Kenji’s Quest is directly influenced by the games I grew up playing. I like being very transparent about my influences, not only because it should help you decide if you want to play any game I create, but I also think it’s fun to share how I approach game design.
The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.T.S. Eliot
#1 Final Fantasy IV
For me, this is the original RPG—the first I ever played. I didn’t know games could tell such a story. It scratched the same itch as reading The Hobbit, but it was something I could play! I loved the dwarves, airships, caves, towers, and monster design—all of it. I still remember the first time I entered the Misty Cave and heard Nobuo Uematsu’s track “Into the Darkness”. A whole world opened up to me that day and the sense of wonder has stuck with me all these years later. It’s influence on me—and Kenji’s Quest—is hard to overstate.
#2 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Can you hear that dungeon theme in your head? Collecting rupees, putting faeries in bottles, shooting the bow, and solving puzzles—all amazingly well executed. I really love this game, and to this day, I still go back and replay it. You know what makes this game (and the other from the series) so much fun? Exploration. Carrying your little lantern through a dark dungeon and hearing little squeaks and chattering sounds took me right back to exploring a creek at night with flashlights as a young boy in Florida—just like Miyamoto intended.
#3 Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI represents the pinnacle of the original Final Fantasy experience and is what I consider the primary influence to Kenji’s Quest gameplay. “What if I could port that experience to the tabletop?“, was the question I had at the top of my mind as I spent many late nights developing Kenji’s Quest.
I still remember the excitement I had when I originally analyzed and successfully welded Final Fantasy VI’s game modes—overworld map, town and dungeon exploration, and battle—into something you could play on the tabletop. I played it with a wide variety of friends, with various gaming backgrounds (and lack thereof), and they all loved it. I knew I had made something special and I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
Another important influence is the attention the game designers paid to its narrative. Kefka, the evil Gestahlian Empire, the attempts to subjugate the world with new technology, and its willingness to tackle topics like the use of chemicals in warfare, moral redemption, the death of loved ones, and even teenage pregnancy demonstrate that dramatic narrative and games are very compatible.
#4 Chrono Trigger
I remember playing through this game and realizing that my decisions actually mattered. My choices influence the plot? The story has multiple endings? It turned everything I loved about Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Secret of Mana, and other favorites up a huge notch. It’s safe to say if Chrono Trigger was never invented, Kenji’s Quest would not have its “choose-your-path” and “choices matter” aspects. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to incorporate these aspects into a quality game—but as Chrono Trigger shows us—the payoff can be huge.
#5 Diablo II
Oh the hours I spent playing this game! While most people love Diablo for its addictive hack and slash gameplay, I really liked it for its game mechanics. I actually enjoyed equipping weapons and armor, finding and organizing loot, choosing what skills to upgrade to, and the gratuitous use of potions. Take one look at a Kenji’s Quest character sheet—and the way you as the player get to actually interact with it—and you will see Diablo’s influence at play.
I’m still amazed at how few people have actually played this game. While HeroQuest certainly had it’s flaws, the concept had an awful lot going for it. Sitting down with a group of friends and playing an adventure board game was unique and very fun. Actually manipulating doors, traps, and other game pieces had a very visual and tactile element unique to the board game medium. This is one aspect is one I definitely wanted to replicate in Kenji’s Quest.
Something I learned about HeroQuest—that I still take into account as a game designer—was the importance that it didn’t require too much effort to actually be the game host. The ability to read through a quick manual, absorb the rules, and 30 minutes later sit down and play is so refreshing. I’ve incorporated that as a rule in Kenji’s Quest and always strive to keep complexity down while keeping strategy at the forefront.
#7 Final Fantasy VII
By the time Final Fantasy VII came around, the series had hit the big time and had a big budget. You can sense how many different hands went into its creation—both for the good and bad. It’s not my favorite Final Fantasy game, but its arguably the best in the series. The system it uses for equipping and using magic is very, very good.
However, Final Fantasy VII represents a sort of departure from the earlier titles in the series. In that transition, it lost a little something. Midgar was amazing, but I missed the classic swords and sorcery at times. Most of the Final Fantasy games that came after VII were even more graphically beautiful, but went in a radically different J-pop/anime direction. Part of the reason I made Kenji’s Quest was so that I could return to the I-VII era.
Mechanically speaking, the largest influence Final Fantasy VII had on Kenji’s Quest is its use of minigames. Fort Condor and The Gold Saucer were wonderful diversions. It proved to me that sometimes you just need to mix things up a bit. I tried incorporating a few minigames in Kenji’s Quest and they translated amazingly well over to a tabletop game you play with friends.
Risk takes me back to many late nights spent with family and friends eating food, drinking drinks, and just enjoying each other’s company.
My favorite part? Rolling the dice. Rolling all three ones as the attacker when you really needed a good roll… all of the goofy ways we shook the dice and made sounds as the dice hit the table… the anticipation of waiting to see what numbers came up… it was fantastic. I know some designers try to avoid physical dice, but I’m a big believer. There’s thousands of better balanced games out there, but Risk was a good time—and that’s one of the most important aspects of all.
#9 Sid Meier’s Civilization
Sid Meier is an inspiration to me. His willingness to experiment with genres, his attention to detail as he developed his prototypes, and his insistence to make games his way really resonates with me. In an industry now dominated with huge production budgets and the inclination to churn out “safe” titles for those with short attention spans, Civilization was (and still is) a breath of fresh air.
The implementation of a non-linear technology tree and the game’s infusion of history, economics, and trade makes Civilization feel like an epic drama. I could go on and on about Civilization, but as a feat of game design, it’s in a class by itself.
#10 Dungeons & Dragons
This game might deserve to be at the top of list, and in other ways, left off the list completely. For all of its merits and the kudos it deserves as one of the originals, it’s direct influence on Kenji’s Quest is quite minor in many respects (I’ve only played it once since I was 13).
While D&D has a big following for a lot of good reasons, I think the formula is ripe for improvement. Most of it lies on how much work it is to be a Dungeon Master and how much learning curve there is for new players.
Some games have tried to improve on the formula by taking the Dungeon Master out of the equation—but I think this removes a lot of the charm. In Kenji’s Quest, I have been obsessed with making the life of a Game Host easier and more fun. When I had a first-time beta tester remark to me that he wanted to host a Kenji’s Quest game—I knew I had gotten the game complexity and Game Host aspect just right.
Lastly, in a bit of contrast to D&D, Kenji’s Quest is a game you can actually be good at. If you dominate the first chapter, you get rewarded. If you make a bunch of critical mistakes, you will pay for it. The Game Host will not make the game easier or harder for you as you play.
I used to take a bit of umbrage when someone would remark that Kenji’s Quest, “sounds like a simplified D&D” but I’ve realized that I was taking the comment the wrong way—people were intrigued by the fact. I’ve since started to embrace that comparison—after all, almost every game on this list could be described in that fashion.