Dungeon Alliance board game cover
Image credit: Andrew Parks

Andrew Parks entered the world of game design in 2003 with the release of Ideology: The War of Ideas. Over the past 15 years, Parks and his team of developers at Quixotic Games have designed over 25 published games, including Core Worlds, Star Trek: Frontiers, and Dungeon Alliance. Parks has become known for his devotion to theme in games, including licensed game properties such as Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, Justice League, and Dungeons & Dragons.

Jason (GameGobble): Dungeon Alliance is a game that involves deck-building and miniatures, all within a fantasy adventure theme. How did you settle upon this combination of elements? Please share the story.

Andrew: Our first deck-building game was Core Worlds by Stronghold Games, which premiered in 2011. Over the years, I have been thinking about ways to push the deck-building genre in new directions, particularly with the nature of the starting decks and the overall variety of each gameplay experience. I had approached a publisher with the concept for a dungeon-themed deck-builder where each player controlled a party of heroes, and the publisher asked if I could propose the game in such a way that incorporated miniatures. The idea of a tactical dungeon crawler with deck-building instead of dice was very appealing to me, and so I reworked my concepts and re-presented them to the publisher.

The publisher was excited with the results, but due to various reasons that often happen in the world of publishing, they were unable to move forward with the project. But I was so excited by the concepts behind the proposal that I asked the publisher if they wouldn’t mind if I pursued the project on my own, and although they asked me to wait a couple of months to see if they could implement the concept in some other way, they ultimately told me they were unable to be involved for unrelated business reasons. And so began a three-year journey that would lead to our self-publication of Dungeon Alliance!

Jason: The word “alliance” in the game’s name refers to the team of four heroes each player gets to choose and control. What were you trying to achieve with this design decision?

Andrew: The idea for controlling the whole party came from playing character-based video games, particularly MMOs where I created a bunch of diverse characters that I could only play one at a time. I would often joke with my online guildmates that I wanted to see how all my personal characters would work together during a raid, even though this was impossible.

After mentioning this a few times, I got it in my head that this would make for a fun tabletop game, where each player controlled their own party of diverse characters that they got to assemble through a drafting process. This would only work if each character was very unique, so that each time you played you’d have a very different gameplay experience. This was the genesis of the project, even before the first prospective publisher requested we add miniatures to the concept.

Jason: There are optional rules in Dungeon Alliance for player vs. player, as well as solo play. Take us behind the scenes during development, trying to accommodate these different scenarios. What were some of the interesting challenges and how did you overcome them?

Andrew: The tabletop industry is changing rapidly, even since the three years that the Quixotic team and I started working on Dungeon Alliance. The audience has grown increasingly diverse, and I saw this first-hand when working on Star Trek: Frontiers for WizKids. Like its predecessor, Mage Knight Board Game by Vlaada Chvátil, Star Trek: Frontiers features rules for competitive, cooperative, and solo play. I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea just how much the world of solo and cooperative games had grown in recent years, but working on that game and observing player feedback showed me how important these options would be for Dungeon Alliance.

We started with competitive play without PvP rules, just because we knew it would allow us to approach the system directly. We knew at this point that we wanted to add PvP rules and solo rules, with the possibility for cooperative rules further down the line.

It turned out that the PvP rules were fairly easy to implement, as long as we made sure that the combat rules were essentially the same as PvE, with just a few differences. Adding solo was more difficult, as part of the design philosophy was to allow players to take full control of the game, with each player acting as the AI for her opponents’ monsters. Therefore, an AI system that simply said “Do this!” would not be in keeping with the rest of the game on a philosophical level. Two of our developers, Manny O’Donnell and Matt Cattron, were instrumental in developing the system for solo play. Manny helped develop ST:F and its expansion, The Return of Khan, with me, and he is a heavy solo gamer, so I knew his feedback would be crucial. Matt is a designer who joined us during our work on D&D: Attack Wing, and he’s the one who came up with the idea of Dungeon Alliance having AI cards that would give solo players the ability to determine one of several different modes of attack for the enemies. Sort of a “choose your own poison” approach.

I was skeptical this would work, even after creating the first set of Solo Cards, but as soon as I played it, I knew Matt’s approach was the way to go. It took a ton of testing from all of us to refine and balance the system. Originally, the Nightmare Mode (which keeps the Solo Cards face down until Monster Activation) was the standard way of playing, and this is how I still enjoy playing it the most. But Manny and Matt pointed out that this might be too random for some players, considering the deterministic nature of the rest of the game. And so we opted to reveal the Solo Cards one turn in advance, with the option for Nightmare play for those like me who preferred more of a surprise.

Cooperative play became a major talking point among the backers during the actual Kickstarter Campaign, as did the addition of win/loss circumstances. We therefore sat down and fleshed out the rules for co-op during the campaign, as well as a quest system that allowed for win/loss scenarios. This was a big challenge, as running the KS campaign itself was a 24/7 operation for us. Fortunately, we were able to test the co-op and quests both during the campaign and during the 2 months following the campaign since the factory was busy working on the miniatures. We’re proud of the result and excited to see that people are enjoying these play modes so much.

Jason: Talk about the overall gaming experience you were trying to create when designing Dungeon Alliance.

Andrew: As a deck-builder, I wanted Dungeon Alliance to provide a completely different starting deck every time you played, based upon your own pre-game drafting choices. I think the major thing I’ve discovered with deck-builders I play is that I don’t like starting out with a deck full of cards I need to get rid of. We had experimented with changing this during Core Worlds by giving each player a unique Hero in their starting deck, as well as introducing pre-game draft cards to differentiate the starting decks somewhat. We took notice of player feedback and how much they enjoyed this aspect of Core Worlds, so we decided to go full throttle with this concept for Dungeon Alliance.

Jason: What is one thing you want gamers to know about Dungeon Alliance?

Andrew: The most important thing about Dungeon Alliance is that there is no “best” way to play. It is a game that is purposefully customizable. We never want players to feel like they’re cheating if they adjust the rules to fit their taste. That means it’s definitely okay to change a rule or remove a card that annoys you.

I’ve had players ask for my blessing to change this or that to the game when they play. I want people to know they have my permanent approval to change anything they like if it makes the game more fun for their group. It would be naive of me to think that one ruleset for a game like this would be the perfect fit for everyone. We gamers all have diverse personalities and different experience goals … just like the characters in Dungeon Alliance!

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The Customizable Dungeon Crawl Board Game
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