The Long and Winding Road
Developer Daniel Lovat Clark on Creating the Setting for KeyForge
It doesn’t matter what the treasure is, only how it was won.
In KeyForge: Call of the Archons, you become an Archon battling for control of the hidden Vaults of the Crucible, an artificial planet hanging in the stars. By using the strengths of your unique team, assembled from three of the Crucible’s seven Houses, you must gather Æmber and stave off your opponent to ensure that you are the one to open the Vault and absorb its full knowledge and power.
KeyForge is the world’s first Unique Deck Game, where every Archon Deck is unlike any other in the universe. To accompany this new game model, players are brought to the artificial, ancient, and ever-renewed planet of the Crucible, where the pieces of countless worlds are brought together to create a vibrant wonderland. But creating this expansive and diverse new world and game required years of work. For a peek behind the curtain at the development process, in this week’s Designer Journal, developer Daniel Lovat Clark discusses the process that led to KeyForge finding its home on the Crucible.
Daniel Lovat Clark on KeyForge
It’s 2016. Corey Konieczka is trying to explain a new game we’re looking at publishing, one with an impeccable pedigree and a brilliant new concept and I cannot wrap my mind around it.
“But every deck is made by a computer?”
“So, that’s the theme—it’s some sort of cyberpunk in-the-grid thing?”
“No, it’s not—the game itself is in a computer. For real. The deck was made by an algorithm.”
Each deck had three distinct Houses, a wacky, bouncy theme, gems and totems—it was rough and brilliant and very, very strange. This was Richard Garfield’s KeyForge and I didn’t understand it at all.
It’s been a few years since Fantasy Flight Games has done an abstract game. For a lot of gamers, FFG is synonymous with theme-rich, narrative-heavy games across a variety of science fiction and fantasy settings. We’re the go-to for an A Game of Thrones game that really replicates the feel of the books, for creepy Arkham Horror adventures, for X-Wings flying movie-accurate dogfights with beautiful miniatures.
We often work top-down. We start with the setting—the story, the feel of the piece, and then we try to match to that. Battlestar Galactica is a beautiful example of this. Corey was a fan of the show, and he built a game that captured the paranoia and the desperation. The theme came first, the mechanics came after. Bottom-up design takes the opposite approach, starting with compelling mechanics and gameplay elements in search of a context to make them click. For us, Android: Mainframe was like that. That game didn’t have to be about runners partitioning out a computer, but it worked great with that theme, and the theme in turn suggested new mechanics that made it distinct from its parent game.
I suspect Richard’s prototype for KeyForge featured a bit of both bottom-up and top-down design. It clearly had some fantasy and science-fiction tropes laying on top of and inspiring some of its mechanics, sometimes in very tight and resonant ways. But for our purposes it was a staggering new challenge. The game that Richard Garfield had pitched to us, and that we’d decided to publish, was not only not designed with one of our existing settings in mind, it also did not present itself as a natural fit for any of them. There was no way we were going to have anything resembling a favorable thematic link without accounting for the fact that every deck was unique and the sheer breadth and diversity of the decks, the game, and everything else.
We needed to make a new story setting. We had a game—a good one—and it needed a home. It needed the Crucible.
In 2016, I met with Andrew Navaro, then Creative Director of FFG, now its Head of Studio. He and Richard had had some conversations about what the setting of Not-Yet-KeyForge was going to be. Andrew had also met with our graphic design department and done some very early concept work on the look and feel of the cards and the art. By the end of the meeting, I walked out with a piece of paper with a hand-drawn picture and a single word written on it: Crucible. We had the core concept, an artificial world enormous and ancient enough to contain all the bizarre diversity of the game and Mr. Garfield’s vision.
So, I got to work. I played the game again. I met with the card game team and talked about what they saw in the setting. I reviewed the Houses as Richard Garfield had envisioned them. I ransacked popular media and speculative fiction dating back to Gulliver’s Travels and War of the Worlds. (No lie, what is now House Brobnar was briefly House Brobdingnag, and before that House Berserker.) In time, I had a tentative draft of Houses, some moderately divergent from Richard’s first pitch, some almost completely in-line with it. And even then, we were exploring the comedy potential inherent in each House—it had been clear from the first that a sense of humor was critical. We were going to take the work of building the setting very seriously indeed, but that didn’t mean we couldn't have fun with it!
But it wasn’t working, at least not yet. The first pitch presented the Houses as relative monoliths, as factions opposed to one another—ideal setting design for other games, and a natural fit. Of course, the angelic-knight faction and the underworld demons would be at war, that just makes sense, right? For almost any other game, that factionalism would make perfect sense, but Dis and Sanctum can appear in the same deck, fighting side by side. So now what?
I’m comfortable with—in fact, I prefer—some distance between game mechanics and story, where not every intricacy of the game as it's played needs to map perfectly to the story as it's told. But this was fundamental. It wasn’t just a matter of the details of an action being thematically squishy, this was a matter of motivation and stakes. If those don’t align in the game and the fiction, then the two won’t support one another.
I had another conversation with Nate French and Brad Andres, talking about the missing piece of the setting and the actual play and flow of the game. In that conversation we discussed the goofy names for the decks (already present in Mr. Garfield’s prototype) and the idea of the decks as characters in their own right, and so the idea of the Archons was born.
From the Archons, the rest flowed. Sanctum, Brobnar, Dis, and all others could be as diverse as we needed, and it was the Archons that served as the junction between the disparate factions. “Totems” became “keys” that open vaults. Between Andrew, Richard, and the development team, the concepts for the Houses became something workable, and unique to the Crucible.
While we were at it, we struggled for a new name for the "amber" that had replaced the initial prototype's “gems.” We didn't want to use the name of any real-world element or compound, because we wanted to keep it sounding and feeling strange and mysterious. After discarding terms like "gemonite" and “quintessence," someone pitched “æmber.”
“Isn't that goofy?” someone said.
“That's what's brilliant about it. It's like something from a Saturday morning cartoon. It's perfect.”
The Crucible itself was a brilliant idea that did a lot to unify our deliberately-disunified setting into something distinct. A crucible melts base metals and alloys them together, and that is, more or less, what the Crucible does—melding distinct planets, cultures, philosophies, and species. The Crucible is huge, diverse, and ever-changing. It’s the perfect home for a crazy game with quadrillions of unique decks, Martians, knights, and cybernetic demons.
It also did a lot to pluck some coherence and unity out of the chaos of the varied Houses. We knew that the game revolved around capturing crystals. I named them “amber” early in development as a placeholder, because both Andrew and I liked the idea of this element being not quite mineral, not quite organic. I imagined our “amber” as flowing in veins beneath the ground, consumed by animals and plants and becoming part of their body, as being both a gem and a resin and pure magic all at once. When we sat down with the art department, principally Andy Christensen and Taylor Ingvarsson, we discussed the role that Æmber would have in the visuals of the game. We liked the idea that it might change color based on faction, and that its properties included reflecting the wants, desires, or even psyche of those who used it.
Andy and Taylor moved forward in conjunction with freelance artist David Kegg, who began to do concept sketches for each of the factions as they’d been designed thus far. This process took months, but it made the Crucible come alive, and helped us to center in on the techno-fantasy feel of the setting. We explored the idea of the “knights” being robotic suits of armor inhabited by transcendent spirits, of “demons” being parasitic cyborgs imprinting emotions on Æmber to experience at their leisure, all the while putting uniquely Crucible twists on classic tropes.
Once the concept art began coming in, we created a virtuous cycle. The art refined our vision of the setting, our vision of the setting refined the art. We began to understand not just the Houses and the Archons, but the place—are there cities? Wilds? Wars and treachery and heroism and feasts and traffic jams? (The answer to most of these is “yes,” by the way. I’ll get back to you about traffic jams.) And once we had the art to put on the cards, and the mechanics married to them, we started working on the flavor text and really having some fun.
We had some questions still to answer. What are archons really like? What’s a “day in the life” of a being on the Crucible? Why do creatures join the archons in this great game of opening vaults? A lot of the fiction associated with the game are our attempts to answer those questions—for ourselves as much as for the players. We’ve still got a lot more to explore, and a lot more questions to answer.
From the start, the emphasis has been on the sense of discovery and wonder. From my perspective, the journey of co-creating this setting has been the same. We created the Crucible for you to explore, but the truth is that we’re exploring it, too. I can’t wait to see what we do next!
Across the Universe
KeyForge will hit shelves in the fourth quarter of 2018, bringing you the chance to explore a whole new world and find your place in the universe. Are you ready to set out on a new adventure? Gather your teams, prepare for the ultimate tactical test, and discover the strength within your decks and within yourself!
Pre-order your copy of KeyForge: Call of the Archons (KF01) and your collection of Archon Decks (KF02a) at your local retailer today or on the Fantasy Flight Games website here!