"Hand of Fate might just be one of the most instantly-atmospheric games this reviewer has ever encountered" - Chris Brown, Game Planet
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"Defiant Deals a Winning Hand" - Daniel Tack, Game Informer

Strange Encounters: An Interview with Designer Anna Zou

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It's time to harass another game developer in the middle of something much more important! This time it's designer Anna Zou, the former intern responsible for the creation of HoF's beloved mischievous goblin mentor, Mr Lionel.

Lee: Who are you again, and what do you do at Defiant?

Anna: I'm Anna and I do design-y things.

What were you doing just before I interrupted you with this interview?

I was working on the CENSORED Encounter Chain.

Oh man, I'm going to have to bleep that name.

yeah, whoops.

I was working on a secret companion's encounter chain*

...writing text and trying to resist making any more potato-related jokes.

Potato related jokes do seem to take up a lot of your time at the moment, so I'm going to return to that later. But first, how did you get your start with Defiant?

In the third year of my Games Design degree I somehow landed an internship at Defiant. Then I got contracted on part time as a Junior Designer. Then I went to Japan for a year to eat all of their sushi and pat all of their tiny dogs. During my time over there, I got offered a full time position as a Designer so I flew back and it's been jolly good times ever since.

I can't say for certain why I was offered this position - probably because I threatened a lot of people, but I can't be sure.

Should I speculate on why?

Well, you already sound crazy. Now I need to know why you think you got the job.

Apart from the threatening, I didn't do much of note during my time as Junior Designer. I did make the encounter Mister Lionel, and apparently people liked that, so presumably, that is a reason why.

We had to lock down Mister Lionel. Didn't want you going off to a competitor and creating the hilarious hobgoblin Doctor Leonard for them, subsequently weakening our brand.

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Yeah I'm pretty locked down - that was the extent of my creativity so....

But I can tell you why the community responded to Mr Lionel - you get him in your deck relatively early on so more players experience him, the card has multiple outcomes, there a very tangible benefit in getting a shield, and the encounter itself is just weird enough to be memorable long after the game is over.

Weird enough to be memorable is my motto in life.

I'm getting that on a shirt for your next birthday.

Do you even know when my birthday is Lee? Hmm?

That's why we have these interview questions, Anna!

You just wanted to strengthen our friendship?

Couldn't be stronger - we have an unbreakable bond already. Moving on, though. Do you remember how it was that you came to create the Mr Lionel encounter? Was there any kind of design brief, or did you just go "A goblin in a fake beard is going to be weird"

I was tasked with looking over the analytics to see if there was anything I could fix. Before the Mister Lionel encounter there was a big spike at the end of the Queen of Dust challenge where players would die a lot, and it turns out the final fight was way easier with a shield.

So rather than giving a shield to the player for this challenge, I thought it'd be more fun to make an encounter that gives you one, but also provides a place that player can gamble their things away, because gambling is fun, kids.

So the encounter was a reaction to the data Defiant was pulling from the early access builds?

Indeed.

There's a hot scoop. That's one of the archetypal HoF cards and it only exists because players were terrible at the Queen of Dust! I hear that the recurring ghost encounter is also yours?

The Queen of Dust is quite a trying fight without a shield I'd say, so really you could say we were the terrible ones for even making it like that.

Yes, I've actually completely forgotten the name of the ghost cards. Probably because they weren't weird enough to be memorable.

(Anna and Lee are talking about the Hand of Fate cards called "Asleep in the Forest" and "Asleep at the Inn". They're great.)

That being said, I hope people cried genuine tears of sadness when they played those encounters. If not, then I'll be very disappointed in everyone, especially you.

I bawled like a baby. Again, this is a sequence demonstrating one of the key conceits of Hand of Fate - despite being a card game that resets itself every session, your experience is persistent and the cards themselves evolve as you play. I think that took a lot of people by surprise - they were expecting a tropey dungeon generator but there's a narrative thread that carries through from start to finish.

Yeah, that's something that I love about HoF too - that you unlock a new card and a world of potential awaits. As somebody who used to play those old text adventures on the computer machine, HoF definitely scratches that itch. Except it's better because it has pretty card art.

Speaking of HoF too... you're now working on HoF2. What an elegant segue!

You impress me more every day. Yes! HoF2! Should I say something else?

The fun part about working on HoF2 is that I get to essentially play more of the game as other designers finish making encounters or challenges too. And then we critique them harshly, but that's also part of the fun!

As a designer, what excites you most about HoF2 (beyond the obvious "there will be more Hand of Fate!")?

I really like how HoF2 has more content for deck-building - not just in a "win the challenge" kind of way, but also in a "I wonder what happens if I put this in my deck with this" way. For example, what happens in an encounter can change depending on what Companion you took along or if you have a particular number of blessings etc.

Creating encounters that make players want to experiment with their decks is exciting to me.

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Ooh, card synergies! Can you provide an example?

Spoilers! Well I can say there's a blessing in the game that adds an extra Huge Success into the Chance Card mini-game, so even if the mini-game didn't have a Huge Success to begin with it would add one, and open up this new branch to the encounter that is previously undiscovered.

I'm not sure if this is too much of a spoiler or not.

Whaaaaaaa

That's amazing.

And of course, companions may make their own little quips and comments on the encounters as you play.

Thank you for bringing up our companion characters! Has their inclusion changed the way you approach encounter design for HoF2?

Narratively, we're able to give more of a voice to the people in the HoF universe. Like what is Malaclypse's take on the scourge of corruption or maybe you can find out about what the deal is with the raiding Northerners from a Northerner himself, Colbjorn.

So we took a new build to PAX East recently, and this build featured what might be your magnum opus - the Lovers challenge. Can I ask you about that? Can I ask about Oswin? What's the Deal with Oswin?

You may not.

(The Lovers challenge tasks the player with escorting a farmer named Oswin on a journey to meet his beloved. Oswin is notable for a number of reasons: he's incredibly handsome, he's obsessed with potatoes, and he can't stop getting kidnapped by skeletons.)

I think it's pretty clear what his deal is - he likes potatoes and rightly so. Potatoes are the king of vegetables.

You don't have to convince me.

If I may be so bold.

You may.

Thank you.

But yes, he seems to just be your run of the mill, friendly farming chap. One does wonder how he got into a relationship with such a woman though.

You're creating a scenario where I have to go back and leave editor's notes in parentheses in this interview, Anna.

Haha, yeah, should I be more clear (I don't want to spoil the Lovers surprise ending).

It's fine, I can go back and provide a synopsis. This'll be crystal clear. What's the design intention of the Lovers? What are you trying to get the player to do/learn?

Initially my design intention was to make sure that this challenge wasn't a typical story of two star-crossed lovers and that it had a distinct challenge goal - which is keeping a companion's health from dropping to 0. We also wanted bombs to be introduced, which tied in well with the keeping-Oswin-alive-in-combat thing.

From there it all sort of evolved. I think a lot of challenges are designed like that, we have a broad topic with maybe some beats we have to hit, and then it changes and grows organically as we create and test and see what works.

What do you think makes for a good HoF encounter?

The writing has to be not crap of course, if it can surprise the players in some way, if players can use it for their nefarious deck-building purposes, if it is intriguing narratively...that is a general list off the top of my head.

Personally I love encounters like the Devil's Carnival in the first Hand of Fate, something that draws you in and has many different branching possibilities on what happens. Some people, I'm sure, aren't a fan of encounters like that. Which is fine, because one of our goals as designers is to make sure that the encounters do different things and are unique from each other.

And to close this out: what else do you like to play? What are you playing at the moment?

Any sort of turn-based strategy game I'm into - XCOM or Divinity: Original Sin kind of games. That being said, I've been sucked into the addictive-ness that is Overwatch lately.

Oh and board games! Inis is such a good board game.

What do you like about Inis?

For those who haven't played it, it's a game with a Celtic theme you have to place down as many of your dudes as you can on the map, or in particular regions. This is all affected by what Action cards you have in this round and what the other players have. It's just good fun to plan what you're going to do in your head and hope that everybody else doesn't counter you or do something you don't expect - which of course they usually do. You never know who's going to win.

And finally: what is the goblin situation vis-a-vis Hand of Fate 2?

Well, Mister Lionel has made an appearance in the game already if you played the last PAX build. Goblins are still around and stealing shiny things, despite the Empire's best efforts to stamp them out. Some have allied themselves with the Thieves Guild - as much as one can ally with goblins.

That's what the people want to hear. Thanks, Anna!

Thanks for having me!