May 20, 2021

13 Min Read

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – An Oral Orlog History

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla continues the franchise’s rich tradition of immersing players in history not just with cool architecture and historical figures, but with minigames designed to let you take a load off at a historically accurate tavern – and Eivor’s game of choice is Orlog. Where previous Assassin’s Creeds have featured existing tabletop games like Fanorona or Nine Men’s Morris, Orlog is a wholly original game created just for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which has since taken on a life of its own with an upcoming, officially sanctioned physical version. (UPDATE: Fans looking to get a physical Orlog game of their own can check out the official Kickstarter.)

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Inspired by ancient dice games, and developed mainly by teams at Ubisoft Singapore and Ubisoft Chengdu, Orlog unfolds like a battle. Depending on how your dice land, you can attack or defend yourself with axes, arrows, armor, or shields, or steal the tokens your opponents use to power their “god favors” – special moves on wooden “cards” with effects like multiplying your attack dice, healing you, or simply unleashing a blast to carve off a chunk of your opponent’s HP.

Each computer-controlled opponent you’ll find across England and Norway – 19 in all – has a unique god favor they’ll give you when defeated, giving the game an irresistible collectible aspect. And Orlog’s detailed aesthetics – the clatter of bone dice in a wooden tray, the sheen on the polished pebbles used as health markers, the weathered carvings of Norse gods, the crack and sizzle of a nearby in-game fire – help immerse you in the world while also offering a brief diversion from Eivor’s quests.

But Orlog wasn’t always Orlog, and in fact went through wildly different permutations before settling on its final form. To find out how it all came together, we spoke with three of the developers who created Orlog to tell us about its journey from idea to physical game.

In Search of Ancient Games

“We were looking at minigames that would make sense, that could get really inspired by this Norse fantasy, the Viking fantasy,” says Benoit Richer, codev game director for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla at Ubisoft Montreal. “We found some old references from really old Norse culture with different forms of dice; they had different shapes, but there were no [surviving] rules. We thought it would be really cool to try to make something with dice, an activity you’d want to spend time with and be immersed in your surroundings and compete with people.”

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As the Montreal team continued looking into different possibilities, the Singapore team came in with a separate minigame proposal: Hnefatafl, a board game also known as Viking Chess.

“We did some similar research into games of the time, and we also found that there were archaeological finds with lots of different types of dice, but at first we were more focused on Hnefatafl,” says Antoine Henry. As associate game director at Ubisoft Singapore, Henry was responsible for designing all the features developed by the Singapore, Chengdu, and Philippines studios, Orlog included.

“We actually did a small prototype for it, but soon realized Hnefatafl is not a very balanced game,” says Henry. “Even the rules that are played to this day were passed down through tradition, and it is very, very likely that these are different rulesets than the ones used during the Viking Age. Even in worldwide competitions, it's known that the defenders have like four chances out of five to win.”

So Hnefatafl was set aside, and Richer and the Montreal team reached out to Singapore about further developing the dice-game idea. At this time, the Chengdu team had some available bandwidth, and the multi-studio collaboration that would eventually become Orlog began in earnest.

Dice-Focused Deck-Building

“The most focused intention at the beginning was, we wanted to make a collection game for players to collect dice and build decks,” says Zhu Bi Jia, lead game designer at Ubisoft Chengdu. Teams at the Chengdu studio worked primarily on developing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s minigames, including the standing stones, cairns, and – of course – Orlog. “So at the beginning, we made our prototype using just physical things we bought: some dice, just regular dice, and drawings on paper stuck to the dice to make the different faces. And we tried the rules, tried the gameplay, and iterated to find a good solution where we could have fun gameplay before we even started to do the actual [in-game] implementation.”

“So that’s a fun thing, because now we are going to make a physical version,” adds Zhu. “It's kind of a cycle, yeah?”

“Fate as the Norse see it is not necessarily something that is fixed. Fate is something you provoke.”

It was very important to the team, says Henry, that what was then called “the dice game” could credibly be played in real life – so as a rule, every iteration needed to be playable on a real table. And the game went through a lot of iterations: The collectible dice in early versions all had unique capabilities, with attacks and blocks, as well as healing and other effects. Sometimes these had different point values, from one to six.

The axe and arrow attacks, with their armor and shield counters, were implemented by the game’s second version to add a layer of rock-paper-scissors strategy, rather than basing the game on pure luck. The god favors added another strategic layer; in addition to subtly teaching players about Norse mythology by associating gods with appropriate powers, they let players choose whether to prioritize attacking their opponent, saving up tokens for the god favor, or combining certain attacks with a favor that would augment them.

One early version had a single god-power card, but stacking tokens to energize it while also keeping track of the various dice felt too complicated. Another attempt made the god powers usable only if enough “energy” faces were rolled in a single turn. Eventually, the card was eliminated altogether, and the god powers themselves were moved to the faces of the dice. In this phase, rolling certain god powers together could even create a combo.

“For a good couple of months, that's the way it was,” says Henry. “Now we have everything on the dice, and it's easier, because you can see everything on the dice themselves.”

As it turned out, “easier” didn’t mean it was less complicated. “We realized that when you want to build strategies, all of a sudden you need to start to calculate a lot of odds,” says Henry. “And because it was a collectible dice game, each die was different. And because each die was different, you had to remember all the faces of all of your dice, and all the faces of all of your opponent’s dice. And that's the way you can calculate the odds and make strategies.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – An Oral Orlog History - ACV Orlog UnwrappedDie

“It got to a point where, in a digital version, it would have been pretty easy to play, because the computer can calculate the odds for you, and the computer can show you the odds and unwrap a die for you, so you don't have to look around to remember all the faces,” says Henry. “And at that point, we realized that we had gotten away from our original intention of having something that you can play without a computer. Calculating the odds was quite complex; I mean, you could do it, you could imagine or kind of get a sense of the odds, but it was very difficult to play.”

The Push for Accessibility

Still, says Henry, the game was “fun to play, as a very complex board game can be sometimes.” This version made it to the alpha phase, at which point the feedback was loud and clear: It was too complex, and that complexity would actually keep many players from seeing the real depth of the game. In short, says Henry, it wasn’t going to work.

“I remember saying, ‘we are at alpha, we need to go to beta, we need to secure this thing! Argh! What are we going to do!?’” says Henry. “We decided to do a design blitz [a big design push over a limited period, with quick iterations]. So for two weeks, with the team in Chengdu and some designers in Singapore as well, we only worked on the dice game. [We had] the help of some people from Montreal as well, who had an idea for an alternative version of the game that they sent us.”

“We realized that we had gotten away from our original intention of having something that you can play without a computer.”

“We needed to make it simpler, because we’re making a minigame; it’s side content,” says Zhu. “Players need to focus on the main game, so it can’t be too complex.”

That alternative version – which involved moving god favors back onto cards and giving both players identical sets of dice – became the basis for the next two weeks of prototyping. For those two weeks, says Henry, the teams at different studios used Tabletop Simulator to play new versions of the game with each other several times per day. A normal schedule would be playing the dice game in the morning, brainstorming new sets of ideas and rules to try out at lunchtime, analyzing the lessons from those games, and trying another version later in the afternoon.

“We were playing like two or three times a day for two weeks, blitzing the thing, and at the end of these two weeks, we basically had the final game,” says Henry. “There were a few things altered after that, but it was a big rush to find a version of that game that could be more accessible. That was quite fun; like, these two weeks, I have fond memories.”

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The final version lets players pick up to three god favors to use in a single game, powered by tokens earned during play, and up to 20 god-favor cards can be earned by defeating players throughout the world. Rather than making one power necessarily better than another, the favors offer more of a horizontal progression, with wildly different abilities that complement different strategies. And instead of building decks of dice, each player gets an identical set of six – which, apart from displaying token-granting gold trim on different faces, are also identical.

“Something that was really important was the accessibility of it,” says Richer. “Instead of being vertically deep, with lots of dice with different settings and different compositions to try to calculate odds, we tried to make it more accessible in horizontal progression, with different options. Depending how you combine them, it would be easier to try to project what the result could be, or what the opponent’s strategy could be.”

Naming the Game

“I’m a big language enthusiast, and as I went through the project, I learned a bit of Old Norse,” says Henry. “I started to look at names that could be easily read and pronounced by a modern audience, but still would have that Norse flavor. Originally, I went for a number of names like Lucky Dice and things like that, but in Old Norse.”

After ideas had been sent back and forth for a while, the idea of an Old Norse name was deemed too difficult for a modern audience. “It was hard to read,” says Henry. “There are all these special characters that they have in Old Norse that we don't have, and so it was always a bit awkward.” So instead, an English name was officially adopted: Luck Bones. This name was based on a historical kenning (a poetic way to describe something, especially favored by the Norse) for dice, which were made of bone – but it still didn’t quite sit right with Henry.

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“I continued my research, and I stumbled upon this concept of Orlog, the concept of fate,” says Henry. “It's a concept that is very tied to the Norse culture, but fate as the Norse see it is not necessarily something that is fixed. Fate is something you provoke. It’s this idea that you are destined for Valhalla, for example, but you have to work for it; you're not [automatically] going to Valhalla, you have to earn it, but it's still your fate.

“It's a very specific concept, and I find that this concept is culturally extremely Norse, extremely Viking, but also very tied to this idea of luck, and rolling dice and making your strategies or deciding your own fate,” says Henry. “And so I found this very fitting, that concept of Orlog, and so I proposed this idea saying, ‘I know we have a final name, but can we just consider this one?’ And everyone loved it.”

A Six-Sided Phenomenon

Since the release of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Orlog has proven to be unusually popular with players. More than 80% of all players have tried at least one game of Orlog, and roughly 20% have played more than 10. For an optional minigame (albeit one with a collectible aspect), says Richer, this is an impressive level of engagement.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – An Oral Orlog History - ACV Orlog Eivor

“Usually with these types of minigames, it could be around 5%, not even, of players [who play more than 10 games],” says Richer. “And often, people do that only for one game or two – but with Orlog, they were really engaged. Something that was cool, also, when the game came out, is people starting to rave about it on social media, and say, like, ‘Wow, I love this game!’ So this was also really cool to see.”

As minigames go, it’s safe to say Orlog is a hit – so much so that, after high demand from fans for a physical version, preorders sold out rapidly. Again, more editions are planned for release later this year, so keep an eye on Ubisoft News for updates – and if you’ve yet to try Orlog yourself, you can test your mettle against computer-controlled players in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (included as part of a Ubisoft+ subscription) on PlayStation 5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Stadia, and Amazon Luna.

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