Villains & Vigilantes – an interview with designer Ben Swainbank

Villains COVER

Currently on Kickstarter and going great guns, Villains & Vigilantes takes an old-school RPG and drags it into 2013, turning it into a quick playing card game. I caught up with Ben Swainbank, the game’s designer, to discuss development, history and  how tricky it is to write for the good guys.

Michael: So let’s kick it off. Before we launch into talking about the game, tell me about yourself. What kind of gamer are you?

Ben: I’m a life-long gamer. I grew up GMing RPGs, including all the Superhero RPGs, and playing some war games.

After college I did a real deep-dive into White Wolf’s Vampire: the Eternal Struggle CCG. I played that regularly and competitively for a number of years. And contributed with a bunch of playtesting and some writing and design work. 

More recently, I’ve been enjoying the ongoing game design renaissance and playing quite a wide variety of board and card games. I really gravitate towards innovative games with elegant design, that also have a strong theme, and lots of player interaction.

Anything in particular that’s hitting your table? I always have this vision of designers having stacks and stacks of boxes of stuff, primed and ready to play at a moment’s notice. Does that sound at all familiar?

Pretty much. With my kids, I have a very active in-house gaming group. And we have a sizable collection. Some recent hits on our table have been the revised Tannhauser and Dungeon Command. They both have some interesting innovations for skirmish games. 

We’ve been playing Risk: Legacy. I love the notion of permanent changes to the the game state they introduced there. And Cyclades is a pretty clever spin on the conquest and expand genre.

Nice! I’m a big fan of Cyclades, need to get it to the table more often. So, how do you feel that these games have influenced you? I mean, they’re very different to Villains & Vigilantes. It’s very far from your average eurogame!

I stated design work on the precursor the Villains and Vigilantes Card Game over a decade ago. I was very much in my Vampire CCG phase at the time. So, VTES had some influence on V&V. 

There’s some similarity there in how powers are handled and the joys of card flow and throwing down hot card combinations. At its best, VTES has a really vivid, dynamic combat system. I’ve tried to capture some of that while adding a lot of streamlining and doing away with a lot of abstraction, complexity, and rigid phasing.

So, the newer games had much less influence. Mainly because the Villains and Vigilantes Card Game had really gelled before I got around to playing them.

I can see some of those ideas influencing my future designs though…

Nice. So, tell us about Villains & Vigilantes then. What’s the history, not just of the game we have now, but the game it’s based on?

The original name of the game was “Vanguards of Justice”, named after our RPG super-group, naturally.

It definitely comes from humble beginnings. I had ideas about how I wanted the game to work and flow and a lot of ambition for what I wanted to do. But it’s really, really difficult capture that goal of a “comic book experience” in a strategy game. So, I spent years, on and off, testing, refining, fixing, and iterating over the design. There were a lot of dead ends and indifferent playtesters during that era. But I also had enough eureka moments that let me work through the issues. Eventually, I got to the point where we really were playing the game I had been envisioning.

A really satisfying superhero, strategy game is a rare and wonderful thing. Once it all really clicked, I was pretty excited.

Villains CARDS

Now, you just know that you’re going to get comparisons with Sentinels of the Multiverse. Both are card based, both have their own comic book worlds. Have you had any experience with SotM, and how does Villains & Vigilantes stand apart as a different game?

I welcome the comparison with Sentinels. It’s a fun game. I can see why a lot of people like it. I kind of avoided Sentinels for a while, but recently I had a chance to try it out. I enjoyed it. But my experience also left me comfortable with the choices I made in designing V&V CG. 

They are very different games. Some of the key differences:

V&V is not a co-op game. You’re opposing other players and the villains and heroes are paying by the same set of rules. Both sides have access to the same sets of powers and character types and are really only differentiated by their missions and objectives. That helps with game balance. And playing as a villain has significant appeal. Whenever I introduce the game to a new group of players everyone wants to be the villains. I always end up playing a hero. 

My game is customizable. It’ll come with pre-constructed decks but you’re free to mix and match characters and missions and powers. You can design and try out new combinations of characters and cards.

Locations are treated less abstractly in V&V. There’s a board with different city locations. The characters move around the city in pursuit of their objectives, and each other. This really helps the narrative and thematic aspects of the game, as well as introducing mobility as a important component.

Like a lot of games, Sentinels relies heavily on the “big bag of hit points” mechanic. That’s something I really wanted to avoid. In V&V a few  big super-power hits will knock most anyone down. But there are a variety of ways to avoid the damage or bounce back. That makes for interactive, consequential, combat. But because the game is objective based, you can also come back from getting a guy KOed and get your revenge or go on to victory. 

Given the constraints of their design, Sentinels does a great job with the theme. And their artwork is consistently excellent. I can see the appeal. I think the comparison also highlights how few really good superhero games there are. It’s a tricky space to get right and thus kind of an under-developed theme. I think Villains and Vigilantes Card Game will compare quite favorably, but also there’s room in the multiverse for everyone.

It’s true what you say – everyone wants to be the bad guys if they get the opportunity to. Why do you reckon this is, and what sort of things can your villains get up to?

The bad guys get to do all the fun stuff. For the game I tried to make missions for any appropriately-villainous act I could think of. Currently, the list is:

Defeat a heroic nemesis

Unmask the superheroes

Lure heroes into a trap and defeat them

Put a defeated hero in a deathtrap in your headquarters

Gloat about your superiority to a captured or defeated hero

Take over the city

Destroy the city

Destroy the heroes’ headquarters

Rob a bank

Steal a unique item of power

Kill innocent bystanders

Summon a giant evil demon

Harass a hero’s girlfriend or family member

Become the most powerful being in the universe

Create an army of super-soldiers

Escape from prison

… there may be more. Not all of those are in the base set. But between the Action Pack, expansions, and base set we get to most of them.

It’s harder to come up with fun missions for the heroes. That list looks like…

Send the villains to jail

Keep the villains from escaping from jail

Visit a loved one

Spend time in your secret identity at your day job

Destroy the villains’ headquarters

Explain your moral superiority to a defeated villain

Beat up thugs and minor criminals

Save innocent bystanders from certain doom

There’s some variety there, but mostly the heroes try to defeat and capture the villains. 

You can see why people go for the bad guys. It ain’t easy being a hero.

Very true, dude. Now, let’s talk about balance. With Villains & Vigilantes being an asymmetric game – both sides requiring different things to win – how did you go about making sure that everyone has an equal(ish) chance no matter what side they’re on?

That was a little tricky.

The different missions means players are effectively choosing their own win conditions. And they can choose up to 3 missions each game. For any mission there are the conditions that have to be met to get the reward, and there is the number of mojo points (which count towards victory) you get for success.

When designing a new mission I do a rough estimate how difficult it is to meet the conditions – How many cards, or turns, is it likely to take? How much opposition are you likely to have? — and set the appropriate reward level.

From there it’s just a matter of testing. Lots and lots of playtesting. And then we adjust the conditions or the reward level depending if the missions seemed too fast or slow or easy or too difficult to win with. 

The relatively long development time for this game really helped refine things like that.

But when it comes to balance, the missions are really the tip of the iceberg.

I had to create a character design system so that all the heroes and villains would be relatively balanced. Some of these characters are supposed to be ridiculously powerful. I needed to capture that and still give everyone an even shot at victory.

I wanted to support situations like when a group of villains decide to team up to take down a hero. Or where a group of heroes band together to save the world from a master villain. Players can have up 3 main heroes or villains, and they can choose to put any together, So, I had to make sure a 3 hero deck is balanced going up against 1 villain.

And then there all all the different powers! The game has 8 different powers and each has 3 levels. And the powers are abstracted categories like “energy” or “mental”. I need to insure the different powers and their levels are balanced relative to each other.

That’s why this game took so long to really design. And it’s probably why there are so few superhero games. It’s also why I’m very proud of how it has come together.

So it’s a labour of love! What audience do you reckon will get the most out of the game then?

Oh yes. This is definitely a passion project. 

There’s potentially quite a lot of people who would enjoy it. The whole superhero theme has an obvious appeal. Playing as a supervillain is really fun and kind of unique. And we haven’t even gotten into the ties to the classic RPG. There’s a good group of people with a history with these characters and this world. So, V&V fans will find a lot to love here. 

In terms of pure game-play, it is a “gamer’s game”. The core rules are not that complex. But everything happens with of the interactions of the cards. All powers and plots and missions give the game a lot flexibility and depth. But there can be a lot of information and options to manage. Lot’s of people will love that. But all the “words on cards” can be challenging for some people. 

I’ve demoed with a variety of groups and have gotten a particularly good response from some middle school gamer groups I’ve shown it to. Players who are looking to dive in and run with the theme are going to have fun. But there’s plenty of options and strategy to chew on as well. 

If you like customizable strategy games, or you like superheroes, or your a fan Villains and Vigilantes, you’re going to have a good time with the Villains and Vigilantes Card Game.

Cool! So, let’s wrap this up with one final question. Obviously the campaign’s going well and you’re adding new stuff in on a daily basis, but if you had the opportunity to create the ultimate Villains & Vigilantes set, what would you really love to see included?

Well, that’s not really a hypothetical. In the designing the KS project I certainly took advantage the opportunity to create my ultimate set and make it available. There are a some more heroes and villains and missions that we couldn’t get in. But, for the most part we’ve really strove to put it all out there and make this as awesome as we can. 

We’ve got exciting and ambitions stretch goals. But if we can get the support and get to everything then that’ll be pretty amazing. We’ve got goals to add in an entire hero team – the Indestructibles and then there’s a real V&V fan favorite (and a favorite of mine as well) the Destroyers! 

The game is great as is. I’m very proud of it and think players are really going to enjoy it. And if we can hit all our goals then that’ll truly be the ultimate set for the Villains and Vigilantes Card Game.

Villains & Vigilantes is currently on Kickstarter, with the campaign running through to December 5th. Thanks to Ben for taking time out to talk to me!

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One response to “Villains & Vigilantes – an interview with designer Ben Swainbank

  1. Pingback: Today in Board Games – Issue #94

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