Riot Games - the company behind hugely popular video game League of Legends - continues to dip its toe in the tabletop waters with Tellstones: King’s Gambit, the latest board game from designer Chris Cantrell.
Having co-designed League of Legends’ tabletop debut Mechs vs Minions, released back in 2016, Cantrell has since spearheaded the creation of Tellstones - an abstract game that sees players attempting to identify a series of hidden tokens to score points.
With Tellstones being such a dramatically different game from Riot’s previous outing, I caught up with Cantrell to discuss what inspired him to create something so simple, how to adapt a video game into a board game and what could be next on the horizon from the tabletop creators at Riot.
What are the kind of design philosophies behind Tellstones? How did you go about making a traditional game that people play within the League of Legends universe?
Even though the theme came second, I think that's one of the parts that I'm proudest of.
Chris Cantrell: I think it just started off as a game that we wanted to play. I think initially when I created it, I wasn't using Demacia and the LoL universe. The stones showed symbols like a triangle or circle or square or something like very, very simple. Then when we made it a LoL game, I remember showing it to our creative leads on comics at the time. And she said, “This is okay, but I don't know how you're going to link it to the IP.” And I was like, “Well, I'll see what I can do.” I'm actually really pleased with how it connects to the universe. It's been a long process to plant it within the world and we've done so much exploration with where it fits in. Even though the theme came second, I think that's one of the parts that I'm proudest of.
So, initially the game wasn't going to be a League of Legends game. It was just something you'd come up with?
I worked on Mechs vs Minions and then we kind of took some time away from tabletop for a bit after that came out [in 2016], and I went and worked on [digital card game] Legends of Runeterra for a while before it was announced. While I was over there, I really, really missed making board games, and I was pretty far removed from tabletop at the time. I was on a trip to Gen Con to hang out with my friends and see what had been coming out in the past few years. While I was there, I thought: “What if I were to try and make something this time?” So I made something really small. And I'll be honest, when I first started playing it, I think the hardest part for me with Tellstones was that I wasn't certain if it could stand on its own. The more I kept playing it, the more I found I really enjoyed it where it was at.
I wanted a battle of wits, almost like that scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley and Vizzini have the Iocane powder.
Was one of the design philosophies to make this game as simple as possible?
Yeah. I wanted a battle of wits, almost like that scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley and Vizzini have the Iocane powder and they're trying to determine which one wasn’t poisoned by it. I find that's often a more elusive feeling for me in modern games where random elements - like dice or card draw - kind of play a role in that. I wanted to see if we could find a way to kind of make a game that was interesting and compelling. But you didn't have to deal with those random elements so much.
The lore behind Tellstones is that people play it in Runeterra - how did that idea come about?
We were looking to take the game on at Riot. I felt a bit challenged by the fact that it was such an abstract game and it [the theme] didn't need to be there. The more we kind of kept playing it, it felt like it had this almost timeless feeling. It reminded me of games that I would play kind of in my youth with my dad and whatnot as I was growing up, like chess and Stratego. I wanted to capture something that would feel a bit like that.
What's the process behind adapting a video game such as League of Legends into a tabletop game?
It doesn't often feel like I'm adapting a video game. It feels like I'm adapting a video game IP. So when we set out with both Tellstones and Mechs vs Minions, the goal wasn't to make another iteration of either League of Legends or Legends of Runeterra or anything like that. We wanted to make something that really resonated beyond that as well.
Neither Mechs vs Minions or Tellstones tries to actually replicate the gameplay of League of Legends or Legends of Runeterra. Why adapt the universe rather than the gameplay itself?
My goal wasn't to recreate the League of Legends experience. My goal was to create stuff for people who loved games.
If you want League of Legends gameplay, we already have League of Legends to accomplish that. I mean, we could put it in board game form - there've been some really good board games that have come out that capture the strategic and moment-to-moment decision-making you're making in League. I think that type of decision-making can be turned into a cardboard analogue.
With that said, my goal wasn't to recreate the League of Legends experience. My goal was to create stuff for people who loved games and hopefully share them with other people. So I think that’s the target. Everything else from LoL kind of came from there. We have so many different characters in our universe, in so many different areas. The more I kind of kept exploring it, the more I realised I wanted to focus not on the League of Legends game, because it felt untrue to the size and scope of our IP. So we really zeroed in on Demacia. We have ideas for other factions too, like how they might play Tellstones there.
Does that mean there are alternative versions of Tellstones on the way?
I don't intend for that right now, but it's the type of thing where we always pay attention to player reception. If it looks like it's something that the players are eager to keep exploring with us, we have ideas in the chamber. But we're not going to become the Tellstones studio, you know? We're not going to make 12 different versions of Tellstones. We might come back to it if players want us to - that's really kind of our motivating factor there.
Why should people who don't play League of Legends pay attention to Tellstones?
That's a good question. Have you had the chance to play it yet, Alex?
Yes. I have been playing it.
I think as people in our society, we develop a very estranged relationship with our memory.
There are times when I play games that I feel like I'm seeing the implementation of like five or six different mechanics in really creative ways that are really just kind of mind-bending and exciting - especially when they’re paired with different themes and stuff like that. But it's rare that I find two mechanics that I am excited about or interested in exploring further.
I feel like there's a very good reason why memory is not a mechanic that people often return to. We were taught growing up in high school that every time you take a test and you fail it, you're bad at memory. I think as people in our society, we develop a very estranged relationship with our memory. It becomes very much about our identity, and as we start losing it it feels very terrifying for a lot of different reasons. So when you're playing a game that is primarily about your memory, in my experience it feels very personal and intimidating. When you lose this game, initially, it's almost more painful than other experiences. I found that to be really compelling with the way it raises the stakes.
Would you say the challenge of the game is an aspect that people can get from Tellstones?
Yeah. It's definitely, for me at least, I find it to be kind of a brain-burner. Especially when you first start playing it, the very first couple of games. In my experience, watching playtests, people tend to play it very much like a pure memory game. While the game can definitely be played like that, I found that the more I play it, the more I realise it's less of a memory game and much more of a bluffing and deduction game because you have a good chance of winning if you can spot when your opponent isn't quite there. When your opponent doesn't have it, it becomes much more about just spotting that than just remembering the stones.
Did Mechs vs Minions have any influence on Tellstones?
Tellstones is something that you can play in five to 10 minutes and you can play with kids who are really young.
Absolutely. We learned a lot while we were making Mechs vs Minions. One of the things that we really tried to do with Mechs vs Minions is that we started with a vision of what we wanted, and then we kind of worked backwards from there. We really wanted a really whimsical silly big-box experience that you could play with your friends at a group gathering. A kind of ‘event’ game.
With Tellstones, we were looking for a very different market fit: a game that would fit in the life of a gamer. Tellstones is something that you can play in five to 10 minutes and you can play with kids who are really young. I play it with my kids, who are three and six. But I can also play it with my grandparents or whatnot. There aren't a lot of games like that in my collection, period.
So once you'd made Mechs vs. Minions and you had this big-box experience, you wanted to make something more accessible?
I'm not sure accessible would be the word I'd use, because although Mechs vs Minions can be intimidating, I think it's pretty easy to get to playing. But I do think that while we were working on Mechs vs Minions, one of the points of feedback - that I think was really fair - was that we just threw a lot into the game. I mean, it had really nice components. It had game trays and painted figures and all of these secret compartments. We wanted to see if we could make a game that didn't need all of that. You know, if we could make a game that wasn't leaning on another game like Robo Rally. It didn't need to be a campaign and it didn't need to be a co-op game; [it] can actually be a very competitive, hard experience that doesn't need to be long. It can be small and it doesn't need to be the biggest game in your collection. It can be among the smallest.
There's something really compelling to me about showing Tellstones. You're showing two different points - you're trying to show what's different, but you're also trying to show what's the same. What's different is that we're not always going to do co-ops and we're not always going to do kind of silly and whimsical types of experiences. But when you're looking at what's consistent between the two, what excites me is I think we really want this to be a labour of love. We want it to feel like it's a game that earns a place in a player’s collection for years to come. We spent a lot of time and effort on the pieces and making sure that we're kind of hitting that almost heirloom quality.
I find that type of lower financial investment, in some ways, frees us up to really explore some exciting and challenging spaces.
At this stage, would you say that the tabletop creators at Riot are taking the opportunity to explore and experiment with different styles and aspects of gameplay?
Absolutely. We're constantly - and not just in tabletop - looking for innovative ways that we can bring new experiences to players. What's exciting to me about tabletop is that, from an investment perspective for Riot, it's actually an area where we can make some larger bets. The amount of budget that we would put on a game like Tellstones compared to a game like Legends of Runeterra and League of Legends is dramatically different, right? So in that sense, it's a much smaller kind of investment for Riot. I find that type of lower financial investment, in some ways, frees us up to really explore some exciting and challenging spaces that make me nervous as a game developer in a healthy and excited kind of fun way. How can we involve the industry here? Can we push some boundaries here when it comes to component quality? How can we get the games to players or whatnot?
What can people expect from your next experiment?
Honestly, it's guided by reception from players. We're definitely going to keep making more tabletop games. There are a whole lot of tabletop gamers at Riot, and there are a lot of ideas that are floating around that we're really excited about. As far as kind of teasing what that might be? I don't think that we've fully decided what's coming out next. We have some genres that we are extremely excited about continuing to explore. But we're just focused on getting Tellstones out to players and seeing if it resonates or not.
It's exciting to me that we're kind of even able to join the conversation.
Is there a genre or type of game that you dream of making?
What really excites me is less the genre, but more the people I get to work with. I love [Codenames designer] Vlaada Chvátil, like every game he's come out with I really enjoy. [Scythe creator] Jamey Stegmaier is someone that I don't really know that well, but I just get to admire. There are all these people who are in the hobby and we haven’t made that many games. So we're still kind of from the outside, looking in. Like, Eric Lang [designer of Blood Rage] is someone who I personally have a lot of respect for. It's exciting to me that we're kind of even able to join the conversation.
Are there any games that you've played recently that you would recommend to someone?
Q.E. is a bidding game where the mechanic is that you can write any number you want. The person who spent the most is out - so you kind of want to go high, but not too high. On Tour is this neat roll-and-write where you roll the dice and you try and kind of connect them on a line. I thought the production value in both those games was so solid that I went and got the rest of the games from [publisher] BoardGameTables.com.
Would you make a League of Legends roll-and-write?
Sure. It's not on the agenda, but Tellstones wasn't really on the agenda either. Riot Tabletop wants to make games that tabletop players want to play. So if we think that we have a new idea on a roll-and-write that is compelling and players might find it compelling, we'll probably take a swing at it. And if during the development of that we realised that we were wrong, then we will stop it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.