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Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game Design Journal #2 – The First Prototype

Posted by Michael O'Brien on 3rd Aug 2023

Design Diary HotOE

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 journal 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.

In the first Design Journal I described how, one week before a scheduled meeting with Chaosium to talk about Horror on the Orient Express (HotOE) as a board game, I had a lot of interesting notes and ideas with great potential… but what I didn't have was a prototype. And then a chance to work with Michał Gołąb Gołębiowski arose, and I jumped on a train to Warsaw to meet him.

I had no expectations before that meeting. I knew we had very little time and there was a big chance that Michał might simply have other plans or commitments. But sometimes the stars are truly right! And this is what happened here.

With some coffee we went straight into talking about the game itself. After 15 minutes I already knew Michał was the right person to do this project with. He immediately put forward his own thoughts and ideas for the game, and suggested some very simple solutions to problems I thought were going to be very tricky to solve. After chatting for several hours about what we wanted to create we came up with our vision for the game. We were ready to start creating the first prototype. But I knew this couldn’t be done properly in the few days we had left until the scheduled meeting with Chaosium. So I told Michał I would ask for one month more and if they agreed we’d have to work quickly.

Fortunately Chaosium did agree, and we’re grateful for their trust. And then we started working like hell: 14-16 hours a day creating a Tabletop Simulator (online) version of the prototype. Unlike the previous year, where I had struggled, this time the work went really fast. It was exhausting, but fun!

After a week Michał and I had our first prototype and were ready to give it a go. We felt we had something special – but before that first test you always feel like that as a designer (and quite often, after the first test the only thing you can do is to put your work into the trash, because the game doesn't meet your own expectations.)

I’m not sure which of us spoke first after that first play. I only remember that there was a long moment of silence because neither of us wanted to start first. It’s a weird thing co-designing a game: you might like the game after the first play but what does the other person think? “It’s quite good isn’t it?” I asked, trying to hide my rising excitement. “It’s better than good, it will be a blast”, said Michał, who, I learned, is always more prone to show his emotions. But he was right: after that first play we both knew that we had something special. Of course, still needing tons of work. A lot of things didn't work perfectly, but the prototype was as close to our vision as it could have been!

From that point everything immediately accelerated! We showed the prototype to our friend Kuba, who liked it a lot. He then set up a meeting with his Chaosium colleagues, well before the extra month’s deadline. We played a full game with the Chaosium team on Tabletop Simulator, and during that playtest we realized our game was indeed working! During this online meeting we could see our Chaosium friends forgetting this was about making a business decision – they became players having fun trying to stop the cultists on the Orient Express, fighting all the horrors of that doomed train. 

And so it was a couple of days later we signed the contract and started working on our unpolished game to make it as great as possible!

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Horror on the Orient Express Vol 1