Interview: Tristan Hall, designer of Gloom of Kilforth

Tristan Hall, designer of the Kilforth series and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, joins Diagonal Move to discuss the two strands of his design career.

Hi Tristan, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us how you got started in the games industry?

Thanks for having me. I’ve been designing my own games for a long time, and modding other people’s games for decades too, like The Lord of the Rings LCG and D&D games. Thankfully, my mods gathered thousands of downloads, so when I Kickstarted my own game Gloom of Kilforth back in 2015 I was lucky enough to have a small but loyal following. Their support and sharing of the project helped spread the word and carried us over the funding goal. With the successful fulfilment of Gloom of Kilforth my other games followed naturally after that.

Gloom of Kilforth
From Dark Fantasy…

There are two distinct strands to your work – Dark Fantasy and Historical. What is it about those two themes that appeals to you?

There is no single element of media that has had more of an enduring and positive influence on me than reading The Lord of the Rings. Revisiting The Silmarillion, Beren and Luthien, The Children of Hurin, and now The Lord of the Rings again with my son as bedtime reading has made for some of the most exciting and happiest moments of my life. Sharing and passing those stories on to him has been so rewarding. By comparison to that, if I can contribute even a microscopic morsel of epic fantasy fulfilment to those who play my games alone or with their families and friends, then I’m delighted.

Of course, there is as much heroism and brutality and hope in our actual history as there is in fantasy. Trying to refract a sense of those epic historical struggles via the prism of gaming is a joyful exercise to me. And if people happen to learn something about these iconic moments in history in the process of playing a fun game, then that too is a pleasure!

…to dark episodes in history

1066 Tears to Many Mothers is themed around the Norman Invasion of Britain. The forthcoming St Elmo’s Pay covers the Siege of Malta. Can you tell us why those two conflicts interest you?

I suppose both conflicts are personal to me, in a way. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 is something that every school kid in the UK learns about growing up. It’s such a tragically romantic story it stays with you forever. This heroic warrior king, Harold, who finally saves England from centuries of Danish invasions by destroying pretty much ALL of the Vikings in history (there are no Viking raids again after 1066), only to be butchered by the Normans and have his throne stolen soon after. The Normans being Viking descendants themselves of course, and led by Duke William, one of the most powerful and villainous leaders in history. This game gives you a chance to maybe redress that balance, or repeat history all over again…

The Great Siege of Malta – “The Greatest Siege in History” – captured my imagination when we visited Malta on holiday over a decade ago. To me, this battle – which determined the entire fate of the whole of Europe and the Mediterranean, and where a tiny army of Knights repelled an utterly overwhelming Ottoman invasion – just seems criminally overlooked by modern media, especially in gaming. The story would make for an amazing movie or Netflix show.

It feels like shining a torch on these darker areas of history that some people maybe don’t know as much about (including me). It also gives me the opportunity to bury my head in history books and geek out. To continue this Historic Epic Battle System series of games I’d love to alternate between lesser known battles like Malta, and more commonly known theatres of conflict. For example, our next game in the series – 1815, Scum of the Earth – will cover Waterloo.

The card illustrations in both games depict historical figures and events. How closely does the art and the game design follow the history?

Every design decision and piece of art behind the games is driven by the history. Every single card in each game is based on a real person, event, tactic, or unit that took part in the battle or events leading up to it. I spent years poring through history books with a highlighter pen. Developing the flavour text for every single card, trying to pare its story down into a couple of sentences.

With the art, I gave strict instructions to our artists to follow the history. I bought and posted reference books to them to draw inspiration from. Occasionally I’d question the historical veracity of the artwork and be put in my place by our artists!

For example, in 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay one of the Knights is wielding pistols in each hand. I told our artist Arek that I thought it felt a little bit too ‘Hollywood action movie’. I asked if he could replace the pistols with a more historically correct arquebus. He replied by email with a photograph of the same two duelling pistols from a Maltese museum that showed that they dated back to 1565!

1066, Tears to Many Monthers
Historical card events

Why a hand management/collectable card game type mechanic and not a more traditional conflict simulation mechanic such as blocks, hex and counter, minis, area control?

Hexes, chits, and area control are fairly typical of war games, but I’ve never seen a history game presented in a beautifully illustrated Magic The Gathering style.

I wanted to employ one of our greatest assets – a team of world-class artists – to reach across the line and draw people into the history who might otherwise be put off by a heavy tactical game. To that end I aimed to deliver a super high quality, non-collectible card game. On a visual par with FFG’s Star Wars LCG, playable in 30-40 minutes on your lunch break, but with detailed flavour text on every card. Plus hundreds of unique images to help immerse players in the history of the respective battles.

Does the ‘timeline’ of the games follow the historical timeline?

The timelines of the games adhere closely to the history of the battles too. The players must overcome a sequential series of historical objectives. The leaders they’re playing as had to overcome these obstacles in order to reach their respective battles in the first place.

For example, in 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, Harold has to defeat the Vikings in the north of England before he can march down to battle the Normans at Hastings. In 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay, Mustafa Pasha must gather his forces following the meeting of the Divan. Then successfully land his forces on the tiny island of Malta before the Great Siege takes place.

Were mechanics developed to reflect the historical position and strengths/weakness of the opposing forces?

Being card games there is a huge degree of extrapolation in representing the history. Even so each character or unit is richly researched, and rated by their comparative influence and power over their battle. For example, Robert Mortain is listed in the Domesday Book as having brought 120 ships to the Battle of Hastings. Statistically, that makes him one of the most powerful and expensive to play cards in the game. Whereas Remigius de Fécamp brought over one ship and twenty knights from Normandy. This put him much lower in the pecking order, which is again reflected in his game stats.

The Battle of Hastings was fought over three wedges of troops (each wedge card in the game represents several thousand warriors battling for that frontier). Players are rewarded for emulating the history by manoeuvring their units into their respective historical placements.

Harold fought side by side with his housecarls in the front row. The Saxon housecarl cards have an ability that increases their might if they’re placed into the front row. Similarly, Duke William kept his cavalry in the rear flank, and so if placed in the rear, cavalry units in 1066 earn a bonus too. Ranged units can be used to fire across the battlefield on either side. Family cards make their brethren cheaper to play, cowardly units are easier to rout, and so on. Every game ability is designed to follow the history where possible.

Both 1066, Tears to Many Mothers and 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay are part of the Historic Epic Battle System. What are the similarities and differences between the two games?

Both games use the same ‘HEBS’ game engine. So if you’ve played 1066, you could feasibly pick up and play 1565 without reading the rulebook – there are many new card abilities to discover, and some variations on existing mechanics; but the games are similar enough that you can even take an army from 1565 and play it against an army from 1066 to create an anachronistic battle across time!

Shadows of Kilforth
Shadows of Kilforth – Game 2 in the Kilforth series

Moving to your Dark Fantasy work. The Kilforth games appear influenced by RPGs. If that is the case, why create a board game rather than an RPG?

Until recently (I just joined a D&D group for the first time in ~20 years!) my role-playing days had long since expired. There was no time to commit to a lengthy RPG campaign, but my tabletop gaming days were waxing higher than ever. I still hold extremely fond nostalgia for my teen years spent role-playing and exploring dungeons and going on magnificent adventures with my friends. I wanted to harness and explore some of those moments once again.

When I originally designed Gloom Kilforth, every fantasy adventure board game on the market was about killing monsters, stealing treasure, and levelling up. Whilst that can be fun, for me role-playing was more about exploring ancient shrines, encountering strange people, going on epic quests. Discovering beautiful fantasy worlds, with a sprinkling of combat thrown in for good measure.

Capturing those narrative moments was one of my key motivations in designing Gloom of Kilforth. Emergent storytelling is becoming huge in board games now, but games that require you to read out huge reams of text to your sleepy-eyed friends don’t engage me in the same way as games that give me the narrative hooks to create exciting and memorable stories of my own. In that respect, there is still no game that creates narratives in the same way that the Kilforth games do, which I think explains why it’s going into its fourth printing.

Kilforth expansion
Tales yet untold…

What are the specific design challenges involved in creating a story driven character-based game compared to a historical game?

The Kilforth games took much longer to develop and play-test as they’re much bigger games than 1066/1565. They have many more moving parts that need to knit together smoothly. For me personally, the mechanical aspects of game design go hand in hand with world-building and character creation. A game’s story – whether that’s history, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or whatever – should absolutely feed into the mechanics. The time spent on developing the ‘hands’ of both mechanics and theme should dovetail accordingly. If you want a game that’s great mechanics with little theme, look to Reinier Knizia. If you want a cool story almost to the expense of game mechanics, look to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; and for me the best board games are balanced in the centre of those two extremes.

Veilwraith – Solo gaming at the end of the world

Your latest game is Veilwraith. Please tell us more about it.

I love and play a lot of solo games – and all of our games are solo friendly. Veilwraith is a fantasy card game that takes place after the end of all things! It plays in 30-40 minutes, and has a multiplayer variant (competitive or cooperative) where each player uses their own copy of the game. There is also a campaign mode where you string together a series of adventures or ‘Vignettes’ that you must complete in order. As the eponymous Veilwraith you literally try to piece the memory of the world back together after it’s fallen into absolute destruction and ruin.

Many shorter solo games have themes or art that I don’t personally enjoy. I wanted to offer something for gamers with similar tastes to me. I have a lot of apocalyptic dreams, and several years ago I wrote a short story about the world ending and what might come after. These ideas were combined with the world of Kilforth and what would happen if the demons won, the heroes lost, and the world was destroyed.

Veilwraith allows you to play out an impossible twist of fate that gives you the chance to go back and undo what’s been done. To visualise the Veilwraith that you play as, all you have to do is simply imagine an ethereal being from beyond the Veil which is the constantly evolving summation of the collective broken memories of an entire world that has died!

Lifeform game
Lifeform: a unique entry in the Hall or Nothing Productions catalogue.
Hall or Nothing Productions also publish games from other designers. What do you look for in a game submission?

We don’t actually take submissions. The only game we’ve published by another designer so far is Lifeform by Mark Chaplin. I’ve been a fan of Mark’s work over the years and loved what I saw in what he was developing with Lifeform. I wanted to see it brought to market and threw my hat into the ring as a potential publisher. I’d like to be able to offer that as a service to other game designers in the future, but as a very small 2-person company, Francesca and I just don’t have the resources to commit to producing other people’s work, particularly when we have so many games of our own in the pipeline.

Hall or Nothing Productions has run many successful campaigns on Kickstarter. Can you share some of your experiences funding via that route?

In the early days everything that could go wrong did. It often still does – after all, who could predict that the world would shut down whilst we were trying to fulfil our latest game?? It’s how you deal with these setbacks which determines whether or not you’ll succeed. The most important element of that success is at all times communicating with your supporters. Keeping them up to date on your progress as often as possible. Whether that’s committing to regular monthly updates, or being constantly active in social media and on forums, or responding to every single email and message as quickly as you can, so we strive to do all of the above.

Be afraid…

What next for Hall or Nothing Productions?

The next game in the Historic Epic Battle System will be 1815, Scum of the Earth, which covers the Battle of Waterloo. There is another Kilforth game in the works, plus a small box Shadows of Kilforth: New Tales expansion, which we’re Kickstarting this summer.

I have a brand new game – a horror opus called Sublime Dark – that I want to share with the world. There are many more to come as long as our backers continue to join us in exploring strange new worlds and themes.

Finally, do you have any advice for budding designers and publishers?

I have a regular column in Senet magazine covering these sorts of topics. If had to make one point it would be this: the difference between you having your first game published and your mate who says they have an idea for a game, is that you went ahead and finished what you started – so see it through to the end.

If it stops being fun, and feels like a chore, take a break and come back to it when you’re feeling it again. When you play a game you can feel how much fun the designer had making it. Ensure that you maintain your own passion for what you love throughout the process. Enjoy yourself, so you know that your players will too.

Editors note: All images in this post were supplied by Tristan Hall