28 April 2022
We sat down with So Long, My World creators Enrica and Francesco of Axis Mundi to talk about their new cooperative boss battler heading to Kickstarter
Interview by Christopher John Eggett. This originally appeared in issue 63 of Tabletop Gaming Magazine
We all love a boss battler, and with games that are all about taking down the big bad, there’s one thing we want for sure: big minis. The other thing we want is a reason to keep fighting. That’s where the bright and bombastic art style of Sankokushin: Five Sacrifices comes in. We got in touch with the game’s design duo – Enrica and Francesco – to discuss their upcoming Kickstarter smash hit.
Would you mind introducing yourselves?
We are AxisMundi Games, a board game company based in Italy. Even though we’re best known for our work on Sankokushin, we’ve been pretty active in recent years with several Kickstarter projects. Our biggest hit so far has been So Long, My World, a card game based on psychoanalysis and philosophy that is about the last hours of humanity and asks players to decide how they’re going to spend their final moments.
Sankokushin: Five Sacrifices is probably your biggest game to date – can you introduce it to us in broad strokes?
It’s a cooperative boss battler set in a fictional Sengoku Era in Japan. The game experience unfolds as a persistent campaign where the storyline is organically generated by the heroes’ actions during both the combat encounters and the city phase rather than presenting the players with direct narrative choices.
While most games focus on defeating the enemies, Sankokushin is all about understanding your enemies’ goals and motives, delving into the bosses’ psychology, their feelings and their weaknesses as individuals. Additionally, the player characters can form relationships with the NPCs which will deeply change the course of the campaign.
What are the five sacrifices?
We can’t answer properly into this question, as it would be a heavy spoiler for the game. However, those who followed our previous Death Goddess Izanami campaign, may have some ideas about them. Oh, and one miniature is named “Failed Sacrifice - Katsu”... but we have already said too much here.
What is the core loop of the game that players will be experiencing?
Very simply, a fight-city-fight-city loop. This is only a half-truth though, as players have full freedom regarding when they engage with enemies and how much time they spend in the city. However, time is limited and the enemies have their own agenda so they’ll not wait around for you. Also, it is theoretically possible for players to never engage in any encounters and only manage the city’s economy instead. This kind of playstyle will of course have consequences – if players constantly ignore the menaces that show up every week, they are allowing those events to proceed without intervention. However, that may be not always be a bad thing.
Can you give us a quick introduction to the story of the game?
The story is set in Yamashiro, a city strongly connected with the Japanese shamanic past, where ancient traditions that the rest of the country are slowly abandoning are still alive. The players will control heroes who fight through time and space to uncover Yamashiro’s buried secrets in an attempt save the city and its people from a seemingly inevitable destruction. For the danger to Yamashiro does not originate from a single threat but from multiple, layered menaces, each of which have different stories and solutions. The bosses are not simply enemies of Yamashiro nor the causes of its ills, and some even have the same goal as the heroes – but pursue it via more objectionable means.
What inspired you to make the game?
The inspirations for this game come from a lot of different media and stories. We’ve always loved Japanese culture in every form, so that’s our biggest inspiration. Thematically-wise, psychoanalysis, philosophy and mythography have the central role. Moreover, videogames and boardgames played a big part while writing the lore of the game – Tenchu, Drakengard, Blazblue, Fire Emblem, and Final Fantasy to name a few.
Who can we play as?
The overture introduces four heroes: Umeka, a kunoichi daughter of a famous No- theatre performer.
Nobuyuki Sanada, a nobleman from the famous Sanada clan who is overshadowed by the immense fame of his younger brother. Tenzen of Iga, the attendant of Nobuyuki, a shinobi who is investigating the Yamshiro Incident. And Nene Sugihara, a shinobi from Iga, seeking revenge against the Oda clan who wiped out her home, the Independent Republic of Iga-Ryu. Each hero starts with different gear but they are not limited to any specific gear types leaving their loadouts open for personalization. Also, their personal story is not necessarily part of the playthrough and can only be explored if the players aim for those quests, meaning that the playthrough progression is not tied to any specific hero. This also means that more heroes can be unlocked and there is even the possibility to create custom heroes.
How do our story choices work in the game?
Player’s choices will be extremely important during the campaign, as it will influence the flow of the events. However, it is not a binary choice system, but rather, your actions during battle and how you spend your time in the city directly influence the flow of the story.
Showing mercy to a certain boss during a showdown may cause them to act differently, or the city itself can change their attitude depending on the choices you make. Of course, there are multiple endings, and not all of them can be reached by playing the campaign just once.
The game is not just about fighting, but interacting with bosses and NPCs in different ways, known as Psychology (battle phase) Social Bond system (city phase).
When not fighting, you can decide to spend time (the most important resource) to explore your relationship with Yamashiro’s inhabitants. You can decide to hear their stories and help them with fulfilling their goals, or hinder them. Each relationship is called a Social Bond.
Be careful though, as you won’t be able to form bonds with all the people available. As in real life, Sankokushin NPCs have likes and dislikes towards others, so they can turn you their back if you decide to take on a journey with somebody they don’t like. Unlocking Social Bonds is not automatic and may happen only under certain conditions.
Naturally, there’s fighting – can you explain the way combat works? How do players move between stances to their advantage?
The combat system is tailored around cooperative mechanics and efficiency in spending your actions. Every fight has plenty of goals and things to do, but limited possibilities to exploit all these occasions.
Each stance has different strengths and weaknesses. In general, high stance is associated with high damage output but it’s often punished by the bosses and leaves your guard open (not granting defensive maneuvers). Mid stance is the safest, focusing on a tank-like approach, being able to deflect damage efficiently, while low stance is focused on accuracy, evasion and breaking the enemies’ posture.
The choice to move between stances in combat is not just about the inherent advantages a hero wants to exploit, but will often factor in the boss as well since they may be momentarily weak or punishing against heroes in a certain stance. The choice is rarely obvious as there are always trade-offs. At the beginning of the game, the differences between the stances are more subtle, focusing mainly on their damage output and safety, but as the campaign progresses every hero must choose how to develop their stances with specific skills.
Can you talk us through some of the bosses and their motivations?
It’s difficult to answer this question too as it would spoil the pleasure of discovering each enemy’s motivation and personality. What can be said is something more general: not all the bosses are linked with the same storyline, not all of them are connected to the same threat.
In pop culture media, usually the “bosses” are steps the heroes have to take in order to reach the final enemy and resolve everything. In other words, the bosses are usually minions of the major menace the heroes are fighting against.
In Sankokushin, this is rarely true as every boss has an individual storyline. Such different storylines may or may not be linked with the same universal threat, but they all exist in the same multi-layered universe of Yamashiro, leading to different problems and requiring different solutions.
The art style reminds us of FromSoft’s Sekiro – that of fantastical Japanese folklore injected with a huge amount of energy – what is your inspiration here?
Our artistic direction benefits from our studies of Japanese and Asian history and folklore. It is important to say that the entire cultural background of Sankoushin – from folklore to psychoanalysis to intercultural studies – is based on legitimate academic literature. But also from our passion for Japanese games and movies.
Sekiro was indeed important in many aspects, as are other Japanese products like Guilty Gear which taught us the importance of infusing a fierce intensity into every element of the game. Sankokushin’s characters are filled with passions, strong feelings and tragedies. The sometimes-colorful art should not be misunderstood – showing the natural beauty and the artistic delicacy of Yamashiro does not change the fact that behind it all is a world in sorrow that struggles to be saved. Saving the beauty of nature and of humanity is one reason to fight here.
Psychology seems to be a big part of Sankokushin: Five Sacrifices – can you tell us how you’ve built this into the game?
Without telling too much, it can be said that psychology is implemented as a boss’ attribute, divided in three major types of interaction called Empathy, Provocation and Intimidation. The heroes may affect these attributes directly (via specific psychology actions) or indirectly (naturally choosing a fighting style over another or, in simpler contexts, making choices).
A boss changes their behavior according to the type of interactions the heroes have had with them, which means their battle routines and statistics as well. It’s important to remember that the heroes will fight the same boss more than once, and the boss learns, thanks to the psychology system, and gains experiences and memories from the past fights and from how the heroes have treated them. This is probably the most innovative and unique feature of Sankokushin, especially considering how easy it is to manage the system.
There’s talk of being able to avoid fights using charm, psychology, intimidation – can you give us some examples of that?
A showdown against a boss can always be faced with only the use of psychology, even if it’s not guaranteed that the boss will stay still and listen to you. One of our pre-testers has already accomplished this during the overture battle – although it took several attempts. This depends on who you are facing. It’s more likely that you can speak to Endless Rain – probably the most intelligent, cunning and rhetorically talented individual in Yamashiro – than with the Karakuri, an old, malfunctioning machine. Sometimes the whole fight can be avoided and a foe may even become an ally.
Tell us about the overworld? How do we interact with it? What can we do here?
The whole experience takes place in the city of Yamashiro. We are particularly proud of Yamashiro’s world building as it is a consistent, multi-layered micro-universe.
During the city phase, the heroes may spend time – independently of each other – to perform the various actions available. For those who are turned-off by the “draw a card, read an event and make a check roll” mechanic, we can assure them that things do not work that way in Yamashiro.
The heroes may invest their limited time in visiting the various facilities where they can craft gear – as is obvious for this genre of game, interact with the NPCs, and activate the many skills and features linked to a facility or a NPC.
They can expand their knowledge of Yamashiro by visiting new parts of the city and investing their resources in its reconstruction, helping to keep its economy fertile. Players can also enjoy the many festivals that happen in specific moments of the year, and they must cooperate with the Uzume temple to fulfil the necessary sacrifices to delay the spread of the epidemic and to avoid the natural disasters that the temple claims will be sent by the gods.