Over the past year, I’ve become aware of and acquainted with a very good designer named David Thompson. The first game of his that drew me in was Pavlov’s House from Dan Verssen Games. Since then, we have done interviews with him regarding Castle Itter and now about his newest upcoming game called For What Remains. As it is coming up quickly for the start of its Kickstarter on Tuesday, April 30th at Noon PST, I asked David if he would answer some questions about the design.
Grant: What was your inspiration for your newest design which is a post apocalyptic skirmish style game?
David: The idea for the game dates back more than 10 years ago. I was looking to meld together my favorite fiction genre (post-apocalyptic) with a game design that pulled from all the formative games I played during my youth: board games like Blood Bowl and Mage Knight (the original “clix” minis combat game); tactical role playing video games (Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre); and Dungeons & Dragons.
Grant: What about the name? What are you trying to convey with it?
David: The name of the game changed over time. Originally it was Project Capricorn: Apocalypse, which is a reference to some of the lore in the game. Then I changed it to Skirmish Tactics Apocalypse, as a sort of homage to the tactical RPGs like Tactics Ogre. Finally I settled on For What Remains. I thought the title evoked the idea of a desperate battle for a post-apocalyptic future.
Grant: What is For What Remains about? What type of gaming experience do you hope to create for players?
David: I want players to experience a quick, dynamic skirmish-level game with very little rules overhead. And I want them to be able to develop their factions in a campaign with an interesting story. This design was truly about embracing the KISS (or “keep it simple stupid”) concept. I stripped the rules way back in order to put the gameplay front and center.
Grant: I read where there are two ways to play For What Remains. What are the two ways and how does this make the game a unique experience?
David: That’s right. You can play a one-off skirmish. Just grab the guys you want, and battle it out. But at the heart of the game is the campaign system. It allows you to recruit new troops and watch them advance over time, playing through an overarching storyline.
Grant: What is the Netherscape and where did this idea come from?
David: The Netherscape is a separate dimension that sits adjacent to our own. It is a psycho-reactive environment that is home to a wide variety of beasts. It plays a central role to the setting for For What Remains, but only one of the six factions is actually directly tied to the Netherscape. The original inspiration for the setting came from a setting “riff” thread on RPG.net from way back in 2008!
Grant: How much fun did you have with the story and background? Are you an aspiring writer because I think you did a great job?
David: Oh, I love it. Like I mentioned before, post-apoc is one of my favorite genres. In recent years, I’ve drifted away from fiction as my love for history has grown, but I’m always up for some Mad Max, Book of Eli, The Road, etc. Much of the setting’s backstory is intertwined with real world events, which I enjoy. And my buddy Ricardo Tomas (one of the game’s first blind playtesters) has been instrumental in helping to develop the setting’s lore.
Grant: The game is played using double sided tiles as the board. Why was this your chosen medium for the board and what advantage does it give to the game play experience?
David: Using double-sided modular boards was always one of my design goals. I thought it was important to feature construction of the play environment as an integral part of the game. Savvy players will choose boards and configurations that play to the strengths of their faction. The boards also provide a ton of replayability. I also made sure to integrate the boards from the core set with those in the expansions, so that the number of possible configurations is almost limitless.
Grant: I also really liked how the scenarios allow players to build the board by choosing and placing tiles as they see fit. How does this become a major strategy for players?
David: Each faction has certain strengths, and the boards can definitely be used to bolster or weaken those strengths. For example, factions like the Soldiers of Light that rely exclusively on close combat will want to have lots of elevated terrain in order to break up line of sight. Meanwhile, factions like the Combine want wide open areas to optimize their long range.
Grant: Where did your concept for the Action Token selection come from and why do you feel it sets the tone for the game?
David: For much of the design life of the game, the unit activation was a very straightforward (and dare I say bland) IGOUGO system of alternating turns. But most of the design life of the game was informed by my experience with miniatures skirmish games or hybrid minis/board games.
When I discovered the world of wargames a few years ago, it introduced me to the world of chit-pull. As wargamers will know, chit pull allows for all sorts of interesting options and abstractions. It provides uncertainty, while also elegantly modeling fog of war. But I also wanted to model some loose command and control in the way that players could emphasize certain characters over others (albeit at the expense of potentially exhausting them). The end results is a chit pull system that I really like, and I would argue is probably the strongest element of the game (along with the intertwined unit advancement and injury system).
Grant: I love the strategy of choosing your Action Tokens based on your position on the board and your current remaining goals or objectives. How does this strategy work?
David: At the beginning of a round, each player gets to choose a number of activation tokens equal to the number of characters on the board. This helps balance against a player who wants to invest in a few very powerful characters by reducing the number of actions they take in a round. Each character has three activation tokens. So if a player has five characters, they would have a total of fifteen activation tokens. Now you have the choice of which characters to concentrate on — do you want each character to activate once, or do you want a character to use all three of their activation tokens in one single round?…but there’s a catch….
Grant: Why did you make the decision to exhaust Action Tokens? What does this add to strategy for their use?
David: …I wanted players to have the option to invest heavily in a single character in a round, as explained above, but if a player could do that every round, they would simply “spam” their best characters. So there needed to be a price to pay for that heavy investment. At the end of each round, the activation tokens that were used are exhausted. So if you do use all three activation tokens for a single character in a round, all three tokens would be exhausted, and a character would be unable to act — and your opponent will know that and be able to take advantage of the exhausted character. Managing your activations — and tracking your opponent’s activations — is perhaps the most important tactical element of the game.
Grant: Tell us about the six asymmetric factions?
David: The core game comes with two factions: the Freemen Coalition and the Combine. There is a rich background setting for the game that establishes the “World Alliance” — a multinational effort to combat the threat of the Netherscape. After nuclear conflict, that World Alliance fell into a loose-knit government that rules over the remnants of the world through the enforcement of the Combine. The Combine is made up of cybernetic humans, autonoma (AI-driven robots), and humans with powered armor.
The Freemen are rebels who fight against the rule of the Combine. I was careful to present each faction in “shades of gray.” The Combine fights for justice and protection of their people — or serves as tyrants. The Freemen are freedom fighters — or terrorists. The expansions introduce the Soldiers of Light, Erthen, Echo, and Order of the New Dawn. The Soldiers of Light are humans who eschew technology. The Erthen are creatures created by humans to battle beings from the Netherscape. Echo is a faction of humans with psychic powers. And the Order of the New Dawn are the monsters from the Netherscape.
Grant: What was your challenge in making each feel unique?
David: Of the six factions, the Combine and Freemen play the most similarly, which was intentional. I wanted the core factions to be the most straight-forward to play and focus largely on ranged combat. The other factions developed organically as a means to focus on different elements of the game. The Soldiers of Light and Order of the New Dawn are strong in close combat and defense. The Erthen have a lot of area effect abilities. And Echo has a lot of unusual special abilities that often break core elements of the game.
Grant: What are some of each of the faction’s unique units?
David: The Freemen and Combine mostly focus on ranged combat, and their abilities are straight-forward. Having said that, the Freemen’s Grenadier character has a rocket launcher that is a player favorite ability. It can be fired without line of sight, but is inaccurate. The Combine’s Inferno character has a flamethrower with limited range, but affects a large area. The characters in the other four factions all vary from the core rules to a much greater extent.
Grant: How do the different units level up and why is this system so unique?
David: Each character has three levels — Recruit, Veteran, and Elite. When you play a skirmish, you purchase the characters you want at any level based on the number of skirmish points you’re using. In a campaign, the characters begin at Recruit and you advance them over time. At each level, characters’ attributes increase and they gain new abilities. The same system for level advancement is also used for injuries during a skirmish. If an Elite character is injured twice, they will be reduced to their Veteran level, knocking their attributes down and potentially causing them to lose special abilities.
Grant: Can you please show us a few Character Reference Cards and share with us some of their abilities?
The Combine Commander excels at improving his faction’s range attacks. His special abilities allow him to either increase the Weapon Range or Ranged Combat abilities of all his allies that begin their turns within his Weapon Range.
Not to be outdone by the Combine Commander, the Rebel Leader is also good at helping his allies. He can give move or attacks actions to his allies that begin their turn within his Weapon Range.
The Soldiers of Light’s Dragoon character — mounted on what is called a Waste Dragon — excels at mounted combat. He can trample an opponent, which allows him to move, attack, and then keep moving.
The Ion Core has a Magnetic Force ability that allows him to move allies or enemies around on the board.
Grant: How does combat work?
David: Combat definitely adheres to my KISS principle. If characters are adjacent, they use Close Combat to attack each other. Otherwise, they use Ranged Combat. When attacking, you roll a number of dice equal to the character’s Close or Ranged Combat value and compare it to the target’s Defense. If at least one dice result is higher than the Defense value, the target is injured (but the target can only ever take one injury from an attack, no matter how many successes are rolled). The targets of ranged attacks can use the battleground to their advantage, gaining Defense bonuses from cover.
Grant: What happens when a character is killed?
David: When a character is defeated, their counter is removed from the board and their action tokens are no longer used. If the character had action tokens still unused in the current round, those activations are wasted. However, factions get a short-term boost when a character is defeated in the form of a special faction action token. This token serves as a wild card, allowing the player to activate any character with it, but once used it is discarded and can’t be used again unless another character is defeated.
Grant: As you mentioned earlier, the rules of play are intentionally pretty simple yet there seems to be some real tactical choices for each side. How did you accomplish this while keeping the rules easy and compact?
David: I think two things contributed to this: first is the unit activation system covered above. But also important is the extensive play testing that went into the design. I’ve had the good fortune of having some AMAZING, unbelievably dedicated blind playtest groups that have worked on the game for years. The end result are six factions that play very differently, but are well balanced. That means the game will be decided by player skill and tactical choices, though it never hurts to have the dice on your side! But to your original question, every time I considered adding a rule to the game, I viewed it through the “KISS filter.” The rule had to have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the game to be considered. Otherwise, I left it out in favor of a streamlined core combat system.
Grant: Talk a little about area attacks and how the templates are used? Why did you include this element in the design?
David: Area attacks are a big part of the game, especially for the Erthen faction, since most of its characters have a form of area attack. It developed organically at the very beginning of the design, when I was conceptualizing characters like the Grenadier and Inferno. When I decided I wanted special powers like a rocket launcher and flamethrower, it became necessary to fold those types of powers into their own subcategory. While they are governed by general rules of Ranged Combat, they also break those rules in a few special ways.
Grant: How does scavenging work and why did you include this in the design?
David: I always knew that I wanted the game to be about more than just combat. When playing the campaign, almost all scenarios have special objectives you’re trying to achieve. But I also wanted players to have secondary goals, even in a one off skirmish match. Scavenging for precious resources certainly meshes well with the theme, so that became the solution. The scavenge tokens provide a valuable alternative means for gaining victory points.
Grant: How does the AI work for the solo game? Do you feel the AI provides a challenging experience?
David: I had three goals when I designed the AI system: I wanted it to challenge the player; to present the player with interesting choices; and I wanted it to model individual behaviors tailored to each character. I think the system achieves all of those goals. In addition, the AI difficulty can also be easily adjusted by increasing the number of activation tokens it uses each round.
Grant: What drives the AI and how is it made easy to follow for the player?
David: The AI is driven by a single reference card for each type of character. It’s a simple, three step process: check to see if the character is engaged; if not, check to see if they are injured; if not, roll for their orders. Once a character has orders, the character will follow those orders until they are completed (with some exceptions, such as if they become injured).
Grant: What does the AI do well? What challenges are you working through still?
David: The AI system, coupled with the fog of war inherent to the activation and chit pull systems, makes it impossible for the player to anticipate the actions of their adversary. However, like all AI systems, the AI will occasionally make suboptimal choices when all factors are considered. The occasional suboptimal choice is offset by the compensation the AI has in the unit activation system tweaks for solitaire play. I’m working with some blind playtest groups now, trying to find little improvements here and there to each character’s custom AI script.
Grant: How does the campaign mode work and what is different than a normal skirmish scenario?
David: The core game comes with the first part (five scenarios) of the Semipalatinsk Legacy campaign. Semipalatinsk, located in Kazakhstan, was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear test facility. It makes for the perfect setting in a post-apocalyptic game where the end of the world was not only brought about by nukes, but also the creatures released by the nukes! In a campaign, each faction selects recruit characters and then plays through the scenarios in sequence. The winner of the scenario will typically impact the next scenario in the sequence. And over the course of the campaign, players will advance their characters and recruit new ones.
Grant: What has been players’ experience with the game? What have they liked best?
David: I’ve been truly blessed to have an amazing network of testers from across the world. I’ve worked with players from Savannah, GA; Huntsville, AL; Centerville, OH; the UK; Portugal; and Singapore. But the two of those I’d most like to discuss are Portugal and Singapore. In Lisboa, Portugal is my buddy Ricardo Tomas. He was the first blind play tester to really take the game and run. Since that time he’s become an integral part of the design team, and he’s been super influential in the lore of the game. His favorite elements, I believe, are the KISS design principle and the game’s story. Meanwhile, in Singapore, is a great group of players (Paul Low, Clarence Lee, Chia Zhi Yi and Joshua Yong) who put the game through its most rigorous balance testing. They broke the game repeatedly, identifying strengths and weaknesses with character abilities, etc. I think their favorite part of the game is the quick, dynamic combat with tons of unique character abilities.
Grant: Do you see the game having expansions in the future?
David: We will have four at launch. Each expansion includes a new faction, a part of the Semipalatinsk Legacy campaign (with scenarios for competitive and solitaire play), and an entire new set of double-sided boards that can be integrated with boards from the core set and other expansions. Basically each expansion has almost as much content as the base game. Briefly, here are the four expansions:
– The Soldiers of Light: The Soldiers of Light are humans who believe the fall of mankind was brought about due to a dependence on technology. It comes with part 2 of the Semipalatinsk Legacy: “Blood on the Rails.”
– Erthen: Erthen are a biologically developed race formed from a mixture of human, mineral, and organic matter. It comes with part 3 of the Semipalatinsk Legacy: “Fields of Battle”
– Echo: Echo is a faction led by a secretive cabal of humans with psychic powers. It comes with part 4 of the Semipalatinsk Legacy: “Echo Base Zero.”
– Order of the New Dawn: The Order of the New Dawn are creatures from the strange subterranean realm known as the Basement. It comes with the final part of the Semipalatinsk Legacy: “Into the Basement.”
Of course, if there is enough demand, I’ve got some ideas for additional factions.
Grant: What is the plan for the Kickstarter campaign? What type of stretch goals can backers expect?
David: The Kickstarter launches on 30 April. You’ll be able to grab the core game, with the Freemen and Combine factions, with the double-sided boards, and the first part of the campaign. In addition to that, each expansion will be made available as an add-on.
We limited stretch goals to items that enhance the play experience but aren’t critical elements of gameplay. For example, you’ll be able to add some additional scenarios, boards, some special transparent templates for abilities, and more.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions David. Alexander and I were provided a prototype copy of the game and were able to play a few times and do a quick preview video that will be used in the Kickstarter campaign. We enjoyed the game, it’s unique asymmetric factions, the fantastic chit pull system and the art and story were very well done. We can’t wait to give the game some further plays in the future but this one will appeal to anyone that enjoys skirmish level games with tactical elements.
Here is a link to the preview Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/11606594/1494035113?ref=809255&token=03eaaf22