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.
Heretic’s Fork Review: Punish Sinners Like it’s Your Job (It Is)
Welcome to your new corporate job. It’s Hell. No, really. In Heretic’s Fork, Punish sinners, chat with your co-workers, and don’t forget to check your email before you clock out!
Heretic’s Fork is a 2023 video game by 9FingerGames and published with Ravenage Games. 9FingerGames is a one-man studio run by Stevie Andrea that is also responsible for titles such as Zapling Bygone. While only out since September, Heretic’s Fork has already garnered several accolades. These include selection for Fear Fest 2023 and The Mini Indie Showcase as well as making Rock Paper Shotgun’s Bestest Bests list.
Heretic’s Fork is a deck-building, tower defense, bullet-hell (ha) game where you take on hordes of souls trying to escape Hell. To begin, you choose an employee to help you in your task. Each employee has a special ability (and variants) that do everything from nothing to stat buffs to adding whole new mechanics. For example the starting character, Intern Ruby, gives no bonuses. But, Gilbo Gibbins introduces a luck-based wheel that encourages you to gamble your cards away for potentially big rewards (and risks).
As the game progresses, you build and upgrade structures to bolster your defenses against the increasingly difficult hordes of sinners. You also have a deck, through which you upgrade your stats and gain special abilities. With rogue-like elements, you are able to unlock new cards and characters by completing goals, using coins, or finding secrets. This leaves a lot to uncover as you work your way through the circles of Hell. While your screen quickly becomes bullet hell, your structures are more or less automated and do all the sinner punishing for you. The real strategy comes in what cards (and structures) you play, upgrade, and get rid of as the game progresses.
I have a soft spot for rogue-like deck building games. Heretic’s Fork is no different. I love the diversity of game play through the many structure, character, and card options. The mechanics really complement the game play choices, making each run feel unique and rewarding.
It was easy to spend hours at a time achievement hunting and exploring the hidden secrets buried in your file systems. In fact, I easily put 20 hours into Heretic’s Fork within two weeks of buying it! It also helped that it was an easy game to play on the Steam Deck, despite it not being created with the Steam Deck in mind. That being said, endless mode did stretch my Steam Deck to its limits (but my PC did just fine). It is also of note, that since September the game has been regularly updated with both paid and unpaid bonus content. It feels like every time I’m ready to move on, something new drops and I’m forced to dive back in!
If you are a fan of tower defense, rogue-like, or deckbuilding games, Heretic’s Fork is definitely worth checking out! It’s only $10 on Steam, which is well worth the price for an interesting gaming experience.
(5 / 5)
The Thing in Review, Movie 1, Movie 2 and the Board Game
The Thing… Where to start? I guess we’ll start at the beginning, or the first movie as it were, in 1982…. (Note: for all that it is based upon the same book, I am not including the 1951 The Thing from Another World in this review as it is very different from the later iterations. Nor am I reviewing the book itself.)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a cult classic film and a staple of the horror genre despite its original release to lackluster attendance. It focuses on a small group of Antarctic researchers desperately trying to piece together the mystery of what happened at a neighboring outpost before succumbing to the horror itself. Seems that some “thing” was unearthed from its burial in the long frozen ice and has been released to roam the desolate Antarctic wasteland in a ravenous bodyshaping doppleganger frenzy.
The psychological thriller aspect of this film is laid on thick, with distrust sown between the scant trapped crew remaining, trying to figure out who is and isn’t affected. The characters don’t act irrationally based on tired tropes, making somewhat reasonable choices based on what information they have and learn over the course of the incident, save for acting solo or in pairs despite known risks.
Paranoia reigns supreme and the implications of the circumstances the crew finds themselves in are not lost in the shuffle. This elusive us-versus-them setup is the film’s best quality. And as for another film great, I totally want MacReady’s helicopter flying hat. That is some grand fashion, if I do say so myself. But I digress…
The Bad (or at least, The Ugly)
I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I will mention that the alien being appears in numerous gruesome scenes. Personally, I feel that this is where the film falls short. I get that we had to see its evolving body horror nature to better understand the implications of what the alien can and cannot do as its abilities are revealed.
But it starts to fall into the campy uncanny valley bordering on comic relief when there is too much focus placed on showing the intruder. In my opinion, such vagaries are often more terrifying when left unseen, for the viewer’s imagination to run wild. That said, I will remind everyone that this was before CG, and it was a wholly different world of special effects then. So, for 1982 amidst the shiny happy wonderment surrounding E.T., The Thing was freakishly damn creepy.
I give the original film 4.0 Cthulhus.
(4 / 5)
On to the prequel, the 2011 version of The Thing exploring exactly what had happened at the Norwegian base camp, as seen in the setup in the John Carpenter release…
So, despite all of the mixed reviews out there, I rather liked the prequel. I thought it did pretty well conveying the same moods and story as the 1982 release.
As expected, the prequel did use a lot more fancy pants computer generated content to depict the sheer terror of the Thing itself. Although it relied heavily on this, I think it used the new capability rather well while still paying homage to the original. The scene developing the two-faced monster was wonderfully creepy in much the same spirit as the 1982 release. The psychological distress revved up very convincingly, with the characters’ paranoia escalating in ways that made sense internally. And the jump scares and grotesque features were good.
The Bad and the Ugly
The way that the events panned out and how the characters interacted within their circumstances was unfortunately less developed than in the original film. As a prequel, not all of the actions led into the 1982 film in ways that were believable, and thus beg the question of when all that research was conducted with the videos made and written records chronicled. The timeline just doesn’t feel at all consistent. Did this occur over a day, two days, a month, or even a few months’ time? This is not wholly clear. The movie plays out as if everything happened within 48 hours but that doesn’t naturally follow with all of the setup.
And the 2011 release relied more on typical horror tropes like scientific secrecy and splitting up in ways that don’t entirely make sense. A lot of the characters behaved less rationally even despite being shown to process the information at hand quickly. It’s almost like they were trying to set themselves up to be jump scared and assimilated. Who knows, maybe they were?
But my biggest beef with this film is the weirdness with the alien spaceship. I won’t spoil the plot by giving it away, but suffice it to say the alien’s capabilities seem more influenced by how quickly the humans learn what they can do rather than what they are actually able to accomplish, which creates a sort of unique dysfuntion all its own. I’d have shrugged this off if not for the spaceship but instead was left feeling like the movie just had to push for an Iron Man moment (like in The Martian). I guess sometimes we need a big red sign on the wall that says “Bang head here” in the form of a WTF movie moment.
So I give the 2011 prequel only 3.0 Cthulhus. If I had seen this first I don’t know that I’d have gone out of my way to see the 1982 release, and it really just wasn’t as good as the original despite the psychological tension and creepy factor. I know I started off this mini-review stating that I rather liked it, and I genuinely did. But then again I also rather liked parts of The Minions movie from the Despicable Me enterprise (it had me laughing any way; what can I say, I’m easy sometimes), so you do the math…
(3 / 5)
The Board Game
And finally, The Thing the board game, based on the 1982 film. Note: there are previous games along themes of The Thing, but I have only played the recent 2022 release. All of the versions have had mixed reviews, mostly being compared to the Battlestar Galactica game of hidden identities, often held as the pinnacle of this “hidden role” game style.
I really like this game. I love that you can sow paranoia as you try to figure out who is and isn’t human. And if you don’t have enough players to really delve into the psychological aspects of this, with every man out for himself, you can play cooperatively against the game itself as the harsh environment, sabotage and alien infiltration take their toll. And as many of you know, I adore cooperative games.
The board game is a hidden identity structure featuring characters from the 1982 movie. Player characters do not know whether the others are human or are alien-imitating-fake-human trying to assimilate them into the alien threat. Everyone is acting upon their own motives and suspicions as they try to get the hell outta Dodge back to the civilized world. I have not been able to approach this in the full version as my tabletop game group is small, but the cooperative version does still offer some sense of the terror and urgency felt.
The game mechanics are a bit chunky but they aren’t overly complicated and the game doesn’t generally outlast its run time of around an hour once you get the hang of the actions and how the phases play out. Again, we’ve played it cooperatively and this may or may not hold true depending on your game group. First off, you have to account for the weather, which always comes first in such an inhospitable environment as Antarctica. Next, player characters determine where they are going and theoretically what they are doing, though this doesn’t reveal itself immediately and doesn’t necessarily make it apparent who is and isn’t human. Then the alien threat is established and the leader takes a role in determining what happens where. Eventually, food is eaten, tests are administered, and the dogs get out and wreak havoc.
The art is lovely and hearkens to the original film. And the game is fun. But the game mechanics and rules are not entirely well-explained in all circumstances, including the translation between standard and cooperative play, and the playbook raises more questions than answers. There is much heated debate over the interpretation of this, and my group was not exempt from the discussion around when exactly the dogs get out.
Returning to the film does not offer a better explanation, as the game deviates from the movie in enough ways to create possibilities around actions too far gone, such as blood testing or repairing the communications to call for help. And the original monstrous dog has a big role at the start of the film, pretty much going wherever it likes, so are the dogs supposed to be in or out? Unsure. So expect to get bogged down in this discourse for awhile, especially if you don’t all agree on how the game should be played.
The Fine Print
Because of this extra confusion, sowing dissent for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie or theme and everything to do with people having their own ideas of how the rules and setup should be interpreted, I give the game only 3.0 Cthulhus. Lack of definition in these circumstances is not a boon, and should not be left to the imagination (unlike the portrayal of monstrous creatures which can benefit from not revealing too much). And since everyone is paranoid and self-serving, it only muddles up discussion of how to interpret the rules more, depending on what side you’re on, human versus alien threat… That said, the game is fun and, if your gaming group isn’t full of a bunch of rules lawyers like mine is, hopefully you won’t get too bogged down in the fine print.
(3 / 5)
And for follow up, we decided to ignore the forums and make a house rule that one dog begins outside of the kennel sowing confusion and the location deck is interacted with from there to see if the other dogs are released. This seems to be more in keeping with the spirit of the original film, for whatever that’s worth. The other dogs weren’t even shown to be at risk until that dog is taken to the kennel, so maybe they shouldn’t come out to play until exposed. And here we go again…
More Game Reviews
If you enjoyed this review and want to explore another creepy cooperative game with lots of character motive, feel free to read about Dead of Winter. Or you can delve further into the survivalist genre with Ravine.
Fear & Hunger (2018), a Game Review
Fear & Hunger (2018) is an RPG survival horror game developed by Miro Haverinen, using RPG Maker for a dungeon-crawling horror.
Fear & Hunger (2018) is an RPG survival horror game developed by Miro Haverinen. This RPG Maker game brings to life a dungeon-crawling horror set in a grimdark fantasy world. Published by Happy Paintings, this game remains available on Steam and Itch.io.
You are one of four adventurers tasked with uncovering the truth of a dungeon simply called Fear and Hunger. Fighting through the horrors, you must manage your hunger, health, and sanity. But with fate stacked against you, how can you hope to survive?
What I like about Fear & Hunger
Despite the plethora of RPG Maker horrors, Fear & Hunger stands out in nearly every way. While it looks like an RPG Maker game, the aesthetic provides a uniquely decrepit and haunting visual uncommon even among the horrors.
Fear & Hunger wears its inspirations on its sleeves. Any casual search on the development, even the aesthetics, will reveal these influences. However, it weaves these inspirations to add something new.
This game is excruciatingly hard and unfair in the best of ways! I tried a few runs with specific tests in mind. One was on the default experience, or “easy mode.” This mode affects how much damage monsters can take before dying but doesn’t notably affect your “luck” rolls. It’s these luck rolls that truly make the experience. Every step can lead to danger, forcing you into rolls that may cost your life.
Many factors lead to abrupt endings or benefits, making each playthrough unique. Each level has a few different potential layouts. While not procedural generation, this provides variety throughout playthroughs.
There are several options and ways to play that I enjoy indulging in, following the structural choices akin to Souls-like games. While there are no inherent right ways to play, there are easier options and tactical decisions. This truth applies to character selection. In fighting, the Knight gave me the easiest introduction. The Dark Priest requires more tactical gameplay but companionless potential if played to their unique strengths. The Barbarian can provide the easiest food resource and competent combat. Lastly, the Mercenary acts more like a rogue, so try and avoid initial confrontation.
Tired Tropes and Triggers
The most important trigger to mention is sexual assault. This game, unfortunately, includes several examples of sexual assault and abuse. While these often lead to blackout screens, the game leaves nothing to the imagination. The creator took the feedback to heart and made drastic changes to the sequel to minimize these moments. However, this doesn’t change the first Fear & Hunger.
If you get squeamish by pixelated nudity, then it’ll be hard to overlook the quantity found in Fear & Hunger. There’s more male nudity throughout the game. This point is especially the case when concerning enemies. Regardless, it remains ever-present. A game option might even turn you into a nude abomination.
As a sanity meter implies, characters can have mental breakdowns. Characters must indulge in various activities, including drug use, to survive.
What I Dislike about Fear & Hunger, or Food for Thought
Failure often leads to punishment. Where most games provide a game over, Fear & Hunger forces you to play. In these moments, the character is usually bleeding out and crawling, with little hope for salvation. I don’t exactly understand this gameplay decision. You lost to die again? There are likely ways to survive these scenarios, but some moments seem impossible and unrewarding.
I’ve heard mention that this game “hates you.” While I disagree with the wording, I will say that chance plays a heavy role in your survival. You can do everything right, but a few uncontrollable rolls can doom you to death. These dice rolls even affect when and if you get a saving book or can rest (to save), which likely means you lose progress.
Despite the innovation in gameplay mechanics, this remains an RPG Maker game. Movement remains linear, requiring the keypad to adjust to specific angles.
Fear & Hunger remain terrifying. As one delves further into the dungeon, harder choices force the character into more desperate acts. Few games truly make these decisions necessary, like Fear & Hunger. While mechanics are a bit janky, and the material does shock for the sake of shocking the viewer, it captures a darkness few games dare to cross.
(4 / 5)