Games in the tactics genre aim for a variety of goals. Some tell grand stories, like Final Fantasy Tactics; others focus more on creating devious strategic challenges, like Into the Breach; and some more recent titles aim to recapture nostalgia for the days of the classics, like Wargroove.
Wintermoor Tactics Club seeks to bring all these threads together in an indie tactical RPG that places just as much emphasis on the narrative as it does on the strategy, all while modernizing the classic gameplay that made its genre so beloved to begin with. Having personally gone hands-on with an early build of the game, I feel that it’s in good shape to reach these lofty goals.
Wintermoor Tactics Club strives to capture the magic of tactical classics for audiences new and old.
Set in a prestigious academy, Wintermoor Tactics Club’s story is wide-ranging and takes full advantage of its academic environment. “The writers decided to run with this setting,” says producer Jackie Kreitzberg, “and evolved the narrative to present themes about inclusion, and the way we often narrowly define ourselves and others based on the groups we belong to.”
That’s not to say, however, that Wintermoor is overly serious. Kreitzberg clarifies that “Throughout all this, however, we always try to maintain a cozy, light-hearted, and earnest sense of humor as a core pillar of the game’s tone and presentation.”
Players control a student named Alicia, a member of Wintermoor Academy’s Tactics Club, where she and her friends play Curses & Catacombs – “the premier tabletop game of the time,” in Kreitzberg’s words. Fittingly enough, the central strategic challenge of Wintermoor comes through the conflict of other clubs on campus. “Suddenly the Principal announces a mandatory snowball tournament between all of the clubs in search of the ‘Ultimate Club,’” Kreitzberg says. “You and your friends use your tactical prowess to fight the other clubs, while also exploring the school and investigating the mystery behind the ‘Ultimate Club.’”
Wintermoor is more than just a tactics game. Between the tactical battles, it keeps the narrative moving through visual novel-style storytelling. “We wanted to make a tactics game with a narrative that was just as engaging as the tactics portion,” Kreitzberg says. “We’re also fans of visual novels, and thought it would be fun to mix the two, taking the best from both!”
On that note, Kreitzberg clarifies that “Wintermoor has essentially two parts: playing Curses & Catacombs and exploring Wintermoor Academy. When you play C&C with your fellow Tactics Club members, you see and play in the fantastical world of C&C that the characters see in their imagination. It’s like if you’ve ever played a [tabletop] RPG and could “see” what was happening on the table. And when you’re not playing C&C, you’re exploring the school and talking with other classmates. And then, when you get to the first snowball fight, the two worlds collide and you’re imagining the opposing club in this fantasy context!”
According to Kreitzberg, this setting arose naturally as the development team was working on the gameplay. “We arrived at this mix when we were trying to merge the idea of a snowball tournament and the C&C part of the game. We didn’t want the mechanics of the game to change, just because you were now in a snowball fight. So the idea came organically early on and served as an inspiration for later parts in the story.”
I could see both parts of the game in action during my demo, and it’s impressive how cohesive the game feels. I was able to explore a few buildings on the Wintermoor Campus, and while most areas were off-limits in my brief demo, I appreciated being able to go through the halls of Wintermoor and converse with students before seeing them in fantasy form on the Crypts & Catacombs battlefield.
It certainly helps that Wintermoor really lays on the charm through its writing. From the enigmatic clubs that populate campus (like the historical reenactment club, one of whose members wears caveman-style loincloths) to the campus library that includes, among other things, a section dedicated to books of horrible puns, each character and environment looks to be brought to life through colorful, and at times silly writing.
When a game blends two genres, it can be easy to be concerned that one gameplay style might not feel as balanced as the other. Kreitzberg, however, says that Wintermoor‘s tactics and visual novel elements are designed with the other in mind. “Both parts are meant to feed into each other. So, if you like tactics gameplay, you can get upgrades and unlock new characters through the story, but if you’re more interested in the story, the tactics portions let you explore the characters more.”
“[W]e wanted to make an experience that was not as intimidating as the classics both in terms of complexity and time investment.”
So far, Kreitzberg’s promise seems to be holding up. Playing through the game’s first two battles, Wintermoor feels simple yet extremely polished. It features everything one might expect from a tactics game – character classes, unique terrain, and special unit abilities, to name a few characteristics.
Like the best tactics games, every move in Wintermoor feels like a piece of a puzzle. Each one of your units comes with their own special abilities and smartly utilizing these traits is key to decisively overcoming the enemy. For example, Alicia’s fire spell can do big damage on a single enemy, but this spell becomes even more threatening when it can rip through entire crowds of foes. Reading the battlefield and deciding how to make the most efficient and destructive use of your abilities seems key to success.
Combat didn’t get too elaborate in my short time with the game, but I can already see its potential to develop through the full course of the game. There looks to be plenty of incentive to perfect your strategies, since each battle is graded based on how many turns it took to complete. Not only does this encourage replaying previous battles, but it also challenges players to make the most of every action.
Wintermoor Tactics Club might bring up memories of the tactical greats based on this description, and Kreitzberg says that’s fully intentional. “We are heavily inspired by classic tactics games, that’s undeniable given the snowball tournament reference to Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced. We also took a lot of inspiration from more recent tactics games, like Into The Breach and its complete information design.”
“It’s like if you’ve ever played a [tabletop] RPG and could “see” what was happening on the table.”
That’s not to say that Wintermoor is all derivative. On the contrary, there’s been a handful of changes to the classic formula meant to make the game all the more accessible. “[W]e wanted to make an experience that was not as intimidating as the classics both in terms of complexity and time investment. We’ve cut a lot of the more complicated mechanics you might be familiar with, such as facing advantages or vague experience-based leveling. Wintermoor is also shorter than most classic tactics games — our playtime averages about 15 to 20 hours to complete the story.”
Tackling two genres at once, Wintermoor is clearly an ambitious game. Kreitzberg, as the game’s producer, plays something of a unique role. Indie games are often developed by extremely small teams where every member plays multiple roles, and traditionally, “producer” isn’t one of them. Yet for a game with as many moving parts as Wintermoor, Kreitzberg’s role helps to keep it all together.
“As a producer on Wintermoor, my primary responsibility is to help with planning, risk estimation and mitigation,” Kreitzberg says. “That’s a fancy way of saying it’s my job to keep everyone on the team accountable for their work and to make sure we’ve planned enough time for that work to get done. I also help fill in the gaps, like managing our social media and keeping in contact with our publisher.”
As exciting as Wintermoor’s ambition and multifaceted design might be, managing the game’s scope has been a challenge for the team. “We are a small team with lots of different personal and professional projects all going at the same time. It meant we really had to focus the scope of the game and keep to what we are good at and knew we could accomplish. I think this made the game a lovely experience, and I hope others agree. But it meant sacrificing some ‘Big Ideas.’ On the same token, this meant we really honed the experience, developing the characters and levels that we think will appeal to a wide variety of experience levels and interests.”
Despite any challenges that may have presented themselves along the way, it’s clear that plentiful passion has been poured into the project nonetheless. When asked if she had any favorite aspects of the game, Kreitzberg firmly answers, “That’s like asking me to choose which of my children is my favorite. I will take this answer to my grave.”
Between the streamlined strategic combat and the visual novel storytelling, Wintermoor Tactics Club strives to capture the magic of tactical classics for audiences new and old. “We hope people of all skill levels will enjoy Wintermoor,” Kreitzberg says, “whether they’re new to the genre or between playthrough three and four of their favorite epic tactics adventure.”
Wintermoor Tactics Club releases on PC via Steam on May 5, with a console release following later.