There is a social shift occurring. Evenings spent online with eyes glued to the computer screen are being rejected in favour of face-to-face interaction, dealing cards and rolling dice.
As Rich Loxam, co-designer of the record-breaking Dark Souls – The Board Game sees it, we’ve come full circle. “I think this is a big trend that’s happening”, he says recalling late nights in front of the PlayStation in a room packed with his most competitive mates. “People just want that social interaction”.
With modern games guiding players straight to the internet, many fear we are no longer connecting in the right way. Perhaps something has been lost amongst the influx of technology, left behind in those raucous nights full of competitive swagger and shared experiences.
Thankfully, capturing this pure social fulfillment remains a possibilty, albeit in a world of card and resin rather than wires and screens. “I think board games offer a more interactive social experience, compared to video games”, Rich muses. Many would agree. The genre now encompasses more variety than ever before, offering everything from 15 minutes of light-hearted competition to day-long wargames of intense strategy.
In fact, the entire industry is expanding rapidly in response to this huge demand. From huge licensing deals with the likes of Star Wars to smash-hits such as Cards Against Humanity, we see the collections of new hobbyists burgeoning and more creative developers than ever before. Of the latter, nowhere in the UK is there a better example than in Stockport, at Steamforged Games.
Founded in 2014 by Rich and design partner Mat Hart, along with retail specialists Byron Orde and Greg Plail, extraordinary success has come very early in the lifecycle of the company. So early, in fact, that the founders are still struggling to take stock of their new situation, with Rich observing “It still doesn’t feel real. It’s crazy what’s been achieved for a company who’ve only been 12 months in retail… for a UK company as well in this marketplace is just phenomenal.”
Despite this meteoric rise, it was a long journey that led Rich to co-founding Steamforged and creating their first product, Guild Ball. “I was a teacher for eight years. I’d come home from work about six or seven o’clock, jump on Skype, and work until about one or two in the morning getting the ideas down, every day for like a good year.”
Clearly, there is no substitute for hard graft, something that is embedded into the company’s ethos. This was particularly key to the phenomenal success of their latest project. During a short development time – “much shorter than we’d actually want” – the team threw themselves into development, going “hell for leather” to create a marketable product.
And so, after less than six months of development, Dark Souls – The Board Game was born, and as Rich recalls, “the rest is history”.
For many, Dark Souls represents much more than a videogame. Hidetaka Miyazaki’s darkly enchanting world of death and decay oozes a rich lore and rewarding gameplay, for those who persevere. The series is known for its crushing difficulty and vague guidance and as such has found a devoted community that plumb its depths for secrets and an ever-increasing challenge. It is addictive combat married with the very best of dark fantasy storytelling.
As such, the capture of the Miyazaki’s IP represents a massive coup for Steamforged, even if Guild Ball had successfully staked the team’s claim of a clear philosophy and exhaustive design.
Perhaps this attention to detail is what resulted in the extraordinary early success of Dark Souls – The Board Game. Released onto crowdfunding website Kickstarter in April, the project secured its entire £50,000 funding goal in just three minutes, going on to break multiple records and raising over £4 million in pledges from over 30,000 backers. “It’s the biggest board game ever on Kickstarter”, Rich states, with more than a hint of wpride. “It’s also the biggest UK Kickstarter ever out of all Kickstarters, which is kind of cool.”
Cool indeed. This is a company whose growth has been so extraordinary that the ever-expanding size of their offices is struggling to keep pace. In many ways, the success of Steamforged represents a big win for the British board gaming industry as a whole, so often overlooked or underperforming. It’s also a testament to how strong design, a clear concept and good pedigree can take even fledgling companies to unexpected places.
Not just companies either, but people too, with some of Rich’s closest designers joining the team on the back of careers as professional gamers. “Their skillsets are from outside our realm in games. It means they’ve got an analytical brain, abilities to see paths and patterns… the kind of things we need when we’re refining a system.”
For Rich and Mat though, it goes beyond the game’s system. Everything has to be considered, from the box to the branding. “We look at every product, other ranges, how the shelf looks. Can you differentiate from 100m away what product is what? Things like that. You really have to break a product down.”
Distilling a blockbuster videogame almost infamous in its demand for fast reflexes and timing into the thoughtful, turn-by-turn strategy of a board game might seem an impossible task. But with an ally in the iconic world of Dark Souls, the team were able to capture the thematic essence that mattered and from there the gameplay evolved naturally. “I think it wrote itself. We looked at what are the pivotal things about Dark Souls; the risk/reward, the fear element… but it’s not about copying what’s been done, it’s about setting precedents.”
To that end, the team tried to create as many unique ways of channelling Dark Souls as possible; for example, health is tied to stamina. The more you move, the less likely you can take a hit and survive. It serves to give every decision weight and purpose. “That was a way for us to represent that constant danger. When you’re playing a game, we don’t like a position where you’re moaning ‘well I can’t actually do anything here, so I’ll just pass my turn’.” Here, the team’s confidence in their design becomes apparent. “As designers we’re very bold. We’ll make decisions that we feel are right for the customer.”
Despite this, Rich accepts potential buyers may criticise change. Again, here Steamforged believe they are setting an industry standard. “We want to make sure we feed back to the community and make sure those guys feel like we listen to them, because we do.” With customer support available 24/7 throughout the Kickstarter campaign, the company were determined to work with their backers every step of the way, adding features and fine-tuning rules to accommodate fans of Dark Souls and board games alike. “At the end of the day, if your customers support you and your company they’ll support you forever, because they know you create quality products and they know that what you do is going to deliver to them that quality experience”.
A refreshing statement of intent from such a small company, and Rich insists Steamforged will fight tooth and nail to maintain this connection. “We’re in a privileged position, privileged to be where we are, as designers and with our design team, and we don’t take that for granted.”
It is easy to understand the excitement surrounding Dark Souls – The Board Game. All along, Steamforged have offered a clear proof of concept, intriguing design direction and, most importantly, shown essential reverence to their cult subject matter. It is clear that Miyazaki’s gothic masterpiece lies in the hands of competent and confident people who simply want to make great games. As for Rich, he doesn’t see an overwhelming challenge, only an opportunity to push the genre forwards. “Design ebbs and flows, but we don’t make the wheel. We just look at it and try and make it better. That’s what designers do.”
Dark Souls – The Board Game is scheduled to be released April 2017.