Get Ready to Play Some Curses & Catacombs
Dungeons & Dragons has opened the doors to several interesting stories in different ways—Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, Stranger Things, and many more. Now Wintermoor Tactics Club joins the mix with its own vision and lore. Developed by EVC Games and set in an ‘80s boarding school, the recently launched title fuses a tactics RPG with visual novel elements.
The game focuses on Alicia, who spends time playing Curses & Catacombs with her friends in Tactics Club. The principal of the eponymous Wintermoor Academy threatens to end that with a cutthroat snowball tournament. Clubs that lose or refuse to participate will be forced to disband. While competing to save their own club by reimagining snowball fights as fantastical skirmishes in Curses & Catacombs, Alicia tries to figure out the true motives behind the school-mandated tournament. Along the way, she reaches out to classmates displaced by the competition in an effort to help, as well as cross club lines.
+1 For Inclusion
“Recruiting a diverse cast to your club is certainly part of the way we address inclusivity in the game. One of the major themes of the game’s narrative addresses the intense tribalism that can develop on the internet. Yes, it might seem silly for a game set in the 1980s to be about internet culture,” said Jackie Kreitzberg, producer on Wintermoor. “But we wanted to address the type of fanaticism that can develop when you base your entire identity on one aspect of yourself. So a lot of our game is based around reaching out to those outside of your normal group, and trying to make a place for them to feel comfortable.”
Wintermoor features a quirky mix of clubs, going beyond the standard types seen at most schools. For example, there are student organizations for psychic detectives and monarchists.
“These characters come from a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives. They also have their own interests and hobbies outside of Tactics Club,” Kreitzberg said over email. “The game explores the value in having such a diverse group supporting you, but also how it can be challenging to create that inclusivity.”
Fixing Bugs and Boosting Morale
The development of Wintermoor itself has dealt with a challenge now common to practically everyone: COVID-19.
While EVC had already been working remotely before the global pandemic forced quarantines and stay-at-home orders, they faced other issues. “Yeah, morale took a hit and everyone had issues focusing for a while,” Kreitzberg said.
But she added that fortunately for them, they were mostly done with content and were focused on bug fixes instead. This also proved to have another silver lining.
“It was honestly kinda nice to have something positive to focus on during all the uncertainty,” Kreitzberg shared. “More significantly, we had to abandon simultaneous release of the PC and console builds because our QA team and the certification bodies are all adjusting to remote work.”
Shifting Timelines and Marketing Changes
The PC game will be ported to PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch at a later date.
“Timelines are just a bit longer than normal,” Kreitzberg said. “But that’s okay! We want everyone to stay safe, so we split release to support ourselves and to keep our launch promises to our fans.”
Despite COVID-19, Kreitzberg shared that the process of porting itself has been surprisingly easy.
“Our publisher, Versus Evil, is already a known quantity with the console manufacturers, which lets us get through easier,” Kreitzberg explained. “Plus, they connected us to a porting team, Kittehface Software, who have been excellent. The most difficult part has probably been figuring out how to handle touch interfaces.”
Besides morale and pushing back a multiplatform release, COVID-19 also affected Wintermoor’s promotional strategy.
“It...completely changed our marketing plan. We were expecting to go to some big events to help drum up press,” Kreitzberg shared. “Instead, we’re looking for every opportunity to get the word out about the game!”
From Tabletop to Desktop
While Wintermoor has the vibe of classic tactical RPG video games, it possesses a tabletop heart too. Its story with in-universe game Curses & Catacombs clearly evokes Dungeons & Dragons. But how did EVC approach translating tabletop gameplay to the digital realm of video games?
“It was pretty challenging, actually! We wanted to retain that same feeling of fighting monsters with your friends while still having the freedom to make the game mechanics whatever we wanted,” Kreitzberg shared. “Most notably, there’s no randomness in combat and no fixed initiative order, which are considered cornerstones of many tabletop RPGs.”
Kreitzberg said they did this to make the battles more accessible. On the other hand, they drew upon specific classes, abilities, and effects found in tabletop fights. “And of course, that great feeling we all get when your team really works well together and their abilities support each other.”
Creative Expression and Bonding
The team didn’t just want to capture tabletop gameplay in a video game though. They also wanted to share the culture of tabletop gaming.
“It happened fairly naturally, since everyone on the team loves tabletop games. The number one thing we hope comes through about the culture, is that feeling of closeness and togetherness you get from playing with your friends,” Kreitzberg said. “Wintermoor is a single-player game, but so much of it is about friendship and self-expression.”
She elaborated on this, explaining that Alicia will write customized Curses & Catacombs campaigns for her friends, including new ones she makes (a.k.a. new party members the player recruits).
“These campaigns you write are designed to help your new friends with their various personal problems. Your choices as a player will change certain elements of the upcoming battles, such as which villain you face,” Kreitzberg said. “With this, we were trying to emulate the joy of crafting a fun and meaningful tabletop session for your friends. We hope we’ve captured that aspect of the tabletop experience in our game.”
Wintermoor feels delightfully meta with all its layers of gaming. The main cast plays Curses & Catacombs, then must compete in a snowball tournament that they reimagine as another tabletop RPG battle, and that’s all packaged in a video game for a real-life audience. Wintermoor essentially has three levels of gameplay at work.
“The whole premise of kids playing a tabletop game at their school was actually a very fun concept to work with,” Kreitzberg shared. “It allowed us to motivate tutorials in-universe; for example, having the club’s Catacombs Master, Colin, explain mechanics and rules—that might not be immediately apparent to the player—to his fellow club members, Alicia and Jacob.”
Kreitzberg added that Alicia also discovers that the rules of the school’s snowball tournament are oddly familiar. They’re like the game she and her club plays.
“So they use the same tactics from Curses & Catacombs in the snowball battles,” Kreitzberg said. “Having a game-within-a-game gave us a lot to work with, both narratively and in the combat design, and a lot of places to pull inspiration to create experiences people can relate with.”
From Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to Steven Universe
EVC found inspiration from a wide range of influences across different media.
“There’s the obvious influence from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, with the snowball fight premise,” Kreitzberg said. “But we also took a lot of inspiration from other sources. For the combat, we took a lot of inspiration from the more puzzle-like feel of Into The Breach.”
According to her, Wintermoor’s narrative was influenced by TV shows like Steven Universe and Community.
“But maybe most importantly, we took a lot of inspiration from Persona 4,” Kreitzberg shared. “We really liked the idea of characters’ abilities improving as you got to know them. [In Wintermoor] you’ll earn upgrades and unlock the full potential of the characters by developing a deeper relationship with [them] outside of combat. These upgrades help characters who have formed closer bonds work better together in battle.”
Isometric Art and an Eclectic Score
Inspiration didn’t apply only to gameplay and narrative.
“We really wanted to capture the iconic look and the colors of classic isometric pixel-art tactics games, as well as more modern ones like Wargroove and Into The Breach,” Kreitzberg shared. “But we wanted to avoid pixel art itself, so we quickly settled on an iconic-yet-illustrated style. It also felt really good with Alicia’s character and how she imagines the world, since you play from her perspective.”
“Rousing PS1-era RPG music, but interpreted through a school marching band. And most of the game’s music tries to center on that feel,” Kreitzberg said. “But Mike also was a writer on the game, so he regularly broke out of that palette for dramatic effect—to mix in influences from ‘80s pop, early goth, anime theme songs, or Shoji Meguro to get across the right feel for a character or situation.”
While Kreitzberg said this could make scheduling more of a challenge, she noted that it was also convenient to have one of the game’s writers compose the soundtrack. “We didn’t have to worry as much about whether music was true to the characters or emotional beats.”
Expanding Language and Nurturing Community
Even with the impact of COVID-19, the game’s launch seems to be going well. According to Kreitzberg, reviews from players and responses from the press seem to be positive. “It's wonderful seeing a community start to grow around Wintermoor Tactics Club.”
Besides debuting on more platforms, Wintermoor’s future also holds the promise of more language options. While the game is now available in English, Kreitzberg said the team is currently working on additional localizations in German, Chinese (Simplified), Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian.
While that’s the extent of EVC’s post-launch plans for Wintermoor, they would like to do more.
“We would love to add some New Game+ content,” Kreitzberg shared. “The team already has outlines for a fun and wacky follow-up narrative based on one of the minor NPCs in the game.”
Whether or not it gets an expansion like that, Wintermoor seems to be an entertaining and thoughtful experience. Before its launch, the game was selected for inclusion at Indie MEGABOOTH, the Seattle Indies Expo, and the SXSW Gaming Pitch Competition. It was even part of Game Informer’s list of best indie games at GDC 2019.
“The whole team has put a lot of heart into this game,” Kreitzberg declared. “We hope it can be a cozy experience to curl up with in these uncertain times.”
Are you interested in checking out Wintermoor Tactics Club? Have you already played it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.