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.
Into the Odd Remastered: an Ethereal Steampunk TTRPG
“Fallen cities are adorned with statues of star-beings, cultists manifest their fervour into reality, and belligerent unions prepare for a cosmic invasion. Familiar landscapes are overrun by strange weeds, corrosive mists creep in from the sea, and jet black mountains watch from the horizon. This odd world has been affected by beings stranger than we can imagine.” -pg 4, INto the odd remastered: introduction
Into the Odd Remastered is an update of the 2014 role-playing game of the same name. Written by Chris McDowall and sold by Free League Publishing, the rules-lite tabletop roleplaying game asks you to place yourself in a world long ago ravaged by cosmic horrors. The general atmosphere comes across as dark steampunk though there is room for plenty of genres to intermingle.
The rules are relatively simple. Characters have four stats; Strength, Will, Dexterity, and HP. Strength, Will, and Dexterity start as a value between 3 and 18, as determined by rolling 3d6. During the game, players roll a D20 versus their stats, attempting to roll lower than the value in order to succeed. Many effects damage the stats as well as the HP value. Additionally, all attacks always hit, with rolls being used just to determine damage.
The rules can fit on a single page as evidenced by the handy Into the Odd cheat sheet made by garkia19. As a note, this cheat sheet has some minor typos. For example, characters don’t have a Charisma score. However, I found it incredibly helpful to use as a reference while I played Into the Odd. Another great resource was Søren Nøhr Ryborg’s The Odd Generator, which auto generates characters for Into the Odd. Since we were just trying out the system, both these resources made it really easy to jump in without my players needing to read the whole rule book.
The Player Experience
The Into the Odd rulebook, in addition to rules, also contains a sample dungeon. It was this dungeon that I ran for a party of three adventurers. They found the system to be easy to understand, however, coming from more rules heavy systems they often felt like they weren’t doing enough. For example, they wanted to roll dice more often. However, they still had fun crafting a narrative and working with each other.
The Gamemaster Experience
I was in love with the idea of Into the Odd. An accessible, low barrier RPG with a splash of steampunk and cosmic horror. What’s not to love? But I found the Into the Odd system left a little to be desired. In particular, combat doesn’t feel particularly difficult or interesting. Since players always go first and everyone always does damage, it meant my party of three people were able to dispatch any enemy before it could hurt them. Skill checks felt like they had the opposite problem. None of my players could succeed in a skill check because their stats were so low. This meant that the tension was removed from both combat and skill checks. Playing the dungeon and rules as written, I didn’t feel as if I had the mechanical or narrative tools to rectify either issue.
The dungeon itself was a bit drab. I loved the art and ideas behind it, but there wasn’t much content. A smaller, more detailed dungeon would have been easier to run and better received by my players than a large, sparse dungeon. I also wished for far more traps. While I recognize I could have populated the dungeon myself, I often don’t expect to finish a dungeon myself when given one to run.
Outside of the sample dungeon, there is not much content for the gamemaster to work with. If I wanted to start running my own Into the Odd games there are very few monster, trap, and loot examples so I would have to come up with everything myself. This is not the end of the world, however, I personally like to have more content than what was provided to start doing my own adaptations. If I were to try this system again, I would want to use it for a heist narrative over a dungeon crawl.
The Into the Odd rulebook provides the skeleton for a rules-lite RPG adventure, however it fails to add any meat to the bones. The result is an RPG that requires far more work for a gamemaster than the rules-lite exterior would indicate. This is not inherently negative, however could be surprising given the game’s pitch. If you are looking for a new system to tinker around with, this could be a great next purchase! (3.5 / 5)
Disco Elysium – A Reflection
Disco Elysium is a role-playing video game released in 2019. It was developed and published by ZA/UM under the lead of Robert Kurvitz. The Final Cut was released in 2020 featuring full voice acting and new content. It is available to play on PC and console.
Disco Elysium is a weird game. I have been playing video games, especially RPGs, for most of my life and I can confidently say this game is an outlier. Instead of a focus on combat, the game is written almost entirely around skill checks and dialogue trees. While that alone isn’t enough to make the game a stand-out, it is the fact that a vast majority of the dialogue trees occur as your own internal monologue which sets it apart.
Who Are You?
There are 24 different skills split across the four categories of intellect, psyche, physique and motorics. You of course have the more traditional skills such as Logic, Empathy, Endurance and Perception. But there’s also more elusive skills, like Esprit de Corps which determines how connected to your home police precinct you are.
After all, you are a police officer in town to solve a murder. It’d certainly help things if you hadn’t drank so much that you absolutely ruined your memory (among several relationships in town). “What kind of cop are you?” the tagline reads. You get to decide because you cannot remember who you once were.
This isn’t a review about Disco Elysium in the traditional sense. Because Disco Elysium ended up being far more than just a game to me. I found myself relating to the main character (whose name in and of itself is a spoiler) far more than I ever should have. He doesn’t know how to be human – and for the most part neither do I.
What Makes You?
As you play through the surrealist dream that is the setting of Revachol, interactions with the townspeople can be tedious processes. The entire time, you are in constant dialogue with yourself trying to figure out the right thing to say. Logic makes some good points, but Electro-Chemistry says I should forget about all of this and go get wasted because Empathy just chimed in and told me I hurt this woman’s feelings with my failed attempt at Rhetoric.
The first time I played Disco Elysium felt like an awakening. No game has ever so accurately managed to tap into the types of conversations I have with myself daily. No game has ever so accurately managed to tap into the sheer shame and self-degradation I endure when I mess up a social situation.
Luckily, in video games there is this neat trick called save scumming. It is when you save the game before important decision making, and if things don’t go the way you’d like you simply re-load the save and try again. There is seemingly nothing better than doing something over differently and a new part of your brain chiming in to say, “Damn, that felt *good*. Your heart is pounding nicely. You should tell people to fuck off more often.”
What Breaks You?
In real life, there is no save scumming. There is no going back in time to give yourself a do-over. I think that is why RPGs speak to me so strongly in general. I can slip into the skin of a new character and failure never has to be an option. The sinking pit of shame only has to last as long as the game takes to reload.
Disco Elysium feels like a game built on shame, guilt and redemption. Probably because it is a game built on shame, guilt and redemption. My entire life has felt like a game built on shame, guilt and redemption. I’ve gone through like the protagonist – bumbling and trying so hard to pick the correct option in the dialogue tree and only realizing moments too late that I chose the wrong one. My only reward, like his, is a stream of insults hurled at me by my own brain.
Of course, I learned nearly two years after my first play-through that I am autistic. It turns out, most people do not constantly have dialogue trees of pre-scripted responses popping up in their head when they speak to others. They can just… have conversation? With my diagnosis came a lot of soul searching and an equivalent amount of therapy.
What Heals You?
However, it turns out, my diagnosis and the resulting psychology bills shifted the way I play RPGs in a way I didn’t realize until I picked Disco Elysium back up for another playthrough. As I load into the opening scene hotel, I walk away from the first skill check knowing I won’t pass it. The first time I played, I probably re-did that skill check ten times alone before I got the result I wanted.
As I exit the hotel room to encounter the next character, I’m open and honest with them about the fact I cannot remember anything. I previously ran through that conversation five times trying to convince them that I was normal and that everything was fine with me (despite the obvious indications otherwise).
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I wasn’t save scumming. Something inside of me had clicked into place. It was a new feeling replacing the insane urge to “get it right.” I stopped focusing on how to play correctly and realized that there is no way to play correctly.
I have my skills and I can use what skills I have to solve the problem, even if it isn’t the conventional or correct way. There is no sense in trying to shove a square solution into a circular problem.
What is Next?
I realized that it’s ok to get things wrong, it’s ok to admit you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s ok to ask your partner for help when you’re terrified they’re just going to laugh at you. More importantly, I learned that in Disco Elysium and life that it’s ok to walk away from things until you have the needed skills to go back. And you don’t need to feel guilty about it.
The first time I played – I immediately reloaded when Drama chimed in to tell me “This may have been a *grave* mistake, sire.” This current playthrough I sat firm in my decision and finally got to hear Volition’s response: “Maybe. Maybe not. Mercy is rarely a *complete* mistake.”
My rating for Disco Elysium: (5 / 5)
Dune – Adventures in the Imperium: Gen Con Review
“A debt owed. A missing heir. A new cult rising in the desert. Trapped between an ageless prophecy and sensitive politics, a delicate path must be walked. What is the truth? With whom will you stand?” – Introduction, Time Becomes A Narrow Door by Modiphius Entertainment
August 3rd through 6th I had the absolute delight of attending Gen Con, as they like to say,The Best Four Days in Gaming™. It is an enormous gaming convention, primarily focused on tabletop gaming and filled with vendors, events, workshops, and anything else you can think of.
While at Gen Con, I was able to sit down and play Dune: Adventures in the Imperium by Modiphius Entertainment. Modiphius is known for their 2D20 RPGS such as Achtung! Cthulhu, Star Trek Adventures, and the Fallout RPG. They also carry some familiar items such as the Bladerunner RPG and the Tales From the Loop Board Game. As a well-regarded publisher with great titles, I was excited to check out how they made the Dune universe immersive.
Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, like many of Modiphius’s RPGs, utilizes the 2D20 system. Each character has Skills and Drives that are added together in a given situation to produce a target skill value. In order to succeed on a test, a player must roll below that skill value. Players roll 2d20 by default, but can spend a luck currency, called momentum, to add additional dice and/or activate their special abilities. More information about how to play can be found in the Modiphius-recommended video below.
Playing the Game
I played the scenario Time Becomes a Narrow Door, with a table full of players new to Modiphius’s system. We used the pre-generated characters available in the Dune Quickstart Guide, which is available for free on Modiphius’s website. I’ve included two sample pre-generated characters from the free Quickstart Guide for reference. All six re available through the official Quickstart Guide. Worth noting, the Quickstart Guide also includes the scenario Wormsign to help get you started, which we did not play.
In Time Becomes a Narrow Door, we were members of a small house trying our best to garner favor, help our rivals, maintain our morals, and make sure we still came out on top. Our main task was to convince the son of another house to return from his spiritual journey. Our table had a lot of silly energy, so we named ourselves House Montana, with our patriarch being Lord Billy Ray Cyrus. Of course, bad southern accents abounded. We had a blast bouncing off each other and making the world our own. Big props to the person running the game for making it such an enjoyable and accessible experience.
The system was a lot of fun! It was easy to build an environment where collaborative wins were rewarding. The system prioritizes collaborative storytelling as well as mutual success or destruction. Therefore, it was easy to treat everyone at the table’s rolls as meaningful and contributing to the betterment of the house. I also loved the mechanic of building our own house. We only did a small amount of this in our session, but by reskinning House Atreides to be our own small house, we felt a lot more ownership over the assets, favors, and enemies we were gaining.
My one caution is that we didn’t do a lot of combat. There was only one fight, and we let it be a duel. As this is a part of the game we didn’t experience much of, I can’t really speak on how robustly the system handles that kind of conflict. My initial impressions point towards combat lacking some mechanics. However, I only got a small introduction.
If you are a fan of Dune, check out the Dune: Adventures in the Imperium Quickstart Guide! While I cannot rate the system as a whole, the experience was definitely worth its time! Try Time Becomes a Narrow Door yourself, or just check out the Quickstart Guide.
(4.8 / 5)
Find more of my Gen Con 2023 shenanigans here.