Today, in a very special episode of The John D. Clair Show, we sit over a decimated plate of Nepalese food, and discuss his most recent card crafting endeavors, Edge of Darkness and Dead Reckoning.
DTD: Tell me about Dead Reckoning. I did my research and I searched all over the place, and I can find very little about it. You’ve been very close-lipped about it.
JDC: Not intentionally!
DTD: No, no, no. I know there’s a tower and I know there’s cards.
JDC: We’re just still hopeful. It’s less than a year out from [being in] the picture, but, hopefully next spring or early summer.
DTD: It uses card crafting for the crew. Pirate game, Caribbean, modify your crew, exploration. Just to be clear, it’s individual player decks, not a communal deck for Dead Reckoning?
JDC: Yeah, Dead Reckoning might be my best design ever. I think it might be. I’m really excited about this game.
DTD: I’m excited about that! You know, saying that you’ve got the best John D. Clair game is a bit of a high bar there. Between the people who will fight over Mystic Vale and the people who fight over Space Base…
JDC: So I think Space Base is my most popular game. Mystic Vale is my biggest game in terms of sales.
DTD: Mystic Vale really grabbed the collectible card market, the Magic market. I mean, those people are nuts for Mystic Vale.
JDC: Yeah, I think it actually also really appealed to the significant others of all of those people. I get that a lot from couples.
DTD: Yeah. I kind of feel Space Base might have grabbed that more?
JDC: They both did, I think, which is great. But what I think Mystic Vale did, it was a deck-builder that gamers liked, and their less game-intensive spouse could also like.
DTD: Which is awesome.
JDC: So Dead Reckoning is… Dead Reckoning might have more overall rules than Edge of Darkness, but I think it’s a much simpler game to learn.
DTD: Well, Edge is tough, and I gotta say, the rule book’s a little bit of an effort to get through.
JDC: And the game play does some really different things that you have never seen in other games.
DTD: That’s actually one of the big notes I had on Edge. You’re talking about Edge now, the game play. Edge is kind of a roller coaster of expectations, is the best way I could put it. You set things up and you talk about the different parts of the board, and my first thought is “Oh, there’s monsters. I need to kill them.” No, they’re more like a timer or a moderator of how you’re building. So don’t focus on killing them. And then, you know, the worker placement. Well, in that too, you’re using it in a specific way to take advantage of the location. So it was always an expectation, and then a reality, and then an expectation, and then a reality, in a roller coaster, which I found fascinating.
JDC: In Edge, for better and worse, those things are different than most people’s experience. When you have workers, people get in their head on expectation of what it’s going to be like to have workers and “worker placement.” But it actually doesn’t work like worker placement.
DTD: It seems like more like a resource.
JDC: It’s card driven. So, like a lot of times, the first time people play, they’re like, “Okay, if I want to do that, I actually have to put a worker there to do it?” It’s like “No – you only use workers if cards tell you to use workers.” And there’s a few things, like the way the deck is shared. There’s a few things that are actually done really differently from other games. But also caused some un-intuitiveness for players because they come at it with different expectations.
DTD: Which made the rules weird. And if you had a gamer diving into it, they’re going to guess wrong at every turn.
JDC: Right. So, like, a lot of people are expecting fighting monsters to be a phase in the game or something, right? But it’s actually, there’s just 10 locations, and all of the game systems are just baked into those locations.
JDC: There isn’t a rule set for how to train guys. There’s just, every game there’s a location that does it. Whatever it says is how training guys works for that game, right?
DTD: All things I got wrong the first time I played. My son absolutely obliterated me.
JDC: Good for him. So actually, I think that’s a strength and weakness for Edge. That that stuff is really different (strength) and because it’s different, un-intuitive, for a lot of people, that is its weakness. So what Dead Reckoning does… Dead Reckoning also has really different stuff in it, but it fits the theme of the game much more seamlessly. So thematically, it’s more intuitive what you’re doing. The actual thing with Edge is that the actual core rules of the game aren’t all that complicated. But knowing what all the locations do is where the complexity of the rules comes in.
JDC: Dead Reckoning doesn’t have that so much. The core rules might be a little more complex, but not too much. But the game is much more intuitive. When you sit down to play Edge, you need to know all the rules before you make your first move. In Dead Reckoning, you don’t. You sort of discover the game as you play your first game.
DTD: Would you call it a lighter game or a heavier game on the whole? Because Space Base, pretty clear, is a lighter game.
JDC: I would say similar weight on the whole.
DTD: To Edge?
JDC: Yes, similar weight. But it’s less fiddly, it’s more intuitive. I think it fits its theme better than I think Edge does.
DTD: And the plan is kind of the same timeline as Edge, with a Kickstarter and then a later release.
JDC: The plan is to have a Kickstarter. It’s going to be a big game. I am determined that it will go in a normal sized box though.
DTD: I wasn’t going to talk too much about the gargantuan box in Edge, trying to outdo Gloomhaven with the box size.
JDC: That was actually one of the things I was very disappointed with, and AEG knows, so they’re not going to be mad when I say this. This is one of things I was disappointed with, with the production of Edge. I really wanted it to be in a smaller box. I wanted it to be in a box the same size as Thunderstone Quest.
DTD: But it’s a gorgeous box!
JDC: It is a huge, good looking…oh, the Edge of Darkness box is gorgeous, the art is fantastic. But I wanted it, I wanted to do it the same size as Thunderstone Quest, which is also a big box. But like 30% smaller. Dead Reckoning should fit in a Blood Rage size box. Or a Mansions of Madness sized box.
DTD: That’s the Ticket to Ride standard.
JDC: Yeah, Ticket to Ride, but deeper. Ticket to Ride but 50% deeper.
DTD: Cool. So competitive, card-crafting, cube tower game.
JDC: Yeah, so the system of the game is: everyone has their own deck of 12 cards, every card represents a crew member. And like Mystic Vale, you will have 12 cards at the beginning of game and 12 cards at the end of the game. You’re not adding or removing cards, you’re making cards better. You have a ship and there’s a modular, unexplored ocean at the start of the game. You will explore out into the ocean, discovering open seas and islands and such. And while you’re doing that, you will pick up advancements. Advancements are like experience that your crew cards are gaining. So as you get an advancement, you put it on one of your cards. Like I said, every card represents a crew member so that when you put advancements on them, they’re gaining more experience, becoming better at their job.
DTD: That’s what I was going to ask. You’re leveling up your crew members essentially.
JDC: Right. The push and pull of the game is that every advancement in the game costs. You spent cargo essentially to buy advancements, which, thematically, is representing your spending cargo to sail further on your voyage, to gain more experience. You spend with every advancement a cost between one and four cargo, every single one. However, the further you go away from Harbor, the home Harbor, the better the advancements get, so a one cost, row four card advancement is better than a four cost, row one advancement. And the real cost in the game is the fact that you needed to sail all the way out there. And then whenever you make new cargo, which is what you use to buy advancements, it makes it back at the Harbor. So the further you sail out, the further you have to sail back to get the resources to buy more stuff again. You have to sail back to get the resources to buy more stuff again. You’re going back and forth.
DTD: So you need to have this cargo, when you’re far away.
JDC: But then when you make new cargo, it makes it back at home. You gotta sail back home to pick it up, so the push and pull there is the good stuff is deeper out, but it’s going to take you longer to get there, and longer to get back.
DTD: There’s a few fishing game things with that push-pull mechanic. I’ve always liked that. It’s a cool one, even Sierra West to a point has that now.
JDC: I haven’t played Sierra West yet.
DTD: Not too bad. Pretty good.
JDC: The new way I do card crafting in Dead Reckoning, is a new system for card crafting. Like I said, there’s still plenty of design space in the card crafting world to do not just Mystic Vale. In Mystic Vale you got a card, you can add three things to it. Hopefully they synergize. And Dead Reckoning is similar, but they’re also upgrading the backside, and you can take ownership of cards, right? That’s how Edge of Darkness does it differently, where it’s the same thing, but you can upgrade, and you’re upgrading the monster side of the card. And there’s the shared deck building. So in Dead Reckoning, what I do is all your crew cards are actually composed of two cards at the start of the game. There’s an image part, which is just a picture of your crew member and their name that goes at the top of the card, and the rest of the card is blank. I should say the rest of that card is transparent. Then there’s an ability card that goes behind that. And the ability card is double sided, and has an ability at the bottom and the top of each side. But your image card covers the top bit. You don’t actually see the ability at the top. You see the ability at bottom. That’s your level one ability. But the crew member can level up, at which point you take out the ability card, flip it around 180, and now you have level 2.
DTD: So there’s a back, there’s an upside down, and a right side up?
JDC: Correct. And then you can level up again, where you pull it out, and turn it around. Every card has four levels baked into it from the start. So your captain can start at level one, and you could add advancements to him, to make him better, but you could also just level him up through his own specific level up path to a level 4 captain.
DTD: Oh, that’s lovely.
JDC: Sort of the elegance and the simplicity of the game is that the core systems in the game, which is like conquering islands, getting more fighting abilities, being able to attack upon its ships, building buildings on the islands you control, adding upgrades to your ship. All of those core rule systems that exist in the game are all baked into the levels of your starting crew deck.
DTD: Does each player start with a different crew? Is it asymmetrical in that way?
JDC: You have the same starting crew. But you have a crew member that can level up into a guy that can make buildings. You have a crew member that can level up into the guy that can add upgrades to your ship, like more sailing, or whatever. You have a card that can level up into a guy who’s really good at conquering islands. Everyone has those core mechanisms baked into their starting deck, and it’s up to them which sort of level to…
DTD: To emphasize which one you want to focus on. That’s terrific.
JDC: And then, while you’re going also picking up advancements, which hopefully synergize on the card, you’re putting them on. And that’s sort of how the card crafting works in that game. And it’s also just the core of everything. Every core system of the game is sort of baked into your starting 12 cards.
DTD: That sounds fantastic. It sounds like a good evolution of the system. Really cool. So the cube tower is used for fights. Are there player-versus-player fights?
JDC: So, it’s the type of game where, if you don’t want to ever get into fights, you don’t have to. Well, you might have to if you leave yourself vulnerable. But you could play super cautious and no one will ever be able to attack you. However, there’s advantages to playing a little bit more risky, right? But to win the game you don’t ever have to initiate fights with other players. There are certainly strategies available that are like, “I’m just going to kind of do my thing.” If other people want to come after you, if you [want to do] some things to make that not particularly advantageous to them, it means you have to invest in that. But you can make yourself a target that isn’t worth fighting, or people don’t want to fight. If you want to go super piratey, people might be scared of you. But there’s also NPCs you can fight, and opponents, if they fail, or choose not to invest, in making themselves bad targets, then they are targets for you. So it’s kind of a player style thing. If all the players at the table don’t want to do a lot of fighting against each other, there’s NPCs they can fight and they won’t fight each other that much. And that’s just ship battles. I have my ship and I’m sailing up to you and I’m shooting you, and we are fighting. The sort of unavoidable player conflict is on island control, so you want to gain influence over islands, because you pick up resources from them and they’re worth endgame points. You’re going to be dropping influence tokens on the islands, but then people could come by and bump off your influence and put their own down. But in none of this fighting against each other am I destroying your engine, we’re basically fighting over victory points. We’re not fighting over engines.
DTD: You’re not going to break my ship or kill my crew.
JDC: I’m not going to kill your really cool crew member. Yeah, I’m going to come in and steal victory points. I’m going to steal your treasure, which is victory points. But I’m not going to break your engine. In my opinion, engine-building games have un-fun moments when your engine gets broken by someone.
DTD: Lots of people talk about that.
JDC: I could break your your engine or his engine, so I’m going to break your engine. I can pick. That’s just un-fun, I think; however, stealing victory points I think isn’t un-fun, it’s just a factor.
DTD: No, I totally get it. And there’s been more recent games that have player-[vs]-player attacks where the person who gets beaten up doesn’t lose anything. But a player who does the beating gets a benefit. Or even the player who gets beat up gets a compensation.
JDC: And you, of course, you don’t want to be ‘the person.’ It’s still better to win, right? Because you didn’t get things by losing, you didn’t get the reward. So you still want to win the fights. But if you lose, you’re not no longer having fun, right?
DTD: I totally get it. And again, that’s that big move from the way games were 10, 20 years ago. It was all attack each other and do as much horrible to the other players you possibly could.
JDC: I think there’s still room, like I said, I think there’s people that are like that. But it’s a smaller subset. And the people who like that also like it the other way. I don’t think most do, there’s exceptions always, but I think the people who don’t mind that super-conflict game, zero-sum sort of conflict, in the game. People who don’t mind that, also don’t mind the non-zero sum version. But there’s people who do mind the conflict, right, who only like the non-zero sum. So that’s why the non-zero sum just appeals to more people.
DTD: No, I totally get it. No, it sounds fantastic. I’m excited about that.
Stay tuned for next time, when John, under severe interrogation, reveals his next game designs leading into 2020 and 2021.