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AICN Tabletop! Abstruse Interviews Ryan Lesser About His New Game HIGH HEAVEN! Catan! Dungeons And Dragons! Warhammer Card Game Expansions! And More!

Published at: April 12, 2013, 8:39 p.m. CST

Good evening, everyone. Abstruse here once again with your weekly tabletop gaming fix. If you read my first column, you might remember me mentioning a Kickstarter called HIGH HEAVEN. This is Ryan Lesser’s first tabletop game, but it’s not his first time in the game design field as he has worked for Harmonix since the original Guitar Hero. So let’s find out a little bit more about this game.

For those who haven’t taken a look at it yet, can you describe the concept behind High Heavens?

Sure! High Heavens pits mythological gods against each other in tactical battles in the skies. The core set comes with Norse and Greek pantheons, while other pantheons are in the mix for future expansions. All gods stand atop a sort of "health" and "powerup" meter, showing your army's condition at a glance. Using the gods' traits and abilities, as well as one-off "Divine Power" cards, you move across the board positioning your vanguard to defeat the enemy.

And those chips in the photos are how you represent the life/power meters?

Yes, the "meters" are played using stacking chips. At the base funding level, the game will come with standard, plastic stacking chips. At 44k however, the stretch Goal enables me to make my really awesome stacking ring chips. These were modeled by me in a 3d program and they play really well. They stack confidently and easily and feel great in the hand. I also designed them to cast a strong shadow on the chip below them to make them very readable when counting chips from the other side of the table. The cardboard standups and minis sit nicely in the top bevel and 30mm, rounded bases slide right on top for those players that mod the game with model bits from other systems.

How does the gameplay work?

The main gameplay happens at first in your deck and hand of cards but as you play those cards, the action moves to the board. Each player has 3 Actions, and with those actions you can 1) invoke a god, 2) move a god, 3) fight using a god 4) play a Divine Power card or 5) pick up loot from the board (dropped powerups from fallen gods). Since all gods are unique and their stats married closely to their individual mythos, the combinatorics for gameplay are quite large. 

{Note: According to the gameplay video on the Kickstarter site, Invoking is how you play a god from your hand onto the table, just to clarify - Abstruse}

There are two victory conditions; defeat all of the enemy gods or reduce their homebase to 0 points.

Can you mix-and-match the various gods, or would it break the game to put Thor and Hercules on the same team against Zeus and Loki?

Haha! I am not sure, I have never tried. The two teams spent months in balancing and playtesting. I bet there are ways to deckbuild though as long as you really understand the cards. Somehow I can't imagine Thor and Herc enjoying each others' company though.

I thought they would’ve gotten along pretty well. I mean at first they’d have a misunderstanding that lead to a battle where there was no decisive winner, then team up to fight a common greater threat. Or maybe I’ve been reading too many comics…

Ha ha! Yeah, Perhaps Herc would be OK with it, but Thor was not often friendly to outsiders unless they came bearing giant feasts and oceans of mead.

As of the prototype shown on your Kickstarter, the board seems like a flat hex grid. Are you going to be using any sort of terrain rules?

I guess I have a few answers to this one. First, the basic version of the game is the hex grid. It has proven to be super ful and flexible. There will also be rules for adding hexes as terrain, determined by the players in a fashion similar to X-Wing, or even Warmachine. I am hoping that players and fans not only create their own rules and types of terrain, but also make 3d terrain a la wargames. Last, I hope to make High Heavens a platform... so not only will there be multiple expansions, but there will hopefully also be other game types in the High Heavens universe.  

The gameplay seems very simple and rules-lite. Was it a challenge to keep the rules so straight-forward while still getting the "feel" of the various mythological characters right?

I am glad that you noticed this. I had two main motivations in creating High Heavens. One is that I wanted to make a game that helped people enjoy the mythology as much as I do, and the other was that I wanted a game that had as few rules as possible. Now, that doesn’t mean that I wanted a simple game. On the contrary... I spent most of my time weeding out fringe rules and outlier special cases. I worked really hard to make the game complex and varied on the board, and not in the rulebook. My favorite games play like this and I aspired to do the same. If a special ability or power created a need for a rule clarification, I cut the ability and rewrote it to fit in the core rules.

Sort of how games like MAGIC: THE GATHERING and MUNCHKIN have very simple core rules, but lots of variety based on the interaction of various cards?

Exactly. I certainly think of Magic: The Gathering when looking for comparisons, but even M:TG needs a judge (or friend that knows slightly more than the 2 players) to make rules calls. I do not think that will happen often with High Heavens.

Why did you decide to go with a two-player game?

Personally, I find two players to be the most fun. I like the head to head competition of Magic, Warmachine, Ascension, Othello, etc. I still love multiplayer games too... but for my first game I wanted to focus on 2 player. However...  

Are multiplayer rules in the future as an expansion or possibly as a stretch goal? 

Due to popular demand, 4 player rules are in the works.  I have been thinking of incorporating an abstracted version of "lane" gameplay from games like League of Legends and DOTA2.  Hard to explain, but the rules will be published in the near future. 

I notice a lot of question marks for your stretch goals aside from the final one (3D plastic miniatures rather than cardstock pawns). Any hints as to what the others might be?

Yup. I have posted a third Stretch Goal this week. For just a few thousand more, I can make a pro playmat "board" instead of a traditional cardboard battlefield. This is how I play the game at demos and conventions. It will probably be a standard 24x14, neoprene playmat like the ones that CCG players use. I have been making custom version at as prototypes and sliding the chips across the uninterrupted surface feels SO GOOD. There are other goals planned as well, revolving around other cards and gods, like monsters from the panthons and entirely different pantheons.

I never used a playmat in CCGs. Is it the same material they use in wet-erase boards for RPGs?

OH no! These are basically glorified mouse pads. They are grippy rubber on the bottom and super smooth fabric on top. It is soft too so you can roll it up and take it with you.

Do you have a scale yet for the minis? (Please say 25mm heroic please say 25mm heroic…)

As of this interview, my models are still in the proto phase, but the goal is to be 25mm heroic, or 28mm, etc. Warmachine style bases fit PERFECTLY on my custom modeled chips and my minis are modeled in the same scale as Warmachine. I wanted to do this so that hobbyists could modify my models to be played in High Heavens, or even vice versa.

My interest is a bit personal on that one. I’d kill for some really good minis of various mythological deities.

Yeah, me too. Hopefully people dig them!

I know you mentioned Egyptian gods in one of your comments, but do you have any other pantheons in mind?

I would like to open the question up to the backers, but I would love for egyptian to be next. I am also very much interested in the Celtic mythology as well as some mythology even more ancient. 

You've got an impressive resume in game design for video games. What hurdles have you faced in the switch from video games to board games?

I think that most of my video game experience has been a boon to my board game creation. I suppose one difficulty has been that since everything is physical, prototyping takes a lot of effort. However, on the flip side, it is nice to just paint a picture or print a card instead of having to deal with technology to make something come to life.

What’s the biggest change you’ve made in the game during the design process? OR How different is the game now from where you started?

I think that the biggest change that came about during development was that of speed. The game was always meant to be fast and aggressive, but there are lots of ways to do that. My playtest group recommended that I attempt an even faster game, so, midway through development I changed the scale of lots of things (action points, movement, attack power) for the sake of making the game even faster. High Heavens was instantly more fun.

Do you have a retail price in mind for the final product?

I do not have solid pricing yet, no. It depends on how the stretch goals go, and what winds up in the box. I keep focusing on making things in the core set better... but that needs to be balanced against retail pricing.

What games do you play in your spare time?

Oh man... Well, my favorites are Magic, HeroQuest (fully painted minis), Warmachine (CRYX!), Mansions of Madness (again, fully painted), Ascension (I own every card including the promos), Dominion, Othello and Summoner Wars. Those are the constant ones that always make their way on to the table. In between those plays I also really enjoy Space Hulk Death Angel, Chaos in the Old World, Hive, Battlestar Galactica, Wiz War, Munchkin, Zombie Dice and Smallworld.

... you meant tabletop games right?  :)

And now, for the news. Perenial number one independent board game SETTLERS OF CATAN is releasing a new expansion on April 18 called CATAN Explorers & Pirates. The new game will be scenario-based, adding each new rule system one bit at a time. You can add this to the other expansions to make a highly intricate game, or with just the core set to add a few new elements. One big change is the addition of two new resources, Fish and Spices. So prepare for a new run of jokes to replace the “I’ve got Wood for Sheep” gag that earns you a slap upside the head at my table.


Fantasy Flight Games announced the first expansion for their Lovecraftian board game ELDER SIGN, called Unseen Forces. The expansion adds more than just new cards, bringing new mechanics to the game. The foremost of these is the Blessed/Cursed mechanic, which gives you an advantage or disadvantage respectively in interesting ways. As presented, the new rules are intuitive and easy to integrate without creating too much added complexity but add a great deal of variety and replayability to an already solid game.

An expansion is also coming for WARHAMMER: THE CARD GAME, bringing the Cataclysm event to the tabletop card game. Aside from new cards and the rules to govern them, this expansion also updates the rules for the card game itself to allow four players.

If you’re an experienced D&D player with some graphic design chops, Wizards of the Coast launched a contest to create the official character sheet for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS NEXT. Why is this a big deal? Because a tiny bit of information slipped up in the announcement. The winner will have their design “published in an upcoming D&D Next publication to be released in mid to late 2013.” This is the first confirmation of any sort of release date for a commercial product related to the new edition of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. What form the product will take has yet to be announced, as the only products slated on their website that might fit are the pair of Sundering adventures for release in August and October of this year (tie-in adventures to the novels which advance the Forgotten Realms timeline).

The new season of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Encounters started this week. Storm Over Neverwinter is the second Encounters season to be playable under both the 4th Edition and the D&D Next playtest rules. If you want a great introduction to the game, this is a good place to start as the games are designed to be simple enough for new players while still being a challenge for the veterans. The drop-in nature of the game works great for those with busy schedules as well, so while you get more Renown Points and rewards for showing up every week, you can still miss a few sessions without losing track of what’s going on. You can search on the website to find a gaming store near you hosting Encounters.

You know, doing the Kickstarter Round-Up is getting hard. Not because I can’t find good Kickstarters to report on because there’s a ton of those. What’s difficult is keeping facts up to date and accurate when the very nature of a Kickstarter means that information changes quickly as funding is met and stretch goals unlocked. If you want the most up-to-date information about any Kickstarter here, please check the page for that particular product because there’s a chance that there’s a lot more awesome that’s unlocked in the day or so between me writing this and the article going live on the site.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to this week’s offerings.

SAILS OF GLORY is the maritime answer to Ares Games’s pretty damn cool aerial dogfighting game, WINGS OF GLORY. The miniatures in this game come pre-painted and are to 1/1000 scale, making them great for packing up to bring to a game night. The pieces for this series are based on historical ships from the late 18th century and they look gorgeous. The rules are also very simple and easy to learn compared to most miniature wargame systems.

Airships vs. Dragons. If you’re a fantasy steampunk fan, I probably don’t need to tell you anything else about TERAMYYD: EARTHSPHERE. It’s a hex-based board game for 2 to 6 players where you take command of an airship seeking to gather resources to complete quests…or you can just wait for your competing captains to get them and raid their ships to steal them. The miniature designs are incredibly creative, but they’re not quite at a scale you can steal them for other gaming purposes (except possibly the dragons). The gameplay video seems to jump in the middle of things without explaining the basics, but if you watch it all the way through, you can get a good idea of how the game plays.

TWIN TIN BOTS makes my head hurt in a good way. It seems to fiendishly simply, but it’s incredibly clever. You control a pair of robots. Your goal is to gather more crystals with your pair of robots than your opponents. You give your robots a simple command, like “Forward”, “Turn Right”, “Harvest”, “Drop”, etc. On your turn, you can program your robots with a command and then they execute those commands. The trick is you can only change ONE command per turn, but BOTH robots execute their commands. This means you have to think several moves ahead in order to properly plan the sequence of commands for your robot. How could I expect anything less than simplistic rules yet complex gameplay from the creator of SMALL WORLD?

RAVEN’S RUN has nothing to do with birds but everything to do with detailed sci-fi naval combat. While the information on the rules is a bit sparse, the goal of the designers is to create a scientifically accurate space wargame that remains simple to understand. This means that ships can move in all three dimensions and that accurate inertia and acceleration rules are used that obey the laws of physics. The rules support up to twenty capital ships per side, with eight factions to choose from.

As always, you can reach me at for all your tabletop gaming scoops, news, or just to tell me how awesome your last game night was. You can also follow me on Twitter at @Abstruse and listen to me talk about how awesome my last game was. If you're interested in purchasing some of the games we've discussed, click on the links andthe pictures to buy them!

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