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Why The Banished Vault is meant to be played with a manual

The Banished Vault makes "RTFM" a mandate.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

July 26, 2023

6 Min Read
A screenshot from The Banished Vault. It's a top-down view of a spaceship that is also a church.

When was the last time you shipped a game with a must-read manual? If the answer is "I don't remember" or "never," then, like many developers, you live in a world where most information on how to play a game is delivered within the game.

But if you're a developer like Nic Tringali and the team at Lunar Division, a must-read manual might be a tool to bring a game like The Banished Vault to life.

The Banished Vault (published by Mike Bithell-led Bithell Games) is a sci-fi strategy game about future space cultists fleeing a growing horror in the stars. It's not dissimilar to games like FTL or Crying Suns, where players advance through different procedurally-generated solar systems in a limited amount of time.

But that's where the similarities end. The Banished Vault has little in the way of combat. It places a greater emphasis on resource management and borrows mechanics from the "worker placement" genre of board games.

Tringali told Game Developer they regularly turn to the world of tabletop games for inspiration as a game designer. As the game that would become The Banished Vault began to take shape in his mind, they began to dream of other ways to make the most of the medium—and it was here that the idea of shipping the game with a manual began to take shape.

Players need a manual to learn how to play The Banished Vault

When I first heard that Tringali planned to ship The Banished Vault with a manual, I assumed it was going to be a diegetic experience that felt like an object from the world of the game. With the weird gothic spaceships and spooky vibes, cracking open a forbidden tome that also had gameplay knowledge felt right.

When Bithell Games shipped over a copy of the manual (which is also accessible in-game, available for print-and-play, and purchasable if you want a nice printed copy), I was surprised that it looked more like my old manual for Warcraft 3. There were chunks of it dedicated to in-game story, but the bulk of the text was speaking to me, the player.

"It started from the idea of 'how do I teach people how to play this game?'" Tringali said. The Banished Vault is a game where players move pieces around a grid, assign resource collection, build buildings, all your regular strategy game norms. They pointed out that none of the individual systems are complicated, but once they start interacting together it becomes an increasingly complex experience.

A photograph of The Banished Vault's manual. It sits on a desk, backlit by purple and blue lights.

"At the beginning, I was just making the game myself, and I didn't want to make a very long tutorial that would be hard to [develop]," they said. A proper step-by-step guide to playing The Banished Vault could take hours, even if it was as on-rails of an experience as possible.

This is where Tringali said they thought of board games, and how they're designed in ways that require reading a manual—but not necessarily all at once.

The first pages of The Banished Vault's manual don't quite resemble the game manuals of yesteryear. After a quick section detailing the controls, it diverts to a step-by-step breakdown of two "controlled scenarios" that the player first dives into when starting the game.

After completing those sections, players are dropped into their first solar system, and can put what they learned in the tutorial to use. But then as the systems grow more complex, the manual evolves into an index of how different systems work, with quick examples of how players might solve the problems they face.

"I felt like this method was compatible with trying to intercept as many people and learning styles as possible," said Tringali. And they offered an additional note: the process was "easy" on production

According to Tringali, the decision to use a manual came pretty early, which meant the most unusual tasks were starting a long-term process of making the manual available for print purchase. But while working on the game, if a system changed form in any notable way, they could just drop into the manual and update it to reflect the most current build.

A "reset button" can make all the difference

If you've ever used a manual to do anything, from checking under the hood of your car or operating a sewing machine, you know that any manual is only as good as the person reading it.

Which is to say, if you're like me and playing The Banished Vault and think you understood what the manual said—no you didn't, you were just being arrogant. Several times in my first run, I said aloud, "what am I doing wrong?" only to look at the manual and go, "oh I didn't read this right."

It's what comes out of a trial-and-error learning process. When players make such mistakes in The Banished Vault, they can quickly clean up their error by hitting a "reset" button. Pushing it resets the solar system back to the first turn.

A screenshot from The Banished Vault. The player estimates engine efficiency while navigating to a planet.

Originally, Tringali designed an "undo" button that rolled the game back a single turn. His intent was to capture the kind of "rollback" state that can pop up in a board game, where players realize they forgot to take a step they intended to and ask for a chance to make up the mistake. "I want to let players do that because...it's meant to be a challenging game, but I want to give players some amount of control over the game."

Here's the thing about undo buttons, though: they start to erode the "random chance" elements of games like The Banished Vault. Land on a planet and don't get the result you want because of a bad die roll? Roll back the clock one turn, try again, rinse and repeat until you succeed.

Tringali tried out different ways to prevent an "undo" button from causing that problem, but none really worked. Limiting the number of undos didn't work. Making them cost resources didn't work. They finally decided that a "reset" button would do. "The penalty for the restart is that the players lose time, and that's fine," Tringali added.

Letting players determine how best to spend their time fits neatly into Tringali's desire to let players control their experience with The Banished Vault. After completing their first run (no easy feat), they can unlock the ability to limit the number of resets, and self-determine how difficult they want the game to be.

That said, in an era where every game is trying to capture player interest in those first five minutes—is there a risk that players just bounce off of The Banished Vault? Tringali pointed out that most retention practices are built on chasing high-volume audiences that have a billion options for quick-hit games.

The Banished Vault is definitely not a quick-hit game. Playing it requires slowing down, thinking ahead, and soaking in the vibes of a sci-fi setting drenched in dark occultism. "If [players] are interested in those things, I hope they're willing to give it a little bit more time before sliding off it," Tringali said.

That kind of thinking may mean a manual is right for your next game—if you, like Tringali, are eager for an audience that wants to slow down for some extra reading.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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