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Playing the Pillars of Eternity tabletop game with Chris Taylor

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Chris Taylor, lead designer on the original Fallout, has a new tabletop game in the works based on the successful Pillars of Eternity role-playing game. Taylor was on the floor of this year's Gen Con, running demos for anyone and everyone who wanted to play  Pillars of Eternity: Lords of the Eastern Reach. Polygon spent some time chatting with Taylor about the origins of the game, and why he's returned to his physical gaming roots.

The germ of the idea behind the game came years ago, Taylor said, when he and a friend were playing an old favorite called Groo: The Game. Yes, Groo, the Conan spoof created by Mad Magazine's Sergio Aragonés.

"He's this wandering warrior who causes trouble wherever he goes," Taylor said. "Everywhere he goes stuff blows up, and he causes trouble and mayhem. This guy named Ken Whitman designed a great card game around it. It had a really interesting mechanic that we hadn't seen anyone else do. My friend Scott [Everts] and I were sitting at a game convention playing this game and loving it. Someone comes along, a friend of ours, and says, 'That's a neat mechanic. You guys should do something with that.' And we say, duh, that's a really good idea!"


So what's the mechanic? Well, it's kinda like improv. Improv with resource tokens.

Taylor explains it better than we do.

"In Groo you have dice representing various resources," Taylor said. "You roll a bunch of dice, get some random resources and play cards from your hand using those resources. But anything you can't use gets passed to the next player. You're constantly engaged. If your friend got a bad roll or they don't have the right set of cards in hand, you may get resources during their turn that you can use to play your cards. It keeps you interested in what's going on."

Get it? Improv? "Yes, and here's your resources."

Ah, never mind.

"What we did is modified it, using tokens instead of dice," Taylor said. "The tokens let us do things like store tokens on cards, pass tokens around, hold on to them for longer. We have a pool of tokens in the middle that you're drawing from. That may be empty, so you may not get the cards. It slightly mixes it up, but it's still the same basic idea as in Groo."

"You are not the hero in this. ... You're the guy telling those people what to do."

The game features six regions of the Eastern Reach, from the Pillars of Eternity universe. Each player is allied with one of them, which is randomly assigned. Players pull tokens out of a bag, and use those tokens to buy heroes, troops and buildings.

"As you play," Taylor said, "you'll play these cards from your hand, building a larger city and a bigger army. There are army limits, and there are city limits, but there are always ways of circumventing those limits. You can build farms and inns that give yoy more food and let you hire more people, for instance."

The length of the game is adjustable, in that players can reduce the number of cards in the draw pile. Have four players and a bunch of time to kill? Put 200 cards in the deck. Want a quick game for two over drinks at the pub? Play from a 60-card deck.

That deck also makes the game very easy to produce expansions for.

"The game is really resilient to adding new cards," Taylor said. "We added them in different proportions. We tried to keep heroes rare, troops the next most common, and buildings the most common. Everything still balances, but there's a lot of variety, a lot of variability in the game."

What struck us the most about the game is the potential to keep everyone at the table engaged. When one player pulls resources, everyone is interested in what they found because during that one player's turn they might have the opportunity to build out their city or their army.

There's a fair bit of tension involved in deciding what to keep in your hand. Do you hold on to big, expensive items or hold a hand of cheaper items you can build from the leftovers that come trickling your way?

"I love computer games ... But my heart is tabletop games."

Taylor says his team is on track to release the game some time in 2016.

But why isn't the brains behind Fallout spending his free time making more video games?

"I love computer games," Taylor said. "My day job is computer game design. I've designed many computer games, video games. But at the same time, when I get home, and when I get together with my friends, we play a lot of board games.

"My family likes gaming, period. It's our hobby. We don't take vacations; we go to game conventions. So, I want to express myself through games. I've created little board games. I worked with a company called Victory Point Games. ... I've published many games for them. ... But we want to do something where we get to make it exactly the way we want it, and really express ourselves as game designers. I love computer games, don't get me wrong. But my heart is tabletop games."

For more from the floor of Gen Con, see our StoryStream.

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