A League Of Their Own

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30 October 2019
League of Infamy is turning the dungeon-crawler on its head with a nefarious free-for-all among scoundrels. Sophie Williams and James M. Hewitt warmly invite us in, before nicking our stuff and leaving us for dead.

The goblin stands over the injured dwarf. He dangles a health potion inches from the dwarf’s fingertips as the fighter lays beaten and bloodied on the flagstones. As it turned out, three elves were a match for his strength – a few lucky strikes and he was down.

“Five infamy,” the goblin haggles again.

It’s a steep price, but one that the dwarf is willing to pay with no other options. His player transfers five of the valuable tokens over to the goblin’s grinning human counterpart on the other side of the table. Paid in full, the goblin extracts the flask from his sack of loot and hands it to his companion.

“Thanks, friend,” the dwarf gurgles as the liquid disappears.

His strength restored, the dwarf raises himself from the floor. The goblin player’s grin barely has time to fade as the dwarf passes by, slipping a dragon egg from their inventory and placing the unwitting goblin directly in the path of an approaching elven spear.

“With friends like these, eh?” they laugh.

League of Infamy - the usual suspects

This is the experience of playing League of Infamy, the next dungeon-crawler from Hellboy designers Sophie Williams and James M. Hewitt, who together comprise Nottingham studio Needy Cat Games. It’s a dungeon-crawler that flies in the face of the typical group monster-bashing romp through dingy corridors, working together in the name of riches and glory. The ‘heroes’ here are ruthless baddies thrown together by circumstance, only collaborating to the point where they can dispatch the foes standing in their way and prove themselves as the most infamous of the bunch. Hewitt gleefully describes the game as a “morality-flipped dungeon-crawler”. 

“The average dungeon-crawler is you’re the good guys crawling through dungeons and killing bad guys, taking their stuff,” he explains. “The aim here was to go the other way round, and you're evil malicious villains.”

The villains win alone, but lose together – breaking away from the group or constantly stabbing your would-be allies in the back are sure-fire ways to end up defeated by the overlord-like ‘keep master’ controlling the opposing forces in each scenario. Balancing personal gain with shared survival comes down to knowing when to give one for all, and when to take all for one. 

“Loot is quite important, but actually if you just pursue getting loot, you're not going to win,” Williams says. “It's this constant choice between you have to work together to not die, but you don't want to work together because you personally want to get the best stuff. That constant decision-making is a really fun challenge.”

Get The Bad Back Together

League of Infamy grew out of the Kings of War universe, the fantasy miniatures game that shares its world with the more conventional dungeon-crawler Dungeon Saga. League's titular organisation of string-pulling baddies working behind the scenes to manipulate conflicts and sow division – for profit and power – is a brand new addition to the universe that arose as a fitting reason for villains to gang together in the game.

“We had about a dozen different ideas for names, like The Guild of Evil! The Brotherhood of Bastards!” Hewitt laughs. “But, yeah, League of Infamy is where we ended up. It's been really cool watching that happen: watching the lore shape, watching the logo come through and the designs for the coins and all that sort of stuff. It's been really fun.”

The League of Infamy will play a role in the Kings of War lore going forward, with the potential for players’ post-campaign characters to find their way into skirmish spin-off Vanguard, the wargame and even the upcoming Kings of War RPG. League of Infamy itself features a ragtag band of characters, comprised of both complete newcomers and familiar faces, albeit in an unfamiliar form.

“It's been really interesting because we've been able to take influences from Kings of War, but what we've been trying to do the whole time is kind of go, 'This, but with a twist,’” says Williams. “Because the thing is, the members of the League of Infamy are not the stereotypical versions of themselves – if they were, they'd just be fighting in Kings of War. So why are they not fighting in Kings of War, what makes them different to the rest of their kin, what makes them stand out so that they can be members of the League of Infamy?”

Among the diverse roster is Glum, a “goblin ninja”, Melantha Arveld, a “proud vampire knight”, and Karzel Runesbane, a fresh take on Kings of War’s Abyssal Dwarf faction. Making a return appearance is La'theal Bleakheart, an elven mage turned to the forces of evil during Kings of War’s Edge of the Abyss campaign. Each also boasts a particular set of skills – Glum’s nimble-fingered ability to pick locks and avoid triggering alarms, La'theal’s perception of locked rooms using a magical eye – which can be used to both prove themselves as the leader of the bunch and help or hinder their companions.

“What we've been able to do is just hook cool ideas off of what already exists,” Williams says. “That's been a great experience to create those stories, and then that's how we've then made the rules – because we're theme-first designers, we like to make sure the theme is embedded into all of the rules. The rules were kind of the easy bit. We had a really fun process of creating all the concepts and then just going, 'Okay, how do we make that work in the game?'”

Sophie Williams and James M. Hewitt

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A Dicey Situation

Star Saga – the sci-fi follow-up to Dungeon Saga – provided the foundation for the game’s dungeon-crawling basics, with Hellboy’s dice and action systems layered on top. A small but significant addition was the ‘step’ – a single-space move that could be performed before or after an action, opening up opportunities for players to feel more capable during turns.

“It fulfils two purposes: first of all, it covers your follow-up move or the fact you can kill someone and then grab the loot they drop before someone else can get to it,” explains Hewitt. “But also it's just that one little point of movement. Because if you don't have that in there, you have to waste an entire action moving up.”

“A big thing that we look for when we playtest is looking for people's emotion reaction to stuff – not just the rules,” Williams adds. “When people were going like [she sighs], that was a point where it's like we don't want people to feel that, so how can we get around that?”

To the exploration and combat, Williams – lead designer on the project – and Hewitt introduced two competing resources. The villains would gain infamy tokens for performing stylish and nefarious deeds, which could then be spent to modify dice rolls and ultimately dictated a winner at the end of the game. As the villains caused an increasing amount of ruckus, they’d generate alarm tokens for the keep master, who could use them to activate and reinforcement their units. Hewitt describes the infamy and alarm economy as “the point at which the rules really crystallised, the part where they started feeling really interesting”.

“That was when the game really clicked into gear,” he says. “Once it became about amassing infamy and not just 'kill good guys, steal their stuff' – you're trying to do it while also scoring points over your mates – that suddenly became so much more compelling as a game.”

The step also doubled as a reason for players to barter using their infamy tokens – something the designers gamely encouraged.

“Once they get their heads around that, that can be quite funny,” Hewitt says. “You get things where it's like I've stepped up, killed the guy, he's dropped loot – 'If you don't take it, I will give you on my next turn five infamy if you just leave it alone!' Of course, they might not actually do that. It adds a whole meta level to the game of sort of bickering between the players.”

To encourage the villains to be more, well, villainous, the designers found inspiration in tabletop RPGs. Disorder cards were originally given to the players by the keep master – in the same way that notes would be passed by DMs in games of Dungeons & Dragons – and could be used to screw over other players. It ended up sowing a little too much mistrust.

“The moment you're given something by the keep master, you're like: 'Well, I'm not going to do it because it's going to help you!” Williams says.

In the final game, the disorder cards are a dedicated deck of secret ways for the villains to get one over each other, from pickpocketing items to exchanging places during combat. Each earns infamy, rewarding players for what the designers call “cheeky, never spiteful” moves.

“It is petty,” Williams insists. “None of it would lose you the game, unless you did it right at the end. It's just pettiness. That's different than when you get things in, like, Descent where if you get a nasty card, that's it – you've lost the game.”

“Those little petty moments that don't have any impact really in the moment beyond, 'Oh, you're a bit of a dick!'” Hewitt adds. “You get to the end of the game it's like, 'That won the game for you! Never again!' Which is really quite funny.”

Being too much of a dick has a downside, though: also in the deck are escalation cards, which periodically trigger a ramping-up of the stakes, much like Pandemic’s epidemics. It’s a form of karma: the more the villains jostle for the top spot, the more power the keep master has to throw enemies and traps at them. 

“Because you've got that sort of competitive element amongst the villains, the defender doesn't feel so bad when you screw them over,” Williams says. “Actually, a lot of the time they get screwed over is, 'Well, if your mate had just helped you out, you wouldn't be in this situation!'”

“There's a lot of hubris in this game!” Hewitt laughs. "We had this idea that [the keep master] is there to interfere with the villains. As much as they're a physical defence, they're also there to try and play mind games and screw around in that way.”

The keep master has their own deck of cards to play, summoning units and hindering the villains at every turn. Key for Williams was to prevent the lone player from feeling unable to do something with the hand they’re dealt.

“It's my absolute bugbear in a game,” she vents. “So I've had this thing that's been in the back of my head for a long time about if I was to do anything with cards, there's always something you can do. The keep master cards give you a really interesting decision-making element, because each one has like an active and passive thing – you can do a thing, which is maybe bring on reinforcements early or interrupt the villains' turn, or you can discard that card and just get a bonus, like a load more alarm tokens.”

Many of the bonuses involve adding things to the keep master’s exploration bag, which is then pulled from to populate rooms with hidden enemies, traps and loot. The unusual method recalls bag-building board games, rather than convention dungeon-bashes.

“The exploration bag – that adds a lot of risk versus reward decision-making, which I really like, of 'Awh, I've seen the keep master put that many tokens in – do I take the risk?'” Williams says.

“Having a bag to draw things from, that's a thing that you see quite a lot in other board games, you don't see it so much [in dungeon-crawlers],” Hewitt adds, before laughing: “Taking things out of bags is always fun.”

15 Minutes of Infamy

The campaign in League of Infamy’s core box is already in line for a number of expansions, each of which with a six-scenario arc that can be tackled as a one-shot story or tied into what Williams calls “one gigantic campaign”. 

“It's the same kind of thing we did with Hellboy, where the intention was to make the game quite remixable and quite modular,” Hewitt adds.

The designers mention their own experiences with long campaign games such as Gloomhaven and Risk Legacy, where players can struggle to play with the same group on a regular basis, as a key inspiration in making individual scenarios able to be repeated time after time by mixing in different monsters, loot and events.

“Games like this really shine when you have the ability to tailor them to your playing group,” Hewitt continues. “Because you don't want to just play the same game a million times. But at the same time, keeping it self-contained so that you can have a short-burn campaign is really satisfying. I feel like we've hit a lot of those buttons.”

Creating League of Infamy has seen Williams and Hewitt cram in a wealth of gameplay features inspired by their love of dungeon-crawlers, board games, card games and RPGs – but just as many have been sacrificed to keep the game fun above all else.

“You have to murder your darlings,” Hewitt says. “There can be an idea that you love to bits, but it needs to come out.”

“We've done a lot of tweaking and changing and getting rid of stuff that we really loved,” Williams agrees. “It's been a great experience to rigorously go through it.”

With the effort of playing the game kept to a minimum, League of Infamy puts the enjoyment of its players first – being so bad feels so good.

“It's been a really fun game to work on,” Hewitt says. “It's fun to write bad guys. That's true of anything; you hear actors say it's fun to be the villain, and it's fun to write a game about being the villain.”

Words by Matt Jarvis.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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