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"We had big dreams!": Dice Throne Adventures creators on going co-op and making 'Gloomhaven Lite'

“I would lie awake at night thinking how fun a dungeon crawl would be.”
Dice Throne: Season One board game Pyro character board
Image: Roxley Games

In the Dice Throne universe, the Mad King has been sitting on his throne for a thousand years. Immortal reign gets boring after the first several centuries, it turns out. To help pass the time, the king summons competitors from across the multiverse to battle each other for a chance at the throne. But what if these powerful figures set aside their differences, banded together as a party of adventurers and went after the monarch instead?

This summer’s Dice Throne Adventures transforms the competitive dice-chucking series into a fully cooperative, campaign-based dungeon-crawling board game, with the upcoming spin-off expansion using the heroes from the first two seasons of Dice Throne.

Dice Throne Adventures represents a significant departure from the core series, but it's all part of the plan according to Nate Chatellier, lead game designer and one third of the Dice Throne creative team, along with illustrator Manny Trembley and graphic designer Gavan Brown of publisher Roxley Games.

"When Dice Throne first launched [in 2017], Manny and I created a ten-year plan," says Chatellier. "We didn't know what we were doing or how rare that was, but we had big dreams!"

Those dreams began with a Kickstarter campaign and a spot in the Tabletop Indie Showcase at the PAX South convention in January 2017. (Full disclosure: Dicebreaker is owned by PAX organiser ReedPop.) Fans fell in love with comic book artist Trembley's colourful fantasy heroes and Chatellier's straightforward gameplay, which combined the classic dice-rolling of Yahtzee with RPG-like heroes and abilities.

Gavan told us, 'You can make the ten-hour drive if you want, but we're probably not going to take it.' We were willing to take the risk. We knew if they played it, they would like it. By the end of that weekend, we had a deal.

The original Dice Throne, now known as Season One, featured six asymmetrical heroes - including the barbarian, the moon elf and the shadow thief - each with their own deck of cards and player boards filled with unique attacks and skills. Players took turns rolling dice and activating abilities on their character board in order to deal damage, activate buffs or inflict status effects, while using cards to upgrade abilities and change critical dice results.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign and release of the first season, Trembley and Chatellier were keen to build on the game's popularity, but weren't interested in selling Dice Throne to a publisher. "We had an unproven game, and $180,000 isn't that much money for a board game on Kickstarter," says Chatellier. He reached out to Gavan Brown, director of Santorini studio Roxley Games, and suggested making the ten-hour drive from Spokane, Washington to the Canadian city of Calgary, Alberta in order to pitch the game to the publisher. "Gavan told us, 'You can do that if you want, but we're probably not going to take it.' We were willing to take the risk. We knew if they played it, they would like it. By the end of that weekend, we had a deal."

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Dice Throne's first season saw a revamped re-release as part of the Dice Throne Adventures Kickstarter campaign. Image: Roxley Games

Armed with Roxley's marketing and graphic design, Dice Throne: Season Two hit Kickstarter in 2018, raising over $750,000 with an additional eight characters, new tri-fold player boards and expanded art on every card, all fully compatible with the first season. A year later, Dice Throne Adventures raised over $1 million, promising to take the dice-battlers on an all new co-op adventure. "That feeling of making a party and going through a dungeon together to fight bosses and get treasure - I would lie awake at night thinking how fun that would be in Dice Throne," says Chatellier.

I would lie awake at night thinking how fun a dungeon crawl would be in Dice Throne.

While the designer admits he's never played a tabletop RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons, Chatellier is an avid fan of dungeon-crawling video games such as Diablo and character-focused multiplayer PC games, including MOBA Heroes of the Storm, which had an influence on Adventures. "I always wanted to make a co-op Dice Throne,” he says. “Manny and Gavan said we couldn't do it without severely changing the rules. But the heroes in Dice Throne are so flavourful and unique that I felt we could do it."

The team sought to maintain Dice Throne's ease of gameplay, quick playing time and randomised replayability that made the dice-throwing battle game such a success. "I wanted it to feel like Diablo with randomised levels, enemies and loot, with a gameplay experience that can completely change depending on which character you're playing," says Chatellier. "And I definitely wanted a dungeon crawl."

Dice Thrones Adventures’ dungeon is presented as a randomised series of cards laid out in one of six different grid patterns for each of four different scenarios. Using new character standees (or optional 3D miniatures), players move from card to card, flipping over traps, minions and loot. Enemy minions roll dice like players do, trying to activate the abilities on their cards in order to deal damage. Players can choose to team up to take them down, or split up and go their own way, until they unlock the escape portal and confront a final boss.

I love big RPG games like Gloomhaven, but it's so big and hard to bring to the table. I wanted Gloomhaven Lite.

"Originally you would go through the dungeon and fight the boss in one session," says Chatellier. "But we wanted to keep the game length under an hour, and with a boss fight it was over two hours. Additionally the boss would scale for how long you were in the dungeon, turning the dungeon into a push-your-luck system. Spending more time in the dungeon could grant better loot, but would also make the boss harder. I liked the mechanic, but it was fiddly keeping track of the boss' growing stats."

The solution was to break the boss fight out into a separate game session. "If you want to go two hours straight and battle the boss after the dungeon, you can," says Chatellier. "But you can also use the built-in save state to play the dungeon one night, and fight the boss the next. I love big RPG games like Gloomhaven, but it's so big and hard to bring to the table. I wanted Gloomhaven Lite."

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Dice Throne Adventures turns the competitive game into a co-op dungeon-crawler, complete with loot. Image: Roxley Games

The full Dice Throne Adventures campaign includes four dungeon crawls and four bosses, for a total of eight total scenarios, plus a secret box unlocked after the Mad King is defeated for the first time, much like a legacy game.

Bosses such as the Mad King function like player characters controlled by the game. They get their own player boards and deck of cards with objectives that dictate what they're trying to roll on their turn. If they miss their goal - as is often the case in Dice Throne - bosses look to the next ability in their priority, using initiative numbers. No dungeon master is required, though Chatellier admits relishing the DM role while presenting the upcoming board game at conventions.

It was challenging trying to balance 16 heroes. Some characters felt like they were better options for co-op than others.

Transforming a competitive game into a co-operative one takes a lot of balancing and fine-tuning - especially crucial given the variety of strengths, weaknesses and playstyles across the Dice Throne roster. The Pyromancer deals a lot of damage quickly, but has little-to-no defensive abilities, while the Shadow Thief bides their time in order to build up a huge amount of combat points. Some heroes work entirely around buffs and debuffs, such as the Moon Elf, Paladin and Seraph, whereas others involve entire subsystems to keep track of, like the Huntress' pet and the Artificer's bots.

"It was challenging trying to balance 16 heroes," says Chatellier. "Arguably our heroes are more dynamic than Gloomhaven's! Some characters felt like they were better options for co-op than others." Too many heroes had unfair advantages and disadvantages in dungeons that ran too long, with the designers working to pare the dungeon crawl down to the perfect length so no one player was punished for choosing a certain character.

Another balancing change involved removing player elimination. "Originally we found some players would sacrifice themselves during the boss fight," says Chatellier. "It was a valid strategy, but that player was out for the rest of the match. I wanted to create a much more family-friendly cooperative experience." In the final ruleset, if anyone dies, it's game over - though every party now starts with a number of healing surges that can be used to revive teammates in case of a nasty roll. "It's so much more interactive now. The pyromancer can melt a ton of enemies in a four-player game, at the cost of needing more protection. I have to think of my allies, as no-one can die."

The Dice Throne team have been playtesting Adventures around the clock in the lead up to its release later this year, including the use of private testers over Tabletop Simulator. Despite his excitement about the upcoming game, Chatellier is quick to mention that the core Dice Throne experience remains unchanged. "A large percentage of our fans have no interest in co-ops, and that's great. These are expansions to the core game of Dice Throne."

Fans of Dice Throne’s first two seasons will be grateful to know that the design team has no fewer than 16 new heroes in various stages of development for the series, including several who have been kicking around since Season One. "Heroes who I desperately want in the game," teases Chatellier, though they're not ready to name names.

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All of Dice Throne's characters can be used in any of the games. Image: Roxley Games

The future of Dice Throne looks full of enough content to keep even the Mad King busy. Even so, Chatellier is already looking to take the series even further than Adventures’ inventive co-op expansion, teasing the potential of a full-blown MOBA board game set in the Dice Throne universe. “We may already have some mechanics in mind for it,” the designer says. “Let's just say I love MOBAs and co-ops.”

It’s all according to that ambitious schedule which - so far, at least - has gone like a dream.

"That was on my 10-year plan,” Chatellier affirms.