How do you take a brilliant idea for a tabletop board game and make it a reality? Many people have some vague idea of what that process looks like for a video game, but it's quite a bit different for a board game. We sat down with Andrew Reiner, the executive editor at Game Informer magazine, and Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, to talk about their upcoming board game. Code named Project Grendel, the duo offered numerous details on the co-op (or competitive) adventure title while also offering insight into their process and advice for how others can successfully create and sell the game they've always dreamed of making. If all goes well, they hope to have the final version of Project Grendel (which will have a different name upon release) available in stores sometime late 2018 or early 2019. In the meantime, they have opened up about what it takes to make a new kind of tabletop experience.
How exactly do you two know each other? A former NFL punter and the executive editor of Game Informer seem to be a very unlikely pair for making a board game.
Chris Kluwe: No, no, it's totally natural! [laughs]
Andrew Reiner: You want to do this one Chris?
Kluwe: Yeah, sure, I'll take that one. Basically, I was with the Minnesota Vikings for eight years, and the first year I was with the team one of the local radio people, Paul Charchian, he does Video Games Weekly on the local sports radio station, he invited me to go on the show with him. During that show he mentioned he did a board game night like once a month or so at his house and asked if I was interested in going. I said, “Sure that sounds great! I'm huge nerd; I love board games; this will be fantastic.” So I went to the board game night and Andy was there. I had no idea who he was, he had no idea who I was. I was playing Guitar Hero and we started talking. Andy mentions that he knows all this cool stuff about what's coming up for Guitar Hero and I was like, “hey, I know all this cool stuff about that too because I know people at Activision.” That had us both thinking “who is this guy?” We figured out later that, yeah, he was the executive editor of Game Informer and I was the punter for the Vikings! Then we learned we live about 10 minutes away from each other and figured we should hang out and play games because it seems like we both enjoy that.
Reiner: It was funny, yeah. That night we were leaving at like 1:30-2AM. It was the dead of winter and Chris was putting on sandals at that point right? Total California mistake of wearing sandals in the Minnesota winter, but Paul Charchian is like, “Chris, you’ve got to wear shoes and socks! You’ve got to protect that leg of yours.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Chris had glasses and was wearing an anime shirt - he looks like a typical gamer, right? I thought maybe he had leg surgery or something like that. When I went to Video Games Weekly a few weeks later, Chris was there and I was confused. “Why is Chris here?” It wasn't until Charch started the show and introduced us that I realized he was of Minnesota Viking. It was super funny, but that's how we kind of met each other and learned who we were was through that radio show.
Kluwe: It was pretty cool. Obviously we both love videos games, we both love board games, and, yeah, we decided to make one based on a dream Andy had!
Wait what? I didn't know this!
Reiner: I think we are driving to band practice or something like that. Chris and I would carpool because we live so close to each other. We would carpool the Minneapolis, and I told him, “Yeah, I had this weird dream that you and I were at a game convention sitting at a table signing autographs for a board game we made. And this board game, Project Grendel is the working title, it's about going crazy and stuff and people loved it.” Chris is like, “That sounds cool… We should make that!” [laughs] As we're driving in the car we started talking about what it would be. Chris immediately had a vision of what it could be, so that's how Project Grendel started. Just by saying, “That was a cool dream, let's do it.”
Kluwe: And here we are.
So from that dream until now, how long has it taken you to come up with the prototype of Project Grendel?
Kluwe: Ouf, that'd be like seven years to get to this point, maybe eight years, something like that?
Reiner: I mean, it has gone through a number of revisions and renditions. Yeah, up until this point, I think it has been something like seven and a half to eight years
Kluwe: The idea we originally came up with - it was okay, but it felt a little overly complicated. It wasn't really striking us as cool as we wanted it to be, so we kind of just sat on it for two to three years. Something like that.
Reiner: We got it worked up to the point where we had the art, the map, all of that done. It was map-based at that time, and we just realized there was something not quite right. So, yeah, we sat on it until I got a text from Chris which was, what, 2 years ago now?
Kluwe: Yeah, yeah, two years ago now, I think.
Reiner: I just got a text a random text from Chris and he says, “I figured it out I know what to do with Grendel!” I was like, “What?” and he was like, “I was in the shower and I figured it out!”
Kluwe: [laughs] Yeah, just random shower thought.
Reiner: He told me what it was and Chris, obviously you had a random thought in the shower, but I think that's because you were working on your card game at the time, too.
Kluwe: Yeah, I think that helped crystallize a lot of game design stuff for me. [In addition to Project Grendel,] I also worked on a card game called Twilight of the Gods which just came out. One of the big philosophies on that game for me and my friends that were working on it was: Everyone gets to play with their toys and players always face meaningful choice. So I was thinking of that and for whatever reason Project Grendel popped into my head. How can we make players have meaningful choice? How can we make sure that everyone is doing something? I was sort of spitballing ideas to myself and all the sudden I was like, “Oh, I think I have it! I think this will actually work really well.” Then I kind of tested it out with my brother, Greg, and I was like, “I think we have something here now,” and I obviously called and told Andy. We had the discussion and it was starting to sound cool.
What was that shower idea? Do you remember?
Kluwe: Oh, yeah, so originally the idea for Project Grendel was your group is a team of adventures going around this map and as you all go deeper into the game your characters go more and more insane. That part is still in the game.
Reiner: From the dream, that's the original inception, yeah.
Kluwe: The core concept of the game is that you're this group of people, and there's this thing, this Grendel, you have to kill it before it drives you mad. Now the thing is in this game you accumulate madness which is represented by negative victory points. So, essentially, the more madness you accumulate, the more you're losing, but the more madness you accumulate the more powerful you become. You have to balance this fine line between, ‘okay, how can I be powerful enough to survive these and counters without someone else being able to beat me in the game?’ because you can play this both cooperatively and competitively, and if everyone wants to work together to beat the game, they can you can get a co-op victory. But if it turns out into a competitive victory, there's a bit of a betrayal element in there so someone can decide to screw the group over. If it turns into that, then whoever has the least madness at the end of the game is the winner. So now it really becomes important to watch your madness relative to everyone else's madness while at the same time making sure you're still powerful enough to defeat the various encounters.
So that was the shower idea?
Kluwe: No, that was the core idea that stayed consistent throughout development. In the original version, we had this map thing where you could go to various places on the map. It just felt kind of like there wasn't a lot of replayability to it in that once you knew the map you could path out an optimal route and that was it. The idea that came to me was why don't we do it more like a tile placement type game, like House on Haunted Hill? That way the players are determining the outcomes. For example, we're exploring out into this wilderness. There are various modifiers on the tiles and you're almost building this path as you're exploring away from the central hub and it's up to you how to forge the path. What kind of modifiers do we want to put on what path? Because some of them will make monsters stronger, some of them make the mini-bosses that you face stronger, some of them will give you more items, but you'll have to face more monsters - stuff like that. The tile system added a lot more variety and meaningful player choice to what was going on.
Real quick: Why did you decide to go with Grendel as a name for the various boss monsters?
Reiner: That's what the dream told us! [laughs]
Kluwe: Yeah that's part of the original dream.
Reiner: The name we're not giving you right now because it's not official yet - that is the name from the dream and we were both like, “Yeah that's a badass name for a game.” Basically, the moral of this story is pay attention to your dreams and don't waste your time in the shower it's productive time.
Kluwe: Right, that's where you get the majority of your work done!
In this case you very literally chased your dreams.
Kluwe: [laughs] Dragged them down kicking and screaming until they made sense.
Once you had those ideas, those core elements, in place how did you go about actually developing the game? I think lot of people have an idea of what it's like to develop a video game, but I don't think many have an idea of what it's like to develop a board game.
Reiner: We talked about the board games the games we liked to play. One of the central things was that we wanted to keep it as simplistic as possible. That's, you know, kind of where the original idea fizzled out. It was a little too complex, a little clunky. That's where Chris really kind of streamlined it. With tweaking the rule set, we looked at things like Betrayal, Eldritch Horror, stuff like that. It wasn't looking at the rules of those games, but how they're constructed; the pieces we wanted and how we wanted the players to interact with the game. Those are things we about early on. I would say that we sat around for a couple hours over the course of three or four nights just kind of hashing out what it was. We started by building the rulebook before we even play tested it we had pieces or anything like that we kind of had a full rule book before we did anything else.
Kluwe: From the game design perspective, what you really want to do is figure out what your mechanics are. Once you have your mechanics down, or at least an idea of what you want your mechanics to be, then you need to test those mechanics to see if they are actually fun because there's a difference between an interesting mechanic and an interesting and fun mechanic. [laughs] I've played a lot of games where I'm like, “oh, cool, that's a really interesting mechanic, but I'm never playing this game again because that was an awful experience,” so that's really the big thing. Anyone who wants to do game design just iterate, iterate, iterate. Always be asking yourself, “Is this a fun experience as well as the mechanical experience I want the players to have?”
I’ve played some early builds of Project Grendel and you don't have to start your prototype with a fully constructed board game. Your prototype, for example, was drawn-out on pieces of paper. If you’re creating a tabletop from scratch, you don't have to go through the whole production process before you playtest your game.
Kluwe: Right and I actually recommend that because it's the same thing I did with Twilight of the Gods. Before we printed out any cards whatsoever we were writing things down on pieces of paper and then sleeving them with Magic the Gathering cards to provide a backing. [laughs] That was literally how we built that game! The thing is you don't need fancy art. You don't need graphic design in order to test your mechanics and what the heart of your game is. That stuff is necessary, but it's kind of like the coat of paint on a car. Yeah, it's great if your car looks cool, but if the engine won't take it anywhere then it is kind of a useless car. When you're designing this stuff, don't worry about the outside coat of paint until you've got the engine humming the way you want it to hum.
Reiner: When we playtested the game for the first time on the first day at 2D Con, the playtests were going really well, but we realized there wasn't a lot of variation in the weapons or style of play with that and some of the items. So, we started adding secondary effects to them. You know, just sitting at a table writing on the cards themselves, tweaking what they were to kind of enhance the play. The next day we play tested it again and we were like, “Yes, there's something here now.” It's very much something as you’re playtesting - paying attention to what's going on and how people are interacting with it and figuring out what you can do with it in that capacity.
Kluwe: And also listen to feedback from your testers because there may be a mechanic where you love it to death and you think it's the greatest mechanic ever, but if each tester is saying, “Yeah, you know, I'm really not feeling this mechanic. This kind of slows the game down. It's not great and you should probably get rid of it.” Even if it's your personal baby, if it doesn't make the game fun then it doesn't belong in the game because you want players to have a good experience so that they'll come back and play it again and again.
How valuable was it to take the prototype for Project Grendel to events like 2D Con to test it with people who aren't necessarily your close friends, neighbors, or family?
Reiner: The first year was just seeing if there we had something there, and people seemed to really like it, but we knew something was still kind of missing. That’s where Chris really hit the homerun with making it tile-based. There's some really unique things going on with those cards that enhance the play, too. Then this year we challenged people to try and break the game, to really kind of push it to its limit. We realized that it held together; it was springing leaks, but it held together remarkably well. We realized this game is almost done now, right? Just through these playtests we know we’re super close. It's just a matter of tweaking a couple more things to get it there in a final state.
Kluwe: And it's super valuable to have that kind of feedback from people who may not even necessarily know you or have any sort of relationship with you because they're really going to give you their honest opinion. They're going to tell you A. This sucks B. This was great C. I think there's something here, but you should probably do this and this and this. All of that is really super useful as a game designer because if you can get a consistent amount of feedback on certain aspects of the game then you know, okay, if five out of six people are saying they didn't like this mechanic you should probably change that mechanic. If five out of six people are saying they thought a certain part was amazing, well, maybe expand on that part and build it out a bit. It's hard to get feedback like that from people who you're close to like family and friends because there's always that fear that they don't want to offend. Getting that testing at to 2D Con was amazing because they had no horse in the race and could care less who we were or sparing our feelings they found something not fun.
Reiner: And a lot of them came back the second day this year which was kind of crazy.
Kluwe: They were invested in it!
Reiner: We gotta get this game out there! [laughs]
Kluwe: They were champing at the bit to try and take down the hardest boss we have in there. That was great for testing purposes, too, because when coming up with the numbers and abilities for the bosses essentially we are just theory crafting. We think these are the right numbers, but we're not entirely sure. We need to see this live, we need to see what happens when people actually use the system. That's another thing that's really important for game designers: It doesn't matter what you think a system will do; you have to actually see it in practice. That's when you'll know what it can do and it might challenge your assumptions about what you thought was possible. If that's the case, you need to decide was that intended play or was that not intended. If it's not intended do we like the intended purpose? Or do we need to change that to make sure that that interaction doesn't happen?
Reiner: We have a third person who's been working on this, Greg. He’s Chris' brother, and Greg is really amazing at breaking things and seeing where there might be something that needs work. He's been working tirelessly on making this thing as solid as can be, too. I think we're hitting all the right notes. Hopefully it turns out and we get this thing made. […] We're super close I feel like we're if we show it again it should be some kind of final version.
Kluwe: There should be at least placeholder graphic design in place. The next part of game design after you have your prototype, you have to figure out how we relay information to the player in a manner that is understandable. I've also played games where it's like, “wow, this game is really cool, but I hate looking at it because it's a wall of text on a card.” [laughs] That’s an awful visual experience, so it needs to be intuitive for players when they look at a card or a tile or whatever it happens to be, it makes sense. It should be obvious where the elements are and a player should be able to learn what those elements are within hopefully two to three playthroughs. They should be able to just glance and say, “Okay, I know this card, I know what every part of this means.”
You were talking about how you had recently released another game, Twilight of the Gods. For people who maybe out there wanting to make their own tabletop game, how exactly do you take it from a solid prototype to the box in the store for people to play?
Kluwe: Find a publisher. Show them the game. They will probably sit down and play it through with you. Most likely they will also bring in a couple of their heads of design on their side, and if they like what you have, then they'll probably say, “Hey, we're interested in this game, and we would like to develop it.” And then you talk numbers for contracts or whatever and figure out how to make it a reality. Generally most publishers have published a lot of games, and so they'll be looking at it under the guise of is this a something that we think we can sell, will we make our money back on this? If you have interesting mechanics, if you have something that's new and unique that hasn't been done before, your odds are really, really good. It's okay to take elements of other games and incorporate them into your own, but you also want to kind of have your own thing that sets you apart because if you're just a clone of something, then odds are your publisher is probably going to pass because people who already invested in the original thing are probably not going to play your game, but if you have those unique elements… that's where their eyes light up and they're like, “Oh, yeah. We should do this.”
I know you've both written a couple Sci-Fi books together. Is there a background setting to your game beyond the basic dream-Grendel concept?
Reiner: I can tell you that we were originally going to go with a steampunk fantasy Cthulhu-esque setting with weird beasts you've never seen before trapped in a Myst-like valley. We ended up moving in a different direction now. We're taking it- We can say right, Chris?
Kluwe: Right now we're looking at taking it in more of a Sci-Fi direction, so kind of like Event Horizon - you're trapped on this spaceship, things are going wrong, you have no idea what's happening. But the thing is that might change depending on what the publisher wants to do. So it's great to have an idea of what you want your universe, but also bear in mind that it might be something that your publisher might say, “Well, we love the mechanics, but we want to put a different coat of paint on the outside.” That's what ended up happening with Twilight of the Gods. Originally it was this original thing I had made up of four elements on this Island - it was essentially, you know in eighth grade when you drew on your graph paper notebook and you come up with your greatest RPG ever? That was pretty much what Twilight of the Gods was, and it wasn't great. So the publisher, Victory Point Games, they were like, “Yeah, we love the mechanics. Your mechanics are rock solid, we just need to figure out a different universe for this.” We eventually ended up with ancient mythology, you've got things that all sorts of people can relate to. So, with Project Grendel, I think we'll probably end up going in the Sci-Fi direction, but who knows? It might be a western game, you know? It might be set in ancient Egypt or something like that. You can do any coat of paint you want as long as your engine is good.
Are those ideas – steampunk fantasy monsters trapped - are those things that might come up again in a future novel?
Reiner: We've talked about maybe writing stories based on this, but now it has changed so much that I don't think we've ever really ever thought about that. We are still thinking about finishing off our trilogy, The Genesis series. We've done Prime, and Splice should come out before the end of the year. We have a third book that we want to finish there so that's probably the priority before you write any fiction based on this, but who knows if this thing takes off.
Kluwe: Because you never know what's going to succeed and what's not if. All of a sudden something starts selling like gangbusters, then, well, we should probably write some books in that universe as well seems like a good idea
I know it's probably kind of nebulous at this point, but you say you're pretty close to being done with the prototype of Project Grendel. How long do you think it might be until it actually releases? What kind of time line are you looking at?
Kluwe: From a design standpoint we are near the end, in the polishing stages where all the mechanics are working well. The interactions are what we want them to be, now it's just balancing tiny little numbers to make sure that everything is perfect. Once that is done, then we'll take it to a publisher. The publisher will either say yay or nay - I highly suspect they'll say yay just because there's already interest in it and they know that we do good work. From that point it comes down to how long it takes their artist to do the art assets; how long it takes for the graphic design elements to come together; and how long it takes to write the rule book in a way that's readable and understandable and doesn't feel like wading through dictionary. For Twilight of the Gods, that part took about Five months, I think five to six months. Then you have to ship it to where you're getting it printed. Usually that's in China just because it's the cheapest place to make board games and card games. From there it's probably another four to five months for them to make it get it shipped over on a boat and then to get it to a distributor so I would say quickest timeline probably ten months from now, eleven months from now.
Reiner: There's a chance it could be out next year. I would love to see it, but we'll see.
Kluwe: A lot of that depends on whether the publisher loves the mechanics in the universe. And again, they might love the mechanics, but they might want to put it with a different type of universe. In that case, okay, we'll have to make some small changes in terms of what all the items are named, what's the equipment named, who are the characters now. If they're not these people on a spaceship, if they're in some other universe, what are their backstories in that universe?
This game could be on store shelves next year?
Kluwe: I would love for it to come out next year! That would be awesome. I will be pushing for it to come out next year because I do think we have a really cool game that, just based on the feedback from the people who have tested it, people are champing at the bit to play. Our playtesters want the game, so we want to give it to them. But I also want to make sure that when we do give it to them that it's a great experience for them to have it. I feel like that's one of the things that sets us apart. It's easy enough to rush something out, like, okay; I have my cheap Milton Bradley box of cardboard I've got some plastic pegs inside and some tiles that's it. Like, that doesn't really feel great. Okay, the mechanics are fantastic, the world's fantastic, but it just doesn't feel great. I want it to feel like you're opening up this box, you're playing this game - you are embarking on this adventure. You and your friends, you're going to have this challenge and it's up to you if you succeed or not.
You've both touched on this a whole lot throughout this entire interview, but do you have any advice specifically for people who are looking to start from scratch making their own board game?
Kluwe: I think the very best advice I can give would be to play a lot of games. That way you can identify which mechanics work best for you, which mechanics don't work for you, what situations you find are fun, and what situations you find that are unfun. For example, for Twilight of the Gods the inspiration for me behind that was that I love playing Magic the Gathering, but I hate getting mana screwed in Magic the Gathering. That was literally the reason I made that game! [laughs] I love this game but there are these problems with it and I think I can solve these problems. Then along the way it led to this other unique idea that I had never seen before in another game. I'm going to incorporate that and now to turn it into my own thing. The only reason I was able to do that was because I had played so many games throughout the course of my life that I could say, “Ok, I can grab this mechanic from here, this mechanic from here, tweak this mechanic here, build my own thing here, modified this other thing here, and put it all together, and boom! Now I have my own game.” The same thing happened with Project Grendel. Both Andy and I have been playing tons of games and saying “Okay. What are the kinds of things we like in these games? What are the things we don't like? How do we fix the situations that we don't like?”
Reiner: Yeah and make sure you have the “It Factor” when you go into development. What kind of sets your game apart from the pack? Like Chris said, he didn't like getting mana screwed; that was kind of the “It” right there. That really made Twilight of the Gods different and he just kind of built on it from there and found more unique ideas. For us it was the madness. Even if you're having a game where all five members of the party want to just be cooperative and go for a cooperative victory, as you go mad you might turn on your friends whether you want to or not. I think that really makes our game something special and really kind of puts you on edge as you play. It makes it more exciting. So we knew right away that this was something special, we just needed to make it work. So don't just go into it thinking you're making a clone or like you don't have any ideas; you got to have that one spark that's really going to lead to something unique.
Kluwe: And for us that madness thing – okay, we've played betrayal-type games. An issue with betrayal-type games is they’re generally very binary, right? You’re either the betrayer or you're not. So with our game, how do we make this more a player choice? How do we make it so a player can try to betray the others, but if they don't do it at the right time the others can try and pull it back into a cooperative game? Because usually most games you can't do that. Once someone betrays everyone, that's it. You have a betrayer and now it's a competitive game. We've built in ways where it's like, okay, you can try and betray the group, but if you're not doing it correctly, they're probably going to smash you down and force it back into a co-op victory. Then you have to decide if you want to try and do it again!
Just clarify, the betrayal element was there from the beginning, right?
Reiner: Oh yeah that was my favorite game of all time, Betrayal, so that was something we wanted to have.
Kluwe: The other thing is, I love games with betrayal type because it adds that human element where it's not so much the group playing against the odds, you're also having to play against the other people at the table. You know there's always that one guy in the gaming group where you're like, “I know he wants to try and screw us over! [laughs] Will he screw us over or not?” And generally I am that guy.
Reiner: It's pretty funny. As we are playtesting it, you know, we kind of set up the game; you're adventuring together. People started looking at the cards and what their characters could do and they started asking questions like, “So does this mean I can do this and go off on my own?” And we're like, “Yeah.” Then we started to see it where players were lying to each other! “Okay, I'll journey with you to take down the mid-boss…” and then then they didn't. They went somewhere else and let this guy go off to the boss on his own. We’re here like, holy cow, this is actually happening and we didn't prompt it. They're fully embracing these mechanics.
Kluwe: Right and that's what's so important. Again, I mentioned it earlier on meaningful player choice. If players feel that they have a choice that affects the outcome of the game, it generally makes the game a lot more fun from their perspective because, again, they’ve been able to exercise their own agency. It's not always this card told me to go here and do this thing, essentially playing as an AI not as player. The more meaningful choice you can give to players, the better. Just make sure it's meaningful choice and not just choice for the sake of choice. I played some of those games where you realize it's like none of these choices really matter. I can pick A, B, C, or D and it won't really matter. That's not choice, that's just trying to overload the player with options.