Benjamin Radford is one of the world’s few science-based, paranormal investigators, and has done first-hand research into mysterious phenomena in sixteen countries on four continents including psychics, ghosts, exorcisms, miracles, Bigfoot, stigmata, lake monsters, UFO sightings, reincarnation, and crop circles. He is an editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, has authored six books, and has written articles and/or appeared on television for Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic, Learning Channel, BBC, and CNN, among many others. His latest project draws upon his vast experience in studying the fact and folklore of monster myths around the globe – a fascinatingly unique board game now seeking funding on Kickstarter: Undead Apocalypse: War of the Damned. As you might expect, messin’ with Sasquatch is a full-time gig, so we really appreciate Ben’s time in sitting down to discuss his recent venture.
Ben, all the great monster movies back in the golden age of cinema had such wonderfully cheesy taglines. In that spirit, describe Undead Apocalypse in one sentence.
Ah yes, great monster movies… let’s see, how about: Undead Apocalypse is zombies, werewolves, vampires, and humans locked in a battle for what’s left of a post-apocalyptic world! Who will survive? You decide! (I know, technically that’s three sentences, you can lose the last two if you’re feeling like a stickler!)
Nah, that will all still fit on the poster. Besides, I know there’s more depth to your game as it will debunk many of our preconceptions of what these monsters really are, so give our readers your “30-second pitch.”
Ah, the elevator pitch! Its Mad Max meets The Walking Dead with a pit stop in Transylvania! After World War III the people of Earth thought it couldn’t get any worse; they were wrong. Ancient evils long thought mere legend awoke and took hold in the real world: vampires, werewolves, zombies, and humans all prey on each other using everything from claws to chainsaws and machine guns. Rumors soon spread of ancient magic books hidden among the ruins that could be found and assembled to achieve even greater power. Using science and magic, these four groups are engaged in the final war in Earth’s history. This would become known as the Undead Apocalypse: War of the Damned.
Now I understand there has been a lot of love, time, and personal interest invested in this project over a couple of years. What can you tell us about how the game as it has evolved from conception to reality?
Absolutely! The game was loosely inspired by a previous game I’d created in 2008 called Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination. It was a satire of religious warfare and had different gods battling it out and killing or converting each other’s followers. The game was a modest success, but it clearly had limited appeal. So about a year ago I was playing the game with a friend, and we started wondering if it could somehow be adapted to a different theme. I’ve always been interested in monsters and that seemed a natural topic.
But which monsters? Zombies are all the rage these days, and vampires have been popular for decades, so those seemed to be good choices. Werewolves were pretty cool too, but I wasn’t sure about the fourth character. Originally I wanted humans to be in the mix, though in later versions they were eliminated in favor of mutants (which ties back in with the apocalypse theme). However I finally scrapped mutants and brought humans back in.
The real key to the narrative was when I realized that all of these creatures had one commonality – they all were once human. That is, they were humans in different forms that had different things done to them. So all those pieces fit, and the trick was creating a strong game narrative. Because of my interest and background in folklore, I knew a lot about the history of these monsters, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate that.
In other words, I didn’t want it to be just another zombie game where it’s mostly battling and shooting zombies in the head. I wanted to try and write some of the really interesting folklore into the game and the rules. I wanted each player to have unique strengths and weaknesses so that there would be a lot of depth and replayability in the game; some of those elements were obvious, such as using silver and wolfsbane for werewolves and holy water and garlic for vampires. But there are a lot of other elements in the mix.
And I also liked the idea of having magic books or grimoires that each character needed to find the parts to complete, so there’s another level of competition and strategy. The more I thought about it, this mash-up could be really intriguing and successful. I’m certainly not the first to use different characters like this in the same plot — Underworld, Twilight, and other milieus have done something similar — but I’ve never seen it quite done this way before.
It sounds then like Undead Apocalypse is very theme-driven. How do you view the mechanics as really drawing that theme out, and were there other mechanics that you tried but just didn’t work?
Well, as I said, the story was the key. When I’m reading a book or watching a movie, I can usually tell when the writer has left the story in favor of action. As a writer myself, I insist on a strong narrative plot; if you can’t make these characters and these motivations and strategies work in this world, then you have nothing. You just have four players as generic warriors battling each other. One thing that’s different about Undead Apocalypse from my first game is that with Playing Gods I more or less did all the game development and design by myself. I did lots of test-playing with hardcore gamers, but at the end of the day it was mostly me. Though most people who played the game really liked it, I did get some grousing that the game play was a little clunky in places. And the German-style gamers kind of turned up their noses at the “roll & go” mechanic — which I knew they would. But instead of getting upset at the critics, I listened to them and realized that if I was going to make another board game I should have more input from veteran game designers. And that’s why I hired Jeff McCord and Steve Shippert, aka the Trouble Bros., who had done game design before.
They were very helpful to me throughout the game design process, and helped me discard ideas that simply didn’t work. They were not shy about telling me what worked and what didn’t, which I appreciated. I’ve always hated “yes men.” I don’t need people kissing my ass and telling me what a great job I’m doing, I need people who will keep me on track. We had some really great, brilliant, and wholly unworkable ideas early on that got winnowed out. For example, at one point we had this mechanic where the humans were building a bomb and if the other characters couldn’t kill off or convert all the humans by a certain point late in the game (at 12 rounds or something, I think), then basically the humans would win. Randy, one of the game designers, and I loved that idea. Steve and Jeff, however, did not.
We finally agreed that I would be the lead game designer, and they would be consultants. It was important that this be my vision, my board game, and they respected that. Even though it was not the game they would have originally designed, it is a damn good game that stuck to what I wanted the game to be about. To give another example, Jeff and Steve originally wanted a more cooperative Euro game like Ticket to Ride or (Settlers of) Catan. Randy and I always envisioned a game called Undead Apocalypse as being a last man standing game of bloody attrition — the zombies and werewolves in my game weren’t cooperating on any level, they were trying to survive in this post-apocalyptic world and eat (or turn) all the others any way they could, whether through bites or machine guns or magic books!
I gotta admit, werewolves in Ticket to Ride sounds like a vast improvement! How has your work in paranormal investigation influenced the game’s design? At what points was it really helpful? And were there any times it may have actually been a stumbling block?
An interesting question. It didn’t really influence the game’s design except insofar as that my interest and background in the monster folklore informed what I wanted the creatures to be and look like. Because I’m familiar with many different types of these creatures I could sort of pick and choose where I wanted to go with it. For example there are so many different types of vampires, but I went back to Max Shreck in Nosferatu for my inspiration. I wanted figures that could be genuinely scary. There’s a tongue-in-cheek element to the game, and I wanted to have some camp and fun with it, but at the end of the day it’s not a one-note joke; it’s a real, fun, fully developed monster mash-up game.
I do investigate real-life mysteries and “unexplained phenomenon,” from a scientific, skeptical point of view but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the imaginative aspects. I mean, I like a good ghost or vampire story as much as the next person. But I also know enough about the “true” stories to be able to pretty quickly identify the plausible from the fanciful, the obvious urban legend and folklore from the eyewitness accounts.
Yeah, about that, I have a question that I’ve always wanted to know the answer to: just what the heck really is a chupacabra?
You’re asking the right guy! I am, for better or worse, the first person to fully investigate and solve the mystery of the chupacabra. The chupacabra is the world’s best-known vampire after Dracula, and the third best-known mystery monster after Bigfoot and Nessie. Chupacabra means “goat sucker” in Spanish, and it is said to attack goats and other livestock, draining their blood. Descriptions of the chupacabra vary widely, but many accounts suggest that the creature stands about four to five feet tall. It has short but powerful legs that allow it to leap fantastic distances, long claws, and terrifying black or glowing red eyes. Some claim it has spikes down its back; others report seeing stubby, bat-like wings.
I investigated the chupacabra over the course of about five years. Because of my previous experience investigating lake monsters around the world (for my 2007 book Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures), I had a lot of experience in doing archive research, interviewing eyewitnesses, and that sort of thing. I traveled around New Mexico, Texas, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico in my research. My book on the mystery, Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, was published in 2010 by the University of New Mexico Press. When I finally discovered the origin of the chupacabra I was shocked, but it’s a really fascinating mystery.
Ah, man, that’s some plug! Guess I’ll have to read the book, now! So, back to the game, that is a fascinating point about how the three monsters of Undead Apocalypse all used to be human! Any chance that the human race has the ability to “convert” some creatures back at times?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Once I picked up the thread of these different creatures’ origin stories — that they were all once human, but had been transformed — the question became how not to make the humans the odd man out, so to speak. In a game like this, all of the players have to be carefully balanced because if one character is weaker than the others, then it’s not fun and no one will want to play that character. It’s like having an asthmatic, skinny teenager on crutches with no special powers thrown into the middle of a Mortal Kombat fight: it’s just not fair!
So I was trying to think of how to even the odds: the creatures all have magic on their sides (and in their origin stories — for example, in the Middle Ages it was believed that werewolves were humans who had put on a magic belt or pelt that allowed them to transform). I toyed with the idea of a sort of science versus magic duality to the narrative, and I came up with the idea that science was the human version of magic. I’m a pro-science guy and do a lot of science and media literacy, so that appealed to me. One of the most important and amazing developments in science is vaccines — diseases that killed and maimed millions of people centuries and millennia ago have been better controlled and in some cases almost eradicated (such as smallpox and polio). I adapted that icon of science into the narrative and used it to say that humans had developed a vaccine that could change werewolves, zombies, and vampires back into humans. That nicely tied back in with the theme of the game.
At one point, about three or four versions ago, vaccines played a much bigger part in the gameplay and story. However that element didn’t really work well as a game mechanic and complicated the game too much, so I reluctantly left it behind. But the vaccine is still in the game, in a smaller role because that’s how humans can “turn” the others into their own kind — because all of the monsters were presumably human once to begin with.
Can you give a specific example of one of the groups’ unique powers and how it might be employed in the game?
Once we got all the characters on an even playing field, I worked with the other designers to make each one unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses built into their deck: Vampires have a turning advantage, Zombies have a defense advantage, Humans have a movement advantage, and Werewolves have an attack advantage. We’re still fine-tuning the details, but it works well and makes for some interesting dynamics.
Another big step forward in game development was creating individual decks instead of all of them drawing from one. When each player had their own deck, that opened up a whole new world in terms of adding texture and flavor because the references on the cards could draw directly from the folklore and mythologies of each monster, and not be generic to fit all. For example:
Zombie Kill cards might read:
Consume: Funky, fungus-filled fingernails spread infection: Kill one clan.
Consume: Unhinged zombie jaws bite clean through the spine: Kill one clan.
While Vampire Kill cards might read:
Exsanguinate: Long, razor-sharp claws shred hapless victims: Kill one clan.
Exsanguinate: Unholy stench helps disable victims: Kill one clan.
And Werewolf Kill cards might read:
Eviscerate: Savage claws disembowel victims with a terrifying slash: Kill one clan.
Eviscerate: Feral werewolf bites rip limbs off: Kill one clan.
Regarding your point about Playing Gods’ limited appeal, are there particular segments of the gaming community that you hope to reach in designing Undead Apocalypse?
Well, Playing Gods was a project I was especially passionate about. Nobody had ever done a game like it; the closest was probably War on Terror: The Board Game. The purpose of the game was not to be sacrilegious or to make fun of any particular religion; in fact, I have religious friends who loved the game. It was an equal-opportunity offender, but the edge and satire was directed at people who would try to kill or harm others because they have different beliefs. At its heart, Playing Gods is really about tolerance and acceptance of people with different views. But any game that includes Jesus, Moses, and a machinegun toting Buddha will never be sold at Target, I get that. I made my sociopolitical statement with Playing Gods, while Undead Apocalypse is more of just a fun mash-up of monsters.
But, again, I wanted to have depth to it. I wanted to make use of my years of research and investigations into “real” monsters, as well as the folklore of monsters. These characters are all so rich and complex that it seemed a shame to just have a superficial battle game. So we’re hoping to interest people who already are interested in zombies, vampires, and all that. Obviously people are into these characters, but I was not interested in creating some novelty game to ride the coattails of The Walking Dead. I wanted a real game with solid mechanics that would and could be played over and over. My colleagues and I have spent months of time and effort on this, and we’re proud of it. The game isn’t finished. This is still in beta form and we will be making tweaks and adjustments over the coming weeks and months. But I’m confident we have an awesome game that plays well.
We’re also hoping for some interest from miniatures enthusiasts. I, personally, am not a huge miniatures collector; I like them, I think they’re cool, and I played with a lot of Ral Partha pieces in my AD&D days, but I’m not really in that world. However, I used the same sculptor who did my Playing Gods deluxe pieces to make the 54 mm Undead Apocalypse miniatures. They are incredibly detailed and really dynamic and add a lot to the game. I had some people tell me that 54mm figures would be too large, that they were at the upper edges of preferred height for most miniatures collectors. I thought about going smaller but in the end we decided that we couldn’t please everyone; Undead Apocalypse is not a miniatures-centered game, and it was never designed to be. I wanted figures that were cool enough to appeal to miniature fans, but also would be big enough to interest the broader audience. If we can reach our stretch goals we’ll create a whole army of smaller miniatures of each type.
When not designing games or investigating monsters under the bed, what titles do you like to play in your free time?
“In my free time?” To be honest, I’m so busy these days that I don’t do a lot of gaming…I just don’t have the time. I have one full time job, two part-time jobs, I’m in my last semester of graduate school (earning my masters in science education), I’m co-hosting the MonsterTalk podcast, I’m finishing my next book, and any free time has been eaten up by Undead Apocalypse. Ticket to Ride was probably the last game I played, along with some newer Warhammer-type games at Dragon*Con last year. When I’m not working, which is pretty much never, I collect clothespins and throw boomerangs. That’s why the Human Leader figure has a boomerang on his hip if you look closely.
So what can we look forward to from Ben Radford? Any other game designs or thoughts in the works that you are willing and able to share? Or feel free to plug any books or TV appearances in the coming months!
Well, I’ve got a book coming out early next year, a collection of “unexplained mystery” investigations in my home state of New Mexico. I’ll be appearing again this year at Dragon*Con in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, giving talks and conducting a workshop on Scientific Paranormal Investigation. I’m giving talks on July 21 in Hollywood and Costa Mesa, California, on my investigation into psychics and psychic detectives. And, of course, people should check out our award-winning MonsterTalk podcast. More info on me can be found at www.BenjaminRadford.com, and I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.
Thanks, Ben, I appreciate the time you took in your busy schedule to answer a few questions for iSlaytheDragon. However, I do like to leave our readers with one final, important, burning question. And this one is such an obviously natural fit for your expertise: If you had to pick one game to play with a group of chupacabras, which title would you choose?
Well, it would either have to be Risk or the dice game “Chupacabra: Survive the Night.” I got the game as a gift for Christmas last year. It’s not my favorite game, but at least the chupacabras would get a kick out of it and hopefully be too busy playing it to attack me!
If leading bands of vampires, werewolves, and zombies in world annihilation (or trying to reclaim it as humans) sounds appealing, head over to the Undead Apocalypse Kickstarter page now. The campaign runs until July 9. For $75 ($65 early bird), you get the game with the cool 54mm miniatures, a book on the fact and folklore behind the monsters in the game, plus a chance to get in on the stretch goal of an additional 115 sculpted monster and human pieces (if reached). It’s a howling good deal that won’t bleed you dry – a no-brainer, really…