How Riot Games' board game Tellstones weaponizes memory

Riot Games

If you want to absolutely demolish your relationship in less than ten minutes, play one game of Tellstones.

Let me explain.

Sunday night, my wife Jen and I sat down to play Riot Games' new tabletop offering. We neatly unfolded the royal blue play area, took out the weighty and well-crafted playing pieces, and learned the rules: players take turns placing, hiding and swapping seven stones, until eventually someone boasts "I KNOW ALL THE HIDDEN SYMBOLS" which leads to one of three responses and eventually points being awarded. Three points, or one correct run of naming all the hidden stones wins the game. This definitely falls into that "easy to learn, difficult to master" sweet spot-- especially when you're playing your wife, who is ultra convincing and extremely nefarious when it comes to board games.

No more than six minutes into the game we were accusing one another of blatant cheating and resorting to pot shots about memory loss. Each boast felt like an admission of intellectual superiority, and each bluff a confirmation of said intellectual superiority.

After I lost, I voluntarily left the room, needing a moment to calm myself after the travesty of justice that just occurred.

As I paced back and forth in the bedroom, my pride wounded and my dear wife cackling triumphantly in the living room, I asked myself: how can one simple game like this provoke such a reaction? Sure, I don't like losing, and plenty of board games are rage-inducing, but this hit different. What gives?

"It terrifies me because it's working with a mechanic that is not well loved," explains Chris Cantrell, Creative Director for Riot Tabletop.. "Play tests have backed this up - I think when I forgot my memory kind of growing up, it would usually happen in high stress scenarios like a test that I didn't want to forget and so I associate forgetting my memory and stuff like to something very frustrating. It feels very vulnerable. So when you lose at this game, it feels very personal in a way that, if I were to lose at tic tac toe, or Yahtzee or whatever, 'you out rolled me'. Alright, whatever. But if you beat me with a memory game, it feels like you're almost inside my head a bit."

So THAT's why I was malding when I lost -- or at least what I'll blame it on.

Tellstones, which releases Wednesday, is Riot Games' second tabletop offering. Cantrell worked on the first, Mechs vs. Minions, after starting with League of Legends and mobile game Blitzcrank's Poro Roundup.

"It was a group of us that had never really made a board game before anything like that, but we played tons and we knew what we liked and so we just tried to make a game that we'd be really proud to own. I don't think we were really expecting it to kind of take off or go anywhere."

After that project, Cantrell worked on Legends of Runeterra. But board games were always in the back of his mind. So was the idea of a simple but significant game about memory, bluffing and callouts.

If Mechs vs Minions is "a big, brawling, huge, silly cooperative" game according to Cantrell, Tellstones is the opposite in many ways: tiny, sleek, a competitive brain burner.

"I came up with the core of Tellstones in an evening and it hasn't really changed much since that night," said Cantrell of creating the game. "Like we've added art and what not, but the six basic rules of like how to play and kind of how to balance it off of each other, that hasn't really shifted since 2017."

As the story goes, Cantrell was attending Gen Con 2017 in Indianapolis and couldn't sleep. He decided to go pick up his attendance badge at the 24 hour station and on the back was inspired to think about creating the game. At first, Cantrell thought that another game on the market might already have the same premise. Once that was clear, the next hurdle to jump in his mind was the notion that the game was too simple.

"It was a really difficult thing to kind of look someone in the eye and say, hey, um, this is a completed game ..." Cantrell said. " It's such a silly problem as a game developer, but it is a very simple game and I think there are versions of this game that we could have named 'seven cards' and sell it for a dollar and it might feel overpriced. It really had a lot of interesting challenges, due to the nature of its simplicity."

One of the ways Cantrell decided to differentiate the game was quality - working with manufacturing partners to use top grade materials that are scratch resistant to create a tabletop game that not only lasts long, but also looks and feels good. The term used internally at Riot was "heirloom quality".

"There are versions of this game that we could do with cards or with cardboard," Cantrell said. "We built them and we've explored them and other versions with superplastic fits, and they would just get scratched after a bit. We were looking for something that had a weight, a heft to it. If you were going to buy it, you'd feel proud of it. When you're done with the game, you don't want to throw it away, it means something when you pass it down to someone else. It doesn't mean it has to be worth like millions of dollars or anything like that. But, you know, giving it to your kids when you're done, you know passing it on from generation to generation. That's the type of pride in craftsmanship that I wanted it to be able to warrant."

Like many other games with 2020 release dates, Tellstones also fell prey to the challenges presented by the pandemic. But COVID proved to be only a minor setback to the launch of the game, particularly when compared the size and scope of the game to one such as Mechs vs Minions.

"The fact that (this game) was so much smaller, ideally in like in my head, that means that I'd be able to turn around a lot quicker, but with COVID and the changing geopolitical landscape and what not, it's taking longer to get this into player's hands than we'd like, but in hindsight, makes me glad that we went with something much smaller and streamlined," Cantrell said.

For fans of Riot Games lore, Cantrell says there are definitely more tabletop offerings on the horizon.

"It's something that that Riot is heavily invested in. We're really committed. We're excited about the different ways that we can explore our world and our IP and different ideas and designs that excite us. I think I think at its core we're a group of gamers that just try and make games that we'd also like to play. We see tabletop gaming as a growing space where people connect socially in a world that's increasingly feeling more and more disconnected."