Interview: Cryptozoic's Cory Jones Unearths The Walking Dead Board Game

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Cryptozoic Entertainment's Chief Creative Officer Cory Jones about his company's expansion from makers of the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game to publishers of a full line of board games. Since he is also designer of the new The Walking Dead board game, we were able to get a sneak peek into how the game will play. Here's what Cory had to say:

MTV Geek: So before we get started here, tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement on The Walking Dead.

Cory Jones: I am the President and Chief Creative Officer here at Cryptozoic, so everything creative sort of flows through me. On this particular game, I actually designed it.

Geek: As a company, you guys are really jumping head first into board gaming. What gave Cryptozoic the motivation to expand into this market?

Jones: Our goal is to be the best hobby gaming company in the world, and we have the WoW trading card game, which we feel is the best trading card game out there. So when it comes to everything else in the hobby space whether that be board games, card games, or role playing games , we want to do the absolute best job possible and have the quality speak to the company we are going to be in that space.

Everyone here is a hardcore board gamer. Our motto is ‘fans first,’ and foremost that means we are fans of everything we work on. When it came to board games, we felt that we could put out some amazing board games, and also felt that it’s something we wanted to do because it’s what we are into. I believe our board game schedule this year is about 6 board games, and next year it will be up to about twelve. We have a ton of stuff in the works right now, and we’ve already announced the Penny Arcade deckbuilding game.

Geek: Did you wind up bringing in any special expertise to support this new venture?

Jones: We have some incredibly talented board game designers. We have about ten right now including myself, so it wasn't that we brought in anyone specific. We've been doing in-house design because we have that competency, but we also work with outside designers. If you’re going to be putting out 12+ board games per year, you’re going to need those outside designers.

My background is from the digital side, and it seems like the secret passion for all of the computer gaming industry. Every digital game designer secretly loves board games and card games, so there is this really cool opportunity where we get to work with some high-end designers who just want to get involved with the hobby gaming space as kind of a lark and a fun thing.

Geek: Care to name any names?

Jones: I've got to be careful. I don’t know how much these people want to be called out as working on separate projects. None of them are attached to our announced stuff, but definitely when we get closer to announcing some of our other games it will come out.

Geek: So with such a busy board game schedule, how did Cryptozoic match up with The Walking Dead?

Jones: When it came to The Walking Dead, everyone here was watching it. We were absolutely in love with the property and that’s why we pursued it. We were just lucky enough to get the chance to go in and pitch them on making a board game and a trading card set. They liked what we had to say, so from there we picked up the license.

Geek: What is your target audience with the Walking Dead Board Game? Are you going after the casual fan who just likes the show or are you marketing towards the “hardcore” hobby gamer?

Jones: We are trying to find the sweet spot between both, but I would say it hits the casual end of the hobby gaming crowd. I don’t think it is going to disenfranchise either side of that scale. It really hits right down the middle. The game will be sold through hobby channel primarily, while also very likely sold through the larger book trade retailers such as your Barnes and Noble stores.

Geek: Now that the public has seen a mock-up of the board and its pieces, we can glean that The Walking Dead looks to be a “roll-and-move” style game that would appeal more to a casual audience. Do you still think this will fare well with the hobby gamer?

Jones: It’s a little misleading. I think people are jumping to conclusion when they see the pieces because it’s not just a ‘roll-and-go’ game. It’s actually got some pretty interesting dynamics. The goal for me was to play up tensions, because it seems the drama lives in the tension of “when are we going to be attacked by zombies” or “when are we going to run out of resources?” That sort of dramatic tension is what I was trying to capture with the game.

In the show, the characters never have that hard of a time killing any individual zombie. What it’s really been about is the human interaction and that is the beauty of The Walking Dead. It’s not really a horror show; it’s really a drama about characters. For me, the first rule of engaging narrative is to make sure there are characters that people can fall in love with.

There is also a definite difficulty arc, and that is what we watched most intently while designing the game. The arc is that it must start up kind of easy and then slowly get harder and harder until the tension is really built because everyone is racing towards that win condition, but the game is now dramatically harder and everything matters so much more. When you’re flipping an encounter card to see what type of zombie or if it’s a zombie at all, it’s dramatic and that really means something. For me, that was capturing the spirit of the show.

Geek: Well then let's get a bit deeper into the mechanics of this game. How exactly will The Walking Dead board game work?

Jones: The board game has got some interesting mechanics. Moving around the board, and it being a representation of the goals from the first season, was a good abstraction to build mechanics on top of. You travel around to the CDC, the old folks home, and these different places, having to get to each of the four corners, collect a card from there, and get back to the base camp. But as you’re doing that, you are drawing from an encounter deck, potentially encountering hostile survivors, friendly survivors, and often zombies.

All of the human player have the same goal, starting in the center at the base camp and heading out. The board movement is not predetermined, so you roll a die and decide to move that many spaces in a direction you chose. You’ll land on spaces that give you bonuses or allow you to draw cards, eventually heading to one of the four corners which are the end spaces. When you defeat one of the four corners you actually get a token that has an ability. One of the things that is happening as you are racing around is you are running out of resources, but you are also collecting these abilities such as "+1 on all your attacks" or "+1 to your movement" from this point forward. You are leveling up in a sense, getting slightly better equipped in the more permanent sense, but you are also running out of your equipment, your weapons cards.

You use cards in your hand with an attack die roll mechanic to kill the zombies, but when you use the cards in your hand, which are weapons and resources, they go away. There are ways to replenish them but it is slow, and the deck they come from runs out. You have to be very smart about the ways you use those cards, and you have to conserve your resources because as the game starts off, it’s kind of easy, but gets harder.

Geek: What sort of play time will this difficulty arc take place over?

Jones: Typically a half hour to 45 minutes, possibly even up to 50 depending on some of the random elements. I wasn't exactly trying to develop a German strategy game here.

Geek: I understand. If you are trying to design a game that relies on theme and tension, it’s hard not to have some unknown chance present.  But what about the cooperative elements of the game? Can you tell me a bit more about those?

Jones: I wanted to make the game competitive to start with, but then have it turn into a weird co-operative experience. When you die, you become a zombie. You are still playing on the board, but your hand goes away and is replaced with new zombie cards. They are all these special powers you have as a zombie and they emulate all of these great things like “frenzied attack” and “sneak”. You are playing against the remaining players and trying to kill them, so we emulate the strange dynamic from the show where some of the characters do die and they have to be put down.

Geek: Let’s touch on something you said before about The Walking Dead being more about the character development than the zombie conflict. Will the relationships of the characters play into the mechanics of the game at all? Will it matter who is playing as which character and what actions they decide to take?

Jones: The traits of the characters informed their special abilities. You get to pick what character you want to be at the beginning of the game, and then each of them has a one-or-two time use special ability. For Rick, he gets to have an additional attack, etc. For interplay between the characters themselves, no, that’s a hard abstraction in some ways and very dependent on who plays what character. I didn't want to create a situation where I pick my character because you picked a certain one. I believe there are six characters available, although I will have to double check that, for four players to choose from.

Geek: In preparation for this game, did you seek out any of the other major zombie-themed board games for inspiration?

Jones: We play just about everything here, it’s ridiculous. We’ve got this giant wall of cabinets with just about every board game in it. For this, I didn’t feel that a lot of the other zombie games applied. They are more about having tons of zombies, and needing to navigate through the swarm. I didn’t feel like that was as compelling for this intellectual property because I was really trying to go after that tension element. To me, worrying about running out of resources or wondering when your next random zombie encounter is going to be, that was truer to The Walking Dead.

Geek: So would you say you are embodying survival horror video games in a board game?

Jones: Absolutely. But I didn’t want to make this overly complex, either. In all of the playtesting we did, there would be four people around the table yelling, shouting, and having a good time. Throughout the tension there was still a lot of fun being had. That is something I felt was very important because the baseline for board games should be that people want to have fun. Especially with such a dark subject matter, the goal was always to capture the excitement but still make it fun, and I think we did capture that.

Geek: When the news of Cryptozoic’s game hit the internet, Z-Man games had their news of a comic book licensed Walking Dead board game up on the same day. Is there more to this story or will it go down as one of the strangest coincidences in gaming?

Jones: Well, we had sort of announced our game already. We were showing it off at GAMA, and some information had come out of that trade show. We had a mock-up of the box there and had talked about it to all of the distributors and retailers. We had only heard about the licensing of the comic book rights through the people we work with on the TV show. I think we will end up being two very different games, though, because I’m very proud of the level of innovation put into this game. I’ve never played anything like it before, so I’m not terribly concerned about it.

Geek: Well it sounds like you and the rest of your staff at Cryptozoic have poured a lot of hard work into this game. We look forward to trying it out later this year.