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Interview: Walter Barber

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Today, we “sit down” with Walter Barber, one of a trio of creators of the new Kickstarter game, Champions of Hara.  Moving right along towards its funding goal, Champions of Hara is a mix of adventure narrative and arena combat, with unique characters and outstanding artwork.  If you like to mix your board games and role playing games, you should really pay attention to this one!

 

First off, Walter, describe Champions of Hara in one sentence.
Champions of Hara is a unique adventure board game, which pits players against one another in a race to become the savior of a dying world.

Now, I realize such a noble-sounding title shouldn’t be short-shifted, so give us the game’s “elevator pitch.”
The world of Hara has descended into chaos. The three sources of energy that once sustained Hara have spiraled out of control, summoning epic monsters and massive rifts to ravage the land. Your goal, as a Champion, is to compete against your opponents in a race to contain this unstable energy by fighting monsters, sealing rifts and adventuring far and wide.

To win the game, players will need to master their Champion’s deck of powers and the unique Energy Alignment resource system, while traversing a map that physically shifts at the end of each round. The first player to master all three sources of energy will bring Hara back into balance, and emerge victorious.

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Who designed Champions of Hara and who created the world it’s based on, or how did it come about?
Building the world of Hara has been a serious effort in collaboration. It’s been in the works since the three of us were in college together, and to this day, we work best when we’re all involved in the creative process.

Who are “the three of us”?
“The three of us” are Walter Barber, Ian VanNest, and Andrew Zimmermann. We met during our freshman year of college and bonded over a shared love of comic books, board games, Magic: the Gathering and all things nerdy. During our junior year, we decided to try our hand at designing our own game and around the time we graduated, we placed first in a business plan competition, which gave us the funding to start bringing that game to life.

We wanted to create a game that allowed for both deep, strategic gameplay and an immersive storied experience – and because of that, the game and the story are very much intertwined. Long term, we hope to make Champions of Hara a trans-media experience, which is why we’ve started telling the story of the game in graphic novel form. You can check out the short prologue here!

Is Hara influenced or informed by other literary worlds? For those that know nothing about it, can you compare it to something for a frame of reference?
Hara is probably most influenced by the worlds presented in Miyazaki’s films – Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle in particular. We also draw from the hip-hop infused animes Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai.

The game takes its name from Takama-ga-hara, the Japanese spirit world – and the word “Hara” itself relates to the martial art Aikido.  It’s the “Sea of Ki,” the space where all energy comes from. Or more literally your abdomen or stomach, which is believed to be the center of your personal power.  Since Champions of Hara is really a game about controlling and manipulating the energy within yourself, it seemed to fit. When asked “where is Hara?” we often describe it as “the belly of the universe.”

 

Can you describe a basic turn or the core mechanics that drive game play?
The goal of Champions of Hara is to master all three forms of unstable energy before they tear Hara apart. The game is divided into a series of rounds, which we call Days. Each Day begins with a “Morning Phase,” where new monsters and rifts are spawned across the map and players draft priority cards, which determine play order for the remainder of the Day. Then there is an” Afternoon Phase,” where players each get two turns to explore Hara and collect as much energy as possible. In the final “Evening Phase,” the boards that comprise the map are physically shifted around and then the next Day begins.

Players have three different kinds of tools available to them to make the most of each turn. Action points, which allow for simple functions like moving around the hex-based map. A deck of cards, which help you fight monsters, mess with other players or use other unique abilities. And the energy alignment resource system – three dials on the top of your hero board representing how you are currently manipulating Hara’s three energies. Players use their energy alignment to close rifts and unlock powerful secondary abilities on the cards in their deck. You’ll need to use all three of these tools to efficiently smash up monsters, close rifts, have encounters from the six different world decks and stop the other players from outpacing you.

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It sounds like the game has a strong role-playing vibe to it.  Is that central to the immersive story element? Can you tell us a little about the playable characters?
The game definitely has a role playing vibe. Each champion has a different set of unique abilities and offers a slightly different take on playing the game. Additionally, we’ve done our best to include a simple character progression system. Each character has a different affinity for the three colors of energy, and as you gain mastery of each color you’ll be rewarded with increased stats and new abilities.

The immersion into the story of Hara comes through the six world decks. While there are always face up monsters and rifts for players to go after, each of the different world boards houses a face down deck of random encounters unique to that zone. These encounters can be special monsters to fight, powerful items and relics to pick up, valuable quests to complete or story encounters – which contain a succinct little narrative and offer players a choice of how they want to proceed. Ultimately, every mini-story and piece of flavor in the game ties into the larger narrative of Hara, which we hope to be able to explore through other media like the graphic novel.

What’s your target audience, or which gamer types do you think Champions of Hara will appeal to most?
If we’re talking Bartle Test categories, Champions of Hara is a game for “Achievers” and “Explorers.” For the more competitive Achievers, each turn is a puzzle for players to solve, and offers a lot of opportunities to craft combos that will allow them to overtake other players. For the more experiential Explorers, there is a rich world to discover – different paths toward leveling up your hero and a lot of lore to uncover. To use Mike Rosewater’s Magic Player Profiles, Champions of Hara is designed to appeal to the “Timmy” and “Johnny” players.

There are six characters in the base game.  Which is your favorite?
It’s pretty hard to pick a favorite when it comes to your babies, but I think each of us identifies most with a different character.

Personally, I have a soft spot in my heart for Kaoru & Kuma. Kaoru is a sensitive kid who grew up dealing with a physical disability in a world that only valued strength and ferocity. Before coming to Hara, he was constantly bullied by his peers and forced to live as an outcast because he was different than everybody else. As a reward for always keeping a positive outlook in the face of adversity, Kaoru receives a one way ticket to Hara and is given the chance to reinvent himself as more than just a victim. At his core, Kaoru is the champion of underdogs everywhere, and I love him for that. Plus he’s got some really killer moves.

And can you drop any spoilers about one of the three you’d like to include as a stretch goal?
I’m really excited about the potential to include the expansion heroes. If we make it to that stretch goal, we’ll be rolling out a series of sketches by Jason Piperberg and asking people to vote on social media for the three they’d like to see enter the game. I should really say “enter the game first,” because all the characters we’ll be unveiling have their place in the narrative, and hopefully they’ll all make it into the game at some point. I’m excited to do a big reveal, and want to withhold most spoilers for now, but I will say that one line from a new hero’s art direction reads, “Think of him as a lightning-wielding barbarian lion-troll.”

Intriguing!  Let’s talk about that artwork.  The game’s illustrations are outstanding.  Who does the art and how did you find the artist?
We are so lucky to be working with this ridiculously awesome team of artists. Eric Priestly and Jason Piperberg were the first two guys we contacted.  We cold-called them both after finding their individual portfolios online, and immediately all parties knew it was a perfect fit. We met Hannah Kennedy later that same year while we were exhibiting Champions of Hara at GenCon. Hannah casually left her portfolio at our booth because she liked what Eric and Jason had already done, and frankly we couldn’t hire her fast enough. For lack of a better phrase, it was love at first sight. These three artists are really the heart and soul of Hara, and we’re incredibly glad to have found them.

Along those lines, what are your plans for the comics associated with Hara?
I get giddy just thinking about the idea of doing more comics. The art for this first prologue was exclusively handled by Jason Piperberg (with a cover by Hannah Kennedy), but for future issues we plan to divide the work up and facilitate a full collaboration among the team. The story is mapped out to proceed in one of two ways: either a series of short episodic chapters that build on themselves, or a full length graphic novel that dives right into the meat of the narrative. I think both methods could make for a great story, and the path we go down will be determined by funding and community interest. Either way it is going to be awesome.

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Your Kickstarter campaign is going very well, so far. Tell me, what’s been the most challenging part of the project?
Without a doubt the most challenging part has been getting all our ducks in a row for production and distribution. We’ve really dug into it, trying to make sure everything is in place, and the entire process appears to be in good order. That being said, this is our first Kickstarter, and we are pretty convinced that there is almost no way we can get through this without some sort of snag. We’ve read about all the problems we should anticipate, but you don’t know what you don’t know, right?  Fortunately we’ve got some awesome advisors by our side to point out any pitfalls we may have missed.

When not inundated with work surrounding Champions of Hara, what games do you typically play?
Whenever we get a chance to take a break from play-testing Champions of Hara, our go to games are:

Magic: The Gathering. Particularly we gravitate towards Two Headed Giant and free-for-all modes – the goofiness of that kind of play, piled on top of everything that already makes the structure of Magic so great, really appeals to us. Drafting is obviously the best thing ever, but money has been pretty tight since we graduated.

Ascension & Dominion. These two fall into the same category for us. We’ve spent an equal amount of time playing both, and we love them both equally. I’d say I actually enjoy the mechanics of Dominion more, but the visuals in Ascension are really top notch.

Arkham Horror. It’s tough to beat a giant, story driven co-op game, and the aesthetic is awesome. I don’t think there have been any other board games that can make a whole room full of people genuinely scared.

Power Grid & Cargo Noir. Both of these games are so clever and so elegant, and we have a great time whenever we sit down to play either. I think the only thing that really holds us back from playing them more often, and why I lump them together, is the theme. We are suckers for fantasy, samurai, sci-fi, Lovecraft, and to a lesser extent, zombies. Realism is definitely not what gets us out of bed in the morning, even if it is executed brilliantly.

We also recently received our copy of Tiny Epic Defenders in the mail and it is a really fun, well-built game. As I mentioned, we love co-op games and it’s nice to have one on a more manageable scale than Arkham Horror. Tons of props to Gamelyn Games for running a great series of campaigns.

Plus a shout out to Smash Up, Mage Knight, and Blood Bowl as well. There are a ton of other games we love, but these are the 10 that have emerged as our group favorites in the past few years.

Wow, that’s a nice and varied collection there!  So, finally on a bit lighter side.  I’m intrigued by the “Sea of Ki.”  On that note, can you recommend any other game(s) that might represent our stomachs?!
I’m glad you enjoyed the “Sea of Ki” sentiment. In one way or another we all live in accordance to our stomachs. I think creating and playing games is part of our “gut instinct” as humans, so in a sense they all represent some aspect of that belly-power we are trying to subtly shed some light on with Hara. Creativity comes from the core, I guess.

 

Well, no suggestion folks, so I guess you’ll have to trust your own gut instincts to feed your gaming souls!  If you think Champions of Hara may meet that hunger, head over now to the campaign page.  The project is over two thirds funded and will run until May 6, 2015.  If you’d like to join the brave endeavor of bringing balance back to this creative world, you can do so for a pledge of $55 (a discount of $10 on the MSRP) which includes all stretch goals the game earns, as well as shipping within the U.S. and Canada.  If nothing else, head over their now to check out the character, Leaf – he reminds me of Groot, with an afro!

 

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I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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