Greetings! Today, I’ll be taking you on a journey through the creation process of Ghostfire Gaming’s first board game, Aberration.
Game Concept (March – April 2022)
In March 2022, I started conversations with Ghostfire representatives Matt Witbreuk and Mark McIntyre about the game’s concept. The main goal of these early discussions were to outline the game’s key features:
- A cooperative experience for 1-4 players
- A complexity level that lies between 2.5-2.75 on the BGG scale
- Play time between 60-90 minutes
- Introduce players to the Grim Hollow Lore, particularly the concept of transformations.
Furthermore, we outlined what the game should steer clear of:
- No Game Master
- No software component/App
- No Campaign or Legacy-style mechanics.
Matt and Mark suggested making the Great Beast as the main adversary for the game, given its popularity among Grim Hollow enthusiasts. This idea opened exciting gameplay possibilities, especially focusing on the aberrated monsters spawned by the Great Beast. It also led us to set the game in the Bürach Empire, the very territory the Great Beast haunts.
I introduced the concept of an “Action Cube” mechanic, where players would draw cubes from a bag on their turn, with each cube’s color indicating a specific type of action they could perform. Additionally, we incorporated individual player boards that not only provided essential character information but also served as a source of new action cubes. Remarkably, this mechanic remained a core element throughout the entire design process.
It’s important to clarify these details early on to ensure we’re all on the same page and headed in a direction that makes everybody happy.
Exploration (May – August 2022)
Once the concept was ironed out, I started exploration of the core game systems. When designing a game, I prefer to reach a playable prototype as quickly as possible by focusing on a vertical slice of the game, temporarily ignoring the aspects that can be expanded upon in the future. A cooperative game has a further rapid prototype benefit in that it might be able to be played by a single player. This flexibility is invaluable to a designer as you can easily playtest without the need to schedule a playtest with other people.
Initially, the game’s scope featured the entire Bürach Empire, not just the single village under threat in the final version. Whenever a player drew a black cube, they would also draw a Monster card, specifying the type of monster and its placement. These monsters followed directional paths through the empire, with all roads leading to Altenheim. The defense of Altenheim was paramount: if it fell, the players were defeated.
During the exploration phase, our primary goal was to create a proof of concept for the game’s core systems. To limit unnecessary design, I designed just one boss and three minions. After several rounds of solo playtesting and iterative improvements, I introduced the game to Mark and Matt using Tabletop Simulator. Although the game was more of a “game-like experience” than an actual game, it served its purpose by providing us a tangible foundation for discussion, moving beyond an abstract concept.
I asked what worked and what didn’t work. We all thought that the Action Cube mechanic had potential, and the “all roads lead to Altenheim” monster movement had the enjoyable qualities of a tower defense game. However, the game’s expansive scope didn’t feel right. Following informal discussions with the Grim Hollow narrative designers, we decided to narrow the game’s focus to defending a single village. By the end of June, I had designed a village game board with tower defense elements, and we had a revised direction for the game by the end of August.
With the shift in direction, changes rippled through the entire system. The monster deck was replaced with Shadow tokens, fires and towers were introduced, and numerous other adjustments were made. The player’s components changed as heroes were split into an Identity and a Class, and Action Cubes transformed into the round Ability chips. Finally, a leadership ability was introduced to be a way to interact with villagers, though the exact implementation was still up in the air.
Design (September – December 2022)
By the end of September, we had a clear direction and an incomplete but functional game experience. Mark and I established a structured approach, working in two-week sprints. Each sprint began with a planning meeting and concluded with a Tabletop Simulator playtest. Immediately after each playtest, we discussed each component to identify area in need of design. Following this, we’d break for the weekend and launch into the next sprint in the following week.
The game underwent frequent changes during this period as we explored how different design elements interacted with each other. We replaced towers with vantage points, designed an initial version of the worker placement mechanic, streamlined the method for placing Shadows, and made countless other adjustments.
The Item deck was the last major component to be designed. I leave these rule-breaking components for later in the design process because understanding the rules is crucial to create enjoyable ways to bend them. A considerable challenge in designing this deck was reconciling the deck’s random nature with the often flavorful but narrow purpose of fantasy items. Our solution was to give each Item card two uses: a powerful, narratively engaging, and specific use, as well as a simpler but less powerful “exploit” use that could be used more frequently.
While most items are single use, there are some that can be employed multiple times. These items have an additional requirement: they must be unlocked using an Experience resource. Once unlocked, they provide either a passive ability or access to a new type of action. For example, the Sword of Life Stealing grants a new red Strength action, which involves a melee attack that may also heal your hero.
Early Development (January – April 2023)
In the new year, we continued our biweekly playtest schedule. At this stage, we had the start of a fun game, but many rough edges still needed to be smoothed out. This is where a strong iteration loop shines. My approach to iteration is to play the game to identify the parts that are in the worst shape, adjust the components to address the major issues, and repeat. The key is not to fix everything at once, just address the issues that can be resolved in your iteration timeframe. (If a problem requires a lot of time to fix, you’re likely still in the design phase, not development.)
The development process can be summarized with the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” By focusing on the weakest 25% of the game, you effectively eliminate the most frustrating aspects. Do that enough times, and you transform an OK game into a good game, then a great one, and eventually, you’ll craft a truly fantastic experience!
During early development, it’s essential to evaluate unnecessary complexity. Every game requires a certain level of complexity to function, but it must be managed like a valuable resource. While a game like Aberration can accommodate more complexity than one sold in a mass market store, there’s still a limit. Increasing complexity often enhances a game’s depth, and I have a formula for this:
Elegance = Depth / Complexity
You’re not trying to minimize complexity; instead, you’re trying to maximize elegance. It’s a subtle difference. Complex rules that greatly increases a game’s depth are generally favorable, but rules that don’t contribute much to the overall system should be examined closely by the developer. To put it another way, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
Anyway, back to Aberration! Given our considerable distance – me in Seattle and Mark in Melbourne – our development notes were recorded using a sharded Google Doc. We’d create bulleted lists, assign tasks for the sprint, and then we’d proceed with our work. (I am aware of dedicated tools like Wrike or Trello for managing agile processes, but with just the two of us, a Google Doc was all we needed.)
As early development neared its conclusion in April, our gaze shifted to a new horizon: the Gen Con prototype and shaping the Gamefound page.
May 2023 and Beyond
In May, we shifted over to our biggest milestone yet: preparing parts of the game for a preview at Gen Con 2023. Mark and I identified the key components to feature, which encompassed a selection of heroes, classes, monsters, and item cards. Our development efforts were channeled into refining these elements, while the art team simultaneously produced an eye-catching prototype. A small group of individuals signed up for an early look at the game at Gen Con, and the feedback from post-game surveys indicated a positive reception.
What’s next? The funding page is LIVE now on Gamefound. Following its launch, I’ll delve into what I envision for the future of our project!