Tower Defense. The very words evoke some deep-seated emotions in countless gamers. For fans of the genre, it’s always a joy taking your time to determine where to lay your chess pieces for optimal damage, cerebral, and calm in the same breath. For many others, it’s a nerve-wracking experience best left to the cluttered battleground of mobile gaming.
While the genre is still largely dominated by mobile giants like Kingdom Rush, the occasional console and PC variant (Orcs Must Die! and Defense Grid) have come along to throw new blood into the mix in recent years.
Oddly enough, however, the world of board gaming has been suspiciously devoid of standout tower defense experiences. Enter Defense Grid: The Board Game. After a warmly received sequel (the original’s development is a long and sordid tale) and even a virtual reality edition for Oculus Rift and Gear VR, developer Hidden Path was approached by the two-man team at Forged by Geeks with the idea to turn the franchise into a co-op tabletop game.
“I’ve been addicted to tower defense [since Defense Grid],” says board game developer and Forged by Geeks co-founder Anthony Hanses. “I cannot get enough of tower defense games. If you name it, I’ve probably played it, whether it’s on mobile, console, Steam, whatever. On top of that, I’m a pretty heavy board game enthusiast. One of the frustrations I’ve had being a tower defense enthusiast has been that there just really isn’t an amazing tower defense board game. There’s been a few attempts. One I’ll give a lot of credit is “Castle Panic.” But to me, that’s not tower defense. It doesn’t have lanes. You’re not constructing the classic towers people are familiar with. I like having that feeling, and that’s why we said this is something we want to do.”
(Note: Game assets shown are not final. Prototype materials were used for demo purposes)
But adopting a well-known franchise for tabletop isn’t an easy process, from a development or legal standpoint. It makes sense that a huge fan of tower defense like Hanses would channel his own sense of determination to get the product off the ground, and convince Hidden Path to endorse it and provide support. Having grown up on the dangerous streets of south Chicago, worked as a firefighter, and worked at Microsoft, Hanses is no stranger to determination.
“[Those careers were] a great growing experience, it was about about saving up money, and then finally being able to say ‘hey, let’s try this out,’” Hanses says. “I was advised by a bunch of people to make a simple card game – but ultimately, giving back to the gaming community is taking what I’ve learned, my passion, and doing something no one else could do. That’s where tower defense came in. Even if I never make another board game again after this, I’ll have possibly given something back to the community I love.”
While certainly not the first tower defense board game of its kind (Orcs Must Die’s similarly Kickstarted tabletop edition is also still on its way to a public release), Defense Grid’s incarnation might be the first to really nail the various aspects of the genre that make it so appealing, particularly with its own unique brand of gameplay. I got the chance to experience it firsthand at PAX West 2016 in Seattle.
Like most tower defense experiences, Defense Grid: The Board Game is played against ever growing waves of various enemy types. “Walkers” serve as your generic meat shield grunts, while tougher types like “Bulwarks” and “Swarmers” employ shields and armor to detract from your weapons’ attack points. Enemies walk in a single line from one end of the grid (made of flippable tiles for maximum replayability) to the other, where your power core awaits. If the aliens manage to walk back to the end of the map with all your cores, that’s game over. The only thing standing between them is a wealth of towers, like the all-purpose machine gun, area-of-effect Inferno, a concentrated laser beam, or a hard-hitting cannon, among plenty others. Strictly a co-op experience, up to four players must manage individual card decks to determine their available strategies. Cards are divided up into three basic categories. Attack commands for towers that are exhausted for the entire turn once used, support cards like “shrapnel bullets” that boost or alter attacks, and special cards that allow you to upgrade towers, temporarily boost their damage, or activate any tower you don’t already have a card for. Playing with friends, it becomes integral to coordinate and combine your strategies, as each player is only allowed to have four cards in their hand. When a card appears to be useless during the current wave, it can either be saved for the next (meaning you draw only enough cards to get back to four) or it can be scrapped for extra points to build and upgrade additional towers.
Make no mistake. Despite the hand-holding a more seasoned friend might give you during gameplay, careful strategy is an omnipresent force in Defense Grid. Enemies move shockingly fast down the path towards their objective, making smart tower placement crucial to exploiting choke points and line of sight. Towers can’t shoot through one another, so spreading them out between various angles quickly became our favored strategy. While Walkers proved to be of little issue, the stouter Bulwarks, with their dense shields and armor, were particularly difficult to dispatch of. In true tower defense fashion, you’re at least guaranteed that your attack will strike its target. Unfortunately, an entire shot will need to be wasted to destroy one layer of the Bulwark’s shielding before any damage can be applied to its bug-like exterior. Thankfully, each player also has one special ability that can only be activated once per game. Did you guess giant laser? Because it was a giant bloody laser, that thankfully wiped an entire hex of aliens from the board.
Like most enthusiast board games, the rules can be a bit tricky to wrap your head around at first. You’re managing both the mathematics of an enemy force’s health and your meager resources over a fairly lengthy playtime. For someone who nearly flunked high school math, it’s certainly a daunting idea, but as Hanses led me through the process, the game started to take on that pick-up-and-play nature that some of the best games have. I began to worry less about how many cards were left in my hand and devoted my attention to acquiring resource points. I also worried less about the armored Bulwarks, knowing they had to walk through my gauntlet twice. There’s nothing quite like seeing a bit of your future self in whichever player is currently holding a newbie’s hand through the process, invested and excited all around for more.
Thankfully, if you’re the kind of board gamer that really enjoys investing in a particular playstyle or alternate game types, Defense Grid features multiple missions, with increasingly tougher enemies and more varied weaponry, all on differently choreographed grid maps. This means replayability not only comes from a normal game’s element of chance, but also as a built in feature to those who invest more time into the game. On top of that, players can individually level up their player character to increase their stats for the next game.
For Hidden Path’s part, the support they’ve provided Hanses and fellow Forged by Geeks co-founder Rico Hall has been invaluable. After successful playtesting sessions with the team, the company provided the actual in-game models so Forged by Geeks could produce incredibly accurate miniatures of weapon tower and aliens. An entirely new alien will also make its debut in the board game.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Forged by Geeks is taking their time producing a near-final game before debuting it on Kickstarter. Whereas many board (and video) games often showcase a minor amount of concept art and pre-alpha footage during their campaigns, Forged by Geeks want to leave players with a sense that they’re approaching this as true fans of the genre and franchise, rather than looking to make a quick buck. The funds acquired through Kickstarter will go towards production of the physical product, not the initial design and development costs that most Kickstarters ask for.
“Ultimately, we decided that, being a first time Kickstarter studio, there’s a bunch of other risks,” Hanses said. “We haven’t proven our ability to get a game into consumers’ hands. With promising 23 unique miniature designs, 55 to 60 in the box, it’s a high risk to swallow. We’ve seen lots of Kickstarters fail that are now promising minis that just have renders. For us, we needed to get everything sculpted. We’re going to have the game done. When we go to Kickstarter, the rest of the game will just be done.”
For Hanses and his colleague, whatever support they receive from genre fans could make or break their careers. Their minimum goal sits at $35,000 to cover production costs, while a stretch goal of $150,000 would cover the previous few years of work put into the game. An even higher stretch goal of $250,000 would allow Hanses and Hall to go into game design full time. Even if they just manage to break even, Hanses will leave happy. The Defense Grid: The Board Game Kickstarter is scheduled to launch on January 17, 2017.