Children of Eorl Designer Diary
After releasing Children of Eorl, it has been wonderful to see all the positive feedback and words of support come flowing in. I speak on behalf of all of ALeP when I say we couldn’t be happier to see you all enjoying the content that we’ve been working on since September of 2019.
As the lead designer for ALeP, I wanted to follow up on the release with a designer diary in which I discuss some of the cards in the set. However, I realized that I have already talked a little bit about every player card in episode 178 of Cardboard of the Rings, where we review the set. So, if you are interested in some of the design decisions around the player cards, I recommend listening to that episode. You’ll also hear me defend some of the stronger cards in the set and explain why I think they’re necessary.
So for this article, rather than talk about player cards, I wanted to get into some of my design philosophy that went into some of the quests in Children of Eorl.
The design of Children of Eorl has benefited immensely from the long history of the official FFG designs. As a player of this game for 10 years, I have seen what works and what doesn’t. I have run polls and championships to determine which quests are peoples’ least and most favorite. In that sense, designing Children of Eorl was a much easier task than developing a new game from scratch.
One of the discoveries made throughout the game’s lifespan that made for better design was the more frequent use of “scaling effects”. These are effects that get more punishing when the players are doing really well. While older quests were often known for having some brutal early rounds followed by a breezy finish, modern quests have better difficulty pacing, and are more likely to give a consistent challenge through to the end.
As an example, a card from early in the game’s run that has led to perhaps more negative play experiences than any other is the infamous Sudden Pitfall. Compare this design to the more modern analogue, Man Overboard!.
All too frequently, you’d reveal Sudden Pitfall on the first round, before you got any questing allies out. A loss of a hero that early in the game is more than most decks can handle, and in such cases it feels like an instant-loss card that is completely out of your control. On the other hand, Man Overboard! features a scaling effect. It’s only punishing if you have more than 8 willpower committed to the quest, which typically means you are committing at least one ally. If it’s the early game and you don’t have any allies out yet, all you need to do to avoid this card is commit 7 willpower or less among your heroes. It feels a lot more fair in the early game, while retaining the difficulty of Sudden Pitfall in late game. Even its shadow effect has better scaling!
In Children of Eorl, you may notice many of these scaling effects. One of the most obvious examples is Cold from the Mountains, which is targeted at ally swarms. The larger your board state, the more painful it becomes. In a similar vein, Exhausting Winds has the potential to deal out a lot of damage if you are well set up but is unlikely to cause an immediate loss. This is what I believe treacheries should be: not cancel-or-lose, but a way to wear you down so that you are more likely to lose to something else.
In addition to the encounter cards, an even bigger key to maintaining difficulty throughout a quest is to bake it directly into the quest’s “gimmick” or “hook”—the mechanic which makes the quest unique. For example, in Ambush at Erelas, the first quest in the deluxe, this can be found in the Plundered Goods objective, which slowly builds up threat in the staging area over the course of the game as you destroy enemies.
In The Battle for the Beacon, the scaling effects are bountiful, with cards like Bald Hill becoming more difficult if you are in control of the beacon. It is also filled with many “or” shadow effects, which force a choice between doing something bad, or damaging the beacon. In the early game, while your board state is still developing, it is quite tempting to choose to damage the beacon when it has many hit points remaining. In late game, however, when the beacon is hanging by a thread, those shadow effects start hitting much harder!
Lastly, in The Horse Lord’s Ire, which was not designed by me but rather lead storyteller John Leo, scaling effects are built into the core of the quest by scaling up the pain as the players recover more of the stolen steeds—and occasionally even by offering you the option of giving up those steeds in order to avoid that pain! See the enemies Saddle-slasher and Rein-ripper for examples of such effects.
When getting feedback from playtesters, one piece of information I value most is how the quest felt on the final turn. Was it tense? Because for me, my lasting impression of a quest is often based on the last few rounds. If the playtesters say that they knew they had already won, and were just going through the motions, it’s a sign that I need to dial up the scaling effects. Once the playtesters start telling me they just managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, I know that I’ve achieved the scaling that I want!
Hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to play some of the quests in Children of Eorl, and haven’t had any Sudden Pitfall moments. And if you have, well, we’d love to have you send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and join our playtesting team to help me and the other designers as we continue to try to improve our designs with each release. Happy questing!