After speaking to Christian T. Petersen, CEO of Fantasy Flight Games, we had the pleasure of catching up with Eric Lang at the UK Games Expo in Birmingham to get a designer’s eye view of the company. It was his first trip to the expo and he’d been brushing up on his British diction. “I got the lingo all down!” Eric Lang announces enthusiastically as we sit down together, before launching into a series of non sequiturs and expletives. “I got: lift, shag, tosser, bloody good, cheers, um… ya’ alright?” Eric Lang is enthusiastic about a lot of things, and his excitement is infectious. He’s especially excited about the many games he has worked on for the American board gaming giant Fantasy Flight Games.
In particular, Lang has been instrumental in developing the company’s ‘living card games’ (LCGs), a clever innovation on the collectable card game model that, as we learn, doesn’t simply reduce the financial barrier for entry but completely changes the design approach. Lang seems to have had a hand in most of the company’s releases over the last fifteen years. Indeed, with credits like Chaos in the Old World, Game of Thrones and XCOM the Board Game on his resumé, he may well be one of their best known and most versatile designers. Below you can hear his fascinating insights on design, how to tell a story through an expandable card game, Facebook games, his designs past present and future, including the forthcoming computer strategy game DUELYST and the Game of Thrones card game reboot.
Ready Up: So is this your first time at the UK Games Expo?
Eric Lang: This is my first UK Games Expo, but I’d been reading about it online so I actually had fairly high expectations of the Con, but it’s exceeded every single one of those. For me the metrics of a Con are: is it organised, is it clean, is it accessible and is the vibe positive? And in all those categories it’s way more than I thought. Most conventions like this that are at little hotels, they have the intimacy that I like but they sometimes get a little messy, a little… fragrant, right? But not here. This is really professionally run. I know how hard it is to run a con and these guys are doing a damn fine job.
RU: I was talking to Christian Petersen about the company’s living card games. I think you’ve worked on about every single one of those. How do you find them to design and which are you most pleased with?
EL: I love them! For me, card games are my wheel house. They’re my native language as a designer; it’s in my DNA; it’s the lens through which I view game design. It is natural and easy to me, and because of that each new game I do, I purposefully set obstacles for myself so I don’t just design a game I’m comfortable with. So each one is satisfying in a different way. I never want to go into an LCG thinking: “well here I am making another game. Here’s the process.” Generally I want to make sure every game is better than the last. But what is better? We don’t know that. For example, with Warhammer Conquest I wanted to make a game that appealed to Warhammer fans and was a really brainy area control strategy game, because that’s a very different kind of game to what Games Workshop players are used to. I didn’t want to mimic the miniatures game because cards are not as good as miniatures for representing visceral combat. So I made a strategy game with a layer of abstraction that cards can do very well, but still channels the 40K spirit. That was my challenge with that, and hopefully I succeeded. Sales are good, so it seems to be doing well.
RU: Yeah, my friend Varun is really into it and he’s playing in the tournament here. He asked me to ask you what your favourite warlord is? I have no idea what he means, because I haven’t played it.
EL: You’ll have to tell him that my favourite is someone I can’t tell him about because it’s from an expansion that hasn’t been released yet! Your warlord is your character in the game; you play one warlord and his army. So we have one warlord for each faction, and then release one warlord for every single expansion box. That’s one of the hooks for this game. There’s a chaos warlord coming out that I love. I wanted to put him in the core box but he was a little bit too complex. If he likes Chaos he’ll love it.
RU: I asked something similar to Christian but it would be interesting to get your perspective. How do you think LCGs, as they are developed, differ from collectable card games (CCGs)? Are they a significantly different beast in the way they are designed?
EL: They are now. The original two LCGs were ‘ports’ of collectable card games, so I’d designed them as collectable card games, and we made adjustments. But since then, we’ve designed games specifically for the LCG format. The key difference from a pure design perspective is that we get to make these cool customisable games with the assumption that players are just going to have all of the cards. You cannot do that in collectable card games, where you have to design to rarity; you have to design based on incomplete collections. So instead of worrying about rarity I get to think about what the game looks like as a whole; how do we get to tell a cool little story over time by injecting new parts of the environment month to month? That’s really challenging and my thinking has evolved over every single game. You’ll see the latest incarnation of it in Warhammer Conquest, where I’m literally trying to tell a story with the mechanics, which I think will be very cool. I like the idea of a fixed environment where everyone has the cards. The way people who play board games is that someone will have the box and everyone will go to their house and play, in card games most people have their own collection, but if you want you can go to someone’s house and play [Call of] Cthulhu with them for example, so we can be a little bit more daring with variants. I say a little bit, because we don’t want to upset the meta game too much.
So instead of worrying about rarity I get to think about what the game looks like as a whole; how do we get to tell a cool little story over time by injecting new parts of the environment month to month?
RU: You’re releasing 20-25 new cards a month, is it difficult to maintain the balance and test the new cards against everything that’s gone before?
EL: Absolutely, yes. From a design perspective we actually design six packs at a time, so that’s a cycle. In-house we design it as a whole – how do these 120 cards affect the whole? Then the design of the individual packs is based on “alright how do we trickle this out?” That’s actually part of the storytelling, right? The increasing complexity. So we might release half a combo in one set and pay it off in a third pack. That’s a classic storytelling technique.
RU: You’ve designed a bunch of board games too. How does that compare?
EL: I don’t have a preference I’ve got to say. I’m more comfortable with card games and in the board game side of things you can see that my card game background shines through. I love games that have cool open-ended interactions between cards and asymmetrical starting positions. I love all that stuff. That comes from my card game background. I like making games that are really complex but somehow balanced because I have a pretty good intuitive sense of what makes a game balanced, even if I don’t know all of the exact details. So I can make board games where I don’t know every possible outcome, that’s cool, that’s what I like about them, those surprises. It really depends on my mind set at the time. Right now I’m enjoying board games very much. At the moment I’m making a simple little Eurogame with no expansions whatsoever, which is really refreshing and is out of my comfort zone. I love these games and play them all the time, I’m a big fan of simple family Eurogames especially from the 90s, so stepping back into that and not relying on any of my standard design tools is really cool. So if you ask me today, I’ll say I love designing Eurogames more, but give me six months and I’ll say I can’t wait to make my next big box game.
RU: My favourite of your board games is Chaos in the Old World, and you can really see your love of card games in that. How do you feel about that one now?
EL: Unsurprisingly it was a labour of love, which I think shows through. What’s surprising is that I designed the core of that game in about 8 hours, it just came together. I’m a huge Warhammer fan. We had a meeting about this at Fantasy Flight and they said “we have a game where you play the Chaos Gods corrupting the world,” and I said “OK, I’ll play that” because the idea is cool and I assumed it was out. Then they said: “we want you to design it.” I was like: “what!” I went home that evening and started working on it and when I came in the next day the game was almost playable. Obviously I iterated it a lot over six months, but it was one of those games that just clicked. Something that had probably been brewing in me for a while.
RU: Was that one of your first opportunities to get your teeth around a big board game?
EL: I’d actually worked on a lot of [Fantasy Flight’s] big box board games but not as principle designer. I was a developer on the Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones board games. So I’d worked on a lot of those games, but you’re right; I hadn’t led too many of those big board game designs because I’d been busy with the card game stuff. So Chaos was probably my first big solo design. I haven’t really done anything like that until now; Blood Rage the Viking game, is a little bit of a spiritual successor to that.
RU: That’s one of your new projects, right? Can you tell us a little about that?
EL: So it’s a Viking game about pillaging and dying gloriously in combat, and everyone plays a different Viking clan where you draft action, battle cards, quest cards or upgrade cards. As the world is exploding during Ragnorak, you’re fighting to pillage what’s left. I love Vikings and the Viking Armageddon mythology, it one of my favourite myths of all time. I wanted to make the most quintessential game and, in the same way as Chaos in the Old World, pack as much asymmetrical strategy into 90 minutes as I possibly can. The games are very different, but I had a similar set of goals. I want to make that kind of game again. It’s a little more streamlined than Chaos in the Old World is, but it’s also a little less asymmetric to start with. It ends up being asymmetric but doesn’t start that way.
RU: Is it more of a deck builder then?
EL: It is a true board game, but it does involve card drafting like a Magic the Gathering style booster draft and that’s where a lot of the strategy comes in.
RU: Drafting is a favourite mechanic of mine so that sounds incredibly exciting!
EL: Me too!
RU: So in Fantasy Flight is the card game and the board game division quite separate or do you all work together?
EL: They are separate in terms of how they design, but within the board game department there’s a lot of crossover from game to game – everyone’s responsible for their own game, but in terms of playtesting the games internally, everyone in the company plays. There’s no demarcation there, which I really like because we want to make sure that people who play the games are not just die-hard card game fans.
RU: And what’s it like working with such big licences that Fantasy Flight has a knack of getting? I’m thinking particularly your work on the XCOM game, which I think works really well thematically.
EL: Pretty awesome! I love it. Licenced games have become my bread and butter. I do like designing my own IPs on the one hand, but I’m a fan boy at the end of the day. I get excited about the things I like, that’s my natural state of being, so I look for things that make me excited. XCOM was one of my favourite games in the 90s when it came out, so it was a no-brainer. When they said they had the XCOM licence I was like: “I don’t want to hear anything else I’m going to make that game!” Star Wars is a huge one, Lord of the Rings is another huge one that I’ve worked on, so I love working on licenced games. As far as the process goes it’s different for every licence, but I generally look for a piece of magic and I usually have to identify it quickly or else I’ll give up. And that piece of magic is always a different thing: sometimes it’s a gimmick, sometimes it’s a mechanic, sometimes it’s a particular theme, sometimes it’s a conversation we were having at a table, but there’s some magic nugget that makes me go Wow! It’ll end up a marketing bullet point somewhere and people will naturally talk about that.
So for XCOM I wanted to make a cooperative game with no intrigue – everyone wins or loses together – but you spend most of the game arguing. I wanted to do a game – and Fantasy Flight are awesome for letting me do this – that was so stressful that it might not actually be fun. Fortunately it is, but you’ll be mopping your brow by the end of it. From the very beginning we knew it was going to be app integrated, but the vision for it was that I wanted it to feel like I was in the app punching you in the face. The app is cold and malevolent and really hates you! It does not want you to have fun, it does not want you to enjoy yourself. My wife, who likes most of my games, won’t play it because it’s too stressful. But for the people who like that, and thank god there are a lot of them, they’ll have to pull out a towel at the end of it.
RU: It’s great to see technology integrated so well. I think one of the coolest things is the more UFOs are in orbit the more your communications get scrambled, which results in the app mixing things up and confusing you.
EL: Yep, that’s something we wanted right from the start. I love that.
RU: Another project you’re working at the moment, I believe, is a videogame. A turn-based tactical game that has some people from Diablo 3 involved. Can you tell us about that?
EL: DUELYST. So the CEO of the company was the executive producer of Diablo 3, he worked at Blizzard for several years, the art team is all from Blizzard too. It’s a semi 3D board game with pixel art, but the pixel art is amazing. It’s a digital trading card game, kind of like Hearthstone in that space, but you’re playing with little digital units, so it’s even more alive, it’s even more polished. You’re playing it on a board, so it has a little more complexity. The Venn diagram here is take things like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy, take Magic the Gathering and Hearthstone, put that in a blender and see what you get and that’s basically DUELYST. That’s pretty much all my favourite games ever, so this is a dream project for me.
RU: Are there any notable differences you’ve found to designing a videogame from designing board games?
EL: Oh yeah. Completely different. I’ve actually been working in digital for the last five or so years, off and on. I worked on some Facebook games for a long time, where I learnt a ton. Mostly that I detest Facebook games. I think I designed seventeen or eighteen full Facebook games, but only one of them shipped, because that’s how that works. So I did a WPT Poker licenced game, I did many ‘just like Farmville but this.’ Insert whatever: Farmville, Beerville, Jacketville. All games that started as original concepts but got whittled into ‘blankville’ because that’s what that industry is. They said they wanted innovation, but most of these companies don’t want that. They wanted Farmville.
Anyway I hated that space but learned a lot from it. Most of my thinking on instructional design is informed by my time on digital. So I’m trying to bring the digital ethos of tutorials into board gaming and eventually do away with the whole rulebook experience as much as possible. To make it a more tactile, interactive experiential thing. We’ve made so many advances in board games over the last twenty years, but rulebooks have barely advanced at all. They’re still these big thirty page labyrinths. Why? We have the internet, we have all these social media tools. You obviously need to have reference materials, but why aren’t we learning board games the same way we learn videogames? Most people learn games by being taught by their friends, so why aren’t we investing more resources into teaching people to teach games?
So I’m trying to bring the digital ethos of tutorials into board gaming and eventually do away with the whole rulebook experience as much as possible. To make it a more tactile, interactive experiential thing.
And also digital design has taught me essential laziness. I was not nearly as lazy a designer as I should have been. What I mean by that is not laziness in the sense that I don’t want to work, but in the sense that I don’t want to disrupt the flow as much as possible. When the game is breaking me out of flow, it has to be for a really good reason. So basically taking away my excuses for throwing really gamey bits in there for the sake of being clever. I try to do away with that as much as possible and keep players immersed. I use the word flow and that’s so true; keeping them at the state where their challenge level and their ease level is pretty closely calibrated so they’re just losing track of time. I do that by just assuming the player is lazy, right? One of my personal rules when I’m writing rules, is if I get to the point where I have to apologise to the player for making them do work I have to think twice. So things like simplifying set ups, simplifying administration, that kind of stuff.
RU: It’s interesting that you gave a very similar answer to Ananda Gupta (designer of Twilight Struggle and XCOM Enemy Within) when I interviewed him. There was game a little while ago called Legend of Andor that Fantasy Flight put out that tutorialised the game through playing it. Were you involved in that?
EL: No that was an import from Cosmos. It’s the artist who did the maps for Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, those really cool Ken Follett games, and he just did this adventure game and it turns out he’s a good designer too. Because he was inexperienced and crazy he dared to take that route, but sometimes it takes that. I personally don’t think it worked well, but I love and respect the idea.
RU: The card game that I played the most that you’ve had a hand in is probably the Game of Thrones card game. I understand that’s being rebooted soon? What will that mean for the current player base?
EL: It is a new game. It isn’t necessarily going to be compatible with the old one. The rules are very similar. It’s an interesting topic, and I have to speak just on my behalf not Fantasy Flight’s, but it needed the reboot unfortunately. The card pool had grown quite a lot and they’d used a lot of techniques from the CCG which were not designed for an LCG at the time. So it had accumulated a lot of crust. They want to continue making that game – Game of Thrones is still really hot – and the community for that game is so amazing, they’ve been very supportive, thank god! Being able to start with a new edition, that’s really cleaned up and streamlined, kind of brings it back to the original vision of the game. I think it’s going to be amazing. I mean they’re still going to support the original game, they’re not going to make more stuff for it but they’re going to support it with events and so forth. It’ll feel like you’re playing a comfortable game, but one that’s fresh as well; you won’t have to relearn all the rules but there’s a couple of bits in there that are super cool. They should have been in the old game, but couldn’t have been because it’s not backwards compatible.
RU: The most interesting thing I found about that game is the four player version, where each round you chose a different role (Hand of the King, Master of Whispers etc) that represents the shifting alliances of the books. Is that still going to be present?
EL: It is, but it’s going to be changed and streamlined. It’s tough for me to say objectively what the reaction will be, because I’m so close to the game, but I think when you play the multiplayer in the second edition my feeling is that many people will wonder why the first edition didn’t work that way. It just feels so natural. I didn’t actually have anything to do with the new multiplayer rules. I just looked at them and thought “oh wow! That’s really good.” They did a really good job.
RU: How closely were you involved in the second edition?
EL: Not very. I was there for the conversation. I’d been pitching that they remake it for a very long time. Nate French, who’s the lead developer on the Game of Thrones card game, he’s been developing it so long that he’s more qualified to design cards for that game than I am a this point. They went back to my original vision for that game, not looking at what the game was but what it was meant to be, and rebuilt it by that. So I’m spiritually involved, but not actually involved and that’s kind of why I’m excited. I didn’t get to see all the sausage being made, but I got to see the final product. I actually haven’t played the LCG for several years because there’s so much in it I can’t keep up.
RU: Even you can’t keep up?
EL: Well I’ve got four LCGs and Dice Masters and DUELYST! It’s crazy!
RU: I guess Conquest is pretty much your baby at the moment?
EL: Even then the crew at Fantasy Flight are doing the bulk of the development at this point. I’m always working with them but I don’t spearhead that anymore, I’m just giving them ideas, they’re in charge of putting it together. It has to work that way. They’re a very capable R&D department.
RU: Are you contracted to Fantasy Flight for most of your work?
EL: I’m a freelancer, but I don’t work with a ton of different companies, because I do value deep relationships much more than just maximising exposure. I’m very choosey, I only work with people I like as people and trust both personally and professionally. They’ll be some years where I don’t do a lot of stuff for FFG, but I’m always thinking at the back of my head “what’s my next FFG thing going to be.” They’ll always be part of what I do.