Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Five or So Questions with Eric Vogel on the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game

Hi Everyone! Today I have an interview with Eric Vogel, the lead designer on the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, a new product coming from Evil Hat via Kickstarter! The game caught my eye because it's a cooperative game, which (I may have previously mentioned) is my preference, but is hard to find! I love coop games but card games make me hesitant, so I wanted to know more about the design and the motivation behind the product. Check out Eric's answers below, and check out the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game on Kickstarter!

Tell me a little about the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game. What excites you about it?

DFCO is a true cooperative game, with all players working as a team to defeat the game itself. There is no traitor mechanic, etc. The players take on the roles of Harry Dresden, the wizard PI, and a group of his friends & allies trying to solve mysteries and defeat the different villains from the novels. A single game lets you play through 1 novel of the series, although the game also includes a random scenario generator for variety. The players share a common pool of action points, that they alternately spend and contribute to. The game typically comes down to a "showdown" phase in which the players get a series of final die rolls to try to solve the outstanding cases, and defeat the outstanding foes. If they have solved more cases than there are surviving foes left on the board, they win. Otherwise, they lose.

I think what was most exciting for me during the design process was getting to represent the Dresden Files characters and events in game form. Its an incredibly rich world - which is a great resource and really challenging at the same time. I really enjoy the books, and I want to embody them well in the game. At the same time, I wasn't trying to make a 6 hour game with tons of chrome, and excruciating amounts of detail that only a handful of hardcore gamers who were also hardcore Dresden fans would ever want to play. It was an exciting game challenge to hit the right level of abstraction to achieve thematic feel while making a game that was accessible to all the Dresden constituencies: board gamers, RPG players, and just fans of the novels.

Now its super exciting to see how excited the Dresden fans are getting about DFCO. Its really taking the buzz to a new level. We got a lot of attention at GAMA. Did that answer your question?

It did! What motivated you, from fiction and audience, to make this a cooperative game, considering the popularity of competitive games?

When Evil Hat commissioned the game from me, they specified that they wanted a cooperative game from me - so it was not a choice I made. I'll be honest, that was not initially something I was happy about. I had not designed a cooperative game previously, and I was not a big fan of them at that time. I had done some game development work on someone else's cooperative, and I felt like I had given them most of the lingering ideas I had for how to do a cooperative game. So I ended up starting from zero, doing a lot of playing co-ops as research, and making a lot of false starts before I finally came up with the core mechanics of DFCO. You may get to glimpse some of those false starts when I publish the prototype history for DFCO in a Kickstarter Bulletin - something that has become kind of a tradition for me and EHP now. Anyway, in the process I discovered that there are several co-ops I really enjoy, and I figured out what it is I don't like about some co-ops. I had previously believed that I had a fundamental objection to the lack of competition, but it was really more the lack of the ability to make an individual contribution to the success or failure of a challenging task, in an interactional context. So I made sure DFCO had that in spades. So now I have a whole new genre of game that I enjoy playing! that was a nice side benefit. I don't know if I will design any more co-ops after this one or not. If DFCO is a hit, I will probably encounter demand for them. However, I really don't like repeating myself, so I would need an idea for a co-op that was fundamentally mechanically different from DFCO.

DFCO uses the Fate system elements, which is really cool. What have you done with the game to meld the Fate system tools into a card game?

It probably mirrors or represents those elements more that it literally uses them. I am not an RPG player, and I am not terribly knowledgeable about RPG mechanics. However, the "ah-ha" moment of the DFCO design came out of me reading the Fate Accelerated rules (which I found a lot more accessible than most RPG rules) and seeing a way to represent the Fate mechanics in card game mechanics, starting with the basic actions of Fate Accelerated: Attack, Overcome, etc. There are also mechanics in DFCO derived loosely from troubles and stunts. I experimented with reflecting the Fate system at a more nuanced level,using concepts like approaches, but I found that was too high a level of detail for the design I wanted to execute. There was even a phase in which I was trying to create a kind of generic Fate System cooperative card game, but I soon moved away from that and refocused on making the game reflect the specifics of the Dresden Files. Still, the game has action types that will be mostly familiar to Fate RPG players, it uses Fate Dice, and players both spend and generate Fate points. 

What kind of challenges did you encounter with applying the fiction of Dresden Files to a Fate and card game format, without losing the feel of the novels and characters?

In my day job as a professor of clinical psychology, one of my specialty areas is qualitative research. When you do qualitative analysis, the key challenge is to find the right level of abstraction. If you abstract too much, you lose the key meanings in the raw data. If you abstract too little, your analysis is convoluted, muddled, and doesn't provide clear understanding. It is a similar task when you need to represent a series of novels with a card game. Too much abstraction, and the game doesn't feel like the source material anymore. Too little abstraction, and it isn't a very accessible game - its the kind of game only certain gamers want to play. The Dresden Files novels appeal to a wide audience, so I thought the game should too. You can never strike the perfect balance for everyone, but hopefully I struck the best balance for the widest audience. Time will tell.

During playtesting and from player feedback, what were the pieces of positive feedback that made you have an "I've got this!" feeling?

I don't think the game really came together until I added the "talent" mechanic, which is a character specific-power that players get to use whenever they discard a card to generate Fate Points for the team. That made all the turns fun, and added a key decision point that gave the individual players more responsibility for the team's strategy. Once that was in place, what I observed was a change in the character of the discussions players were having during the game. In my least favorite co-ops, one player tends to act as leader and dictate a course of action to everyone else; its natural enough that happens, its an inherent aspect of group dynamics. But I found that the players in DFCO were having a much more interactional discussion about how to play; they weren't just acting independently, and they were not just deferring to the judgement of one player. That was when I knew I was onto something.

Awesome! Thanks Eric, so much, for answering my questions about the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game! I'm excited to see another coop game on the market, and it sounds like a lot of people will have a great time with this one. Check out the new game on Kickstarter!

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