - which essentially has a similar function). That later idea - the Gnomes can't exactly be stopped - just slowed down through bolstering has been the key to holding them in check, but still feeling the pain. Another great addition is the idea of Trolls gaining honour for defending the gates where the Gnomes come in. This again takes some of the bite (not all by any means) out of losing your units, but at the same time means you have to make that decision of trying to avoid the Gnomes or getting in their way to get points at the cost of having units to do other things. I'm excited where we are at with the Gnomes now - giving the players the choice to battle them outright or use them to advance their own agenda!

The One That Hurt

As you go through game design you often hear designers talk about sometimes the best thing you can do for a game is cut something out even though it hurts and may be something the game started with and was built around. Sometimes the game outgrows it. For Fall of the Mountain King and me that was the multi-use cards (if you've read this blog you know I LOVE multi-use cards). Originally - and for a long time - players both used Ancestry cards for playing to their Ancestry and to determine what actions they were allowed to take by discarding a card from their hand with the appropriate symbol. However, through development, we found that either you could do everything you wanted to do anyways or by luck you were unable to do the one thing you felt you HAD to do. Eventually we made the supply board which essentially acted like a wild card had, allowing you to spend one supply to do whatever you wanted. This change, while it hurt me from a designer and player perspective of getting rid of something I loved, made something else I love (the whole game) even better!

Exponentially Better

This has been a long post, but I didn't want to leave it without pointing out a couple changes that have gotten exponentially better over the course of development. Which are how the Gnome action works and the Champion abilities.

The Gnome action changed throughout the design. At first, it just allowed players to attack with the Gnomes, then it became a single Gnome track with extra bonuses on it, then it became almost like a branching path you might see now in Lost Ruins of Arnak, to finally ending where it is now - a shared rondel. All the different types of actions that were in previous iterations are there like scoring points, bolstering, moving units, attacking with the Gnomes, influencing Champions - but now you aren't stuck in a single strategy. The complexity is more straightforward and the flexibility combined with the key timing of your action is stellar!

My favourite part of any type of game like this are the individual player powers you can earn through character recruitment. In Fall of the Mountain King those are your Champions! As the game developed - there have been big changes in many areas - but the Champions have seemed to just gradually develop and become better and better. Most of them can be used multiple times in a Wave as a bonus for doing something you already want to do. There are no bad Champions. Each one that comes out will give you an advantage in a significant way. However, the competition is fierce and you won’t be able to recruit them all. The art is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING - Fahed Alrajil did such a perfect job with these Champions. For the record Nimlagh is my favourite art-wise - so be sure to check him out in the campaign. Here is a nice shot of the prototype in Tabletop Simulator.

The Wrap Up & Tips on What I Learned

Flexibility in game design matters as much as it does in my day job as a human resources professional. It matters a lot! Because FMK is "my type" of game, one that I really designed for myself, I found it harder than in the past to let go of some things. It felt more personal than games I was designing because they were fun to design. Ultimately though being flexible and working as a team resulted in a better product in the end.

Working at a fast pace with other dedicated developers is great! We'd play many games very quickly. Probably even more importantly than that, we would be able to talk out the problems we were trying to solve in real time. It was great! I need to find a couple co-designers for a future game to experience this again!

This has been an almost five year journey and it is not over yet! I'd really appreciate your support on June 1st when the Kickstarter goes live! You can get a reminder here.

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