Sub Terra 2 Designer's Diaries

Designer's diaries from the designer of Sub Terra 2, Tim Pinder, exploring the journey from the stellar success of Sub Terra, what lessons were learned from that project, through to the development of this hothot sequel.
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Temple of Discovery - Sub Terra 2 Designer's Diary #1A

Peter Blenkharn
United Kingdom
Greater London
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It’s critically important that fans of Sub Terra have a reason to play Sub Terra II. Your belief got me here - I don’t want to let you down.

Sequel products have the following tension:

They need to be similar enough to their predecessor to deliver the same kind of experience at a similar level of quality (or higher)
You won’t be happy with a new Star Wars film if it’s suddenly about the minutiae of complex trade negotiations instead of laser space wizards (uhm…).

They need to be different enough from their predecessor to deliver a sufficiently new experience
You won’t be happy with a new Star Wars film if it’s almost a shot-by-shot remake of an old Star Wars film (wait…)

Go too far, and you end up with something totally disconnected from the audience’s prior expectations. Don’t go far enough, and you end up with a product that already exists wearing a shiny new hat. It’s a fine line to tread, and it’s almost impossible to please everyone. Here’s how I attempted it:


From gallery of peetreeblinky

I regard the following as the core elements of the Sub Terra game system, and they’re still present in this sequel:

Fully cooperative gameplay
No traitor mechanics, no individual subgoals. Work together or perish!

A tile-based play area that you slowly reveal
No two sessions will generate the same temple, giving you a different puzzle to solve every time.

Constant time pressure
Instead of a deck of cards, this is now provided by a “volcano track” that sits on the side of the play area ticking down every round, but it serves the same purpose - you’re on the clock, so keep moving!

Numerous playable characters, each with unique specialised abilities
There are now ten characters in the core game, going up to fifteen with the expansion. Each has been designed to provide a different play experience from any of the original Sub Terra characters, and they’re all a bit more powerful and specialised, for reasons I’ll get to later.

Dangerous hazards to ruin your day

The vast majority of tiles are still out to get you, with unpredictability coming from a hazard die roll at the end of each player’s turn instead of a hazard card drawn at the end of the full round.

They’re still out to get you! There are a lot of different ways to integrate a mobile threat into the game system, and the Sub Terra II enemies significantly change the texture of the game.


From gallery of peetreeblinky

On a strategic level, Sub Terra II presents a different problem to solve, with a different overall solution. Trying to play the game like Sub Terra will usually end badly! This strategic difference stems from:

Objective Coordination
Find the sanctum, unlock the artifact with the three keys, escape! As each explorer can only hold one item each, and the initial key locations are unpredictable, this gives you a whole new item coordination sub-problem to worry about. Allowing the right characters to easily move around the temple is critical.

Directed Play Space
You’re exploring into the temple from the entrance, and you will eventually have to escape back the way you came. This means you always need to pay attention to the team’s escape route, and some characters have abilities that let you manage this better. Additionally, the directed nature of the space allows characters to self-stratify into frontline, midline, and backline roles, which is helped by more characters having ranged abilities.

Interactive Combat
You will encounter a lot more guardian monsters than in Sub Terra, and they’ll appear in less predictable places. They’re individually less threatening, but can pose a significant problem if they outnumber or ambush you. Everyone can fight guardians inefficiently, but some characters have abilities to fight them more effectively. Positioning yourselves to keep the team sufficiently protected without wasting action points is key to victory.

These are layered on top of the three sub-problems from Sub Terra:

Placing Tiles

The sanctum appears when the tile bag is empty, so you still want to place tiles as quickly as possible.

Expected cost of rescue

How recklessly should you explore, and what’s an acceptable level of risk when choosing where to end your turn? This is based on your current health points and proximity to your friends, and while the tighter play space makes it a bit less critical than in Sub Terra, it still matters. However, the density of dangerous tiles is much greater than in the previous game, and they express themselves in different ways - watch out!

Expected cost of return

How far should you explore down a certain passageway before you should turn back? Sub Terra II deliberately has fewer metaphorical doors that lock behind you, or valves that slow progress in a certain direction, and the more compact play area means paths are usually shorter. This is still important, but less so than in the original, to allow the sub-problems above more time to shine.

Because the core problem is broader, there are a wider array of character abilities and playstyles on offer this time around. A team should have a mix of exploration, connection, defense and support characters in order to have the best shot of winning - but which team compositions are most effective will be up to you to find out!

From gallery of peetreeblinky
From gallery of peetreeblinky

On an immersive level, Sub Terra II is aiming for a different emotional response. I don’t want you to feel powerless and afraid; I want you to feel capable and daring, with a tense and thrilling finale!

This is achieved by the following mechanical choices:

Less threat randomness
Sub Terra tried to achieve its horror-feel by having infrequent hazard events (once per full round) that each had a relatively low probability of serious consequences. I wanted to keep you distracted by what could go wrong, rather than what was likely to go wrong.

Sub Terra II has lower-magnitude, more-evenly-detrimental hazard effects that trigger at the end of each player’s turn, on a die roll. This makes the game a bit more consistent, rewarding more thoughtful play, though unexpected runs of situationally bad luck will still occur to disrupt your plans.

More specialised characters
As a consequence of the undirected play space and larger average character separation distances, Sub Terra’s characters had to be a lot more general purpose for the game to work - they had to function in every context to a reasonable degree of competence.

Sub Terra II usually keeps characters in a more compact group, and introduces a lot more ranged abilities to allow characters to interact when on different tiles. This allows characters to have more powerful specialised abilities, as they can rely on their nearby differently-specialised friends to handle threats they’re not suited for. Using these specialised abilities in the correct situations feels empowering, and working together in close proximity makes you feel less isolated.

Using a video game analogy, Sub Terra is closer to Left 4 Dead where every character has very similar capabilities. Sub Terra II is much closer to a MOBA (League of Legends, DOTA 2) / hero-shooter (Overwatch) / MMO (World of Warcraft) in that characters function more like classes, and good positioning/teamwork helps a lot.

Defeatable enemies

As mentioned above, Sub Terra II’s monsters are faster and more numerous than those in the previous game, but they’re less damaging and can be removed by any character (with enough effort). Instead of a slowly moving wall of doom, they’re on par with other hazards when encountered individually, but become dangerous if they outnumber or ambush you.

High intensity finale
As soon as you pick up the artifact, everything gets worse. The volcano track starts ticking down twice as fast, and every explorer now rolls the hazard die twice at the end of each turn instead of once (making each hazards twice as punishing). When the track hits zero, there’s a very high chance the volcano will erupt each turn, which turns the sanctum from this:

From gallery of peetreeblinky

Into this:

From gallery of peetreeblinky

(Oh yeah, the back of every tile is a lava-fied version of that tile. I probably should have warned you about that in advance. Good luck!)

From then on, the lava will spread to surrounding tiles roughly 2-4 times every full round, which is roughly how fast an explorer can run. The endgame turns into this frantic scramble with hazards and guardians slowing you down in front, and a fast-moving tidal wave of fire chasing you from behind.


Where to next, adventurer?

What else has been improved?
What if I want to introduce Sub Terra II to new players?
Take me home!

Sub Terra Sub Terra II: Inferno's Edge
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