Bryan Kline Mystic Tiger Games

Q&A Today: Bryan Kline

It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing game designer Bryan Kline (Mystic Tiger Games) chime in on MANAFORGE and all things gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.

Q:  What can you tell us about the mechanics of your dice-rolling tabletop game MANAFORGE?

BK:  In Manaforge, players roll dice to obtain mana, the wizard’s basic resource. Mana is spent to obtain item cards, which represent the various magical equipment and locations that the players can create. Some item cards give immediate bonuses, while others stay in play and grant ongoing benefits. Many item cards give prestige, which is the game’s victory points; at the end of nine rounds, the player with the most prestige wins.

Q:  Why only 9 rounds?  Is there a certain significance to the number 9 in this context?

BK:  9 is only significant in that it is a multiple of three. When I first started creating Manaforge, all of the cards were piled into one monolithic deck. That was awful in terms of how the game flowed; powerful cards that the players could not used sometimes showed up at the beginning of the game, and cards that only gave minor bonuses showed up at the end when players were already set up. So, since I had been playing a lot of 7 Wonders, I used their idea of splitting the deck up into three, with each deck governing a third of the time. Since each deck had the same number of cards in it, it followed that each deck was in play for the same number of rounds. Hence how the round count evenly divides by 3.

Also when I first started, Manaforge had 15 rounds to it. Way too long; players got bored after a certain point. The round count was quickly lowered to 12. After several iterations of the game, after I had added the player boards and capped the number of in-play cards, we determined that four rounds of the early decks was too much, as players would almost always become saturated with resource cards. So the round count was lowered again to 9, and it has stayed there since.

Q:  What are the game’s item cards like?

BK:  Thematically, there are two types of item cards in Manaforge. Cards that give resources to the player tend to be large objects or locations. The Verdant Haven is a secret forest clearing where all of nature’s creatures live in perfect harmony. The Aether Geyser is an uncontrolled fountain of magical energy that sprays out of the ground. The Gem Amplifier is a huge steampunk-esque mechanical platform that multiplies the power of magic gems.

In contrast, the cards that take resources and yield victory points tend towards magic items and adventuring gear. Specifically, this is the stuff that you want wealthy adventurers to come in to your shop and buy. Some cards represent the ability to make several of the same item. The Feather Cloaks card lets you produce multiple cloaks that spread apart and allow the wearer to fly. The Frostbite Maces card lets you make many maces with the power to freeze enemies. Other item cards represent single, powerful items. The Dragon Scepter is a heavy golden scepter that produces dragon-shaped blasts of flame. The Portal Staff is a long staff with the power to open portals to other planes and summon creatures. And some cards are ‘wand’ cards, unique cards that multiply in power the more of them you have. Wands can have a range of effects from digging through rock or lighting an area, to creating tidal waves or tornados.

Q:  The Verdant Haven sounds like a lovely place.  What was your inspiration for that?

BK:  The theme for this particular card came from the way the game’s mechanics intersected. In Manaforge, cards that are equal parts Earth and Water are termed ‘Nature’ cards. (This is a thematic distinction only; it has no mechanical effect.) So this card needed to be a resource-generation card, meaning that it had to be a large object or location, and an earth and water card, meaning it has to do with nature. Working from that, I came up with the idea for a magical forest glade, where every type of plant and animal in existence is represented. And since some of these creatures would normally be predators of the others or just simply territorial, I added the caveat that the entire area has a ‘tranquility’ spell over it, making creatures in the area disinclined towards any violent behavior. The perfect spot for an enterprising crafter to walk in and soak up some magical energy.

Q:  MANAFORGE has an extraordinary theme.  Will it appeal to tabletop RPGers? 

BK:  I’d like to think so! In most fantasy RPGs, magic items are plentiful, but very little energy is spent detailing the origins of those items. Where did that orc get a +1 flaming maul? How does that red dragon have a bag of holding? Manaforge steps in to fill part of that void, chronicling the creation of some of these items. Manaforge places the players in the roles of what would be NPCs in a magic item shop, hoping to exchange the products of their hard work for the huge jingling bags of gold coins that adventurers have a habit of lugging around.

Q:  If you had a magic shop of your own, what would you call it?

BK:  Hmmm… I’d probably just go for the alliteration. Make a wand shop called Bryan’s Breathtaking Boomsticks or something like that.

Q:  A wand shop, you say?  And what would be some of this week’s featured wands at the shop?

BK:  The house special for this week is called a Blasting Wand! This long willow wand is flexible and has a white tassel attached to its base end. With a flick of the wrist and the correct activation word, this wand launches a globe of highly-compressed air and magical energy towards any location you can see. When this globe connects with any solid object, it detonates with a bang, causing a shockwave of air and force to ripple out. Nearby fragile items are shattered, small to medium-sided objects (including foes) are flung through the air, and larger objects and structures may be cracked or dented. The wand holds enough energy for three uses, and recharges itself at a rate of one use per 24 hours.

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Q:  Let’s look back for a moment, at the early development of MANAFORGE. What was that time period like for you?

BK:  I did not originally set out with the intention to create a board game. Instead, the idea for a game just kind of struck me while I was playing board games with a group of friends. This idea was particularly insistent, too; at times I would get headaches from the sheer amount of possibilities for this game. The only way to get the idea out of my head was to create a prototype, so I went on a parts shopping spree and cobbled together the necessary bits to make the first iteration of my game. It was a very primitive prototype; blank white dice with colored dots drawn on the faces, and scraps of paper in sleeves for the cards.

The first iteration of my game, code named “Dots”, was absolutely horrid. At times boring, frustrating, or completely random. I’m actually surprised that my friends allowed me to continue using them to test the game. But I’m glad they did, for underneath all of the not-fun parts of the game, there was a tiny core of enjoyable gameplay in there. It was just a matter of doing the endless cycle of modify-and-test in order to find the game’s fun parts.

Q:  How much playtesting went into MANAFORGE?

BK:  I lost track of that a long time ago. Let’s just say “a lot”. I’ve easily personally hosted over one hundred playtest games, probably closer to two hundred. And that’s not counting the ones I haven’t been a part of. Between giving out prototype copies to reviewers and demoers, and making Manaforge available on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator, I’m sure the game has been played many more times than I’m aware of. Even if I’m not there, the feedback from many of those playthroughs will still find its way back to me.

Q:  What are your thoughts on today’s market for indie tabletop games and the general state of the game industry?

BK:  The hobby game industry is booming right now. It seems like not that long ago where I wouldn’t have even thought to look for a game like Ticket to Ride in a place like Target or Barnes & Noble. But now, seeing strategy board games in mainstream stores like that is encouraging for the hobby as a whole.

That being said, it feels like the board game market is becoming saturated and hard to get noticed in for a small independent game developer. With large publishing companies churning out dozens of high-profile games, and especially in the crowdfunding space where big names are sucking up all of the attention, it feels like there is a diminishing slice of gamers’ wallets left over for indie game companies.

Q:  What are some crowdfunding pitfalls to steer clear of?

BK:  One big pitfall that a lot of first-time project creators run into is assuming that once you post your campaign to a crowdfunding platform, that everyone will just flock to it. Just having a project out there isn’t enough; you must actively do something to drive people to it. People can’t pledge funds for your project if nobody knows about it. And with so many high-profile games available on the crowdfunding platforms right now, most people aren’t inclined to go out and seek the smaller, less known projects.

My project was not immune to this. I thought I did a good amount of advertising, getting well-known game reviewers, taking out ads, and posting on social media starting a month before I launched my campaign. When I launched, I thought I had a good day, reaching over 40% of my goal in the first 24 hours. But that momentum did not keep up. After that point, I had to scramble to rearrange my campaign to make it more attractive, and find every outlet I could to get the word out, including going to local stores and doing demos, and setting up an online game giveaway to increase my reach. In the end, it was only due to a good push in the last two days of my campaign that got me over my funding threshold.

Q:  Beyond MANAFORGE, have you got other irons in the fire?

BK:  Of course! Besides various ideas for expansions for Manaforge, my next game idea is for a card game called Suicidal Cabbages. This game is a tongue-in-cheek-humor game about heads of cabbage deciding to chop themselves up to make the best bowls of coleslaw. Cards in the game can represent various ways of dealing damage to yourself, such as kitchen knives, chainsaws, and dynamite; or coleslaw ingredients, such as mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper. I’m aiming for the game to need careful hand management skills, as playing cards that do damage to you require you to throw other cards away, but those other cards could be ingredients you need for your recipe. When one player reaches zero health, the game ends and players rate their coleslaw by how much they were able to chop themselves up and how good their ingredients are.

Q:  Which other tabletop games have you been enjoying these days and why?

BK:  At the moment, my two favorite games are Roll Player and Terraforming Mars. Roll Player is, ironically enough, a game about building Dungeons & Dragons characters. Players draft dice and add them to their character sheet, trying to get the optimal arrangement of 3d6 dice for their character’s six stats, all the while obtaining weapons, armor, skills, and traits. Terraforming Mars is a resource management game about making the planet Mars habitable. Players ramp up their production of various resources, and then use those resources to raise the planet’s temperature and atmospheric oxygen; construct forests, oceans, and cities; and research various technological improvements, in order to gain the most fame for their corporation.

I guess I like both games because they are very puzzle-y games that require careful thought in planning out your moves, while at the same time having a limited amount of player interaction. Sure, in both games you can easily screw over another player, but doing so is a by-product of the game’s mechanics and not the primary focus of the game.

Q:  What would you most like to see happen on the planet of Mars?

BK:  We really need to establish some sort of presence on the planet Mars. Even if it’s a simple inflatable research outpost on the red planet, travel to and from Mars would be much less problematic if there was something there to go to, as opposed to all missions being a mostly non-stop journey from here to there and back.

Q:  What hasn’t really happened yet, in the world of tabletop games, that you would love to see happen next?

BK:  I’m still waiting for the true digital revolution in board and RPG gaming. Sure, there is a multitude of apps and computing accessories for gaming. Programs for tracking RPG characters and digital versions of individual board games are widely available. Programs like Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia allow players to gather online and play board games they don’t even have physical copies of with friends or strangers from far away.

But somehow, it feels like we should be able to do more. I should be able to sit down at my gaming table, have my favorite board game appear as an image projected onto the table, and see images of my friends sitting around the table. A virtual gathering of real-life friends, complete with the same interpersonal interaction as if they were actually there, but without the hassle of having to lug my games over to my friend’s house. The system also needs to be able to manage the game state on its own, especially time-saving for increasingly complex board games with hundreds of miniatures and tokens, allowing me to focus on having fun with my friends. I’m hoping the upcoming PlayTable board game tablet will be the first step in that direction, but either way I think we have a long way to go.

Q:  Share a thrilling tabletop RPG memory with us?

BK:  One of my favorite memories from a RPG game was during a session using the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil module. I remember this particular session well, because I was the designated ‘chronicler’ for the session, tasked with turning the activity of the gaming session into a written log. I took notes furiously during the whole session, and even though it took a while, I think I managed to create a very good recounting of the action.

The game session had the party fighting a rather nasty green dragon named Vranthis. I was playing my sorcerer/dragon disciple Aramil, and I spent a lot of the combat flinging fireballs at the dragon and trying not to get killed. Lots of magic, flying around, trying to see in the dark, axes and arrows, acid breath, and hungry dragon claws and bites. The party was able to severely wound the dragon, but it escaped before we could finish it off. We did end up with its rather sizable treasure hoard. We suffered one casualty, though, the NPC paladin Xaod. The session logs probably still exist online somewhere; our GM goes by the somewhat unique handle “Infiniti2000” so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find.

Q:  Vranthis is still out there. Any plans to find him and finish him off (or subdue him?)

BK:  It’s been long enough that I don’t recall how that particular story ended. I know we encountered Vranthis a couple of times after that, and he was always a thorn in our side. I want to say we made a deal with the white dragon Krystaf to bring him the head of Vranthis or something in exchange for help in clearing out the mines.

Q:  Which tabletop games would you recommend for children aged 10 and under?

BK:  I don’t own many games that would be suitable for small children. Still, one of my favorite filler games is called Piece o’ Cake, a game where you create cakes out of ‘slice’ pieces, carve them up, and let the other players agonize over which ones to take. There is some element of strategy to the game, as you can ‘eat’ slices for a guaranteed small number of points, or ‘store’ slices for a large number of points if you are the player with the most of that type of slice. The slice pieces are large and colorful and would easily be distinguishable to younger players.

Also, I would be amiss if I didn’t pimp my friend’s family-friendly card game, Barnyard Roundup, which is a bluffing game where the cards are bright and colorful and depict farm animals. The object is to collect cards for points, but you are allowed to lie about what cards you have. Other players can attempt to call your bluff, but face a penalty if they guess wrong.

Q:  If you were leaving tomorrow, on a cruise to the Caribbean, and you could bring three books along with you for the journey, which three books would accompany you?

BK:  I am very overdue to read a couple of fantasy novels written by friends of mine. The first is called Compendium, written by Alia Luria, and the second is The Citadel: Black Moon Falling, by Kenneth Altman. I also would bring along my Java study guide, as I am a computer programmer and am currently looking to add a couple of certifications to my resume.

Q:  What’s scarier, dungeons or dragons? And why?

BK:  Dungeons, I’d think. The descent into the unknown. The persistent darkness. The ever present threat of deadly traps. The hordes of monsters. Rationing food and water. Hauling around heavy loot. Running out of resources and having to work to get back to the surface, rest, and then do it all over again. There’s only so much one can do to prepare for the huge variety of dangers present in a typical adventuring dungeon.

Dragons, on the other hand, are a quick threat. Sure, they’re scary, knowing that if you piss one off, chances are you will be dead quickly. But some dragons are helpful, or are at least willing to not bite you in half or roast you to ash. Some will be willing to make a deal with you, giving you items or information in exchange for something they really want. And if you do manage to make one angry anyway, you won’t live long enough to be afraid.

Q:  What are you most looking forward to this summer?

BK:  I’m actually looking forward to a little bit of time off over the next few months. Being a game designer is fun, but acting as a publisher too is a huge amount of work. Getting Manaforge from concept to product has been an informative and rewarding experience, but it’s also taken up most of my spare time; I’m essentially working a second job. With Manaforge entering its manufacturing and shipping phases, it should need less attention from me over the next few months, giving me time to rest and recharge my creative batteries.

Besides that, I’m also looking forward to attending Dice Tower Convention this July. Last year was my first time going to that particular convention, and it was a huge amount of fun. Meet up with old friends and make new ones, play board games that I’ve never even heard of, attend panels and get up to date on new gaming trends and development techniques, and of course get more publicity for Manaforge.