Ever since the glory days of HeroQuest I’ve always been interested in boardgames that can be played out as a campaign. That is, you play as the same character over the course of several games, getting new gear/powers to help you overcome evil. The truth is that even back in the time before work, responsibilities, and internet cat videos I RARELY managed to successfully finish a campaign.
More than ever we’re seeing companies attempt the impossible by pumping out big boxes that promise, immersive stories, interesting character development, and endless replayability. Most of these games are “1 vs all” style games in the vein of HeroQuest. However, in recent years we’ve gotten fully co-op campaigns as well as everyone for themselves campaigns. Despite this influx of games I think we’re STILL WAITING for the one. The proverbial Neo, that all of us “campaigners” (that what I’m calling us) are desperately waiting for. Even if you think the ultimate campaign style game exists, you’re wrong. Probably. In recent years several great campaign style games have arrived, but we’re still waiting for cardboard messiah to show him/herself.
I’ve come up with a few things that I’ve deemed necessary to create the ultimate campaign style game.
A Sense of Character Ownership
Hello character sheets, goodbye fantasy character with shitty name I care nothing for. This one is the most simplistic to implement, and yet most designers/publishers make like Simba and deliberately disobey me! Let the players name their own damn characters. You’re being asked to play the same character over the course of a lengthy campaign, the least you can do is be given some type of ownership over it. Really the only game to come out in recent years to understand this is Flying Frog’s Shadows Over Brimstone. Naming your character seems like such a trivial thing, but it’s the first step of the perfect campaign that 9 out of 10 games get wrong.
1 vs all or Co-op?
Put me in the camp of 1 vs all when it comes to non app assisted campaign games. Having a GM/Overlord player is inherently trickier to design, but I think it’s worth it. I simply think that no matter how impressive the co-op’s enemy AI is, it will never top the feeling of matching wits with a human GM. An actual person can surprise you and do incredible and memorable things. That can literally never happen in a co-op game where you fully know how your enemies will move/react/attack before they even do. Now that we have solved that, let’s move onto the bigger dilemma of 1 vs All; the person playing the Evil Side needs to be going full out and playing to win. They simply have to and the rules/mecahnics should be designed with that in mind. If they need to “pull punches” or play sub-optimally to make it interesting for the heroes then just go play an RPG instead. It’s as simple as that.
So now that we’re clear that this is two sides controlled by humans battling it out over a few games, what is the ultimate victory condition? The most common ruling seems to be, “nothing matters except the final campaign mission”. That old style of thinking simply has to go. It’s dumb, can make people lose interest, and puts an absurd amount of pressure on that grande finale. No game needs to deal with that much performance anxiety! Instead I propose that the campaign is treated like a sports championship series. Make it a best of 3 or best of 5 series. The minute one side wins the majority claim them to be the victor. I hear you grumbling about how it will lead to less grandiose campaign climaxes. I think a clever designer could figure out a way around this. Either by offering “potential final missions” whenever one side is one victory away from the championship or something cool, that I can’t think of because I’m not Vlaada Chavatil OK!
Fine…Let’s Discuss Story
Let’s not kid ourselves; the continuing story is a big part of the campaign allure. It’s the proverbial carrot that is supposed to keep the players coming back for more like gluttons at an all you can eat buffet. I say that designers need to back off from the linear story lines and make things a bit more abstracted. Give the heroes a setting where they’re trying to accomplish an overarching goal. Make the playable scenarios tie into that loosely. That's all you really need. Let’s be real, the story telling in these games are not exactly “high art” or dramatic prose. The REAL story comes from the gameplay; the close calls of battle, the uncovering of loot, the arrow to the knee, and the daring escapes. Focus on getting that right and give the players just enough story so that they care.
This topic is a bit more serious. What is the ideal length of a campaign? Is it ten games? It is five? How about pi? I bet it’s pi length. I’m not entirely sure, but I think my gut is telling me shorter campaigns are the way to go. Seeing how they have to have an odd number thanks to my “Best of series” rule, I’d say 3, 5 or 7 games total. I think people immediately balk when they see a 3 game mini campaign and I don’t understand why. If the designers forgo a terrible, unexciting, intro scenario then you can have 2 or 3 really great games (remember best of 3 series). Also, when talking about length I feel like these games shouldn’t fear sessions that push beyond that scary 2+ hour mark. If a game goes 3 hours that’s fine. It’s a campaign, you and your friends should be putting time aside to specially play this game. So time shouldn’t be an issue. However, I will say if the campaigns are on the longer side (7 games) then yes, each session should only be roughly an hour or so. Basically regardless of total games played the amount of time to commit should be between 5-8 hours or so. Finally, if designers are worried about only including a 3 game campaign in the box…just make two separate campaigns instead. Boom!
Less Combat Focused
One of my absolute favorite things about HeroQuest were the options BESIDES murder, death, punch and kill. You could find secret doors, uncover traps, loot a room to find shiny shit. I feel like when good and evil clash in a campaign style dungeon crawl it should feel important. It shouldn’t just be another turn in the game. When combat happens literally every single turn it just gets boring and tedious. Space it out and let the adventure have some sense of pacing. And for the love of god can we have some exploration? Is that too much to ask for...to make it so the heroes might want to take a few turns combing the dungeon for secrets?
“Lemme, lemme Upgrade Ya”
Just like Beyonce knew the importance of upgrading your cable plan roughly 7 years ago, designers know that campaign games need worthwhile upgrades. Here is where I think campaign style games have the most wiggle room. You can make it so that you simply acquire new weapons, a la HeroQuest. The other way to go is by adding classes and earning special abilities. Whatever the designer chooses, the thing to remember is less is more. Playing as a hero with 4 different special abilities, 2 weapons that have their own special abilities each and then a single once per game super cool beast mode move is just too much. Same thing goes for the GM player. If they’ve got 15 different options to slaughter-maim the heroes it just feels like overkill. Make each side have to really think hard about the few important upgrades available. I like how Acradia Quest lets you draft cards and then you only have a few open slots available. Very clean and still feels satisfying.
Well, clearly some designer out there has their work cut out for them. Obviously, I’m only speaking of stuff that I like in campaign games, but I think my ideas would legitimately help out the genre. Maybe one day I’ll take my own advice and try to implement some of this stuff into my own game. Probably not though…So, um, hopefully some designer sees this and rips off my ideas. I’d be totally fine with that. Just you know…send me a copy for free and write a special thank you haiku in the rules about how much I rule. Or just draw my handsome mug on a Cylops in the game…I've always wanted to see what I'd look like as Ray Harryhausen style dungeon monster!