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Designer Diary: A Wanderer's Way into the Wild, Weird World of Fantastiqa

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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I still wonder when it first began – but I knew something peculiar was cooking when, during my attempt to flip a pancake fixing yesterday's breakfast, my spatula cut right through not only the pancake, but the skillet. And the stove. It's still stuck there, for all I know, awaiting a culinary King Arthur to pull it free and claim kitchen kingship. But I haven't been back to check, you see, because the doorbell just rang. Nobody was there, but I did find this strange rucksack and a very curious note...

If you're anything like me, you find the reality of virtual places so palpable that you feel weirdly, profoundly nostalgic for places you've never actually been:

Dictionopolis. Prydain. Otherwhere. The Secret Door Behind the Lonely Mountain. The Ruins of Cair Paravel. Perelandra. Andelain, Revelstone, Soaring Woodhelven, Melenkurion Skyweir. Dimrill Dale, Lothlorien. Ryhope Wood. Earthsea. Barsoom. Magrathea.

For me, merely incanting the names of these places evokes enchantment. (Seriously, read them out loud – the magic won't work otherwise.)

"The City of Never" from The Book of Wonder (image credit)
The portals into Faerie likewise creak open when I hear delicious story titles like "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth", "The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator", "The Loot of Bombasharna", or "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him". These particular titles come from tales by Lord Dunsany, who in 1912 – exactly one hundred years ago – was spiking the taproots of twentieth-century fantasy with a wickedly potent elixir in his Book of Wonder. I've been tapping and lapping at the roots of neighboring trees, and gathering their leaves, for decades it seems. But without quite realizing what I really wanted, I found myself yearning to inhabit all that weirdness and wonder, not just read about it...

They say that when the student is ready, the master appears. It was my childhood (and lifelong) friend Jason Cook who introduced me to the games that let me inhabit such imaginary worlds "beyond the fields we know". Before long I found myself cloaked and armed, descending into Tombs of Horror, Vaults of Drow, and Twisty Mazes of Little Passages, All Alike. I jingled my keys to the Dark Tower, brandished my Talisman, filled my pocket full of Zorkmids, and wielded my pixelly arrow to slay the monstrous dragons of yore and Adventure. (Monstrous? The dragons produced by Atari in 1979 looked uncannily like ducks. And what, who, when, or where, is "yore"?)

When I wasn't evading real-life adversaries, I was muttering spells at fantastical foes. (My favorite incantation was "Take That, You Fiend!" – Tunnels and Trolls' vastly more evocative rendition of the bone-dry "Magic Missile" spell from D&D.) If not that, I was coding a fully playable, mainframe computer version of Milton Bradley's board game Dark Tower for the school computer, letting imaginations fill what ASCII characters couldn't quite make fully present.

Why do I tell you all this? Because Fantastiqa began right there, but it took me thirty years to figure that out.

The bewitching brew produced by three decades of percolation was a very good thing. I didn't know the first thing about game design in the 1980s, and if I'd tried to make my own fantasy adventure game then, it would likely have become a monstrous menagerie of charts and dice, with all the fantastical charm of a spreadsheet.

I think that the two most important influences on the streamlining of my designs came from playing computer games and Euro-style board games. Both seek to immerse the player in the game itself by simplifying the player's experience of the rules. Computer games (usually) put the mechanisms "under the hood" so you don't have to deal with the charts and dice on a conscious level. I journeyed from Ultima to Neverwinter to Morrowind to Oblivion (with brief stopovers in Tyria and Azeroth) blissfully ignorant of any terrain-based movement modifiers, dexterity bonuses to armor class, or penalties to hit based on obscured sightlines. Having done that, I doubt I now could ever return to the meticulous logistics of most pen-and-paper RPGs.

So when I encounter a board game that waxes nostalgic for these clunky devices by implementing them, I feel a part of me wither inside: I want the fantasy, I want the charm, I want the adventure – but I emphatically do not want the bookkeeping. But neither do I want to play a random dicefest like Talisman again, however charmingly presented.

In short, my goal became to design precisely the sort of fantasy adventure game I wanted to play, and I started with these three criteria:

-----1. Fast-paced, fun, strategic Euro-style mechanisms.
-----2. No dice.
-----3. No charts.

Okay, one more:

-----4. More trolls!

My first three published games all aimed at "high simplexity": simple rules with interesting, tough decisions and complex interactions. This worked pretty well for Trollhalla and The Road to Canterbury, I think. (Although I feel much affection for my warty first game, Bridge Troll, it succumbs to precisely the sort of over-complication I lament in the paragraph above.) When I played Dominion, Ascension, and other smart deck-building games, I finally discovered an approach that would fulfill the top three requirements above. It seemed to me that building one's deck was a perfect way to emulate "leveling up" in a role-playing game. Instead of consulting charts and modifiers, your character's powers would grow organically as you add cards to your deck.

But for my game I also wanted the pleasure of journeying across a fantastical landscape. For all the intricacy and brilliance of deck-building games (or their venerable ancestor, Magic: The Gathering), I never got the sense that I was "going" anywhere or doing anything other than trading in cards for other cards. So my goal became to add an immersive "sense of place" in my own game with these four extra requirements:

-----1. Combine board game adventuring with deck-building mechanisms. The cards you can acquire would depend on your Adventurer's location on the board, not just on your "purchasing power". As you journey around the board, you would defeat creatures which would be added to your deck.

-----2. Create spatial dynamics. Because the location of your Adventurer would determine the types of cards you can draw and where you can complete Quests, you'd need to consider not just which cards to subdue, but which to forgo, so as to end your turn in the best region for your next turn.

-----3. Offer variable set-up. The Region tiles and the wooden Statues (where you draw Artifact cards, Beast cards, and Quest cards) would change positions on the board each time you set up the game, ensuring high replayability. See the back of the box below for an example of how the board might be set up.

Finally, to ensure an atmospheric "sense of place" I wanted to....

-----4. Implement thematic, funny, and expressly "place-based" Quests. Here's an example of how you might fulfill a challenging 4-point Quest in the Highlands – Headbutt the Billy Goats of Mount Baranzababble. You'd need to subdue two Spider cards and commit them to the Quest (using their webs as sticky ropes to scale the daunting mountain). You'd also need to commit some Billy Goat cards and probably use a helmet of your own (to do the actual headbutting). Of course, none of these cards are going to do you any good unless you journey to the Highlands Region on the board and complete the Quest there on your turn – and unless you can subdue the creatures between here and there, you'll be out of luck!

Finally, for card-acquisition mechanisms, I wanted the pleasure of building an army of monsters like you do in the (brilliant) computer games King's Bounty and Heroes of Might & Magic, but I didn't want to use dice for battles and I didn't want to keep track of complicated interactions between creatures. To solve this problem, instead of looking to dice and RPG mechanisms, I looked to ecology and food chains. Trophic (that is, feeding) levels in an ecosystem are circular: Producers (plants) are eaten by primary consumers (herbivores) which are in turn eaten by secondary consumers (carnivores). Carnivores like to think they are "on top" when, in fact, they in turn get "eaten" – broken down by decomposers (bacteria and fungi). These decomposers create soil and nutrients which are taken up by producers, and the system loops back around on itself. Nobody occupies the "top" position because no such position exists to occupy.

I applied this concept to my game by making each card have value only in relation to other cards, instead of an absolute value. I didn't want combat resolved in a way such that a 10 card beats a 9, and beats an 8, and a 7, etc. So I created a "Circle of Subduing" (see image below) in which each card has one unique ability and one unique vulnerability. (Although referencing this "Circle of Subduing" can be strategically useful in deciding which Creatures to subdue, you don't have to use it as a "reference chart" as each Creature card is marked with all necessary information.) Each card defeats exactly one other card, and each card is defeated by exactly one other card. The arrangement works like a big game of rock-paper-scissors, but without the randomness of simultaneous play, and without the chaos of multiple interactions for each symbol. Though I attribute this application of ecology to my background in environmental philosophy, it just as likely comes from a bizarre but oddly compelling song from one of my favorite films, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 version, not the disastrous remake).

Finally, as with The Road to Canterbury, I wanted my fantasy game to inform and be informed by my academic research. (I'm a Professor of English at the University of Utah.) This past year I have been designing a fun course on "Weird Tales and Fantastic Fiction" that I will be teaching in the fall of 2012. (Texts include Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, and films like Andrew Leman's silent 2005 version of The Call of Cthulhu, the original Cat People and Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth.) Because one overarching sense of the fantastic is "an irruption of the impossible into the everyday", I wanted to implement that sense into my game. So I devised a light-hearted story in which the players find that their everyday, household things – like spatulas, candles, and toothbrushes – begin to act in uncanny ways as a fantastic world begins to leak into this one...

When you find yourself transported into the otherworldly landscape of Fantastiqa, your spatula becomes sharp as a sword, your candle ignites things like a blowtorch, and your toothbrush wields the power of a magic wand. In this way, the impossible leaks into the everyday world, and the everyday world leaks into the impossible. You begin your adventures in Fantastiqa with nine mundane items, a dog, a magical Artifact, and a Starting Quest. You must make careful use of these starting cards to subdue strange creatures on the board and thereby build up your deck, making it powerful enough to subdue more powerful creatures that appear and to fulfill Quests for victory points.

The graphical design in Fantastiqa is deliberately designed to harness the split between "the everyday" (the mundanely practical, and eminently "readable" symbols on the cards) and "the fantastical" (the high art paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Waterhouse, Rackham, Goya, and others), so if it feels weird to encounter a Goya masterpiece next to a functional double-broom icon, that's on purpose. One major impulse of the fantastic comes through German Romanticism and its awe in sublime, mist-shrouded mountainscapes. For that reason, I chose as the cover of the game – and for one of the region tiles and one of the Adventurers – Caspar David Friedrich's iconic and stunning 1818 painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

Fantastiqa turned out to be quite a bit more than I had hoped for: a streamlined, fine-art fantasy adventure that melds deck building with a board, combining tough decisions and complex interactions, playable in about an hour. If Fantastiqa seems like "a cross between Dominion and Talisman" (as one Italian game blog conjectured), please go right ahead and think that – though that's only part of the story, and Fantastiqa doesn't really feel like either of them. It's a mix of Euro-style game mechanisms – deck-building, set collection, hand management, point-to-point movement on a board, and press-your-luck mechanisms – all steeped in a world of fantastical adventure. The core rules are geared toward players ages 12 and up, but I've added a set of simplified rules on the back page of the rulebook to help those new to games or those playing with children.

I'm very pleased at how Gryphon Games has refined Fantastiqa in preparation for publication. It's my fourth game, and my biggest and most ambitious game yet, with a thick game box sturdy enough to stand on; a hefty game board; two card supply boards; six beautiful region tiles covered with fine-art landscapes; six specially designed wooden statues of the Artifact Tower, Beast Bazaar and Quest Chest; gorgeous Adventurer placards, standees and cards; and a bevy of bizarre Beasts, curious Creatures, and arcane Artifacts – over 240 cards in all. I'm delighted that Gryphon has decided to produce Fantastiqa with the same high-quality specifications as its recent games Zong Shi, Pastiche, and my own The Road to Canterbury.

Fantastiqa has now launched on Kickstarter! Gryphon Games is offering Kickstarter-exclusive bonuses for all backers, plus the first two expansions: Special Delivery Quests and the Treasure Hunt. You can watch preview videos, read the rulebook, and find much more information at the official website:

Thank you for reading my Designer Diary. I hope you will enjoy wandering the wild, weird world of Fantastiqa as much as I do!

Alf Seegert
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