Undine Studios Inducted Into Hall of Fame

We’re very pleased to induct Ben Haskett of Undine Studios into The Game Crafter's Hall of Fame for his work on Baldrich’s Tomb, which won him the top spot in our RPG Challenge.

Tell us about Undine Studios, where the name came from, and how long you’ve been designing games under that label.

Undine Studios is a label that I’ve been operating under for about eight years, but Baldrich’s Tomb marks the first time I’ve ever used the name for anything other than web design. I’ve been a Flash web designer since about 2004, building sites mostly for independent musicians, management companies and filmmakers. When the idea for Baldrich’s Tomb popped into my head, the name Undine Studios seemed like a natural fit.

Although the name Undine refers to a mythological water nymph, I had first heard the name mentioned in a video game for the Super Nintendo called Secret of Mana (I was about eight years old at the time). As a young child, I could never get very far into the game during a single rental, and the part where the spirit Undine grants your character powers was usually my stopping point (I should note that when I was few years older, I did finish the game. Today, it remains one of my favorites). Anyway, when I first picked the name for a web design label, I thought I was giving a nod to Secret of Mana. A few years later, I realized I had actually named myself after what is basically a pretty ubiquitous mermaid. But the name stuck!

Please describe Baldrich’s Tomb.

Baldrich’s Tomb is a roguelike* board game for 2-4 players. The game takes place in a four-story, underground tomb that is constantly being churned from the inside out by the late sorcerer Baldrich. The locations of everything—including treasures, traps, monsters, and even the exits—are completely randomized for every game as a result of Baldrich smashing the crypt to bits. The players are tasked with making their way down to the bottom of this tomb, collecting a precious treasure, and then climbing back out.

But this is really only a means to an end. The real reason for a group of treasure hunters to explore a dangerous tomb is so that they can (hopefully) acquire heaps of treasure. Players will use their wit, push their luck, and call upon powerful scrolls to help themselves and/or hinder others, all in the pursuit of treasure points. The player to make it out of the tomb with the most points wins.

*I should note that I only call Baldrich’s Tomb a roguelike board game (A roguelike is a sub-genre of video games where players are usually trying to traverse randomly generated levels inhabited by monsters and traps) because that is what I originally set out to create. You see, before I got the idea for Baldrich’s Tomb, The Settlers of Catan was really the only “hardcore” board game I had ever played; my game was developed in a vacuum, without any knowledge of almost any other board games. As I started to get serious about making the game, my experiences with The Game Crafter and websites like Board Game Geek led me to realize that the term “roguelike board game” is a bit of a misnomer. That is, when you step back and take a look at a roguelike, it’s clear that it’s more-or-less a digital representation of a dungeon-crawling board game. Still, I hope that I was able to capture a lot of the same charm that usually shows up in graphical roguelikes like Chunsoft’s Shiren the Wanderer.

Speaking of which, it was actually Shiren the Wanderer that led to the idea for Baldrich’s Tomb. The main campaign in Shiren the Wanderer is pretty short—about two hours if you know what you’re doing—and the player’s experience is largely built not by the terrain or the level design, but by the monsters the player faces and the items that he or she is lucky enough to pick up along the way. Similarly, what I set out to do in Baldrich’s Tomb is to get the most out of a single, reusable level (a simple 8x8 grid) and build an experience for the player based on the scrolls, traps, monsters and treasures that might be encountered during the journey.

Did you create a design journal for your game? If so, did you publish it anywhere?

I did not, but I still have all of the prototypes, so here are some pictures:

So, when I first had the idea for the game, it was pretty bloated. The game board was made up of 4 8”x10” sheets of paper, measuring 16”x20” total. Then, there were three decks of game cards, 100 event tokens, 100 yellow treasure point tokens, 35 red HP tokens, 10 black gems, a small parts bag, and a large parts bag. All of the paper products were printed at Fed-Ex, and all of the game bits were purchased at various game parts stores (I had not yet heard of TGC).

The main difference between this original version and the completed product was how items were discovered. When players would come across one of the black gems on the board, they would reach into the small parts bag and pull out a card stock token that either had a treasure, a trap, a monster, or a scroll. There was a complicated system of transferring nine random tokens from the big bag to the small bag at the beginning of each level, plus the one exit token. It was, admittedly, a bit tedious and overblown. Additionally, it was possible for an entire level to be inhabited by nothing but monsters, and another level to be inhabited by nothing but treasures. Although this idea was inspired directly by the random nature of roguelikes, it made for a potentially monotonous experience as a board game.

Another difference was the name. I originally settled on the name Osrich’s Tomb, but then I found out that OSRIC is a D&D simulacrum. I figured—with the grid, and the player pieces, and the dungeons—I should probably try to distance myself from D&D a bit, so I renamed it to Baldrich’s Tomb (I’ve got a thing for adding an H to names that end with hard Cs). It was for the best; a few people thought it was called Ostrich’s Tomb.

So you already had the idea for Baldrich’s Tomb in your head before the RPG Challenge was announced?

Yes I did, but only just. As you can see above, the game came a long way from conception to completion. I had been looking for a place online where I could easily print off copies of my game (I cut out all of the cards and tokens by hand on the original prototype, and once was enough!), and about three days after I found TGC, the RPG contest was announced. At that point in time, the idea for Baldrich’s Tomb was still only about two weeks old.

What made you decide to enter your game into the contest?

Mostly, it was timing—I would have been crazy not to! I had stumbled upon TGC’s website with the sole purpose of creating an RPG board game, and I just happened to find it right before TGC announced the contest. It was an easy decision.

Would you have been motivated to work on the game as much as you did without the contest?

Not at all. To be honest, the purpose of this game was just to have something to play with my wife, my brothers, and a few friends. The original incarnation had almost all of its images either poorly illustrated by myself, ripped from Dragon Quest games or taken from other, random internet sources (this was, of course, not something I was selling; it was just meant for fun). Also, as I said before, it was bloated.

The first thing that I knew I had to do was get some good, legitimate (read: not stolen) art. I spent a lot of time looking for an artist who could help me with the many illustrations I needed (about 80). Oddly enough, I finally found a great artist by the name of Kevin Harris right here on TGC’s forums! He had made a thread in the help wanted section, stating that he was looking for a project to get involved with. What really caught my eye, however, was that he was looking to do it for free! After we had exchanged a few emails and he knew what I wanted, he said he’d start working on it as soon as he could. To be honest, I was kinda worried that I had been wasting my time. I couldn’t believe that there someone out there who would be so willing (not to mention, selfless) to help out a complete stranger with sooo much work, but Kevin really surprised me. The very next day, emails started trickling in with attachments. Sometimes it was a single illustration every couple of days, and other times, he would send up to a dozen in a single day.

He did an incredible job with all of the art. All in all, he created somewhere around 55 illustrations for me to use in Baldrich’s Tomb. I did the rest of the art myself and, while I think my portion looks good enough, the game simply would not be nearly as fun to experience without all of the eye candy that Kevin provided… I think his art adds a great deal of excitement to the game.

The second thing I knew I had to do was lower the cost. Once again, the original game was bloated; I calculated what it would cost to produce the original game through TGC, and the base price was almost sixty dollars! I had sort of accepted the fact that I would just be making a very expensive game, until I saw in the contest rules that the base price had to be under $19.99. It was this rule that gave me the most trouble, but it eventually led to me abandoning the 100 tokens with two bags, and evolving that into a mere 11 tokens that would be randomly scattered at the beginning of each level. This really turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to rethink the game and make it better. By the end, the game was easier to explain to new players, easier to setup, and it moved along at a quicker pace. Most importantly, though, it could now be made for about twenty dollars. In retrospect, I would argue that the $19.99 rule is one of the most important rules in TGC’s many contests because it really does force the designer to question the necessity of every single game piece.

Considering my original aspirations for Baldrich’s Tomb—a game to pull out of the closet every once in a while to play with close friends—I do not think that I would have strived to make it the game it is today.

Now that the contest is over, do you have any expansions planned for Baldrich’s Tomb?

If there is any demand for it, sure. For the time being, however, I think I’m more interested cultivating more feedback on the game as it is. I’m going to be shipping the game out to a few review websites soon and based on what they say, I’ll then look at the possibility of expanding the scope of Baldrich’s Tomb.

Has winning inspired you to enter more contests or design more games?

Winning this contest has definitely inspired me, but I can’t help but feel like all of my subsequent ideas are forced. I’m definitely going to take it slow and let the ideas take shape in my head before beginning work on a second game. However, if anyone would like to collaborate on a game, I would be excited to try that!

Could you describe any influence The Game Crafter had on your success as a game designer?

All I can really say about this is that being able to publish my game here on The Game Crafter makes me feel like I can do anything. Hitting the “publish” button is a truly surreal experience.

What’s next for you?

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but again, board games were kind of an unexplored territory for me before I had the idea for Baldrich’s Tomb. Since then, I’ve slowly started amassing a collection of board and card games and I play them whenever possible. Recent favorites are a fantastic card game called Dominion, as well as a great worker placement game called Alien Frontiers. Not too long ago, I didn’t think board game experiences went beyond Monopoly, Scrabble, or the like. So this is really a whole new world for me.

Here on The Game Crafter, I’ve just recently ordered both Forge and Zombie Fried, and those two games look like a blast.

Long story short, I think what is next for me is just being a consumer for a while. Playing board games with other people satisfies an itch that multiplayer video games have never scratched, so I plan on soaking up as much of this industry as I can. Still on my radar are Ticket to Ride and the recently-released Lords of Waterdeep.

Any last words of encouragement or advice to all the designers reading this who would love to experience your success?

Definitely: Focus on whatever you can do best, be it the writing, the game mechanics, or the art, and pour your heart into it. When you’ve done that, seek out friends to help you with the rest. I found a great friend in Kevin Harris just by lurking around the forums here. If you’re really good at one aspect, then know that—if there’s anything I’ve learned from TGC—there are many friendly people here who would probably help you with other areas. It’s a shame to see a game in the store here that is probably great, only to see it stuble due to poorly written rules or see so many spelling errors or weird image formatting mistakes. This community is incredibly friendly, and my experiences here tell me that help is available.

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