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Interview: Juli Bierwirth and Mantis Fall, a sometimes cooperative game

Today we talk with Juli Bierwirth about Mantis Fall, a game of trust. The game will hit Kickstarter very soon, if you like coop/traitor games, you may want to keep on reading. [Ecco qui la versione italiana]

Hi Juli, welcome to Geek.pizza. Can you introduce yourself in a few lines?

I am a co-owner of Distant Rabbit Games, a small tabletop company in Athens, Georgia, USA. Outside of gaming I’m an acrobat and a dietitian; I work and perform at a local circus training facility and also work with several local businesses teaching and consulting on food science and health. My partner Adrian and I raise two extraordinary kids and all four of us are passionate about game design.

What is your role in the creation of Mantis Fall and who are the Distant Rabbits?

I’m the illustrator and a bit of a sounding board for the game design in Mantis Falls. Adrian conceptualized the mechanics and the theme. We playtested and refined it together almost every night for years.

As for Distant Rabbit; we had a lot of ideas for the name of the company before we landed on that one. When we researched the name to see if it was already taken, all we found were message boards full of pet owners who were worried that their rabbit seemed distant – that sort of clinched it for us. In retrospect I really love it- being a witness in Mantis Falls has the feel of seeing a creature in the distance, ready to bolt if it moves any closer.

We had the chance to talk about other hidden roles games and I think we definitely are on the same page, can you tell us what you wanted to accomplish and what you wanted to avoid while creating Mantis Fall?

Mantis falls is a 2-3 player hidden traitor game, which is something Adrian and I badly wanted because we loved the deep player interaction that mechanic elicits and there’s not much in this genre for 2 players. We wanted to create an intimate experience where the stakes felt genuinely high, and yet you were forced to trust and depend on each other despite your unease and paranoia. We wanted you to really feel something when you played it.

In real life, trusting one another is really hard, and I think it’s profound and touching that we all keep trying to make it happen anyway. Developing trust requires sacrifice and vulnerability, and how we all navigate that challenge probably tells many of the stories of our lives. And so we wanted the players to feel that push-and-pull tension in this game; the need for closeness but also the dangers that closeness brings.

To that end, our guiding model for this game design was immersiveness, and we wanted to avoid things that took you out of the world we created. Adrian would try to think of what people would want to do if they were actually living in our game’s story, and then figure out a way to give players those options. The card “Show of Trust” is a good example of this, I think. This one lets you show your hand to another player, and they can then choose whether or not to show you theirs – and that just feels real to us. If you were stuck on a dangerous journey with someone and trying to figure out if you can trust one another, you probably wouldn’t just rip open their backpack and look inside – instead you’d probably say “hey, here’s everything I have, will you show me what you’ve got, too?”

These real-life style choices lead to some highly strategic gameplay. If you’re an assassin betraying your partner you have to plan well for that moment and for all of the little lies that lead to it. Hidden traitor games without that level of strategy can sometimes devolve into a witch-hunt dynamic. There’s definitely a poker face required in this game, but in the end it’s a game of cunning and wit.

Was there anything you wanted to include in the game, but you didn’t, in the end?

I think like with most game designs, there were a lot of ideas along the way that didn’t make the final cut. Some we really liked and wanted to explore more, but we ultimately left them out just to keep the game streamlined and approachable for players. But if there ever proves to be experienced players of this game that want more elements and complexity, we’d absolutely love to bring those ideas to reality in expansions someday.

The world of Mantis Falls really came to life for us during this process, so it’s become very easy and exciting for us to imagine all the other elements that could exist in this place. Things we’ve workshopped include random individualized abilities, special locations hidden among the roads and a shortcut option through a dark woods in which some different rules apply. We’ve also played around with something like “Boss Battles” that would occur at the end of the road. Oh, and we’ve had multiple ideas for entire spin-off games that further flesh out the story of what’s happening in this town.

Tell us about the name and the setting.

Mantis Falls is a mob-ruled mountain city in the 1940’s where oppression and fear are the status quo. By unfortunate coincidence you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time; you have seen something you weren’t supposed to see, and people are coming for you.

You have some powerful friends outside of town who are working to quickly and discreetly get you out to safety. The journey is dangerous and you can’t make it alone. Your friends know of another witness in a similar predicament and they’ve arranged for the two (or three) of you to meet at a diner downtown. From there you will make the long and dangerous trek to the edge of town, protecting each other along the way… but when you meet this person and look in their eyes you realize you aren’t entirely sure this is the witness you were promised. Perhaps this person killed that witness and is here to kill you, too. The game begins with the first steps of your journey together.

I think we can all agree that this is promising. And how the game is “sometimes cooperative”?

A game of Mantis Falls is either fully cooperative or fully competitive, but witnesses don’t get to know which game they’re playing until it is perhaps too late. If all players are truly witnesses they must live or die together; one witness’ death means another players’ loss. Players must protect each other, be generous and self-sacrificing, and even pull their partner back from the brink of death. If instead the game has an assassin, the witness must kill them and vice versa.

All players start with a Call-in-a-Hit card: the name and phone number of a mercenary sniper who can take out your partner in a pinch. A witness who uses that card too readily might kill a fellow witness and lose the game, so a smart assassin will begin the journey by acting very innocent… until they find a way to get that card out of your hand, get you away from a phone booth, or even cut off all the phone lines in the whole city.

The game usually allows partners a long period to build trust and depend on each other before presenting an assassin with the perfect opportunity to strike. The betrayal, after so much cooperation, has a real sting to it.

That is definitely interesting. As a big Battlestar Galactica fan, I am really looking forward to playing Mantis Falls now!

Have you ever witnessed something you weren’t supposed to see? (I won’t tell anybody!)

Yes, and I’ll never look at my parents the same way again.

Ahhah, good one! Don’t think they will ever hire a hit man to come after you, though!

No way someone can avoid this question on this website: how do you like your pizza?

I grew up outside of New York City, so I’m all about New York style: thin crust – extra cheesy.

I know just the right place for you then, as soon as you drop by in Umbria!


The Kickstarter campaign will launch in a few months, I strongly suggest you click on this link to receive a notification once it’s on, the game already has 3 optional modules you can play with (huge replayability) and I like the “sometimes cooperative” thing. Just keep in mind the game is not language independent!

Francesco "The Doctor"

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