Making a board game is something many of us have always wanted to do, and we feel very lucky—and sincerely humbled—to be able to work in this space at all. We already have a lot of love for tabletop game makers, and through this process we’ve found a whole new respect for this craft and industry.
**THE EARLY DAYS
Like pretty much every tabletop group ever, a couple of us had always thrown around the idea of making a board game. Around three years ago, we decided to really try our hand at it. The smart thing to do would have been to reach out to an established tabletop company that we know does this well, but we really wanted to take a full swing ourselves to see if we could come up with a game that made sense for League players. We’re very fortunate to have a lot of freedom to pivot when necessary, which is a rare luxury that we wanted to take advantage of. Going with a company that has done this before would have saved us a bunch of headaches along the way, but we wouldn’t have been able to keep asking “why can’t a board game do this?” at every step, and I believe (and hope!) that the game is better off for it.
Riot happened to have an accomplished board game designer (Stone Librande), who frequently came up with new ideas for games. One of the ones we looked at had a compelling programming mechanic that we wanted to pursue. A lot of the game has obviously changed since that point, but that kernel was the center that the rest of the game was built around.
The next step was to match a League theme to those mechanics. The story of MvM is within the League universe, so we had a lot of freedom to play with which champions would be involved and what we could put them through. With programming, it made sense to look at robots, and an early iteration featured Blitzcrank and Orianna. But the mechs are difficult to control, and they run into a lot of funny situations that way, and it didn’t feel right that Ori or Blitz couldn’t control themselves well. Then we thought of Rumble, who is easier to see slipping around on oil slicks, and we started to build the thematic aspects of the game from there. We wanted more yordles in the game but wanted to keep the mechs, so we had Rumble open up a mech-piloting school, and his personality helped us shape a story that we could tie the other four into. Once we had that theme, building the game felt much more organic; the theme and mechanics started to inform each other in ways that felt right, and progress followed.
**THE MINIONS GO MARCHING ONE BY ONE
We spent the year working on it, figuring out artwork and models and any other kind of forward progress we could find, and landed on something that I thought felt pretty good. I’m a huge board game nerd, so I wanted to reach out to some of the reviewers and communities that I love: BoardGameGeek, Geek & Sundry, Shut Up & Sit Down, The Dice Tower, the list goes on. We ended up flying out Quintin Smith from Shut Up & Sit Down and Tom Vasel from Dice Tower, and they were awesome about giving us feedback. I remember Quintin telling us that he enjoyed the game but didn’t feel like he’d play it again, and he recommended doing a campaign with modular boards since that would keep him engaged. This change would represent a lot more work, since we would be taking that core structure and making/balancing around ten more missions around it, but deep down we all knew he was right. We went back to the drawing board and completely pivoted. We brought in another designer (Rick Ernst) to help work on crafting scenarios as well as damage and boss decks, and we pressed onward.
**TESTING IN PROGRESS!
Playtesting was a huge part of the process from there. Luckily, Riot is a place filled with core gamers, so we had lots of opportunities to do playtests with different types of gamers from the office. And we needed to do a lot of playtesting, especially for balancing the AI, since in co-op you really want the players to have to gamble on how to win, and get through by the skin of their teeth. The real solve for that, other than getting to work with great designers (which I’ve been lucky to have), is just playtesting over and over again, and then over and over again (and again), and then bringing in brand new eyes and seeing if your experience sticks. Then someone will say “we haven’t lost here in a long time, it should be a little harder” and we’ll make a tweak. It’s not sexy—just constant iterations over a long period of time—but it’s happy work, because it’s out of love for the game that you’re making and the players you’re making it for.
One landmine we were particularly afraid of was quarterbacking: when one player basically solves the game, and that person ends up puppeting the entire group. It’s a scary risk for a complex co-op game, and we actively fought against it. We actually had a version that went too far, and it no longer felt like players could collaborate at all, and it wasn’t fun. We eventually found a balance we were happy with, with each player becoming an expert on their own mech’s command line. We knew things were going better when in-game conversations started focusing less on tactics and more on objectives: a player might see a minion squeaking through the gate and ask the team: “can you get there?” or “who can handle this?” instead of focusing on how that other player should build out their mech. It felt like a much healthier place for the game to land.
**WHO YOU CALLIN’ LITTLE?
The majority of this work was done by a very small team, starting with three or four people and then later having five to seven people. We’ve come a long way, and I’m super proud of this team for working out of love for what we’re doing. I’ve had the opportunity to play MvM a couple thousand times at this point and I still love playing it; I’m still proud of the gameplay and the work that was done. I’m also very happy to have worked with some of the external partners that helped us in the manufacturing of the game, which I plan to talk about in my next post!
-Chris 'Kades' Cantrell