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Horror on the Orient Express The Board Game - Design Diary #1: Where our journey begins

Posted by Michael O'Brien on 24th Jul 2023

Call of Cthulhu's Horror on the Orient Express has long been revered as one of the most iconic and acclaimed horror campaigns in tabletop roleplaying — so we're very excited that a new board game adaption is coming! In this design diary series, co-designer Adam Kwapiński shares insights on the development of the new game, which is to be launched on Kickstarter in 2024, and released in early 2025.

Hello, fellow Call of Cthulhu fans! Last week we announced Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game to great excitement. It quickly shot to #1 on Board Game Geek's 'Hotness List', and is still there today!

My colleague Michał Gołąb Gołębiowski and I are excited to have the opportunity to adapt one of the most iconic TTRPG campaigns into a board game. Now, we know there are plenty of games with Cthulhu themes on the market - you might have some of them already on your shelf. So we invite you to join our journey during which we will tell you more about our game - but, before I unveil more about the game itself, let me tell you how everything started.

About two years ago my friend Kuba Polkowski asked if I would be interested in designing a game for Chaosium. You should know this about Kuba: he’s a bit like an old Nokia phone, great at connecting people. Chaosium, one of the most established TTRPG publishers in the world, was looking to create a new board game directly related to their champion product Call of Cthulhu. Kuba recommended me as a designer and suggested that Horror on the Orient Express (HotOE) could be interesting source material for the game.

Initially I was very excited about the idea, but also a bit skeptical (those who know me better know that this is my normal attitude – I always have some doubts).

The source of my excitement was very obvious: I love TTRPGs, and Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite systems ever (along with Deadlands, Warhammer, and Kult). Call of Cthulhu was also one of the first TTRPGs I ever played as a 10 or 11 year old. And of course, Horror on the Orient Express is an absolute legend of a campaign among TTRPG fans. 

So why was I skeptical? Because I wondered if I could create a game that would bring anything new to the world. You know, there are many Cthulhu-themed games, and lots of them are really good. And I, for better or for worse, have this urge, this compulsion: If I am to create something, it has to be unique, bringing something new to players' tables.

Also, this game is not only about Cthulhu, it is also connected to an existing tabletop RPG. And as a player and game master, I know that it's really hard to bring this kind of experience into a board game. 

So I told Kuba and his Chaosium colleagues about my doubts and asked them to give me one year. If after that time I had a prototype I thought was worth publishing and they were happy with it, we could sign a contract and proceed. But, if after one year of thinking and working on the game there was nothing on my side that I was happy with, they'd need to look for another designer. I like to work this way because it's the game itself that is the most important component in the whole process. And before I create an initial prototype I can't promise I'll be able to create a really good game. A mediocre one? Sure. But who needs those.

So that year I worked on many different games and while doing so looked for some inspirations for HotOE as a board game. I also played a lot of Call of Cthulhu sessions – Kuba even ran HotOE for me and several others who are now involved in this project. I read the campaign sourcebooks, and dug into a plethora of different Call of Cthulhu and Mythos materials, feeding my brain with many nutrients to help find ideas. All the while making a LOT of notes. 

Yet, when you sink into the research phase so deep, another threat arises: you can simply forget about the deadline. So the year passed and it was suddenly it was time to meet with Chaosium again! I had a lot of interesting notes and ideas with great potential. But what I didn't have was a prototype… So I resigned myself to meet with the Chaosium team to say sorry, I failed. 

But sometimes fate puts the right people on your path, and at the very right time. Less than a week before my meeting I learnt that a designer friend of mine had stopped working for a company to go freelance, as I had been doing for many years. This was Michał Gołąb Gołębiowski. We had met a couple years before and since then I always wanted to create a game with him because I felt we shared similar ways of thinking about game design. So I called Michał, gathered together my notes, and got on a train to meet him in Warsaw. I was going to invite him to a project in which we had less than a week to create a prototype...

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