Kickstarter Profiles, Part 1: Dark Horse

Last summer, the name “Kickstarter” began to be whispered in awed, hushed tones after people like David MacKenzie and Daniel Solis had proven that self-publishing through crowd-funding was fresh and feasible. Last fall, Michael Mendes proved that Kickstarter was not just feasible – it was also lucrative as Eminent Domain went supernova, gaining over $48,000 in funds. Since then, board game projects have been popping up in that wild inter-frontier like rabid prairie dogs; some brilliant, some bombs. Regardless of the mix, one thing is abundantly clear: it’s a truly great time for board games, and those who love them.

There are several great projects ripe for funding right now, and we’ve been lucky enough at Dice Hate Me to be sent prototypes of two: Dark Horse, by Don Lloyd, and Startup Fever, by Louis Perrochon. Startup Fever appears to be the critical and fan darling at the moment; it has more than doubled the pledges needed for its initial goal of $10,111. Dark Horse, however, appears to be – well, a bit of a dark horse, with only a quarter of its funding goal in pledges with just 18 days to go. Because both designers were kind enough to send prototypes, I thought it fair to break this special report in two, and run them back-to-back. And now…

Backing a Dark Horse

The newest iteration of the Dark Horse board.

I first encountered Dark Horse during a random clickathon on Kickstarter. The video was intriguing – if a bit quaint – and the theme – a wild west resource management game – spoke directly to my wheelhouse. However, I was soon distracted by something shiny and forgot about the project for a few days. Luckily, Dark Horse returned to my stable when designer Don Lloyd contacted me and offered to send a prototype – not just any prototype, but Don’s personal prototype. Flattered? You bet your chaps.

Monkey238 and I were finally able to get Dark Horse to the table this past weekend, and our initial reaction was trepidation. The set-up and first couple of rounds were rocky, but we thought that was true of quite a few games that needed some warm-up time. Once we got into a rhythm, however, our fears were calmed. The overall tension for our two-player affair seemed tight and tactical, with just the right amount of tough choices to make things interesting.

Gameplay in Dark Horse is broken down into two main management mechanics. First, there are a set of hexes on the game board that represent space on the lone prairie, as well as fertile spots upon which players can gather food, wood or ore if they have built a town on that particular hex. The resources are used to build other towns, cities (that enable players to build more towns in surrounding hexes), and railways (which connect towns and cities). Much of this part of the game is reminiscent of many “settle and conquer” games, railroad games, or – for lack of a broader example – Settlers of Catan.

The actions management track - punk factor galore.

The second aspect of gameplay is in managing actions. Each turn, players roll two dice (or three, in some instances) and take turns placing their die or dice on action spots around the main board. The core of the decision process results in the fact that some spots can only accommodate one player per Action Phase, and some actions require the use of two or more dice to claim. This aspect seems to scale up to four players and down to two with very little fuss or detriment to the rest of gameplay. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the recently-released Troyes, or – dare I say it? – Alien Frontiers.

Overall, Monkey238 and I found Dark Horse to be a surprisingly enjoyable and charming gaming experience. As for the components? Well, it’s surely not the flashiest game out of the gate, but Don’s working hard on that. It has a certain cobbled charm, much like that of the old west, so it adds unexpected value to the theme. The gameplay is actually quite smooth, and although Dark Horse combines quite a few familiar mechanics that have been tinkered with a bit, everything works together to become a sum greater than the parts. And as for fun, against all odds, this little boardgame-that-could definitely brings a smile to your face – much more so than many overproduced behemoths from those big guys on the market today. As an interesting aside, Dark Horse seems like a great fit for gamers who are post-gateway: those that have played Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride and are looking to take that next step into a whole new world.

Very early board prototype.

After delivering the prototype, Don let me peek behind the green curtain at one of the first iterations of the game board. Knowing that most of you love designer’s notes as much as me, I decided to ask Don a few questions about the development of Dark Horse.

How long has Dark Horse been in production?

The original seed for the game popped up in 2002. I was an avid reader as a child and I loved the usual fantasy and sci-fi genres, but found the Wild West setting was different. As a kid I leaned towards that setting because I knew it was a part of American history. Back in the ‘80s kids still played Cowboys and Indians even though something like that was not politically correct anymore. Another big influence was my father’s love of Old West movies, and Clint Eastwood kicking butt and taking names.

How many iterations has the game gone through?

After designing my first game, Shadow Wars, I wished that I had kept some of the ever-changing design and mechanics. Since that first project, I started saving versions of the game files. So I have things like GameBoard_Proto1, _Alpha3, _Beta2, and so on. I would say over the course of two years the game has probably had three major changes to the mechanics and many different minor changes. That doesn’t even count the prototype phase of the project.

What was your inspiration for the game?

I started looking around the different categories on Board Game Geek and stumbled across Kingsburg. I was impressed with how they used dice for worker placement and I started cranking out ideas on how to use this in Dark Horse.

A lot of people feel that the town, city, rails, and resource building was Catan-related. In reality, though, the concept came from my love of Real Time Strategy (RTS) games such as Dune, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, etc. In fact, my first board game, Shadow Wars, was an attempt to capture the Warcraft RTS and make a board game out of it. I even spoke with one of the lead people running the Fantasy Flight Games booth at Gen Con in 2001 about Shadow Wars. I described it as an attempt to capture the Warcraft PC game and put it into a board game. Two years later they released Warcraft: The Board Game. Go figure…

So my love of playing games that has a player start with a small area and grow in size and power actually stems from RTS games. Dark Horse actually borrows some basic elements of  town/city building and resource gathering mechanics from my original Shadow Wars game back in 2001.

Has it been difficult designing your own game?

I don’t think people realize how much effort goes into designing a board game. From the original prototype to a final polished design can take anywhere from a couple hundred … to a couple thousand hours in the case of Dark Horse. Another thing to consider is that each major design change kicks off the need for multiple playtest sessions. Each session can take anywhere from two to five hours. I ended up using score cards to record the date for each session and I am currently up to 175 play tests so far. Even at just two hours per session we are talking about 350 hours in just play testing alone.

The balancing of various game components such as core mechanics or even playing cards can take huge amounts of time to reach a polished and balanced state. Take for example the Action Cards in Dark Horse. The prototype cards started out on black and white business card stock. From there I have made changes and tweaked the mechanics on the card set, as a whole, probably thirty times over the years. Some cards are straightforward and the ability stays the same over multiple revisions. Other cards have had over ten major or minor changes each.

Most of the art and graphic design in the game is created by you. Did you consider going to someone else at any point?

I was lucky in my early career that I had a chance to be a graphic artist and designer for close to four years back in the early 90′s. Back then I was designing artwork for mom and pop shops in a town of 8,000 people in North Dakota. On the plus side I was able to learn the various programs and tools for doing all kinds of design and layout. A large majority of other game designers I have talked with do not have any experience in that area. I feel there is a huge benefit to the designer being able to crank out the basic layouts for a game’s components.

I have looked at other sources for professional designers and the going rate is anywhere from $15 to $50 per hour of design. As you can imagine that would become extremely expensive. Also, that price would have to be worked into the overall cost of the game. So if a publisher spent $1,000 on a designer over a small run of 1,000 games then that would add $4 to the retail cost of the game!

How did you get hooked up with the artist who provides the art for the cards?

Back in 2000 when I started Knight Works I knew that I would eventually need to hire an artist to do the artwork for all the game ideas that I had. One of the premiere sites for fantasy and sci-fi artists to display their illustrations back then was elfwood.com. Elfwood was where I contacted and started working with my primary artist Thomas Reidy aka “Goatboy.” All of the artwork I received back in early 2000 was black and white line art. I ended up spending a couple hours coloring each piece of artwork in Photopaint myself to save costs but found it to be really time-consuming. All of the illustrations for Dark Horse are drawn and colored by Thomas.

It’s clear to us from Don’s notes and passions that Dark Horse has been a labor of love. After our test of the game, we sent Don several comments and suggestions for clearing up some rules confusion, streamlining a couple of spots of play, and even some notes on design and art. Don was very open to our feedback, and some of those suggestions have already been incorporated into the next iteration of the game. Don’s open and gracious attitude is pervasive throughout Dark Horse, and we wish him the best of luck in reaching his funding goal.

If you’d like to help Dark Horse successfully leave the Kickstarter stable, please visit the official fundraising page. Oh, and tell ‘em Dice Hate Me sent you!

Stay tuned, Kickstarter lovers – part two of the official Dice Hate Me coverage begins tomorrow with an in-depth look at the indescribable, indefinable Startup Fever! And be sure to stick around and check back on Monday as Monkey238 and I talk about all sorts of Kickstarter goodness in the next episode of The State of Games!

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