Free League Publishing recently released Tales From the Loop, a sci-fi adventure board game based on the popular art book by Simon Stålenhag. I had the opportunity to interview Martin Takaichi, the lead designer of the game. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about yourself, and how you got into game design?
Well I’ve been tangentially involved with gaming since I was like 8 or 10 or something, when I started playing games, and then I started working in game stores and coming into contact with a bit of the game design scene in the 80’s. I actually started professionally designing games about 10 years ago now? I started helping out, since I’m friends with several of the Free League members, they asked me to help out with playtesting and a few other things, kinda brought me in for small pieces here and there. When they were going to make the Crusader Kings board game they asked for my help since I have more board game experience than they do. So they took me in there as kind of a consultant, basically, so I helped them create the foundations, the core of the game, on which Thomas could innovate on and make all the details. And then of course after that they asked me if I could make a Tales From the Loop game, which, yeah, I could, I wanted to. The era of the art books is very much of the same time as when I was growing up and a lot of the images are things I recognize, the islands where it takes place are close to where I grew up and I have friends from there, so it’s a very familiar piece of terrain. It was a lot of fun to dig into that and dig into my own memories of the time and spill that into the game.
Were you adapting just the art book, or also the tabletop game?
We discussed what kind of game it would be, and our first thought was to try to make a board game version of the role playing game in a way, but then of course we explored other ideas, like we could maybe make a game where you’re like magnetrine transport, or you might have a one against many kind of game where you have an overlord or mysterious Loop character. So we explored different avenues, at the end we just came back to the thing like yeah, we’d like to try and bring the RPG and put it in the board game format since I mean, most role players I know play board games but not all board gamers play roleplaying games, so we wanted to bridge that gap a little bit. So in the end it was just “Okay, let’s see how close we can get the experience to playing the RPG.” But of course the art book is still the core.
What were the core elements from the art book that you felt were most important to incorporate into the game?
I think one of the most important things about Tales From the Loop, the thing that makes it work, is the juxtaposition of the very mundane, y’know kids in 80’s clothes going to school, and then of course the extraordinary, like the machines, the dinosaurs, the strange monsters. We built the RPG where you have these adventure scenes and then also the at home scenes with your parents or something like that. And we wanted from the start, like we really need to capture that. So that was part of the reason for why we have the parental happiness mechanic, if they’re nice and happy they can give you rides, or if they’re angry you get grounded, and also the system of having chores that you need to do, so it’s not always just going about looking for dinosaurs, sometimes you just have to go and pick up your little sister from daycare or something. That was the key important thing, and then of course just the fun kids on wacky adventures feel too, cause the art book, you know, sometimes it’s fairly wacky, and sometimes it’s very dark, and the Amazon series as well is also kind of leaning more towards the melancholy, slightly dark tones. And we like those, we really do, but for this game we wanted to keep it more springy and happy.
Something that interested me about the is you’re not just gamifying the experience of solving a mystery, you’re also gamifying the experience of being a kid. What were some of the challenges with that, and how did you balance the two?
Since that was one of the foundations when I started designing the game, I was like, “Okay, I want these two things.” It would have been much harder to implement or bring it in later to the process but since we had it from the start it was something where we could continually adjust the balance here and there. But I think one of the challenges of making this kind of game, I think often many games (not all of course but many games) that try to emulate the RPG feel they do it a way that’s, y’know you pull up a card and then there’s a lot of text to read, like, oh this happens and blah blah blah, and there’s a monster or something and there’s flavor text, and then at the end roll this. And that doesn’t really make me feel in character, just makes me read little text and then kinda, “Huh.” And if I play the game long enough I usually just skip the text and go “Okay, what do I need to roll?” So we wanted to avoid that. And really like, how does it feel to be a kid? What’s the thing to bring into the mechanics to create the theme of it? To have the mechanics of the items you pick up, or the chores you need to do, or you need to go home in time, and really have those kind of things create the theme among the players rather than have them on the cards. And it was a bit challenging for us, because you need to find the right balance. But I think in the end for me when I watched people playtest, and you can see usually at the start of a turn they’ve been to school, they’ve heard some new rumors and have some ideas and they say okay we need to go here, and then they huddle up and they have this plan, they’re gonna go over here and do this thing, and then one of them chimes in, “Uh, no, hang on, I have to, you know, mom, she asked me to pick up some things at the grocery store, so I have to go, sorry guys,” and everyone’s like “Oh no!” And that’s the experience, what it is when it really works, and it seems to compel people, people seem to like it. So yeah, I’m very happy.
What were some other sources of inspiration?
Recently of course, there’s been Stranger Things, which has been like a huge thing, and I guess we were fortunate to have been ahead of that wave a little bit, since we managed to- I mean Simon Stålenhag precedes Stranger Things, and our game ultimately precedes Stranger Things- but we got right on top of that wave, we were able to ride it through so of course that’s another modern inspiration. We also have some old Swedish tv series I was watching when I was a kid, but then just the general sense of fun and adventure, something very light, that makes you kind of recognize things from when you were a kid. When we were creating the items for example we wanted to take things that felt familiar to a large population, not just here in Sweden, though we have some Swedish easter eggs in there. We have simple things like bikes and chewing gum and things, tweaking the logos and things to make them fit the universe. So just taking things from our own lives, movies we like.
You mentioned you were working on the Crusader Kings project, how did your experience with that contribute to this project?
I wasn’t heavily involved in the start of that project but it was still very good to get better experience working with a team in a way that I haven’t done before. When designing board games just for yourself and your friends, that’s one thing. The number of iterations that’s required and how you really need to be on point to make sure that everything really works, and even now there are things that are gonna turn up that’s like, if we do this and this thing in the game, and this thing is also happening, it kinda breaks a little bit, cause it’s a complex game. But still, to have another understanding of the requirements needed was very good. And also just producing board games these days is just a big apparatus, with international shipment and everything.
In what ways did the game change over the course of design? What kinds of elements were added or dropped?
There hasn’t been some really major changes, but of course a number of smaller changes, like for example at the start we had cards that if you went somewhere and there wasn’t something special that happened there you got to pull generic cards with mini events depending on where you were. In the end we dropped that. They were fun and flavorful, but they also diluted the experience a bit, so we dropped those to keep the focus on the narrative and the actual rumors. Also the streamlining being done, we simplified the hacking quite a bit. From the start hacking was like a hacking tree and depending on how the machine looked different things happened, and even now I think maybe we should have simplified it a bit more, but still, it’s smoother now than it used to be. Overall I think the core experience stayed pretty consistent from the start. The diary cards, the rumor cards, school cards, it’s been surprisingly stable I’d say. But of course filing down little nubs here and there to make sure there’s no too-sharp corners. We also had for a while, I think actually during the alpha for the Kickstarter, we had specific action sections on the player board. I just realized that’s really not important, we can just have a big pool and you put them there and you do the thing on the board, so small things like that, to just get a better experience.
How was working with Kickstarter? How did that effect development?
Free League has been doing Kickstarter for a while now, we have good experience with it now, but of course it’s somewhat different making an RPG and making a board game. There’s a slightly different crowd, and different kinds of stretch goals you can do, and it’s also different kind of feeling because you run the Kickstarter and you have an almost finished game, and once the Kickstarter’s over you have more of a time pressure, there’s more to complete the thing, you have more of a deadline issues, whereas if you develop it outside of Kickstarter you’re more free to have a little bit more leeway. I mean, we were very happy how the Kickstarter turned out, and we had a great working relationship with Dust Studio, the guys who made the miniatures (well, made the actual entire game, not just the miniatures), so that process has been really smooth. It’s more how shipping works these days, has been more of, I wouldn’t say nightmare, but still it kept me up a couple of nights. Things are slow moving these days, and expensive.
How did the design inform the components? Like keeping in mind how many components you might need, what kind, things like that?
That’s another thing with making board games that are more complex than an RPG. With an RPG of course you have the page count to have in mind, but for a board game there’s more components. For example how much punchboard can we put in the box, and we counted things out. From the beginning we wanted a very thin box, that was our hope, and it kinda swelled out a little. It’s still okay, it’s not too thick, but we would have preferred a thinner box. But still, just counting out “Okay, we want all of these counters, and all of this thing, and that would take this much punchboard, then you know how much you have, and you count out all the items that are needed and then you realize like “Okay, there’s some space left, what can we use for that space?” Another thing, ideally we would like to have had cardboard minis for the machines as well, as a bonus for people who want to have their machines on display or something, unfortunately the available space was just a bit too small, so we couldn’t do it. It’s interesting the different things you have to take into account. But again, Dust Studios were very easy to work with and they helped us out a lot with designing the tray and the insert. I’ve been playing board games for 35 years, so for me it’s very important that if we want to make an insert, either we shouldn’t make an insert at all or it should be an insert that’s actually usable so people don’t just throw it out, because that’s what I tend to do with most of my games, cause most of the time they’re not useful. But here we actually spent some time to make sure that it works and it’s useful. We had a bit of a discussion, we should have miniatures for the kids as well, but in the end we decided against it because the kids, we want them to- I mean the art, that’s Simon’s art for the kids of course, and I think turning those kids into 3d models wouldn’t be as exciting as the machines. We also wanted the machines to pop more on the board, so in the end we went with the two different things, and I know some people, they want all models or all cardboard, not this strange mix, but for us it was important to keep them separate and to make the machines pop.
What was the best part about working on this project?
I think for me still one of the best parts was to go back to [Simon’s] books and really make the connection with my own childhood in a way and then figure out how to capture that feeling, cause when I was a kid and I was with my friends and we had our bikes and you were out playing in the woods or whatever for a few hours and then come back for dinner and just, can we capture that? Just pulling things from that experience and putting it into the game, and especially seeing playtesters getting it like “Oh!” And lighting up, it’s like “Okay, they get it, this works,” so that was really gratifying.
Where do you plan to go from here?
We have ideas of course, since there’s two books to the Loop universe. So far we have Tales from the Loop, then of course Things from the Flood, which is we move the story to the 90’s, and it becomes a little bit darker, they’re teens and there’s mutated strange machines, stuff like that, so that would be interesting. It could be a standalone expansion in a way, like a sequel game maybe, or we could do something else, we could make more smaller expansions like we have now, The Dinosaur and The Runaway, but first off we’re going to wait. We have the retail release very soon here and then we just want to see how people take to the game. So far it seems like people are enjoying it, so if people want more, who are we to say no? We would love to make more games in the Loop universe, just not anything decided quite yet though. But there will be more other games.
Tales from the Loop is out now, you can check it out on Free League’s website here. You can check out the art book the game is based on at the link below. Remember that we are an Amazon affiliate, and if you buy anything from the amazon links provided, we will get some $ back. You can find Martin on Twitter @firebroadside.
The Last of Us: Episodes 8 and 9: The End
Sometimes life gets in the way. Maybe you watched the episodes the nights they came out, but then you got your stomach tattooed so you didn’t have the energy to type on your computer, and then you had to work nonstop for six days straight and housesit 20 miles out of town, and then you got into a hit-and-run car accident with your boyfriend (luckily you’re both okay but really very angry at the asshole that just drove away), etc. etc.. March has been a lot, but I finally rolled up my sleeves, made time for my computer and stopped procrastinating the job of writing my final review on HBO’s The Last of Us.
Here we will cover the final events of Joel and Ellie’s saga. Both episodes were directed by Ali Abassi and written by Craig Mazin and, in episode 9, Neil Druckmann. The adaptation continued to cover the story elements of the game, leaving out and/or changing most of the fighting and action scenes. This change is especially noticeable in episode 9, “Look for the Light,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s first do a recap of episode 8, “When We Are in Need.”
“When We Are in Need”
Ellie is on the hunt for food and comes across a deer, which she shoots down almost effortlessly. It is in this moment that she meets a preacher named David (Scott Shepherd) and his partner, James (Troy Baker, (Joel’s voice actor in the video games)). After a moment of hostility towards the stranger, Ellie agrees to give the deer to David in exchange for penicillin. Shortly after giving Joel the medication, Ellie has to leave again to deter David’s religious crew from hunting her and Joel. It turns out Joel killed a few of David’s men, and the preacher is out for revenge.
The religious group captures Ellie and puts her in a cell, where she discovers David has been feed them human remains. Meanwhile, Joel finally awakes and is stable enough to escape the house and search for Ellie. He tortures two men into disclosing her location, but he is almost too late. David places Ellie on a butcher block and is just about to chop her up when she narrowly escapes. The two fight until she finally has the advantage and takes him down, bludgeoning him to death with an insurmountable fury of vengeance.
“Look for the Light”
Episode 9 begins with a flashback of Ellie’s pregnant mother, Anna (Ashley Johnson, (Ellie’s voice actor in the video games). An infected bit Anna just moments before she gave birth to Ellie. Moments pass, and Marlene finds the two in a pool of blood. She is forced to take the baby and kill her friend. Fast forward 14 years, and Joel and Ellie are almost done with their journey. They finally made it to Utah. Ellie, still processing everything that happened with David, is sad and somber. Joel tries his best to cheer her up, but nothing seems to work.
Suddenly, the youth sees something and runs off to get a better look. Joel chases her until he stops and stares in awe. The camera pans from him to Ellie inches away from a giraffe. She is her old self again, cracking jokes and asking a myriad of questions. Later on, when Joel reveals that he tried to kill himself after Sarah’s death, Ellie provides him as much comfort as she can. But the fact that Joel can trust her enough to reveal such a secret means is a comfort on its own. He asks Ellie to read some puns to lighten the mood, but his moment is interrupted when a group of Fireflies knock them out.
Joel wakes up in a hospital to see Marleen, who informs him that the doctors are preparing Ellie for surgery to remove the part of her brain that makes her immune. This procedure, however, will result in Ellie’s death. No matter how hard Joel fights, Marlene won’t budge. She instead has two Firefly soldiers escort Joel out of the hospital, but he kills them and everyone else until he finds the surgery room, where he murders the doctor in cold blood. He escapes with an unconscious Ellie and makes it as far as the parking garage until Marlene stops them. The camera cuts to Joel driving a car with Ellie in the backseat.
Ellie wakes up and asks Joel what happens. While he lies to her that there is no cure, the camera flickers back to the parking garage scene with Marlene. He shoots her once. After listening to her begs and pleas, he kills her with a final shot.
The duo have to walk the last few miles to Tommy’s town. At the top of a waterfall, they get a spectacular view of their new home, their new futures. Before making the final trek, Ellie tells Joel about her past and how she saw her best friend die. This lead to watching Tess, Sam and Henry die because of the disease. The fact that they all had to go through such gruesome deaths, only for there not to be a cure, is too much for Ellie to handle. She makes Joel swear that he is telling the truth, and in a beat, he does.
HBO’s The Last of Us is a remarkable video game adaptation that deserves all the high praise it has received the past few months. From the set design and effects to the filming, screenwriting and acting, the show is a peak example of how to do an adaptation well. It is heart-throbbing and terrifying.
A few issues with HBO’s adaptation is how much they excluded the game play scenes. Despite the world being filled with infected, they were rarely on screen. This is disappointing, especially because it increases the stakes and so much of Joel and Ellie’s relationship builds in these fight scenes. The biggest disappointment was in episode 9, in which the show completely cut out the game’s highway scene. Furthermore, there are numerous creative weapons the show could have included to illustrate Joel and Ellie’s means of survival, from molotov cocktails and nail bombs to the beloved shotgun and its shorty companion.
Despite these small quibbles, the show is arguably one of the best American video game adaptations out there. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey were the perfect casting choices for Joel and Ellie, as was the casting for all the other characters.
It will be exciting to see where Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin take The Last of Us 2. I hope they will include more gameplay (aka a little more violence), more screen time for infected, and some creative liberties with the original story while also sticking to the heart of it. We will just have to wait and see what they come up with. Until we meet again, don’t forgot to read about the other shows and games we’re loving here at HauntedMTL.
(4 / 5)
Review: A Plague Tale series
Asobo Studios A Plague Tale series consisting of Innocence (2019) and Requiem (2022) has been out for a while. Weirdly enough, I struggled to put my thoughts into words about these games until now. The way I see it, it’s impossible to talk about one without the other, so let’s dive in, shall we?
Plot and characters
The story of A Plague Tale games takes loose inspiration from the Black Plague times with a touch of the Hundred Years’ War. Amicia and Hugo are siblings on the run from soldiers while also fighting off infected rats, meeting allies along the way. A huge theme of Innocence is Amicia finding a solution for Hugo’s long-term sickness. As one would suspect, it turns out to be connected to the plague itself. Amicia also goes from being a disconnected older sister to his biggest protector throughout the game.
Hugo himself is more or less an annoying kid who wants his mother. This is frankly a realistic characterization as he actually speaks and acts as a child would act. Granted, him essentially walking into the Pope’s trap is frustrating but the climax needed to be set up somehow. I also enjoyed Lucas’s character as an alchemist apprentice as he proved to be one of the more consistent helpers to the duo.
While Innocence ends on a hopeful note, with the characters on the verge of starting over somewhere new and the plague contained, Requiem shows this was a fake out. The sequel really puts Amicia through her paces. Her character is broken both physically and mentally to the point where she is barely recognizable. Hugo is more mature, although his insistence on this magical island that will fix the Macula issue is an immediate red flag. It’s not surprising the supposed safe haven turns into hell quite quickly.
The generational curse where the protector and carrier story repeats itself means a tragic ending for our protagonists. This means it can feel fruitless to play the two installments as the whole point of Amecia’s journey is to protect Hugo at all costs, which proves to be impossible. Was it because of certain choices they made or just extremely unfortunate circumstances? Either way, I felt horrible for them both while playing Requiem, so at least it invoked a strong emotion in me.
The series is a third-person stealth adventure with survival horror elements. Innocence has a clear-cut mechanic that relies on Amicia sneaking past or distracting threats with a certain number of puzzles to get past the rats. She is also extremely vulnerable, dying from one enemy hit, forcing the player to start all over. This is something Requiem updates, adding the opportunity for you to recover by running away from the enemy.
It can be frustrating to have to restart a whole section because of one mistake. However, it does make the player think methodically about what the best approach is. I found the challenges a tad repetitive which stopped me from binge-playing the game, but that’s just my opinion.
After taking this time to digest my feelings towards A Plague Tale games, I can still vouch for the amazing experience. The historical aspects are endearing, and the graphics are beautiful, as is the score. The scriptwriters knew what kind of emotional punches would hit the players just right and the voice actors really gave it all. It’s obvious a lot of love went into this project and I am grateful to have played it.
Regardless, there were certain aspects of the story that for me personally, did not sit right. I am not a massive fan of a tragedy that ends, well, in tragedy, especially with hints history will repeat itself again. The entire concept of the ‘greater good’ and the main characters sacrificing their happiness has been done before and while I can understand why they went that way, it also left me feeling a bit empty.
(4 / 5)
The Last of Us: Episode 7: Left Behind
The Last of Us series is winding down with only three episodes left. Directed by Liza Johnson and written by Neil Druckmann, “Left Behind” adapts the video game’s DLC story of the same name. Ellie and Joel are hiding out in a basement, and Joel is suffering greatly from his stabbing. He orders Ellie to go back to Tommy and leave him behind, but she’s reluctant. The episode cuts to a flashback of the events that happened before Ellie and Joel met, thus beginning the sweet, tragic backstory of our young protagonist.
Ellie is stuck in a FEDRA boarding school in Boston. Her best friend and roommate, Riley, ran away a few weeks back and Ellie has been grieving the loss. She gets into fights with classmates and even sends one girl to the infirmary to get 15 stitches. Everything changes when Riley suddenly returns and reveals she joined the Fireflies, the organization FEDRA is training students to fight and kill.
Ellie disapproves of her friend’s choices, but there isn’t anything she can say that will change Riley’s mind. However, as a sort of apology for leaving without saying goodbye, Riley asks Ellie to sneak out for a few hours and join her on a little adventure. Ellie reluctantly agrees.
The two sneak into an abandoned mall that was once used to hoard infected. Now it is filled with wonders and surprises beyond the youths’ wildest dreams. The girls connect like they haven’t been separated for weeks, and their chemistry is sweet and wholesome. Riley gives Ellie an array of gifts, from a photo booth and carousel ride to an arcade with Mortal Kombat and a brand new pun book.
All Good Things End
The evening comes to a halt when Riley reveals the Fireflies are sending her to the Atlanta base and this is her last night in Boston. Ellie is furious and runs away, fully intended on returning back to her dorm room. But she only gets so far before caving into her feelings and running back to Riley. They reunite in a Halloween store, where they wear goofy wolf and clown masks (replicas of the game’s masks) and dance to Etta James’ “I Got You Babe.” They share a kiss and the moment is so delicate.
Everything is perfect until it’s not.
An infected emerges into the store and attacks the girls. Riley shoots it and Ellie stabs it to death, but neither are unscathed. The clicker bit both of them. At the moment, any and all hope has been destroyed.
HBO’s “Left Behind” is the show’s truest adaptation of the video game thus far. The show cuts out the parts of the video game where Ellie roams through a mall and evades hunters as she searches for a first aid kit for Joel. Instead, The Last of Us focuses on Ellie’s history with her best friend and first love, Riley.
Just as Bella Ramsey is the perfect casting for Ellie, Storm Reid is perfect as Riley. The actors’ chemistry maintains the game’s charm; their portrayal of teenagers after an apocalyptic pandemic is pure and authentic. For the first time, Ellie and Riley can act like the kids they are, not the soldiers every adult is training them to be. It is endearing to see their relationship come to life.
Ellie’s backstory mirrors Joel’s in that it emphasizes their experiences of loss and grief. The pair have formed a connection they cannot lose. It is because of this that, at the end of “Left Behind,” Ellie goes against Joel’s wishes and stays with him to help him heal. She had to leave one friend behind before and she refuses to do it again.
“Left Behind” deserves five out of five Cthulhu. (5 / 5)
There are only just a few episodes left in The Last of Us. Episode 8 releases Sunday, March 5, where we should expect to meet the notorious cult leader, Dave. Until then, check out the other shows and games we’re loving here at HauntedMTL.