When Paolo Vallerga, owner of Scribabs and well-rounded artist (graphic designer, game designer, musician, actor, novelist and much more), asked me to design a game featuring the symphonic metal band Therion back in 2011, I almost fell from the chair. He started publishing games when I was just a player — I used to play Tempus Draconis during my university years — and he was asking me to design a game involving one of my favorite bands.
I also started my career as game designer with that game, 011. (I wrote a passionate designer diary about that experience in 2011 on BGG.) Since then, many of my games made it to the shelves: Super Fantasy, Voodoo, GodZ, Tales from the Junglebook, and many others. Almost one year ago, Paolo called me again to design Armata Strigoi, a co-operative action game featuring the band Powerwolf, a talented and famous German power metal band that, incidentally, I like very, very much.
So before we begin, I recommend you listen to the song that gave its name to the game: "Armata Strigoi".
Dark Ages Are Coming
"Before the morning can break, we retire
The searing heat of the sun we avoid
Await the dark, proud walachian fighters!
Powerwolf's lyrics are kind of perfect for a board game. They sing tales about werewolves, vampires, and demons set in a fictional, dark world reminiscent of a twisted Middle Ages. They fill songs with a bizarre, bloodthirsty version of religion, making their world look violent and hostile. They also use heavy make-up and depict themselves as werewolves on their album covers.
The background story of the game is simple: In a dark, cruel world, there are only two major vampires left alive, two Wallachian Strigoi: a Master and an Apprentice. They're hiding in their fortress in Tismana, protected by their minions; once the Strigoi have reached the fortress, they are at the apex of their strength and almost invulnerable. Every attempt to draw them out has failed, and the mercenaries who tried to attack Tismana were slaughtered without mercy. The world, already dark, is about to plunge into Darkness itself.
To be consistent with the imagery built by Powerwolf, the game takes place in a dark fantasy world filled with inhuman creatures like vampires, demons, and other unnatural creatures. There's no "classical magic" made of fireballs or disintegration spells; in their place you'll find tons of steel, rust, dust, and blood.
The first part of the design, while we were building the world and the plot, was in fact a "research" phase. Starting from songs and artwork from the band and reading mythology and history articles, we gathered information in order to build a consistent setting and to have a solid idea about the tone of the game.
Blood and Claws
"In the night came the killers with the cross
In the light of the moon when our lives are lost
In the dark when your blood is calling, in the dusk when the fever's crawling
In the night came the killers with the cross!"
We spoke about the villains, but who are the main characters of our story? If you are expecting a group of brave adventurers with shining armor, you are out of the way. In Armata Strigoi, you will impersonate the ultimate weapon of the True Faith cult: five legendary werewolves, three-meter-tall beasts who are half wolf, half man and as intelligent as they are fierce. It is rumored that the True Faith purposely breed supernatural creatures to fight heretics. Some say that Powerwolves are stray warriors serving God itself. What is certain is that no one dares to take them on face-to-face to seek explanations.
Since the band is really loyal to the concept of "pack", referring both to themselves and to their fans, Paolo and I decided to design a co-operative game with the five Powerwolves as protagonists. The battle between Strigoi and Powerwolf is about to begin...and you will be part of it.
"Rise, over the dead, bring us ahead, Incense and iron!
Fight all of the night, banners up high to the top of the land!"
As I said, the game is a co-operative adventure for 2-5 players. Each player acts as a Powerwolf, which will be controlled initially with six cards (which are in a player's hand at the beginning of the match). Four of these cards are the same for each player, while the last two are unique, giving each Powerwolf its own particular game style.
The number at the top of the card is the initiative: the lower the number, the sooner the werewolf takes action during every round. At the start of every turn, each player plays one card from their deck, secretly. (You can discuss a strategy to follow, but players are not allowed to speak about details on their cards.) Then everyone plays their turn according to the initiative order. I decided to use simultaneous actions because along with the prohibition of talk about card numbers, it prevents the "leader problem" (i.e., one player playing for everyone).
The footprint and the claw mark define the Powerwolf movement and its base combat value. Meanwhile, any icon under those two values represents special skills: dodge, leap, heal, stealth, and so on. The letter in the book below defines part of the Strigoi actions (they basically patrol the fort, attacking the pack on sight) in a way that may remind you of old rogue-like games on PCs (every time you act, enemies act).
At the end of each player's turn, the played card and a tile picked from a pile give players the necessary information to move vampires, while also determining the intensity of their attack.
As you may have guessed, action cards that form a player's hand are the true game core, and they have also been one of the most difficult aspects of this project because they keep running a huge part of the gameplay on their own. Almost everything is player-driven, and balancing everything took months of work, but I'm really proud of the result.
The fortress of Tismana was shaped using the layout of pieces in Tempus Draconis, a game by Paolo Vallerga, to which we added central platforms, circular and elevated, that can be rotated by players to reach points of interest or avoid undesired fights. While the Strigoi are protected and supported by their servants — monsters are represented by two different types of tokens — they are basically invulnerable, so before facing them, Powerwolves should avoid their attacks and kill as many servants as possible to collect tools, weapons, and above all, precious blood points. Once they collect enough blood points (which varies depending on the player count), players can begin to fight the Strigoi.
I always loved the Tempus Draconis map layout — hexes with square cases shaped like a wheel — and it was interesting to build a game using the same idea, but with the moving rooms twist and different gameplay.
The design of the map has taken a long time. We developed it along with the action cards, and we made an impressive series of iterations, changing details such as the position of monsters, the rules for Strigoi movement, and the effects of the crumbling of the Fortress itself.
"Wait, Marco, what crumbling?"
Well, when one of the two vampires dies, the game enters a third phase in which the remaining vampire becomes a Supreme Strigoi, even more fierce and dangerous, linking its essence and the Fortress. Because of this connection, every wound inflicted on the Strigoi is liable to bring down part of the stronghold, restricting the movement and causing injuries to characters in the room.
Each Powerwolf has three life points, and every injury suffered can lead to penalties (to attack and movement, but also limiting the use of abilities), so charging ahead can be extremely risky. If a Powerwolf is defeated, the whole pack will lose one of the blood points previously earned. Losing a number of blood points equal to the number of players (or three blood points in a two-player game) results in the immediate defeat of the pack.
Furthermore, beating monsters grants bonus tokens — disposable tokens that increase the value of the cards, or provide healing and other skills — and reward cards, powerful tools, and weapons that characters can use in two ways, either using and discarding them, or destroying them by hitting the enemy with all the werewolf's strength, shattering the object to obtain an exceptional offensive bonus or extremely powerful effect.
Moreover, killing monsters or making certain actions, e.g., "being the first who kills a Strigoi", or "causing the death of a fellow werewolf with your move", allows the players to gain special action cards, which will enrich their hands and the range of tactical and strategical possibilities of the Powerwolf. This hand-building system, of which I'm extremely satisfied, avoids the build-up of "experience points", but instead will encourage actions that have a direct consequence on the development of your character.
As you can see, we have a lot of thematic elements strongly bound to mechanisms. During the design and development process, I worked with a precise focus in my mind: Gameplay should be dense, dynamic, and as much as possible in a board game, in some way "spectacular". As you can imagine, a clash of semi-immortal and all-powerful night creatures was particularly ill-suited to the classic idea of dungeon crawlers or other games like that in which characters start "weak" and increase their strength waiting to fight the dragon or whatever else is waiting for them at the end of the tunnel, risking their lives every time they face a pissed kobold.
The approach was therefore quite different. Characters are already mighty, huge werewolves both fierce and clever; they might even be inferior in numbers, but they can crush their enemies with only their claws and brute strength; they can jump over long distances, dodge or deflect sword strokes, and partially regenerate their wounds.
On the other side, their enemies aren't mere mortals either. Monsters will try to weaken them and inflict serious injuries (to penalize the werewolves' strike and movement ability), and to help their masters retrieve energy, these monsters will unceasingly and furiously attack invaders. The playing system forgoes the classic "monsters phase", with fortress guards appearing during each gamer's hand depending on their actions and with vampires acting thanks to a mechanism integrated in the action cards at the end of every turn. This approach leads to dynamic rounds and reduced downtime — or at least to the elimination of that nagging feeling that heroes and monsters play "in turns", first one, then the other, politely asking permission to put up a fight.
The game is neither long nor complicated. If every player knows the rules, a match usually lasts 75-90 minutes, and it's made to build to a crescendo. You can approach each phase in different ways, but you always kill the small monsters first to gather items and weapons, and you'll always face an over-powered Strigoi in a final battle inside a crumbling fortress.
"And we'll meet where the wild wolves have gone
All we bleed in the Armageddon storm"
You don't need to be a fan of Powerwolf to enjoy the gameplay of Armata Strigoi. That said, fans of the band will enjoy Zsofia Dankova's images, the artistic photos of Tim Tronckoe, their favorite song titles, and a series of quotes and homages, as well as a game world based completely on the lyrics of the German
Working on this game has been an honor, and it has been awesome. The world told through Powerwolf songs looks like it was made for epic battles between night creatures, with bizarre weapons, monstrous and tormented beings, distorted religions, and legendary and extremely powerful werewolves. I define the game as a hybrid between an American and a European game; on the one hand, there is a hand-building system that allows for a remarkable amount of control, and on the other is a rich and extremely detailed setting.
Thanks to my partner Costanza and my son Gabriel for all the love and support, to Powerwolf, to the Scribabs team (especially Paolo Vallerga and Fortunato Cappelleri, but also all artists, testers and translators), to Silvia Mega for translating my articles, and to the official band group and all the gamers and associations who helped Armata Strigoi to become what it is now. I hope you'll like playing it as much as I liked designing it.
Armata Strigoi will debut on October 24 at SPIEL '19, and you will find it at Scribabs booth (5-M118). Head to the official game page for more information or a preorder option.
Marco ValtrianiPainted miniatures
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