I’ve spent a lot of time in Skyrim. Don’t believe me? Here’s the receipt:
I’ve been to Sovngarde and slain Alduin. I’ve bought houses in every major city. I’ve run the Thieves’ Guild and amassed a cubic s**t-ton of loot. I’ve taken over the College of Winterhold and turned my bedroom into a veritable museum of magic items. I’ve been a werewolf, a vampire, and the proud adopted father of an orphan child. I’ve got Wabbajack, fer christ’s sake!
So when Modiphius Entertainment sent out a blast asking if people were interested in trying out their new Tabletop adaptation The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim The Adventure Game (Skyrim:TAG hereinafter) on Tabletop Simulator, I’m like: “Yes, please!” And when they responded (responded!) offering a chance to also interview the design team and publisher, I picked my chin off the floor and again said, “Yes, please!”
What follows is that interview–split into multiple parts because publisher Chris Birch and design team member Juan Echenique and I covered a wide range of topics in our hour-long discussion, including:
So not only do you get the info you want and need on whether to back Skyrim:TAG (the campaign ends December 5), but you also get a behind-the-scenes look at the publishing side of things–which is the DWP’s stock-in-trade.
Some procedural points before we roll: (1) Skyrim refers to the Elder Scrolls V videogame whereas Skyrim:TAG is the Modiphius tabletop version; (2) all in-game graphics are provided courtesy of Modiphius Entertainment; (3) the interview has been slightly edited from the audio transcript for readability; (4) I’ve inserted some post-interview clarifications and comments in square brackets [like this].
Okay, time to get on our horses and hit the road!
David: I want to start a bit with the backstory. You started out with Thunderbirds in 2015, and almost all of the Moiphius oeuvre is based on well-known intellectual property. There is Airfix and Fallout, even Agatha Christie and Kung Fu Panda. So what led you to this strategy for Modiphius?
Chris: Well, I had a t-shirt company before Modiphius called Joystick Junkies, and we would go and get licenses for big video games and turn them into cool t-shirts. You know, very artistic design, for fashion stores and so on. So I had a lot of contacts with all the video games companies and I was very experienced with licensing. Before that I did the Starblazer Adventures role-playing game, back in the early days, because I knew how the licensing works.
I got them the Doctor Who rights and learned how it’s kind of pitched with them to the BBC. And so I kind of knew what I was doing with licensing. We started the company 10 years ago with Achtung Cthulhu the role-playing game, which was just our own creation. But then we very quickly able to pick up licenses because of the relationships we had.
So we did the [3rd edition] Mutant Chronicles role-playing game. And then we did Thunderbirds the board game with Matt Leacock, the following year, and then we did Conan and Infinity and Star Trek (that was amazing). [By “we” here Chris means Corvus Belli, not actually Modiphius.]
Then more recently we’ve done the Elder Scrolls miniatures game. [Now Chris is back to Modiphius] The thing with licenses, they cost you money because you’re paying someone else a cut of what you earn, but you’re getting access to their enormous audience. So the Star Trek audience is enormous. If we say: “Hey! We’re making a Star Trek role-playing game!” the entirety of geekdom gets excited. And if I say I’m making a role-playing game about unicorns with rocket launchers there’s a number of people that would probably think that’s quite cool, but most people won’t care. You’re paying for access to an audience who love that brand. Same thing with Fallout; there’s even more crossover with Fallout because it’s a video game and lots of video gamers are interested in board games or miniatures.
But it’s a lot of work, because you have to manage that relationship. Keep them happy, do a good job. But with Bethesda, we’ve worked really hard and we expanded it to include The Elder Scrolls. Then we expanded that again to now include the Dishonored role playing game. And now we’ve done this for Skyrim. And we’ve got more stuff in the pipeline.
David: That leads me very nicely to asking about Skyrim:TAG’s design team. You’ve worked with Matt Leacock. You’ve worked with Richard Borg, Kevin Wilson. How did you find Juan and how did you recruit him?
Chris: Well, the team actually consists of Juan and Stefano and Javier: a fantastic trio of designers. They’ve been with us for a few years now.
David: So they have been in-house with you?
Chris: Exactly. They worked on the redesign of Siege of the Citadel internally, they developed the Agatha Christie card game from the original designers. Skyrim:TAG is the first game that they’ve designed from the ground up. They’re also co-designers [in collaboration with Antoine Bauza, Ludovic Maublanc, and Theo Riviere] on the SPECTRE board game that we’ve announced. It’s where you play all the bad guys. There’s a flavor of Disney’s Villainous and much more interactive between all the players, much more fun, trying to screw each other over. They’re also the designers on a couple of other boardgames that are going through development and lots of hard work.
David: It’s pretty obvious to me that the team that worked on this love the source material. They’re deep in the source material. So I’m just curious about your own background in Skyrim, Juan.
Juan: I played the first few other Elder Scrolls videogames back in the day, early nineties. I was just a teenager and I didn’t know what I was facing because we never knew it was going to become Skyrim. And they were amazing. Then I played Oblivion and thought: “Oh, there’s something interesting here.” And then Skyrim happened 10 years ago, literally 10 years ago. And that was a whole game changer. I was very into games with that profile: adventure, create your own character, free form, free roaming. All of that for me was very appealing. So when we got the idea from Chris to develop Skyrim more as an adventure board game that’s focused on the adventures and the stories, Xavier, Stefan and myself, we were over the moon. We could actually do what we wanted to design from the beginning, which is honoring the work that has been going under the whole Elder Scrolls saga. The whole lore. All the information on the history of that game is just amazing. So getting to work with that and being able to do something that’s thematic, and properly respectful of that lore, and at the same time, creating something that contributes to the lore, it’s one of the best experiences to this and kind can have,
David: I imagine it feels like a dream come true.
Juan: It’s very hard not to be star struck with the franchise itself. Yes.
David: Yes. Because you started working on this over three years ago.
Juan: It’s a lifetime ago. I think
David: So did you look to other games to draw inspiration from them? I detect a scent, a whiff, a hint of this that or the other game, but maybe you independently came up with similar systems. It seems it’s inspiration, not plagiarism.
Juan: The answer is always, “Yes and no.” You cannot help but get inspired by things. And we always do research and see what’s coming up. There’s so many brilliant designers doing great things, and we have to try them and enjoy them because their work is fantastic. And there are also classics that inspire you and that give you good ideas. But by the same token, we have sort of an obsession about trying to find new ways to do things that are not just reinventing the wheel.
There are some games that are a bit surprising that could be in the list other than the obvious ones that are adventure games. For example, I could say Tales of the Arabian Nights is a very distant inspiration.
David: Tell me about that! What are the links between Skyrim:TAG and Tales of the Arabian Nights?
Juan: It’s an epic story. And the goal of the game is not to win and kill the baddie. The goal of the game is to have an incredible experience telling stories with your friends and Arabian Nights conveys that perfectly. You can say anything about the game, but if anything, you end the night with a whole load of new stories that you can share with your friends. That’s fascinating. We wanted to achieve that.
David: That’s great. Are there any other unexpected influences?
Juan: Another inspiration was Eldritch Horror. It’s in a similar adventure vein. The things that happen to your character during that game, every time you draw a new card and suddenly you’re devoured and you die and things like that, that’s very on-brand in that case. It’s a game that respects the theme very well and again, allows you to tell stories.
David: The mechanic of the branching quest deck was used in the Fallout boardgame. [Which I reviewed back in 2017.] Was that a game that you played?
Juan: We played that game, we loved the game. We love what they did with that and with the IP, but we went in a slightly different direction. What we wanted was to make it more personal. We wanted to have more details within the big picture to make it more about the great scope.
David: Skyrim:TAG appears to have many more side quests. And of course the map is the map of Tamriel. It’s not a modular map, the way that Fallout’s is.
Let’s talk about the rules. The tutorial is an excellent way for players to get into the game. I wish more games of this scope had something like that. That being said, there’s also a 46 page rulebook. The rulebook is huge and video gamers by nature don’t have that kind of attention span to learn a game. So Chris, this question could also be for you: is your market the video gamers market that have played Skyrim and now they want the board game experience, or is it the board gamers market who are looking for a Skyrim experience or are you trying to do both?
Chris: The boardgamers who love Skyrim–and let’s face it: there’s a lot of them, there’s a huge number, so many people have played it. But of course we’re also trying to appeal to Skyrim fans who would like to try a boardgame on top of that videogame experience. But this isn’t Monopoly. There is a Skyrim Risk, which is probably a very simple game for video gamers that are not into boardgames. But Skyrim:TAG has got more detail. I like to say it’s more complex in the storytelling, not so much in the mechanics. But it is a level of difficulty beyond the average game of Risk. Of course we’re doing lots of promotion to the Skyrim audience because there’s so many of them that the numbers of people who will then be boardgame fans is going to be big. They’ll see the miniatures and go: “Oh my gosh, I want those! I’ll just find out how to play the game.” We’re also going to be doing a nice video version of the tutorial on Tabletop Simulator with a voiceover from a guest reviewer, he’s super lovely.
David: My next question for you is about timing. Skyrim came out almost 10 years ago, Modiphius only started in 2015. You started working on this in 2018. And now The Elder Scrolls VI is now almost out; gameplay footage is now beginning to hit. Do you have any concerns about that? That once Elder Scrolls VI comes out, Skyrim won’t have the same appeal?
Chris: Well tomorrow the 10th Anniversary Edition of Skyrim drops, and there’s so much marketing and promotion around Skyrim that I think we’re in good timing. I mean, how many people have spent hundreds of hours playing it?
David: That’s another one of my questions to you. There’s no question this is a successful campaign. You have funded six times over and there’s still weeks to go. So hopefully that is successful in your eyes. But if you are a video gamer who’s bought the original Skyrim, then maybe then you bought it again for the Switch, you’ve already spent a lot of money on it. And now the cheapest pledge level is 68 pounds, which is about 97 dollars Canadian, and the retail price is going to be over 100 dollars…
Chris: Well, we’re going to retail with this. I mean, we’re already doing our retail deal. Some projects want to raise multi-millions because that’s the money they’re making on it. We’re doing our big, massive retail deal at the same time as this project. But the great thing is backers can get the base game for the 68 pounds. [The implication here is that Modiphius can afford to keep the price relatively low for backers because they can charge more for the retail version.]
David: As a video gamer you’ve already paid this much to play Skyrim. The largest number of backers have backed it from what I can see at the Deluxe Tier. So you’ve clearly succeeded in drawing them in, in terms of the people who want their minis.
Chris: We’ve just been unlocking all the exclusive Legendary Encounters, which are Gamefound-exclusive cards that come with the base game for backers only. And that’s quite a big chunk of cards. And then we’ve been adding all these mini-campaigns and extra miniatures into the From the Ashes box and the Minis upgrade set. So I think what you’re seeing is that people are saying: “It’s more Skyrim. Give me everything Skyrim.” And that package, if you’ve got the money to spend, it’s the best deal because you it’s a huge saving, you get loads of miniatures, it crosses over with our miniatures game Call to Arms—
David: Oh! I didn’t know that you can actually use these minis in Call to Arms.
Chris: Yes, they’re 100% in the same scale.
David: Okay. I want to get into the whole aspect of the lore because there’s such a huge amount of lore in the game. What were the things that you thought about in terms of immersing the players? Transferring video games to tabletop isn’t easy, particularly as you’re moving from real-time experience in the case of Skyrim. [I’ve written about this difficult process before.]
Plus there’s Skyrim’s sense of humour, everything from “I took an arrow in the knee,” to Wabbajack. I know you’ve got the “My Little Stallion” quest in there, which is very cute. What systems do you feel like you were successful at in terms of making the game immersive for players?
Juan: There are several things there that are worth considering. The first one is people have played Skyrim on many platforms. We know that, but what we’re offering here is not playing the same story. You’re not the Dragonborn. You’re not going to kill the dragon close to Whiterun. It’s not about that. It’s a prequel that’s 25 years before the events of Skyrim.
When you play Skyrim, you hear a lot about what happened after the Great War. All the veterans coming back from the war. The White Gold Concordat. You hear a lot about that, but you never get to see or hear what Olfric Stormcloak did when he was young. You hear about the Reachmen taking Markarth but you never get to see it. Well, in this game, you get to see it. You get to talk to King Madanach when he is King of Markarth, you get to meet Olfric as a young man, you even get to meet Lokir–the character who dies at the beginning of the game, the guy who steals a horse–you get to meet him as a child. He’s already stealing the horses and you have to use your boat to help him. So there’s a lot of backstory filled in there.
The sense of humor of Skyrim is a big one for us. It’s very important to keep that understated humor. Every now and then you’re doing something very serious, but suddenly they’re asking you to steal sweetrolls: “What just happened? I was trying to save the world and now I have to steal sweetrolls?” That’s the sense of humor in Skyrim. We’re trying as much as we can to respect that.
In terms of systems: one thing that’s different is that you play cooperatively as a group. You can also play solo, and it’s a good experience like the video game, but here, the emphasis is placed on sharing the experience with your friends, gathering around a table and having a shared adventure, which is not something the video game could allow.
Other than that, we have tried to translate as many systems as possible to the boardgame. We have upgrading and enchanting, I like how it works. It’s really fun and really cute, really tactile. We have the horses, of course we have the quests, the branching quests that come from Skyrim. We have the factions. When you get to Dawnguard expansion, you have all the vampires, with all that it involves from the day/night cycle to the hunger. All of that is included in boardgame language, simplified. You don’t get a thousand Septims because that will be a nightmare of tokens. You get ten Septims because that’s manageable. And they give you the same purchasing power as you would get with a thousand. That sort of translation needs to happen because it’s happening on paper and cardboard; it needs to be more manageable.
David: The systems have to be streamlined. Absolutely. Otherwise you break the immersion.
Juan: And the players’ brains, you break them as well. You can imagine that in the process, we have gone through some mechanical systems that were a bit over the top and we have had to take them down.
David: Like they say with writing: “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.” Can you give an example of one system that you took out? Something you really liked, but you had to take it out.
Juan: The most extreme thing that I can tell you is that at some point we created an interactive market, a living market, where components and everything in the game, became more or less expensive depending on the demand. It’s a great idea to do in a Wall Street game or even a currency game. It’s not scary. It’s not dramatic. It was super fun to develop, but when we played it, it was dragging. It was impossible.
Chris: We also had allegiances really early on, you could get a favor with different factions, like the Brotherhood and stuff, but then the issue was that some of the quests might mean that you were facing Brotherhood. One thing we had to avoid is it not becoming Skyrim: the Accountancy Board Game, constantly tracking lots of little data points and numbers and stuff like that.
David: Now this might be something that’s deeper in the game that I didn’t get to what’s available on Tabletop Simulator, but is Skyrim:TAG truly co-operative in that players actually help each other out during encounters? Or is it cooperative at the macro level, but not at the micro level?
Juan: They definitely can. And it’s strongly recommended that they do at the beginning. The encounters and dungeons are fairly simple but as the game goes on, there are moments that either you’re very powerful or you have good friends, otherwise you are in trouble. That’s generally how I ended up playing is playing support, where you’re the person with the healing spells, and you can go into dungeons, not hurt anything, be a pacifist, and let other people do the fighting for you. You still get the experience. You’ll heal the other players and help them recover stamina with spells you can play.
David: That’s good to know, because at least as again, as far as I was able to get each player’s turn felt very engrossing for them, but then if you’re playing with four people, the downtime could be considerable.
Juan: There’s also the movement phase, if you want to call it like that. It’s shared, so you can all discuss the strategy. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go? Then if the next thing is dangerous it can be done together. Also, with the market and other elements of the game you can do them while somebody else does a dungeon. People don’t have to wait for you while you’re doing your accountancy. The spectacular moments are the ones that have to take the spotlight every time, instead of waiting for people to move tokens around.
David: What I saw on Tabletop Simulator is that of the six starting characters, only one of them is magic-focused. In the tutorial, there wasn’t a huge amount of magic. So I hope that later on, you’ll be able to go to Winterhold, and there’s going to be more scope for wizardry than it first appears?
Juan: Of the base characters, the Altmer is super-focused on magic, the Imperial is focused on magic because his focus is on Restoration at the end of the day, then you have the Thalmor in the core game who is also focused on magic; the Imperial appears more as a hybrid support character. So you have three characters that could do magic, very proficiently.
David: What led you to the decision to offer a Tabletop Simulator version of the game to backers? This is the first campaign that I know of where a full Tabletop Simulator or similar kind of digital mod is included for backers in the campaign. What led to that decision?
Chris: We’ve been using Tabletop Simulator to playtest and the team has been amazing at making it look great. We decided that it would be a fantastic way to let people try the game because we weren’t going to have physical prototypes before the project launched. And we wanted a great looking model so that we could go out to all the people to potentially do reviews and games and say: “Try the game with us, let us show you the game and you can go and record some footage or we’ll do it with you.” And just fans could just literally try the game themselves. And while it’s not the same as sitting around a table with nice cardboard and minis the great thing is you can save the game because if you’ve got to make dinner and lay the table you can just save it and go away and come back. And of course you can also play with your friends who are remote. So there’s all sorts of upsides.
Some people might care. “You’re giving away the whole game!” I don’t think so. I’m not worried that someone’s going to get this and go: “I’m not going to buy the actual physical game.” Because the physical game is so beautiful and, you know, we believe in a world where people want to sit around a table with their friends and the world is gradually returning to normal. And maybe some people are going to go searching for Skyrim on Steam and find this in the workshop for Tabletop Simulator and go: “Oh my God. I can buy this for real. I’m going to go and get this.” So it’s great marketing really. And I really believe that letting people try the game shows that we’ve made the game, the game exists. There are rules. Look, this is the game.
Tomorrow it’s on to Part 2. I hope you’ll be back to rejoin the party. Don’t split the party!
[…] Yesterday’s post contains Part One of the interview with Chris Birch of Modiphius Games and Juan Echenique, one of the designers of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the Adventure Board Game. Today we conclude the interview; tomorrow I will share my thoughts on the game and why I’ve decided to back it. […]
[…] have read my two-part interview with publisher Chris Birch and design team member Juan Echenique (Part One, Part Two) earlier this week. I’ve played the tutorial and the first part of the first Campaign […]