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At the Crossroads: For The King

At the Crossroads: For The King

At the Crossroads is a new series where we look at video games that have a distinct boardgamey flavor to them. For this debut entry we're going to take a look at IronOak Games' RPG roguelike For The King.

The King is dead, murdered by an unknown assailant. Now the once peaceful kingdom of Fahrul is in chaos.

With nowhere left to turn and stretched beyond her means, the queen has put out a desperate plea to the citizens of the land to rise up and help stem the tide of impending doom. Set off with your make-shift party, either single player, local, or online co-op. Choose to split your party up and cover more ground, or stick together for protection. A sound strategy can mean the difference between life and death.
— IronOak Games

For The King asks players to form a party of three adventurers from a handful of classic archetypes such as the Wizard, the Bard, the Hunter. After spending a little time customizing your party's look you're sent out into the world to accomplish time-sensitive goals in an effort to stop the encroaching forces of evil from taking hold of the land of Fahrul. 

The overworld map that you'll explore is procedurally generated. Each playthrough presents different boards, encounters, and dungeons. 

The overworld map that you'll explore is procedurally generated. Each playthrough presents different boards, encounters, and dungeons. 

I first learned about For the King when I spoke to the team at PAX East this year after being drawn into how boardgamey it looked. I was surprised to learn that the game started out as a board game called "Black Gate," designed by For the King's game designer Colby Young. I was really excited to have been able to talk to the developers about the inspiration for the game. 

Black Gate started off as a fan project based off the Ultima series. Colby worked on it in his spare time during the week and we had frequent play testing sessions on the weekends. We love playing fantasy board games, but it’s sometimes hard to find the time to organize play sessions. Including set up time, these sessions can run pretty long and getting a group of friends to commit gets harder and harder as we get older. So the idea of recreating Black Gate but in digital form, so we could reduce/eliminate set up times, play online, and have a save function when life interrupts, became more and more appealing.
— Gordan Moran, Founder and Art Director

For the King really gave me the feeling of playing a solo board game without the physical hassles that I don't always feel like dealing with. It was exciting to meet video game developers who designed a game with that goal in mind. I haven't had the pleasure of playing online or couch co-op with friends yet but the fact that IronOak has supported that convenience is really commendable. 

Transforming For The King into a digital game wasn't just a convenient way of playing a fantasy RPG with friends. Taking advantage of the digital medium allowed IronOak to implement features that would not be possible in a physical board game. For the King could have "fully procedural maps that were multitudes larger than what was possible on a boardgame and could implement much more complex systems that felt simpler because the game does all the calculating and heavy lifting behind the scenes." This could really be seen in the way combat was designed and in the more time consuming accounting such as dice rolls and health management. With For the King, IronOak has created a "much more epic but streamlined adventure."

Dungeons can be found on the overworld map.There are many dangers within and very few opportunities to escape. 

Dungeons can be found on the overworld map.There are many dangers within and very few opportunities to escape. 

For The King borrows heavily from traditional RPGs, roguelikes, and table top games. It’s uniqueness comes in how we blend these different genres together. There aren’t many cooperative roguelikes out there, so this was a focus of FTK right from the start. We wanted a shared experience, like you get from playing a table top game with friends, but also the tension and the highs and lows you get from a traditional roguelike game. Perhaps the most unique aspect of For The King is it’s slot system that replaces traditional dice rolls. We tie a player’s slot rolls directly to their stats, so it’s still very much a game of risk vs. reward, but we offer the ability to “focus” certain rolls when you don’t want to leave things to chance. Management of your focus becomes a important mechanic for success in For The King.
— Gordon Moran

Exploration across the world also presents its own puzzle of risk management. Enemies don't move from their positions on the board. However engaging in combat with any enemy could mean that it attracts other nearby monsters in a certain radius. This mechanic makes picking fights much more complicated than the cute art style lets on. Preparing for combat involves positioning your team to ensure that they're all close enough to help in battle, while avoiding enemies that may draw in a larger, much more powerful foe. Exploration is a dance, a puzzle of positioning and finding the right enemy to strike. Fortunately, stealth is always an option, albeit a risky one should your adventurers fail the attempt. Maybe you should have saved some focus to improve those odds a bit. 

Focus isn't used just for combat. You can spend it to increase the odds you'll successfully sneak past enemies or ambush them, isolating them from other enemies in the combat radius.

Focus isn't used just for combat. You can spend it to increase the odds you'll successfully sneak past enemies or ambush them, isolating them from other enemies in the combat radius.

Another interesting facet of the game is that your characters don't learn new skills as they level up. Instead, skills come from the items you purchase or loot from monsters, chests, and merchants. This element rubbed me the wrong way at first but the more I explored the world, and the more items I discovered, the more I came to appreciate it as an excellent design decision that encouraged experimentation, exploration, and thereby increased the challenge. 

There are three regions to explore after finishing the questline in the first one. I'm sad to say I haven't even made it to the second one. However, with each attempt you discover Lore, a currency that can be spent on unlocking better equipment that can appear on your next playthrough,  incrementally giving you better odds of success. Lore can also be used to acquire new character classes as well. It's a great system of progression similar to those I've seen in other roguelikes that rewards you for spending more time with the game and learning how to navigate its many challenges. 

This is the screen that greets you whenever you launch the game. A friendly reminder that this is not for the faint of heart.

This is the screen that greets you whenever you launch the game. A friendly reminder that this is not for the faint of heart.

 For The King currently in Early Access on PC gaming platform Steam, meaning that you can pay to support the development of the game and have instant access to it as IronOak releases updates for it, leading up to its official release. The developers have been very attentive to their fans since their successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 and updates happen very regularly.

For The King is a game played in inches. Each attempt gets you a little further than the last before some slip up ruins your run. It's a game that rarely makes you feel as though you only lost because of randomness. You always could have prepared better or made a more strategic decision. I've had a lot of fun creeping my way a little further with each and every try. If this sort of gameplay cycle of "try, die, rinse, and repeat" appeals to you then For The King may be a great game for you. For me, roguelikes are some of the most boardgamey video games in that way. You don't always win, and when you lose, "Better luck next time."

When the IronOak Games team isn't busy working on For The King, they enjoy playing games like Talisman, Runebound, Lords of Waterdeep, Scythe, Dominion, Citadels, and many others. Gordon says, "Variety is the spice of life. I love learning new systems and experiencing new games and with so many great games out there it often seems like I'm playing a new game every game night!" 

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