Andrew Navaro has left his position as studio manager at Chip Theory Games - the publisher behind the upcoming Elder Scrolls board game - after waving goodbye to an extensive career with tabletop giant Fantasy Flight Games just a year or so before. This sudden shift in roles was motivated by the fact that, in 2020, Navaro founded his own independent studio, Earthborne Games, with the publisher’s first title, Earthborne Rangers, unveiled this summer.
A co-op card game with its roots in many of the living card games Navaro served as creative director on during his time at Fantasy Flight - including the likes of Arkham Horror: The Card Game and Marvel Champions - Earthborne Rangers seems to be taking plenty of inspiration from its predecessors when it comes to fundamental mechanics.
“If you're familiar with those games,” Navaro says, “I think you have a very good base understanding of the type of game this is.”
While Earthborne Rangers is looking back for ideas on cardplay, it’s looking forward when it comes to including roleplaying elements for players to engage with. Earthborne Rangers won’t just feature a selection of pre-generated characters for players to choose from, as in roleplaying-lite games such as Gloomhaven, but will enable players to mould their own characters to explore the world of the game with. There will be some predetermined aspects that players will need to pick from - such as specialities that give players access to certain cards - but there will still be opportunities to form personalities in a way that other co-op card games may not have done before.
My hope is that whenever you get a new card in your deck, that will be a direct result of some cool thing that you did in the campaign.
“When imagining if this is the only game I ever get to make, I should just do the thing I love the most,” Navaro says. “So I wanted to make a card game that also brought in a bunch of RPG things.
“You’ll be able to create your character and go through a process very much like a roleplaying character creation process.”
The character creation decisions players make will be reflected by cards they then use to build their deck. As the players’ characters gain new experience and complete certain quests, they’ll acquire new cards to add to their decks - some of which will bear specific references and meanings connected to what they did to get them. “My hope is that whenever you get a new card in your deck, that will be a direct result of some cool thing that you did in the campaign,” explains Navaro.
There’s 100% an option in this game to go out into the world and explore and not put any weapons in your deck.
Players can also choose to not include certain cards in their deck if they want to approach Earthborne Rangers in a particular way, such as attempting to play the game in a non-lethal manner. “There’s 100% an option in this game to go out into the world and explore and not put any weapons in your deck. And that's definitely more challenging.”
Despite the potential for challenge in Earthborne Rangers, Navaro is determined to make a co-op game that is not so difficult as to turn away players who want a more accessible experience - unlike the designer’s work on decidedly less forgiving titles, such as the Arkham Horror LCG. “I'm hoping to change what people expect or offer something different in the cooperative space,” he explains. “It’s more about exploration and challenging yourself.”
For the most part, the other characters that players encounter in Earthborne Rangers will be unified in a shared goal of protecting their home and the things that live in it, the result of having had the importance of conservation taught to them from an early age. The world of Earthborne Rangers was devised from the idea that a community could put the needs of its environment first and foremost, due to the fact that generations before them had made it a priority. “One of the questions we asked ourselves was: how different would we be as people if caring for the Earth was ingrained in us?” says Navaro.
The game’s map includes an area inspired by the Rocky National Park.
Player characters exercise these environmentalist passions by taking the role of rangers - in a similar way to those who work for the US national parks - who will need to embark on missions to support their community and the land it’s built on. The game’s map includes an area inspired by the Rocky National Park, one of Navaro’s favourite places in the US.
However, the Rocky National Park of Earthborne Rangers is rather different from that of its real-world counterpart, thanks to the scientific institute built there 1,000 years before the start of the game. Due to the experiments that took place there, the creatures of Earthborne Rangers have undergone strange mutations that the players will have to navigate around.
“There’s a lot of fun, sci-fi-inspired, bioengineered creatures that were designed to clean the Earth,” Navaro explains, “but once their job was done, they just kind of persisted.”
Despite these mutations, players in Earthborne Rangers will not be hunting the creatures that inhabit its world. Instead, the characters will engage with various problem-solving missions that are intended to help both humans and the surrounding fauna. The players will even conduct some scientific research, including “discovering new wildlife and charting the valley”, during their journeys through the game’s world.
It’s very easy to become complacent and say that the games we produce are going to last forever.
These environmental themes and messages extend beyond the realm of Earthborne Rangers and into the studio publishing it. “It’s very easy to become complacent and say that our industry is small and that the games we produce are going to last forever,” Navaro says. “It’s very short-sighted.”
The studio head’s concern for the way that many publishers are choosing to create and distribute their games - “Companies try to make their products more Earth-friendly, but then they still print and ship out of China,” he criticises - isn’t just rooted in a desire to improve environmental practices, but also in ensuring the future of board games. Navaro believes that “there will come a time when it will be mandated that things be made a certain way,” and that publishers, big and small, will need to be prepared for it.
“The tabletop industry is, from my experience, very reactionary and is, generally speaking, years and years behind other industries when it comes to manufacturing.”
Sustainability is incredibly important to the survivability of the industry.
With Earthborne Games, Navaro intends to provide other companies with an example of how to create and ship games in a more sustainable way: “I think [sustainability] is incredibly important to the survivability of the industry. [...] If I can actually pull it off, I think it’s going to help others to make sustainable choices as well.”
For Navaro’s part, the designer has been seeking ways of manufacturing copies of Earthborne Rangers using more environmentally-friendly materials and methods. “I’ve been talking to a couple of manufacturers; I’m excited about one of them in particular as they have been interested in exploring new things,” he explains, before going on to gleefully describe a video in which someone makes packaging out of psyllium fungus.
Navaro and Earthborne Games could change the face of the industry for the better, as long as other publishers are willing to follow suit - and the future of tabletop gaming may very well depend on it.
The Kickstarter campaign for Earthborne Rangers is set to launch later this summer.