Wormhole Heroes: Champions of the Abyss
Wormhole Heroes: Champions of the Abyss is a highly interactive card game set on a modular board built by the players. At the start of the game players will take turns drawing and placing Location Tiles where they wish. Resulting in two games that are never the same! Once the board is complete, players will draw their hand and set off on an unusual adventure through the portals to face strange beasts, traps, and collect valuable treasures. Reaching the exit tile or encountering all the tiles ends the game and the player with the highest amount of points wins!
Layout and Card Examples
In the year 1299 AD, in an alternate reality, the remaining population of a devastated Earth were alarmed about the coming of a new age. Also, there were wormholes popping up all over the place! The monsters of myth have started laying waste to towns, countries, and entire empires. People were worried. As it turns out, there were right to be alarmed. These events ignited the call for a new breed of hero: The Champions of the Abyss! The heroes arrive in the quaint town of Direhelm to realize the town is empty. Noticing a glow from one of the nearby taverns, the heroes begin toward the building. Before they reach the door, however, a man erupts from a nearby alleyway. The exhausted man explains he is the Mayor of Direhelm, and he is in desperate need of heroes! The town has been infested with the inhabitants of the nearby wormhole. Creatures of lore and myth alike have spawned from this portal and left nothing in its wake but death and carnage. It now falls to the newly arrived heroes to dive into the wormhole and risk their lives to bring peace back to the town of Direhelm.
The players will Investigate the wormholes and traverse the hazards of these dimensional rifts. All the while, slay monsters, compete or cooperate with other heroes, and be the first to emerge victorious with the most points!
First Meeting and Brainstorming
To start, the six of us came together to form the team, Domination Station, and signed ourselves to a charter. The charter detailed our short and long term goals, our schedules, our conflict resolution process, and our preferred team roles. Everyone would be responsible for helping establish the mechanics of the game, while each individual would be the primary leader of a part of the development process. I took the role of Lead Tester, while also becoming the Assistant Editor and Assistant Story Writer. With an established team we were ready to start brainstorming ideas for a strategy board game. Each team member had 24 hours to come up with their own idea and pitch it to the group the next day. I pitched a board game idea that would be a massive undertaking. It featured a modular board, a complex combat system, the choice to help nearby other players in combat, various lengthy main quests and accompanying side missions, and an upgrade system that could effect nearly all aspects of play. With a projected play length of 2-3 hours and a long list of desired features, we decided it was too far out of scope to develop given our time restraints. I was initially disheartened at the result of the team's decisions but individual features were well received. Ultimately, our game idea picked pieces from each member's ideas to make a truly cooperative idea. As I ran through the idea in my head multiple times I became more and more excited to pursue this project.
Initial Design and Basic Mechanics
From the brain storming process we had a simple list of mechanics, features, and story elements we wanted to include into our design. These were: brief game play (shooting for around 30 minute games), strategic combat that would be easy to pick up and interactive, choice cooperation with other players in combat, a modular board, monster designs that elevated above traditional fantasy norms, and an element of uncertainty through exploration.
With these goals and ideas in mind this was our first board layout:
This design accomplished much of what we set out to do. Under this design players would move one space in a non-diagonal direction and turn up the tile they landed on and do as the tile instructed. Tiles could have the player draw from the event deck, take an item card, face a trap encounter, or do nothing. At this point we had yet to flesh out a combat system other than Player Attack vs Monster Defense, and was in need of improvements. The largest failure of this initial design was that it was too random. Players were almost entirely at the mercy of the cards they drew. This failed to give the player meaningful choices and resulted in games that were frustratingly unpredictable and boring.
Iterating and Adding more Strategic Choices
While some one us, myself included, were itching to begin the designs of individual cards and tiles, we had to come together to fix the inherit problems with some of our game's systems. Our first and largest target was the high degree of randomness added through the tile and drawing system. After some debate we came to agree that having the tiles force the player to draw had to be removed. Instead each tile would have a variety of encounters the player would face. These could be monsters, traps, treasures, or a safe haven. This removed most of the randomness while still providing the players with an element of surprise. The construction of the board at the beginning of the game would allow the players to know the locations of at least some of the dangers or riches. A basic battle plan could be derived from here, and felt satisfying.
Next we tackled overhauling our combat system. In the first passes of testing with sample monsters, I determined that the Defense stat seemed to either do too much, making the player nearly invincible, or added minimal impact, making the player take an overly cautious approach to exploration. Both of these extremes infringed on what we wanted at the core of our game: simplicity and interactivity. Therefore, we decided to remove the Defense stat from the game and focus combat solely based on the Attack values. This met the core of simplicity but left much to be desired in terms of interactivity. It was here that one member suggested taking the remnants of the event deck and pieces of the item deck to construct a set of cards the players could use in combat to buff their attack.
It was then that I had a great idea on how to incorporate a cooperative element. I pitched to the group that nay nearby player could also use their cards in combat to help the player, for a split of the points. This would allow for a greater group dynamic and even a touch of politics. But I didn't want players to only be able to help each other, this is a cooperative game after all; I also threw out the ability for ANY player to be able to play their bards to buff the monster. Aiding a monster could greatly set back an opposing player, but it'd cost resources in hand and paint a juicy target for future bouts of combat. With some tuning this could add just the right level of spice to the combat system.
This picture is perfectly accurate as it still contains the tiles from the previous iteration. It does show the biggest changes to the various decks of cards the players would be using.
Story Writing and Monster Design
At this point we had established a set of game systems that we were happy to start testing more thoroughly, but we were lacking an important cohesive element: a story that'd get the audience's attention. Our head story writer had a basic outline established, but the original still felt too inside traditional fantasy to us. To get to a more unique landscape, the other story assistant and myself throwing out ideas for what oddities we'd like the player to face. This resulted in a wide array of strange, quirky, and frightening monsters. If put all together, these monsters would create a truly unique, and very odd, set; but how remained. The head story writer stepped in and suggested wormholes. It'd be the perfect way to take characters from both the traditional fantasy setting and the odd ball monstrosities we had thrown out. With a flexible way to incorporate a monster design we began designs of individual monsters, locations, items, and Flux (modifier) cards.
To help new players jump into the game I also took the responsibility of writing example strategies. The strategies came from the methods we used during our internal testing. While some were potentially more powerful than others, each style could speak to different player type and keep them around for future playthroughs.
Here were the initial templates we designed together to allow for more efficient design and presentation.
Monsters come with a range of strength and point values. Each monster is also equipped with a Player Defeat and Player Success trigger. A brief description is used to describe the attitude of each creature.
Presented here are two examples of monsters I designed in their prototype version.
The base art for all our monster car designs came from Game-Icons.net, some of which were then edited by myself to more accurately depict the monster.
When approaching monster design for this game I tried to tap into various mythologies and folklore I knew of to pick monsters that were not as well known. During this process I took the time to delve a bit further into each creatures lore in order to better understand it and help me remember it in the future where it might be put to use again. This was some of the most fun I had working on this game. Getting the chance to learn about the mythology of other cultures and apply that knowledge to a practical design is extremely rewarding. At times during group meetings I'd gush about certain stories I read and how strange they'd be from my perspective.
Traps present the player with a choice. The choice is intended to show whether or not the character falls for the trap. Each choice is almost always bad for the player.
While I was not the primary trap designer, but I was responsible for the four presented above. Most of our traps present the player with a lose of health or the loss of some card resource, be it item or flux card. I wanted to create something a little more unique to help separate the traps from the monsters. The Rolling Stone presents the player with the opportunity to start from the beginning and farm more points, but potentially lose out on future tiles. Item cards are much more valuable than flux cards, and experienced players are wise to use their health as a resource, making the Forgetful Mirror an easy choice in most situations. Covered Cavern Trap can be a boon to the player. Repositioning could put the player on a better route, losing a turn before facing a greater monster could give the player the chance to gather more resources. Lastly, trapped chest gives the player the chance to help everyone else out, how each player perceives this choices could greatly effect the outcome of the game.
The other group of game components I was in charge of were the Ability granting items. While most of the items in the game provide the player with a straight attack bonus, being indefinite effects, these would be unique items that open up different paths and strategies to the player. Goggles of Seeing, Fortune Teller's Grace, and Grail of Whispers were all designed with the motto 'knowledge is power' in mind. Each of these items would allow the player to have a safer journey through the abyss as long as he or she planned accordingly. Choker of Atonement gives the player the ability to heal current wounds and play more aggressively in future turns. Rose of the Martyr was my most ambitions ability design. Granting the player to nullify death once is potentially game winning. With the Rose equipped the player suddenly becomes a less desirable target to buff monsters against. Anchor of the Sea is likely the weakest of the abilities at first glance. Moving back to the start tile gives the player the chance to restock on Flux Cards and acquire more points by walking new paths or re-walking old ones.
Visual Improvements and Editing
At this point we had a fluid gameplay system and a unique atmosphere, on paper. The next step for our team was to improve the visuals to meet a new requirement: printer friendliness. Our cards original designs and templates were very heavy handed with their colors. This is where we moved to a more minimalist approach on our visuals. It wasn't our favorite choice to make, we felt it diminished some of the darker and more creative features we had included. Nevertheless, we were able to give some character to each card even with a simple design. It was an artistic challenge that tested my image editing skills.
Throughout our entire design process I did my best to keep track of design changes and reasonings. There is a brief Design History section in the Game Design Document, but it fails to capture some of the later changes. Those changes made after the completion of the GDD have been documented on this page.
Now we were ready to build our first complete prototype for wider spread testing. The last step was meticulously combing through the document for unclear statements, style differences and consolidation, and grammatical errors. As part of the editors, I was responsible for the individual cards, end game conditions, example strategies, and the FAQ. Going through each card took time and patience on my part. The hardest errors to detect were pieces that would be unclear to a new player. After working on the game for an extended period of time, it had become difficult to put myself into a position without knowledge of how the game would play. To help counter act this I would read bits to friends and family and ask them what they thought they were suppose to do. This process, combined with careful rewriting, made our document clean and clear of gaps in the rules. Lastly, I took the responsibility for a final pass for grammatical errors.