Nikki Valens was a Senior Game Designer at Fantasy Flight Games from 2013-2018, during which time she worked on several cooperative board games, including two of FFG’s top releases: Mansions of Madness and Arkham Horror. This compressed period of game design has already made her one of the most prolific and knowledgeable co-op designers in the industry.
Nikki was kind enough to talk to me about her co-op designs while Christopher Allen & I were amidst the Meeples Together Kickstarter last month (now available for preorder).
Shannon Appelcline: You seemed to hit the ground running at Fantasy Flight with a heavy focus on cooperative games, starting with Eldritch Horror. Was there something that drew you to cooperative design?
Nikki Valens: To me, games are a social experience. I like to play games with my friends and family. But I have no desire to enter a competition against those I love. As a result, I tend to enjoy co-op games more than competitive games, especially if there’s narrative investment involved. Winning a game of Hearts is abstract enough that there’s not going to be any hard feelings, but getting invested in a story and characters only to lose feels quite a bit different for most players. When I design games, I’m usually working toward a specific experience that I want to give to players.
SA: Eldritch Horror revisits many of the ideas from Arkham Horror 2e. Were there elements of Arkham Horror’s play that you were specifically trying to redevelop?
NV: Eldritch Horror was certainly inspired by Arkham Horror, but it was never the intent that Eldritch would replace Arkham. Eldritch sought to take some of the core ideas of Arkham Horror and apply them to a globetrotting Indiana Jones like narrative.
For the handful of core systems that the two games share, it was important for Eldritch to not only find its own way, but also to be more accessible to new players. Major design choices, such as the round structure or other world encounters were created taking inspiration from Arkham, but in ways that would be easier to learn, teach, and play.
SA: You’ve produced quite a few supplements for Eldritch Horror. Did you learn anything new about its cooperative or challenge game systems as you went?
NV: Absolutely. As is going to be the case with virtually any game, the expected balance when the game first comes out won’t even resemble the balance later in a game’s life cycle. How the base game and first expansion valued different effects was much different than the later expansions, causing some of the early investigators and items to be either hugely overpowered or basically useless.
Another thing about games that you discover the more your work with them is how much design space certain mechanics have. For instance, the mysteries were created to allow scenarios to play out differently from one another and tell unique stories, but it turned out there was a lot less space for unique designs for mysteries than we originally thought. This results in the ancient ones not always being as diverse as we had hoped.
SA: Your second co-op, Mansions of Madness 2e, was even more explicitly a redevelopment. Leaving the innovative computer app aside for a moment, what were your other goals in redeveloping the game?
NV: One of the most important goals with Mansions second edition was to create a deeply immersive story experience for players. It was important that the balance between narrative and mechanics was just right to allow players to embody their characters and become part of the world within the story.
SA: What do you think the app added to the game, particularly as a cooperative game?
NV: The companion app was one of the biggest tools when trying to accomplish that goal for the narrative. It meant that the game could be a fully cooperative experience instead of needing one player to act as the keeper and tell the story.
By allowing the app to tell the story and handle game effects, we were also able to hide much of the game’s complexity behind the scenes and out of the reach of the players. No need to worry about fiddly token counting or reading a flow chart to determine how a monster moves. The app will just take care of that busy work for you so that you can spend your time exploring a spooky mansion and solving a mystery.
SA: Your third co-op, Legacy of Dragonholt, is thus far your only co-op that wasn’t some form of reimagination or redevelopment. What was your intent in creating a totally new co-op game?
NV: Much as it was with Mansions or Eldritch, Dragonholt was about creating a narrative for players to immerse themselves in. Reading fiction is one of my favorite hobbies. I love losing myself to a good book. But for many, being able to directly interact with the story is important, so I wanted to give them that. I like to think of Dragonholt as about as close as you can get to being a character in a fantasy novel.
SA: It’s been billed as a GM-less roleplaying game. How do you think that differs from a traditional co-op?
NV: The traditional composition of a co-op game (think Pandemic for example) places a lot of emphasis on working together to overcome a challenge and win. The difference between winning and losing such a game is extremely clear.
That’s not the case with fiction or with roleplaying. There is much more nuance to if each character has achieved their goals and what did they sacrifice to get there. In a roleplaying game, that goal isn’t for the player characters to crush the game master, nor is it for the game master to TPK. The goal is for all of the players to collaborate and create a fun story. And that’s what Dragonholt chooses to focus on. I tried to give players enough options that they could feel like we were working together to tell a fun story, even if not all of the characters achieved their personal goals.
SA: Most recently you produced the third edition of Arkham Horror. What did you feel needed to be changed in the game?
NV: Primarily the game wanted to be more accessible. Second edition had its dedicated fans, but many of them have stories about how difficult it is to get new players to play the game and keep playing it.
SA: Were there any lessons learned from your creation of Eldritch Horror?
NV: There were many things. One that sticks out to me is giving players a fun narrative while also letting them have the deterministic advantages they want. In second edition, players would frequently use static effects of locations instead of resolving encounters because the sure bet was simply the better choice. In Eldritch, we instead wanted more focus on the story of the encounters, so we put the location effects in the encounters themselves. But we didn’t push it far enough. The effects weren’t consistent enough for players to feel like they got to really make a choice.
In Arkham Horror third edition, the encounters almost always let the player do exactly the effect that is expected of a location. If you want to buy items, nine times out of ten an encounter at the general store will let you spend your money on the items in the display (and that tenth time might just give you an item for free).
That’s not to say that third edition was able to execute on all of the lessons learned. As I look back at the design, I see things that could be improved.
SA: What will particularly excite existing players about the new game?
NV: Something that’s new to this edition is that each scenario has a set of cards that help tell its story and often that story has branching paths depending on either the players’ decisions or how well they’re doing. It’s not endless replayablility, but there’s at least multiple different ways each scenario can conclude whether the players win or lose.
SA: With four co-op games under your belt, you’re one of the most experienced cooperative designers in the field. At this point, what would you say are the core defining characteristics of cooperative games?
NV: Cooperative games have just as much potential for diversity as competitive games. Many co-op games look similar now because there are fewer of them, but the industry will see that the breadth of co-op games will just keep growing.
As a result, the only real defining characteristic of a co-op game is that it requires players work together to accomplish their goals. How they do it, the story (if there is one), and what they are trying to accomplish could be virtually anything. It’s even possible the experience isn’t 100% cooperative. Games like Betrayal, Dead of Winter, and Descent are cooperative, even if there’s a traitor among the players or one of the players is openly working against the rest from the beginning.
As the hobby grows, we’ll likely find the line between co-op and competitive games blurring even more.
SA: Any other interesting lessons learned from your cooperative designs?
NV: A big one is that “your players are always right,” whether that means your designs are fighting against human nature, players are consistently misplaying some aspect of your game, or players elect to houserule certain aspect of the design. Any of those small changes could disrupt the intended balance or pacing of your game, so it’s easy to get defensive as a designer. But hopefully these small differences in how player want to play the game and how you intend for them to play it come out in playtesting. When players consistently misplay something or choose to play it differently, they’re telling you they’re not having the best experience. It’s good to listen to that and take that unspoken feedback to heart.
SA: What are your plans now that you’ve left Fantasy Flight?
NV: To create more great co-op games!
I have a game that will be coming out in 2019 that I’m very excited for people to see. I’ve also been working with Fog of Love on an expansion that will be coming out (hopefully) in Q2 2019. Beyond that, I have a number of small card games I’m working on as well as some narrative games and some larger games in the long term plans.
For anyone that wants to get some sneak peeks at what I’m up to, you can follow me on Twitter: @valens116.
The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples