Bad Baby Lich Lords has been through at least 87 iterations since a trio of designers decided to bring the competitive card battler to life. Meeting digitally once a week over the course of a couple of years, the design team tell Dicebreaker that they spurned easy solutions in their pursuit of something that feels good to hold and play.
The concept for Bad Baby Lich Lords comes from illustrator Tay Dow. They pitched a simple whip-quick card game to Heart of the Deernicorn’s Ross Cowman, who loved the idea and welcomed a new challenge. He brought in designer Nathan Weisman early on, but the core team consisted of Dow, Cowman and video game developer Patrick Kemp.
You can picture [Bad Baby Lich Lords] as an alternate universe where you wake up, eat cereal and watch this show on TV.
Bad Baby Lich Lords pits two to four players against one another as bored children of the Lich King, traipsing through his dead realms and bringing undead minions back to life in order to make enough noise to rouse the sleeping lich from his deep slumber. Players compete to claim realm cards and the noise value attached to them in a race to five points - claiming realms requires raising enough minions to satisfy the requirements on each realm card.
Players take turns raising a minion, either from the bone pile attached to each realm or from their own board space. Once raised, that minion’s activated ability hits the table; some immediately dig up another skeleton, while others cast spells, fight opponents or coerce an opponent’s minions to their realm. This is the only real verb players have in Bad Baby Lich Lords, and it keeps games under 20 minutes and frantic in the best way.
The cards themselves cohere to the idea that everything you need to play is conveyed on the card in as few words as possible. Dow’s illustrations, playing in a silly, pun-filled space between 1920s cartoons (think Cuphead) and Adventure Time, are accompanied by little ability symbols and a name - Dow says Akira Toriyama’s work on the Dragon Quest video game series was a big inspiration. The reverse side is an even more pared-down undead version, showing their skeletal remains before the Lich’s progeny come tearing through the realm. All of this is intentional and, according to the team, core to their guiding ethos.
“As a kid, I would look at my Pokémon cards and think, ‘I can't wait to play the game that's as cool as these drawings,’” Dow says. “But the cards were full of all this other text and information, like how much the Pokemon weighs - all of this garbage that you kind of imagine is going to turn into this cool thing. It just doesn't play like it looks.”
Cowman brought his design experience as the head of Heart of the Deernicorn, makers of RPGs such as City of Winter, Fall of Magic and BFF! - Best Friends Forever. Though he had never designed a card game before, he admitted the same was true before he began a company now known for producing thoughtfully designed and constructed tabletop games. In short, this was simply another chance to grow.
Kemp was, in the words of the other two, the glue that kept the whole mess together. Dow admits a penchant for cutting out as much as possible, as if trying to strip a street racer down to its bare chassis. Cowman, on the other hand, wanted to add more complexity and interaction. With 16 years of digital game design under his belt, plenty of it structured by project management, Kemp loved the passion and friction of a small team chipping away at a block of game design marble.
Bad Baby Lich Lords remains a low-impact game that sets up in the space of an advert break.
One of the team’s most important lodestones was ensuring Bad Baby Lich Lords felt like a Saturday morning cartoon experience - no school, no obligations, just friends and mayhem and glorious possibility. “Games are not cartoony as often as I would like them to be,” says Dow. “I wanted to make a game full of cartoons. Their whole point is that they ought to have this immediacy to them.”
“You can picture [Bad Baby Lich Lords] as an alternate universe where you wake up, eat cereal and watch this show on TV,” Kemp says of the world and character design. “You can totally picture a line of toys that goes with this show.” Dow adds that he spent hours browsing toy listings on eBay, drawing inspiration from half-forgotten action figures and plastic pieces someone once loved and cherished.
Most people’s natural instinct is to flip a card over, hence why there are illustrations on both sides. The team followed that impulse with the rest of the components. Even with more than 100 cards and slim plastic frames for each realm, Bad Baby Lich Lords remains a low-impact game that sets up in the space of an advert break.
It boasts what the team characterises as a low barrier of entry, combined with a high skill ceiling. A five-year-old kid should understand the basic rules in the span of a conversation, but more veteran card players will find plenty of combo material within the mechanics. In a short demo, Kemp showed the sort of mastery you only accrue after playtesting a game for dozens of weeks, but I fended off the inevitable defeat admirably for a first-timer.
Bad Baby Lich Lords definitely pushes the boundaries of what many people associate with Heart of the Deernicorn, but it could easily fit into the lives of board gamers of any experience level. One can never have enough quick-hit games that both set up and clean up with a snap of the fingers. Those curious can find a free digital demo on Bad Baby Lich Lord’s Kickstarter campaign, which runs through October 31st. Fulfilment to backers is expected to begin in August 2023.