The real first efforts at designing and development Catacombs started in mid-2007. Being fans of fantasy co-op games and dexterity games, we were really interested in trying to get the game rolling. It wasn't very long into the design that we hit our first major roadblock(s). We had an idea to use a full dungeon layout like Descent or Doom where the players could see the sprawl of the dungeon and proceed through it; however, several drawbacks became evident quickly: on such a large table, it was difficult for players to flick their pieces and ultimately the actual flicking of the pieces became too unwieldy. The other issue ended up being the movement between the rooms where the action started. Players were just flicking their pieces haphazardly and either fell off the board or the group became separated by the disparity in each player's flicking. So, Catacombs died for a while and we moved on to designing other games, including a Space Slaver game that we'd love to return to at some point.
The game was resurrected some months later at the end of another design session when we lamented about its loss and our reluctance to get the game past stillbirth. The idea that was spawned that night was to scrap the full dungeon layout and to have the players to proceed through the rooms separately, avoiding the hallways and tunnels that connected the action. I think this idea is what ultimately salvaged Catacombs and brought it back to life. Will players will miss the tunnels and hallways? Who knows, but our playtesters did not voice this opinion. I think that the player's imagination can fill in the blanks that are missing anyway.
So, we started to develop the game further and to apply the theme we wanted and fill out the design more. Initially, we all had the classic arcade game Gauntlet in the back of our minds, and the four heroes were generally modeled after the heroes in that game. In selecting monsters, we wanted them to be recognizable and generally classic as well. We chose a lot and formed them into colour groups, undead, goblinoids, etc. which we wanted to have to help the players pick them out of the box and also to help categorize them. The bosses would correspond to a monster family, although this was something that came and went with the design of the monsters and the bosses. In selecting a style, we wanted the game to be dark but not too dark to put off the target market and to scare a younger player.
It was also around this time when we first starting to have a name for the game. Marc came up with NudgeonQuest. It was a monicker that we liked originally, at least in fun. The hardcore gamers also liked it too, but the response from the average non-gamer was not as favourable and we knew that we'd have to come up with something that was more accessible sooner or later.
The First Prototypes
We started by using the Orc as a basic enemy (i.e. an enemy that would represent a normal human's strength and health) and making some of the monster stronger, some weaker, some smaller and some larger. We knew the basic frameworks for our characters: the tank (Barbarian), the median character (Valkyrie, eventually Thief), Elf (missile character), and Wizard (spellcaster). So, the game's basic design was set and we made our first prototype boards, sacrificing Clue, Bumper Cars, the Inventors (ironically), and HeroQuest boards to the cause. The wooden pieces were purchased in various sizes and generic fantasy art was applied to them. Runebound was the source of our tokens (sorry Mr. Wallace, but it was the first edition game anyway).
Our next hurdle, and one that will be another verdict for the consumer, was the placement and securing of the obstacle pieces. We had several designs, too many unusable ones, including affixing a peg or dowel to the boards to secure the obstacles, magnetic boards, and clear plastic sheets with where the art of the dungeon would slide under the clear plastic. All of these designs, although each would provide some sort of a solution, were not cost-effective. Ultimately, the current die-cut design with the pieces sitting in the boards was decided quite early on and remained constant throughout; it's a design that we're happy with in the end as well. We struggled with perimeter walls or moats for the boards as well, but nothing worked that was cost effective. We also found that playtesters learned how to control their shots fairly quickly and the discs were not flying across the room, so the perimeter walls were thrown out as well.
Design and Test (Rinse and Repeat)
The next months involved playing, playing and more playing. Our game also got fatter during this stage as well. There was a monster pool for the Overseer to pick his monsters from and rules on what could be selected and what couldn't. We had rules for picking up treasure after each room, event cards to be played during the game phases and also between rooms, and we also had several trap ideas for the Overseer to play on the heroes. The shedding began with the treasure cards. It was something that was cool, having the heroes draw cards to see what treasure they received for completing a room; however, the selection was too random and while it worked thematically (the surprise of opening the chest to see what lie within) the players could draw items all for one character and it just seemed like often people were missing out. Enter Store Left. The dungeon store was something that solved the perceived problem. Again, this idea rose from our videogaming experience where you could go to upgrade or buy new weapons. It also seemed like the fairer way to let people upgrade as opposed to the treasure chests. The store also works better with larger groups of hero players because of the ability to pool and share gold with other heroes. Finally, the store tied in well with the thief's ability to gather more gold from the monsters, replacing a luck ability that the Thief originally had.
The event cards were cards that the Overseer drew between rooms and could be used to play various effects against the heroes to heal the monsters, summon more monsters, cave-ins, etc. The cards were divided in half and the Overseer could use either effect they chose which allowed for some flexibility. We initially liked the idea quite a lot. Some of the playtesters, however, did not appreciate these effects and felt that they took away from the game but they persisted for quite a while and pretty much made it to a finalized form with art assets and everything.
The monsters saw some changes and tweaking but the core group remained the same for most of the design and ultimately the end product. As the art was completed, we tweaked some of the monsters and their abilities as well. A slime monster was eventually cut as the art just didn't work and we thought it was something that wasn't necessary anyway. We always thought that the monsters, or at least the majority of them, should be classic creatures and recognizable to a majority of gamers, and even some non-gamers. In the end, we're happy with the ones that remained. The bosses required a lot of tweaking as well and we wanted them to be scalable in difficulty and I think that was largely achieved as well.
Lessons from Conan
The design and playtesting was going well and we were generally happy with the game and how it was moving along. We had the framework for the game was set. That changed one night after a game of Age of Conan. I had already downloaded and read the rules before playing and was eagerly looking forward to playing it. Needless to say, I don't think that Age of Conan works that well. The one thing that we took away from the game was that the game really needed to be streamlined. It just felt that the core game was something that could be interesting, but it was covered in other layers that just weren't central to the game. In our next playtesting session, we removed the treasure cards, traps, and the event cards. This left the players to concentrate on the main activity of the game, which is the strategic flicking of the pieces. In the end, we're happy that I played Age of Conan, and think that it helped us see clearer and to concentrate on what is important in our game: strategic flicking. (sidenote: I don't want to jump on the designers of Age of Conan, they have designed one of my favorite games of all time: War of the Ring). Playtesters agreed and we feel that the game was vastly improved in the end.
Months of tweaking ensued before production and we came up with some more ideas that did not make the final cut, including more traps, and a slime monster that had some neat mechanics and other things that may eventually resurface in the future but were just things that we felt didn't have a spot in the final game.
Anyway, thanks for reading if you made it this far.
Dam you! I'll make you and Aron play Age of Conan again with me
I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.
"NudgeonQuest" is wonderful. Terrible, but wonderful.
I fight lost wars, see light, fear sight
I open my mind, need flesh, fear mine
I like "The Adventures of Flick"
Great post. I'd like to hear more about how you got the game published.
Has 'Dungeon Digits' already done the rounds?