It took a global pandemic to slow Jane Hoffacker down. The former video game developer began her career with a three-year stint at Activision, where she worked on Guitar Hero and Skylanders. She eventually moved on to a scrappy startup called Riot Games where, nine years later, she found herself serving as the executive producer on Arcane, the critically acclaimed animated Netflix series based on League of Legends. Despite her extensive experience and expertise in games, it somehow wasn’t until the COVID-19 shutdown that she first played Dungeons & Dragons — and that’s when she got hooked on tabletop gaming.
“I’m ashamed to admit that it took me so long,” she said. “But I fell in love with that experience, that kind of shared journey and shared adventure that you take on with friends. I remember thinking, Why did it take me so long?”
The answer, she decided, was that the barrier to entry in today’s tabletop games is simply too high. Modern RPGs like D&D, for instance, require lots of preparation and a skilled player — the Dungeon Master — to lead the experience. Meanwhile, campaign-focused board games like Gloomhaven and Descent: Legends of the Dark have elaborate rulesets and take a long time to set up. What if there were a middle ground, something that could pull people away from their screens and monitors to spend time together around the table, as well as something more streamlined and easy to learn?
From that idea, the concept for Kinfire Chronicles: Night’s Fall was born. The crowdfunding campaign for the project goes live Tuesday, and Polygon has important details on what to expect in the final product. It’s a campaign in a box, and like many high-concept board games produced today, it also comes with a premium price tag — $149.99 at retail. But for that price, Hoffacker says, her company, Incredible Dream Studios, will introduce players to an entirely new level of board gaming, an experience that has been engineered to feel more like unboxing and setting up a new Apple product and less like building flat-pack furniture.
After more than a decade developing video games and related projects, Hoffacker knows that great games are built on great stories. That’s why she hired two of the best writers in the business, Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz and Jakub Szamalek, to create the world of Atios. During their time with CD Projekt Red, the pair worked on both The Witcher series and Cyberpunk 2077.
Hoffacker didn’t stop there. While touring the Polish game development industry, she tapped Katarzyna “Kate” Redesiuk, formerly an art director on Cyberpunk 2077. Their unique skill set contributes to Kinfire Chronicles’ distinct look — a combination of darkness and whimsy that the team calls “grimsical.” Then she capped the crew off with Kevin Wilson, a 20-year veteran of the board game industry whose credits include legendary titles like Arkham Horror and Descent: Journeys in the Dark.
For Wilson, who spent decades as a freelancer, the transition to full-time employment alone was life-changing. But it was the world-class team suddenly at his disposal that got him excited.
“I don’t know what your home PC setup is like,” Wilson said during a recent interview with Polygon, “but it’s like, suddenly you get all the best video equipment you could ever ask for, the best audio equipment, and all the software you could want. And they’re like, OK, what do you want to do? Because you’re the expert in this field. So how do you think we want to go?”
“We’ve gone all sorts of directions since then,” he continued. “It’s been almost like a two-year project, getting it done. [...] We want it to be amazing. We want it to blow people’s socks off.”
Kinfire Chronicles offers a high-fantasy setting, featuring humans as well as fantastical creatures. According to Wilson, the storyline begins during a siege of the elven city known as Din’Lux by an army of dwarves. During the battle, the stars go out, and a magical darkness descends upon the world. But the elves have prepared for this with a magical lighthouse that they’ve tended to for generations.
“The defenders of the city decide they’re going to open up the gates,” Wilson said. “They let [the invaders] in, they disarmed them, and darkness fell on the rest of the world. Only this one little city was protected.” Beyond the light of Din’Lux, monsters and magical horrors rule the land.
The game takes place at a point where many years have passed since the beginning of the Starless Night, with players assuming the roles of members of the Seekers Guild. Their first mission is to take an ember from Din’Lux to try and establish a new town somewhere in the wilderness. Along the way, the party will face grave danger, and they might even fail in their mission. The game will progress regardless, with a combination of a complex branching narrative, turn-based tactical battles, and a robust system for exploration and discovery.
What Wilson is most proud of, he said, is the way that the game gently onboards new players. Kinfire Chronicles begins with its thrilling story, and only when conflict arises do the gameplay mechanics themselves unfold.
“You have a little 18-card deck,” Wilson said, “and you’re playing your cards. [...] By staying in character, you get experience points that let you modify your character’s deck. When you go [to] sleep at the inn in town, you can shuffle around some cards — put some cards in and take some cards out, or get more powerful cards to change how your character plays.”
The idea is that players will learn the system together, in real time, as they unbox the game.
Where other publishers might spend all of their time and treasure during the game development process on creating elaborate miniatures or complex cardboard terrain, Hoffacker and her team have instead focused on packaging. How do you get a modern board game to and from the table in the fastest time possible?
The solution they came up with is modeled on the music industry — specifically, vinyl records. Each of Kinfire Chronicles’ 15 quests will be packaged like an LP. On the outside of the packet, there is thematic album art to get players in the mood, and on the inside, they’ll get only the things they need to play for the next hour. No popping out cardboard components or sorting through decks of cards to find the right ones. It’s just grab and go.
“It would have been way cheaper for us if we just, like, stacked a bunch of punch boards and then have everything kind of meshed together,” Hoffacker said, “basically relying on the gamer to assemble more themselves. I feel like sometimes you buy these games and it feels like you’re about to assemble Ikea furniture, because you literally are. We’re taking advantage of packaging — which makes it a bit more expensive, because now you have to pay people to actually stuff each little box — but we want it to be as simple as possible for you to sit down for a play session. Let’s maximize your play time.”
With the packaging design settled, the remaining challenge for the team will be to bring fans in with the lore, and keep them there with the ease of gameplay. To that end, Incredible Dream is borrowing from modern tabletop RPGs by sponsoring an actual play series on YouTube. The first episode is live, featuring Chrissy Costanza (Twitch streamer and lead singer of Against the Current), Brian David Gilbert (formerly of Polygon), Krystina Arielle (Star Wars: The High Republic and Dimension 20), and Ryan Verniere (Blackbirds tabletop RPG and Riot Games).
Kinfire Chronicles: Night’s Fall goes live on Kickstarter on Tuesday, with the base game available for pre-order at just $99. A deluxe version is also available for $175.