My latest post ended with the conclusion that the Gear Grid and the way we had been building castles was not viable for the game that we were trying to create. But what was the game we were trying to create? I wanted something that would capture the feel of castlevania-style exploration and backtracking, giant boss combat, and narrative story progress.
After 30 versions of development, I finally arrived at the conclusion that there could be no universal way to handle all these things within one system. Building a stat-check system was an option, but it wasn't adding anything new to the genre of "four guys explore and fight monsters" games like Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Descent, and Gloomhaven.
In the end, it was by giving up on a unifying system that we found the way forward.
The idea for stages began when we looked at the sprawling castle game board for Seventh Cross, and the way that hunters were moving through it. Traversal across the board was always a pain, even with things like teleporters to help you out. And once an area was completed, there was rarely more to do there. The idea came to us to make each wing of the castle a single "stage"– a little mini-encounter that could be cleared by the whole party at once.
With this system, the party would separate and act independently in battle, but work together as a team outside of combat. It kept everyone involved at each point in the adventure.
At first, the game was just a series encounters where hunters would have to clear a dungeon with traps and small mobs. After a few iterations, we found that these stages were pretty boring. The only interesting combat stages were big boss fights. So we decided to cut all the mobs and traps, and keep combat purely relegated to boss fights. This marked the return of the epic big boss fights we had been sorry to cut out earlier in development, and I was glad to see them finally come back.
Going from one big fight to another was a bit heavy, so we broke up the adventure with other kinds of stages to simulate the exploration portions of the genre. These other kinds of stages are treated like their own mini-games. Your performance in these games helps you to advance through the castle, and/or improves your abilities in the main battle game.
- Narrative stages are resolved with the Karma/Anathema system created several versions back. You participate in these as you progress through the stories of individual castles, as well as when you are resting back at Sanctuary, the hunters' home base.
- Puzzle stages are actual word puzzles, designed to be relevant to the task at hand (think of the floor puzzle at the end of the Last Crusade, for a good example). Some even have multiple solutions, and the solution you find determines the path you take.
- Lock stages are classic adventure game-styled challenges where you will pair up key items you discover throughout the castle (and even in other castles) to open up barriers. If you've played any of the modern Escape Room board games, you'll recognize how these work.
- Search stages are a kind of looting mini-game, where you try to figure out which discovery items match the location you are exploring.
Rather than having a sprawling game board that takes up a huge table and is only active at one corner at a time, we now have a smaller Castle Board, and when the hunters are ready to tackle a stage, they "zoom in" and do battle on a second board. Kind of like Titan, for those who have played that classic.
One of the best things about the stages is that it makes it very easy to drop-in or drop-out players between stages. The game can also be 'saved' cleanly during these points.
Hunters can reconfigure their loadout, upgrade their gear, and shop freely between stages as an area called 'Sanctuary'. As you explore more castles, you'll encounter Associates who will permanently join you in Sanctuary and provide new services.
Though I was sorry to lose the big, sprawled-out mansion layout, the advantages to saving, table space, and episodic play in general were advantages that were well worth it.
In my next post, I'll talk about combat, and the changes we made to bring the big monster-hunter/souls-style boss fights back into the game.
I look forward to sharing that with you soon! :D