Labyrinth began its life as a pen-and-paper game.
Every Wednesday, tiny developer Free Range Games hosts a game night. The team members, along with friends and family, gather at the studio to play stuff — board games, card games, video games, whatever.
One night several years ago, creative director Bradley Fulton brought in his own game. He'd been designing it in his free time for a few months and wanted to test it out and, simultaneously, pitch it to the company's CEO, Chris Scholz, as a potential future project.
"I didn't really know anything about collectible card games until Brad brought in Labyrinth," Scholz says. "He brought it in, and we played it. And by the end, we were all like, 'Fuck, this is awesome.'"
Labyrinth quickly became Free Range's biggest and most ambitious project.
A unique take on card games
Labyrinth is a strange game, a blend of various ideas and influences that has never been seen in quite the same form. The easiest way to discuss it — the thing that Scholz and Fulton fall back on over and over again — is by referring to the games it's borrowing many of its ideas from.
"What we're doing with Labyrinth is a marriage between Hearthstone and Dungeons & Dragons," Scholz says. "It's a tactical role-playing game, turn-based, party-movement dungeon crawler. But all of your actions are the cards. You want to swing your sword? You want to buff your dude? You want to throw a fireball? Those are all cards."
Though openly inspired by Hearthstone, Labyrinth sets itself apart in dozens of ways, some small and some huge. Most notably, you control a party of three heroes in each match rather than just one. And each of those heroes are, themselves, cards that you can find in packs. They are the game's version of legendaries — extremely rare and powerful cards that are supposed to be the most exciting to open up.
Free Range plans to have 16 total heroes in Labyrinth when it launches, but players will begin with only four, one representing each of the game's core disciplines: warfare, wizardry, faith and skullduggery. Fulton compares disciplines to the various colors in Magic: The Gathering, but also to traditional RPG roles like tank, healer and damage dealer.
Labyrinth's most unique elements are found in the way that it embraces the role-playing side of things. Once you've chosen your three heroes and made individual decks for each one (30 cards, with up to three copies of each individual card), you enter a labyrinth. Within a labyrinth you can choose between three monsters to battle, and once you're in a battle, the perspective shifts in an unexpected way.
Labyrinth isn't presented as cards on a playing field. It's presented as a third-person, turn-based dungeon crawler. Those heroes may be "legendaries" that you pull from packs of cards, but within the game they are full 3D representations of heroes, as are the bosses and the dungeon itself.
Oh, and those dungeons and bosses? They're designed by other players.
"Labyrinth is actually an asynchronous multiplayer game."
"The game is actually an asynchronous multiplayer game where you pre-set up your defensive deck," Scholz explains. "I come in, and I raid you. So it's kind of got a Dungeon Keeper-y vibe too. Then you'll get a text, or next time you log on you'll get a message, and a replay of what happened. Then you'll be able to go in and tweak your dungeon. The better you do, the more loot you get. The better you raid, the more loot you get."
As players open new packs and grow their collection, they'll discover cards devoted to giving their hero abilities alongside cards for bosses and dungeon traps. The two systems will be essentially separate but interconnected. Each player-created labyrinth will consist of five total encounters, only three of which need to be conquered by an enemy player in order for them to win the biggest amount of rewards.
"It's not like Clash of Clans," Fulton cautions. "They're not stealing from your gold reserves. You're just losing rank, and the higher your rank, the better your rewards."
This design, where players don't necessarily lose anything even if their personal labyrinth is conquered, is something Scholz considers very important.
"Ultimately, I find the ranking system in Hearthstone really frustrating," he says. "With win streaks, statistically you're going to lose more than 50 percent of the time. You get on a nine-game losing streak, and the beatdown gets really painful. The nice thing with Labyrinth is that it's a multistage battle. We're really going to set the rewards where the sweet spot will be if the opponent wins the first battle but doesn't win the second."
Essentially, Scholz and Fulton believe they can create a system where even if you don't go all the way, you leave satisfied both by your performance and the rewards you receive. Meanwhile, the dungeon's owner will also be rewarded because you didn't quite succeed. Fulton compares it to tournament-level Hearthstone, where players engage in a best-of-three series rather than a single one-on-one match that can come down to luck as much as strategy.
"I find the ranking system in Hearthstone really frustrating"
Labyrinth also deviates from games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering in how it handles resources, which is to say that it mostly gets rid of them. Other card games generally have a resource, like mana, that grows either over each successive turn or as you play cards to grow it. In Labyrinth, the only cost associated with cards is time.
Each action card in a hero's hand has a number in the upper left corner. That number tells you how many turns it will take until the hero can act again. If you start your game with a card that has a massive, nine-turn cost, you're free to play it your first turn if you think it's the best choice.
"The icon in the upper left corner looks like a stopwatch," says Fulton, pointing. "That's because it's the number of ticks — we call them ticks, like a ticking clock — that's the number of ticks it will cost. She'll play it now and get the effect now, but it's essentially a cooldown before she can act again."
Beyond ticks, Free Range has designed plenty of other interesting effects for cards to have. For example, a channeled ability will keep your hero busy for an extended number of turns, but will cause an effect on the board for each of those turns. A card with wind-up has an extra-powerful ability, but it won't go off until after the number of ticks required.
Between things like the 3D dungeon, the asynchronous play and the tick system, Free Range is confident that it has something unique and cool, that Labyrinth is more than just a retread of other established card games. Now it needs to prove that to the community.
After deciding to embrace Labyrinth and creating a core set of mechanics for the game it was happy with, Free Range faced a difficult next step: finding funding.
"Early on, we did an angel investor round to help us get to where we're at now," Scholz says. The developer invited a group largely consisting of people who had been involved in game development for a long time. They had the investors play the initial pen-and-paper version of the game with them.
The eventual investors included luminaries like the old head of now-defunct studio Neversoft and one of the earliest members of Riot Games. Scholz is particularly proud of that last one.
"We told this guy from Riot Games all about our vision," Scholz says. "He called me three days later and said, 'I can't stop thinking about this game. I have to be a part of it. I haven't felt this way since League of Legends.'"
Next, Free Range decided it needed help on the design side. Fulton had a great base to work from, but Scholz knew very little about collectible card games and wanted help ensuring the game was balanced and fun. For this, the developer turned to a company well-regarded for its work on digital card games: Stone Blade Entertainment.
"I haven't felt this way since League of Legends"
Stone Blade is known for its physical/digital hybrid deck-building game, Ascension, as well as a more traditional digital-only card game, Solforge. Free Range helped Stone Blade redesign Solforge's user interface, and the business relationship blossomed from there.
"It was an obvious marriage," says Scholz. "We want to be in this space, and we're great technically. They bring a crazy high level of design chops. They've been coming to us. We're doing crazy iteration on the cards with them and on metagame issues. It's a really close partnership."
With the Stone Blade partnership solidified and early builds of Labyrinth coming along nicely, Free Range launched a Kickstarter for the project late last year. It inched just past its asking amount of $150,000, giving the studio the money to push toward an early access release.
And now, that early access release is almost here.
Finding a community
The build of Labyrinth that Free Range presents has "pre-alpha" tagged across it, but Scholz and Fulton say they're pleased with where it is. It looks good, runs well and has a surprisingly elegant and easy-to-read user interface, given the complexity of the underlying game. It's ready, the team believes, for players to test things out for themselves.
Free Range isn't jumping into that process without data to back it up, either. It has held a number of Twitch contests, providing certain excited members of the growing community interested in Labyrinth with brief stretches of access. One contest granted access for three days. Scholz says one of the players in that contest played for 40 hours across those three days.
"A game like this, we've got to get a community," he says. "It's going to be so community-driven. We want people in early, even though that's kind of scary, because the game's not done. But we want them in early so that they feel ownership and can give us feedback and really help make this game huge."
To begin the process of building that community, Labyrinth will launch into early access this coming Monday, March 7. It will initially cost $10, but the game will eventually switch over to free-to-play. Free Range is promising to provide "a huge value" to the people who pay that $10, including giving extra packs, once the business model changes.
The end plan is a model that, Scholz says, Hearthstone players will find "very familiar."
"A game like this, we've got to get a community."
"Everything is accessible through free play," Fulton says. "You'll have daily quests to complete to give you a bonus both on offense and defense. You'll be able to craft cards and disenchant cards to use them to craft other cards."
Free Range is approaching Labyrinth as the biggest project it's ever done, which for the team means thinking about it very much in the long term. Scholz says Fulton's initial pitch to him included praising Magic: The Gathering, a game that's been around for over 20 years and is more popular now than it's ever been.
"Let's make a game that people want to play for decades," Fulton told him.
For now, that means even at this early stage, Free Range has written up a five-year plan for Labyrinth. This includes new content, tournaments, grand visions of esports, even potential for a virtual reality version of the game. But the first major roadblock will be simply explaining the current game, as it exists now, to potential players.
"We keep calling it a collectible card game, but this is not really a collectible card game," Scholz says. "This is a new category of games. It's a tactical RPG meets CCG. We don't know what to call it, but we keep having these moments like, 'How has this game not been made already?'"
Labyrinth will launch in early access on March 7. It will go free-to-play later this year and head out of early access later. The initial version of the game will be available for Mac and Windows PC via Steam, but mobile versions are also in the works. Free Range also says it has spoken to other platform holders, such as Sony and Microsoft, and console versions are entirely within the realm of possibility.