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The Quest for Honor: Cabalia's Origin and Evolution

Hello, everyone! I mentioned in a previous post that the development of Cabalia from a board game would be a long story to tell. Well, now you'll finally get to hear it! Settle in and prepare to read the strange story of how the world of Cabalia first came to be, and how it grew into what it is today.

2 Flights Up and Good Knight

Believe it or not, my initial attempts at designing board games had nothing to do with historical fantasy. It was during my early years at the 2 Flights Up gaming studio (circa 2014) that I tried to create an elaborate space-themed strategy game called Radix-7. With several different classes of spaceship miniatures, a vinyl game mat, loads of dice, and a dozen-page rulebook stuffed with charts and tables, it was a monster of a game that took hours to finish a single playthrough.

I had loads of fun playtesting it with friends in and out of the studio, but I eventually ran into too many dead ends trying to balance the game mechanics. It was also too large and clunky to attract more than a handful of brave souls willing to sink more than three hours into a session without reaching the end. So, I made the difficult decision to shelve the prototype and find a new game to work on that stood a better chance of success.

It was at this point that I opted for a fantasy setting. One idea led to another, and I wound up creating Good Knight!

The Original Cabalian Game

The game was set sometime in the Medieval ages, on a random island the Romans had abandoned centuries ago. The name and location of this island were insignificant. All that mattered was that five royal families had risen from the ashes of the dark ages with the desire to unify the realm under their control, since the game revolved around five key traits: intelligence, strength, dexterity, stealth, and courage -- one for each family to specialize in.

You might be able to guess which families went with what attribute, aside from the fact that some of their names were different than what they are today.

Bluehelm had intelligence.

Hammerfell had strength.

de Trope had dexterity.

Shadowcrest had stealth.

Barcbane had courage.

(As I soon discovered, the name Hammerfell was already used in Skyrim, so I changed the name to Hammond. It wasn't until much later that I changed it again to Hearthfell. But, I digress...)

The premise of Good Knight! was that all the royal families had agreed to a competition of sorts. They would each send a champion knight to travel about the land, fulfilling quests and accomplishing feats. With each success under their belt, these knights would raise more and more honor for their families, and the first family to raise enough honor would be declared the rulers of the island. Civilized heroes performing mighty deeds in the eyes of all -- that was the story of Good Knight!

I could have stopped there, especially since my friends, family, and fellow gamers at 2 Flights Up enjoyed it. But, for better or worse, I followed it up with a sequel. And this sequel was nothing like its predecessor.

The Island of Intrigue

I suppose my poli-sci degree and political experience left me with a little bit of a cynical streak. It was all well and good to have a fantasy game with knights roaming the land to help select the most honorable leaders, but in real life, leadership would be settled in a more underhanded way. While the champions were out adventuring in the eyes of the people, the leaders of the houses would be doing whatever was necessary to secure the throne for themselves -- bribery, intimidation, espionage, backroom deals, and so forth.

I had been toying with the idea of a card game with a modified deck, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out. The five royal families each got a suit of cards with special abilities to help them complete a secret agenda to take control of the island. But this begged the question: what island were they trying to control, exactly? I could have just picked a real-world location and been done with it, but in the spirit of a fantasy game, I wanted to create a new realm altogether. I just had to find a name that worked.

Sometimes the simplest path forward is the best one, and that's ultimately what I chose in this situation. Political conspiracy was the theme of the game, so I searched a thesaurus for anything close to that concept. The result that caught my eye right away was cabal: a small group of secret plotters, as against a government or person in authority; or the plots and schemes of such a group; intrigue.

"What better name for an island of political intrigue than Cabalia?" I thought. It had a catchy ring to it (in my opinion) that was right on point. My games finally had a name for their unique setting, and I could move forward in developing them. I named the sequel to Good Knight! after the island, thus leaving me with my second fantasy game prototype.

The original prototype of Cabalia: The Island of Intrigue

I continued to refine the game in the following years, with extensive playtesting at 2 Flights Up, as well as with friends and family members. Unlike Radix 7, an entire game could be finished in less than an hour. I was able to seal up any loose ends in the mechanics, and the game consistently got positive ratings from new players, including at the 2016 Unpub Gaming Convention in Baltimore, MD.

I eventually used a print-on-demand service called The Game Crafter to create a more polished prototype with the finalized rules.

The Game Crafter prototype

Any future games I designed were, for the most part, set on the Island of Cabalia. My goal was (and still is) to create separate games for each of the five families, all of them different types of games but united in the same world. It's been almost a decade since I first started this project, but it wasn't until 2021 that Cabalia became more than just a name for the world of my board games.

The Lore Grows

When COVID-19 hit the Berkshires, things took a steep nosedive at work. The Post Office never shut down during the pandemic, even when our workload nearly tripled with only half the staff to keep up with it. Long hours became the norm, with many carriers -- myself included -- forced to work between 60 to 80 hours a week. To make matters worse, 2 Flights Up couldn't survive the lockdown and shut its doors for good in 2020. Progress on my board games came to a halt, and Cabalia lay dormant in my mind for some time.

By the time the summer of 2021 rolled by, things had calmed down enough at work for me to resume progress on my board games. I realized how little I'd done to develop the world behind the games, so I began to expand the lore.

Starting with the founders of the royal houses, names led to history, and history led to more names. Ideas for Cabalia blossomed into stories, and these stories grew interconnected in ways I would have never expected. My secondary interest in languages and even some elements from Radix 7 lent their influence to a rapidly expanding world. With just a couple of months of development, I had a grand theme of Cabalian lore in my mind that stretched across thousands of years of human history.

Several of the notebooks I filled with Cabalian lore and language

I kept these thoughts primarily to myself until I visited some family friends at a bonfire in late July. Without planning to, I ended up sharing the story of my world for over three hours straight. The real shock for me wasn't that it took so long to tell the tale, but that people were immersed in it the whole way through. Somehow, this personal side project to fill in Cabalia's lore was enough to captivate the minds of everyone around the fire and keep them excited from start to finish.

One of those friends happened to be a talented freelance artist who was more than willing to help illustrate the world she had heard of that night. I met with her soon after to discuss working on The Island of Intrigue, which led to the first pieces of art to bring the world to life. With some guidance from another of my games that included a rough map of Cabalia, she created the first detailed map of the realm.

Progression of maps

The Secrets of Shadowcrest and Beyond

As we collaborated on the artwork for the game, I thought it would be a fun idea to write a short story with enough lore to introduce people to the world of Cabalia. Little did I know how long of a tale this "short story" would grow into. I began work on what was originally titled The Secrets of the Azgari in October of 2021, but by the time I finished in February of 2023, it was a full-length novel renamed The Secrets of Shadowcrest.

I didn't think it was possible, but the lore expanded even more unexpectedly in that 16-month window of time. So many times, what started as the seed of a minor plot point in a chapter grew into a major piece of lore by the time the chapter was finished. It sometimes felt like the story wrote itself with a mind of its own, evolving in ways I would have never guessed.

I'm confident by this point that I have enough material to write about Cabalia to last me a lifetime. Lord willing, I'll accomplish more than scratching the surface like I did in Secrets, but even if I can't, it's been amazing to see what Cabalia has already grown into.

If you haven't already, I hope you read The Secrets of Shadowcrest -- it's beautifully illustrated on the outside by my friend, and it's a beautiful introduction to a growing new world on the inside.

If you've already finished reading it, I hope you will continue to support me as Cabalia continues to grow. It's only through readers like you that this quest for honor can succeed at the end of the day -- and I pray that it does.

Sitalla for now, friends -- farewell!

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