Interview with Daniel Solis (the designer behind Pod-X, Junk Orbit, and Kodama) about his newest game, Athelion: Conclave of Power coming from Button Shy.
Daniel, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Since we are at the very start of 2019, let me ask have you set any goals either as a game player or as a game designer for 2019?
Daniel: As a player: I want to spend more time playing games I haven’t had a chance to get to the table yet. Those don’t necessarily have to be new games, but just new to me. I also want to stretch my boundaries a little bit beyond the usual comforts of my short light games or 2p abstracts. I’d like to test myself against mid-weight and heavier euros, even if I won’t be designing one.
As a designer: I want to read more. That may seem incongruous, but I get far more ideas from reading novels than anything else. I have a stack of novels and comics. It’s a satisfying luxury to just sit and focus on one thing at a time. I can’t do that often enough, but it’s a joy when I am able. I just read Record of a Spaceborne Few by Becky Chambers, All Systems Red by Martha Wells, Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. In 2019, I look forward to reading the collected Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor and finally getting to the Fifth Season novels by N.K. Jemisin.
We are here today to talk about Anthelion: Conclave of Power, which is your newest Button Shy wallet game. It’s based on another wallet game, John du Bois’ Avignon Clash of Popes, but set in Button Shy’s “Pocket Universe.” For those that might not be familiar could you tell us about the gameplay and also how it will differ gameplay wise from Avignon?
Daniel: Yep! Anthelion is a futuristic reboot of Avignon: Clash of Popes, designed by John du Bois. I do want to make it clear that Anthelion is a standalone game and the start of a new game franchise, though.
The core of the game is that you and your opponent are playing five tug-of-war games simultaneously. You are pushing and pulling five different characters across the board, trying to be the first to get ten points or more off of the board on your side. Each character and planet has their own “Petition,” which pushes and pulls multiple characters at once. The puzzle is figuring out how to combine these petitions to get board advantage, without sacrificing too much in the process.
The three main differences from Avignon:
1) We switched to a point-based victory to open up more design space. Now you’re trying to get ten points instead of three cards. That allowed us to tweak the values of certain characters at a granular level, balancing them against their abilities.
2) Every character and planet in the game is unique. None of the characters are repeated in the deck, so you can’t rely on another one of that particular card coming up in the deck. This adds a bit of gravitas when you take that character out of play.
3) We also streamlined game terms to make the game easier to learn and introduce future expansions. Coming from a graphic design background, I love using icons and diagrams, but that would make it harder for us to onboard new players and design new powers. We found it easier to use clear, consistent text with the occasional inline icon for brevity.
Every game has a story behind it, how did Anthelion come about?
Daniel: I often post early ideas on Twitter first. If you follow me there, you’re familiar with the firehose of design thoughts. Most of the time, I just have to get these loose thoughts out so I can focus on the more urgent tasks at hand. It’s my way of decluttering my brain.
So, it’s rare that many of those ideas develop into something worthwhile. Sometimes another designer can see the potential in an idea that I couldn’t. That was the case when I posted this idea for a tug-of-war driven by card game mechanisms.
I couldn’t quite gel it into something functional. That’s a normal process of design for me. However, John du Bois picked up that idea and developed it into something lovely in Avignon.
That is really interesting, so it started with your idea, then John ran with it, and now you get to play with the engine. Did you know going in you wanted to put your own twist on it? Did Button Shy approach you or did you approach them about working on this?
Daniel: When I was working on POD-X, Jason Tagmire said he was going to make it a part of a science-fiction setting that he’d explore in a series of games from Button Shy. I hadn’t initially designed POD-X for that setting, so I wanted to take a crack at adapting a couple of other existing Button Shy titles to that universe. I approached Button Shy with a couple of options to pursue and “space popes” was the winner.
In Athelion there are always the same two factions with a neutral faction as well. The neutral factions can be changed out. As far as the two base factions the Liberation and the Dynasty, do you have a favorite to play as?
Daniel: I really like playing Dynasty, aiming for a quick win with the Emperox. Its base value is 4 points, but as the Dynasty player, I get an additional point for it, taking me halfway to victory. I like having that threat on the board because either it forces my opponent to waste their turn pulling and ejecting it from play. I can use that tempo shift as leverage to get myself into a checkmate scenario. The downside is Liberation can quickly ramp up bonus points if I’m too aggressive about recruiting certain characters.
The curious thing about this game is that Dynasty can easily recruit Liberation characters and vice versa. Because our game is set after a galactic conflict, we have a lot more leeway in our fiction to explain how characters change their allegiances like this. Because each player gets bonus points for recruiting characters of their own faction, players often recruit the opposing faction just to deny their opponent those bonuses.
As just mentioned, the game will also feature neutral factions, the base game comes with the Rouges. However, there will be others that can be gotten through future Board Game of the Month(s), I believe. Do the factions each feel thematically different and you have a personal favorite neutral faction?
Daniel: Yes, each faction is pretty different from each other. One of the early design decisions was that the “Eject” petition would be printed on the middle location card of the location row. Essentially, we put the neutral homeworld directly in the middle of the conflict between the two players.
As a result, when we introduce a new faction, we also slightly tweak how ejections work. The Rogue faction has the simplest petition since it’s part of the base game: “Eject a character.” We have another faction coming up that is based around a sheltered Forest Moon, so we added an attribute to that location: “No character can be ejected from Forest Moon.”
Aside from that, the new homeworlds also add their own advanced rules to the game. For example, the Android homeworld says that all of the Androids are “networked” with each other. That means each Android character can use the petition of another Android character. However, we wanted to also represent “network lag,” so we added one more clause. If network a petition, that can be the only action you do that turn. A standard turn allows two actions, so you’re paying a big cost to use that attribute.
We’re currently developing a faction of cultists who worship their sun and moon as a binary pantheon. Their petitions are also binary, meaning they have different effects if you use them as your first or second action of your turn.
I can’t say for sure which is my favorite since we’re still in different stages of development for each one, but I suspect I’ll spend most of my time playing with the Rogues. They’re part of the base game for a reason. They’re a classic character concept, easy to introduce to new players, and have lots of cool interaction with Dynasty and Liberation.
What is the biggest lesson you think you learned as a game designer or graphic designer from Anthelion?
Daniel: As a game designer: Getting as much gameplay out of as little text as possible.
As a graphic designer: Same! 🙂
As we wrap this up, are there other Daniel Solis games we should be on the lookout for in 2019?
Daniel: Junk Orbit is my newest release and I’m still so happy with how it turned out. I’m glad to see other players enjoying it as well.
I have a lot of game prototypes out with publishers now, but those won’t be released until a couple of years from now. You’ll hear about those when there’s something more to say.
Thank you again, Daniel, for taking some time you to do this interview.
Readers can find Daniel on Twitter @DanielSolis and if you would like to learn more about Anthelion: Conclave of Power, you can do so by clicking here which will take you to the Kickstarter page.
For those of you that like to learn some more behind the scenes info, Daniel posted on his Patreon, a diary on Anthelion‘s graphic design and typography that can be found here – The Look of Anthelion: Conclave of Power