This is it. The cycle is complete. It’s a Kickstarter for a game about a game that was itself Kickstarted. Get out, get out now! The waveform is collapsing!
I jest. Jason liked Pillars of Eternity very much when it launched in March, but it seems Obsidian’s ambitions extend further than only putting out the most critically acclaimed Kickstarter game to date. So if your merry band of adventurers/grizzly posse of cutthroats are coming to the end of their travels/bloody crusade across Eora, take heart: Pillars of Eternity: The Lords of the Eastern Reach, which launched on Kickstarter on Thursday, has already broken its funding goal with 33 days to go. Oh, and it’s a board game.
You can get an outline of how the game works by watching the introductory video below. But if you’d like to know even more about Pillars’ transition from desktop to table-top, you’re in luck: I discussed that very matter with Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart and game designer Chris Taylor just before the launch of the Kickstarter, and wheedled out some exclusive juicy details.
The first thing I wanted to know is where Lords of the Eastern Reach came from. According to both Urquhart and Taylor, it’s been more than two years in the making, locked away in the deepest dungeons at Obsidian with the rats and a pallid army of playtesters. Urquhart has, at the time we speak, played about 15 times. Taylor is a bit better versed.
“I’m up to 110 times,” he says, modestly.
“Let’s just say the crap has been played out of this game,” Urquhart concurs.
The premise for Lords of the Eastern Reach is quite a break from its CRPG inspiration. You’re not adventurer and you won’t be recruiting companions. Rather, you play as one of the titular lords, and your goal is to not kill, but out-glorify your opponents. You do this by building up your city, trampling those of others, and raiding dungeons for loot and monster trophies. It’s a balancing act that Urquhart says is actually more like a real-time strategy game than an RPG.
“At any time I can focus on building my city, I can go try to take Chris out, or I can take my heroes into a dungeon,” he says. “Your brain always has this puzzle of, ‘what’s the best strategy?’ That’s what really interested me from the get go: having this game where everytime I play I can choose to play it differently.”
At the start of the game, each player (2-4) gets an Allegiance card. An Allegiance card introduces specific rules that last the whole game for the player that holds it – one might steer a player towards combat, another towards city building, and so forth. You’re also dealt your starting eight cards, which (unless you have one particular Allegiance card that grants a bonus to hand size) you’ll then have to prune down to five.
This is where you first start strategizing. According to Urquhart and Taylor, you’re trying to plan moves ahead right from the get-go, deciding whether you’ll get cheap troops like Archers or Guards out early or hang onto heftier (but more expensive) cards you really want for later. At the beginning of each turn, players draw resource tokens from a bag in the centre. From what the pair describe, strategy in Lords of the Eastern Reach comes from making the best of what the universe sends your way.
You’ll still get heroes, as you do in the original Pillars – but in LotER (we’re coining it), they’re a kind of counterpoint to your cheap, arrow-fodder grunts. You’ll be able to find all the recruitable companions from the PC game in board game adaptation, along with some new faces mostly based, I’m told, on the player characters of the developers at Obsidian.
Once you’ve assembled a mighty host, you can use it either to clobber another player, or pick up to five units to send on a dungeon raid. Attacking another player works a bit like it does in Magic: The Gathering: you can send out whatever forces you like, but doing so ‘exhausts’ them, which means they’ll be unable to defend your city if another player decides to clobber you back. Also like Magic, each Army card has an attack value and a defence value, which get totted up after the attack-ee sends out his defenders to work out who comes home with a war story and who keels over in a field with a face full of burning arrows. If you do more damage than the victim can defend against, you sack some of their buildings, too, and add them to your trophy pile.
Another way to get trophies is to dungeon crawl. The Dungeon has three levels, represented by three decks which contain a mixture of monsters (which you can kill and mount as trophies) and rewards like Soul Gems, which you can use to buff your armies. But more on that later.
Trophies add to your Victory Points (as do buildings you’ve kept safe at the end of the game). Victory Points are interesting in that they’re the only win-condition in LotER – you can’t ever wipe a player out, even if you stamp their city into splinters and smash their army (you can “savage them,” as Urquhart puts it, but not boot them out of the game entirely). The game ends when the central deck of City cards (162 are included with the game, and the more you play with, the longer each game lasts) from which players draw buildings, troops and so on runs out. As you might expect, the player with the most points when this happens wins. What you might not expect is that troops and heroes count for zilch when it comes to adding up Victory Points – so if you end the game with a massive army, you’re doing it wrong.
“So there was this one guy playing and it was the final turn,” says Taylor, by way of example. “You could see that the game was going to end real soon. So he’s like, ‘what do I do?’ Well, one thing about this game is that troops and heroes at the end of the game aren’t worth any Victory Points. It doesn’t matter if you end with a big army or a small army – you don’t score any points for those. So you almost have to think of them as a currency and use them up to buy Victory Points by going into the Dungeon or attacking other players.
“So in this game, he’s got a pretty good sized army but is a few points behind the leader, so he needs to be risky. So we’re all sitting around the table goading him on. And he’s like, ‘well, I’m going to go into the Dungeon but maybe on Level 2,’ and [we say], ‘no, man, the big rewards are on Level 3! You’ve gotta go to Level 3’. Do it! Go!’ So he pushes out all his guys, he flips over a Level 3 Dungeon card, and it turns out it’s the boss. In each Dungeon there is one really powerful card, and in this case it was the Adra Dragon, which proceeded to eat his army and then burn down about half his town. We felt really bad.”
“He went from maybe winning…” Urquhart says.
“To dead last,” Taylor finishes.
As Urquhart and Taylor describe it, games of LotER can go very different ways depending on the temperaments of the people playing – and these dynamics shift significantly again when you up the number of players from two to three or four. With two players, you amass resources more quickly, and have a clearer view of what your opponent is up to. But with three or four players, games can, they say, run the gamut from peaceful coexistence to a permanent state of war.
“Certain games we’ll play with people, and they’re all about just beating on each other,” says Urquhart. “It’s just all about attacking each other and occasionally going into the Dungeon. But then there are a lot of other games where people are like, ‘well, let’s all play nice and we’ll just all go fight in the Dungeon and not fight each other.’ Depending on who’s playing, you have a really different style of game.”
That said, if you do want to screw over an opponent without risking any of your own precious heroes, there are other, more underhanded strategies open to you. While the game apparently never goes full-Diplomacy (“no-one [ever] takes their ball and goes home,” says Urquhart), there’s nothing to stop you deliberately tricking or goading other players into making dangerous decisions that lead to their undoing.
“It is totally open negotiation and there is no enforcement of deals or bargains,” says Taylor. “So you can say whatever you want, and then you may or may not decide to live up to your word. The game encourages you to talk things out. I have played a game where I’ve talked someone into attacking another player, and then backstabbed them.
“Unfortunately the person I backstabbed was my wife. I heard about that for a few weeks after.”
Pillars of Eternity: Lords of the Eastern Reach is currently sitting on just under $50,000 out of a $30,000 funding target on Kickstarter and will be released in February 2016. For more information, check out its developer’s website: zeroradiusgames.com.