The war between mutants and men sounds a little like the subtitle of the next summer blockbuster. Bellum: of Mutants and Men, however, is a strategic indie tabletop game that looks a little like chess but cooler.
I have the vague recollection of a sixth grade chess tournament that I dominated. For one week out of my entire elementary school life, I was the cool kid. Bellum: Of Mutants and Men takes the classic checkerboard look of chess to a new level of battle. Check out what indiedev Ben had to tell us about it…
Tell us about Bellum: of Mutants and Men
Bellum: of Mutants and Men is a two player strategy card game played on a checkerboard. Players battle it out by playing units to there Keep space and maneuvering across the board in attempt to destroy the opponents keep. Rather than use dedicated resource cards like other games, Bellum uses a system where the amount of cards in your hand is the amount of points you have to spend. It’s a simple concept but provide a deep and interesting twist on hand management.
How is Bellum won?
Bellum: of Mutants and Men is won by attacking and destroying the opposing player’s “Keep” space.The players Keep space is their most important space on the board. It’s both the only space in which you can play cards from your hand to and target of your opponents assault. Similar to the King in Chess, this space is vulnerable if it is not protected. Without strategically placing cards on or around the Keep, your opponent has an easier chance of hitting it and winning the game.
How long have you been working on this project?
Threeeeeee-ish years? Longer? I don’t know for sure. It started as a weekend project and then slowly transitioned from hobby to part-time job.
What inspired the artwork and graphics of your game?
While creating the game, the original artist we had working with us was a tattoo artist and graphic novelist. We really liked his work and felt it fit the ideas we had for the game. Unfortunately, due to his tattoo apprenticeship he wasn’t able to commit to completing all of the artwork which is why we have multiple artists collaborating with us at this point. We love what each one has created but have striven to keep with the original “raw” feel of those first few cards. Along with the artwork, we decided early on to keep everything black and white. We want to invoke the feeling of chess and get players into the tacticians mindset.
What motivated you to create a print and play version?
We really wanted to get the game “out there” as much as possible. With both of us working full time, it was impossible to be at every Unpub event or Game convention so the PnP was a good way to get the game out there and test for balance.
How do you feel about the difference in quality between someone printing out the game themselves versus purchasing the game?
Printing, cutting, and assembling is a lot more work than simply backing the game, we’re grateful to all the players out there who’ve been willing to put in effort to check Bellum out. Also the Print and Play is actually the demo we used at GenCon2017, so it’s a little outdated. It only features the two pre-constructed decks and doesn’t have any of the extra cards that would allow for customization. PnP players would also be missing out on that sweet feeling of sliding cards across the canvas cloth Bellum board!
What Was the prototyping process like for your game?
The very first prototype was a board hand drawn on some poster-board with permanent marker and some cards that were cut out by hand from printer paper. Ben and his old housemate played around with it a lot trying to get the dynamics just right. Eventually the cards and that board were fine-tuned and printed on a giant printer at FedEx. While trying to actually develop the game to fit into a box, the idea came to mind of having a cloth board. The canvas cloth board is much more durable than any of the paper prototypes and is able to be stored compactly than a cardboard one. The very first box was made by hand as well out of some cardstock and spray adhesive. It’s really cool to look back and see how far it has all come, I didn’t realize how many points I was going to have to put into my arts and crafts skill. We have a link on our Kickstarter page that shows all of the different steps we took in creating this if you want to check it out!
How long after the first prototype did you begin playtesting?
Publicly? We didn’t play the game with anyone else until the FedEx phase. Once we got the cloth boards done, we held some tournaments to test for balance and did a lot more playtesting at cons. That started about 2 years ago now.
What difficulties did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
Balancing the cards was a big hurdle in the beginning. With so many possible card interactions it hard to predict what kind of ripple effect change would have. During our first playtest tournament we had a guy that just learned how to play that day wipe the floor with everyone because he had found a combination of cards that let him sit a guy safely in the back row and slowly buff him each turn until he was ready to move out with an unstoppable monster. Needless to say those cards got tweaked.
Tell us about the team of people working on Bellum:of Mutants and Men.
We’re just two regular guys. I (Ben Maloney) am currently living in Springfield, Ohio with my girlfriend and our three dogs. I work full time for a company called EnviroFlight. Whenever I’m not working, I’m still “working” on Bellum. Ryan O’Leary is my partner in all of this. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and two awesome kids. Ryan works full time as a contractor and spends all of his free time working on this game and playing with his kids.
We met while working in a restaurant in Newport, Ky and bonded over our interest in games. Once I ready to start showing Bellum, Ryan hopped on board. His insight into gameplay mechanics and ability to foresee overpowered card interactions has been essential to Bellum’s development. A lot of the card balance has been perfected thanks to him and he’s created a lot of the individual characters as well. Also no one makes demoing game more fun than Ryan!
Do you identify more with Mutants or Men?
Ryan more identifies with the “Mutants,” he likes the weirdness of there play style and the breathe of design space it allows for. The “men” were the first cards I wrote so I kind of have a soft spot for them.
What is a game that made you say “Wow! That’s what I want to do”?
I’ve been toying around making small games both digital and analog since high school. When I discovered Kickstarter, specifically when I found Drunkquest on there I realized there were actually opportunities for a regular guy to put together a game like this and be successful.
Did you go to school for what you’re doing and/or how did you learn to do what you’re doing?
A lot of it was learned through reading manuals, watching Youtube tutorials, and following the blog of the patron saint of indie board games, Jamey Stegmaier. I started college as game design major at Shawnee State. I quickly realized that I despised writing code and that I was more interested in game design theory, which wasn’t really the focus. I later switched to Biology attending UC. I hadn’t really done anything with graphic design or programming in a long time until I started working on Bellum. I’ve almost had re-teach myself everything. HTML has changed a lot since 2009.
What methods are you using to evaluate progress during the development phases of your game?
User feedback forms mostly from different conventions and Unpub events.
You won an award for Most Innovative Mechanic. Can you tell us about that?
It was for the Stockpile system at CinCitycon’s design contest. Rather than use dedicated resource cards like other cards games, Bellum uses your hand-size. This creates a deep and interesting take on the traditional idea of hand management in a card game.
Have you faced any challenges teaching the gameplay mechanic to new players? How have you addressed that?
We knew Bellum’s niche would be competitive card game players but when attending events such as Unpub we were surprised at how many people hadn’t played games like MTG or L5R. Card game players that sat down picked the game up no problem but for the uninitiated it was a bit of a struggle to explain some of the genre conventions that we had taken for granted eg. having spend resources to play cards from your hand.
We’ve found that keeping our explanations as simple as possible and letting players discover and ask questions about the more advanced mechanics as the played was the best approach in helping players learn the game.
When will Bellum:of Mutants and Men be available for purchase?
It’s on Kickstarter right now!
After releasing Bellum, are there more games in the future from Van Hammock Games, LLC.?
If there’s demand for it we have plans and most of the writing done for a stand-alone expansion “of Lords and Laborers.” We’ve also been playtesting a game based on the Kudzu plant, an invasive plant that covered huge swaths of land in southern United States.
What Dev to Dev advice do you have for other indie game developers?
“Fail faster” has been my favorite mantra. The quicker you can test an idea, the quicker you can find out if its bad, the faster you can move on to the next idea until you eventually hit gold.
Is there any Behind the Scenes information we missed that you’d like to add?
Bellum Design Coordinator, Van Hammock Games llc.
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