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Dead by Daylight: The Board Game creator on turning the hit video game into “co-op murder Battleship”

D. Brad Talton talks making the ultimate Halloween party game, why bigger boxes aren’t always better and ensuring players have fun 99% of the time.

Dead by Daylight board game miniatures
Image credit: Level 99 Games

A Dead by Daylight board game is releasing in time for this Halloween, bringing the hugely popular multiplayer video game’s deadly hide-and-seek match to the tabletop.

Dead by Daylight: The Board Game will follow the competitive format of its digital counterpart closely, pitting one player’s terrifying killer - picked from over 30 characters seen in the video game - against the rest of the group’s survivors as they attempt to restart a number of generators around the board and make it out alive.

Survivors must use the movement cards at their disposal, along with their unique loadout of helpful perks and items collected from around each map, to outrun the killer - equipped with their own unique abilities - and avoid being sacrificed before they can escape.

Combining the hidden movement of games such as Fury of Dracula and Letters from Whitechapel with the team challenge of co-op board games like Pandemic and Dead by Daylight’s brutal horror-movie influences, it looks to be a faithful take on the video game’s atmosphere and tension while transforming it from screen to table.

Dead by Daylight: The Board Game will feature all of the video game's characters up to last year's All-Kill DLC.

Behind Dead by Daylight’s tabletop adaptation is Level 99 Games, the publisher known for its board games heavily inspired by classic video games, including fighting game series Exceed, retro-flavoured Pixel Tactics and fast-paced puzzle game Bullet.

Ahead of Dead by Daylight: The Board Game’s Kickstarter campaign on March 29th, we spoke to designer D. Brad Talton about keeping the spirit of the video game alive in its board game incarnation, crafting the perfect game to break out at a Halloween party and which video games genres the designer is keen to bring to the tabletop next.

How long have you been working on this? Are we talking years at this point?

We actually started in April last year. Around the time that the All-Kill chapter came out for Dead by Daylight. That was the game that kind of became the talk of our board game nights. We have a team board game night, with all of our friends and most of the team from Level 99 Games. We were talking about what video games we were playing, and we were all talking about Dead by Daylight at that point. And so I said, "Well, everybody's into it, maybe I'll just make a board game. And, if it works out, maybe it'll actually be a Dead by Daylight board game. And if it doesn't, it's still a lot of fun with friends."

We made the game, and we pitched it. And Behaviour [Interactive, the developer of Dead by Daylight] was really interested. And so we started going through that partnership and doing the design. It took us a good part of last year to do the design.

We were actually thinking that we would try and launch last October for this October. That was our original plan. But we decided we wanted to launch with the game in hand; rather than the game being design-complete, we wanted it to be product-complete. And so that's why we pushed forward to April.

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Was there a lot of back-and-forth between you and the studio? You've obviously worked with video game IP before - was it a different level of involvement this time around? Or did they essentially just hand you the killers, the survivors and say, “Here you go!”

It was very involved. The team at Behaviour are board gamers themselves, and they were really interested in how we would adapt the licence. They wanted to play the game, see it for themselves and approve a lot of the sort of large design philosophy. They gave us a very open space to make the game, but they definitely approved the gameplay that we created.

We wanted to make a game that you could break out at a Halloween party, play for an hour and then go on with your festivities.

Did you run into any particular hurdles in translating Dead by Daylight from digital to physical in terms of keeping the overall feel of either specific killers and survivors, or the wider balance of how they might work in terms of a board game?

Oh, absolutely. Dead by Daylight is a really huge game, and there's a lot of mechanics to it. We had to be really careful about what we decide to keep in and what we have to take out.

With this game, we felt that the real target audience is going to be people who are people who are into the video game, sharing this game with maybe people who are not necessarily into the video game - people who are coming at it either from outside of the video game or outside of board games entirely.

We wanted to make a game that you could break out at a Halloween party, play for an hour and then go on with your festivities. Or that you could break out at a regular board game night and just play. For that reason, we built the size of the box, and the contents of the box and sort of the tone of gameplay around those ideas.

Players move between locations on the board by playing movement cards, with both survivors and the killer needing to predict their opponents' moves.

When we spoke previously about the Dead by Daylight board game, you mentioned that there was inspiration drawn from Scotland Yard. (The classic hidden-movement board game.) And then also Battleship, which I was surprised to hear…

The pitch I gave to Behaviour was was 'cooperative murder Battleship'. Then they said, "Oh, that sounds interesting." We actually had a lot of versions of the game that were very intertwined with hidden information. We had a central board and the players would have screens, and behind the board there was secret information. The killer actually had a map of the whole labyrinth that was randomised behind their screen, so they knew where all the props were and such. We had all of those tools. In the end, we scrapped a lot of that.

Managing secret information is really tough. And this is a very fast-paced game, where you expect to reveal and to hide, many, many times. What we discovered through many tests is that these moments of revealing your position and hiding your position were the key moments of the game. And we wanted to be doing that every single turn. We didn't want to have two or three turns where the killer just gropes around in the dark looking for you, or where you just search blindly for a generator in a labyrinth you don't understand.

Ultimately, we took all of those secrets, all those screens, out of the game and instead used just the movement system to obscure your position. When you make a move, you don't know where the killer is going to go, and they don't know where you're gonna go. And before anybody can interact with each other, everybody has moved. You're always one turn behind the other side in terms of understanding what they're trying to do. That was really all the hidden information we needed.

There's a real danger of picking a more complicated game system where a simpler one can suffice. I'm really glad and I'm really happy with the final hidden information that we came up with in the game that only lives for one single turn.

Dead by Daylight board game miniatures
Each killer has a unique ability drawn from their powers in the video game, while survivors can make use of their loadout of perks and items they find around the map. | Image credit: Level 99 Games

The video game itself is fully multiplayer - there's not a single-player mode or even a mode against AI - and you’ve adapted that directly as a one-versus-many board game. We've seen a number of board games recently go from either one-versus-many or another competitive format to fully cooperative, either through physical mechanics or something like a companion app…

Or an automa deck or something else, so you can play a game solo.

Exactly, yeah. Was that something you ever considered for Dead by Daylight: The Board Game?

We did talk about it in design, but it was pretty quickly scrapped: the idea of a solo or fully cooperative mode. One [reason] was time; we were going to do this game in a year. That was our goal: to get this game by next October. Our usual turnaround for a game is 24 months to 32 months. This game is going to be done in just about… I want to say 18 months. We're working very fast on this so we don't have time to build mechanics that aren't supporting our core idea.

What we guarantee is that when you pull this game out with the right player count, you will have a good experience 99% of the time.

At the same time, we didn't want to create a mode that would not always generate a good play experience. With an automa or a cooperative mode, in a game like this that's a very directly competitive game, it can be really hit or miss. We didn't think that it would really give the core experience of what the versus mode gave - what the game was really about.

It was the same thing with the two-player mode - with one player controlling all the survivors and one player controlling the killer, we weren't generating a consistently good experience. We said, "Well, let's just cut it, and we'll make three the minimum player count." It's not as trendy to have those player counts. But what we guarantee is that when you pull this game out with the right player count, you will have the experience that we intended in design, and you will have a good experience 99% of the time. That consistency was more important to us than having a big feature list.

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Up to a few years ago, it felt like Level 99 was mostly known for its card games. Is the scope of Dead by Daylight something that you're looking at from now on in terms of miniatures and really blowing the scale of these games out a bit?

Dead by Daylight is a big game, but it's not a complex game. Every part in the game is very specific, in its uses; it's used in just about every playthrough. So, in my mind, the game is much simpler than a big modern big-box board game. At least in terms of what we'd call intellectual components; the ideas behind it and the categories of things are quite straightforward. Fewer moving parts is always a good idea.

There's a tough balance between the game that you want to create, the accessibility of that game and then, on the other corner of that triangle, the value proposition that you're making. When we see a movie, or a book, or a video game, we'll pay top dollar for an excellent design. We still haven't reached that level of maturity in the board game industry. We see a game and the bits have to justify the full price of admission; the design is an afterthought. Which is kind of a shame, because we have a lot of games these days with nice bits and gameplay that hasn't been fully thought through.

I want to make sure that we're not falling into that trap at Level 99 Games. That we're delivering a great game first, and then taking all and only the pieces we need to support that great gameplay, not chasing after a bunch of small expansions or a bunch of extra modes just so we can have a giant-looking list of features.

Dead by Daylight's Collector's Edition will include hook miniatures - which the survivor figures can be placed onto for real.

Hook miniatures is the most extravagant you'll get, it's sounding like?

That was too good to pass up! The generators are the same way. The pistons slot into them to show your progress towards completing the generator. So we have a little bit of toy factor in the game, just enough to give it that classic board game feel - just enough that it feels like a game you could dig out of the attic.

When we see a movie, or a book, or a video game, we'll pay top dollar for an excellent design. We still haven't reached that level of maturity in the board game industry.

You've worked particularly with fighting video games, you've now done survival horror. Are there video game genres in general that you're looking at and thinking: 'Someone should really do a board game like that'?

There are a lot of genres that I want to do. But we're not alone in the video games-to-board games world anymore. There's some genres that are still really unrepresented, though. We only have like two, maybe three games that try to capture the first-person shooter genre. I feel like everybody has just said, "Oh, this is a video game, there's no way that we can bring that to the tabletop." And they've given up on it.

Open-world games; we've got some really cool open-world board games now with Gloomhaven and with Sleeping Gods. I would say that those are the closest you get to an open-world video game - until you go into RPGs, which are the true open-world games. I think there's still room to do that.

I don't know why we don't have more battle royale games in the tabletop space, why we haven't done that. Because it doesn't seem like such a hard genre to dig into. So yeah, so we're definitely looking at how we could capture the feel of some of those, and they might show up on a future announcement.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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