GS TABLE GAMES: Spotlight On Black Box Games and The Lords Of War

311761_277279692295781_398505286_nThis week on GS Table Games, Geek Syndicate gets some one on one time with Black Box Games, the brains behind the excellent Lords of War card game.

Black Box Games are a company that feel like it appeared overnight but in reality it has been a long process to get to this stage. With their Lords of War card game, they have entered the gaming arena with quiet confidence – the industry and fans are taking note. You can read our review of Lords of War HERE.

In a market where card games like Magic the Gathering have held the top spot for a long while, it is great news that we are getting new ideas and games that can stand head to head with the big boys of CCGs (Collectible Card games) or LCGs (Living Card Games).

With two sets already launched and a third on Kickstarter now, we posed some questions to them about life games and everything else:

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Geek Syndicate: Tell us about who Black Box Games are and how it all came about?

Black Box Games: Black Box Games is a two-man team – Dr Nick Street and myself. We met through mutual friends. Nick’s son was in the same nursery as my sister-in-law, they got talking about games and swapped numbers. Then I came along and messed with Nick’s life! He was planning for a long, slow and steady career teaching, as was I, but we convinced each other to take on other jobs too: designing and publishing games!

GS: Lords of War has been a breakout success, we’re you surprised by this or secretly expecting it?

BBG: That’s a difficult question. To us, it feels like we’re still a long way from success, and I don’t say that because I’m not proud of what we have accomplished so far. Lords of War launched in December 2012 and since then things have gone more quickly than we thought they would, but ultimately we decided to publish Lords of War as our first game because we felt like it was something which represented serious value for money when stacked up against other card games out there.

The idea that you buy it and that’s it – you never have to buy an expansion or other version to keep winning – was fundamental. Lots of CCGs and LCGs keep you on a treadmill and want to milk you for cash. We wanted Lords of War to be the antithesis of that – a game that you buy and don’t need more, but can have more if you want. Plus, we packaged it to fit in your pocket and, rather than losing its shine after a few plays, the game was designed to just get better once you’ve played it a half-dozen times.

So, in short, we embarked on Lords of War hoping to create a game and brand that will still be around in 25 years, still offering genuinely new and exciting experiences. So far it seems like we’re on the way to making that hope a reality, but there’s so much work to do and never enough hours in the day!

Lords of War has won the award for Best Strategic Card Games at the UK Games Expo – the UK’s largest gaming convention.

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The team wins the award for Best Strategic Card Games at the UK Games Expo

GS: How long did the actual game design take and how do you go about testing it?

BBG: Well, Nick came up with the core mechanic, which was much simpler, around ten years ago, back when he was war gaming. He felt like lugging around suitcases full of miniatures and setting up scenarios and everything else was becoming incompatible with his married life. So he developed Lords of War to act as a sort of filler at his old gaming club, which sadly is no more. And once he stopped attending the gaming club Lords of War went into one of his game design boxes – we both have boxes full of games we’ve made, and Lords of War was just one of his.

After we met for the first time I played it and told him how much better I could make it, which I think annoyed him quite a bit, but I went away and built a new version of the game. It was probably too bombastic, the full-on Martin version, so I worked with Nick to bring it back down so something more approachable, and then we started play testing. And that was a very drawn out process!

The way we tested it was, first of all, playing a ton of it ourselves. Next we played it with our gaming groups, then our other friends, wives and so on. Then we played it with our respective students at school and took it to conventions to play in the eatery/cafeteria spaces. And then we contacted some gaming groups, and on and on we tested, making sure it was absolutely perfect. And as we went through that process we developed a series of different armies and mechanics, including modern-day armies, historical ones, sci-fi ones and some other really weird bits and bobs. And as we tested everyone kept saying, “fantasy!” when we asked about theme – which is how we ended up where we are.

GS: The size and mobility of the game means you can quite literally play it anywhere, was this always the plan?

BBG: Absolutely, and thank you for saying so! Originally the battle mat wasn’t part of the game and I still have mixed feelings about it. We included it because it helped in the demos we ran, but the game is designed to be a ‘play anywhere’ product. It’s a little frustrating that some people online have become preoccupied with the battle mat (and think it makes Lords of War look like Summoner Wars!). I therefore wish, in a way, that we hadn’t included it, as the game works best when you play it without borders. But then it does help you to learn how the game works, so there’s two sides to that coin.

GS: The artwork on the game is amazing; tell us how it came about and the artist involved?

BBG: Thank you so much! The full story is a long one, so I will give you the short version! Essentially, we went through about 8 different artists trying to find someone who could capture the atmosphere we wanted. Something which was edgy for children but not childish when seen by adults. Something where women weren’t going to be alienated by a macho or sexist look but hardcore gamers didn’t see it as too soft. And, of course, we wanted it to be fun. So there was quite a lot to think about. And luckily we connected with Steve Cox eventually. Finding him took six months!

Once we had connected with Steve I then worked with him to get the style and tone right. We passed ideas back and forth for about three more months before Nick and I finally commissioned the bulk of the artwork. Frustratingly, because we are such a small company and were paying for the artwork out of our paychecks it then took quite a long time to complete the four armies. In total, it was over a year for Orcs versus Dwarves and Elves versus Lizardmen. For Templars versus Undead we’re already about 20% there, so hopefully the Kickstarter will be funded and we can get the game finished fast – otherwise it’s going to be another year I expect!

Steve Cox artwork for Templars Versus Undead

Steve Cox artwork for Templars Versus Undead

GS: You have been very busy world building for the game with an ever-increasing back story for all areas of the Lords of War universe, what was the reason behind to do this rather than just release the game?

BBG: Well, because I like the idea of added value I suppose!

The first thing to acknowledge is that I would be writing stories and creating worlds with or without Lords of War, so it seems to make a lot of sense to pour that energy into something people can already connect with. The second thing is, I personally have quite an emotional relationship with my favourite games. If there’s tidbits of information to be found out about them, I will seek out that information. And so, for gamers like me, I wanted to ensure there was more than enough surrounding Lords of War to set their imaginations going.

It’s fundamental to me that all that stuff is absolutely free – it’s not something we’re seeking money for – but the tradition of writing fiction in installments is also very cool. It reminds me of Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, comic books or the serialised works of Charles Dickens and that sort of thing. The idea that you can just follow a series as it unfolds, anticipating the next entry… I would love it if someone did that for the games I love, so I figured I would do it for everyone else and hopefully that would provide some joy for others.

GS: Are community and fan base important to you and how do you keep it going?

BBG: What is a game without its fan base? I can tell you – it isn’t a game! Obviously building a fan base is pretty hard, but in our experience people share the things they love with the people they love. And so, as Lords of War makes its way into shops or reviews appear online, we can only hope that ambassadors will come forward and spread their passion for the game. We’re very reliant upon them, because we don’t have a spare thousand pounds here or there to pay for advertising.

In terms of keeping the fan base going – that’s a hard task, I can tell you! I’m always either looking for content to share related to Lords of War or am generating the content to give to people. Nick calls it ‘feeding the beast’. He’ll say, “So Martin, how are you going to feed the beast this week?” and normally I have an answer. If I don’t then I’ve got to hit the drawing board!!

GS: I found Lords of War to be an excellent game that can appeal to all ages, was this always part of the aim for the game.

BBG: The quick answer to that question is ‘yes’! Looking at the hobby and the way it works, it’s pretty clear that games come and games go – it’s rare to find games which endure. If you look at the biggest success stories of the last 20 years or so, really it’s Agricola and Settlers of Catan that stand out.

Part of their success comes down to their accessibility, meaning that children and adults can both play the game – and play it together. By creating a game that connects generations, the chances are that your game won’t just disappear. But it’s very hard to create a game that is both accessible and sufficiently skill-based – a game that really rewards experimentation and repeated play. Part of the whole point of Nick and I starting Black Box Games was to develop games that will stand the test of time – that a parent today could play with their children, and that one day, when their child becomes a parent, they could then play the same game or games with their children.

If we can bring that kind of joy to people’s lives and bring families and friends together… well then, I think we can die happy!

GS: You have two sets out already and a third one on Kickstarter now, what can you tell us about this third set.

BBG: Okay, well, Templars versus Undead was developed at the same time as Orcs versus Dwarves and Elves versus Lizardmen – the three fit together as a trilogy of sorts. Our intention was (and still is, provided things go well!) to complete this cycle of three Lords of War: Fantasy Battles games and then mix things up. We would like to do Lords of War: Historical Battles, with a Napoleonic deck, for example, so you could have Napoleon versus The Undead or just Wellington versus Napoleon. And then we have Sci-Fi versions and pop-culture versions too, all ready to go, but the Fantasy Battles trilogy was always intended to be the base from which we developed outwards, adding new mechanics and card variations with each new edition – starting with Templars versus Undead.

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Specifically, what sets these armies apart are their strategies – obviously – and in that regard the Templars are by far the most defensive army of the six, with some deadly ranged units and a couple of select, armoured cavalry pieces. The Undead meanwhile are… strange! They have such a variation in the way they function, but essentially are all about huge risk-reward strategies, creating chain or multi-kills. Plus, their Zombies can move around on the board if left unengaged, meaning you can often use one very weak Zombie to create a huge number of problems for your opponent, or lay one down that your opponent forgets about, then later in the game you might move it into play and suddenly several things are eliminated!

I love these armies – I so, so hope the Kickstarter is successful!

GS: Do you see the Lords of War universe expanding again after this third set or do you have a game plan to limit how many sets you release.

BBG: Well, we have sequel decks for Orcs versus Dwarves, Elves versus Lizardmen and Templars versus Undead – these would be standalone games which you could mix with the originals if you wanted to, and they introduce Monstrous Creatures, Flying Creatures, Magic Casting and Standard Bearers. Goodness knows if we’ll ever get the money together to fund the artworking and printing of them, but we’re extremely proud of how the games work even on pieces of paper with no artwork… so we’ll see there.

Additionally, as I mentioned above, we have plans for other Historical and Sci-Fi decks, and other stranger ones, but the key for us is that people only own the versions of the game they like. There’s no need to own all the games unless you’re madly passionate about Lords of War. If a customer only ever buys Orcs versus Dwarves that’s fine by us – and they should know that their Orcs will still stand a chance against the Ancient Egyptians or whichever other armies we release as all the units are ranked and balanced.

An example of how the world of Lords Of War expands beyond the game.

Born into the life of a Drow Priestess in the Eastern Bloodwood, Amara Silvershadow fled from The Mage Academy when she was still a child.

During her escape, or so said the rumours, she had killed several fully-grown Elves, journeying through the Bloodwood and into the Whispering Woods alone, stopping only once she reached The Forgotten University.

An institution old as time, or so it is believed, The Forgotten University’s location is famously secret. Some say it even moves throughout the forest, avoiding detection. Any young Elf seeking the wisdom held within its walls and chosen by the Whispering Woods is said to be guided through the impassable mess of vines and undergrowth in their dreams, guided to the Twilight Hollow, the only entrance into the seat of learning.

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Endeared to Blood Magic, as the Drow notoriously have been for generations, Amara was the first black-skinned Elf to set foot in the hallowed halls of The Forgotten University since the hatching of Kroth, the High King’s Dragon and most trusted advisor.

As she has grown, Amara has refused the Archmage and the various apprentices when they have offered to teach her the Ways of the Aether. Whenever the suggestion was made, her response has been simple.

“This place let me in to act as a guardian to the Elven way of life, not to learn the arcane,” she would say. “I promised I would do whatever it took, and the Drow never forget.”

GS: You seem to be really active at various game shows around the UK, what ones have you been to recently and where are you next and what is the best thing about attending these shows.

BBG: In terms of what’s next, this coming weekend we have a small convention in Chichester called Chi-Con, which we’re really excited about, and then on December 7th there’s Dragonmeet in London, where we’ll be celebrating Lords of War’s first birthday. People should come along and have a slice of cake!

Otherwise this year we’ve been to Essen, which was mad and insanely busy (150,000 people over 4 days!), Colours in Newbury, which was delightful, then the UK Games Expo where we won the Best Strategic Card Game award, and that was really the show which put us on the map in the business I think. Then, before that, we had Salute in London, at the ExCel centre, which was our least successful show for exposure. I felt pretty beaten down at Salute as our booth was right at the back and was extremely small, so people just didn’t see us. But next year we’re hoping to launch Templars versus Undead there and claim it in the name of Lords of War!

As for the best thing about attending game shows – that’s easy: it’s sharing the game. I love playing it with someone new and seeing the cogs turning in their mind as they start imagining the possibilities for how they could play. That applies to 6 year olds, 36 year olds, 66 year olds and anything in between. Plus, we see some of the same people at different game shows, and I’ve received some seriously intense bear-hugs from hardcore gamers who have gone out there and shared Lords of War with their friends, wives, children and gaming clubs. There aren’t too many things in life better than when you’re standing there with someone thinking, “Thank you!” and they’re thinking exactly the same thing back at you. That’s pretty special.

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Selection of cards from the game

GS: The board card game industry seems to be booming right now but do you think it is in a risky place of over saturation.

BBG: Absolutely! I think we’ve really suffered from that reality. In just the card game section of the market you’ve got Magic, with its 25 year heritage, plus Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Vanguard, and all the Fantasy Flight LCGs. When a customer who doesn’t know anything about Lords of War is standing in a games store or shopping online looking at which of these games to try, it’s likely he’ll pick the well-known brand over us. Plus, which should a retailer stock – the risk or the steady seller?

We knew these things heading into the industry, and have every intention of becoming a recogniseable brand in the coming years. But, unfortunately, I think a lot of companies are overly reliant on using the power of their brand to sell their games without necessarily offering something new or exciting to players. Many of the games I’ve listed require you to invest upwards of £50, sometimes several hundreds, to really compete. I would like to think that one of Lords of War’s unique selling points is that it will never ask you to do that, and hopefully we can create good will around the game that allows it to penetrate into the wider market.

Elsewhere though, Nick and I are looking at our other games concepts – the resource management games, the dungeon crawlers, the more abstract games, the trading games, etc, and we’re intimidated. How do you look at something like Agricola and think, “yeah, I’ll go toe to toe with you for the next 5 to 10 to 50 years”? Unless you’re publishing games you hope will just sell out and that’s it, you’ve got to really think hard about whether it’s worth your time – it’s incredibly hard work, and I really mean that. So, if anything, I’d say the market is already over saturated!

The again, that doesn’t mean that lots of the games out there won’t be gone in five years, making space for others…

GS: What games do the team play apart from your own.

BBG: We play a lot of games. I’m a big video game player as well as a big board and card game player, so in November I’ve been playing a lot of The Last of Us and Tokyo Jungle on my PS3. We play a few gambling games like Bridge and Hearts with our less adventurous friends and family, plus I play chess and Scrabble a lot with my closest friends. And then I’ve been playing Agricola, Eclipse, Werewolves, Small World, the BSG board game and a few others with my wife a our more hardcore gamer friends… thinking about it though, I’ve been playing a lot of stuff. Maybe I should start going outside more…

To find out more about the Kickstarter Edition check out this video and then head over to the page HERE. On the 7th December the Lords of War team will be at Dragonmeet to celebrate their first birthday after launching there last year so make sure you go see them at their stand.


Source: Black Box Games, Lords of War

Reporter: Montoya

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