Interview with In the Hall of the Mountain King Designers.
It’s a rare thing when a game is successfully kept a secret in the modern age of gaming. When the rumor mill begins to churn, we can trust in our boardgame compatriats to share some type of vital clue to satiate our overwhelming sense of curiosity. However, that hasn’t been the case for Burnt Island Games newest IP In The Hall Of The Mountain King. During our research we uncovered just a few small details. The game is set in a system of caves dug by players as they lead their group of trolls to victory. Today we spoke with the games designers, Jay Cormier and Graeme Jahns, to dig deep into this mysterious title and find out exactly what gamers can expect in this week’s upcoming Kickstarter campaign.
In an industry with such an active and curious following, it’s quite an achievement that we haven’t been able to find much about your game! Could you give us a brief summary of what it’s about and what makes it unique?
Graeme: You play as trolls rebuilding your kingdom under the mountain. Hire trolls, dig tunnels, cast spells, recover ancient statues, and return them to their place of honour at the heart of the mountain in your bid to become the Mountain King. The most unique aspect of the game is its cascading resource production, bringing in more resources as the game continues.
Jay: I’ve always been a fan of games that use tetrominoes and I’m excited that we came up with a unique way to incorporate them. As you gain your resources from that cascading production, you use them to help you dig your tunnels into the mountain, but you have many different motivations. Should you dig outwards to get some statues? Should you dig inwards to claim some of the high scoring areas before you’re cut off by your opponents? Should you dig sideways to gather some resources and activate some workshops that will provide you even more efficiencies? Lots of interesting decisions!
“Cascading System” has a wonderful sound to it. Can you walk us through how that works and give us an example of how it might play out during a game?
Graeme: At the beginning of the game, you start out with four basic trolls in your ‘trollsmoot’. They create the bottom row of a pyramid. When you recruit a new troll, you place it on the second row, but it’s shifted over so that it’s above two trolls below it. Then you activate the newly hired troll and the two trolls below it, collecting the resources from all three of them. As your trollsmoot gets higher you’re always activating everything downward as much as possible, so as the game progresses you get more and more resources. It’s really fun to get a whole pile of new resources.
Jay: And then there’s a strategic element to the timing as well. The resources gathered are placed directly onto the troll cards, and if you activate a troll above a troll that still has resources on it, it doesn’t provide that resource again. So you’re motivated to try and use your resources before recruiting another troll.
Finishing your pyramid sounds utterly euphoric. However, what made you decide to end the cascade at the sixth hired troll?
Jay: We used to have a base of five starter trolls instead of four. This meant that the pyramid could get a lot bigger! We noticed that around the seventh troll or so, that players started running out of space on the board and running out of tunnels to place! So we decided to cap it at the seventh troll. We thought this was interesting because it gave you choice as you built your pyramid of trolls on how wide or tall you wanted it to be, but in the end we realized that you want to build as tall as possible to ensure you take advantage of that final cascade. Newer players didn’t fully get this, and if they built up their pyramids ‘incorrectly’ then they didn’t get the benefit of a final payout of resources, which just felt crappy. We decided that maybe we should just have four starter trolls instead, and this was met with some uncertainty by everyone since it felt like giving players that choice of how to build their pyramid of trolls was an interesting one. We all realized that the satisfying and intuitive closure from capping off your pyramid with your sixth troll recruitment has a lot more benefits to it.
Back in October of last year In the Hall of the Mountain King was one of the many prototypes in Proto T.O. Even in its early stages the game looked absolutely lovely. What has changed since then, and what can players expect to see in the upcoming Kickstarter?
Graeme: The biggest change since October would be our asynchronous map. During initial designs all players would have the same opportunities in their region of the mountain. Since then we’ve modified the map so that the opportunities for each player are slightly different, so that each player needs to adapt to their location, while ensuring overall gameplay is as balanced as possible.
Jay: We’ve tweaked small things that most people wouldn’t notice, like change some of the workshops and spells. The thing we’ve been focusing on since then is coming up with a different mode for playing this game…oh…was I not supposed to talk about that yet? #Mightbeasecret
Asynchronous maps, yet shared victory conditions? I dig it. I’m baffled that tunnel building hasn’t been explored nearly enough within board gaming. One immediate comparison I can think of is Cave Evil, but that couldn’t be more different. What were your inspirations for In the Hall of the Mountain King?
Jay: The inspiration was literally the classic song by Edvard Grieg! Graeme and I had been trying to work on a game together for awhile but nothing was clicking. He came to me and said he wanted to do a game called In the Hall of the Mountain King. I nearly lost it because it is literally my favourite song! He shared some ideas about what the game could be about but my excitement came from trying to emulate the feeling you get from the song. The song starts off nice and slow, and then builds and builds until there’s a climactic finish.
Peer Gynt would have never seen it coming. From what you’ve described, I think your team has definitely reached that crescendo. When exactly in the design process did it all click for you?
Graeme: I feel like it clicked quite early. From very early playtests players responded very positively to the cascading production, and the puzzle aspect of the tunnel building. Even the most critical players in our play test group had very little to criticize about the core mechanisms. From there it’s been smoothing the edges, tweaking rules so it’s not overly complicated, finding the right game length, and making sure the resource production snowball doesn’t overtake the game.
Jay: Yeah I’ve never had a game be this fun so early in the testing. There were some big changes to the design, but the two things that have always been in the game (and have always been fun): The cascading production and digging tunnels in a mountain using tetrominoes.
For a game with a lot of modularity, a good and consistent strategy is key. What are some popular strategies that your playtesters have discovered? Did any of these catch you by surprise?
Graeme: There are several different strategies one can use to be named king under the mountain, and our play testers have certainly surprised us… but you’ll have to play the game to find out what they are! We think some of the most fun of a new game is figuring out its systems, so we don’t want to give out any potential spoilers.
How has it been like to work with Burnt Island Games and how did In the Hall of the Mountain King become their second big, and highly likely, second smash hit title?
Graeme: Burnt Island have been super enthusiastic about this game since they first laid eyes on it. There were other publishers that expressed interest, but Burnt Island was adamant. We really wish we could share all the cool artwork and components they have planned for the game, because I think the final version will be quite special. Given how gorgeous their reprint of Endeavor is, and how well it’s been received by the community, I can assure you Burnt Island is working hard to make sure players are just as happy and excited by their second title.
Jay: I love working with them because they are passionate about their games. Josh has been a force to be reckoned with for a long time in this industry with his fantastic art and graphic design experience. He’s the best rule book creator in the industry – by far! And that insight in communicating to players through a rule book really helps when working with designers. He always seems to know how best to word something and he knows exactly where images and examples need to go. And Helaina is her own force in the publishing world, running not one but two companies with Kid’s Table Board Games and Burnt Island Games. With the success of Endeavor and all her KTBG games, it’s no wonder that she recently ‘quit her day job’ and became a full time publisher!
That’s fantastic, they sound like quite the duo! Which brings me to my next question: how did one of the Bamboozle Brothers and an internationally renowned Canadian designer decide they should design a game together?
Jay: Graeme and I belong to the Game Artisans of Canada, a group that has chapters all across the country. When my first signed game was coming out (Belfort), I stumbled upon this group and asked to join. Graeme was already a member when I joined. Since then, we both alternate teaching game design at Vancouver Film School in their Video Game Design program.
Graeme: Yeah, honestly I think it was just a matter of time until some team up happened. We’ve been testing and helping tweak each other’s games for years, and for a long time we had talked about collaborating on something, but this was the first that really clicked. It won’t be our last.
Speaking of teaming up, Josh Cappel (one of the main artists from Endeavor: Age of Sail) and Kwanchai Moriya (from Catacombs & Castles) is also working on In the Hall of the Mountain King. From the art we’ve seen, your team has landed on a beautifully unique and interesting style. How did this come about?
Graeme: This is all part of the vision and enthusiasm that Burnt Island has brought from day 1. We’ve loved Josh’s work for years, and we were ecstatic when Burnt Island told us they had signed Kwanchai to do the art. We’re just as eager to see the final production version as you are!
Jay: I can’t think of a better match up than Kwanchai and Josh for the look and feel of a board game! We’re ecstatic! The prototype we made was fairly cute as I often resort to googling images I need and the troll image I used was fairly cute. I was happy to hear that they said that they weren’t going in the cute direction at all!
I can’t wait to see what they’ve done! Speaking of, when can we don our troll alter-egos and become Mountain Kings?
Jay: The Kickstarter launches February 5th! I’m not sure when the game will hit retail after that though. Stay tuned to the Kickstarter for more fun announcements and more content for this game!
Bonus question: Which song, of the same name, is the best to play In the Hall of the Mountain King with? (E.g Savatage, Edvard Grieg, Apocalyptica, ect.)
Graeme: As mentioned earlier, while the game was designed with the Edvard Grieg song in mind, we’ve been excited to see these other groups of music enthusiasts get interested in the game as well. Choose your favourite! Though I wouldn’t want to get in the middle of an argument at a table of players that want different songs…
We’ll try not to hit a sour note when we play this with our group. I have to say, I was already excited for this game but with everything we’ve talked about, I’ll have my hard hat and pickaxe ready to go on February 5th. Thanks for your time, guys. It’s been a pleasure.
Thanks to Jay and Graeme for allowing some light to creep into their new subterranean title. The cascading system and cave building mechanics sound like a match made in troll heaven. I for one can’t wait until I can march my unruly group into the depths and claim the throne! In The Hall of the Mountain King is going live on February 5th. Be the first to break the bedrock by signing up for a launch reminder on Burnt Island Games page and get some more crunchy details as they surface.