Interview: Jake Thornton | DREADBALL XTREME

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Interview with Jack Thornton

Jake Thornton is the game designer responsible for the likes of Lost Patrol and DeadZone. His latest game, DreadBall Xtreme, is currently on Kickstarter and is a sequel to the very popular future sports boardgame, DreadBall. We caught up with him to find out more.

Starburst: Tell us about DreadBall Xtreme.

Jake Thornton: DreadBall is the board game version of the eponymous futuristic sport. This is played in massive arenas under the bright lights of the media and a watching crowd of hundreds of millions across many worlds. On the pitch, two teams try to carry or throw the ball past their opponents in order to score in one of 3 strike zones. If one team ever gains a 7-point lead then they win immediately by a landslide.

DreadBall Xtreme aka DBX is the dark side of that sport. Shying away from corporate sponsorship and publicity in general, this is the DreadBall equivalent of illegal boxing or street racing. It is organized by dubious characters from the criminal underworld known as sponsors, and features a wide array of both human and alien players that are, to say the least, a little different to the famous names of the major leagues who are familiar from their endorsements of breakfast cereals and sports cars.

With no referee to enforce the normal rules, Xtreme is far more violent than the main arena version of DreadBall. Some teams try to win by simply wiping out their opponents, others try to win by a landslide before they are battered to death, still more aim for a balance between these opposite ends of the spectrum. As sponsors can hire almost anyone (for a price) the teams contain a wide and ever-changing mix of all the many races from the Warpath universe.

Why does DreadBall need an extreme edition?

DreadBall has always needed its Dark Side! From the very outset we had two versions of the game in mind, and the only reason we didn’t launch this when we did the first Kickstarter was that the campaign didn’t get far enough to make it all at once. In fact, the very last thing we did on that first Kickstarter was a character from DBX who has since become something of a mascot for the company: Blaine.

How different is it from sports board games of the eighties?

I’ve never been much of a sports fan, strange as that may sound, so I didn’t play many of them. I was aware of a few real world simulations from Avalon Hill like good old Statis Pro Football and the like, but I never got round to playing them. The big player in the fictional sports board game arena was always Blood Bowl from Games Workshop, which I did play. That came out in the mid-80s and has dominated the thinking of this genre of games ever since, running through several editions.

Comparisons between DreadBall and Blood Bowl were so inevitable that I wrote an article on my blog about this called the elephant in the room which was ready when the game went live. It’s both a fair and obvious question and we had to consider it properly. In fact, if you’ve played both games then it’s apparent that there’s nothing much they share in terms of how they work. Beyond them both being fictional sports games they have little in common.

One often cited difference is the speed with which DreadBall plays. Blood Bowl is a fine game, but it is often criticized as being quite slow. This depends a lot on the players, of course, and perhaps this slowness is more perceived than real, but it’s certainly not the case with DreadBall. That sense of speed and movement was a core image when I designed the game. Think about it as moving like the most hectic of ice hockey matches, but without any time outs or pauses. That’s what I was aiming for. Even when the ball is relaunched after a successful strike the game never resets – they just launch the ball into the arena with the players carrying on from wherever they might have been when the strike was made. And the game rages on.

How different is it from the previous game?

The balance between familiarity and change has been the main challenge of this design. On the one hand you don’t want to mess too much with a game that people like. On the other hand, there’s no point in designing a new game if it’s just the same as the old one. Where to pitch that balance?

The concept of DBX has been in the background since the start, with a brief mention of it in the core rules of the first DreadBall game. We always intended to make it a separate game and so I’ve had the time to quietly put ideas away in a notebook throughout the development of the first DreadBall game and beyond. Now I’ve come back to revisit those notes and expand on them.

So how different is it? Well the core mechanics that move your players about the pitch and determine the success of slamming your opponents or throwing the ball remain the same. There’s no need to reinvent those just for the sake of doing so. This means that we have a solid system at the heart of the game which we know works and that people like. It also means that existing players of DreadBall can move from one game to the other fairly easily.

The main differences are driven by the background story that underpins this variant of the game: the ad-hoc nature of the pitches and the dodgy sponsors that run the teams.

The playing area of a normal DreadBall pitch is the same every time. With DBX they can’t guarantee that. The area they can find to play in might have concrete pillars down the middle, or rows of crates obliquely across the middle. This means that the board has a number of different set ups to pick from. It also means that the board has more than just your team and the opponent’s on it: there are obstacles to dodge round too. Taking the illegal and violent tendencies of the people organizing this into account, some of these obstacles are also booby trapped with explosives, just to liven things up a bit.

The main arena version of DreadBall is a highly organized sport with a great deal of corporate sponsorship for individual players and teams alike. Teams like the Trontek 29ers and Greenmoon Smackers are household names that every school kid knows. Even if individual players change the team remains. In DreadBall Xtreme there are no teams in this sense. The sponsors give the sport an equivalent permanency, with The Warden or Blaine being known to everyone in the circuit. The players they hire tend to come from groups that are familiar to them and in which they have contacts they can use. With the Warden’s many years in the penal service he knows just which lock-ups to search for potential recruits, and who to bribe to get them released for an afternoon’s game. Blaine is a criminal of interplanetary reputation (and warrants) who can call on a wide variety of dubious alien characters. Recently he has made his name with teams comprised mainly of Asterian pirates, and this has become something of a signature.

As hiring players in DBX is largely about money, a sponsor can theoretically hire almost anyone. This contrasts strongly with DreadBall where teams can only draw from a narrow pool. Whether this extra choice is exciting or overwhelming depends on you as a gamer, but it is very different.

DeadZone is very much a cross between a board game and skirmish game. Where does this new game lie between those two types of game?

It’s very much a board game. A board game that uses finely sculpted and made miniatures as playing pieces, but a board game all the same.

What single game have you designed that you’d love to give the Xtreme treatment too?

I don’t think the other games I’ve designed need it. When I design games I try to make something that reflects the movie in my head, and while it’s fun to come back to a game and see how it can be tweaked, it’s only relevant here because that was the plan all along. DreadBall needs its evil twin to tell the whole story. Other games are complete as they are.

Would you ever do another version of Lost Patrol?

I’d very much like to. I did ask Games Workshop about this some years ago and it seems to have fallen in between two stools in terms of licensing, so it’s unfortunately not very likely. That said, I’m sure it could be done if there was a will to on their part. I’d certainly be happy to. I’ve even been writing the odd expansion on my blog in the meantime.

Are tabletop games the next big thing?

No, I don’t think so. Tabletop games (in the sense of both board games and wargames) offer a type of face-to-face interaction with real people that is impossible to replicate with digital alternatives no matter how many instant message services are built in. This makes them unlikely to go away despite the omnipresence of digital gaming. However, I can’t see them becoming more than one possible way of playing. I think that this mix is actually a good and healthy thing for gaming in its wider sense.

What would your dream project be?

One without a deadline.

DreadBall Xtreme’s Kickstarter runs out on March 16th.

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