Behind the Board: Paolo Di Stefano and Gabriel Gendron on Mini Rogue

Luke: Hey there folks, and welcome back to Behind the Board! Today, we have our first ever 2-person interview as we discuss Mini Rogue, a game that is now on Kickstarter, with both the designers, Paolo Do Stefano and Gabriel Gendron.

Paolo, Gabriel, it’s great to be talking with you both.

Paolo: Thanks for having us.

Gabriel: It’s great to be here!

Luke: So I guess we should start with where this all started for you both; how did each of you get into game design?

Gabriel: I started tinkering in game design back in 2007 with wargames. My very first design was a tactical squad-level wargame (think Combat Commander); I still have that prototype lying around, complete with the components and notes I took on how to play.

Being a first design, you don’t know what you’re doing, and I think that’s part of the fun… Everything is new, you’re amazed by everything you discover in the board gaming world!

Paolo: Eventually, Gabriel asked me to join up and create our indie game company, which is where I got my start in the industry.

Luke: Why don’t ya’ll tell me a little about that company, Mountain Gold Games?

Gabriel: When I met Paolo at work I had this instant cosmic connection, like we always knew each other, we connected on so many things it was insane. He quickly became one of my closest friends. The whole process of working together was quite organic and candid. Here we are, four years older, still designing together in our spare time!

Paolo: The point of Mountain Gold Games is to make a lot with few, or big with small. Boardgames have an immense advantage over modern AAA video games: imagination plays a big role in feeling the “size” of concepts and ideas. As board game designers, we ought to use imagination as a game component, if you will. That’s why we try to stay as thematic as possible.

Luke: Something that I think folks can clearly see in the Mini Rogue design as a whole.

Paolo: When we were first putting the game together, I started fiddling with some Napoletane playing cards. They are like poker cards but with 10 cards per color instead of 13, and it’s Clubs (actual clubs), Gold (coins), Swords (spades), and Cups (wine?). When I was young, my older siblings used to take these cards and play some kind of story-teller + fortune-teller mix. They would take the deck and just pick the first card, flip it up, and say something about it. That was the “random generation” part.

Gabriel: All the game ingredients were there but we were just figuring out how to put them together. My first playable version of Mini Rogue was more akin to a game like Elder Sign, it was okay but lacked that roguelike/dungeon crawler flavor.

I clearly remember the day Paolo brought the first iteration of what became Mini Rogue as we know it: the branching of Rooms, the dungeon Floor with increasing difficulty, the unlocking of dice, the Resting area, etc. The game was not balanced, but I immediately saw that this was much better in recreating the feel we were searching for. I took his cards home that night and rebalanced every value, and that became the 9 card version.

Luke: And with 9 cards, you can only add so much; how did you decide what elements to include in that original version?

Paolo: I think we started with a bare-bones game where we just shuffled a Room deck and went through each card one by one, resolving them with… a lot of improv? Working up from 0 made it always fit the 9-card mold, and we gradually added ideas from true roguelikes and some video games that had a lasting impression on us (Dark Souls, Dungeon Hack, Diablo, and Brogue to name a few).

Luke: Now that you’ve had the freedom to expand the design, what elements were you most excited to include?

Gabriel: Having the luxury to expand the design and components was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because we had more design space and could further improve upon the usability. The XP track is a good example of reducing rules, skill checks now require looking for a symbol, etc. But it was difficult to choose what we wanted to add to the game and not turn it into a monstrosity with tokens and cards all over the place.

Personally, the element that I’m most proud of is the Poison and Curse mechanism: most game would just give you a status token that you’d have to remember to apply on your turn, in Mini Rogue having them in your dice pool makes it much more easy to grok and unique!

We were very selective about what new components we included in this new version. The game got bigger, but at its heart still retains the core experience and feel of the original game.

Paolo: We’ve also explored many other ideas that were just as exciting but didn’t quite fit in terms of components or theme, so they were cut.

Luke: And yet there’s still a good number of expansions to be explored here! I haven’t had the chance to play with them myself, so tell me a little about each.

Paolo: The first expansion, Old Gods, kind of completes the base game: one additional bad@$$ Boss, an additional character that should prove very interesting to play, and some other rooms. It’s a small expansion but rounds out the experience in my opinion.

The second expansion, Depths of Damnation, is where the new mechanics come in: there are new Monster types that regenerate their HP, 2 new Bosses, and a completely new mechanic: Lore cards. These cards are like bite-sized Choose Your Own Adventure stories. They expose the lore of the game in subtle ways, providing some greater connection to the world we’ve built. They are very immersive!

Gabriel: Yeah, Depths of Damnation is our humble minified love letter to COYA books. I just love it.

Paolo: The third expansion is all about the bling. Glittering Treasure is a cosmetic upgrade of all the Boss cards and the Rewards card from the base game.

I know I am biased, but when I play the complete game with all expansions, the sheer number of different Rooms makes it very engaging: you can’t start figuring out if X or Y Room card will appear in the next shuffle of the Room deck… you just don’t know! This can lead to very tense and suspenseful moments, as well as some very euphoric reactions!

Luke: It’s clear that you’re both very passionate about this title, which makes a ton of sense. Currently, this is the only game either of you are credited with on BGG. What has it been like dedicating yourself to this single design for 4+ years?

Paolo: Hard! It’s hard to keep focus; there are so many ideas that we have.

Gabriel: Life gets in the way so to speak, but this is a passion project of ours and we never lost hope of having the product in people’s hand.

Paolo: The other hard part was not delivering the KS earlier: every year it meant another year of Mini Rogue, and not on a new project. But don’t get me wrong, delaying the KS until 2020 was the best thing that could have happened, as we could iron out a lot of kinks and made the game better. At the same time, Nuts! Publishing got to learn to drive a Kickstarter and organize a whole lot of stuff.

Luke: It must have been an amazing experience watching the game evolve so dramatically over the years.

Gabriel: It’s been humbling, seeing so many people use the game system and make fun projects on their own; it’s just beautiful.

Paolo: For a 9-card PnP game, we’ve sure had a lot of visitors. We’ve seen a couple of adaptations too, like the Arduboy demake, and some cool guy on BGG making a DOS version in his spare time. So the best part is how some people see the game as something much more than the sum of its parts.

Luke: What would you say has been the hardest part of the design process at large?

Gabriel: One of the more difficult aspects of designing a game with so few moving parts is that changing a card’s single value does have a big impact on the overall experience than say a big euro game where you have many moving pieces. The fewer pieces you have, the more difficult to get that “perfect” game balance.

Luke: To sort of summarize everything we’ve talked about here, why do you feel folks should back Mini Rogue on Kickstarter?

Gabriel: I believe our game does a quite good job at capturing the feel and tactical decisions of old school roguelikes/grid-based dungeon crawlers in a small and new format. If you pay close attention, you’ll see multiple inspirations, especially the original Rogue. We also put a lot of thought and effort into making a game that’s challenging but never impossible, we’ve often come quite close to getting our hand on the Og’s Blood and even touched it a couple of times.

Paolo: It’s a simple game but has a ton of variety. Easy to set up, easy to understand, easy to play, and you can play with a friend!

Luke: Last question of the day: what would you say to aspiring indie board game designers?

Paolo and Gabriel:

  • A game that is played will always be better than a game that is only made.
  • Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
  • Play, take notes, adjust values, repeat.
  • Get someone else to play; you have the curse of knowledge so they don’t get the game like you do. Explaining again and again will rewire how you formulate concepts for the better.
  • Between something that YOU WANT and something that the GAME NEEDS, choose the latter. Let go of your ego; the game has its own destiny and needs to be free.

Luke: Fantastic, thank you both so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

And thank you to those who took the time to read with us! Let us know your thoughts below, let us know if there’s someone you’d like us to interview soon, and we’ll see ya’ll next week!

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