Very quietly, Dungeons & Dragons is testing how to treat the long-lived and beloved brand in the gaming space. Earlier this year, Experiment 7 launched Dungeon Chess, a D&D-flavored take on the ages-old game … in virtual reality. Next up came Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms, a clicker game that’s seeing a thriving community of streamers (I bet it’s because of Minsc and his cute miniature giant space hamster, Boo).
In the background, Beamdog continues to expanded its enhanced edition library with Planescape: Torment and its more recent announcement, Neverwinter Nights, and Cryptic Studios continues to expand on the Forgotten Realms with the Neverwinter MMO.
And then we’ve got BKOM Studios, which has rolled out Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation. It’s an adaptation of the latest D&D Adventure System board game, which are co-op affairs in which players take on the dungeon. It captures the most recent D&D storyline, Tomb of Annihilation, where the evil lich Acererak plots in his stronghold of Chult after casting a curse that could bring the entire world to bend to his undead knees.
BKOM focuses on turn-based games and working with licenses such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Sesame Street. It also has a preexisting relationship with Hasbro, the owner of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s even dipped into making its own IP with the turn-based Little Lords of Twilight, a turn-based game on Steam and the mobile app stores. The studio’s base is Quebec, with an office in Los Angeles, and it adapted its work on Little Lords of Twilight for Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation.
And yes, BKOM vice president of strategic accounts Fred Tremblay confirms my guess that “Tales of Candlekeep” hints at a future for adapting other D&D Adventure System games, such as The Legend of Drizzt or Temple of Elemental Evil.
Here’s an edited transcript of my Skype interview with Trembaly and BKOM’s Sophie Grenier, the studio’s marketing and communications coordinator.
GamesBeat: Is Tales from Candlekeep built on the same engine you used for Little Lords of Twilight?
Tremblay: No, it’s different. It’s a totally new engine.
GamesBeat: But I do see some similarities. …
Tremblay: No, that’s correct. They both work on a good base system. We’ve pulled a bit from Little Lords of Twilight. But most of the systems, since this game, the Tomb of Annihilation system—it’s based on a tile system that’s procedural. We had to do a lot of different things to make that work. It’s essentially very different from Little Lords.
GamesBeat: Why do you believe in turn-based gaming?
Tremblay: We’re big fans of board games in general, huge fans. We’re also huge fans of D&D and Magic and lots of Wizards of the Coast products. Essentially, we love board games, but sometimes it’s difficult to get a lot of people around a table to play a good old board game. Of course we do a lot of different games, but we have a particular love for board games.
Sophie Grenier: The strategy behind it, having to make sure you make the right plans when you face certain challenges. Not having a game that’s too easy, but at the same time, something very rewarding. We’re big fans of that style.
GamesBeat: Which of the D&D board games do you like?
Tremblay: We’re big fans of D&D in general. We’ve been playing the different adventure system board games, like Castle Ravenloft, Legend of Drizzt, Wrath of Ashardalon, and Temple of Elemental Evil. As I just mentioned, these games—you can play them quickly. You don’t have to spend a lot of time creating an adventure scenario. You just go in. You have your premade characters. You get that feeling of D&D on the tabletop without having to spend a lot of effort in creating your characters and so on. It’s faster. You get that cool D&D experience in a snackable kind of format. And it’s easy to play, just go in and have a good time. I would say Tomb of Annihilation is our favorite, but it’s not out yet. If I had to choose among the older titles, I would say my favorite is Legend of Drizzt. I love R.A. Salvatore. I’ve read all the novels. I can really connect with the different heroes in that game.
Grenier: The one I’ve played the most is Temple of Elemental Evil. That’s my favorite.
GamesBeat: This has dinosaurs because we’re in Chult?
Tremblay: Oh, yeah, of course. You can expect dinosaurs, night cats. The adventure starts in the jungles of Chult, so of course you’ll see dinosaurs, different kinds. You’ll also see stranger—human beings? Well, creatures. It’s all based on those colorful jungles of Chult and their inhabitants.
GamesBeat: You were talking about having a time constraint in the game. Is that because of the curse that’s part of the Tomb of Annihilation storyline?
Tremblay: Yeah, it’s because of the curse. There’s a pressing issue you need to solve, the death curse, as you know from the newly released storyline from D&D. There’s a death curse plaguing the realm. And the origins are in Chult. That’s why you’re called into action.
Grenier: Your party of adventurers has found the source of that evil all the way in Chult. Now that’s what’s happening.
Tremblay: That’s where it all begins.
GamesBeat: How hard is it to design a turn-based board game experience with that time element in it?
Tremblay: There’s not necessarily a time element in that you have to go quickly and finish all the quests. You have all the time you need to do that. But while you’re playing these quests, there’s always a time constraint in terms of, the more time you spend on the quest, the more monsters you’ll have to fight, so you have that pressure. You need to find the exit, the solution to the quest as soon as possible before you’re overwhelmed by monsters. You have that feeling that time is of the essence.
If you go into a quest you can take your time to think, because it’s turn-based, but not too much time, because at some point the monsters will keep spawning and you’ll be in trouble. It was difficult, but from the get-go, when we started reflecting on the game’s design, we wanted to provide the player not with—you see different board games ported into the digital world, but they’re mostly just a representation of the board game and the different pieces. It’s like playing the board game with your computer. What we wanted to do with this board game-inspired digital experience was to actually provide players with the feeling that they’re jumping into the game board. You really feel like you’re in it. You’re not seeing the action from above. You’re in the action. You see all the different characters in 3D in an isometric view, but the characters feel like they’re inside 3D dungeons with walls, or jungle environments. They’re in the board game. That was one of the most important challenges, as well as the pacing.
In this board game, there are four different sequences of gameplay. You have the hero phase, where you can take specific actions or move. After that you get a discovery phase, discovering a new tile, and after that you get the encounter phase. In every dungeon, or any kind of D&D scenario, there’s always a random factor that affects the players. Those are the encounters. Then, after the encounters, there’s a villain phase, where the villain plays. It’s all based on these four sequences of play. We had to think a lot about how we would visualize that from a UX standpoint, so the player understands what’s going on in each phase and plays accordingly. Add to that the fact that you can play up to four characters at the same time. The four characters all have their own sequence of play. It quickly adds up. But I think we’ve nailed the way we communicate all of that to the player. So far our playtests have been very positive. We were demonstrating the game at PAX and got a lot of great feedback from players. They were all super positive. They had some good recommendations, but they were all picking it up as they were playing.
GamesBeat: Do your designers play a lot of the digital board game conversions that we’re seeing now on Steam and mobile, like Ticket to Ride or Lords of Waterdeep or Talisman?
Tremblay: Oh, yes, yes. Lords of Waterdeep has a great execution. But that’s more of a classic port of a board game. It’s exceptionally well done and it’s been really successful. I love that game. But on our end, we wanted to provide a more immersive experience on top of being a port of a board game. You still feel like it’s a board game, but it’s a very immersive board game.
GamesBeat: Is this your first game that you’ve built for PC exclusively?
Tremblay: Yeah, that’s a first. With Little Lords of Twilight, we ported it to Steam, but this is our first PC-exclusive title. It’s exclusive for now. But we might port it to other platforms, console or whatnot. You never know in the future.
GamesBeat: I notice that your games tend to involve working with brands. How do you balance the need to be creative with working under a brand’s guidelines?
Grenier: We can give you a little overview of what BKOM is so you can understand what we do.
Tremblay: We have lots of different game developers and game designers in-house. We’re a studio of close to 100 people, located in Quebec City. Sometimes, during the very long winter, we’re just hibernating—[Laughs]. Well, we have a lot of time to play games during the wintertime, with the days being so short. It’s easy for us to reinvent ourselves. Of course, as you mentioned, you can see similarities between Little Lords of Twilight and Tomb of Annihilation, but these are only similarities. Most of the game is so different. It was easy for us to immerse ourselves into the D&D world, because most of the people currently working on this game are fans. We already play D&D. Every D&D game—they’re never the same. That’s why we wanted to provide that kind of experience. That was our creative approach to that game. Each time you play a quest, you can replay it over and over again and never find quite the same path leading to the solution. It’s 100 percent procedural. All of the different tiles—it’s never the same experience, so you can replay the same quest 100 times and there’s never the same thing happening twice. We wanted to provide that feeling as well. It helps a lot in terms of creativity. Wizards of the Coast were a great help. They’ve helped us out around every aspect of how we’ve managed their characters, the look and feel—it’s been tested and branded D&D.
Grenier: We’ve been working with Wizards at the Coast for many years now at the studio with other services we provide. The studio itself has been around for 20 years now. We do our own IP like Little Lords internally, but we’ve also made lots of other games for other companies.
Tremblay: For Hasbro, yeah, for—
GamesBeat: I noticed that. I downloaded your Star Wars app. When I look at the gameplay, it’s turn-based. You’re going through a dungeon, going through a map. The one game that jumped to mind, though this would be a simpler version—are you familiar with Disciples at all?
Tremblay: Yeah, yeah. You will feel a little bit of Disciples in the game, in terms of the turn-based movement and the exploration. But it’s been a while since I’ve checked out that game. I can give a couple of better reference points, maybe.
GamesBeat: The game’s name is Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation. Does that mean Tales from Candlekeep is going to be a series of games?
Tremblay: That’s a good catch. Yeah, we’re planning—first, we want to see the public reaction to this game. Of course we’re positive they’re going to like this, but we want to make this a success. We’re putting in all of the effort necessary to make this a success. If we feel that the community is behind us and players like the game, the plan is of course to release other titles, like maybe Castle Ravenloft or Legend of Drizzt. We might do a poll of the community to see what they want next.