Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Quick Shot: Harder They Fall

Jay Iles has a cool new game on Kickstarter right now called Harder They Fall, with a nifty mechanic: dominoes! I asked Jay a few questions about it - check it out!


The cover of Harder They Fall with a destroyed city and a large titan looking down at an individual person, with the text "A game of climactic combat and toppling titans."

What is Harder They Fall, both as a product and as your vision?

My pitch for HTF is that it brings the tension and melodrama of an end-of-movie blockbuster battle to your table, with zero prep and simple rules. As a group, you build up the conflict that's bought these two sides together, decide the individual strengths, oaths and doubts of each champion, and draw the battlefield on a sheet of paper. As you play you're raising the tension in a very real way by setting up dominoes to be toppled over, while the value of the domino decides what choice of questions you have to ask the other players. This last thing is crucial: you're constantly letting the other players make statements about your character and their place in the fiction, which is what lets it cross the divide from board game to story game.

As a product, it's an intentional move away from the lavish production values and long list of stretch goals my previous kickstarters have had. I still want it to be a product that's nice to look at, of course, but I'm aiming for a 20 page pamphlet with everything you need to play in it. Part of my goal for this campaign was to see if there's a space for small-scale, short-run projects that are less psychologically demanding on the creator than your traditional blockbuster RPG kickstarters!

A winged mech using a laser beam to shoot down giant dominoes.

How did you come up with the idea of using dominos, and how did you playtest them to ensure it has the impact (literally) that you'd like?

Weirdly enough, it came from a Domino’s ad - a domino with 3 pips, their name and the slogan We Did It - captioned with “That’s a 6-, no you didn’t”. I ran the numbers, and realised that drawing a domino from a pool and counting the pips is very similar to rolling 2d6 (more precisely, it’s actually 2(d7-1)). As someone who’s mainly designed in the Apocalypse World format, that was immediately exciting!

When it came to play testing, the main concern was the dimensions - it needed to possible, but not common, for your chain of dominoes to contact and knock down one of their foes’. In play testing, I needed to test how far apart you could place your dominoes to chain them together, how many dominoes in a set vs how many turns there are in a game, that sort of thing. The main point of feedback was that it all hinged upon the toppling of the dominoes - a string of bad draws when setting them up could lead to all sorts of misfortune for the player involved, but so long as knocking them over was satisfying it all worked out.

A sheet with mechanics - the success ladders for channeling power, advancing, and giving ground.

Why do you feel the story game aspects - shared narrative control, storytelling - are so important to Harder They Fall? How do they feel tied together with the mechanics?

Fundamentally, this game is intended to set up a conflict that feels like it could be the climax of a campaign that you just happen to have not played. Part of that is building the sense that this narrative is alive, that it exists between all of you, and the shared narrative control is a big part of that. The other reason the shared narrative is important is to make sure that everyone’s involved in everyone else’s turns. When you take action, you make the initial statement of what your combatant is doing, but it’s your opponents that get the final say on what impact that has on the world. 

This is all based on the setup in D. Vincent Baker’s Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands, which goes all-in with Vincent’s trademark lists of specific questions. That’s where this most strongly ties into the mechanics: when you draw a low-value domino (i.e. totalling 8 or less) you’ll be forced to ask a question with bad implications for your fighter if you play it to boost their efforts. You can escape that by playing it in one of your opponent’s chains, but that both boosts them mechanically and lets them define more of your character’s doubts, fears and conflicted loyalties. What I really love about this is that players who are mechanically minded and play to win, and players who are there to tell a good story, tend to end up engaging with the system equally and telling a great story as a result.
Two colossally sized dominoes towering over the silhouettes of a city.
The towering dominoes over this city is such a fun image :)

Thanks so much to Jay for the interview! I hope you'll all check out Harder They Fall in its last few days on Kickstarter!

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