As one of the co-creators of Kill Shakespeare, Conor McCreery had to learn to get past people’s initial reactions to the Bard.
“Most people do not have a neutral relationship to Shakespeare. They’re either really big fans or they feel it’s not for them,” said McCreery.
To that end, his approach is akin to that of the Marvel cinematic universe. You’ll get more out of the Kill Shakespeare comic if you’re familiar with the literary references, but there is no required reading if you just want to know what’s going on. Kill Shakespeare is accessible for any comic fan, not just Shakespeare enthusiasts.
But it can be tough to keep sight of those principles when adapting that comic book to other media. How do you stay true to your own creative universe while also grappling with one of the most iconic literary figures in history? And how are those problems compounded when moving to a more interactive format?
That’s the challenge that McCreery and Kill Shakespeare co-creator Anthony Del Col have broken off with the Kill Shakespeare board game. The first release from IDW Games, the Kill Shakespeare board game plays like a cross between Pandemic and Risk, and is designed to appeal to more hardcore tabletop gamers. Though McCreery and Del Col both consulted, the actual design was outsourced to Wolf Plancke and Thomas Vande Ginste, professional game designers and the creators of YEDO.
Thanks to their expertise, Kill Shakespeare works first and foremost as a (mostly) cooperative strategy game that stands on its own merits. Though the characters and universe are adapted from Kill Shakespeare, there is no direct narrative tie in to the comic. Each game merely represents a new opportunity to engage with friends.
“We wanted the game to create stories,” said McCreery, distinguishing one-off game sessions from the ongoing comic series. “We wanted, after finishing, to be talking to friends about the story of the game they just played.”
The board game is the Kill Shakespeare team’s second attempt at gaming. The first was a mobile app that pitted players against one another in a literal battle of words that asked them to figure out Shakespearean quotations. The game worked, but it skewed academic and didn’t help get people interested in Shakespeare.
“We didn’t keep sight of the fact that what people expect from Kill Shakespeare is a fun Shakespeare experience that’s easy to get into,” said McCreery.
The Kill Shakespeare board game was intended to remedy that kind of thinking. Like the comic, there are references for those who know the material (both the comic and Shakespeare), but that’s about as deep as the rabbit hole goes.
However, the game can be intimidating if you don’t play a lot of board games. It’s somewhat inaccessible not because of the source material, but because many tabletop board games require some investment. The game is heavily frontloaded and the intricate turn structure includes a lot of negotiation that is not necessarily intuitive.
“People wanted to know why they were doing things all the time,” said McCreery. “People were worried about making a bad decision early so everything bogged down in terms of how they played.”
Fortunately, McCreery believes that most players will overcome that initial hurdle.
“Once you understand it, the game is really easy to play,” he said, before adding that much of the complexity was deliberate, and could even be a perk given the game’s target audience.
“IDW, they don’t want to make a game like Sorry,” he said. “How do you stand out in the market there? They want to make games for game players.”
“Serious gamers play a couple times. I don’t think people who spend 55, 60 bucks on a board game are buying it with the intention of not spending a bit of time.”
So far, the fan reaction has borne that out as players have filled in the gaps.
“The Internet has been great,” said McCreery. “We’ve had a lot of people who sent playthrough videos. People made documents for us. To me that shows how the actual game experience is satisfying, that people want to show other people how to get past a couple of quirks that aren’t properly explained.”
“If you read the rulebook from cover to cover you can play the game,” said McCreery. “You’ll have a couple small questions, but it’s understandable.”
But he acknowledges that it could have been organized a little differently. Looking back, McCreery wishes that the rulebook had included a reference sheet – a plain list of everything that happens in a turn – somewhere near the front of the book.
“It would have been much easier for people to flip back and forth,” he said. “For a more complicated game like this, that table of contents would have been useful.”
He attributes the oversight to his and Del Col’s inexperience with game development. After all, they’re comic book artists, not game designers. Though they were able to defer to Plancke and Vande Ginste, there are still new artistic challenges when you know that you will eventually have to cede control to the audience.
“Anthony and I read the rulebook. We had questions, but we didn’t really know the context. Were we just asking these questions because we weren’t as in depth game players as the people who are going to buy this game? Were we going to over explain the game, which is just as annoying?”
The difficulties with the Kill Shakespeare board game have given them a better appreciation for that balance. It’s also helped them understand the relationship between the creator and the player in interactive media, where the tutorial is an integral part of the creative process.
“You need to find a way to get people into the game in little pieces,” he said.
That will prove to be a useful takeaway should McCreery and Del Col work on another game in the future, a prospect they’re open to even if there are no immediate plans. Until then, they’ll live with the mistakes knowing that they’re taking steps to correct them, partnering with IDW and David Minken of ConnectMore to provide post-launch support and resources – including digital updates to the rulebook – to make Kill Shakespeare more accessible for new players. McCreery is confident the game has what it takes to enter the rotation for tabletop enthusiasts. Now that IDW Games and the Kill Shakespeare team are applying the lessons learned during development, it will only become easier to demonstrate that appeal.