Owen Duffy interviews prolific games designer Eric Lang about how he co-created the game that turns superheroes (and villains) into dice.
Eric Lang may be the busiest man in tabletop gaming. Over the course of his career, the Canadian designer has developed more than 100 games and expansions. His credits include adaptations of some of the most recognisable works in fantasy and science fiction, including the Star Wars, Game of Thrones and Warhammer universes.
But while Lang is responsible for a string of acclaimed games, his biggest hit to date may be 2014’s Marvel Dice Masters. Developed in partnership with co-designer Mike Elliott, the collectable game of battling superheroes generated huge interest when it was released in 2014, with its publishers struggling to produce enough of the product to keep up with demand.
With the game approaching its third year in production, we caught up with its co-designer to discuss Dice Masters’ roots, and to get an insight into his fascinating design philosophy.
Robots and dinosaurs
Eric Lang still remembers his first exposure to board games. The child of German parents, he spent his childhood summers at his grandmother’s house in Germany.
“I played some pretty bad games there,” he laughed.
“I played some Chinese checkers and a very bad version of Othello, but one that I particularly remember was a Parcheesi (Ludo) clone called ‘Mensch ärgere dich nicht!’, which translates as ‘Don’t get so upset!’
“I remember redesigning it. I gave all the little pawns different powers and abilities. I made them robots and dinosaurs. Looking back objectively I might not have turned it into a great game, but I was five-years-old at the time, so it was better in my mind.”
This early tendency to reconfigure games may have been a sign of things to come, but as a young man, Lang’s enthusiasm for gaming waned. It wasn’t until he’d finished high school that a cornerstone of game geek culture would draw him back to the table.
“I remember the magic moment exactly,” he said.
“I was playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, and the dungeon master sat us down and said: ‘Ok, you’re adventurers, you’re in a village, there’s all this stuff going on - what do you do?’
“I asked: ‘Well, what are my options.’ He said: ‘Anything.’”
The sense of possibility captivated Lang.
“It just blew my mind,” he recalled. “I said: ‘What do you mean? That’s crazy!’ Suddenly I saw that the only limit in these games was my imagination.”
Lang would go on to run D&D games of his own, relishing the creative expression he enjoyed as a dungeon master. It wasn’t long before he also became obsessed with the original collectable card game, Magic: The Gathering, and realised that he wanted to make games his profession.
He quickly landed a job with Nintendo’s retail operation, and eventually moved on to become a playtester, giving feedback on upcoming products to companies including TSR, then the owners of Dungeons & Dragons, and FASA, the publisher of the BattleTech board game and fantasy-cyberpunk RPG Shadowrun.
Soon he was working on game ideas of his own, and in 2000 he released his first published project, a tarot card-based game called Mystick Domination, through a company he’d set up himself. The game brought him to the attention of US studio Fantasy Flight, which tasked Lang with creating a new card game based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels.
This was to be the first of Lang’s tabletop adaptations of major pop culture franchises. In the years to come he would develop games based on a number of science fiction and fantasy settings. But it was an original concept, the 2011 release Quarriors!, that would lead to the development of Dice Masters.
Dominion with dice
In 2008, designer Donald X. Vaccarino had debuted a game called Dominion. Like Magic: The Gathering, it pitted players against one another with decks of cards they had personally constructed. But Dominion’s innovation was in incorporating the deck-building process into the game itself. Players would compete to acquire the most effective cards from a shared pool, building effective strategies and combinations into their decks as the game progressed.
The concept proved hugely popular. Dominion sold well, won the coveted Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award and inspired a host of subsequent games including Thunderstone, Marvel Legendary and Star Realms, all of which took the original deck-building formula in new directions.
But it was a phone call from fellow designer Mike Elliott that first led Lang to experiment with the idea.
“Mike called me and said: ‘What do you think about Dominion with dice?’” he said.
“I thought it sounded amazing, and we talked about it then and there. After about a 45 minute phone call we had the concept worked out, and then I flew down to Seattle to work on a prototype with him.”
The result was Quarriors, a “dice building” game that cast players as rival mystics. Where deck building games had used collections of cards to represent different characters, equipment or abilities, Lang and Elliott’s design gave players a pool of dice they would expand over the course of the game. Different custom dice would represent new spells and creatures in players’ arsenals, adding new possibilities as the game unfolded.
Lang said the addition of dice added a new spin to the tried and tested deck building formula.
“There’s definitely a tactile thing about rolling lots of dice,” he said. “But we also wanted to add an element of luck to the game.”
“If you look at Dominion and a lot of the games that came after it, they’re very skill-intensive. A better player will beat a worse player about 80% of the time. That can be a real barrier to entry. If you introduce a degree of luck then you close that skill gap between the players, and that made Quarriors a lot more accessible to people picking it up for the first time.”
Lang and Elliott sent their prototype to multiple game designers, but while most liked the game, they all raised the same problem with the design. With 240 dice in the prototype, Quarriors would be prohibitively expensive to produce and distribute.
“We heard that from four or five publishers, but then WizKids came back to us and said: ‘We love the game, we’ll figure out a way to make it work,’” Lang said.
When Quarriors eventually hit store shelves, it had been cut down to a still-considerable 130 dice. But the game met with an enthusiastic reaction, and soon spawned a succession of expansion sets. It wasn’t long, though, before a new development took Elliott and Lang’s concept in an unexpected new direction.
“WizKids called me and said: ‘We’ve got the Marvel licence, would you like to do something with it?’” Lang said.
Although by this point he was no stranger to working with big geek-culture franchises, the chance to work with Marvel heroes was particularly attractive. Lang was a long-time fan of the publisher’s characters.
“It was thrilling to get that phone call,” he said. “I was a big fan of Marvel in my 20s, particularly Spider-Man and Captain America.
“What I love about comics is that they’re absolutely mythological and they don’t attempt to hide it. If you look at something like Tolkien, he was vaguely mythological and took inspiration from folk tales. Then you have Marvel, who just put it right there on their sleeve. They have Thor, Odin, Heimdall, all that stuff. They just put a modern spin on it.
“It’s mythology for the MTV generation - it’s awesome.”
Lang called Elliott with the news, and once again the pair set to work. Taking Quarriors as their starting point, they reshaped their design to represent Marvel’s expansive fictional universe. Players would build teams of characters including household names like Iron Man, Wolverine and The Punisher. They would also be able to incorporate members of different groups, like the X-Men and the Avengers, in the same team, or even to recruit a mix of heroes and villains, appealing to comic book geeks’ innate desire to experiment with sometimes unlikely team-ups and crossovers.
“That sense of ‘what if’ is at the core of Dice Masters,” Lang said.
“With comics, the possibility space is just infinite. Every time you read one, you know that anything could happen. That’s something that works very well in a collectable game like Dice Masters, because there are so many possibilities and different ways that your team can come together. There’s the potential to do pretty much anything.”
For the game to appeal to Marvel’s established fan base, though, it would have to offer more than just variety and personalisation. Players would have to recognise the characters they’d come to know from decades of stories.
“One of the first things I do when I design a game based on a popular franchise is just to hang out with friends who are big fans of it,” Lang said.
“I just sort of immerse myself in it, connect to that culture almost by osmosis. Eventually I’ll rewatch the movies or reread the books, but that’s something that usually comes much later in the design process. I’m much more interested in the emotion behind a character or a setting than I am in capturing exact detail. I’m pretty mercenary about that - if there are specific pieces of detail in the source material that get in the way of how the game should feel, I’ll just throw them out.”
It was the essence of each character, rather than the minutiae of their backgrounds, that Lang and Elliott wanted to capture in the game. But their main challenge would be representing the feel of Marvel’s heroes and villains in the abstract form of game mechanics.
“I wanted to capture that feeling you have when you’re 10-years-old and playing with action figures,” Lang said.
“So if I have Spider-Man and you have Superman and we fight, how to we resolve that? What sort of powers do we use? What does that look like? What sort of noises do we make while we’re playing? I wanted to get to that very primitive level.
“If you look at a character like The Hulk, what does everyone know about him? He gets angry and he Hulks out, right? So in the game, whenever he takes damage he gets mad and knocks out one of your opponent’s guys. And as a player, you’re sitting there going: ‘Ruurgh! You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!’”
Other characters’ abilities similarly attempted to translate comic book canon to an in-game form. Storm, from the X-Men, forced opponents to reroll dice, representing her power to summon raging winds. The Punisher gains advantages whenever he attacks - a representation of the character’s compulsion for violence.
But at an early stage in the design process it became clear that it would be impossible to do justice to multifaceted characters with a single in-game representation. Some had been around for fifty years or more, and in that time they had changed repeatedly as new writers and artists emphasised different aspects of their personalities.
Lang and Elliott’s solution was to include multiple versions of characters in the game, each with different abilities. This greatly widened the possibilities open to players building teams of characters, but it also allowed the game to explore different aspects of long-established heroes and villains.
“These characters are so iconic, and everyone has a different idea of them,” said Lang.
“In each set we try to do a different era and a different story arc and try to do representations of that.
“If you look at Spider-Man, I think we’re up to eight or nine different versions now. There are some characters with 10 or 12 different versions across multiple sets, and we’re nowhere close to running out of design space.”
Start on turn five
While Dice Masters’ designers sought to capture the essence of characters in their game, they were also keen to mirror the pace and drama of superhero comics as a whole. One of the most notable differences between it and other titles like Magic: The Gathering or Android Netrunner is the relative ease with which players can deploy some of their biggest, most powerful threats.
“That’s comic books, right?” said Lang. “They’re famously quick-paced. So what we decided was that we wanted to start the game on turn five. There’s a little bit of luck in rolling the symbols that you need to bring out a character, and sometimes you might not be able to, but I didn’t want that happening too often.”
The game also reflects the unpredictability of its source material with a set of Basic Actions - cards representing events that can turn the tide of a fight - a sudden distraction, a surge of power, a carefully-lobbed car. Each player brings a set of these cards to the fray, but they’re available for use by their owner or by his or her opponent, introducing the possibility that a player’s own cards could be turned against them.
“We went back and forth on that decision,” said Lang.
“It’s a higher skill level thing, and while less experienced players might not pay that much attention to it, it rewards a higher level of deckbuilding where you’re looking for things that synergise with your team but don’t help your opponent.”
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
One fundamental difference between Quarriors and Dice Masters was that the new game would adopt a collectable format. Where Quarriors had come as a complete product in a single box, Dice Masters players would buy sealed packs containing randomly distributed cards and dice to add to their collections.
But following the game’s release in 2014, players found themselves frustrated by the unavailability of starter sets. The game proved far more popular than its publishers, WizKids, had anticipated. And while the company arranged a succession of reprints, the manufacturing and distribution process for a product using such quantities of plastic components was longer and more complex than for a simpler card game. Production simply couldn’t keep up with demand, threatening to inhibit the number of players taking up the game.
But in time, stores received more of the elusive starter boxes, and with a community of players established, Lang and Elliott set to work on new sets, including characters from the creative universe of DC, Marvel’s greatest rival. Other sets also explored ground familiar to gamers, with one featuring characters from the manga series Yu-Gi-Oh! and another set in Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms.
While each set is playable as a self-contained unit, Lang said players should feel free to combine elements from different settings.
“I wanted to make sure that players could play this game however they saw fit,” he said.
“Collectable games leave their creators’ hands more than any other kind of game, and it has to be up to players. I actually like playing in more of a hermetic environment, but we do build in cross-synergies between sets, so they’re there for players to discover.”
Even as the game expands, and Lang takes on new projects such as Viking strategy game Blood Rage and horror title The Others: 7 Deadly Sins, he and Elliott remain in charge of Dice Masters. But looking to the future, Lang said he wasn’t sure what new projects his future might hold.
“I’ve ticked off my bucket list,” he said.
“Every franchise I wanted to work on, I’ve done it. I still don’t quite believe it, it feels amazing. But I think perhaps I want to step away from licensed games a little bit.
“I don’t know exactly what comes next, but I’m sure I’ll come back with something cool.”
Interested in reading more?
- Check out our reviews for Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers vs X-Men
- Want more Marvel? Check our our reviews of Marvel: Crisis Protocol, Smash Up: Marvel, and Marvel Villainous
This article originally appeared in the third 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.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products