Interview with Nigel Kennington, Designer & Creator of Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness

You may purchase Carcosa here.

My dear unknown friend,

I was having coffee a few weeks ago when my wife said, “I pledged to a KickStarter campaign. It’s a tile laying board game about Carcosa. I’ll send you the link.” The more I read the more intrigued I grew with CarcosaIt’s design was elegant yet suggested depths of playability that echoed a few of my current tabletop infatuations. Reading through the rule book only heightened my excitement. Whereas a large portion of KickStarter Mythos games use flashy art to cover tired mechanics and shopworn fluff Carcosa offers innovative gameplay design and clever easter eggs sure to delight Mythos scholars. It was obvious whoever was behind this project loved playing games and wasn’t looking to cash in on another tentacle clad board game.

Though I knew they were wrapping their KickStarter campaign and thus surely out of their mind with stress I sent off an email request for an interview once their campaign had wrapped and they had a oppurtunity for a breather. Hours later Nigel replied that we might as well have at it. I know I say this with every interview but once again I am humbled by the kindness and generosity of creators within our small corner of the world. Once you see the length and breadth of the replies Nigel gave in response to my queries I believe you will be as well.

LE: Nigel thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. Anyone even remotely familiar with bringing a game to market or completing a KickStarter campaign will recognize the crunch you must be under so it means a lot. To start things off with a question I still find fascinating, what does the term “cosmic horror” mean to you?

hitchikersNK: Wow. Straight in with the big questions! I don’t think I’m going to be very original here, but for me, cosmic horror has always been the moment of shattering realization. When your perceptions are suddenly ripped open and fall away leaving you naked, aware and helpless. I’ve literally just realized writing this that my first sight of cosmic horror was probably the Total Perspective Vortex from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! But it’s always made the most memorable moments in books, films and RPGs for me since then.

LE: Honestly that’s the first time anyone has ever mentioned Hitchhiker’s irt that question which is such a perfect response and so apt it’s a complete smack your head “of course” moment that in retrospect I feel a bit thick for not thinking of it before. So I believe you nailed it.

That question has become my customary kick off because I find myself fascinated by people’s responses to it. A lot of people start off with what they think are clichéd and/or flippant responses and then it unfurls. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

What was it about Carcosa that drew you to wanting to design a game around it? Was it Chamber’s short stories or did you come to the mythos through another avenue?

NK: That’s actually two mostly unrelated questions as it turns out. So second one first:

tattersI got *hooked* on the mythos through roleplaying games. Although I was aware of things like Cthulhu and the cosmic horror genre previously to the point that I could watch Hellboy, or play Sanity’s Requiem and see the influences, I didn’t really know much in-depth. A friend who I roleplayed with was a big fan and corrupted me slowly! A couple of one-offs first, then full on campaigns. Can we name drop them? It was Masks of Nyarlathotep first and then The Tatters of the King. I really enjoyed the first (ran through 8 characters in that one!) but it was the setting of the second that I fell in love with. That’s when I knew Carcosa was the corner of the mythos I wanted to call home!

I still remember my character’s “awakening” from Tatters. I was playing a skeptic, scientific background, still looking for the rational explanations! We’d seen some weird stuff (we’d attended the play!) but it wasn’t that pushed him over. He’d taken a picture of the Yellow Sign and was developing it old school – as its set in the 20s – bath of chemicals etc and the chemicals boiled. That was it. Tentacles etc, that’s just biology. Going mad watching a play? Bah, parlour tricks and hypnotism. But that, that broke physics – that was proper impossible, everything is wrong and all that caused it was bubbles in a 12 inch tin tray. That’s where true horror comes from I think. The ones that really stick with you – a dripping tap, a scrape and a thump, really mundane stuff, but stuff with implications. That’s what I love about the Lovecraft mythos – a book, a painting, a sodding colour that can break you and I think the Yellow mythos really concentrates on that.

Anyway, back on the first question: it sort of didn’t work like that.

I was researching stuff for a different game, a later and much bigger project. I needed “stuff from the world”. Artifacts. And I needed them in categories, so I was looking for Science stuff, Cultural stuff and I needed another type of stuff. So I started looking up “arcane stuff” and fell back on the mythos and into that sort of “wandering through Wikipedia” thing that you do and it inevitably wandered towards Carcosa as I reminisced about my time there in the Tatters campaign and I came across the wiki entry for Carcosa itself.

Literally the first paragraph explains that the name Carcosa is thought to be inspired by the city of Carcassonne. And that was it, I sat there thinking “Why is that not a game?! Why has no-one made… evil…. Carcassonne yet? … Sod it. I’m doing it!”

After that it was just a series of games design tasks – what’s “cool” about running a doom cult? How can I do this so I respect both of the sources? How do I find Carcosa’s own “voice”? It was really important to me that Carcosa felt familiar but distinct. So it was design, test, learn, iterate until we ended up with the game you see now!

I’m a little worried I’ve not answered the questions, but let’s crack on. Next!

LE: Feel free to mention as many books, modules, games, or movies as you like. I do so all the time. I love being able to track down the influences of people whose work I admire. It’s akin to being allowed a glimpse inside the creative process.

unseenI find a large amount of people find their way to Lovecraft and company through CoC. I love Tatters as well and really love Unseen Masters. The final mini-campaign in Unseen Masters, “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” is perhaps one of the most harrowing role-playing experiences I’ve ever witnessed. It draws upon Ballon’s real world psychiatric background to recreate the struggle of a player’s character undergoing the descent into schizophrenia. If played properly, with the clues and messages provided to only that player’s character and the word “schizophrenia” never mentioned, it’s quite possible the person playing that character and the other people in the session may come to believe the character has come to possess psychic powers due to their brush with Lovecraftian forces.  It’s only as the delusions become more messianic in tone that the realization sets in. When I first saw this in play it was a definitive, “Toto we are not in Kansas anymore” moment and opened my eyes to how powerful games could be.

Reading through the rule book for Carcosa I’m struck by how perfect the idea of a tile laying game for Carcosa seems in retrospect, yet I’m sure when first facing the material it’s not that obvious at all. How does the material of Chamber’s Carcosa guide the physical elements of the game?

NK: Some of it was obvious. I mean, as I mentioned the inspiration moment of “why is this not a game yet?” brought the idea of cultists slowly working on summoning Carcosa building by building was there immediately.

What was challenging though was the potential disconnect between the strength of the Yellow Mythos and the core nature of the game. I think what I love the most about Chamber’s Carcosa is that the best bits of it are a story about stories. It’s about creativity, performance and the connection between inspiration and madness. This leads naturally (though not easily!) to tabletop roleplaying mechanics but not necessarily to what is essentially a tactical level, competitive puzzle game.

So for the design I went at it from a “scenes from the movie” perspective. I thought about it in terms of what the characters – the individual little cultists that the player will only ever have as 14mm meeples – what they would be seeing and then built the systems around that.

So, for example, The King In Yellow had to be a presence in the game, but true to the source, if felt wrong for him to be just a piece in the game – so he became a victory condition. A looming desire the cultists ran towards. Their ultimate victory and their demise!

Then the mechanics of a turn needed to be looked at from that “narrative perspective”, so for example the lead cultist (our Prophets) conduct rituals in a ritual chamber (that became our Cult Mat) and an area of Carcosa appears. In a movie it wouldn’t just pop in – there would be a stage where it “warped” in and solidified from the air with fancy special effects. So we had to have the unstable side of tiles with the weird, half-summoned landscape that you’re not quite sure how it’s going to resolve.

carcosa

And then when a cultist is deployed, the camera would follow him exploring the streets. What would they be like? We’d need black towers and domes obviously, but other than that the source is so open. That was a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you can do what you want, but it’s a curse because your mythos-literate audience can easily look at it and think – “well, that’s not my Carcosa” and you’re both correct! So what would the movie, trying to be true to Chamber’s Carcosa, do? They’d have the cultist peering down alleys and reacting to something that the viewer would never actually see fully and then cut back to them thrashing and ranting in an asylum. So we had to have the chapter-houses, an actual place that the cultists needed to go to recover – complete with little beds with leather straps and everything!

In a movie of our genre, as you built towards something happening, the director will often use subtle colour changes during unnerving scenes – like the way the colour red is used in The Sixth Sense. So our unstable tiles, the ones who might reveal something wonderful or terrible are tinted yellow, and stronger yellow if there’s a higher chance of a reveal.

But that only works so far. The player of the game has a wider perspective than a viewer of a movie – the tiles are right there so we obviously needed to make sure that they reflected the dread of the setting, the depth of the setting, but also the uncertainty of it. So we’ve taken a lot of elements from the source that is fairly subtle, includes a good “cognitive gap” and just left it there for people to recognise or not depending on how well they know the sources.

For example, the four tiles of Hastur have tendrils of power coursing amount the buildings. These aren’t placed randomly – it’s the constellation Hyades. The Yellow Sign on the cover of the rulebook we’ve deliberately scuffed out and then I peppered the book with the repeating demand “Have you seen the Yellow Sign?”. The ritual signs from the stones all have internal meaning and purpose – if you look closely the curing sign is chalked on the floor of the Asylum of the Chapter House. There’s loads of stuff like that, so many I’m only just remembering some of them right now. Hell, there’s even one on the KickStarter page that someone only just noticed on the last day of the campaign.

It’s that sort of thing I think builds depth to your game. The thing I want the most is for people to play our game and then much later watch or play or read something else and then suddenly notice a connection. Like our Feaster – we never refer to its full title: the “Feaster from Afar” from Joseph Payne Brennan’s story. That’s the cognitive gap again, and if people then read something else and realise the connection – that’s when the mythos becomes real for them and they can feel the size of it just beyond their understanding. That’s a proper Yellow Mythos experience – and if that happens to just a few of our backers, it’ll have been totally worth it.

I’ve kinda rambled off topic now, sorry! Back on point, the rulebook! You mentioned it and I think that’s worked out as our main “setting delivery mechanism”. Our poor graphic designer (Hi Jason!) got a hand waving, wild-eyed lecture about how I wanted it to feel like you were reading an ancient tome and hearing voices in your mind. I think we managed to nail that and even tried for a little cosmic horror reveal in the “Arcane Lore” FAQ at the end!

In the original version of the rulebook too, we didn’t ever even mention a “win” condition. In the End Game and Goal of the Game sections it felt wrong. I mean, you’ve brought Carcosa to Earth or summoned the King In Yellow himself, is that really winning? It’s not going to well from then! We did have to change that though, it was confusing the playtesters, but I think we’ve got enough of the doubt still in the subtext. We aren’t the good guys in Carcosa!

carcosa

LE: I was glad my wife pledged us to the Carcosa campaign before she directed my attention towards it but now I can’t wait to play this game. People are going to love the attention to detail you’ve placed within Carcosa. I really enjoyed your usage of Joseph Payne Brennan’s story “Feaster from Afar”. I don’t have a desire for you to reveal all your carefully wrought clues and revelations you’ve placed within for the purchasers of your creation so I’ll ask what are a few of your favorite mythos stories?

NK: Good, ’cause that’s all you’re getting!

I must admit I find some of the stories tough going – sometimes its more fun reading about the texts than it is actually reading them. So my first plug has to be for The Yellow Site, a fantastic site – I’ve spent hours there.

Anyway, to answer your question properly – my favourites from Chamber’s King in Yellow book are “The Yellow Sign” and “The Mask”.

kingThe opening of “The Yellow Sign” where the narrator is trying to hold it together while Tessie poses for his painting is such a strong hook and how it develops from there, oh man! I don’t want to spoil one of the best ones for anyone who hasn’t read it, but the imagery in that like the voice filling his head “like thick oily smoke from a fat-rendering vat” – if that grabs you, give “The Yellow Sign” a read!

“The Mask” has an even stronger hook – I’m a sucker for the perfect opening line and “The Mask” has a great one – “Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated.” How good is that? Anyway, this is another of the iconic stories that really epitomizes what differentiates Chambers from Lovecraft. Madness, delusion and disorder drive the narrative and the characters. Alec, the narrator of this tale, is the source of the visions I paraphrased for the intro video for the Carcosa campaign too – they’re beautiful and haunting.

Finally, there’s great stuff in Lovecraft’s work too – I’m a big fan of “The Colour Out of Space”. That’s not anything of the Yellow Mythos really, but it’s definitely something that I feel captures a tone I find that at least runs parallel to what I love about Chambers work. There’s something haunting about Gardner’s pragmatism in the face of his crumbling world. That’s stayed with me for a long time.

LE: I hear you. I often reference not only The Yellow Site for Chamber’s work but The H.P. Lovecraft Archive and The Eldritch Dark for even the most obscure of Lovecraft’s and Clark Ashton Smith’s writings. Another site I adore is Lovecraftian Science. The way LS illuminates the background to stories I’ve read haven’t looked at in years will rekindle my interest and I’ll find myself examining those stories in an entirely different light.

What was the path that led to you becoming a game designer?

NK: Ooh, autobiographical question. OK, first thing I’ve thought of is this:

I was probably 10? Which would have made my sister 8. We were living in a flat above a golf clubhouse, in Dunbartonshire I think. Big flat – it ran the whole length of the top floor of the clubhouse and included a long corridor down its middle. Both my parents worked in the clubhouse and being literally miles from town it was just us two during the summer, and it was the 80s so not many tech distractions.

The_Dark_Crystal_Film_PosterSo I used to make up games for us to play. Usually physical stuff with balls, frisbees, bean bags and often using the long corridor. And they would get more elaborate as the summer wore on. Because my sister was younger, she used to lose a lot, so handicaps and asymmetric systems got built-in. We were members of a mail order VHS club, so games for weeks after a good movie would become part of that world – there was loads of Dark Crystal themed games, I remember that! But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “I’ve always wanted to be an X” stories because although I self-taught myself game systems, goals and balance and then started applying theme because I was bored during the summer I did literally nothing with this talent.

I wanted to be a movie stuntman, a diver, a chemist, an aerospace engineer, a writer, god knows what else and all of those things seemed more obvious than being a games designer (though, spoilers, I succeeded in exactly none of those ambitions). When university rolled around, I went to study chemical engineering because I’d enjoyed chemistry at high school. Hated the course. Failed 23 out of the 24 exams I had at the end of 2nd year and dropped out. The one I did pass was the IT exam, so I changed to college (which is sort of like the American community colleges, I think) and studied computing. Went right through to uni again and towards the end of that found adverts for two local games development studios who were recruiting programmers. Sudden visions of being Flynn from Tron swarmed back from my childhood and I went along with a “everyone you’ll see is a computer scientist, would you like to see the (tabletop) RPG I’ve written?” sort of pitch. Utterly bombed in one of them, I might as well have been talking to the plant, but the other hired me!

So I started making games professionally at the end of the 90s as a programmer. I learned a massive amount about systems and relearned my love of designing games but also, crucially, learned that, by games industry standards, I wasn’t a terribly good programmer. So I took any opportunity that presented itself to design stuff and ended up as a full-time designer. I was good at the systems, I understood what would be fun, but I was still young and didn’t have the force of personality, the confidence or the people skills to really advocate for or defend my designs. And I had a young kid who I wanted to see every now and again, which, if you know anything about the games industry can be pretty hard to do.

So I left, and retrained as a high school teacher, then moved into lecturing at college. And that was pretty much it. I’ve been teaching now for, what, 9 years? Until my good lady wife decided to make a board game – ORE-SOME. Which she did, and it’s KickStarted, manufactured and in stores now. So, basically, now it’s my turn and here we are!

LE: Wow, you are the first couple I have met where both are game designers. A friend of mine is a teacher and his wife is a game designer. (Hi Ivan and Tricia!) That must make for interesting conversations. Did you find that your time in the video game industry prepared you for designing board games? Are there any books or other sources you would recommend to others looking to design games themselves?

NK: There’s definitely lessons for games designers working in video games and those working in board games that can be learnt from the other discipline. For example video games do teaching so much better than board games (though their medium does lend itself to that more), whereas video games still struggle with issues of tight coupling between winning and enjoyment. A lot of what early video game design was consisted of examining the systems used by board games and trying to work out how they could be enhanced with the technology. Particularly in the strategy, god and management genres.

There’s not many books I’d recommend to be honest – games in both mediums is still best learned by doing and although there’s a lot of people willing to stand up and be pundits – the ones who you need are generally too busy making games to write a book. When Sarah started really getting into the idea of designing ORE-SOME I bought her the Jamey Stegmaier book, A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide and she really recommends that one and the accompanying blogCover-195x300. Personally, the best one I’ve got is David Perry on Game Design: A Brainstorming ToolBox by Rusel DeMaria – very practical for the practicing designer. Other than that, and this is obviously about video games and programming mostly but the first and last chapter of Game Coding Complete by Mike McShaffry has some important realities that are applicable to both mediums – like the harshest of all: sometimes you get to the end, and it’s still not fun.

Again though, best is to learn by doing. Join a playtest group, test their games, play yours. Observe. Analyse. Refine. Test again. Scrap the whole thing. Rebuild. Test again.

Or don’t. Games design is mostly not fun. It’s mostly work. Hell, actually getting a game published is mostly not even games design, its project management, community management, logistics and finance! You need to be prepared for that. But even just the design part – to become a good designer, you need to be very analytical. You need to change how you perceive games. Particularly with video games, I really struggle to motivate to play once I understand how their systems work. Mostly it’s like, “Oh, that mechanic causes this and has knock-on on that. That’s nice.” – and then I’m kinda done with the game. This might be why I’m more interested in the design of board games now. The face-to-face social aspects, even in a non-social game, and their effect on game systems is a fascinatingly diverse subject.

LE: What is your most memorable moment from gaming?

NK: Hmm, the thing is, what I’m looking for in games these days is the experience of having a “lovely time” (though I’ve been told this descriptor does not translate well to the US and I should use “charming” instead). I’m attracted to games where you get lost in what you’re doing – where you forget you were also supposed to be trying to win it! Games like Oceanos, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Above and Below, Galaxy Trucker and Cottage Garden are my jam right now. That and games where the systems allow little stories to emerge from the interaction of the systems rather than over explicit storytelling elements.

So its tough to pick out a single “most memorable moment” from gaming, but there’s a sea of great ones. Off the top of my head, there’s:

spaceThe first time I took Space Cadets: Dice Duel to a games night – a full 8 players for an hour of shouting and chaos and at the end of it my mouth hurt from the grinning. I spent so much time demanding full shields be brought up and then accidentally driving us into a shield-draining vortex. Worst Captain ever!

A game of Lords of Vegas I played with my wife and son that descended into a vicious cycle of power-struggles and gambling between myself and Sarah over a vast sci-fi themed casino right on the strip that resulted in one of us destitute, shambling the remaining vacant lots looking for change!

That one time playing Galaxy Truckers when my crew literally rode a ship consisting of a single crew-quarters and a single cargo bay through 3 encounters after the engines, the guns, the shields and everything else was destroyed by meteors, pirates and god knows what else.

That’s some from board games, but there’s been some great times in RPGs and video games too. I’ve mentioned on from Tatters of the King already, but there’s one from Masks of Nyarlathotep that’s really stuck with me too. This might be a little spoilery for Masks, so I’ll try to keep it a bit vague:

I was a Hong Kong detective seeking vengeance on a cult for the death of his wife. We’d found a floor-length magic mirror that would allow us to remotely view people or places, but we knew not the cost of using it. While the rest of the party were off on other tasks, he snuck up to the attic and used the mirror. He set up a writing desk and chair in front of the mirror and used his skills at shorthand to take notes the whole time in-case he lost his mind or died so the others would know what would happen.

nyarlathotepHe scried upon our current nemesis and found him in a dungeon full of victims. He watched our nemesis torture a victim to death with ritual magics and I realised that what he had watched was exactly how his wife had died. As our nemesis moved to the next victim and my character’s panic and rage rose, the mirror let me know that I could spend “life force” to hurt my target, the more life-force used, the more damage would be done. Picture him there, transfixed and filled with rage, hand, almost autonomously, transcribing everything he was seeing like a grotesque parody of a Victorian school exam. We knew he was powerful, I knew I could hurt him and my detective was consumed with impotent rage and thirst for vengeance so when the mirror quietly asked how much life-force he wanted to use, he paused, looked down at his hand for the first time in what seemed like an age, wrote “I’m sorry.” and then whispered to the mirror – “All of it.”

They found the detective’s remains later and for a while we wondered whether that was the trick of the mirror – it showed you the object of your darkest drive and then tricked you into giving yourself to it. However we later discovered that the nemesis character had exploded as if he was packed with dynamite and for me, that was pretty much a good end for my detective.

Ooo, I was going to do a video game one too to cover all my bases – but after writing that one out, I think “The Detective’s Revenge” is definitely the winner!

LE: Have you considered what kind of projects you’d like to work on in the future? (After a nice long vacation of course!)

NK: This is a tough question to be objective about so close after the campaign closed. It kinda feels like, well… I don’t know how you feel about it, but for me this kinda reminds me of my experience camping.

It’s like, right now, we’re exhausted, the tent is wet, everything still smells of grass and possibly goat but there’s still loads of clean up that needs doing. Right now, I’m still thinking “Right, that’s it, no more camping. Ever.”, but I’m pretty certain three months from now I’ll be thinking – “You know what? We should get the tent out one last time before the weather turns.”

I think that metaphor got away from me, but the point is this: there’s still stuff brooding in the background that I might look to after a bit of a break.

Working on the solo rules for Carcosa brought up a whole slew of mechanical ideas that I just did not have time to work through and polish enough to include and there’s a whole seam of lore I’ve just not touched yet. Ask yourself, who is notable by their absence from Carcosa (the game)? So that is tempting but needs the full development and testing cycle run over it, not worth diving in and churning out something that’s just not fun just because it seems to tick a lore box.

For us, as our little company One Free Elephant, Sarah’s already working on her next family game so that’s going to be an interesting one. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out.

(I did an off-the-cuff gag about us being makers of “games for families and people who want to see meeples eaten by horribly tentacled monstrosities” in a promo article for the UK Games Expo but frankly it’d be fun if that actually came true! Core audience theory be damned, we like our mixed message.)

Finally, and in the longer term, the project I was working on when Carcosa struck is still lying in wait! It’s a big project though – not sure if it’s even going to fit in our trademark half-a-kallax-slot box! It’s not a mythos game, but it does have the end of the world in it – so that’s something.

LE: Nigel on behalf of Lovecraft Ezine and personally from myself I’d like to offer you a heartfelt thank you. You’ve gone far above and beyond the call in this interview. I’ve been amazed at the length and breadth of your replies considering the fact we traversed the course of your KickStarter campaign. Where can Lovecraft Ezine’s readers follow your continuing works in the days and years to come?

NK: It’s been great actually. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on the project and it’s given me a bit of well needed perspective. You get kinda lost in the middle of the tornado of stuff running these things and you can lose track of why you did it in the first place – so thanks, you’ve been more help than you know!

Anyway, we’ve got little webpage, onefreeelephant where you can sign up for our really low traffic mailing list.

If you’re really interested we’re much more active on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/OneFreeElephant – give us a like and we’ll keep you updated. It’s really hard work getting word out there for small indie developers so we love every follower we get!

Finally, if you missed the KickStarter for Carcosa, you can join in by pre-ordering on Indiegogo – just search Carcosa on Indiegogo and it’ll come up. That will get you included in the first print run of the game with all the stretch goals – just like you’d been a backer.

You may purchase Carcosa here.

Soundtrack for this interview:

Interview conducted by Acep Hale.

One response to “Interview with Nigel Kennington, Designer & Creator of Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness

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