Radiant: Offline Battle Arena – An interview with Jack Murray

BONUS: Vaughn Reynolds, founder of I’m A Social Gamer had a chance to play live against Victory Condition Gaming with Jack commentating and helping them get a handle of the rules! Watch below!

Hi everyone, Patrick Brophy of The Crafty Players here again! I recently got the chance to sit down with fellow Irishman Jack Murray to chat about his game Radiant: Offline Battle Arena (ROBA), a two-player card game inspired by MOBAs and video games. ROBA is currently on Kickstarter and has already reached its funding goal. They’ve now started unlocking stretch goals and additional content. This game is beautiful, and I’m very much looking forward to my copy being delivered!

Can you give a brief introduction to yourself and Heel Turn Games.

I’m Jack Murray: game designer, lecturer, a perpetual graduate student (7 years and counting!). My first game design document was written at age eleven in my 4th-Class Maths copybook, which was confiscated by my teacher and never returned.

I started seriously pursuing game design about six years ago, initially as a supplement to my PhD studies which are focused on game criticism, but pretty soon as an end in and of itself. I have designed a decent number of board and card games on spec, but ROBA is the first game I felt was good enough to take to completion and publication.

I founded Heel Turn Games as a vehicle for the publication of my own projects. The name comes from professional wrestling terminology and refers to when a wrestler flips from being a heroic character to a villain (hence the chair shot in the company logo). I’m a huge professional wrestling fan – I think it’s an art form that has a lot to teach creative types from all disciplines, especially if you look at what’s happening outside of the WWE. There’s a really strong ethos of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in independent wrestling at the moment that has a lot in common with the spirit of independent game development.

Tell us about Radiant Offline Battle Arena and what makes it awesome?

ROBA is a head-to-head competitive card game inspired by MOBA games like League of Legends and DOTA. Players draft a team of heroes from a shared pool (just like in a competitive MOBA match) and duke it out across three lanes.

The game is very tactical – we tried to keep the focus on a small handful of really important decisions every turn, rather than drown people in a bewildering array of options. Turns are quick, but everything you do matters. It’s a game that tests a player’s skill and expertise in a way that’s really satisfying.

The game is quite demanding in terms of strategy and planning, but is very easy to pick up. I can generally explain all the core rules in about five minutes when I’m demoing the game at cons. I wanted to make something accessible. CCG-style games (ROBA doesn’t use randomized boosters or anything – all the cards come in a single box) and MOBAs both have a fair reputation for being impenetrable and hard to learn. I wanted something that tore down those barriers to entry a bit, without sacrificing the depth that makes these games fun to return to again and again.

ROBA’s deck building is very quick because of how the drafting mechanic works, you can create two decks from scratch in about five minutes and be ready to play. Because it’s a draft played against a living, breathing opponent it’s dynamic – you have significantly fewer and less granular decisions to make compared to building a deck in Magic: the Gathering or Netrunner, but the potential for misdirection and counterplay in the drafting stage keeps things interesting in spite of this simplicity.

I’ve joked before that ROBA is a “Lifestyle Friendly Card Game” – I’ve got a young son, and it’s not as easy for me as it used to be to dedicate hours of my life to carefully fine-tuning decks and devouring metagame analysis. ROBA is a game that allows the competitive gamer who’s got other things going on in their life to turn up to a tournament with a box of cards and figure things out on the fly – that wasn’t actually planned feature of the design, but it’s one I’m quite pleased with all the same.

What inspired you to want to make ROBA?

ROBA was my third attempt at creating a competitive, head-to-head card game in the mold of the CCG-type games that I’ve been a fan of for over fifteen years. I’ve always loved the highs-and-lows of serious competitive play, the focus that brings out in people. It’s the same reason I’m drawn to hardcore strategy games like Starcraft and DOTA. In that context, a MOBA inspired card game seemed like a natural marriage – Valve thought the same thing clearly, since they announced their own MOBA card game at last year’s International.

The two genres always seem to have a lot in common to me. You define your own resources and strategy through card choice and hero selection. Information is a huge part of these games – you need to know your own strengths and weaknesses and how they line up with those of your opponent. You need to know the right counterplays to various gambits, and you need to have the discipline to execute them correctly. Holding a removal spell to answer the right threat and not the immediate threat, saving a stun or silence because you know a certain channeled spell has the potential to reverse the course of a team fight – these require the same kind of mental focus and confidence in one’s understanding of the game.

I love drafting too, in particular I love the Rochester Draft format, where all the information is face up and available. I don’t think there are any other games out there that require you to draft a brand new deck for every game in tournament play – that seemed like a fun space to explore.

The campaign page mentions you’ve been working on the game for 4 years, what kind of changes have taken place?

Oh man – so many. It’s probably easier to list the things that haven’t changed: The drafting and deckbuilding. That’s it. Pretty much every major system in the game has gone through more rounds of iteration than I can possibly remember. I gave up keeping strict version control notes around version 15.7 or something, and that was over two years ago.

I’m a big believer in the power of hard work – I may not be the most naturally brilliant game designer you’ll ever meet, but by god I’m stubborn! There have been multiple times throughout the development where I, or others have said “OK! It’s definitely done this time!” but I’m never happy. I always saw the potential for the game to be better than it was, so I was always tinkering, trying new things trying to make it better.

That’s not to say that I was the source of the delays! Rather, circumstances lead to us having more development time than we expected, and rather than let things lie, I used that opportunity to make improvements. I’m glad I did in the end – the game in its current form is really, really polished. We had the luxury of time and we put it to good use!

You’ve got one hell of a team behind the game, how did you all come to meet and work together?

The team came together slowly over the course of several years, and lots of people have contributed to the development of ROBA over the course of its development. I’d be remiss to not mention the contributions of the #irishl5r community, one that goes back to the days of the old L5R CCG, and as is the way with these things, is now just a group of friends who hang out online and talk about whatever. They’ve been my think tank throughout the process and had a huge hand in shaping the game over a long period of time.

The core team at Heel Turn Games consists of myself, our brand manager Dan Dineen, graphic designer Robert Denton III and project manager Alan Bahr. Dan, Robert and I came together when the game was still being considered for publication by AEG. After we parted ways with AEG – an extremely amicable split, I hasten to add – we hired Alan as our project manager to help with the Kickstarter, as he has a lot of experience, and has had a lot of success on that platform.

You’re just finishing up demoing at GenCon. You were also at Origins and UKGE. What was the reception like to ROBA, and what kind of lessons did you learn?

People seem to really like it! I am not a naturally confident person and am inclined to always see the worst in my own work – not a particularly unusual trait I imagine. Demoing the game at cons usually gives me a ton of energy and momentum coming out because we tend to get a lot of kind words and positive feedback.

We’ve been doing public demos of ROBA at cons since… I think Origins 2016 maybe? We’ve gathered heard a lot of feedback in that time, much of which went directly into improving the game. I guess the lesson that I should have learned is that I should relax a little and have a little more faith in myself, but that one definitely hasn’t stuck.

The art for ROBA is fantastic (I really love Bran!). Did you have a clear vision from the start about what you wanted the game to look like?

Everyone really likes Bran! I knew I wanted it to be bright and colourful, a fantasy world full of eclectic characters. We’ve been very lucky to work with some really talented artists from all over the world who have been very patient bringing my not-a-real-art-director instructions to life. I’m super happy with how the game looks.

I really enjoyed the art direction process actually – aside from actually designing cards, it’s definitely been my favorite part of the ROBA journey.

Why choose Kickstarter, rather than pitch to a traditional publisher?

I did! We were actually an AEG game for something like two years. They picked us up shortly after they completed the sale of the Legend of the Five Rings IP to Fantasy Flight Games. I guess at the time they were thinking about replacing L5R with a new card game, but as time passed their priorities went in a different direction and ultimately they wound up letting us go. It was a very friendly divorce though, and I have nothing but nice things to say about the whole crew at AEG. That was back in December. After that, we had the game and we felt like we’d waited long enough to bring it out – so that meant Kickstarter.

What’s the future for ROBA? Do you have plans for expansions and other support for the game?

We’d love to take the game as far as it can go. After four years of work, and contributions from so many great people, I can finally say that I’m genuinely proud of ROBA and feel like it deserves to have a run.

We have expansions planned (our first expansion is actually in the can already, just waiting for us to hit the threshold of viability on Kickstarter to release it right along with the core set). We’ve done principal design and some testing on over thirty heroes (there are only nine in the core set), so if the game finds an audience we have plenty of content we’ll be very excited to share.

ROBA is supposed to be a competitive game, so we have plans for tournaments and organized play to help keep people engaged. We’ll be releasing more information on those when the dust settles on the Kickstarter and we have a sense of how much money we have to sink back into the game.

What drink would you recommend to pair with ROBA?

If you check the dedications section of ROBA’s rulebook you will find a note of thanks to Gosling’s Black Seal Rum. I hadn’t considered that this would make it the official beverage of ROBA, but since you ask… Goslings is a high-quality dark rum, the perfect base for some of my favorite cocktails: The Dark ‘N’ Stormy, The Corn & Oil, and the Cuba Libre. It’s a sophisticated but unpretentious spirit, a perfect match for ROBA’s mix of accessibility and depth.

Any closing thoughts?

None, except to say thanks for having me on. I hope that people will check ROBA out and give it their support!

Patrick “Paddy” Brophy, writer at The Crafty Players, spent 5 years living in Japan, and now works at telling everyone how great it is. He likes all kinds of board games, and there’s nothing he would rather do more than sit down around a table with friends and push meeples around. He’s
fond of saying he’ll play anything once.

About
Board gamer. Aspiring designer. Beer drinker. Beard envier.