“The Colonia Revolutionary War is over. The Barony’s colonial administrators are dead, and the remains of its Expeditionary Army are scattered. A new and hopeful Republic rises. But the peace is uneasy, Colonia’s industry stands idle, and the mysteries of the revolution hang heavily in the air. Now, at the world-renowned Helios Grand Hotel, a meeting of Colonia’s most powerful players has been set. Here they will find their place in a new order — whether through negotiation, subterfuge, or force of arms. But it will take more than words or even weapons to win the game. Knowledge is power.”
Whether you prefer cracking puzzles or would rather be wheeling and dealing to shift the balance of power, there’s a little something for everyone in The Helios Conspiracy megagame/escape room experience from Liveware Lab!
In dark rooms and shadowy hallways at PAX Unplugged 2019, the truth behind the Helios Conspiracy began to unravel, and CHG Share of the Tavern patron Ryan Gadbsy and myself dove right in. The basic concept is this: players are split into teams of 6, each team representing a faction that’s won or has taken a seat at the negotiating table to determine the end result of the revolution’s end and the fate of Colonia. These factions range from the newly-established Republic of Colonia itself to the Loyalist Colonians who fought for the Barony to the Haulers Union that work the mines to the staff of the Helios Grand Hotel itself.
I’m going to start getting into the weeds a bit, here, so I’m going to lead my further explanation off with this: there’s a little something for most people, and what you get out of the game can often be determined by what you want going into it. You may just want to solve some challenging puzzles, but there’s a competitive aspect as well, in addition to figuring out mysteries and roleplaying your faction . . . individual players will value different aspects.
At its core, each faction has its own narrative that plays out via solving what might be termed the main campaign of puzzles for that faction. Solving one puzzle in that main line unlocks the next one, while also rewarding some resources of various kinds. Represented by different colored tokens, those resources are valued differently by each faction: we of the Haulers Union valued Technology the most (the means of production, obviously), with Money a close second, while The Dubois Quarterly Journal valued Charisma more and Espionage the most. All of these resources are translated into Victory Points (which you can also, rarely, get on their own); the faction with the most Victory Points at the end of the game wins.
This is complicated by the Helios Diamonds the Barony of Ys had been taking from Colonia, whose value is simply listed as ?, and by the fact that some factions are not what they appear to be.
There are also little side puzzles that are a great source of resources, notes to find in the ‘hallways’ of the Hotel, and secrets and clues you need to visit other factions to discover. So there’s a lot going on just with the puzzle side of things. But, well . . .
I’m terrible at puzzles.
Seriously, folks, I’m just not good at them. I try, and sometimes I have a breakthrough, but they’re just not my thing. While Gadsby had eye-balled the puzzles because they certainly are his thing, I had been drawn in by the story and the potential interactions between factions . . . and I got them. As mentioned, different factions value resources differently, but you’re not always going to receive what you want the most when you solve puzzles. What you can do, though, is negotiate with other factions for what you need. While Gadsby and three others tore into the puzzles, I and the last player hit the hallways with tokens in hand, making deals to acquire as much Tecnology and Money as we could; as secrets were uncovered by the puzzle-solvers, we also tracked the relevant factions down and brought back the clues necessary to solve more puzzles.
The backstory of each faction also fed into this: we were on pretty good terms with the Republic of Colonia and got some good trades from them in exchange for Military resources, but the Romanov Family had owned the mines and crushed the Union in the past, so we only went near them if we had a particularly favorable deal, and turned them away whenever they wanted Money (which they valued the most).
In short, I had a great time working as a negotiator and troubleshooter for the Haulers Union, Gadbsy had a great time tracking down what had happened with Union leadership during the revolution, and overall the Helios Conspiracy was the talk of our personal PAX Unplugged experience.
Even better, from a reporting perspective, I reached out to Liveware after the con and was able to ask some questions of Helios co-designer, producer, and showrunner Scott Silsbe . . .
SC: So where did the idea for The Helios Conspiracy come from, anyways? What inspired you, and what sort of story/stories did you want the players to experience?
Scott: “I am not sure that I would consider Helios to even be ‘one’ idea. It evolved and grew throughout the development process, based largely on practical concerns. On one hand, our limitations, e.g. time, budget, space, staff, etc., on the other hand, the type of experience we knew players wanted.
The theme and narrative of the game arose from those concerns. For example: Originally, the game was going to be set in the Cold War era. Early on, that setting changed to the 1890s because 1) it is more congruent with paper puzzles and a total lack of a digital element, and 2) it is much easier to find open source artwork and images from the earlier time period.”
SC: What was the design process for Helios like? For example, which came first, the puzzles or the stories? How did you balance the need for players to be solving puzzles and their ability to negotiate with other factions? What changed from Day 1 to Game On?
Scott: “The broad strokes of the stories came first — where each team is starting, and where they should end up. After that, we built out the puzzles; and molded individual story points around them. Pairing puzzles with narrative was by far the most difficult part of the design. I’m not sure that our process was the best one. But I have yet to find something better.”
SC: This is both a Helios and a general megagame question: could you write a bit about what goes into actually running the game, and some of the challenges your team had/has to overcome?
Scott: “On the operational side of things, our biggest challenge is almost always personnel. This was the case with Helios as well. To facilitate a megagame or similar gaming event, you need to be comfortable with new people and know a bit about ‘customer service’ as well as being extremely organized. In addition to that — and this is what makes it a bit harder to find the right people — you need to understand basic game design and the ‘gamer mindset’.”
SC: Given the nature of playing at PAX Unplugged, things seemed a little crunched for time. Without the constraints of a con, what would the runtime of Helios be? Would everyone play until the end of their faction’s story, or is there still a cutoff?
Scott: “We designed Helios for the runtime we had at PAX Unplugged (90 minutes of gameplay + 15 minutes for check-in and orientation). Our intention was for most teams to finish their entire narrative track of puzzles in that time. As it turned out, the puzzles were slightly too numerous and too difficult for many teams. Moving forward, we’re looking at extending the playtime to 120 minutes and of course making many of the puzzles a bit easier.”
SC: Could you write a bit about the live-action aspects of the game, like finding notes in the hallways? How about the social aspects of the game (we of the Haulers Union didn’t care much for the Romanov Family from the get-go, for instance)?
Scott: “The Role Cards are probably the best example of how we tackled social interaction and ‘live-action’ — by which I mean: movement and exploration within the physical space. Each player had their own Role Card, which served part of a puzzle for another team. At various points throughout their narrative puzzle tracks, teams would be prompted to seek out an individual with a specific title. This got them moving through the space, seeking not merely an object or image (though we had those sorts of interactions as well), but a person, who may or may not be where you expected them to be. Most players enjoyed this aspect of the game; though this sometimes became more frustrating than we would have liked, when certain players happened to be hidden in some dark corner, having some secret conversation.
As for the animosities between certain teams. These ended up being largely narrative, with some teams getting into character more than others, who just wanted to solve puzzles and/or negotiate for resources. This is one of the compromises we made in order to create a more puzzle-based game. A competitive puzzle experience works better as a race, rather than a ‘combat’ where players can mess with each other directly. Having bad things happen to you while you’re trying to solve a puzzle doesn’t feel good, even if that’s what you signed up for.”
SC: It seemed to me, with all the different factions, that Helios would actually have a lot of replay value, since every faction has different puzzles, secrets, and goals. Within a single faction, though, if I returned to the Haulers Union, would I find the game had changed at all, or should I switch factions to avoid a pure repeat?
Scott: “Part of megagames — or maybe it’s just the games I run — is that we’re always changing and tweaking the games. They’re so complex, and they are often run in such different settings, that there is always something that can be improved, or that has to be altered, because we have a different room or a different set of facilitators, or a different pricing model, etc.
So, if you replayed Helios as the Haulers Union, you would find that it changed a bit. But for a replay to be worth it, you’d want to play as a different faction entirely.”
SC: Let’s say you’ve got someone who has never played a megagame like Helios before. What’s your advice to them, going in?
Scott: “Have fun? Talk to people? I don’t have a good answer to this, because — I think — it depends so much on exactly which game it is, and how that person got there. Did they sign up solo, or with a group of friends? What got them to sign up? The word ‘megagame’ or ‘roleplaying’, ‘puzzle game’ or ‘escape room’, ‘immersive’ or ‘mystery’? Or did they sign up because their friends did? I’d have different advice for most of these possibilities.”
Scott and I also exchanged some words about the business side of things. Helios isn’t offered as a ‘do-it-yourself’ option with print-and-play kits or anything like that, although Scott did say it was something he was mulling over. Primarily it, and other Liveware games, have found their opportunity at cons and other events. Digging deeper into what kind of events those are, as well as where such games may take place . . .
Scott: “Aside from conventions, I am available to run games at all sorts of private events – parties, weddings, company retreats, etc. I have run games ‘off-the-shelf’ as well as created bespoke experiences, for example, a custom game for a wedding reception based on the lives of the couple. As far as ‘range’ goes, I will run a game anywhere in the world that someone is willing to buy me a plane ticket to!”
You can read more about the game, sign up for notifactions about where to find the next one, get in touch with Scott and the rest of the Liveware team, find out what other games are on offer, and even request a quote for a game yourself at the Liveware Lab site.
Oh, and how did we do? Well, I’m not sure how it went in other games, but in our Helios Conspiracy the Romanovs came dead last . . . and the Haulers Union seized the means of production and took the #1 spot.
Honestly, I’m looking forward to my next visit to the halls of the Helios Grand Hotel . . .
Thanks to Ryan Gadsby for suggesting we play the game in the first place, everyone who played the game with us (particularly our fellow Union members), the staff of Liveware Lab for a great time, and to Scott Silsbe for answering my questions about the game!
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