Campfire Union is a small startup developer hoping to make a big name for itself in the virtual reality market. The company is getting ready to launch its first game ever, Lost Cities, on the Gear VR next month, and earlier this week I had the privilege of spending some time with the game and speaking with Lesley Klassen, Campfire Union’s Chief Innovation Officer and one of three co-founders. (John Luxford, Chief Technology Officer, and Rachael Hosein, Chief Creative Officer are the other two.)
Mere moments after I first arrived at Campfire Union’s offices and was greeted by Klassen, he had me playing Lost Cities. He wanted me to experience the game before telling me much about it. Klassen passed me his Gear VR Innovator edition, made sure the game started, and then left me to play for a little while.
Learning The Ropes
The game has a built-in tutorial system, so this is naturally where I started. The tutorial explains how to play and how the score is calculated, and it walks you through a couple of turns.
Lost Cities is a VR adaptation of a card game that exists in the real world. The VR version of the game uses 3D tiles rather than cards, but otherwise the game is played the same way. The backstory to the game is that you are an explorer looking for ancient lost cities, but the game has much more to do with math, probability, risk and logic than it does about going on an adventure. That’s not to take away from it at all; I certainly rather enjoyed my time playing Lost Cities.
(At the bottom of this article, you can read the rules.)
Time To Play
After the quick tutorial, I jumped into the actual game. The first round I played was in the Desert Sands location. In this map, you find yourself in Egypt, with pyramids in the background and Anubis sitting across the board from you. After being embarrassed by my abysmal performance against Anubis, I moved on to the second environment, the Himalayan Mountains, where I found myself playing against a Minotaur on the edge of a mountain cliff.
I tried three or four times to beat my bullish opponent, trying everything from playing extremely conservatively, to going for broke with a 3x multiplier. Though I was close, I didn’t manage to win a match during my short run with the game, but I desperately wanted retribution. When I told Klassen that, he responded with “Good!” and a big grin. He said they don’t want the game to be so easy that you beat it right away, but not so hard that you don’t want to play again.
Once I took the Gear VR off and came back to reality, one of my first observations was just how long I had been playing the game. When I wrote my review of the Gear VR in December, I had trouble running almost any experience for more than 15 to 20 minutes. The phone would always overheat. Lost Cities is optimized so well that I was playing for over 30 minutes, and the phone hadn’t yet given me a warning.
I asked Klassen about that, and he said that the team was “super concerned about performance” from the beginning. The game was developed on the weakest hardware (Note 4) and made to work properly with it, so it should work very well on newer phones. Klassen told me that he has spent upwards of 45 minutes at a time playing the Desert Sands location. He was hesitant to say that you can get that amount of play time in all of the levels, as Desert Sands was the first setting and has had the most polish, but he did say that 30 minutes shouldn’t be a problem in the Himalayan Mountains setting.
When Lost Cities launches, both the Desert Sands and Himalayan Mountains will be available to play, but there will be three more locales that will be released in staggered progression over the months. Klassen told me that approximately one month after launching the game, Campfire Union will release Neptune’s Realm, followed by Ancient Volcano the following month. Brazilian Rainforest will be the final free addition to the game, which is planned for the third month after launch. Klassen noted that paid DLC is an option the company will consider, depending on the success of the game.
Lost Cities will also feature live multiplayer gaming and matchmaking. Klassen told me that he and his team have been wavering over the inclusion of the matchmaking aspect of the game at launch. Campfire Union was going to wait a month to release the matchmaking portion, but the feature is ready now, so the current plan is to release it with the game next month, but that decision isn't final yet. Klasssen added, "By the time the last of our environments are pushed to our audience, we will also have 'play with friends,' leader boards and achievements."
Klassen told me that Lost Cities is the first game (not product) that Campfire Union will release. He said it was important for the game to have a social aspect, but the team didn’t want to bite off more than it could chew. The co-founders wanted something social, easy to play in short periods of time, and that offered high replay value. The team agreed that a board game fit the bill. He said that most of Campfire Union is made up of a bunch of board game fans anyway, so it was an easy choice. Klassen said that a choosing seated position board game also eliminated the need for head tracking, which is a limitation that the Gear VR presents.
Though Campfire Union is but a small upstart that has yet to release a game, the company has been getting some impressive recognition and exposure. Klassen was invited to do a presentation at Oculus Connect II in September called “From Paper Cutouts to Virtual Cards: Making the Tabletop Interface for Lost Cities,” and on March 3 he’ll be in New York at the Digital Hollywood Experience giving a presentation called “The VR Cutting Edge From Canada: A Look at VR, AR, and Immersive Entertainment from our Northern Neighbors.” Klassen said that Lost Cities will also be getting some exposure at Mobile World Congress next week.
Social All The Way
Klassen told me that the long-term play for Campfire Union is all about social gaming. He wants all of the games that his company releases to have a deep social connection. I got the impression that, to him, the true magic of VR comes from interacting with others in virtual spaces.
Klassen explained that the reason the company chose to go for the Gear VR market on its first attempt was indeed the potential for social experiences. He believes that the Gear VR will ultimately be about social interaction. He also thinks that the mobile platform will have the largest install base and ultimately win the VR race. Klassen is definitely excited to work on the other platforms (Campfire Union just received its Vive Pre kit this week actually,) but he feels that mobile is definitely the place for a company the size of his to start. Lost Cities will eventually make its way to PC on both the Rift and the Vive, though, and Klassen said, "We have interest in bringing it to Playstation VR."
Campfire Union’s current plan is to launch Lost Cities in early to mid March, but the date hasn’t been locked down yet. Klassen said that he and his business partners are still working out the finer details about pricing as well, but told me that he believes the game will sell for a little less than $10.
The game is played against one opponent that sits across from you. Each player has five colored zones in front of them: yellow, blue, gray, green and red. Each of these five zones represents an “expedition” that you can embark on. Each expedition will cost you points to start but will give you the potential for higher score in the long run. The goal is the earn a higher score than your opponent, who is using the same pool of tiles as you.
Lost Cities’ tile pool consists of 60 different tiles; for each color, you get tiles numbered 2-10 plus three investment tiles ($ symbol). The color of the tiles dictates which zone you can play them in. Each player will start with eight tiles. Every turn, a tile must be played or discarded, and a new tile must be pulled from a discard pile or from the pool of new tiles.
To start an expedition, you can place a tile in any of the colored zones, as long as the color of the tile matches. In each turn, you can place one tile on your board or in the discard pile. Each colored zone has its own discard pile, and they are shared by both players, so if you drop a tile that your opponent can use, then he or she is free to pick it up. Once you play a tile, you can’t play one with a lower denomination, so you want to play the lowest numbered tile that you have available to start your expedition. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to what your opponent has played before you discard, lest you hand them more points.
Starting an expedition will cost you 20 points, so you will always start at a deficit. Your score is calculated by adding up the total of all the tiles that you have played and subtracting the cost of starting your expeditions. You can double, triple or quadruple the score from any expedition by playing an investment tile, represented by a $ symbol, on your expedition before playing a value tile. This adds risk by adding extra turns before receiving points, but the payout can be huge if you succeed. Lost Cities also offers a bonus 20 points if you manage to play eight tiles on any one expedition. These points are not multiplied, so they are only added after the investment bonus is applied.