Designing a digital game isn’t easy. Inventing, polishing and endless recreation of all mechanisms, usability thingies and graphics is a job that needs constant attention and a tireless team. And then the game is ready. It thrives, and after a while you get all the ideas of sequels, spin-offs and other platforms. We chose the ‘other platforms’ -option and we chose the most extreme path - converting digital to the cardboard.
This story is about the differences between these two mediums; the user interface, the heuristics and the gameplay experience. How we ran into these problems and how we finally solved all of them, creating a solid tabletop game that feels the same as the digital version.
Before venturing into the first tabletop prototypes we need to take a short detour into the early digital version - that happens to be a tabletop game too…
The story is divided into three parts, from which this first one is about the very early development of the digital and tabletop versions. This part also introduces the problems we ran into when adapting the game to cardboard. In the second part there’s some hybrid considerations we had and also how we had to break the whole game in order to reassemble it as a working tabletop game. The final part is for conclusions and what we have learnt, recapping the story.
In the very beginning the digital Cabals: Magic & Battle Cards, named Cabals: The Card Game back then, was playtested with crude cardboard and flimsy printed out cards. During the long hours at the office we tested new cards, mechanics and rules and just took a pen and rewrote the card descriptions while playing. Many rules variations were tested during that three months of prototyping - however after that we felt that the game was still lacking that little something.
The goal was to find a mechanic and setting that would impress ourselves and that was to be the decisive factor whether we'd take on the massively huge and risky challenge of producing the game. We were creating a card game that doesn’t have the resource problems that most TCGs have, a game that improves the basic lineup of units and adds more value and functionality to the game board itself. At the time, we hadn’t seen anything like that before.
Hexagonal tiles were tested along with squares. And they didn’t work too well. Hex tiles need a slightly bigger board size to work compared to squares, as the control area of a unit is larger with hexes, making strong units stronger. So, we changed to squares and a 5x5 grid was the size that gave us the most exciting games - the conflict was never too far away and there was still enough room to maneuver and execute tactics.
Special locations granting extra resources fixed the resource problems nicely and made the overall control an important part of the game. The board now had sub-objectives that helped to reach the main objective - winning the game. Adding new types of special tiles made tactics even deeper - should I go for extra resources, for additional deployment point or maybe for extra cards.
The big problem we had at that time was the mixing of different cabals in the same deck. We did have the Alliances sorted out and we decided that cabals could only use cards from allied cabals. Unfortunately we didn’t have a good mechanism for this. We really wanted to step away from arbitrary card counts limiting the number of cards of allied cabals since they were - well, arbitrary.
The breakthrough happened when the team came up with the idea of a Loyalty mechanism and so Loyalty has been at the center of the game ever since.
Loyalty works so that each card has a Loyalty cost that has to be paid in addition to the normal resource cost. The Loyalty cost is reduced by each unit of the same cabal on the board and also the Loyalty of the hero affects the Loyalty cost.
It was a slightly too difficult mechanism for the tabletop prototype because each round you have to keep checking how much Loyalty cost is reduced, adding a fair amount of cognitive load. But it was easy add to the digital game and let the CPU do the math.
We had a good game with solid gameplay mechanics, but we didn’t have a theme for the game. And for this, the team had a vote.
Vampires and Zombies were extremely hot at the time, and were a natural choice for our brand new game. Company designer however, vetoed against the decision and made us dig in deeper.
While Vampires and Zombies could've easily been a good choice business-wise the market was bloated with these unfriendly undeads, so we decided to go all-in and create something very original. We ended up mixing Film Noir, Art Nouveau, decadence, folklore and historic events into our very own alternative reality.
In early 2011 we consulted a famous Finnish award winning author - Johanna Sinisalo - and she helped us to find the right direction with the world and character creation. Around the same time, the game artist Jarno Kantelinen joined the team, bringing Cabals its unique visual style and atmosphere.
After extensive game design with tabletop prototypes it was time to implement the rules in the digital environment. At this time the domination point mechanism was added, as it was easy to let the CPU do the necessary calculations - adding a second winning condition to the game.
The Domination winning condition was inspiration for a couple of new cards and one more viable deck type was born. Creating the digital version added new dimensions to the game design. The effects of the cards had to be worded and thought through more carefully as one cannot negotiate the rules with a computer. Some of the wildest designs were dropped at this stage, either they worked inconsistently or were just too powerful.
The digital game was released in 2011 and has received good feedback from the players and reviewers alike.
First Tabletop versions
The decision to make the tabletop version was made in 2013. Very soon after that we printed a full color prototype version and started playing. The rules were exactly the same as the digital game, and we thought that if the digital game plays well it works fine also on a tabletop. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
Like in the digital game we used round unit tokens that would move on the board instead of the cards. This approach felt pretty good, the tiles were a bit too small for cards anyway. We also had a round outer ring around the token that could be turned to display the current status of the unit.
But using these unit tokens led to confusion. During the game there needs to be a pile of tokens next to the game board, and soon we realized that we run into further problems if there’s more of the same unit type on the board at the same time. The damage, and other tokens were put on the cards, located next to the game board to avoid tokens falling around the board when moving the unit. The handling was further enhanced by the thickness of the tokens - everybody knows what it’s like to pick up cards from the flat surface.
But still, this approach felt somewhat wrong. The cards and tokens were disconnected and the fact that the status of the units wasn’t visible on the board - but next to the board instead - made gameplay feel clumsy.
Another thing we discovered was that the game itself was such a captivating and intensive experience that nobody remembered to put the actual cards to the discard pile until after a unit was destroyed.
So, we left the unit tokens out of the game. Everything needs to be visible on the board and everything must happen within those tiles to give players clear indicators what is the current status of the game. Too bad - we were already imagining playing the game with 4 inch miniatures...
One alternative we did study was to have some kind of card stands that could have counters and slots for additional status pins. After a while we decided against this as there was one major drawback - as cards always have a back side it made seeing the overall situation harder.
Then there were tokens. The game had too many status changes, once-per-game effects and even once-per-turn effects that didn’t exhaust the unit. In the digital game the status of the unit or ability can easily be displayed, but in the tabletop game we need to have tokens for all of them. If not marked, this information is easily forgotten during the gameplay.
Thinking of that now, we reacted on the amount of the tokens quite strongly and made some missteps - of which I’ll go into more detail in the second part of this story. The tokens we used then were very thin, making the handling of them a pain.
In the digital game, one of the features that make the game more interesting than average card games is the varying game board. This is one way to keep the game more balanced - some decks work better on some boards and worse others. That was wanted in the board game too. Our first game board was assembled from single tiles and it was common that after moving a unit the player also fixed the game board back together. When we went out to show our game to the public, we had one fixed game board that was of size 50cm x 50cm - hardly a viable option for a board game. And so it was clear we had to come up with something else...
That’s all for the first part. We had our digital game ready and the first version of tabletop version that seemed to hold more problems than solutions. What became clear was that there are so many things we take for granted in digital games that just won’t work. If there isn’t a saying ’the path to the solution starts from identifying the problem’ there should be. We did identify the problems and the sheer amount and scale of them overwhelmed us.
Part two, that is soon to follow, will focus more on the disassembling and reconstruction of the tabletop game that leads to a great revelation. Finally all parts have fallen into place and the game finds its form that makes up the polished game we have now on Kickstarter. But, until then, good gaming!