17 May 2021
Expanding past Nottingham
Michael Menzel is, “usually just an illustrator,” in his own words. Quite an important one for the hobby, however, having been the artistic hand behind Thuin & Taxis, Pillars Of The Earth, and the 2010 repaint of Catan amongst others. His list as a game designer however contained, until recently, only one game, Legends of Andor (2012). This came a little after the Catan repaint and sets Menzel up as an extremely interesting designer in his own right. Now however we have Menzel’s second boxed game where he holds both major credit slots, The Adventures of Robin Hood – a game that shares the spirit of adventure with Andor, but not its mechanics.
It’s time then to pull on your best tights and get exploring.
OPEN WORLD SHERWOOD
“The Adventures of Robin Hood is a new game, different from Andor. I developed it with the initial idea of having a game board without grids or icons – without the graphic layer,” says Menzel, “just the landscape.”
“That was the initial idea. It took me a little while to find out how to do it. It’s been about eight years in development.”
The board is a beautifully painted scene of forests, rural life, and the imposing castle. It is strangely absent of any of the usual graphical layers we’re used to in our games. There’s no victory points track, no zones or areas of movement lightly lined on the board. Compared to Andor this game looks entirely uncluttered. Andor used something of a conveyor belt system to move enemies in from outer reaches of the board, towards the castle or other pressure points. As such it was segmented into what felts like hundreds of paint-by-numbers shaped sections which enemies could use to move from one numbered zone to the next highest numbered zone. The result was that players could always read the board to see where the pressure was coming from, and work out what was going to happen next. This was a good fit with the core loop of Andor – which is often not actually fighting things, but instead getting your objectives completed in a mad dash across the plains. It’s the central trick of the game that you’re just hoping that you’re quicker than your enemies. Getting bogged down into trying to hack them to bits is never the most successful way to be a hero in Menzel’s first game.
The board for Robin Hood promises us something entirely different. Instead, we spend our time looking for what we want to do next, what our objectives are, and how best to approach them. And the board itself contains secrets – rather than signposts. Once it’s all put together you’ll spot little tiles in the double thickness board. Each of these is removed, and flipped, to create encounters, populate the world, and form the central struggles and missions of the game.
“The board changes, whether you decide to go one way or the other,” explains Menzel, “you might uncover a shortcut in one direction, which will stay there for the next level.”
The game offers a somewhat persistent world. Your choices will be reflected on the board as you explore it – and usually stay that way until something else happens. This wasn’t the most important breakthrough for the game’s development however, instead, it was approaching how players would actually move about and explore this board that has no graphical layer.
“One day I came up with the idea of these figures,” says Menzel, reaching for one of the elongated green meeples of the game. These are interesting objects for the game as they have the usual wooden meeple-thick silhouette that we’re used to, but they have a trailing, stretched base. They have a look of a little bit of the hillsides or undergrowth about them, and they taper away like a shadow.
These are a key component to the game because they solve one of the biggest challenges of creating a gridless game that functions as a map, which is – how do we move?
Players use something reminiscent of wargaming to make their moves, if elegantly simplified. Instead of getting out a tape measure, or providing some kind of ruler in the box, Menzel has provided three of these movement meeples that can be placed end to end. Your position is the first, you add the additional two elongated meeples, and the third placed – now at the front – is your new position. You remove the others and that’s that. It’s such a simple mechanism that we’re surprised it’s not been seen more regularly on our tabletop – yet it’s very fresh.
“When I came up with these, the landscape didn’t need a grid. You can move very freely – it’s like an open world game,” says Menzel.
“You see the castle and the forest, and it’s almost like you get a task – find a sword for example – and then you have to watch the board to work out what you’re actually going to do,” says the designer. The board might offer you the idea of the village, where there would be a blacksmith that could make you a sword. Or you might spot the knight elsewhere on the board and consider approaching them for the same object.
It’s these open elements of the game that provide the adventure. Sitting together with other players – whether they’re your family as intended by the designer – or otherwise and working out the problems of Sherwood. Against the clock, of course.
“You do have some pressure regarding time,” says the designer, “but that’s what Robin Hood is mainly about – you have this adventure and this open world.”
BY THE BOOK
Robin Hood, as a story has been interpreted many times – gritty films, silly TV, as a fox, in tights. What was Menzel’s take on this particular legend?
“It’s a family Robin Hood,” says Menzel, possibly predictably, considering the market this game is squarely aimed at, “but it’s a serious one. We’re never getting to the funny Men in Tights like Robin Hood, because I think we can’t really transport the emotion and danger and cooperation if the opponents are funny or somehow laughable. It has some tension, it’s somewhat serious.”
“Some people who have played it have compared it to the series from the 80s on ITV,” says the designer, smiling, “it’s hard to watch these days because it’s very 80s. The fighting sequences are very 80s.” Not to mention the hair, of course. Who knew you could get a perm in the forest?
“And as a family game however it’s never brutal or nasty, of course.”
“I guess it very innovative in many ways,” says Menzel in typically understated style, “but the core was to make it handleable for families. So they don’t have to sort out so many materials.”
“I have this ‘easy to learn’ rule in Andor already,” says the designer “but what I underestimated was that for family players the huge amounts of materials aren’t that good to handle. They’re overwhelmed by all the material. That is what I wanted to avoid for The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
Despite the game being an adventure game, the designer hasn’t included a big deck of story cards.
“Instead we have this little book,” he says, displaying the hardback story book that will be lovingly pored over by gaming families, “it’s not because there’s so much text, it’s not a choose your own adventure game, but I wanted to have the material very easy to handle.”
“The book replaces lots of cards, so you don’t have to sort anything in the beginning,” says Menzel, alluding to the ultimate goal of this game as being impossibly simple to set up, “you just put the board out, put the pieces in the corner, and the book next to you and you’re ready to play.”
There’s something to be said for the accessibility of a game like this. It seems somewhat radical to have a family board game without spaces to move on, but slipping all of the text of a game back into a lovely looking book seems like an obvious solution. Rather than use the spoon-feeding technique of a somewhat linear route through a set of cards, lean into what all families know in one way or another – story time.
IN THE SHADOWS
Failure in the game comes from now cleaving as closely as you should to the shadows. The world of Robin Hood is one of sneaking around and evading the Sheriff’s men, and this is done in the game by simply ending up in the shadows at the end of your movement.
The map is painted with areas of shadow and light. Standing in the shadows means that you’re safe, whatever your proximity to the guard is – whereas standing in the light will get you caught when that tile is flipped.
We asked Menzel how he approaches game design, whether he starts from the point as an artist, or from some mechanical idea that tickles him. Of course, he dismisses the idea that he can talk about this fully in his usual disarming way, “it’s only two games, it’s hard to say what I would do usually,” he says.
“But Andor started because we wanted to play something with a fantasy theme,” he continues, “my son and my nephew were nine years old, and I bought War of the Ring as we were great Lord of the Rings fans.”
“And I tried to set up the game, and it took me hours. Hours to read the manual, to set up the figures and different cards. So I surrendered,” laughs the designer, “I said ‘I can’t understand this, I’m not bright enough for that’.”
“But then, we were on a holiday and we started to paint our own board. It was much simpler, with fewer rules and took it with us every holiday. And as some point the game was taking up some much space in my mind I knew I has to show it to an editor – so they could tell me it was a bad idea, it’s stupid, and that I should put it away,” says Menzel laughing, “and I guess I would have never shown it to anyone again had that been the case.”
“Luckily, I showed it to the editor of Kosmos and he saw there was something special in the game and so we kept working on it. But the original idea was to play a fantasy game with my boys that wasn’t complicated.”
Which probably says something about Menzel in that his frustration with a complicated game lead to an entirely new and highly popular game series. Not everyone is motivated to this extend every time they run into a difficult rulebook.
Menzel does let his painted medium drive him in some ways, the genesis of the idea for The Adventures of Robin Hood is a very art-led one. It’s more or less ‘what if the board was less messy and more obvious?’
“Even Andor is out of the view of an illustrator,” says Menzel, “for example there’s the potion of the witch tile, which has two uses. On the front it’s full, and on the back it’s half full, then it’s gone. And this isn’t anything to do with the mathematics of the game and being able to use the potion two times, it’s simply because the tile has two sides.”
“To me it’s more important to have visual effect,” the fidelity of the object lead Menzel here, “someone who is good at mathematics might tell me that it would be good to use it three times – but it makes more sense to me to use it twice, with two sides.”
“Andor will continue of course,” says the designer, “and I’m really excited about Robin Hood.” The Adventures of Robin Hood should land in the UK over the next couple of months.
Until then, we have the new Andor: The Family Fantasy Game, which Menzel illustrated, but was designed by Inka and Markus Brand. The designer comments how they’ve created a super accessible version of what is already an accessible family game, adding tokens into the game.
“It’s great that Inka and Markus are involved, as they have been since the start,” say Menzel, “it’s great they’re continuing the story. You know, if anyone ever wonders why the King in Andor is called ‘Brandor’ – the answer is that he is named after the Brands.”
We’re looking forward to Menzel’s next visit to the world of design – but for now we’ll have to lurk in the shadows.
LOOKING FOR MORE?
You can find more about this in our chat with Micheal on YouTube for our Spring Showcase, by seeing below.
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