Nick Yu runs Zucchini People Games and he’s designed Adventure Tactics, Eternal Dynasty, and Hero Brigade.
Adventure Tactics is a co-op tactics campaign game for 1-5 players.
Can you give us a brief overview on what the game is?
It’s a game with a turn-based tactical feel and an open-ended class system. Gloomhaven is a great dungeon delver, you can switch classes but you’re kind of stuck in the class. You can switch, but it changes everything about the game, and Adventure Tactics is different.
I’m very curious about how you start with a game as big as this. Do you start with the core and the build from there? Or do you start with a mix of all the things you think you want and then iterate on them all? Or something else?
Adventure Tactics started with a manic episode; a 20 page document with all the classes. I always kept the classes in mind for the rest of the game design process.
The core of the class mechanics held up really well and didn’t change much. I had played a bunch of similar video games, so it was easy to get started. It took about a month to get to a playable state and at that point it was all hand-written cards.
About how long were you developing the game?
3 years in the making.
Did you keep count of how many major versions there were? If so, how many? (Major version = version that is a significant change or modification, not simply balancing numbers)
3.5 – 4 major versions with 106 small iterations.
Can you go through these major versions with us? What was the change and how did you identify you needed to make the change?
Basic version: skeleton with the class system. Deckbuilding and card-based actions.
2nd version: included different setups and more class-based cards.
3rd version: added in boss mechanics.
4th version: overhaul of everything. For this version, Ian Zang had stopped by and talked about boss keys and Zelda, so I then spent a week redoing everything from a high-level perspective. This is one reason it’s so important to show your game to more designers, as they can say something that can inspire you to make everything better.
How did you balance the different player counts?
I did hit points scaling for enemies based on the number of players, or more enemies, or more abilities. I did this for player counts 3-5, then made the one player version have that one player play as 3 characters, then the two-player version has each player playing as two characters, so there were only 3 player counts to test instead of 5.
How did you figure out the different classes?
I stuck to the familiar base archetypes. It helps to build off from some level that you’re familiar with. I drew from my knowledge of all the video games and MMO games I had played.
How do you make NPC enemies/decks interesting? That seems like the hardest thing about games like this.
I put in rage mechanics when players hit different hit point thresholds on the bosses and added in wave mechanics for the smaller enemies. The core engine was great, and it was inspired from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XIV.
I tried to also look outside the box and look for different objectives to add to the game. For instance, there’s one battle where you need to escort a person from one end of the field to the other without dying.
I tried to think of each fight as a cinematic cutscene, so each would be really interesting.
How do the different endings work?
The endings are based on items you gather and the actions that players take, plus their performance in the campaign. You don’t have to keep playing the encounters; if you lose, you still level up but you don’t have as many paths still open for you to take.
There’s one main storyline hub, and you need to be careful with the choices you make as the endings really depend on them.
How did you plan out all the different stories?
I used Xmind, which is mind mapping software. Mind mapping was a good way to check for errors. Mind mapping made it obvious that every choice couldn’t have two unique paths, I really had to rein that in and start pulling back from having so many paths that could happen.
How long, time wise, would you say the entire campaign takes to play?
Each encounter is 30-60 minutes and there are about 10 in a normal playthrough.
What was the most difficult thing about the development of the game?
Paring down and cutting back and having no restrictions on classes. Initially you could have a party of 5 dark knights, but now you can only have one person of each class. This allowed characters to stand on their own. Restrictions can definitely make things better. This also allowed me to build in a lot of synergies between the classes, which made the game even better.
Was there anything that never changed from the original version of the game?
The attack system didn’t change much. I didn’t want a roll to hit. Instead of accuracy, we just did a lot of different dice. The dice range is important, you always do something on each turn, you just do a range of damage instead of possibly missing.
What was your biggest learning experience during the development of Adventure Tactics?
Make everything into digestible chunks, then focus on one thing at a time. Also, using consistent playtesting groups with a couple of different pods of people with different player counts was so helpful. This meant I could playtest the entire campaign at a specific player count with a specific group of people.
How did you convince players to playtest?
Always buy the pizza! Also, take advantage of your family as they’re usually willing to do a lot for you.
You can also get your game on TTS (Tabletop Simulator). Don’t be scared of TTS as it allows you to get that exposure to new ideas and different groups of playtesters.
If you made another campaign game, what would you do differently?
I try to do things differently every time regardless, so if I made another campaign game I’d go away from the class system and make combat very action-based instead of card-based.
What are some things you’ve learned from Adventure Tactics?
It’s ok to do too much; you want to throw out all of your ideas and pare down to the really interesting ideas. There’s also the fact that interesting doesn’t always equal fun. For example, the warlock had a lot of abilities that had effects but didn’t do damage. For most people, this didn’t feel fun so I turned down the effects and added in damage.
Another aspect that I thought would be fun was the inclusion of boss abilities; they turned out to be more brutal than fun. We always wanted you to progress in Adventure Tactics. Some encounters were too hard. The players can’t feel like they’re forced into a certain outcome. Adventure Tactics has cute, fun art, so it has to be easier. Gloomhaven is dark, so it can be brutal. Art has to match the experience!
What was the hardest decision to make?
It was so hard to cut out the things I loved. I realized it was a necessary cut, so that made it a bit easier. It’s interesting to apply video game rules to a physical game as things can end up being very different.
If you’re trying to figure out if you need to cut something, try the game without it and see if it’s better, as you can always go back and re-add it back in. Do solo playtesting to see if things work, and always try to move forward and learn more about your design.
Any advice on liking solo playtesting better?
I grew up playing multiple players by myself, so it’s more normalized for me. You get used to it after a while.
Any last tips?
Make sure you get it right in the design phase and have a long term overarching plan you can stick to. The more you do in the initial phase, the less you have to do in the long run.
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