Hiding the raisins

 

(this is guest post by Michal Oracz)

Neither Neuroshima Hex nor Theseus, and especially not Witchcraft are particularly story oriented games.

I’m not even trying to delude myself that these tactical monsters will take my players plunging into a different world, full of metal corridors, blue fog and radioactive fumes. These are all tactical games, kind of logical, while based in my beloved worlds – the postapocaliptic Neuroshima and the claustrophobic space horror.

Does that mean I don’t like story games?

Just the contrary – I love them.

In the last decade we created a lot of roleplaying games in Portal, among these two major lines. First, Neuroshima rpg – a 400 pages long rulebook and 23 expansion-books. All of these together with the anthology of short stories makes more than three thousand and five hundred pages describing the world of Neuroshima.

This universe has nested board and card games such as Hex, Convoy, 51st State, New Era, the Polish edition of Resistance, as well as a tabletop war-game called Neuroshima Tactics and a computer game Neuroshima Apocalypse.

Our second big rpg title is Monastyr, a dark fantasy game set in a world at a breakthrough between the age of knights and the age of industrialism. This world is ruled by xenophobia, populated by extremely intolerant and permanently stirred nations that form an anti-pagan alliance. Where the second part of the world is still filled with the hated magic. It’s a world divided in every aspect: religious fanaticism against rational cynicism, the pope against the emperor, union of men and technology against the world of magic, the underworld against the surface world, humans against the other races. For Monastyr we created 8 expansion-books and an anthology of short stories. Also the boards game Stronghold was set in it.

This is what we did for a dozen or so years. That was our job, hobby, passion. We created worlds, stories, we worked on characters and locations, events and threads, factions and challenges.

And this is where I feel best.

Most of my unfinished drafts and board game projects are mostly all kinds of adventure-story games, sometimes very weird ones.

Somehow, don’t ask me how (well mostly by coincidence) only my strictly strategic games were published so far. And so when you take Hex’s manual in your hand, or any of the expansions, you may under an impression that it was written by a robot.

I assure you, I’m not a robot 🙂

Using the space that Ignacy has given me on his blog, I’d like to sneak in a handful of curiosities; they will be a little hermetic and will concern the story that is hidden in or behind all of my tactical, board creations.

You must know that factions in Neuroshima rpg are very closely related to one another and are not as divide as in the board game NS Hex. A random example: Borgo. Mutants on the board fight against Moloch, in the world of Neuroshima rpg they kind of do the same but not really. Mutties often paranoid respect any kinds of technology, you can stumble upon whole altars raised from old engines and devices. Many mutants consider Moloch to be their god. To be honest Moloch is indeed their creator because in NS mutants are not an outcome of radiation nor magical anomalies, instead they are the effect of Moloch’s genetical experiments. It is Moloch that creates new species of a post-human, capable of existing in a completely devastated world. They are bred in terrariums that look like Moon’s landscape – desolate. Nobody knows why, since it was Moloch that initiated the destruction of the entire human civilization and took control over what remains. Naturally as authors of Neuroshima rpg we know perfectly well why but we left it hanging in the corebook as one of the few unanswered mysteries of this world. Moloch created many species of mutants, it’s armored convoys spread them all over the continent. Mainly in the proximity of the Mississippi river – the most noxious area of them all. As to Borgo himself – a charismatic cyber mutant, he rallied some a part of the mutants under his banner – hatred towards mankind.

Oh, yes. The factions they do mix – and it’s visible almost in every aspect of NS Hex.

The newest expansion for Hex is the Mississippi faction (as usually stripped of a complex story that can be found on the pages of Neuroshima rpg). We will find many mutants in the grounds adjacent to the Mississippi river because the river it Moloch’s main testing ground for new species. One of them being the Sharrash rats – independent but despite that they do a good job protecting the underground roads near Moloch’s borders. These mutated rats can also be found solo, for example in the area of Mississippi. Since humans are particularly distrustful towards mutties, that don’t look like homo sapiens, the mutated rats never take of their masks. Of course their looks are not exactly those of a normal rat, they are more like the batfaced vampires from the movies made after the year 2000. But hey, it’s better to keep your mask on, especially with a face like that.

And now a curiosity: well among the Hex’s Mississippi you can find one of the Sharrash rats – I’m curious if you can recognize him.

How about another piece of the Mississippi story? In the manual you one can encounter a strange rule called Dead Breath. When both armies will go down to zero during the battle, Mississippi wins. Why? Naturally to get rid of the unresolvable draw in the tournament rules (while using the tournament rules almost every draw is resolvable).

But what is it about story wise?

Dead Breath is a disease that made its first appearance in the area of Neuroshima’s Detroit and changed the city into a closed fortress. This disease changes people into bloodthirsty – let’s not beat around the bush – zombies. Where did come from? Who, one day, delivered its source in a metal container to the border area of the ruins of Detroit? And why was it opened? By whom? Officially it’s not known. All fingers point at Moloch and yet one of its sick experiments, aiming to prove something, to check something. Why in that case a unit that draws with Mississippi loses? Since for this faction a draw is actually a win? And why is this form of winning called – Dead Breath. Precisely, it’s a suspicious relationship, isn’t it?

In many places of the Hex there are resins hidden and they are very no more no less a kind of hermetic references to the world of Neuroshima rpg.

Does this introduce anything to the game? Absolutely nothing.

Why are this story based ‘winks’ in a game like Hex? Absolutely for nothing.

It’s just additional fun during the process of creation. Creating game, even such tactical monsters, should be mainly based on fair fun. For example a fun game of hiding the raisins.

 

PS. I just can’t wait when my new game comes out, since I have this feeling that the constant discussion about Hex, Theseus or Witchcraft is starting to sound with an echo of a bothersome mantra 😉

About randomness and luck in games

…or why I didn’t throw out randomness from Hex and Theseus?

(this is guest post by Michal Oracz)

 

A warm, spring evening. You’re sitting comfily in front of the screen reading a game review. There’s a picture, a title and five blocks of text.

Scrolling…

At the end of the review there is a summary:

Rating: 8/10
Pluses:
– Beautiful graphic design
– 90 plastic figures = money well spent
– Innovative mechanics of city development
– Theme and humor
– The whole thing weighs over 5 kilos and makes a pleasurable sound when shaken = money well spent
Minuses:
– Non-standard card size
– Randomness
– No interaction
– The game is for 2 players only
– Play time: 10-15 minutes
– Player’s age: 12+
– The box is red and black

 

No, it’s not a summary for Her nor for Theseus, they don’t have figures, boxes are lighter and interaction level is at 200%. This is a summary of some nonexistent game taken straight from Narnia.

The question is different: when did you notice that something was wrong with this whole summary? Was it the game time or the player’s age or the red and black box? If so, not bad.

But maybe it was earlier, where randomness and lack of interaction were mentioned as minuses? Really? It’s hard to believe since we’re used to treating randomness and lack of interaction as obvious defects and evident mistakes in games.

Who didn’t hear about a „stupid, random game”?

I personally like a bit of randomness, which even may – focus here! – influence the result of the game!

Sometimes I’m asked if Hex wouldn’t be better off without the random element. If everything would be in front of the player and accessible from the very beginning, turning the game into a real contest of the minds. Similar situation takes place with Theseus. Hmmm…

It is said that Theseus is a difficult game. The rules are very simple but during the game itself you really need to flex your brain in all directions to put all that you got into a game winning, asskickin’ combo machine. Phew, tough sport. Is it good? No. In commercial sense it is absolutely a flaw. But there is something instead. Theseus is very fast, experienced players can deal with it in about 20-25 minutes. Secondly all games are unique, each time there are different combos on the board composed from different cards and in different locations of the game. Finally: Theseus includes an element of RANDOMNESS. It’s not major but it’s enough – same as in Hex, you simply don’t know what will come next to your hand, that’s it. But IT IS THERE.

Oh yes, the short play time and the random element were kept in the game as a painkiller for the general brain consuming factor of the gameplay.

I wanted to make a game that would involve a huge amount of brain work while thinking about all these combos yet it would forgive the player the mistakes he makes. So that if you lose you wouldn’t leave the table feeling your brain is somehow worse than that of your opponent’s. So that you could always cheer yourself saying: This time you had some luck, let’s see how you’ll do in the next game. Let’s play again.

As a player I hate to lose because my brain was worse than somebody else’s. There surely are people who enjoy such level of competition. But I’m not one of them.

Adding the element of randomness to my games is not a result of tests, nor demand of the players, nor even a fashion. It’s the effect of the player I am, of what I enjoy in board games and of what I don’t enjoy, of what annoys me and of what I miss. Many players love to engage in heavy games with no randomness at all, logical and ruthless. I unfortunately don’t, I’m a different type of a player. I wrote earlier that I try to be honest and polish the gameplay while feeling it 100%, so I design games as if they were for myself. It’s the easiest way for me to evaluate the fun that comes from the gameplay. I’m not starting to design a complicated eurogame only because they are appreciated and a popular genre. I won’t make a game for kids only because it’s a huge and great target and a lot of players want to play with their little ones. I prefer to be honest as a designer and work only on what I know and what I feel. I like games with a well-placed and well-choses element of randomness, that’s why randomness will be present in my games.

Randomness, while anticipating the occurrence of new tiles or cards in the game, be it ours or the opponent’s, is also connected with a special type of emotion, totally different than the ones that we feel while anticipating opponent’s move. We know what may come to the opponent and what may come to us. But we don’t know when. We prepare a certain situation on the board, calculating in our heads the chances for drawing and playing more or less fortunate elements of the game in the upcoming turns. We create a flexible machine to overpower our opponent, we update it as the elements appear and we modify our plans. Sometimes we pray for a Bomb or a Sniper; sometimes we pray so that our opponent wouldn’t get a fast unit or a net-fighter or Move. We pray for him not to place the Duplicate or Safeguard. We beg our luck for the opponent not to draw Battle this turn! Not now! He got it… damn… Hurray, it’s a Bomb! I did it! A shooter, yay! I’ll close the combo! Phew, that was close, just one Push and I’m saved.

For the whole gameplay the player digests wishes and prayers in his mind, he keeps his fingers crossed and holds his breath. There is another game taking place in his mind, next to the board. Satisfaction and frustration occur, one after the other, anger and happiness. The gameplay is short and intense, the tactic is short-distanced so these emotions are also very temporal, the anger is very short and disappointment after a lost battle can be easily wiped with a rematch.

All this without feeling that your brain is somehow inferior because there always is light in the dark tunnel, a simple fact at our hand: “if I had the proper token back then everything would have been different. You were lucky!”. So what if luck or bad luck are just a minor element of the whole gameplay? What is important is the fact that we can always blame our defeat on fate.

Of course I don’t like „stupid, random games”. But I also don’t like ruthless, logical monster without the faintest trace of randomness in it. A minor and well placed element of fate is like a well-chosen spice. The game just tastes better.

The return of the telepaths: when an add-on ruins the game

GUEST POST BY MICHAL ORACZ

If I occasionally doubted in the existence of telepathy, it was until yesterday.

Somewhere around midnight I stopped my struggles with the add-on for Theseus. I looked on all the cards, tokens, units and special rules I rejected during proof-gaming. I noticed that I threw away ALMOST EVERY idea that at first occurred to me as revolutionary.

I sat in front of the keyboard and wrote an article about it. To be more precise, it was about this wild passion we authors have to turn the game up side down with an expansion. About how this rabid dog must be kept on a short leash and why.

Next day Ignacy published the text. The disturbing thing was that I haven’t even sent it to him. He published his own article, because he wrote exactly the same thing at the same time 🙂

One of us should definitely use Magneto’s helmet.

Hmm, what now… Maybe this will help:

Highlight half of the text and… DELETE.

OK 🙂

At the end of the (deleted) arguments I’ll use the newest examples taken from my everyday work.

I have just finished working on two, developed simultaneously, expansion – Missisipi for Neuroshima Hex and Robots (working name, maybe somebody has a better idea for a name of the machines’ faction?) for Theseus. Of course we are still polishing the balance but that is a completely different pair of shoes.

Missisipi. When working on an expansion I always feel tempted to show what I can do with a game. The first approach to a new army is like creating a demo. Ideas for creating a completely different game with the help of just one additional faction and eventually some new rules are trying to escape my head as if they were a bunch of wild animals.

I feel drawn to pour a whole bucket of innovations on the game. New units appear, they run all over the board game like crazy. Some new tiles and tokens appear and then coal mining and economy (just you wait, we’ll publish it one day but until then not a word to anybody!), tiles of special locations, armies consisting of mainly instant tiles or terrain tiles… Same thing in, I’m even afraid to describe it all: a tile that automatically kills everything around it. Indestructible tiles. Terrible area damage effects, wiping out few units with one shot. Units that can heal the Headquarters…

Robots. Here the situation is quite similar, first draft of the faction is a real display of fireworks. Each of the three (or four) units is different. Both reverse and obverse of the unit are not just better and worse sides. They simply have different actions. Each unit can enter the other unit and they can join to became a one big unit only to divide to smaller, specialized ones later on. Units have special directions of acting through walls. A whole bunch of new ability markers to place on your units.

I could stir things up like this all the time. I always loved it, especially when we created RPG games. I striped the game’s structure down to basic elements I meditated on each one of them. Could we improve it somehow? Could we change it to something else? Do it the way it was never done before.

When you create a game all that is great, there’s no problem.

But an expansion?

That’s why most of those innovations found their way into the trash just like half of the text I prepared, which was telepathically nicked by Ignacy (I’ll skip the argument that was brilliantly described by Ignacy and provide a bit of my own thoughts).

The author has to be fair with the player. First of all we won’t encourage new people to reach for the game. It’s an illusion. Some people think they can increase the popularity of a game and lure new players because from now on, thanks to the expansion, we have implemented deck-building and economy. No. The expansion is for those who liked the core version. They trusted us and it’s to them that we owe a debt that can only be repaid with the best possible expansion we can make.

And so for example in Neuroshima Hex if we had too much mobility it would kill the very sense of the game. No place for theory here or ‘I said so and that’s how we do it’. It ruins the game in the worst possible way. Hex is a game about positioning, its like very strategic puzzle making. If there is a faction with too much mobility on the game board, it starts to play a different game and then the worst thing happens – every now and then there is the proverbial „Cancel” or „Dispel”. Too much mobility in Hex turns off all the advantages of other armies. Others make their slow and strategic puzzle while the mobile ones are playing PacMan with them.

Same thing with instant tiles. It’s not a problem to design an army consisting only of these (I still have the draft of Parker Lots gang in my magic box, they are assassins who spit out instants as if they were mad). But Parker Lots play their own game on a board of NS Hex and the unfortunate army that goes against them plays a different one. It doesn’t matter that balance can be forced so that in the end it will be more or less equal. It’s about the fact that it feels unpleasant, unfair and frustrating.

All of the new markers got kicked out of Missisipi, same with the economy in Hex, instant armies and one hundred percent mobile ones.

Specialized units got kicked out of the Robots faction as well as piles of tokens and special movement rules – they might return in the future if they can defend themselves better in tests of a different faction. Until then they have the red card and will have to warm the bench.

An innovative expansion is a great thing as long as it deepens what we already love about a game, not simply denies everything we knew, in the name of innovation and game play variation.

That’s the end of demos, it’s high time to create some cool, complete new expansions for the fans of these two games.

It’s not about some sophisticated theory. It’s all very simple:

Each game has its own rhythm and characteristics of game play.

Let’s embrace it while creating expansions, we owe that to those who love it.

Can you steal your own idea?

[guest post by Michał Oracz]

 

Did you guys ever stole something from yourself? I did.

And so last year I insolently stole my own idea.

What can I say in my defense?

First of all it was an accident. I didn’t realize…

Yeah, so I sound like a typical thief.

Secondly, in game designing business stealing ideas is no big deal or so I heard. It’s not like MP3s or something, anybody can take whatever they want. So I didn’t press charges and you are probably wondering what’s all the fuss about?
Third of all, it’s not all black and white since I changed a few things and…

Wait a moment, wait a moment, do you remember that ‘golden’ rule about being truthful? If you have too many excuses it means that you don’t have any real ones.

OK, so maybe we should establish what is it that I actually stole?

Your Honor, it was like this: for many months, each day and throughout half of the night I designed, tested, polished, perfected and played my newest game. Sir, you might have heard of it, its the one taking place in a space station with space commandos, two alien races and a bunch of weird scientists.

At some point my work overlapped with another one, a certain project that really stretched in time. Finally got a green light and had to be finished.

The space themed game is Theseus, and the second project is Mephisto– a new add-on to Neuroshima Hex. I worked on Mephisto together with its author Michał Herda. And so somehow these two projects got mixed up a little and some of the solutions we used in Mephisto found their way into Theseus.

The first being the Quill, a super efficient attack as for Neuroshima. It hit’s anything that’s on the game board, no neighboring or line of sight required. You target a victim and it will surely be hit. The Quill emerges form under the ground and bang! It’s a hit. Mephisto really needed this. It serves as an inner balance tool so that the army won’t be too strong when it is next to enemy’s headquarters nor will it be helpless when it can’t get in range with it. Being a one soldier army forces nonstandard solutions.

Right, so where did this Quill come form? There was this card in Theseus, in the Aliens deck, which allowed attacking even when no Alien’s units were nearby. How does it work? Simple, the walls of a space station are filled with technical nooks, lockers built into the walls and such. Inside them, between cables and other devices all of a sudden an additional Alien jumps out and attacks. This card is called Hidden.

And so the Hidden found its way into Mephisto as Quill. Your honor, I swear this was an accident, I didn’t mean to!

The second shared mechanics solution are the Upgrade tokens.

Theseus is mostly based on upgrading your own cards the ones you were able to introduce into the game during your course of play – this is accomplished by putting upgrade tokens on cards. It can change a seemingly useless card into a raging behemoth capable of instantly winning the whole game. Of course Theseus rookies in their first few games don’t pay much attention to this mechanics, they are more focused on chaotic running about and inflicting some minor damage to their opponents. But when they grow bored with all the silly running tactics they start to look for the second or even the third layer of the game. Ignoring minor damage in favor of higher aspirations they discover the real power of Upgrades. Only then with one precise combo they can knock out any fan of running about. It’s one of many inconspicuous secrets of Theseus.

Coming back to Mephisto. One fighting token for the entire army is a huge threat for the balance of the whole game. If it’s too fast no one will stand a chance. Should it be too slow it won’t stand a chance itself. If it’s too strong it will always win in a hit for hit situation. If it’s too weak it will loose. If it will be too mobile it can escape from any trap set by the opponent. If it will be too stationary it won’t get a chance to get closer to enemy’s headquarters which will remove itself to the far end of the game board from where it will attack with immense fire power.

So what should this token be like, so that everything will work?

Well it should be variable. It’s the player who should decide whether he currently lacks fire power, mobility or speed. When you combine it with the ‘short blanket’ syndrome it provides demanding yet satisfying choices to be made during the game. With the seemingly useless Incubator tokens the player creates something that can equalize his chances and make up for his current shortages. This way Upgrade tokens from Theseus sneaked into Mephisto, of course they were previously modified to fit in with Neuroshima’s mechanics. And so Mephisto became Theseus’ cousin.

Is that all?

Nope. Many more cheeky thefts took place here, both sides. Above I’ve mentioned only two examples.

But… maybe you know about which Theseus’ cards and Mephisto’s (and generally Hex’s) tokens I’m speaking about?

Golden Geek

Few days ago nominations for Golden Geek Awards began – biggest and most important award from players. There is a few famous awards in our hobby:

Spiel des Jahres – award from Germany, oldest award in our hobby. It all began in 1979! This award is super important in Germany – when you get it, your game will sell like crazy. Rest of the world looks at SdJ with interest and respect.

International Gamers Award – award organized by group of reviewers and insiders from our hobby. These are gamers from different parts of the world. There are 20 people involved in the committee. First award was given in 2000. I have an honor to got nominations for IGA for my three games: Stronghold, Pret-a-Porter and Robinson.

The Dice Tower Awards – young award (founded in 2007). Committee includes people from The Dice Tower Network – biggest group of podcasters. In 2009 Portal Games was nominated for Small Publisher category and last year Robinson Crusoe was nominated for Game of the Year category.

And there is a Golden Geek Award, award where committee is quite big – these are users of boardgamegeek.com On one hand this is very young award (it all began in 2006), on the other hand number of people allowed to vote is mind-blowing!Boardgamegeek.com has 800 thousands users and although not every user can vote, this is still damn huge committee! This is vox populi. These are gamers for whom we do design games! I had a honor to got nomination for Golden Geek for Stronghold and for 51st State.

What’s coming this year? Couple of titles have a chance! Geeks can vote for Robinson Crusoe, Legacy, Theseus and Voyage of the Beagle. This is resume of my work for the past few months 😉

If some of these titles make you happy, if you had a good time with one of these games, if you think that some of these areworth nomination… Don’t hesitate! Here is link to voting page.

This is time for you to act. This is how you say Thank you to publishers and designers. This is how you show your respect to thier work.

If you find my work worth your vote, I say Thank you. Thank you very much!

Sometimes mate, success can get you killed…

I was afraid of 2013. No, really. Look at our previous years. There was a sad cycle going on…

2007
We published Neuroshima Hex. It was amazing success for our small company then! We were first time in Essen, we got great reviews, licenses were sold to ZMAN and IELLO. We were in heaven.

2008
We published Witchcraft. I love this game, but we had no success with it. It wasn’t popular, it was too abstract and heavy, barely we managed to sell all copies. No reprint ever done. No licenses sold…

2009
We published Stronghold. Man, that was ride of my life. We were sold in a few weeks, we sold licenses to US, German and French market. Countless nominations for awards. Great ratings. We were in heaven indeed.

2010
We published 51st State. It wasn’t that bad. Although we screw up with rulebook, with tokens… We did lots of mistakes… Game got good ratings, got some nominations for awards, was licensed… But it was few miles away from being in heaven…

2011
Well, 2011 was far from heaven. It was quite opposite than heaven. We published Pret-a-Porter. What a crazy idea that was! Yeah, game had great ratings at BGG. Yeah, was nominated to IGA, Polish Game of the year, even Tom Vasel said he may like fashion… But sells were terrible. After two years we barely sold all copies. No licenses sold. No commercial success. Never again I will do a game about fashion

2012
OK, that was heaven. Robinson Crusoe. What can I say. You know everything…

2013
And here we are, 2013. I was scared. It seemed that for the past few years we had this sucking cycle – after very good year for us, there is a year of much smaller success. It seemed like for small company like ours creating worldwide known game is very exhausting. Game that goes year after is never that popular. It is good, it has good reviews and ratings, it even gets awards, but it has no commercial success.

So here we are, 2013, year after Robinson. My experience say this year may suck. I was really scared.

***

Last week I announced pre-orders for our bundle pack, for Legacy, Theseus and Voyage of the Beagle. 

Soon after you decided to send me an email.

Yes, you. I mean… All of you.

I should expect unexpected…

This weekend I sent 290 (two hundred and ninety!) emails as replies to your pre-orders and questions. There were moments when I almost cried in front of monitor. I spent whole damn Saturday and whole damn Sunday answering your emails. It was hardcore weekend.

I replied one email, I received 2.
I replied one email, I received 3.

At some point, Saturday evening I got breakdown. After spending 6 hours with my laptop replaying emails, I got more emails in my inbox, than before I start replaying. Never had such situation in my life before. emails were coming faster than I was able to answer…

But I survived. I will remember this weekend for a long time, but I survived and I replied every single email I received from you guys.

***

Today I am happy to announce that it looks like Portal Games has grown up. We are adult company now. We had a tremendous success with Robinson Crusoe and this year, second time in a row we are doing damn good again, this time with Legacy and Theseus. 

At this moment I have twice as much pre-orders for Legacy as I had for Robinson.

And you keep sending me new ones. Every. Single. Hour…

Essen 2013, we are coming. Second time in a row, we are going to rock and roll!

Theseus – expect unexpected

At the beginning Theseus was called Pandora. We really liked the name, it was easy to remember, it had great connotations with mythology, it was widely known word. And there was one tiny problem – there were 5 different games with that name in BGG database.

So we had to find something new. That’s how we found Theseus.

*

Pandora was inspiring word. At some point Michal came to office and said that he has this idea for fifth faction. It’s called Pandora. 

‘It will be a disease’, he said. ‘It will grow and affect enemy in a nasty ways. Very different, very unique faction.’

Yeah, idea was cool. But I had to make his dream collapse.

‘We can’t afford 5th faction in the box. My budget is already very tight. We aim for 36 euro box. We have unique boards, lots of cards, wooden pawns… There is no way I can add something more. Keep Pandora for expansion. We design game for 2-4 players, we will have 4 factions. I can not put more cards and boards into box, sorry.’

Michal said he understand it.

We got back to testing 4 factions. Weeks passed. Finally we changed name from Pandora into Theseus. I forgot about 5th faction…

*

One Wednesday Michal came to office to play-test Theseus. 

‘I have Pandora with me’ he said.

‘It’s called Theseus now. Get used to this name, man!’ I said smiling.

‘I mean fifth faction. Pandora. I have it ready.’ he said.

‘I told you I can’t afford it. Production of the game is already very expensive with those all unique boards.’

‘Let me show you’ he said.

He took zip bag and poured few tokens. He looked at me with pride with his eyes and smiled.

‘Can your budget handle few more tokens?’ he asked.

‘That’s it? Few tokens?’, I was really stunned.

‘Yes’ he said.

‘And it works?’, I couldn’t believe he really did Pandora faction.

‘You will love it’, he said.

*

So here we are. We have game for 2-4 players with 4 different factions… and he have 5th faction in the box. It’s added because we have dreams. It’s added because we believe impossible is possible. It’s added because Michal is stubborn son of a bitch and couldn’t agree budget taking control over his game. He spent as much time as needed and used his talent and passion to design faction that will fit my budget.

We give you more than you expect. We want you smile when you open the box. We want you think: “These guys at Portal really love their job…’

***

Me and Michal have one history – we both have RPG roots. Portal Games was founded in 1999 as a RPG company. We wrote together few RPG, dozen of expansions, countless number of articles and adventures for RPG. 

We both love good stories.

However, our approach to board game design is totally different. I design story driven – often too fiddly – huge games like Stronghold or Robinson. He designs quite abstract, very clear games like Neuroshima Hex or Witchcraft.

(What is funny, both of us think that our games are super thematic.)

At some point, when I was talking with Michal about Theseus I was really surprised with his approach – it looked like all faction cards have not only rules but also a story behind them. Michal exactly knew why each card was in the game not only in terms of rules and balance, but also in terms of story of this faction.

He knew exactly what’s going on on this space station.

‘We should show it to players.’ I said.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Show them why these factions are on Theseus and why are they fighting.’ I said.

It took us few weeks to find a good way to show you this story…

*

Do you know term gamebook? Have you played or at least hear about Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy? Played Freeway Warrior created by Joe Dever?

We have RPG roots. We can tell stories. We can tell you what’s going on on Theseus in a really fun way…

*

I must say, it was not easy. I must say, it was much more work than we expected. I must say… I was crazy when I got this idea about writing 4 small gamebooks, one for each of the 4 main factions. 4 short stories that will unfold mysteries of Theseus. I admit, it was insane dream. Dream that showed me back of each faction board hiding QR code that heads player to small PDF file with a gamebook dedicated to this faction…

We didn’t have to do it. This is effort no one expect from us. This is something that isn’t industry standard.

It’s added because we have dreams. It’s added because we believe impossible is possible. It’s added because we want to raise bar.

We want to add more than you expect. We want you smile when you open the box. We want you think: “These guys at Portal really love their job…”

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Dear gamers,
Yes, we love our job.
I believe that none of you, who read this blog doubt it.
Expect unexpected. And watch us raising bar.

Ignacy Trzewiczek
Portal Games

Theseus – honest manifest

I was struggling for couple of weeks about this post. I knew that I need to tell you about Theseus. I knew that you wait for information about this brand new game designed by Michal Oracz. But I also knew that I love this game…

I can’t talk about it without passion and love. I can’t talk about it other way than just praise. I can’t pretend that I am not amazed with Theseus. I can’t convince you that my description of the game is in the slightest way neutral. I can’t state that anything I say about this game is objective truth.

Because it’s not.

These all words below are words coming from the mouth of a fan.

Everything I say today, you need to divide into half, because I am fan of Theseus.
Everything I show you today, you need to treat with reserve, because I am fan of Theseus.
Everything I point as a great in this game, you need to consider carefully having in mind… that I am fan of Theseus.

I am honest. I don’t want to give you some marketing bullshit that big companies would give you. I just want to tell you truth – why I am in love with Theseus.

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Factions
We have Marines, Scientists, Aliens and Greys. Each faction has 3 action pawns and 25 cards. 

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They all look quite the same… till the moment you start playing Marines…

…till the moment your Marines put Battle position on one of the Sectors and make hell to every single opponent’s pawn that will be so stupid to stop there.
…till the moment your Marines put Barricades card on one of the Sectors and become immune to opponent’s attacks there.
…till the moment your Marines put Mine card in one Sector, and second Mine card in other Sector and another one in yet another Sector… You’ll hear sounds of explosions every time your opponent moves his pawn. ‘I love smell of napalm’ you’ll say. You play Marines. No f… doubt about this, right?

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These cards look quite the same… till the moment you start playing Aliens…

…till the moment your Aliens use Vent shortcut cards and simply ignore rules of movement in the game. Shsh, shshs… you sneak in shadows and move among the sectors the way you want to move – ignoring every rules that would stay on your way…
…till the moment your Aliens put Tentacles in one of the Sectors making it damn hard to move through, making it trap for enemy, making it place where they will die… …till the moment your Aliens put Incubator card and start growing new small aliens that will infect enemy…

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These cards look quite the same… till the moment you start playing Scientists…

…till the moment your Scientists use Camera cards and begin gather Victory Points in spite of the fact that enemy tries to kill them. Enemy shoots but you don’t give a shit, you’re dying, but you’re gathering data and enemy can’t do anything about this.
…till the moment you use Med labs to keep you alive, till the moment you use Remote control cards to make space station work for you every round! You use technology to outsmart enemy. Yes, he shoots but you are the smart one, you are not afraid of stupid marine, are you?

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These cards look quite the same… till the moment you start playing Greys…

…till the moment your begin take Control over other player’s pawns and start messing with them. Telepathy is a strong weapon, trust me mate.
…till the moment you use Transfer card to steal life points from enemy and use them to heal your units…
…till the moment you simply use Teleport and do whatever you need… Yeah, Greys can do nasty things…

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Just like with Neuroshima Hex, Michal took few cards (tokens in Neuroshima Hex) and make the impossible – unique factions that differ in a way that seems unachievable! They let you play different strategies and let you feel their unique theme even though there is only few cards in the game. 

This is Michal’s strength. This is his footprint. This is his mark. Factions.

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Two levels of decision

When you activate one of your pawns, you move it number of spaces equal to the number of pawns that are in this very sector.

Let’s say there is 1 your pawn and 2 enemy’s pawns in the sector. If you move your pawn, you will move exactly 3 spaces and later on your enemy will move exactly 2 spaces. That’s the rule.

This is clear, right? How this influence game play? When you move, you change movement of the enemy. You move out from the Sector and his movement changes. This let you do amazing stuff.

Each round you decide:
– which Sector you want to reach with one of your pawns,
– which Sector you don’t want enemy to reach in his round with one of his pawns.

Every single round is important choice to be made. Every single round you have decision – if you mess with enemy and make his movement sucks or you focus on your goals and move your pawns to get maximum benefit possible.

This allows you to test different strategies – you can play more nasty and try to think about enemy future movement, you can play more focused on your goals and try to earn as much as possible with each of your moves.

And always, after each game it leaves you with this amazing feeling: ‘I should play it differently at this particular moment…’

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Living board

With nearly every move you make, you can put into a game one of your cards and install it on any Sector or you can discard one card from opponent’s reserve. Once again, you play nasty and discard enemy cards or you focus on your faction and install as many your cards as possible.

Board is changing, constantly changing into unique blend of new features and abilities. One of the Sectors is in Fire, other has Trap detector installed, in one sector Aliens installed Nest, in the other Roots, one sector is dominated by Scientists with Recorders, Med lab and Secret passage, other is in control of Greys…

Each time you play, board has different features and combos. Each time you play you try to make Sectors work for you. Each time you play you create some kind of deadly mechanism, you put cards into play, you put them in different Sectors so they begin to work together and give you deadly tools…

This game is about creating deadly tool. This is about reshaping board into your home, it is about making it safe place for you and deadly place for enemy. This is about slowing him in this sector and putting Mine there and then starting Fire in the next Sector. You make him cry each time he steps into this region of the board…

At some point the board is full. At some point board is working in it’s unique own way. At some point it will be clear – you did your job better or the opponent. Each time you move you cry or you smile? Moving among the Sectors makes his Faction die or your…?

During tests we were noting down some of the most amazing combinations we managed to create. We knew that they are unique, that replaybility from these 100 cards and 7 sectors is huge and we need to save this spectacular combos. We will make a small video about them. We want to show you how incredible things can be created with this game.

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Theseus is amazing tactical game. It is unforgiving game. You need to be focused. You need to make important choices. It is a deadly challenge, with low luck factor. Challenge that may leave you after play with this sad feeling: ‘He smashed me down, because he played better.’

Depending on your character you will say: ‘Revenge!’
Or you pass and look for less confrontational game.

I say ‘Revenge.’