Today’s special guest is legendary game designer Richard Launius – known for Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, and Defender of the Realm among others. His most recent offering – Legends of the American Frontier – is on Kickstarter now with just a few days to go.
GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.
Richard: Legends of the American Frontier is an adventure game in which players take the role of one of the early pioneers of America, each character with one special ability they can use in the game. The game is played in stages, with the first stage being the upbringing stage. In the upbringing stage the players will draft cards to build their upbringing legend of the first 15 years of their life. Each card has a Legend story part, like I killed a bear with I was only 5”, and a Skill part that gives them Skill points that are used later in the game to assist in resolving adventures. The Frontier Stage of the game is next, and that is the heart of the game as adventures from American history and events are spawned in three different board sections; Back East, Frontier, and Far West. These adventures may be single player where multiple players compete for the single awards and addition to their Legend, or group adventures where 2 or more players work together to resolve the adventure and receive rewards based on their success level, but only the top player adding the card to their Legend. Through play, Adventures and purchased Rewards in the form of Happiness, Fame, Status and Wealth are also gained by players to ultimately give them a final score and completed Legend. The final stage of the game triggers whenever a card is to be revealed from one of the 3 Adventure decks and none remain, is the Legend Phase. In this phase the players add up the points from their adventures to determine their final score. Then, for fun, the players starting with the winner quickly recaps the Legend of their frontiersman.
GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?
Richard: I am not sure how innovative the mechanic is, but the building of the Legends and how they are displayed is probably my favorite part of the game. Additionally, unlike all my other games published to date, this one does not use dice for Adventure resolution, but rather a card Trump play process that is quick and fun. The Adventure deck has 7 suites numbered 1 – 8 (Luck is the only suite that is different is Luck – it is numbered 1 – 4) The lower cards in each of the 6 main suites; Capitalism, Frontier, Combat, Personality, Providence, Knowledge/Education have special abilities that the player can use both in and outside of adventures. The resolution of Adventures has a blackjack feel to it; you play a card to match the skill the Adventure requires (for example; to lead a wagon train westward the player may have to achieve a Frontier Value of 18 and the player plays a Frontier card of 6 and has a Frontier skill of 2 for a starting total of 8. Since the player played a trump card, the dealer adds a card to the adventure resolution and it is a Combat 3, so the adventure total is 11 – a failure. But wait, the player also has a True Grit token, so they discard their token to refuse the Combat 3 and gets a new card dealt to the adventure, a Luck of 2. Since Luck is always considered Trump (along with Frontier for this Adventure) another card is added and this is a Frontier 4, so another card is added by the dealer and it is a Skill 6. The final total of 8+2+4+6 is 20, so the player achieves success on the adventure and collects the reward tokens to use to buy Reward Cards later and adds the Led a Wagon Train West to their Legend.
GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.
Richard: I wanted to do a game to highlight Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett who were among my childhood heroes (shows my age – right) and had developed the adventure resolution mechanics some time earlier for a fantasy game. I thought these basic mechanics with a historical perspective would be very interesting and the addition of the story-telling aspect made the game click for me. It just seemed like the right mix of mechanics to reflect the heroics and legendary feats of the early frontiersmen.
GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.
Richard: This game idea actually went through several iterations before arriving at the final product to be published by GameSalute. The original idea was a worker placement game where you built a frontier town, fort, and used a worker placement process to lead more settlers to you growing town, sent frontiersmen out to explore, trap, and hunt, traded with the Indians and built and supported your town. The game design was ok, but for me lacked the adventure feeling and did not reflect any historical events or story telling aspect. It was probably 2 years later that I got the idea to make the game the way it is today, and this one has gone through a couple of changes to improved game flow and ensure each aspect of the game provides the American story
GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?
Richard: How to handle failure of adventures and make that aspect provide a further part of the player’s Legend. The initial design just gave the players failure tokens and hardship tokens that at some point became negative points or triggered a Hardship card being drawn. To improve this aspect of the game, players now just draw a card from failure decks of the failed Skill and it is amazing how these really align to their story.
GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?
Richard: I have always enjoyed games and having an art background and creative mind began to design games when I was a teenager just to play with my friends. This was something that continued my entire life, I just get an idea for a game and design it to play with my friends, no real focus on having the games published. In the 80’s, I discovered Call of Cthulhu roleplaying and after writing a few scenarios that were published, I got the idea of making a board game in the world of H.P. Lovecraft and game I could play solitaire or cooperative with some friends. In time, I decided to submit it to Chaosium and they published it.
GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?
Richard: I like to think that the best moments are to yet to come. For me there are great moments and they happen all the time. I enjoy bringing every new game idea to life – the real game for me is the creation of a game from an idea and making it something that not only I enjoy playing, but many others do as well. And I guess what becomes the greatest moment is when I get to actually play one of my game designs with people that truly enjoy them.
GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?
Richard: My wife and I have been married for 36 years and have raised 3 children. Our two daughters are married and live in Greenville, South Carolina. Both are in the nursing field and our oldest daughter has 3 children, so we get to do the grandparents thing on a regular basis. Our son is a Biological Engineer that works for NASA in Houston, TX. I retired as an executive with AT&T after 32 years of managing all aspects of the Yellow Pages line of business. My first 15 years with a smaller subsidiary The Berry Company, then moving to be BellSouth Advertising & Publishing to be their CIO for a 9 State area including management of my former subsidiary, and then spending a couple of years as Executive Director for the Advertising & Publishing of 22 States for AT&T. Since retiring 5 years ago I have been focusing on game design. I enjoy Baseball, College Football, Basketball, Hockey, and NASCAR Racing. I enjoy reading, movies, game night at the house, and attending game conventions – after all I enjoy playing games as my favorite hobby.
GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?
Richard: I have several projects in the works. The next two that are in the complete stages (except for Kick Starter Rewards) will be Alien Uprising a cooperative science fiction game where a ship has crashed on a hostile planet and must survive alien attacks while searching for ship debris to repair the ship. Run, Fight, or Die!, my zombie game is being published by 8th Summit that was demoed at Gencon this year is unique in that each player has their own board that waves of zombies constantly come at them while each player’s character is searching for townsfolk as they frantically flee the town infestation. I have a Superhero board game (a couple actually) in the final stages of design, a card & dice game set in the Agents of SMERSH universe in design, Vault of Cthulhu storytelling game in design, Mythos Tales in redesign, King Arthur’s Knights of Legend card game in design, Night Hunters (a Vampires of the Night game) in development, Chronos Wars (a time travel adventure to save humanity game) in design, and expansion ideas for Elder Sign in design. I have a lot of exciting games in the works right now and I am excited about getting them complete so I can play them.
GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?
Richard: Most of the time we are busy playtesting or playing our designs as we have several designers in our weekly game group including: Jason Maxwell (Agents of SMERSH), Steve Avery (Nothing Personal), Kevin Lanzing (Flash Point) and Frank Branham (Battle Beyond Space). We have a mixed group of the type of games we like, and it should be no surprise that I enjoy cooperative adventure games. Not including games that we designed, lately we have been enjoying Legendary, Conquest of Planet Earth, Guildhall, Mansions of Madness (Call of the Wild), Yggdrasil, Police Precinct, and Kingsburg.
As far as games I disliked, I can think of a few that were just not well designed, and more importantly did not appear to have been developed, but I would prefer not to comment on those. Designers have enough critics these days without me chiming in.
GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?
Richard: Star Wars Queen’s Gambit. This game with the 4 distinctly different battlefields offers possibly the greatest transition of a movie into a board game. It is just an amazing design that is also perfectly produced with miniature, 3 level Palace, and multiple boards. The game play is simple, but gives the players a multitude of choices. The story is told and epic situations arise in every game play. I consider Star Wars Queen’s Gambit to be a masterpiece in game design.
GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?
Richard: Start with theme and craft the mechanics to support that theme. In the end, the game design should deliver on theme, smooth mechanics, and most of all be fun. In most cases, it will take a lot of work and several revisions to ensure that you achieve these goals. Do not stop improving your game even if it means changing some mechanics that you have become very attached to in the design process.
GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)
Richard: I have had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented individuals over the years. The list would be too big if I named everyone, but some of the key people that have enabled me to grow and become successful in the game industry certainly include Greg Stafford who published the first Arkham Horror and the team that he had at Chaosium doing additional design and development that included Sandy Peterson, Charlie Krank and Lynn Willis. I have been honored to work with Kevin Wilson, Sean Brown, Jason Maxwell, and Corey Konieczka; each brilliant in their own unique ways and each have helped make me a better designer. Thanks to Christian Peterson for publishing Arkham Horror, and for being a great designer and businessman in the industry. Keith Blume and Tom Vasel, both instrumental in getting Defenders of the Realm published. Thanks to Jim Deitz for giving me the opportunity to create Pirates VS Dinosaurs for Jolly Rogers. Also thanks to my friends Steve Avery, Mark Zoghby, Frank Branham, and Brian Wilson for their valuable feedback, insight, and play testing expertise. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to all of you that play and enjoy my game designs.
GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).
Richard: I am not big on social networking, but do support my games on BGG with the top secret user name of Richard Launius – so I suspect people can find me easily enough there.
As far as conventions, I attend several each year and this year has been no exception. I attended the following conventions in 2013 and will most likely attend these again in 2014; Atlanta Gamefest, Atlanta MooMoo Con, Savannah Gnomecon, Origins, Dicetowercon, and Gencon. I will be attending the Buckeye Gamefest in September and Arkham Nights in October.
GDC: Thanks so much Richard for taking the time to talk with us! Be sure to check out both Legends of the American Frontier and Alien Uprising on Kickstarter!