It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing game designer Dann Kriss chime in on all things gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.
Q: TAVERN MASTERS looks like great fun. What can you tell us about this game, without giving too much away?
DK: The basic elevator pitch is that each player is a Tavernkeeper in the fantasy village of Redstaff. You play Goods and Staff to your Tavern during the Day, so that at Night you have more things that Patrons want in order to play them. Sometimes Patrons like things you stock your Tavern with that keep them around for multiple rounds. Once one or more players end a round with 20+ Gold, the game ends and the player with the most Gold wins! That is just the competitive way to play, you can also play Tavern Masters cooperatively or even solo. As Gold is the victory condition and also the cost of playing Goods and Staff, there is a good bit of strategy in choosing which items to play or how much Gold to keep, plus you can choose when to play Patrons, and there is even a Hand management aspect. These methods of choice and control balance against the luck of what you draw, plus trading Goods and Staff between players is allowed and encouraged.
Q: We don’t often see tabletop games that can played competitively, cooperatively or solo. Hats off to you for designing the game in such a manner. Which of those three ways is your current way to enjoy playing a tabletop game, and why?
DK: I usually strive to find all the ways possible to maximize enjoyment from my game designs, and am always happy when I can pull off creating a game that has such versatility. A number of my games actually have various play modes, including the whole competitive-coop-solo trio (and really, you can fit Team play in there too, because Team play just uses Coop rules for teammates and Competitive rules for opposing players for the most part). I also like Challenge Charts, so you can choose your difficulty level, which is especially useful for Coop and Solo modes. As for which mode I prefer, it really depends on the game. With my game Tavern Masters, I usually prefer Competitive because TM’s Competitive mode is still very friendly play if you don’t include the Dirty Deeds Expansion, and that’s nice when you’re playing an engine building game. Other games of mine, like with my big fantasy adventure board game Realms Of Destiny, I definitely prefer Coop, because then you can really explore and build your equipment and your party up before you go to the final boss fight. In others, like my Lord Of The Night: Feast Of Blood (aiming for a 2018 release) I definitely prefer Competitive because it’s a much more high stakes kind of game (and not just because it’s about vampires).
Q: Lord of the Night: Feast of Blood? A high stakes game? We see what you did there. What is it about this upcoming vampire game that really stands out from other tabletop vampire games?
DK: Lord of the Night: Feast of Blood is an American-Euro hybrid. The basics of gameplay are worker placement, resource management and decision-based strategies, but there is still plenty of random elements to keep you on your toes. Set in a dark fantasy village, each player is a vampire who seeks to grow in power to be able to claim the Dark Throne and become the new “Lord of the Night”. Depending on which vampiric House you belong to, your powers increase during one of the four Moon phases. Each round the Black Gate can open (allowing you to win – or fight for it) with a different Trait test, depending again on the Moon phase. The board contains the different buildings in the village, and each can hold up to 4 Humans. You can attack humans to kill them, capture them to build a blood Herd, enthrall them as your minions, or even sneak up to drink their blood. Many humans have powers to make various actions more difficult, and some spaces have their own choice of abilities. You also have Undead Abilities and Dark Powers which can aid your choices. Instead of numbered dice, there are three different symbols on each die (2 of each per die), and your Rank in any Trait tells you how many dice to roll. Each symbol counts as one success for a certain type of action, and the Human or opposing element’s Rank is the number of successes you need to accomplish your action. This game is also Competitive, Cooperative, or Solo play. It is the first in a trilogy of LotN games; the second, LotN: Feast of Flesh is a werewolf themed game in the woods outside the village, and the third, LotN: Feast of Souls is a cultist themed game set in the nearby ruins. You can play each game separately, or you can use any two or all three together. What stands out about Lord Of The Night? You tell me, but I would have to say… everything!
Q: What was the Kickstarter experience like for you?
DK: Kickstarter is always an exciting ride, whether you pass or fail at the end. This is my sixth campaign, and it’s still just as exciting as the first one! Kickstarter is more than a platform to fund projects, it is a community of like-minded dreamers, and getting to share my dreams and ideas with my fellow lovers of the tabletop experience is so amazing! It can be tiring at times, as the e-mails tend to back up while you’re still trying to answer them all, meanwhile trying to get the next batch of graphics done, write the next update, and of course all of the regular stuff you have to do when simultaneously getting a game to print and trying to run a company of one. Still, all of that is worth it to see other people come together over my ideas, discuss and explore them, and to hear them enjoy the gaming experiences I’ve worked so hard to craft for them!
Q: When did you first begin designing games?
DK: I have been designing games since I was a teen, deep in gaming and role-playing. I have always enjoyed the trip of the mind to other strange and fantastic worlds, and loved finding new ways to share those adventures with others. I have been focused on making games with the intent of releasing them either through a publisher or publishing them myself since around 2005. I love working on game designs, trying out new concepts for mechanics and exploring fun themes. I currently have (at last count) 126 different games that I’m working on, around 45 of them prototyped (in various stages of revision), and a good 15 or so more games ready to print right now, except for the necessary art and printing funds, and that’s not counting all of the various expansions I have developed for a number of these games.
Q: 126 different games that you’re working on? That could be a new world’s record. How do you do it? What’s your secret?
DK: When I first got serious about making games, I would sit down, hash out the theme I wanted to explore, then just start making lists of thematic elements I would want to work in to the game. Next I would begin thinking of how to interpret each of those elements into game mechanics, then I would work all of those mechanics into a cohesive gameplay and begin shaping and polishing from there with loads of playtesting. These days, ideas for games just pop into my head when I’m busy doing other things, and so just like meditation I mull over ideas for mechanics and thematic elements until a clear picture begins to form in my head of the thing which I am creating. At that point I write it down with as much as I can dream up while it’s fresh in my mind, then once I come to a place where I can go no further, I save it and come back to it either when I have another idea for it, or when I want to develop it further. One of the biggest, hardest lessons has been writing my ideas down while they’re still in my head. Too many times I’ve woken up with a game idea in my head and thought “eh, I’ll remember it in the morning”. I have at least eight or nine games that would have been truly awesome but were lost to time because of not writing them down.
Q: Tell us about one of your recent ideas for a game mechanic?
DK: Just the other week I thought up a card game that was a humorous meta-look at CCGs and their issues with power creep. I’m also developing a number of “pub games,” such as games that might be played in my fantasy taverns, as part of my IP for the World Of Destiny. The one elusive game mechanic concept that I am still trying to track down (and find a way to accomplish) is a way to evoke fear in a player. Movies can do it, books and short stories can do it, music can even do it, why not board games? I mean, sure, there are plenty of games that build tension, but I would love to develop a game that can cause a reaction at the level of a jump scare, or even just build the overwhelming sense of doom of a Lovecraft short story in a palpable way.
Q: What are your thoughts on today’s market for board games and the overall state of the industry today?
DK: Today’s market is more saturated than ever with so many new tabletop games each year that it chokes out the lesser (or less advertised) selections. What used to be a million dollar industry is now becoming a billion dollar industry. Of course, the biggest players on the field of industry are going to take the lion’s share of profits, but that’s natural in business. However, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have really helped to level the playing field a bit, or at least the entrance to the playing field. Now, we are starting to see the mid-level established publishers get bought up or partnered by bigger companies to consolidate the flow of capital into more focused streams, meanwhile more and more companies who have grown from the new platforms are becoming the new mid-level companies, and more small guys crop up every day. It truly is a “rising tide raises all boats” kind of situation, even between competitors. In this industry, there’s less of a need for competition between brands and companies, as the market share is large enough to accommodate all of the big name interests and still fully support the more fringe niches. These days, there can be 30 “train” games out there, because they are no longer being judged against a single industry standard, but instead on their own merit of enjoyment and repeat plays.
Q: We seem to be living in somewhat of a golden age for board games. Do you agree?
DK: It is absolutely true that we are living in a golden age for board games, and tabletop games in general. Since the 70s, gaming has become more and more digital, which is much more convenient for solo play situations. Increasingly, that same solo-play focus not only made solo-play more accessible, but actually began to encourage it. With the advent of online gaming, the solo play focus (as in, little to no physical social interaction) became forced to the point of exclusion of general life for so many players that people began to actually miss the personal interactions that made the games so much fun to play since the beginning. I think that is what drove people off of their keyboards or controllers and back to the kitchen tables with their friends. It wasn’t so much that a bunch of new amazing games came out all at once. There were already PLENTY of awesome, amazing games out there to be played. It just meant that people were not FINDING those games and experiencing them together for the first time. As that experience grew, more demand for games began to increase, and through perfect happenstance of timing, the crowdfunding platform emerged as a way to put more games into production than was previously possible with the investment-heavy high-risk options of the time. Now, anyone with some crayons and a basic understanding of math or color correlation can put their game idea up for the gaming masses to judge, and as has been said before, backers vote with their wallets. People can post arguments for days about this, that, or the other of any game, but in the end a game funds or not on its own merit. Sometimes it’s the game, sometimes the presentation or the creator themselves, but all of these factor in to the decision of most backers as to whether they back a game or not. When we get to vote on new games with the very tangible ballot of our hard-earned dollars, we can actively help control the benchmark of quality and manage expectation vs result. That is my definition of a golden age indeed! We need to make the most of it while it lasts, because as we all know, nothing lasts forever!
Q: Share a favorite tabletop rpg story with us?
DK: Wow, that’s a tough one! So many amazing stories to tell, how could I pick one? Maybe the time my Wolfen character “Skazel” in an old Palladium Fantasy game built a kingdom where the Ophid’s Grasslands once stood. Or when my evil Warlock character in one of our Ravenloft campaigns actually laughed at Death, and Death could do nothing. Or when my 1st level Elf character “Snapple” in a one-off Palladium game actually succeeded at a Hypnotic Suggestion to make an alchemist give him a discount on a magic weapon, and the GM decided that wasn’t right, so he killed my character and we argued about the definition of a “success” on a Hypnotic Suggestion for the remaining two hours we had to game. One of my favorite things as a role-player is to trip up or somehow circumvent my DM’s best laid plans. One time my epic-level rogue was in one of the towers of Castle Ravenloft with his party, and we heard our imprisoned NPC follower from another tower (that presumably we were supposed to ascend from the bottom up). Instead I whipped out my magical 80 ft extendable ladder rod, and we all crawled our way across to the other tower, broke in through the wall, freed our squire and some loot, and avoided the main boss fight encounter planned for that 10 hour gaming session (although the paladin did get struck with lightning during the crawl, but that happens when you wear full plate up amidst the clouds during a lightning storm… he lived though.) Then there was the time we had to face an Orc stronghold in Forgotten Realms, so I had the party crawl up an unguarded back side of the four story fortress, and we killed our way down quite effectively without alerting the whole encampment. During the sacking of the fortress, my Halfling finishes putting one jailer guard to sleep and stealing his keys when three Orcs walks in and see me. Not knowing how to speak Orc, I just look at them, yell out “Gruuuuuuumsh” and disappear back up into the ceiling, leaving them confused and startled before my party fell upon them like a tide of death.
Q: You’ve got a rich history of rpg stories there. And, it’s always fun when a party of PCs gives an orc fortress what for (especially when it involves the yelling of Orcish deities’ names at them when they least expect it.) What more can you share with us about that particular tale?
DK: That was actually being run by one of my “War Council” members, Eric Riley. He was running us on a fun 1st level campaign for a bit in Faerun, and then he decided to put us through the Sons Of Gruumsh adventure module (Forgotten Realms d20 3.5). I was playing a Halfling with a silver tongue, and I was traveling with a few other characters I can’t remember at the moment and a Grey Orc. The Grey Orc was devoted to Gruumsh, and constantly just grunted his name. That was why I said it in Orc when those guards came around the corner. I figured it had to mean something, and the only other Orc I knew was always saying it! I wish I remembered more, but I remember that at first our DM was getting frustrated that we kept sneaking up and taking out guard outposts before anyone ever saw what was coming, but by the time we descended on the wyvern in the courtyard and killed it before it knew what had happened he was just going with it and having a blast to see what we would do next!
Q: Very interesting. What more can you tell us about the “War Council”?
DK: My “War Council” is comprised of myself, my wife Crystal, my partner Philip Tolin, our close friend Eric Riley, and more recently my son Viktor. Up until a few years ago, Eric and Phil both lived here with us as roommates, and so as I was developing new games, we would take them to table together and try to destroy them, bend them, break them, abuse them in any way possible. We had weekly game nights, but then there were tons of other nights where we would game as well. Realms Of Destiny was a household favorite, and it has seen well over 800 hours of active playtesting, including various expansions, most especially the five base expansions. We are also avid Savage Worlds players, as well as d20 3.5, and whatever else happens to suit our fancy. Although the old War Council doesn’t get together as often nowadays, we still love tearing into a new game, or just bringing some favorites like Tavern Masters, Game Lords, and especially Realms Of Destiny, to the table.
Q: What hasn’t really happened yet, in the world of tabletop gaming, that you would love to see happen next?
DK: Another tough question, but that is because there have been so many new advents and experiments in tabletop gaming at this point. Between new electronic pads and tables, holographic displays, Augmented Reality, and all the various different ways new technology has been combined with the tabletop gaming experience, it’s hard to imagine what hasn’t at least been tried. However, at the same time, incorporating any new technology hardware into an otherwise physical tabletop game really limits the lifespan of the game. In the end, everything has been tried except for what hasn’t, and when I finally think of what hasn’t been tried, I’ll either try it myself or find someone who will! Innovation is great, but then again, so is good ol’ gaming. Necessity is the mother of invention, but as they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Each new game is a new experience, a new journey to take, so I guess the best thing we as gamers can truly look forward to is sharing those adventures more and more with the people that we love (and like.)
Q: How much gameplay do you get to enjoy these days, and which games have you been enjoying?
DK: Sadly, once I started running a company it severely limited my gaming time, and meant that most of that time would be eaten up playtesting my prototypes. Luckily, I mostly make games that I really want to play, so getting to play them ad infinitum is pretty awesome, and I get the chance to make them better each time. Still, I do enjoy getting to sit down and play something new or different when I get the chance. We have ‘family game night’ at least once each week, and we’ve been trying some different games that I had been wanting to try out. A few weeks ago, I got to introduce my 7 year old to one of my favorite games from my youth, Fireball Island. He absolutely loved it! We tried Forbidden Island recently, and it was just as much fun as it looked on Tabletop. The game I’m most looking forward to trying that I picked up recently is SeaFall, the new Legacy game. I’ve heard lots of good things about it, and since I’m a role-player who likes the idea of continuity between play sessions, I have high hopes.
Q: Fireball Island? Nice! What did your son enjoy most about his first Fireball Island gaming experience? And, which other games has he found to his liking at this young age?
DK: Viktor (my son) loved it and wanted to play again immediately! He got such a kick out of rolling the fireballs at us, and he really loved the card play. I could tell he was also getting a bit immersed in the setting, talking about treasure and jewels and the jungle. We had just watched Jumanji a few weeks before, so he drew some fun parallels from that into his gameplay. His favorite game to play is my Realms Of Destiny, he really loves that one especially when we play it cooperatively. He likes it because even though it’s a cooperative fantasy board game, everyone goes around and has their own separate adventures and then comes together at the end to fight the main boss. No one has to feel like a “fifth wheel” in someone else’s adventure. He has also recently started playing the Pokemon CCG. There are some others he’s enjoyed, but some of his other favorites are some kids’ card games I made, like Zounds! and Sixpence Bakery. I can’t help it, we play other published games with him all the time, but he just likes his daddy’s games.
Q: Five dinner guests. Which five game designers would you invite to a dinner party?
DK: Hmm, that’s a good question. I’ve had the pleasure to meet some truly enjoyable game designers at various Cons, and would love to spend more time with them just because. However, I suppose if I really had to pick only five (and I’ll keep my list to living individuals, so no Gary Gygax or Todd Breitenstein), and eliminating those I know in person, I would have to go with this list: Steve Jackson, Kevin Siembieda, Monte Cook, James Mathe, and Rob Daviau
Q: That’s quite a list. What might be a question you’d like to ask Steve Jackson at that dinner party?
DK: Well, some of it I might seem boring, but probably questions about production, various markets, general industry talk, but then I would definitely talk to him about stuff like the Illuminati CCG, Fallout, various cult classics, and staying relevant all of these years. Kevin Siembieda would get a lot of talk about Palladium Fantasy and Rifts from me, and undoubtedly some insane role-playing stories from those worlds. Monte Cook I would talk about Lovecraft with, as well as his cool Chaositech book. Rob Daviau I would talk to him about his years as a developer for a major corp compared to working with other mid-level publishers and doing his own thing, plus I would discuss the whole legacy concept which I am eager to learn more about. James Mathe I would also talk industry stuff with, and he just seems like an interesting guy worth talking to.
Q: We bet Monte Cook would sure have some nice stories to tell. What’s your favorite Monte Cook creation, and why?
DK: I’ve heard great things about Numenara, and my buddy Shane has done a number of pieces of art for that world, but I haven’t had the chance to enjoy it yet myself. I really love the Chaositech material he came up with, but I also just really enjoyed his d20 3.5 take on Call Of Cthulhu. I had wanted to run a CoC game for a while, but most of my gaming buddies at the time were hung up on 3.5, so Monte’s adaptation fit our needs perfectly. They gave me all the basic tools I needed to translate my version of HPL’s rich worlds into dice and numbers, and I was able to take my party on a truly epic set of adventures that we still someday hope to get back to.
Q: What advice do you have for parents who are looking to introduce their kids to the wonderful world of tabletop gaming?
DK: There are lots of great games for kids out there! If you have a younger child, stores like Toys R Us are starting to carry more of the traditionally “hobby games” that are still geared towards including children. Remember that with kids, you can work in a couple of strategy games like the more standard Euros for experience in resource management, but kids like heavily luck-based games. This is more accessible for them without them having to challenge adults on an equal intellectual playing field. The best games in my opinion balance luck and strategy anyway, so you should find some pretty enjoyable gems along the way! Also, don’t forget that many small indie game publishers like myself commonly have to list our games as 13+ or 14+ for the age range due to government regulations and expensive testing standards, even though many games still just contain cards or plastic pieces that come from the same factories as games which pass these standards, so if you see a game that looks like it would be great for kids, don’t let the recommended age range keep you from looking into it further. There are so many great games for all ages that have been forced to keep their age ranges artificially heightened, so do some digging and you’ll find even more gems to grace your family gaming table!
Q: What are you most looking forward to in 2017?
DK: Getting the first copies of Tavern Masters in, of course! I also have some other exciting things up my sleeves as we move forward. This year we also hope to see some other games of mine get released, such as Sixpence Bakery (a children’s card game), Kill Santa (a simple fun little holiday game), the Dockside Expansion for Tavern Masters, and a second edition of our game Cthulhu: The Great Old One to finally put into distribution. Depending on how the year goes, we may also launch our new card game Game Lords which pokes fun at gaming stereotypes and uses a full polyhedral set of dice. I also look forward to some of the new projects we’ll be laying the groundwork for, like hopefully our first Lord Of The Night game which would also be out first big board game, and eventually our sprawling World of Destiny board game Realms Of Destiny, one of our tentpole titles that is my absolute favorite game to play ever, and has around 16 different expansions and add-ons in development, taking the game to epic levels of adventure. In short, I have a feeling that it’s going to be a great year!
Q: Game Lords is a card game that uses a full set of polyhedral dice? Very interesting. What more can you tell us about Game Lords?
DK: Game Lords is a card game about role-players and various gamer stereotypes. Each player is a “Game Lord” in their town trying to recruit enough players to get the party past their Level 20 campaign. Each player chooses a Genre (Fantasy, Horror, Cyberpunk, Sci-Fi, Superhero, Western) and a Type (Card-based, Dice-based, Live-Action) for their Game. Gamers can be played if your game has the Genre or Type they like. Each Gamer has a unique ability, and some add to your Game Roll (to progress in Level) or your Fame Roll (Round initiative). Each Gamer is some type of traditional gamer stereotype, like the Dungeon Dweller that likes Fantasy and lives in a relative’s basement. There are also Expansion books that count as two Genres in your Game (Serenity Expansion: Sci-Fi & Western, Cthulhu Expansion: Horror & Sci-Fi), and Snacks that let you play different Gamer types (“Liquid-Filled Gummy Bats” lets you play Horror Gamers). Each Campaign Level is associated with a polyhedral dice, so you have Levels 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, & 20. To beat Level 4, you have to roll a ‘4’ or higher on a d4, Level 6 you need a ‘6+’ on a d6, etc. The first Game Lord to have his or her party beat Level 20 wins!
Q: Liquid-Filled Gummy Bats sounds right up our alley! What would they even taste like?
DK: I imagine they would probably taste like the Hot Topic version of a strawberry Gusher. Other favorites are the Neon Blue Beverage, which lets you play Sci-Fi Gamers (because it seems like every Sci-Fi has to have some type of neon blue colored liquid as a popular drink, a la Trek’s Romulan ale or Wars’ blue milk), or Volt Energy Drink for Cyberpunk (our version of the hacker favorite Jolt). Of course, it’s hard to beat Western’s Icy Cold Sarsaparillas on a hot summer day, and if you just don’t happen to find any Snacks you like, the Delivery Boy Gamer can make your Game count as having Snacks (since he brings pizzas from work).