Jun 182012

When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game at recess called Foursquare. (It’s got no relationship to the GPS-driven location visiting game we play now on our modern phones, sorry)! So how does a friendly playground game like foursquare become a card game about political murder? It’s not so far off as you might imagine…

In Foursquare, the players arrange themselves in a 2×2 square, and have some sufficiently bouncy ball–usually a dodgeball or basketball, which they toss between them. The game is based on tennis–when the ball is passed to you, it can bounce at most once in your square, and then you have to return it to one of the three other players. You can’t catch or kick the ball–you can only bump, volley, spin, or spike it with your hands.

There was one other interesting concept to foursquare at our school recesses, which I think must have been borrowed from card games like ‘Chairman Mao’, now that I consider it. Each space was numbered one through four–King, Queen, Jack, and Knight. The King was able to set the rules for each round of play. He could outlaw certain shots, require the play to pass a certain way, or the like. When a person was knocked out of the game by being unable to return a serve, this ended the round, and the knocked out player would be demoted to Knight (or to the waiting queue, if there were more than four players). Everyone else would rank up accordingly.

The game created its own kind of ruthless balance. Players would invent cunning shots, including everything from backspins to passing to a player’s feet (which usually stopped the ball dead if it worked) to ridiculous two-handed spikes (called bombs) that sent the ball so far away that returning it would be impossible. If the King found these new shots too dangerous, he could outlaw them. If the players found the new rules too oppressive, they could gang up and oust the King.

The game was as much about politics as it was about skill. The Queen player usually wanted the King gone, while the Jack would settle for either King or Queen to be gone, and the Knight and King would be happy to eliminate absolutely anyone but themselves. Thus, it was up to the King to appease the other players as much as to referee, as well as for the other players to make sure that a power-hungry usurper couldn’t get within range of the throne.

Kill the Overlord! was a game that I designed before I became a professional designer–in fact, one might say it launched that career, as it’s the first game design that I ever submitted to a publisher.

Years after college, I was feeling nostalgic, thinking back to those playground days. I started looking for a game that would recreate that same mix of politics and pressure that Foursquare had created. Ultimately, I resigned to invent my own. The medieval theme for the roles was already in place. For the ball, I decided to take a page from Guillotine and make it the overlord’s executioner. Now I had a game where various players were playing Hot Potato–trying to pass the executioner amongst themselves, and not be the last to have it. It wasn’t enough to have the most powerful cards–you would also need to convince the other players to work together with you in order to get to the top.

For the roles, I wanted to stray away from the “King makes all the rules” element of the playground game. That could work on a playground, where peer pressure and playground ingenuity would keep you from making a rule like “I can’t be knocked out” (everyone would take the ball and form a new game a few paces away from you). It wouldn’t work for gamers, who want to run everything by the book. Besides, being Jack, Queen, or Knight in Foursquare was pretty boring, truth be told. It would be better to give each role its own unique power.

The powers were then structured so that the higher ranks had powers more tuned for manipulating the help of the lower classes and for scheming against the top, while the lower players had powers tuned for longevity. In Kill the Overlord! the Slave has the most longevity of any other player (he can get rid of the ball by paying coins, which he usually has in reasonable supply), the middle ranks like Captain have offensive powers (making players shed extra cards), while the Overlord has the least impressive power (he gets a free pass at the start of each turn).

(Female gendered roles. Image courtesy of BGG)

Foursquare on the playground lasts until recess ends, but conditions like that also don’t work so well in a card game. To give the game an ultimate goal, points were introduced, in the form of gold coins. In the playground game, you might consider the player who had maintained higher rank for the longest time to be the winner. This idea was built into the scoring system: the higher your rank, the more gold you’ll rake in each turn. Maintain higher ranks for a longer time (even if you don’t get to the top), and you’ll have much more gold than your neighbors.

It was also around this time that I was playing Citadels (specifically the Fantasy Flight Edition that comes with the expansion in the box). In the Citadels expansion, there are 9 roles, and 9 alternate roles. Each role can be switched between one of the two, and the game changes vastly depending on which roles are swapped in and out. An expansion in the box so you can fine-tune your game experience! How cool was that? I decided to create a second set of roles for Kill the Overlord! that could ship in the box with the base game. Once you had played the game with the first eight, you could make it brand new again by trying the other eight. You could even fine-tune the game’s level of cutthroated-ness by including or excluding certain roles (as a fan of customizable gameplay, this is one of the most important aspects of the game, IMO).

Another important aspect of the game was the illustration. Even though this was a game of political murder, I wanted to make it a family friendly one, like Guillotine or King’s Blood. I commissioned an artist named Tori Parker to do lighthearted characters in both male and female genders, making the cards double-sided. When you become General, for example, you can switch the General’s face to match your own gender, creating an instant sense of connection with the character.

Once APE had acquired Kill the Overlord!, development continued, and gameplay was smoothed out and refined. Ranking up had a bit of overhead associated with it, and so we determined that it would only happen when the Overlord was killed, to minimize shuffling and downtime. We tried some outlandish changes (like running two execution orders at once–WAY too complicated), and ultimately found a game that flowed quickly, was simple to pick up, and which got people interested.right away. It’s the kind of game that quickly fades into the background after a few hands, allowing you to talk and banter while you play. It’s a game that I’ve played with my 10-year old step brothers and my 40-year old gaming friends, much to the delight of both.

APE Games is currently running a Kickstarter for Kill the Overlord!. I’d encourage you all to pick it up! In the tradition of large-party games like Seven Wonders and Bang!, it’s easy to get into and fun for gamers and non-gamers alike.

If you’re interested in more lightweight games that travel in your pocket, check out our Minigame Library, now on Kickstarter as well. It includes 4½ new games to add to your collection, plus a carrying case!

Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings, and I wish you all happy gaming!

- Brad