Hi! I’m Tim Pinder, the designer of ITB’s upcoming title Sub Terra. By day, I’m an AI programmer and occasional gameplay designer in the videogames industry. By night, I design innumerable board games, which I then inflict on my friends and family until they ask me to go away. Sleep is…difficult.
This is the first in a series of articles about the design and development of Sub Terra – from scruffy prototype to finished product (which you should totally back on Kickstarter in January).
Let’s get started!
WHAT IS SUB TERRA?
Sub Terra is a fully co-operative survival horror board game. You and up to five friends are cave explorers who have become trapped deep underground. You must quickly explore a tile-based cave system to find the way out before your flashlights die and you’re lost in the darkness forever.
You’ll need to work together to overcome deadly subterranean hazards – stick together for safety, or split up to cover more ground. One wrong step could knock you unconscious and your friends will need to stage a rescue. Light and hope are scarce. And worst of all, you don’t think you’re alone down here…
This concept might sound familiar. That’s because it’s very similar to the excellent 2005 British horror film The Descent, which I wholeheartedly recommend you watch. But this isn’t what inspired me to make Sub Terra – it’s just where the game ended up. My true motivation came from a darker place…
This all started around three years ago when I was living in Bath, a quaint city in the South-West of England. Halloween was fast approaching – the shops were filled with pumpkins and spooky decorations, and the cinemas were full to the brim with seasonal frightfests and excessive gore. To distract myself from a nascent pumpkin spice addiction, I decided to get into the holiday spirit by watching some ‘Let’s Play’ videos of first-person horror games on YouTube. It quickly became clear that these games could genuinely unsettle and scare you, and being scared was a big part of why they were fun.
Horror is a popular movie genre, representing around a 5% share of box office sales over the past twenty years. Horror-themed video games are also enjoying a creepy renaissance, with indie studios and big industry players alike bringing terrifying titles into the world.
However, when I looked at the tabletop industry, horror experiences felt underrepresented. Horror board games comprise only 2% of those listed on BoardGameGeek, which includes lots of games that are horror in theme only. This is likely because the medium is actively working against them:
- Tabletop games are usually played with friends using abstract components in a brightly lit room, making immersion difficult.
- They’re usually bound by both requiring the players to know all the game rules in advance and to perform all game actions manually, which makes surprising them much harder.
- Finally, players are expected to get better at games over time – if they’ve seen most of the possible game states and have figured out how to beat them, there’s no reason to be scared anymore.
These issues are definitely surmountable! Games like Dead of Winter do a great job of this by hiding a lot of the possibilities through lots of initial states, large decks of impactful cards and lashings of good ol’ fashioned dice rolls. But horror is not a natural fit for the medium, so creating a horror board game that actually makes you feel scared is a definite challenge.
I like challenges. This seemed like a particularly rewarding one.
ROUGHLY 28 MONTHS LATER
I spent the next couple of years researching and prototyping a ton of different ideas. It was clear from a lot of published titles that theme alone wasn’t going to be enough – for horror to work properly it needs to immerse you deep in its world with every decision you make and every action you perform. Any successful result needed to blend rules and theme into a slick cohesive whole.
Eventually, in late 2015, I combined the successful mechanics into a very early version of Sub Terra. The cave escape theme was ideal – nature can be terrifyingly brutal without any sort of intelligence driving it (removing the requirement for a player antagonist or sophisticated “AI” automata), and the level of role-playing required to imagine yourself in such a situation was relatively low (nothing supernatural was necessarily going on, and being lost in a cramped dark space is instinctively relatable to most people). At this point, The Descent and other caving-horror films were an obvious source of inspiration, and more elements from these were taken on board.
This prototype, like any, had a bunch of flaws, but it was clear from the reactions of my friends and family that the idea had serious promise. I continued to refine it over the next few months into something that resembled an actual game. I didn’t really have any plans to do anything with it – I tend to make things to satisfy my own curiosity and entertain my friends, and pitching it to publishers never really crossed my mind.
In April 2016, I heard about an event at the upcoming UK Games Expo called the “Wyvern’s Lair”. This was billed as essentially being the TV shows Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank for the tabletop world, allowing daring designers to pitch products to a panel of publishers. At this point, Sub Terra was a solid product, but was likely going to sit gathering dust on a shelf for the rest of its life, forgotten and unloved. I figured I may as well apply and see what happened. What did I have to lose?
Fortunately, my application was accepted, and I then had a few weeks to throw together a four-minute presentation to deliver at the Expo. I knew the game was a lot of fun, but I was less confident about my ability to quickly convey this to a room full of strangers.
In case it’s of use to future applicants, here is how I structured my pitch:
- Quick Introduction
Me, my background, game name (Sub Terra!)
- High-Level Concept
“The Descent meets Pandemic”
A common pitching technique is to start by describing your product as the combination of two existing products, to quickly get the audience up to speed.
- Vital Statistics
Cooperative Survival Horror | 1-6 players | 60 minutes | ages 12+
The genre of the game, how many players the game is for, how long a session lasts, and what the target audience is supposed to be. Both players and publishers use this information to see if a game might be of interest to them. One of the most repeated comments from the panel was that designers should highlight this information at the start of their pitch.
- Premise / Gameplay / Goal
– You’re trapped deep underground
– You’re exploring a hazardous tile-based cave system
– You need to find a way out before your flashlights die
These are one-sentence descriptions of what the game is about, how the game is played, and how you win. This was where I could quickly establish my game’s identity, and I chose to put the ‘caving horror’ elements front and centre.
It now made sense to show the prototype to the panel so they could get a sense of what the game would look like in progress. For me, Sub Terra was still at a rough print-and-play stage, but some other finalists had brought production-ready products with complete professional artwork. The advice I’d read suggested publishers weren’t too keen on final art (as they’d provide this), but wanted thought to have gone into the placeholder graphic design so that the game was easily playable.
At this point, Sub Terra looked something like this:
(Don’t worry, it looks a lot better now!)
- Gameplay Detail
I then had a spare minute to quickly go over the basic structure of the game. This was primarily to reassure the panel that this was actually a well-tested product they could easily take to market, rather than a half-baked game idea. I interleaved this section with hints at previous design choices and the strategic tensions present in the game, to make it clear that I hadn’t just barfed rules at random and hoped for the best.
- Player Experience
– Social challenge (team based push-your-luck)
– Exploration (unpredictable cave and hazards, emergent narratives)
– Suspense (never truly safe, lots can go wrong)
– Empathy (shared cooperative success, strong bonding emotions)
People play games to experience something. As there wasn’t enough time to teach and play a full game within a four minute window, I wanted to end my pitch by describing how the game would make the players feel during the session. Sub Terra is a game that leads with flavour and hides its strategic core, so this approach made sense. An abstract game or traditional eurogame would probably be better served by concentrating on strategic depth instead.
- Conclusion / Summary
*escape in the confusion*
This step is essential. Publishers love smoke bombs!
Despite my trepidation, everything turned out great! My pitch attracted the interest of multiple publishers, and after a couple of weeks of negotiation I signed up with ITB. If you’ve got a tested prototype ready to go, I’d definitely recommend applying for the Wyvern’s Lair event in 2017! (or you could always skip the middleman and contact ITB directly…)
WHAT WE DID LAST SUMMER
What then followed were a measured few months of further testing – sanding down the rough edges of the game, streamlining the rules into something as intuitive as possible, and polishing everything to a mirror shine. The core gameplay hasn’t changed that much since June, but the current game is noticeably more accessible, balanced and fun.
At the same time:
- We hired the incredible David Franco Campos as our illustrator, who started bringing the dark world of Sub Terra to life.
- The narrative elements of the game were expanded, allowing the amazing David Thor Fjalarsson to start work on a graphic novel set in the same world.
- The gifted Zak Eidsvoog was recruited to nail down the graphic design, keeping the game comprehensible without destroying the mood.
- And finally, ITB’s Peter Blenkharn continues to excel at binding this whole project together with expert logistics, skillful promotion and firm coordination.
It’s humbling to work with such a talented team. Thanks for making my stupid ideas a reality, guys!
Which brings me to where we are today. We have a tense, thrilling and unique gameplay experience almost ready to be unleashed on unsuspecting groups of gamers everywhere. I’m incredibly proud of our work, and I hope you all get to play it soon!
In the next couple of posts, I’ll explore the ways tabletop games can scare you, and show how I applied these techniques to Sub Terra.
See you then!
Game Designer, Sub Terra
Indie gamedev robot. All opinions, fatalities and apocalypses are the responsibility of my creators, who should have worked harder on the control problem