Bigger is not always better. Not from a game play point of view. Some of the best-selling games in the industry are short, simple, and amazingly fun. Here at Catalyst Game Labs, we have our own favorite small games. Shadowrun: Encounters. The Duke. And our newest, Master of Orion: Conquest. So, yeah, we love small games.
Still, there’s something extra special about ‘The Big Game’. The leviathans which open up entire worlds to explore, supporting dozens of strategies and hundreds of tactical choices. These are the games to which fans devote hours, weekends, even an entire year of consistent play. We often refer to them as “lifestyle” games, and we may know a thing or two about those. And one thing we definitely know: Size matters.
Anyone who publishes games for a living can testify to that. Big games are never easy. They shouldn’t be. And Dragonfire certainly wasn’t.
Originally slated for a summer 2017 release, Dragonfire was finally published in November. Even with ten years of experience in managing large properties, Catalyst took on its biggest challenge yet in turning Dungeons & Dragons into one of the market’s strongest deckbuilding games. Then there was the art… approvals… design and layout… Every day we scratched off the calendar was a new, exquisite measure of pain. We asked ourselves more than once, was it worth it?
Since it’s release, Dragonfire has broken every record at Catalyst. It was our strongest Gen Con Game Fair showing, running more volunteer hours and non-stop demo play than we’ve ever seen. Our biggest initial print run, by far. Best level of preorders (100%) and our fastest game to sell-out its first printing (instantly, see “pre-orders”). To make certain we didn’t run out of product, we ordered a second printing before the first even made it to the warehouse. We were that confident (and D&D is that huge) that we felt it was a must.
Does that make us happy? Well, sure. We’re a publishing company, and this is how we stay in business. But we’re also gamers, and in the end the fan reaction meant even more. This is why our marketing campaign revolved around a single theme: Heroes.
It started with the box cover. A lone adventurer, standing in the face of a massive, ancient (and very angry) Red Dragon. This warrior has been jokingly referred to as “dragon kibble” and “the sacrifice,” but let’s face it, as gamers we’ve all spent hundreds of hours at play (especially in a RPG) for exactly this moment. That magical place where preparation and training come together to draw that line. Here! This far and no further! We’re all in! Win or lose, it will make for one hell of a story!
Our website, our magazine ads, our convention booths — they all reflected this moment which we boiled down into a single statement: Heroes Wanted! We were reaching past what might be considered the standard play of a deckbuilding game, attempting to bring in a stronger element of roleplaying. Of story. We wanted a player’s character to matter as much (or more) than winning any single adventure, at least until they got their turn to face down the ancient red beastie.
Did we succeed?
At Gen Con we saw some early evidence. The line for a seat at a demo table never disappeared, and even though there were no scheduled events after the exhibit floor hours (there will be in 2018!) we ended up running ad hoc tables in our tabletop area just so fans could run their first characters through a full “dungeon crawl” adventure. Everyone was as excited about their Sun Elf Wizard or their Half-Orc Rogue as they were about the game overall. The most common question we heard all weekend? “When will you release as a Character screen?” (Second most common question: “Do we get to fight ? “, and Magical treasures rated a distant third! Which we loved!)
Before we ever got Dragonfire into stores, the lucky few who had picked up a copy at Gen Con were already emailing us, asking for new Character screens, new Subclass Features, more Adventures. Our favorite question came through the Dragonfire website (www.dragonfirethegame.com) asking us about our Campaign Play. They weren’t looking for advice on beating an Adventure. They were asking about a choice they had made inside the Campaign which resulted in a Campaign Score of +1. Was this okay? They wanted to know. Were they in trouble?
They were more concerned about their character than the overall campaign!
We’re not saying the game is perfect (no game is). After the main release, players helped us find clarifications that needed to be made; rules conflicts we had to errata. There were misprints and some missed printing. But the evidence continued to show us that characters mattered — the story mattered — as much as winning did. Before the first Adventure Pack was released, one father-son team had played through the entire introductory Campaign three times with different characters each time! We were hearing stories about victories seized one play away from a Total Party Kill. All-elf (and all-dwarf, and all-other) teams that dominated gameplay. And several players reporting that the Forest Gnome Fighter was the Best. Tank. Ever!
The forest gnome.
Yeah, all of this means a lot more to us than preorder figures and sales reports, because, barely four months into the release, we are still working hard to provide exciting, ongoing adventures, high level gameplay, and the setting for one thousand heroic tales. This is how we play. This is why companies publish big games. And we’ll never tire of hearing about those last-gasp victories or the unique party combinations or especially the heroic characters.
Because size matters.
And nothing is larger than a hero.