It might come as a surprise to find out that the factions and unique characters that end up in the final version of a game are not necessarily the factions that came to mind first when creating the game. I know this to be true of many games as I listen designer podcasts and interviews. This is certainly true for Armor & Ash.
As mentioned in a previous game developer blog post, the first faction that I created was the Undead. This was a fairly easy faction to create as I was decently familiar with the different types of Undead creatures available and I had a rough idea of composition I wanted.
The second deck I created was the Forest Elves. I had the Undead as the baddies and needed a force of good to fight them. I quickly took a moment to think about the various archetypical fantasy races. I like dwarfs and all, but elves have always had a greater appeal to me and I wasn’t able to quickly come up with as many different dwarf units as I could for the elves. When I thought about using humans as the possible force of good I couldn’t decide what type of human, as in what group of humans would transfer nicely to this card game? I thought about medieval knights, but quickly ran out of unique card types.
Elves though, when I thought about them, their entire way of life sprang into my head. I could see where and how they lived, what values they held important, why they were fighting, etc. I pictured their respected leaders, fearless heroes, and brave soldiers with stunning clarity. Images of how these elves looked filled my mind and the Forest Elves were born. I knew the Forest Elves would make the perfect adversary for the Undead. Initially, satyrs, dryads, centaurs, and other fantasy creatures that typically dwell in the forest were included as units and allies to the Forest Elves. I’ve since removed a few of these creatures; I thought since the faction was Forest Elves and not Sylvain Warriors (or some such) that there should be more elves.
So now I had my “good” faction and my “bad” faction. A solid foundation was well under way, but the goal has always been to launch with four factions in the base game. This should mean two factions for light and two for dark. Goblins were my next choice. Of all the medieval fantasy bad guys, goblins seemed the most plentiful and easiest to convert into card stats. Reading up on goblins led me to an article about Ghob (or sometimes written as Gob), a goblin king and who the goblins were named after. They were Gob-lings, as it were. I liked this idea and let it shape the goblins, or Ghob-lings as I was now calling them, of my fantasy world. Like with the Forest Elves, in the beginning there were hobgoblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, and other menacing creatures that lived in the Ghob-ling deck. And originally, the Ghob-ling faction was a little more like the orcs in Warhammer and World of Warcraft than a slightly whimsical fantasy race. This has changed a bit as I have begun to draw inspiration from personal fantasy favorites, such as the movie Legend. I’ve still got a ways to go to break away from the brutish orc-like mold, but now I at least have a different picture of what these Ghob-lings should be like.
Now I needed just one more faction. Only one more and I’d have the four factions to make up the base game. However, this last faction was proving to be very elusive. I couldn’t pin down anything suitable to go along side goblins, elves, and undead. It actually became slightly frustrating. So instead of finding the last faction to complete Armor & Ash, I found factions that would make great expansions. Some of these factions instantly went into the “expansion” category. I knew they weren’t suitable for the base set but I wanted them to be part of the game eventually. As I was researching and brainstorming for the next faction, I kept going back to actual folkloric history of Western Europe for reference.
While on vacation at the beach, sitting in front of a laptop with far too many browser tabs open, a link led me to the Fomorians. Through my love of folklore and World of Darkness role playing games, I was readily familiar with Fomorians, but reading about them in that moment put them at the very top of the list of faction decks I wanted to create. Fomorians, in my opinion, would make a great antagonist. They had a rich history with lots of characters and fabled items from which to draw inspiration.
Adding Fomorians to Armor & Ash felt natural, like they belonged. Creating this deck was easy and I finished it in record time. With all of the history and tales of Fomorians readily available on the internet, I had a goldmine of reference material at my fingertips. True, the internet contains a lot of information on undead, elves, and goblins as well, but the Fomorians seemed to leap onto the cards. I was never hard pressed for the next card or its ability.
With four decks now created, I settled into playtest mode (as opposed to research or brainstorm mode). I subjected my friends and family to countless playtests using these four factions. It wasn’t until a few months later when I remembered that the Fomorians would not be included in the base set; I still needed another “good guy” faction. Back to brainstorm mode.
I liked the Fomorians. I liked how their deck interacted and compared to the others. But, if I kept using it as the fourth faction I’d never find the actual faction that was to be part of the base game. So I decided to set the Fomorians aside. There would be no more playtests with them until the base set was 100% finalized and ready for printing. This forced me to really consider what I wanted/needed as the fourth faction.
Finding this hidden forth faction was still proving to be difficult. I was getting desperate and forlorn. At times I felt like throwing in the towel; nothing seemed to fit. One faction that kept popping up was the Nippon, which means Japan. The Japanese have very rich folklore about their ancestors, spirits, and demons. I knew I wanted to eventually include a Japanese themed faction, but I couldn’t justify how a Japanese faction would be fighting the Ghob-lings, Forest Elves, and Undead, which I envisioned to be in a fantasy medieval realm resembling Western Europe. Also, as I began to think more about what I wanted for the Nippon, and how I started to see the game and its expansions in general, the more I realized that I wanted a complete two deck Japanese themed starter set. This means “good” Japanese units, like samurai, squaring off against “bad” Japanese units like Oni or Kappa. This was great, but didn’t get me any closer to settling on a fourth faction for the base game.
For me, the above picture happens a lot. I’m going to call that design creep. I’m sure it happens to the best of them, but for novice board game designers it can really sap away a lot of time. Hours turn into days that turn into weeks and sometimes months of lost time. This valuable time can seem worthwhile in the moment, but it is easy to see how playtesting the Fomorian deck and dwelling on the Nippon deck cost me months of actual forward progress. I should not have spent the time and energy on those two decks and instead should have doubled my pursuit of the fourth base deck.
Thankfully, all that was lost was time and, at the time, I only have self-proposed deadlines. There was a little sting in the realization that so much time had been lost and I wasn’t anywhere closer to the finish line. But, with realization comes focus and focus yields fruit.
I think I finally settled on Vikings as the fourth faction as kind of a copout. I couldn’t think of anything else so why not at least jot down some possible Viking cards and see how it goes. At the time, I wasn’t certain what the faction would be named; originally I was against using the name Vikings as I know too many people that cry “They didn’t call themselves ‘Vikings’” upon hearing that word. So naming them became a stumbling block. Should they be called Norsemen? I actually conducted an online poll for suggestions. Ultimately, I decided that the word Viking evoked such a strong image that I’d be foolish not to use that name.
After that was settled, the Viking deck all but built itself. It was as if I couldn’t contain the characters within me any longer. The Raider, Berserker, and Skald all sprang to life. I never quite understood how authors could say, “The book practically wrote itself” until I started creating the Viking deck. The ideas flooded my mind and struck me like lightning. Whew, what a feeling. I finally had the fourth deck, solid progress was being made, and I felt like I could now move on to the next phase getting Armor & Ash made.
I still had/have a lot of work in front of me, but creating the Viking deck was a defining moment. The foundation was now built. Armor & Ash was one step closer to reality.