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Designer Interview: Liam Burns

You are exploring the dungeons and killing monsters and well your friends too. Journey into the Beyond has a twist on the normal heavy fantasy adventure game. You are already dead. You are a dead champion that is completing tasks to regain memories of your powers that you controlled in your previous life. I am delighted to share a conversation I had with Liam Burns the designer of the up coming game Journey into the Beyond.

I have always been a creative person. As a child I would come up with alternative rules or new characters (homebrewing before I knew how to label it). Special pieces in connect four, custom classes in DnD, I even made my own card game (a disjointed Pokemon TCG rip off, but it was fun to find again hidden away in a closet at my childhood home). Journey Into the Beyond has been percolating in my mind for around 10 years, but I began developing it more seriously while away from my family on military deployment. Being able to throw myself entirely at a project was an excellent distraction, both from my current situation and my isolation. After building a dedicated online Discord + Tabletop Simulator community, COVID hit, and with it an influx of board gamers turning to online platforms. We've now hit enough momentum to carry this project into a reality!

What is currently your favorite game to play?

Journey! Hahah but in all seriousness I have been playing a ton of Roxley Game’s new title Radlands. I managed to pick up a super deluxe copy of the game (shoutout to @MeanHyenaGames) and it has seen a TON of play at my tables. So quick to set up, it’s design is trim and clean, the art and components are incredible.

What brought you into game design?

Like a lot of other developers I was looking for that ONE game that scratched all my itches. I wanted a game like Talisman, but with greater customization and player agency. I wanted something like Runebound but shorter, tighter, and more PvP. I liked Mage Knight, but I wanted something more scalable. Throw in deterministic combat from Slay the Spire and asymmetrical play from Darkest Nights and you have the blueprint for Journey Into the Beyond. Now if you had told me 6 years ago I would have to do all the logistical elements as well if I wanted to see the project come to fruition, maybe I would have thought a little harder about diving right in hahah.

Do you have any advice for up and coming designers?

DO NOT BUY YOUR ART DURING DEVELOPMENT. It is very expensive. Even if you are planning on self publishing, use the money you generate with crowdfunding to pay for it once the project is greenlit. That’s what it’s there for! I get sick to my stomach looking back at the money I spent on art that I inevitably replaced as the art style of the game evolved. So much money that could have been put to better use elsewhere!

What was the hardest issue you had to overcome while designing Journey?

Finding a way to convey to players that dying is okay while not outright REWARDING death. Gamers in general have been ingrained with the concept that if they die, they have done something wrong. That death has penalties, and in general, death feels BAD. Especially when it comes to Player vs Player kills. Feeling “wronged” when you are killed by another player is hard to get over, despite the fact that there’s a very good chance they just helped you. Having to take a turn off to heal is an extra turn you are wasting not progressing your game plan. When another player kills you, you get to start your turn at full HP, essentially giving you +1 turns of tempo. Suddenly being killed by other players 6 turns throughout the game goes from being “Can you guys PLEASE stop ganging up and killing me?!” to “Nice I’ve made around +~5 turns worth of tempo not needing to heal all game!” You can put it in the rulebook, you can add it in your How To videos, you can put it in the FAQ, you can even incorporate it into your speech while you are teaching the game. Nothing you can do can break a players pre-existing bias.

What is your favorite RPG to play? Time is precious these days... I can only watch longingly as more and more excellent titles are released. But! I'm quite partial to Talisman (very clear inspiration in JitB) and Gloomhaven. I've been meaning to give Aeon's End a go on Steam to see how it compares, but there really is no substitute that fully covers the tactile immersion of physical gameplay. Moving on to other platforms, I don't even want to know how many hours I've spent in ES3 Morrowind. I've played a few JRPGs but I have a hard time getting into the grind. That being said, Ni No Kuni is absolutely incredible (despite that hellish RnG riddled Djinni fight, I was very grateful that the fight was fixed for the Switch port). I'm also a giant Studio Ghibli fanboy, so that made it easier to overlook the blatant time wasting that is grinding. TTRPG wise my experience is pretty vanilla. I spent my teenage years brutalizing and shamelessly homebrewing 3.5e DnD campaigns, and I've very briefly dipped my toes into 5e as an adult.

When designing the newest version of Journey, what part did you think improved the most?

Game time and Brain burn for sure. Pre changes Journey bosses had between 100 - 120HP. Now the highest HP is 80. This brought the game time down from 3 - 4hrs to 1 - 2 hours, literally cutting the game in half. While I was hosting play sessions I had to take a minimum 20min break between games to let fluid leak out of my skull before resetting the table to do it all over again. Now I have people playing 2, 3 sometimes 4 games in a sitting! Huge improvement from such a simple numerical adjustments.

What was your favorite part about the design process?

Definitely Champion design/balancing. Coming up with thematic tie ins to mechanical effects for each champion is very satisfying for me. It’s also hilarious when I come up with concepts that I feel are strong but balanced, then during the very first play session one of the testers will do something that makes me go “Well damn, I never thought about THAT combination!”. It’s also taught me to be VERY careful with the way cards are worded. Not only from a grammatical/clarity perspective, but from a “rules lawyer” perspective. You CANNOT be ambiguous in your wording, or someone somewhere will find a way to twist it against you.

What part of the game is the most exciting for you?

For me it’s the asymmetry and re-playability that comes from it. I can play 3 games of Journey in the same match up (for example Wanderer vs Criminal) and have all 3 games have VASTLY different outcomes based on choices made, champion positioning, build, playstyle etc. Often times when players post a screen shot of the game I can tell alot about their playstyle just by the cards they have on the table. And that is really exciting to me.

How long did it take you from concept to where you are now about to launch a kickstarter campaign?

6 years and counting! Although the game look drastically different it’s first few iterations compared to now. I loaded up the old 2017 version of the game and was confused by a lot of the symbols used before I remembered “Oh yeah! That’s when I was in my Armello phase!” On the flip side it’s also fascinating to see some of the cards remain virtually unchanged throughout the games life cycle.

What's next for you?

Depending on Journey’s success after our Kickstarter launch (looking at late August!), I am looking to either continue working on modular content expansions for the game. The past 2 years as I’ve been working on the “back end” (production quotes, admin, shipping etc) I have been forced to shelve quite a few interesting Champion concepts. I am greatly looking forward to bringing these to light and testing them with our awesome Discord community.

What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?

You must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with... A herring! Ni!



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