/ August 9, 2020

Creating Kingless

Late one evening at the back end of August 2018, two friends of mine, Alex and Seb, got in touch with me (very excitedly I might add) about a new concept they had been brainstorming. This concept was a dwarf themed card game, based around a central adventure deck. Initially, I was very interested about the idea, with thoughts of possible rules and directions bouncing around in my head.

I went away and started to plan. Initially, I worked with the idea of having each player take control of a separate clan of dwarves, and then try to overpower each other by recruiting more dwarves and taking control of buildings to increase their overall strength. The winning clan would be the one with the highest strength value at the end of the game.

I wrote down several points on this note page (with a few typos here and there), and had what I thought was an effective idea in my head for how the game would work, which I could then pitch to Alex and Seb the next day. As you can see below, the time had gotten away from me that night with planning.

After having another meeting with Alex and Seb, we started work on Kingless in earnest. A large amount of effort in the early days went into naming our dwarfs and developing a personality for all of them, also creating our buildings and spells (soon to become items and events).
We always knew that we wanted Kingless to be a game that is well suited to being picked up by a group of friends, quick to play and easy to learn for new players but it still had to have enough depth to the mechanics to allow for good strategic play. This mantra of an easy-to-learn and fast-paced game led us to changing our theme towards a goofy community of dwarfs that are based around the Hammer and Crown tavern. This motley group would have a King governing them, and since we know the burden of being King is weighty, it is not unusual for the King to disappear to the lakes to go fishing to help unwind and as such the community must meet again to appoint a new King. Therefore the player with the highest influence (formally strength) would become the new King.
In tune with this notion, we cut from the game the bluffing mechanic around a central powerful card. We felt it was too clunky with the rest of the game and didn’t quite fit in. However, I love bluffing mechanics in games and will be excited to work with the concept in the future.
Through developing the game, we used strict version control. Versions 1 through to 6 we kept between Alex, Seb and myself. The changes to Kingless in these versions were happening at a rapid rate, and it was an involved process moulding Kingless towards the game we were envisioning.
One of the parts of Kingless that I really enjoy is the way the game plays due to the mechanics behind the player with the most influence becoming the King and the player with the least influence becoming the Fool. Such players are faced with challenging decisions; do they try and take down the King by targeting the player with the most influence, or do they secure their place in the middle of the pack by targeting a player with less influence to ensure that it is not themselves that become the Fool?
The goal of Kingless, if not to become King, is to ensure that you do not become the Fool. This keeps the game competitive and engaging for all players throughout its entirety; there are huge momentum swings in Kingless and every player has a plan and plot — so it is never over until the last card is played.
Version 7 was where we knew we were getting close to our goal, so we hosted an event with our friends to show them all what we had been working on. We got some great feedback and it was well received, which was a huge relief for myself. It’s always nerve-wracking when people look at your projects that you’ve worked hard on.

After our Version 7 playtest we knew how close we were, so we made one more major change, being the implementation of our claim mechanic. This is something that I’m super excited about, due to myself never playing a game with a mechanic quite like this before. Claim works to take a dwarf or item off another player and into your control, so not only does it affect cards played on the table but it affects everyone’s hand of cards also. This means there is always a risk of a card you need being claimed away and thus ruining your well-laid plans.

After that we made more refined changes to the point where we hit Version 10 for our one-year birthday of Kingless, leading to us hosting another event and having the most amazing thing happen. We made no rule changes for the first time ever. We finally knew we had a game that all of us at Two19 are proud to say is ours.

In my past, I have played many board and card games and I found it an absolute joy in having a chance to have my say in designing a game. It felt so rewarding to start at a concept and watch the project grow and develop into a game that strikes the balance between being easy to learn and also having enough mechanics and intricacies for many different styles of strategy — all of which are viable ways to avoid being named the fool, and who knows, maybe even good enough to become the King!

/ August 2, 2020

Testing Kingless

Very early on in this development process, we had what we felt were the bare bones of a game. Therefore, after a bit of work we decided to try playing Kingless for the first time. We knew right at the beginning that we weren’t going to have created a perfect fully functioning game that was both fun and balanced. So our first draft was a chance to test out things we had not yet fully established.

M ost of the actual development of Kingless was managed through working collaboratively online, but to do a proper test we had to play it. Getting three working adults together in person regularly is always going to be a challenge, especially given the number of times we would have to play test Kingless. After a small and fruitless effort to play Kingless on paper, we decided it would be more effective to test it online. Our first port of call was Tabletop Simulator by Berserk Games; if you are unfamiliar with this, it’s (unsurprisingly) a simulated table where people play all manner of games. This worked great, as we could upload our cards into the game and play in the evenings after work.

Image for post

We decided from the very beginning that the only way we would make meaningful progress was with strict version control. This would allow us to take notes for each version we played and see how the changes we were making influenced the game.

The first few playtesting sessions were tremendous fun, and we were making card and terminology changes almost on the fly with one version following another in quick succession. After those initial sessions, we had all the major loopholes fixed and the game’s language decided, as well as having a lot of fun; but most importantly, we were starting to have fun playing Kingless in addition to making it. Since then the greatest challenge has been balancing the pacing and feel of the game, which has been a nuanced process and was the dominant consideration for several versions.

Some challenges, however, are insurmountable. For us, this challenge was that you cannot truly test how a game plays and feels with 6 people with only 3 testers. We therefore decided to take the opportunity to open Kingless up to our family and friends to let them play it, so we could both show off the fantastic art we were receiving and get their valuable input. This brought us to our first live play test, which will be the focus of another blog post that is coming soon.

After that wonderful event, we were able to get some of our close friends on the tabletop simulator and test Kingless out with more people. We found it behaved exactly as we had hoped, with lots of player interaction and with valuable cards moving back and forth. My favourite thing was that while everyone wanted to win the game and be the King, what really kept everyone engaged the whole length of the game was to stave off being the Fool.

Image for post

/ August 2, 2020

Designing the Kingless Dwarfs

Coming up with the conceptual ideas behind the Kingless Dwarfs has actually been a very challenging part of this project. Between the 3 of us, we have each had our own idea of how we want each Dwarf to look.

Alex lead the way with the design style and lore behind each of the Dwarfs, this gave us some solid direction when coming up with the names and designs for each of the Dwarfs. Together, we worked from a comprehensive spreadsheet containing a whole suite of information on each Dwarf. We wanted to capture as much information as we could from the very beginning. The more information we had the better. Once the names had been decided, we started working on the features of the dwarfs.

We included things like hair colour, age, positions and poses, items they may be holding. Sometimes we even went so far as to include stains on their clothing to keep with the theatrics.

We reviewed and tweaked these design notes until we hit something we were all happy on. More importantly, a design that worked with the character. This is where we handed the notes over to our Designer, Anastas. Anastas works her magic and a few days later presents us with a first sketch. For me, this is the most exciting part of the process, it’s when we really get to see our ideas come to life.

Image for post

This now gives us an opportunity to refine the design further. As with Bron Lawbringer, we wanted to change the way he was positioned. It just didn’t feel right having him standing, after all, he’s too drunk for that!

Image for post

Once we are all happy with how the sketch is looking, Anastas will then get to work on colouring and adding the card text to the design. At this stage, we add smaller details to the Dwarfs. Some have rips or stains on their clothing, others have gloves tucked away in their pockets. Every card we build have small nuances that if you look for long enough you will find.

Our design process for each Dwarf takes around 5 days to complete, from sketches to full colour. It’s not a quick process, but I think you’ll agree, they look fantastic!

Image for post

/ August 2, 2020

The Origins of Kingless

Kingless began as all projects do, with an idea.

In August 2018I had this idea for a dwarf-themed game which bore no resemblance to Kingless whatsoever, beyond the presence of cards. After a quick think about how it could work, I suggested it to Sebwho responded with instant enthusiasm. I had heard that we are currently in the golden age of independent tabletop game design, what with the internet to connect people and the wonderful power of crowdfunding to bring ideas to life. We knew we wanted Nathan to join us on the projectas we were already working together and he has played more tabletop games than both of us combined.

After an initial brainstorming session for the mechanics, Seb and I thought we had really nailed it. As you probably guessed, we had notand you will see almost nothing from those initial frantic notes in the game todayNathan put us to rights and spent an evening inventing the bones of the fast and approachable game we have today.

Those initial efforts left us with an excellent framework, but we had only just begun. We knew we needed dwarves, events (spells at the time) and items. All of these factors had to have a name and a function to play off of each other, so as to really bring the game to life. After throwing enough ideas at the wall to see what stuck, we got a list of dwarves we were happy with, complete with a name, an identity and a pivotal role in our game.

Image for post

I’ve always found naming characters to be challenging, and it turned out to be even harder to name a game. We decided to create a spreadsheet containing a handful of name concepts. We then independently reviewed and added a number rating to themso we could get a final list together. This ended with a clear result for Kingless, but if you look carefully you can see the central theme and the very first reference to the Hammer & Crown.

Image for post

With both the name and the game roughed out, we began the long process of playtesting and improving it. As you can imagine, the first playtest was rough with many improvements being done on the fly, and turns were made in between frantic note-taking. By the third playtest, however, Kingless was finally starting to feel like the game we had imagined and fun was being derived from gameplay and not just us laughing at our own hubris.

After many incremental changes, we arrived at version 0.7 for usthis was a milestone. Kingless was now playing how we envisioned, and it was time to open the game up to friends and family.