Empires have risen and fallen in the aftermath of the Great War, and Europa stands on the precipice of a new era. The economy is robust, morale is high, and defenses are strong. There are reports from the countryside of strange soldiers with glowing eyes, but they seem distant and harmless.
Scythe: The Rise of Fenris, the conclusion to the Scythe expansion trilogy, enables two different options for any player count (1-5 if you have Scythe; 1-7 players if you have Invaders from Afar):
- Campaign (8 games): The story of Scythe continues and concludes with an 8-episode campaign. While the campaign includes surprises, unlocks, and persistent elements, it is fully resettable and replayable.
- Modular (11 modules): Instead of—or after—the campaign, the new modules in The Rise of Fenris can be used in various combinations to cater to player preferences. These modules are compatible with all Scythe expansions, and they include a fully cooperative module that isn’t part of the competitive campaign.
While the exact nature of the episodes and modules will remain a mystery (most of these components are in 5 secret tuckboxes and on 6 punchboards), the components in this expansion include a detailed episodic guidebook, 13 plastic miniatures, 62 wooden tokens, 2 custom dice, 25 tiles, 100+ cardboard tokens, a campaign log, and 1 achievement sheet.
There is also a downloadable sample scenario that we use to share the feeling of an episode at convention and events, but it’s not an actual part of the campaign, nor is it included in the printed expansion.
- Retail release on August 17, 2018 (MSRP: $55; SKU: STM637)
- Available in other languages in October 2018
- Game Boy Geek Q&A
- Game Boy Geek spoiler-free preview
- Game Boy Geek expansion of the year (2018)
- Geeks of Cascadia interview with Ryan
- Tantrum House (review and 2018 award)
- GeekDad (review)
- Board Game Quest (review)
- Tom Vasel (non-spoiler review and spoiler review)
- Bryan Drake (review)
- Jamey Stegmaier (My Favorite Game Mechanism)
- The Game Shelf (review)
- Every Night Is Game Night (spoiler podcast interview)
- Bower’s Game Corner
- There Will Be Games
- Watch It Played (module rules)
- The Meeple Street
- The Dice Odyssey (spoiler and non-spoiler)
- Game Informer (article about campaign games)
See here for a more detailed FAQ with spoilers.
Is this a legacy expansion?
No. “Legacy” refers to permanent changes that cannot be undone. The Rise of Fenris can be reset and replayed any number of times.
Does this expansion require other expansions?
Nope. We wouldn’t do that to you.
I opened some of the secret boxes, and I think I’m missing something. What should I do?
First, since you’ve already spoiled some of the content, proceed to open the other tuckboxes. If you still think you’re missing something, please fill out this form.
Am I stuck with the same faction for the entire campaign?
No, you will have several specific opportunities during the campaign to change factions.
Episode 6 Design Diary (Ryan)
Episode 6 is interesting because it does not actually have any special setup or rules. I was pretty happy when we made that decision. At this point in the campaign I guessed players could use a little relief from the barrage of new rules and challenges. But more importantly, Episode 6 introduces what might be the single most disruptive element of the entire expansion: Fenris.
The Fenris faction is unlocked at the end of Episode 5, so this is the first game to feature it. It is a rough faction in some ways, designed to be aggressive and disruptive. Although Jamey already had some ideas for Fenris by the time I came on board, it was much less developed than Vesna had been. His ideas were more conceptual at the time, and from the very beginning we both wanted Fenris to represent a relentless threat coming after players. I always mentally pictured those old-fashioned video reels showing the Communist threat spreading across Europe when I imagined how Fenris would feel to play as and against.
So even with no special setup or rules, this is a big game for players. I have A LOT to say about Fenris, so let’s dive in!
First, some people might be wondering, “Why Rasputin?” The simple answer is that is who Jakub wanted to lead Fenris. He said we could change it if we really wanted to, but he was always fascinated with Rasputin and wanted him to be in charge. We didn’t see any reason to change that.
From a design standpoint, the Fenris faction was the source of the biggest “kill your darlings” challenge for me of the entire expansion, and it was also the source of the biggest “disagreement” between Jamey and me. I say “disagreement,” but it was always very civil and Jamey was quite indulgant of my insistence on pursuing my side well past its expiration date. The funniest part about this (to me) is that I was fighting tooth-and-nail for one of JAMEY’S ideas, which he was much more willing to move away from (advantages of being a seasoned designer, I suppose). The crux of the problem was Jamey’s original idea for the Fenris mechs – an idea I fell in love with and couldn’t let go, even after its corpse had been rotting in my design folder for at least a week . . .
Jamey originally proposed that Fenris might only have two mechs.
Let that sink in for a minute. Fenris would just have two, massive, over-powered mechs. His proposed design was that the mechs would be almost the size of a full territory hex on the standard board (at the time, we were imagining wide, tank-like mechs since we hadn’t seen Jakub’s stilt-like design yet).
As you might imagine, this brought with it a whole slew of design obstacles, but I am convinced to this day that it would have been amazing . . . if we could have done it (let me repeat: I gave it everything I had after Jamey had worked on it and decided to move on, but I just couldn’t do it). I won’t get into all of the gameplay pros and cons (I’ll trust you to figure those out, if you’re interested), but I’ll talk about some of the design challenges.
The most prominent is how to handle the mech star on the Triumph Track. This is probably the single biggest reason why I couldn’t solve the 2-mech problem (and why I’ll be super-annoyed when someone posts a brilliant solution for it 20 minutes after reading this). Is it just easier for Fenris to get those stars? Do we add something to their Deploy costs to make them harder to get out? If so, how do we represent that, since Deploy is on a randomized player mat?
And those are just some of the problems themselves. Then you have to test them ad nauseum to make sure they work, redesign, test again, etc.
Next up: how do we handle the mech abilities? Do they just have two that are super powerful? Does each mech unlock two “ordinary level” abilities? Would the lack of 2 additional mechs compensate for the super strong abilities?
We struggled with these questions and more for a very long time. Then Jakub shared his art for the Annihilators and Jamey realized that they could fit on a normal-sized base, which would allow space for the usual 4 on a player mat. At that point, he was pretty ready to just switch to four mechs and move on, but I couldn’t let it go. I fought for his original vision for another week, all the while helping him draft the mech abilities for the four-mech version. Then I proposed that he finish the four-mech version, and I would draft a two-mech version and we could compare. We had made a lot of progress on the four-mech version (though he still made some strong improvements later), and I spent a solid week of design time doing literally nothing but trying to design a suitable two-mech faction (which came after we had spent a few weeks discussing and drafting for Fenris).
I couldn’t do it.
I tried. Tesla help me, I tried, but everything I came up with was, at best, “just as good as” the four mech version. Well, “as good as” doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about introducing a slew of rules exceptions and special situations – it has to be MUCH better to justify those kinds of things. I finally threw in the towel. As I said, I remain convinced that it was the cooler idea, but we just couldn’t make it work.
As for the Fenris faction ability, that took a while to come to as well, but it was a far less rocky process. Rather, it was a more standard series of discussions and trial-and-error.. I don’t recall now if Jamey had some early ideas for this (or perhaps he never shared them), but my first idea played off of the reputation Rasputin had as a mystic. It was called “Illusion,” and it said that all territories of the same type were considered adjacent. This means that if the Fenris player was on a farm territory, he could move to any other farm territory. Thematically, the idea was that Rasputin could create these illusions that meant you never really knew where he was – is he here, or at another farm and just projecting himself here. I really liked it, thematically, but after we introduced the Influence tokens, it no longer fit. I think there was another reason we cut it as well, but Influence was the main one.
I don’t recall now exactly how or when the Influence tokens became tied to Fenris, but they seemed a very natural fit when it came up, and we both liked it a lot. My original idea for Influence was a variation on the “Illusion” ability: the second influence token had to go on a territory of the same type as the first. However, it didn’t take long for us to realize how restrictive that would be with more than 2 or 3 players, so we changed it to anywhere but the Factory or a lake (those can still be “influenced” by moving to them, however). Even at 4 or 5 players, a savvy group can limit the spread of influence pretty quickly by spreading out, so this is definitely not overpowered at higher player counts. As I write this, I’m realizing that if players at lower player counts felt that Fenris is overpowered, they could consider implementing a “same type” variant, I suppose. We never tested that, so I don’t know that it would work very well.
The next challenge was the mech abilities and how to use the Influence. I’ll start with the mech abilities. Leap and Death Ray were in there from pretty early on. I really like both of these because they can be devastatingly powerful, so-so, or disappointingly inconvenient, depending on the situation. Horrify and Fanatical took a little more time and effort to get to. Ultimately, it was Jamey who solved these, with very little input from me. I liked them a lot because they gave the influence tokens more utility in the game. At higher player counts, Horrify would be important because it was proving too hard for players to get rid of Influence. Meanwhile, Fanatical was important because it slowed the placement of Influence a bit.
Believe it or not, the first draft of Fenris was grossly underpowered. Looking back at it, I don’t think it would ever win a game. Some players have expressed the concern that the current iteration is overpowered, but I don’t think it is. First, testing did not reveal that, and I have seen and heard a lot of anecdotal evidence since the game released that also indicates that it isn’t too strong. However, I understand why players feel it is too strong, and I think it is because Fenris has a unique ability to mess with other players. No other faction can so directly interfere with other players and shape the course of the game. Thematically, I think this is neat. In the story Jakub outlined, that is exactly what Rasputin and Fenris are doing, geopolitically. Mechanically, I think it is neat too. Some players won’t like it, and that is fine, but just as Rusviet and Crimea can be beaten by good play, Fenris can as well. Fenris is just the most disruptive faction in the game, which will appeal to some and not to others. I imagine that in some groups playing against Fenris will become a semi-cooperative, “one vs. many” type of game as the other players sort of coordinate to contain Fenris’ influence while competing to otherwise win. If a group especially loves the Fenris faction but finds one or two aspects frustrating, I’m sure some house rules could make them more palatable to that group, but I suppose it goes without saying that Jamey and I like them.
At the end of the day, we designed the two factions for this expansion to be “advanced” factions. They are challenging to play as AND against, and I like that. If they don’t suit a particular group, I think there is plenty of other content in the box to satisfy players and make it worth their while.
**Game Design Alternate History**
Here’s one even Jamey may not know. I don’t think I ever showed him this work, though I may have briefly described it to him once. Before we settled on what Fenris would be, I had a totally new vision for them. First, they wouldn’t have workers. Instead they would have six of some kind of “soldiers,” which would also be plastic because they could engage in combat. Secondly, all of their actions would be variations on the standard ones (“pillage” instead of “produce” and such). I don’t have my notes handy to go through all the details, and they don’t really matter anyway, but they had a different way of getting their workers/soldiers on the board, as well as executing the other actions. I do recall that one of the actions (Recruit, I believe) was rethemed to “Fanatical,” which did become the name of a mech ability in the final game, so that’s fun.
The biggest difference though was that they would never use a regular player mat. Instead, I drafted a “modular player mat” that consisted of 8 tiles (4 top-row, 4 bottom-row) that would be randomly assembled each game (thinking about it now, I suppose you could just randomly deal all 8, without designating top and bottom row). The design I had was still a mess by the time I abandoned it, but it was fun to work on.
Episode 5 Design Diary (Ryan)
I mentioned in the last design diary that the campaign was eventually reduced from nine games to eight. Episode 5 is where that reduction took place. The final version of this episode is a combination of the original episodes 5 and 6.
I’m fond of this episode because of the big reveal. Play testing and anecdotes from players since the game has released have consistently shown that reveal to have the desired impact (though I’ll discuss some unintended, unexpected consequences in a bit). Placing the box on the factory, leaving players forced to wonder what might be inside of it, was an exciting prospect for me. My hope is that players approach it with a sense of excitement and a touch of worry, not really sure what faces them the first time they open it. That is what is happening in the story, and I hope that is how players feel as they play it for the first time. Then, I hope players are awed by what they find when they do open the box. That was one of the Big Reveals we were excited about.
Originally, the Annihilator just stood over the factory, making it completely inaccessible. For the entirety of game 5, players could not go to the factory and would be left to wonder just how long that would be the case. Then in Episode 6 the annihilator would begin to move and rampage around attacking players indiscriminately.
There are a few reasons we got rid of that 2-step process, but the main one was probably just that it dragged things out unnecessarily. We were taking two games to introduce one game concept. Furthermore, being unable to enter the Factory really split the map up in weird ways. You could get around using special moves (for some factions) or the tunnels, but it made a strange artificial barrier out of the ostensible focal point of the whole map.
The final result is a combination of the Episodes 5 and 6: the Annihilator never leaves the factory, but players can challenge it when they’re ready. One nice outcome for this is that the Annihilator can’t go after players who are unprepared for them, which could prolong the game unnecessarily. But players who are prepared can challenge the Annihilator whenever they are ready and potentially end of the game early. The decision about when to end the game is also an important one, because ending it earlier means getting fewer stars on your Triumph Log. There are at least three episodes in the campaign that can be ended early in similar ways. We wanted players to be able to play two games a night pretty easily, and because games 4, 5, and 7 can potentially end rather quickly, it should be easy to play those with the game immediately before or after them in one evening.
Ultimately, this episode was fairly straightforward, even though the design process went through a few twists and turns before getting to the final version. At the end of the day, the only real difference between the final version and the first version is the ability for players to attack the Annihilator at the Factory. It is not a complicated episode mechanically, but it was always in the game to provide a big reveal, present an interesting situation, and introduce the Annihilator for the first time. I like to think that it is simple but effective. However, it wasn’t perfect, as it turned out.
I don’t have many regrets with The Rise of Fenris, but one of them did come in this episode. As many players have noted, the Annihilator can be surprisingly easy to beat (in the first edition of the game, if you are reading this a few months/years down the road). In the first edition, we told players to have the Annihilator draw 3 combat cards, but that just isn’t enough to make it the menacing threat it is intended to be, thematically. We have officially revised that to 4 cards, and I believe the second printing onward will have that adjustment in the rules. I’m not sure why it didn’t prove a problem in play testing, but I think the testers in general were pretty cautious during their plays. Many players reported group hesitance about various aspects of the game – not as in they didn’t like them, but their play reports revealed them to be wary of the mysteries. We wanted players to be wary, but when the game got into the wild, there was a large combination of bolder players and just some luck. (For example, in my group playing with the final product, the Togawa player got there first and just coincidentally had exactly 7 power, a 5-power card, and the Cavalry mod, allowing him to easily win, almost by accident, and ending the game after a few turns).
Part of me wishes that we had done with Morten did with the Automa. If the Automa gets to the Factory first, it just loses and is sent home. I believe Jamey and I actually discussed it briefly at one point (before Morten had even designed the automa, actually), and part of me wishes we had done that for players too, but I know why we didn’t. First, it seemed kind of cheap to just send players home without any choice in the matter (how hard do I want to fight this fight?). Second, we kept second-play-throughs in mind during the process, and if players knew that whoever goes to the Factory first will just get booted home, it would really discourage the behavior we were trying to reward.
Speaking of rewarding behavior, that is why the player who discovers the Annihilator gets to roll for and choose the base power each turn. Thematically, we wanted to show that the faction who discovered/face the Annihilator first has some kind of tactical advantage over the other factions. Mechanically, we wanted to encourage players (especially in subsequent play-throughs) to go for the Factory, even knowing the threat. This way, they get to determine its base power right before their turn, so they should at least theoretically have an advantage in defeating it.
Finally, there is one last big reveal in the episode, and that is of course the Fenris faction at the end . . . and three more Annihilators!* I’ll discuss this faction in depth in the Episode 6 design diary, but from what I can tell, this reveal has also been exciting to people (though some were still pretty soured on the early end of the episode, if they had that experience). I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I like that we brought the Influence tokens back for this episode, and that they have the -$1 function. I think it was a simple, subtle way to teach players how the tokens really work before we actually introduce them. I also like that it ties them into the faction by using them in this episode. The only “missing” component here are the agents/workers, but they were just used in the last episode, so I don’t think that’s too bad.
The way the Fenris components were packaged (across 3 tuckboxes and a couple of punch boards) created some unintended confusion for players, and I feel bad for Jamey’s poor replacement parts fulfillment team members. The biggest issue, of course, was Box D, which APPEARED to be missing one mech (but which was actually in Box C, placed on the Factory in this episode). For whatever reason, several players (who weren’t playing the campaign or weren’t worried about spoilers) opened Boxes A and D (the likely new faction boxes), and just . . . didn’t open more. Jamey had so many erroneous parts requests for a 4th Annihilator that he had to add a “Check ALL of the boxes” note on the request form. And he still got them. It’s not a huge deal, I suppose, but it amuses me, especially since I don’t have to deal with it.
Episode 4 Design Diary (Ryan)
After a failed attempt to design the episodes mechanically and add a narrative post-hoc, I sat down relatively early in the design process and wrote out a complete narrative arc. We then used that to drive the individual episodes in the campaign. One outcome of that was that the campaign dropped from nine episodes down to just eight. Another outcome was that there were a few episodes that likely would not have appeared in their current form, or would not have occurred to me, if it weren’t for the story driving them, and those are actually pretty interesting episodes. Episode 4 is one of them.
Episode 4 is the introduction of Fenris. Up to this point, players don’t really know what Fenris might be, and here for the first time they see a component related to Fenris. As I noted in an earlier design diary, we intentionally wanted to introduce a new component and or module in every episode of the campaign. Episode 4 introduces the Fenris agents, which were a part of the narrative at this point, and that gave us an opportunity to do some interesting things, mechanically.
Because Episode 4 is the formal introduction of Vesna to the campaign, we did not want to also include too many complex rules or scenario tricks. The narrative called for the appearance of the Fenris agents at this point, and that was from Jakub’s notes. I developed the idea, but the notion that the “soldiers with glowing eyes” were from Fenris and began to become increasingly public was from Jakub. Rather than just saying that it happened in the text, I liked the idea of introducing them through gameplay as well. There are several gameplay elements that reflect the narrative to some degree, because we really wanted it to feel like players were playing the story out, and this was a particularly prominent one, even down to the hint that the agents are focused on the Factory for some reason.
It’s took quite a bit of refinement to settle on the relatively elegant solution we have for subduing Fenris agents in this episode. My original version had them getting moved to a territory closer to the factory and only being eliminated once they had been defeated at the factory. That was kind of interesting mechanically, but it created a lot of fiddly maintenance and upkeep. Also, it would have been handled more like a combat, and we didn’t want to confuse players. For those who don’t know, there is a rule that only plastic pieces engage in combat, and we didn’t want to muddy that. We wanted to keep things streamlined, and I like the final solution we came up with here. Eventually, Jamey developed the root of the final rule, though his initial idea was something closer to “players lose power/popularity, then lose money, if necessary.” We eventually simplified it to make it the player’s choice what they lose to drive out the Fenris agents, and I like that. I also think of the different losses as thematically different. Paying Power represents forcing them out; paying popularity is an abstraction of the notion that Fenris is gaining “influence” in the land, and maybe the people don’t love you pushing them out; paying money is a more general reflection of the financial burden to your nation for driving them away.
This is also the first of a few episodes that includes an alternate end condition. Jamey and I wanted players to be able to comfortably play two games a night, and these alternate end conditions make that much more possible. However, they also present players with an interesting choice, especially in Ep. 4, where the alternate condition (eliminate all of the Fenris units) can be easily tracked. Specifically, players are forced to decide between pushing the end game and gathering more stars. Because of the Triumph Log, the acquisition of stars is actually pretty important in the campaign, so it is a significant choice that will impact yourself and everyone else to decide to rush the game and end with fewer stars. From what I can tell, it seems that a lot of groups aren’t always considering that in Ep. 4, as they rush to snatch up those little orange guys for whatever benefit awaits them for the capture.
One of the neat things about episodes such as 3 and 4 is that they include some interesting adjustments to gameplay that come outside of all of the modules. If you don’t play the campaign, you simply won’t experience these changes. This occurs in a few other episodes as well, and I’m proud of the fact that the campaign offers something more in terms of gameplay than just an incremental introduction to the rules of the modules.
Episode 3 Design Diary (Ryan)
In my previous two episode design diaries, I included at the end a section called Game Design Alternate History. This entire design diary is basically an alternate history of episode 3. I actually hesitate to mention this one because I’m afraid people will be disappointed, but trust me when I say we gave this a tremendous amount of thought, and it just veered too far from the heart of Scythe.
Assuming you have played through the episode, you know that it is about searching the factory. It is that theme around which we almost built an entirely new gameplay experience. We considered two options, but one of them was dismissed relatively quickly. The one we dismissed quickly involved a separate board that could function as a kind of worker placement Mini-Game. I don’t have a lot more details than that, because it was a long time ago and we didn’t explore it that deeply before deciding it wouldn’t really work, but the general idea was that players could place their workers on this separate mat while exploring the factory and use them to trigger other actions. Like I said, it got away from the heart of Scythe pretty quickly. It might be a fine idea for a game in general, but it just didn’t fit Scythe.
We spent a lot more time on the other idea before giving it up. The other idea also involved a separate board, but this would be a 7 hex mat that represented interior of the Factory. One discussion we had about this separate board was whether it would be off to the side or an overlay on the main map. As an overlay it would keep the visual attention of the game on the center of the map where it belongs, but it would overwrite the six territories surrounding the Factory, and that created some complications for how players enter the Factory, and from where. If it were placed off to the side, it risked being ignored or forgotten by some or all players, even though it would add more flexibility and create fewer rules problems for how to enter it. Plus, Scythe already has a lot of table presence, so there would be no place to put something like this so that all players could access it easily.
As for what it would do, we considered a number of options. This is one place where I considered my interest in players starting with some of their stars on the map. Remember that this episode is about searching for Vesna, so we needed some way to represent that mechanically in the game. I thought that having players place three of their stars on designated territories inside the Factory, and then requiring them to go recapture them all might be an interesting and Interactive way to represent the search. Jamey like that too, but we considered other things as well.
Probably my favorite idea from this that we weren’t able to include in the game was Jamey’s idea to have the territories in the Factory produce alternative resources. Workers would be able to occupy those territories and produce on them, but they would render things such as coins or power. I really like that idea, and it’s perhaps one of the things I’m most disappointed we weren’t able to work into the final product. At any rate, we eventually decided we had to just drop the separate board idea altogether. We liked it a lot, but it was just creating too many rules and interaction problems while not adding enough in terms of compelling gameplay to compensate for that.
I actually like the final system we settled on for searching the factory quite a lot. It lacks some of the gameplay Innovation we may have been able to work into an alternate board, but it is clean and simple and creates a sense of tension around the search. It does create a unique situation in that is the only time players aren’t allowed to search the entire Factory deck when selecting a card, and I don’t think that would have worked for more than a one-off scenario, but I think it is interesting here. I like the tension created by wondering if the player at the factory is going to find Vesna or not, and I like the decision players are faced with about taking a factory card that might be suboptimal just to get more movement options. Scythe is a game full of opportunity costs, and while small I think that’s a neat one.
Jamey told me fairly early on in the design process that the Vesna faction was going to be included in the game. He had actually already done quite a lot of the design work for her as well. If Togawa and Albion are more intermediate level difficulty, then I consider Vesna to be an advanced faction, both to play as and to play against. Thematically, I love how she works. As the daughter of Tesla, she has access to basically all the best technology from all of the factions (at least from everything that existed before she and her father were captured . . .), as well as some bonus secrets from the Factory. She is highly flexible and adaptable, but that can make her a little bit fragile as well.
Vesna was designed to be a fast faction. In her first version, she only had a Riverwalk ability, and the other 3 Mech abilities were blank. In her random draw of abilities, she had three or four Speed tiles, so it was possible for her to be extremely fast, but at the expense of other types of mobility or combat abilities. However, once again play testing revealed what should have been an obvious hole. The fact is that Scythe is not a game about combat, as we so often say, so skipping combat abilities for increased speed had very little negative effect. However, being extremely fast turned out to be very, very valuable. We eventually decided to give her a speed ability on her faction mat and take all of her speed bonuses out of her random draw. We replaced those with some of the new abilities in the Mech Mods. During the campaign, it might seem strange to have redundant abilities between her tiles and the Mech Mods, though there are strategies around it that I won’t get into here. During the design process, we were also thinking about how she would play in ordinary games and that is where the unique Mech abilities can really shine. Even if you are not playing with the Mech Mods, Vesna has access to some of those unique abilities, and I like that.
This is one of two episodes in the campaign that are mechanically and the thematically closely tied to one of the most troublesome episodes from my fan-made campaign, Lessons of the Past. That episode was also about searching for someone, although it had a pickup and deliver type of mechanism that was even more challenging than the search. I actually really liked the search mechanism in that particular game, but it didn’t have a place in this campaign.
Fun Fact #2: There are a couple of small “Easter eggs” in the narrative of the campaign. One of them is that I intentionally slipped the phrase “lessons of the past” into the story at one point, as a little homage to my fan campaign (which eventually led to my work on Fenris). I didn’t even have to shoehorn it in, either. It actually fit organically into the story. I almost left it out at first, before deciding it would be fun to just slip in there.
Episode 2 Design Diary (Ryan)
Episode 2 gives Episode 1 a run for its money in the “most changed since Wave 1 play testing” category. The original Ep. 2 inadvertently became the basis for my Fenris Convention Sample Scenario that I didn’t design until May or June of 2018, just ahead of Gen Con. The convention scenario is a much more interesting version of the old Ep. 2, and it wasn’t until a bit after the fact that I even remembered the connection.
As you likely know, there is an Episode 2a (War) and 2b (Peace). The War episode is a slightly streamlined, less brutal version of the old Ep. 1 (from my previous design diary). So, if you’re tracking this at home, a clunkier version of Ep. 2a with permanent loss of mechs in combat was the original Ep. 1 and then a much less interesting version of the Convention Sample Scenario was the original Ep. 2. Confused yet? Go ahead and forget all of that, and we’ll talk about the current Episodes 2a and 2b.
We liked the idea of having two versions of an episode, to give players a little bit of choice in how the campaign plays out. For episode 2a, I was able to recycle a streamlined version of the old episode 1, for a highly combative experience. For episode 2b, I repurposed my original episode 2 and rethemed it from a race-to-rebuild episode to a peacefully focused episode. By this time we already had the ideas for the different types of mods figured out, and it was a natural fit to introduce them after episode 2. This is what makes the choice at the end of episode 1 so impactful on the campaign. The direction you go determines which mods you have available for the majority of the campaign, with the other mods not becoming available until a few games later. Naturally, that means players will usually have more of one type than the other, which can pretty dramatically affect how you play and your experience. I’m really happy with that outcome and the fact that it makes playing the campaign at least twice still somewhat rewarding, even if you already know most of the secrets.
The idea for alternative Triumph Tracks was entirely Jamey’s. When he shared that idea with me, I was very excited. I knew that players would love the opportunity to customize a non-campaign game with a different set of goals. Furthermore, this allowed us to increase the customization and theme for each version of this episode. We brainstormed the new Triumph categories together a little, but this was one of those things that pretty much just sprung from Jamey’s mind and knocked me out. I often found myself awed by his simple ideas that really gave the expansion more depth, polish, and character without complicating things too much.
The idea for Alliances and Rivals was also Jamey’s. I had written the story in such a way as to make these natural inclusions, but the design work from them largely came from him. Again, I really like how they fit in thematically with the narrative. In the story there is concern and doubt and fear between the different nations, and the idea that there may be rivals or allies amongst them makes sense. From a design perspective, the rivals were relatively straightforward. This is also the first time in the campaign that players start with some of their stars outside of their playing area. This was an idea I introduced to Jamey early in the design process. He liked it, and we experimented with it in a number of different ways. For the Rivals module, it is a simple and natural way to mark a kind of “bounty” that you have on another player. It also encourages much more player interaction. It took blind play testing to reveal that we needed a way for players to get their stars back even if they couldn’t go after a rival, so that’s when we worked in the rule that you always retrieve a star from a player’s base if possible when you win a combat, but you only take the $5 bonus if that player was your rival, whom you just defeated. It may seem obvious now, but it’s one of those things that can be easy to overlook during the design process. It further illustrates how important the blind play testing can be, because other players will find those types of oversights almost immediately.
The Alliance module was a little trickier. First there was the issue of a reward for alliances. I don’t remember everything we talked about, but we discussed a number of possibilities before finally settling on giving players a variation on their ally’s Faction ability. This was nice because it was an obvious benefit to offer, and it would be unique for each faction without adding additional rules. Any kind of Alliance benefit that was generic wouldn’t really encourage alliances and also wouldn’t do as much to emphasize allying with a particular faction or player. However, there was another issue with alliances that I think most players would probably see pretty quickly. Fair or not, some faction abilities are just preferred over others. Everyone wants to ally with Rusviet or Crimea or Polania. Poor Nordic in particular just wasn’t getting much love. I believe it was after the first wave of blind play testing that we realized we needed some other, scaled incentive. That is when Jamey thought of giving allies a coin bonus, roughly inversely proportional to the perceived value of the alliance ability. Thus, allying with Nordic gives you $9, while allying with Rusviet renders only $1.
Both the Rivals module and the Alliances module can be played without the corresponding Triumph tracks, which is also kind of nice. I suspect these two modules are going to get overlooked in non-campaign games, but I think players who give them a chance will see some really interesting interactions emerge from them in ordinary games.
**Game Design Alternate History**
As I said in the GDAH for Ep. 1, I briefly had an alternate way of determining whether players go to 2a or 2b, but for various reasons we decided it just wouldn’t work (see that diary for details). Here was the system:
1. Divide the Triumph Track into two categories, War and Peace
2. War would include Mechs, Recruits, Combats, and Max Power
3. Peace would include Upgrades, Structures, Workers, Objectives, and Popularity
4. Total up the stars for the Triumphs in each category (War or Peace).
5. Proceed to the episode of the category with the most total stars (winner breaks ties).
In this way, players would go to an Ep. 2 that organically fit their play style. However, in addition to the two reasons I gave in the Ep. 1 Design Diary for not using this, a third reason has come up since the game has been out: a surprising number of players have reported that their groups voted in a direction that didn’t fit the expectation, based on typical play style–generally aggressive players voting for Peace, or generally passive players voting for War. I like that, and I’m glad it is possible with the voting system we used, rather than the “on rails” system outlined here.
Episode 1 Design Diary (Ryan)
i have been wanting to discuss the design of various spoiler content for a while now, but I didn’t want to do so before the game was actually available. Now that many people have it and many have played part of all of it, I thought it would be a good time to do some full-spoiler design diaries. I decided to organize them by Episode to make it as easy as possible for players to decide whether or not it is safe to read before finishing the campaign. Today, we have Episode 1!
I’ll start with a brief timeline and explanation that most people do not know yet.
The 1920+ Timeline (Scythe Universe)
There is an interesting factoid about The Rise of Fenris, as relates to the overall timeline for the 1920+ universe (at least in Scythe): technically, this third expansion starts BEFORE the second expansion, The Wind Gambit. I will outline the general timeline below.
1910-1916: The Great War
~1920: Base Scythe takes place
1921: Fenris begins
1922: The Wind Gambit
1924: Fenris ends
Because of this, players are directed not to use The Wind Gambit for a few games. Some players have wondered why, so I thought I would share this little fact. The games are designed around not using the airships, but there is also a thematic reason to not use them because of this timeline, which is based on Jakub’s notes and vision for the 1920+ story.
Episode 1 Design Diary
Episode 1 probably underwent the biggest change from Wave 1 testing to the final product. The original episode 1 actually took place at the end of the Great War. Thematically, players were playing out final battle of the war, and they began with a lot of units and buildings already deployed on the map. The most dramatic aspect of this, however, was the fact that mech combat losses were permanent in this game. Characters would never die, but any mechs that were defeated in battle were removed from the game. This had a dramatic impact on the game play and the psychology of combat. Both Jamey and I enjoyed our private testing of the scenario, but a few issues came up during the first wave of blind play testing. While we had fun with it and enjoyed the tension quite a bit, testors found themselves very reluctant to engage in combat, knowing their losses would be permanent. In addition to that dramatic change, this version of Episode 1 also included a fairly elaborate setup process which had the players basically beginning halfway through a game. Ultimately, we decided that these changes would set people up with the wrong expectations for the campaign as a whole. And as I said, players weren’t really playing the first scenario the way we hoped they would.
On top of this, the second episode of the campaign was a relatively mundane affair by comparison. We both felt that it would be best if they were reversed, but it just did not make sense for the story. So for the time being, we scrapped the climactic battle of episode 1 and used a game similar to the original Episode 2 – something pretty close to the base Scythe game, in order to ease players into the campaign a little bit. We knew that some people would be playing with players who did not have much experience with Scythe, so we didn’t want to punish them with a brutal first game and a sour first experience. And again, we didn’t want people leaving game 1 thinking this campaign would be a war-fest, which is out of character for Scythe.
Staying true to the heart of Scythe was an important design principle for us. Players love the game for a reason, and it is a meticulously balanced and integrated game. Even a small change can completely disrupt a player’s standard style or strategies, so we went into this process looking to tweak the game in interesting ways that would help players look at it from new angles, but wouldn’t pile on a lot of new rules or utterly change the core gameplay.
Another design principle we wanted to follow was to introduce one or two new components or mechanisms every game. In Episode 1, we introduced the influence tokens, just to acclimate players to their presence. The Influence tokens began as generic “Scythe tokens,” similar to the Cosmic tokens in Cosmic Encounter. Originally we needed something to mark various things throughout the campaign, and the Influence tokens fit the bill. Their specific uses evolved as we refined each episode of the campaign, and their ultimate use is something we developed a bit later in the design process. But that won’t be revealed for a little while.
So episode 1 evolved from an in medias res, explosive introduction to the campaign that might set the wrong expectations in players’ minds to something a little more closely resembling a standard game while introducing an important new component in the Influence tokens. One positive side effect of easing players in a little more gently was that we were able to do something kind of fun at the end of the first game by presenting players with a small choice in how to proceed (using Influence tokens to vote for the path forward). While it may seem like a small choice it has substantial ramifications on the entire campaign. In fact, I think the impact of that choice is significant enough to warrant playing the campaign twice just to try the other path.
Some players might find the first game a little less disruptive than they had hoped, but that was kind of the point. First, we wanted newer players to be able to ease into all the new concepts (in particular, the things on the Campaign Logs) with only a few changes. Second, we wanted to signal that this expansion wouldn’t completely upend the gameplay of Scythe. The Influence tokens offer players the chance to choose the path forward, and I think that’s a nice, easy transition into the campaign.
**Game design alternate history**
At one point, I wanted to go a slightly different route with how the choice at the end of the Episode 1 is made, but Jamey noted two things that were important. First, while my version possibly would have been a little more thematic, it largely took the agency out of players’ choice moving forward. I’ll explain in more detail during the Episode 2 design diary’s “alternate history” section, but I completely agree with him, and I think it actually was a good thing we didn’t do that, based on a lot of anecdotal evidence I have heard since the game released. Secondly, my version would have largely negated the point of the Influence tokens. In that way Episode 1 would have been a thematically interesting set up to the entire campaign but otherwise a completely ordinary game of Scythe, and that didn’t seem right. This way we introduce players to the notion of the Influence tokens early on, which will reduce things to process in future games when they are used again, but with more complicated rules. That combined with the increased player agency made the final version the right choice. Still, I was a little sad to have to cut what I thought was a kind of clever idea, but I think that’s an important part of game design. You need to be willing to, as they say, “kill your darlings” if it is in the best interest of the overall experience.
July 27, 2018 (Jamey): Remember That Time When…
Today’s design diary post for The Rise of Fenris is about memorable moments. My personal belief with campaign games is that more isn’t better. Rather, I believe that truly *memorable moments* provide a special player experience.
This is something Ryan and I tried to apply during the design process for The Rise of Fenris. Our goal was to have at least one memorable moment in every episode of the campaign. We wanted big reveals, epic standoffs, and twists–both mechanical and thematic–to plant those memories in players’ minds.
I was reminded of this when I played Episode 3 with my group the other day. Episode 3 has two types of memorable moments (I won’t go into detail here lest I spoil anything). I’m sure we’ll be able to look back on this episode and say, “Remember that time when….”
I’ll use this short design diary as a reminder that you really shouldn’t do component checks for The Rise of Fenris (so you don’t spoil anything), but if you must do a component check, open ALL of the boxes, not just some of them. We’ve already gotten the same replacement parts request a half dozen times from people who open only 2 out of the 5 tuckboxes and then claim something is missing (even though that component is in one of the unopened boxes). Thanks!
What’s your favorite memorable moment in a campaign game? Please tag it with spoilers if it’s a discovery element.
July 18, 2018 (Ryan): A Solo Story
I just finished the Fenris campaign in solo mode tonight, and I want to share some thoughts in a pseudo-review, pseudo-design diary. :) I’ll keep this spoiler-free.
I can’t speak for Jamey, but when designing Fenris, I didn’t think about how things would work for a solo mode at all (and since he doesn’t play solo, I’m *guessing* he didn’t either), although I had played a lot of solo Scythe by then. It briefly crossed my mind to consider it early in the process, but I immediately realized that it would be cripplingly overwhelming to try and keep that in mind, so I just forgot about it. Some time after we had finished, I had a specific moment where I just looked at the document one day, exhaled audibly, and thought, “I don’t know WHAT Morten is going to do with this . . .”
And now I’ve finished playing it. I had nothing to do with the design process of the solo version. I joined the play testing forum they used very late in the process and poked around a little, skimming the rules here and there, but it just wasn’t clicking in my mind (work was really busy, then our second child was born). What I understood of it seemed brilliant, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the whole thing.
Now that I’ve played it, I really can say that I found it brilliant. The Automa Factory team found some great solutions for things like the fact that it now matters WHICH Triumphs the Automa places stars on. Their adaptations for the episode-specific rules are concise and clever. As I mentioned before, Jamey and I tried to keep the rules overhead low, and I think Morten and team did the same. There are some global rules that I rechecked a few times throughout the campaign (because I’m forgetful, not because they were hard), but the individual episode rules were clear and easy to follow. I may have messed a few things up here and there, but I’m pretty confident that I played it mostly correctly.
One thing that I thought was very clever was how they had the automa grow in strength and efficiency. Without giving too much away, there are ways for players to get stronger/more efficient during the campaign, and the team came up with some really clever solutions for scaling the Automa to keep up with you. Although I won the campaign, there were several points where things felt tough (and I suffered some pretty bad beat-downs in a few games!).
One of my favorite “little” things they included was a variable difficulty mode for the Automa. Basically, there is a subtle way to adjust the difficulty on the fly, making it easier or harder based on how often you are winning. I was afraid of it at first, but I committed to it, and I’m glad I did. I still managed to win the campaign, but I think it added a little more tension along the way to have the self-adjusting difficulty.
I honestly think this is a pretty unique solo experience. I have played a decent number of solo games now, but I am still a “new-ish” solo gamer, and I have never played a solo campaign. Even so, I think this will fill a niche for a lot of solo gamers, and I look forward to hearing what more experienced solo gamers think (especially those who HAVE played other solo campaign games). Overall, I am very pleased and honored to have this addition to the final product!
Notes and tips:
* You should probably not attempt the solo campaign until you are VERY comfortable with the Automa rules – and for the time being, that means WITHOUT using Scythekick (at least until Tim Cherna gets it updated, but I have no idea how long that might be). The Fenris rules are not especially complicated or extensive, but you really need to have the basic Automa rules down solidly to be successful.
* I played 2-player (me and 1 Automa). The game comes with semi-official rules for playing with multiple Automas/humans together, but I kept it simple. If I play it solo again (I might!), I’ll probably try with 2 Automa, but personally I won’t be going above that. There is more going on in this that standard Scythe, so that will be plenty to track. :)
* I suggest playing on your standard Automa difficulty. You may think to yourself, “The Automa is getting super strong! How will I ever beat it??” But remember: you are getting stronger and more efficient too. I may have been lucky, but I beat the Automa pretty handily in the last game, and I didn’t really see that coming before I began it.
* On that note, I also recommend using the variable difficulty mode. It was simple and slick. And with more than one Automa it could be fascinating. Since it’s based on number of wins, you could theoretically have one Automa starting a mid-campaign game much more aggressively and the other being a little weaker. Interesting stuff.
* I did not use The Wind Gambit. I wanted to, but there is so much going on already, and I have only had limited opportunities to use it so far (solo or multiplayer), so I set it aside. I’m excited to mix it in with some Fenris modules in future games though! I think some really interesting stuff could emerge.
July 6, 2018 (Jamey): The Same, but Different
In the previous design diary post, Ryan talked about rules overhead. This is the idea that we didn’t want to require players to remember an ever-accumulating set of rules. Yet, at the same time, we wanted to tell a persistent story over the 8-game campaign.
The solution we came up with was, as Ryan mentioned, to have some unique twists listed in the setup, gameplay, and end-game rules for each scenario. We walked a fine line here, as we wanted each scenario to feel different, yet we wanted players who know Scythe to simply jump into it and start playing, even if it’s been months since they played the last scenario.
Paired with that are a few ongoing special bonuses that players keep track of on their campaign logs. That way, you can feel like you’re building an engine over the course of multiple games. Some of those bonuses are explained before the campaign even begins, hence the image here.
In addition to this balance we tried to maintain, we also never wanted the game to not feel like Scythe. So we tried to create twists that make each episode unique while staying true to Scythe’s roots. If you’re the type of person who wants to play an 8-game campaign of Scythe, you don’t want one of the episodes to be a cooperative dexterity game about stacking oil tokens. Nor do you want each game to feel the same as a regular game of Scythe–I’ve played other campaign games where they include a ton of scenarios, but each scenario has players doing the exact same thing over and over. I’d rather have 8 unique, memorable scenarios than 200 scenarios that feel the same.
We’re getting very close to receiving some of the shipments for The Rise of Fenris (probably in 2 weeks), and as soon as we do, we’ll start shipping to Stonemaier Champions who pre-ordered from us. Other pre-orders will ship after Gen Con, and the retail release is August 17.
July 3, 2018 (Ryan): Rules Overhead
I recently managed to finally get some friends together to begin the Rise of Fenris campaign. I’ve had my advance copy for weeks, but I just haven’t been able to coordinate a game night. Finally, two friends just took a day off of work, and with them a fellow teacher and I began the campaign. We played the first three episodes in a 5-hour stretch (including a brief lunch break), and it was a lot of fun. As I was packing up afterward, I had a moment of relief when thinking about when we could meet up next because I realized I wouldn’t have to refresh everyone on the rules – Jamey and I had covered that.
Scythe is a fairly rules-dense game already. They are pretty intuitive rules, but there are a lot of them, so from the beginning we knew we wanted to keep to a minimum the number rules and exceptions players had to remember during the Fenris campaign. However, we wanted each game of the campaign to feel exciting and unique (while still distinctly Scythe-like), which required at least a few tweaks to setup and rules. With a game as carefully balanced as Scythe, even a small adjustment to the rules can completely change the dynamic of the game. In the promotional scenario I designed there is an increased emphasis on building, and players reported that they enjoyed how this small tweak entirely changed their interactions with the game, while still *feeling* like Scythe. The Rise of Fenris is full of these types of changes.
In many episodes, the most complicated exceptions happen during set up, where it is relatively easy to simply follow the steps, leaving little or nothing for the players to remember long term. The specific rules for each scenario usually only rely on one or two changes to the regular game. However, these small changes can make fairly dramatic impacts on the way each game plays out. In the marathon three-game session I played with my friends, all three games played out very differently, and our regular strategies were often challenged. The most successful players identified the core goal of each episode and focused on that, but without forgetting the nature of Scythe.
When I recently played the sample scenario with some fans at a meetup in Seattle, I dominated the building goal . . . then came in 3rd or 4th out of 7 players because I put TOO much effort into that, at the expense of other Scythe goals.
As I noted in my last design diary, the focus of this campaign is strong narrative and gameplay that emerges from that. I’m pleased with how the subtle changes we made to each episode feel unique and different without burdening players with a lot of new rules, while simultaneously making the gameplay reflect the narrative for each episode nicely, which was another goal of ours.
So what does this mean for the players? It means that if you find yourself with a large gap between play sessions, as I have found while playing Pandemic Legacy with my wife, you don’t have to go back and review a bunch of rules before you begin again. Everything you need to play the next episode in the campaign is self-contained in that episode. Otherwise it’s basically like regular Scythe. There are a few global rules that carry over from game to game, but they are quite simple to remember and won’t require much review, if any. (I should say that we highly recommend that all players in the campaign have a decent grasp of Scythe rules before beginning, since it is definitely a more “advanced mode” experience.)
I’m very satisfied with how this came out. I think it makes the campaign approachable, especially for groups who won’t be getting together weekly. It has allowed us to do some fairly dramatically different things from game to game without overburdening players mentally. I enjoy games like Pandemic Legacy where the rules emerge and grow, but I think for Scythe in particular, where there already so many rules to track (intuitive though they are) that it was very important to keep things simple.
June 20, 2018 (Ryan): The Rise of Fenris & Lessons of the Past
Several people have asked about the similarities between The Rise of Fenris and my fan-made campaign Lessons of the Past, so I thought I would address that today. As you may know, I designed a campaign for fun back in October/November of 2016, just a few months after Kickstarter backers received their copies of Scythe. Several people felt it was a world ripe for a campaign, and I agreed, but it wasn’t until several weeks later that I thought, “Well, I could probably do that,” after seeing Morten’s “untested Automa campaign” on the BGG Variants forum.
My goal for Lessons of the Past was to give players various “challenges” to change the way they looked at the game. For example, I wanted to emphasize different aspects of the game, such as the Objectives or building Structures. In short, I wanted to encourage (and reward) thinking about different aspects of Scythe, in the hopes that players would actually become better at the game as a result of playing my campaign.
I specifically didn’t want to do a lot by way of “print-and-play” materials, so I avoided adding tokens or cards or whatnot. There were player aids and a campaign book, and that was all players needed to print. After each episode of that campaign, some players (usually the winner) received some sort of “setup bonus,” such as getting to put out an extra worker or starting the game with an Upgrade or a Structure already built. These bonuses ended up being a little problematic I think (what if I don’t want a structure on one of my starting territories?), but they at least built in a sense of growth over the campaign, like your faction was getting stronger.
Ultimately, the limitations of those self-imposed restrictions on what I wanted to make people print out are pretty clear in the final product, I think. I am more or less happy with where it ended up (for what it is), but it could be improved with better testing and a little more willingness to have people print off tokens and such. Still, I liked the goal of challenging players to focus on different aspects of Scythe and to improve their use and/or appreciation of them.
The second goal I had for LotP was to tell an interesting story. This was definitely secondary to the gameplay challenges, but I thought it needed something compelling to drive the action and keep players invested. In short, the story of LotP is the story of the nigh-inevitable march toward World War II (or not, if players played one game in a very specific way). Each episode represents roughly a year in my mind, so the total campaign spans about a decade, ending in either a new peace or a second war. It felt like the natural progression of the story, given the nature of the mechs and humanity’s proclivity for destruction.
In general, LotP’s story was very large in scale. The Rise of Fenris, on the other hand, has a much more personal story to tell (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it here!), and the big design focus was basically the opposite of what I had for LotP.
Very early in the design process for Fenris, I presented the aforementioned priorities to Jamey (interesting gameplay challenges vs. story), and I asked him about his priorities. His response was that he wanted all of the gameplay to be driven by the story. Jakub had the bones of a specific story he wanted to tell, and Jamey wanted a focus on narrative to drive the story and any changes or additions to the gameplay.
I had begun drafting for Fenris the same way I had for LotP, which was to try and sketch out a series of interesting scenarios, then add narrative to tie them all together. This wasn’t working so well. I had the bones of nine games laid out, but they weren’t coming together cohesively, and one of the later games in the campaign remained blank for a long time – I knew what I wanted there, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out how to do it. So I took some time off and sat down and drafted the story for the entire campaign. Even if we didn’t end up using it, I wanted to have it as background knowledge to inform the scenarios. Jamey and Jakub liked the story quite a bit – so much so that Jamey included nearly the entire thing in the final version (with some edits here and there, for space or narrative).
With a story in place, I returned to the episode designs and began editing, deleting, and adjusting to get them to fit the narrative. The nine episodes fell to eight after I started matching them to the narrative. Two episodes were combined into one (which was a good thing) and a few others were replaced or modified to fit the story better. The episode that had remained blank finally came together. It fit the narrative, and I finally found the missing elements of gameplay I had struggled to piece together.
Sitting down and focusing on a story-driven approach really helped guide and accelerate the design process in this case. It provided me the framework and direction I needed to get over some hurdles that I was having when I tried to shoehorn the narrative into a gameplay-driven approach. Oddly, I don’t know if the story-driven style would have helped LotP as much.
The narrative for Fenris is much more intimate. For reasons I can’t explain here, it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the seven factions or their leaders as much as people may have wanted, but it does tell a specific story about the Great War, Tesla’s feelings about his mech creations, and some other events and forces I can’t discuss in a spoiler-free diary entry. Fenris contains a rather personal story, following the writing convention of focusing on individuals, rather than the big picture, to make a story more relatable and engaging. Lessons of the Past was more about human nature (and our historical tendency toward war), whereas The Rise of Fenris is more about specific human relationships. In a way, LotP (timeline-wise) probably would follow the events of Fenris and could possibly be made compatible, but it would take a major overhaul, and I don’t know if I’ll have the time for that. :)
In the end, I see value in both the gameplay-driven and the narrative-driven approach to designing a campaign game, depending on the designer’s goals. What do you think of these two approaches? Is there one you prefer as a gamer or designer? Is there another approach I haven’t considered?
June 17, 2018 (Jamey)
In my last design diary post for The Rise of Fenris, I talked about something Ryan and I tried to design but ultimately decided not to create (an encounter book). Today I’m going to write about two other oft-discussed and requested elements that are not in the expansion.
First, some context: Ryan and I read pretty much every comment on Facebook and BoardGameGeek about what people hoped would be in the final expansion. People didn’t know we were working on an expansion, but there were a number of threads containing ideas and wishlists. Some of them directly inspired elements of The Rise of Fenris, and I’m grateful for everyone who shared their thoughts as part of those public conversations.
But there were two ideas mentioned a number of times that we discussed, toyed around with, yet didn’t implement.
The first is combat. Some people like Scythe’s combat; other people don’t. I respect both sides. Some people who don’t like it (or just find it uninteresting) advocated for some sort of change to happen to the combat rules for The Rise of Fenris. I appreciate that wish, but I know from many, many playtests of different versions of combat that it’s such a finely tuned machine. That doesn’t mean it’s as fun or satisfying as it can be. But if you pull even a single string one way or another, it might result in players not wanting to attack or not putting up a fight, or you end up with combat that’s more about luck than skill and bluffing. I can’t claim it’s perfect, but I think it is already what it needs to be for Scythe, and I didn’t want to mess with that formula.
So we took a different approach with combat. Even though the combat rules remain the same, in several episodes and modules, there are twists to the game that impact combat. I don’t want to give anything away, but you’ll absolutely know what I mean when you see them.
The second is faction mats/abilities. A number of people asked for different faction mats for existing factions. I thought this was an interesting request, and I appreciate that people are connected to the existing factions to the point that they’re still excited by them, but they want something fresh from those factions.
Here’s the thing: Designing faction abilities is very difficult. It’s not impossible, but difficult–not just the first idea, but all the testing and balancing to ensure the faction abilities work, particularly at different player counts. Remember, these are persistent abilities that you have from turn one, so ideally they would be relevant throughout the game. I can’t even claim that the existing faction abilities accomplish this goal.
Also, thematically, I like that each faction has their own specific identity, and I was very hesitant to break from that.
We did, however, address this desire with several of the modules. A distillation of the desire is that people want to continue to use the existing factions, yet with more variability. There’s one major module that accomplishes this, and another that touches upon it in a more subtle way.
Those are the two biggest things I can think of that people requested but we didn’t directly add. Ryan may remember and write about others in future design diaries.
Is there anything you were specifically hoping The Rise of Fenris would include, add, or change to Scythe?
June 14, 2018 (Ryan)
Hello! This is my first design diary entry for The Rise of Fenris, and I would like to start with a brief introduction. Specifically, I’d like to address my name. :) My full last name is Lopez DeVinaspre. It was my great-grandfather’s name when he immigrated from Spain. However, for simplicity’s sake, I typically just go by Ryan Lopez, so feel free to refer to me that way. Because I like my full name and board gamers are comfortable with unusual designer names, I used my full name for this game. But don’t feel like you have to try to spell or pronounce it. :)
For this first entry, I thought I would follow up on Jamey’s note about the character specific encounter storylines that we considered for the campaign. Originally, I wanted to do quite a bit of so-called flavor text around the campaign. One rejected idea I had involved having players read short phrases or sentences from the “journals” or “letters” of fictional soldiers and civilians as well as the faction leaders whenever they completed stars during their games. I intended to write those in a historically thematic “voice”, and they would be brief tales of the goings-on during the events of The Rise of Fenris.
That was obviously a tremendous amount of work, and we eventually passed on it in part because if it didn’t have a meaningful gameplay reason to be there; it would slow the game down a little, and Jamey and I were worried that players would either ignore it or at most find it mildly interesting. Given how much work it would involve, that just wasn’t reasonable. However, a version of this that we considered very carefully was the idea to create ongoing narratives around characters’ encounters. It was an exciting prospect at first. Then I actually tried to accomplish it.
The first hurdle was what form these narratives would take. Would they be a series of cards that could be randomly drawn? Would they be a sequential deck that required players to complete one part before moving on to the next? Would they be in the form of a sequential series of events with mildly branching stories in a sort of storybook? We considered all of these, and they all had their strengths and weaknesses. A random deck of cards could potentially be used in ordinary games to create unique challenges for players based on their faction. A book would allow for more scripted and intricate narratives.
I already had some notes from Jakub about the basic backgrounds and motivations for the characters, although I needed to do a fair amount of development there to make them work for this task. In fact, as a side note, I actually developed somewhat complete stories for several characters (Anna, Olga, Connor, and Akiko). Translating them into interesting stories with meaningful impacts on gameplay however was a different story altogether. Giving them a relevant impact on gameplay was especially challenging.
It was certainly possible to simply replace the regular encounter system, but even that created narrative challenges. It was difficult to distill each step of a character’s story down to three choices on a card while retaining narrative cohesion. It would be easier to forgo the three-choice mechanism, but that started to branch away from a core aspect of the game. Ultimately, we found the idea of a book of options, as Jamey mentioned in his post, to be the best for developing a meaningful narrative. However, as I said, it continued to be very challenging to break a meaningful narrative into such short chunks with different decisions that followed a relatively continuous arc.
I spent a solid week or two just trying to translate Anna’s story into one of these narrative arcs and doing relatively little other design work—though all of my design work was done on the side of my regular job as a teacher. And after all that time I only got part way through and was quite unsatisfied with the result. On top of that was the knowledge that players might not even stick with the same faction for the entire campaign, so it had to be possible for a story to end without disappointing the players or otherwise having a negative effect on the gameplay. We finally decided that it just wasn’t worth it. It was going to be a tremendous amount of effort, and might set the design process back by weeks, for what amounted to flavor text. We loved the idea, but we just had to scrap it. And, for what it’s worth, it would have increased production costs.
I believe I still have the background stories for the characters, however. They are largely inspired by Jakub’s notes, with my own elaborations to fill them out. I will try to upload those to Board Game Geek for people who are interested in some semi-official background narratives for the factions.
I have a number of other ideas for design diaries, but if there is anything in particular that you would like to hear about, please let me know! :)
BONUS Design Diary! I was actually working on a similar idea for my fan campaign (Lessons of the Past) when Jamey first contacted me about working with him on the campaign expansion. In my LotP version, players would have a “mission card” for their leader. It would be thematically tied to their background stories (which I gathered from the art book and the Invaders from Afar rule book). Each player would need to accomplish a specific goal a certain number of times over a series of games in order to complete their mission. Goals included things like holding the Factory at the end of the game, claiming a certain number of territories of certain types, etc.
June 8, 2018
Today’s design diary post is super special. In addition to talking about encounters in The Rise of Fenris (or the lack thereof), I’m going to give you the opportunity to design a real encounter card for Scythe.
Also, if you intended to pre-order The Rise of Fenris directly from Stonemaier Games, today is the last day to do that: https://stonemaiergames.com/games/scythe/scythe-the-rise-of-fenris/
Ryan and I considered adding new encounters to The Rise of Fenris, but we wanted to do something new with them. There are already more than enough encounters in Scythe, so we didn’t want to add more of the same.
So the idea we pursued–inspired by several fan posts, comments, as well as the excellent game Near and Far–was to add persistence and narrative arcs to the encounters, most likely as a book. That is, instead of drawing a random encounter card the first time you have an encounter during the campaign, you would instead read an entry from a storybook (specific to your character) and make a choice. Then, the next time you have an encounter–in the same or a future game–the encounter itself and/or the options on it would be determined by your previous choices.
This turned out to be a monumental challenge, though. I don’t think it’s an impossible task, but it’s quite difficult due to all the branching paths and callbacks. We tried to make it a little easier by focusing on shorter story arcs–maybe 6-8 encounters per character–but even then, the persistence made it very difficult.
We finally took a step back and simply decided not to pursue it. After all, we were knee-deep in the design process for 8 scenarios and 11 modules…sometimes we had to cut some ideas so we could ensure that we made the other ideas as great as possible.
Instead, I would like to give you the opportunity to design an encounter card for Scythe. Jakub has assembled 32 pieces of artwork used throughout the world of Scythe, and you can pick exactly 1 of them that inspires you. You’ll submit your design to me (see full details below) no later than June 15. I’ll select and edit my favorites, and then I’ll print them in a big promo pack containing all 32 cards. If your design is selected, you’ll get your name on the box, a free copy of the promo pack, and eternal glory.
June 1, 2018
This is the first in a series of short design diary posts I’ll share leading up to the release of Scythe: The Rise of Fenris.
There’s a name on the Rise of Fenris box that you may not know unless you’re particularly active in the Scythe group: Ryan Lopez DeVinaspre. How did he get involved in the expansion?
Well, a few years ago, Ryan decided to create a campaign version of Scythe for fun. He called it “Lessons of the Past.” I read through it after he posted it, and I was impressed with his writing and ideas.
And that was it.
Flash forward a few months later. At the time, people were starting to play Charterstone–a legacy game that is also a campaign game. Meanwhile, I noticed an increasing number of people in various Scythe threads who said they wished there was a campaign version of Scythe.
I had previously considered making a legacy expansion for Scythe, but I needed a break from the brain-burn of legacy design (legacy = permanent changes that cannot be undone. The Rise of Fenris is NOT a legacy campaign, as it is completely resettable). I had also come to a greater appreciation of the stories campaign games can tell. They often have persistent (but not permanent) elements, as well as new things to unlock and discover during the journey.
But I didn’t know much about designing a campaign. Sure, Charterstone counts, but the vast majority of Charterstone’s story is player-driven. I wanted a meaty story that would satisfy Scythe fan’s desire to know all those things in Jakub’s head that we’ve seen visually but not textually, and I wanted that story to enable some really cool mechanisms and surprises.
So who came to mind? Ryan Lopez DeVinaspre.
I reached out to Ryan to see if he would be interested in co-designing a campaign expansion with me, and he was intrigued. I also discussed it with Jakub, who shared a bunch of lore with us. Then we got to work.
In future design diaries I’ll talk about various challenges and discoveries we made during the design process, but I wanted to start with the origin story. Huge thanks to Ryan for going on this journey with me. And Jakub, of course, for creating this story and this world.
What is your favorite campaign game experience?