29 April 2022
Legend says the serpent-like creature has crossed the ocean from Critical Role into the board game...
Critical Role is practically a household name for D&D players, beginning in 2015 with Geek and Sundry, but originating simply as a one shot at a future player's birthday party. The group, DM’d by Matt Mercer, and consisting of voice actors you’ll have heard in countless other things, saw huge success, with not only staggering watch numbers, but subsequent books, comics, Funko Pop figures, charitable foundations and even more. With Uk’otoa, the board game released by Darrington Press, the tabletop publishing company of Critical Role, we spoke to its head, Ivan Van Norman.
Though you may recognize Ivan Van Norman from the actual play scene itself, as either a player or GM, he’s a rather impressive collection of games to his name.
“I’ve been responsible for several award-winning games in the RPG space, such as Kids on Bikes, Alice is Missing, and Outbreak: Undead” he tells us, when we ask where we might know him from, but also “as a media producer of a huge swath of board/RPG content prominently featured at major digital studios including Game the Game, Wil Wheaton’s TableTop, and UnDeadwood, as well as being a showrunner for some amazing Live Play content such as Sagas of Sundry, We're Alive Frontier, and Ten Candles: Eclipse.”. If that wasn’t enough, he was also responsible for The ABCs of D&D and The 123’s of D&D, made originally for his own children.
“TLDR”, he says. “I make games, books, and shows about games.”
With Uk’otoa, we’d also argue he makes games about shows, as Uk’otoa itself is a leviathan from Critical Role. Appearing in numerous episodes, it’s a large sea monster with three eyes on its head, and additional eyes along its body, but is no mindless creature. Instead, it’s a manipulative deity trying to escape the seals that bind him. In play, the creature is able to gift dreams, visions, and abilities, but gains a kind of terrified reverence from the players. Upon speaking his name, players repeat it in hushed tones – an aspect encouraged within the game.
“Several years ago, a friend invited me out to a Google Board Game Night” Van Norman says of its origins. “I was introduced to a ‘squid game’ (no, not that kind of squid game) that was made by one of the employees there, Jeb Havens. I played a few rounds of it, and loved it. I purchased the rights to produce it right there, but never got around to actually making it happen for years because of other projects.
“So when I was first brought on to start up Darrington Press, there was a lot of discussion around our first game being an easy-to-play, small box board game that leaned heavily on Critical Role lore. I thought “Well, I have this squid game I’ve been holding onto, it kinda plays like this”, and in mid-pitch Matt [Mercer] and I both said “Uk’otoa…”, and thus the squid featured in the game became the Leviathan Sea God.”
In the game, you’ll take on the role of two factions shared with other players, using cards to position their teams against the progressive removal of hexes – ship wreckage– consumed by Uk’otoa. The twist is the uneasy alliances you find yourself making to try to protect your faction best – only to betray them shortly following to necessitate your survival.
With the original game design coming from Jeb Havens, the Critical Role lore, and subsequent additional game design came from Gabe Hicks. Gabe “knows almost as much as Dani [Carr], our Lore Keeper, and is a great game designer to boot”, explains Van Norman. As the game began to take shape, so too came the wider team. “I found Hannah Friederichs [responsible for the game art] via our “Art Dad” Liam O’Brien—her ‘Mosaic Molly’ fanart piece immediately spoke to the ‘ye olde Pyrate’ style I was wanting to do with the game. She blew me away with her first couple of concepts, and made it clear to me she was the only artist we needed on the game."
The team continued, as it was a combination of efforts to bring the Uk’otoa to life. “We spent a lot of time discussing, visualizing, and actualizing the Leviathan since it was never really seen in art or described articulately (as Gods are not often wont to be seen), but Hannah and our sculptor of the Uk’otoa miniature, Niklas Norman, really did an amazing work and created something amazing out of Matt’s [Mercer] vision.” And the result is notable, combining a respect for Critters (the name ascribed to fans of the series), from whom the reaction has a been positive. “We did a lot of small things to make sure the game had a delightful nod to the fans (such as a grinning tusk tooth on a few of the tiles), but we knew the best opportunity to really do something amazing for the community was to bring Uk’otoa to life.”
You’d perhaps think that the credits stop there, but a title as-yet-unseen on Board Game Geek lies credit for the Sea Shanty, which in fact, became a favourite story of Van Norman during the development of the game.
“When we were starting the layout on the rule manual, we realized that even with optimal placement, we had an entirely blank page on the back of the rules. I believe I brought up that fact in a team meeting and I think the suggestion went ‘Well, what if we put something fun on the back?’ Like what?’ ‘A sea shanty?’ ‘Heck yes’. I have done enough rum tasting with Taleisin [Jaffe] to know he can write a good sea shanty, so off I ran to ask him.
“We were already on a tight deadline, and I needed to get the layout finalized so it could get proofreading going, so I took a chance and reached out to Dani Carr, who was also coordinating at the production office at the time as well, and asked A) if she could ask Taliesin about writing it, and B) if we could get it like… by the end of the week. I believe she said ‘Can I help?’ to which I said ‘Hell yeah!’, and in 48 hours I had a sea shanty in my inbox.”
It's clear from everything from Van Norman’s responses, to the work and involvement of others within the group that Uk’otoa came from a position of respect for gaming in general. Far from murmurings of a cash-in on Critical Role’s success, it exists as a game that brought joy and delight to those involved in its creation, to those subsequently playing it. And whilst there were nods to Critical Role’s adventures within the game, it’s a departure from the RPG’s that were perhaps expected.
“It was a learning experience!” Van Norman describes the first foray into board games. “While there are a lot of similarities in both print/board games as far as development goes, working with the various components (I had not produced tiles, meeples, and miniatures before) was a new territory for me. However, we had an incredibly experienced printer who was amazingly helpful and detail oriented across the entire process of the project and I am blessed to have the keen eye of both Brittany Walloch-Key (Director of Retail Partnerships) and Darcy Ross (Marketing Manager) to keep me from stumbling.
"In hindsight, I am really happy that I ended up producing the entire game on my own because I believe you should know the work you’re asking people to do. I had spent my time in the trenches with books, but it felt good to ‘get my hands dirty’ with the production of a board game in particular. It allows me to communicate and understand what I'm asking from my team, which I think is important when you’re doing multiple projects (which is the case now).”
And with that, Darrington Press shows no sign of slowing down, or trying new things. Whilst Van Norman teases lots under the tarp and still in production, he tells us of the upcoming Guardians of Matrimonia – “a delightful ‘event management’ board game where you have to save a fantasy wedding from a bunch of party crashers”. A little digging tells the game was originally designed as a gift for Matthew Mercer and Marisha Ray’s wedding, and includes a prebuilt deck pitted against a deck of monstrous party crashers. There’s also development continuing on Syndicult, an RPG he describes as one that “becomes more and more exciting every day we put more time into it”.
“There may be some more announcements coming, but… well you’ll just have to wait and see.”
- And if Uk'otoa spoke to you and told you to claw a copy from the icy depths of the sea, you can always pick up your own copy to try to escape.
- An Oldie but a Goodie – check out our original interview with Critical Role stars themselves at the beginning of season two.
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