Monday, July 21, 2008

Soliciting Suspense!

Scott has been mulling over a way to make a board game give the feeling of suspense you'd find in a good thriller movie, or perhaps a video game (though it seems many attempts at a video game aren't too impressive in that department). Off the top of my head I couldn't think of a good way to impart that edge-of-your-seat feeling to a player, so I thought I'd solicit ideas from my readers (both of them)...

What do you think? Got any ideas how to make a board game offer the feeling of creeping through a haunted house, not knowing if a ghost is about to pop out of nowhere? Or maybe looking through a campsite for a lost companion, suspicious that a psychopath is on the loose but unaware where he is or what he'll do if he catches you? Giving it a little thought I came up with a potential start to something, but it's not amazing:

Let's say there's a deck of cards, some of which are blank, and some of which are scary monsters or events of some sort that you don't want to encounter - let's say Werewolves. Players have a limited number of counters which will cancel out these bad cards, let's call them Silver Bullets. At certain times a player must draw a card, and if it's a Werewolf then they get hurt (or something else bad happens), but they can, before looking at the card, spend a Silver Bullet to escape the effects of the card (whether it's a werewolf or not). Maybe this is like shooting the person walking up to you - maybe it's a werewolf, maybe a regular joe - either way you're down 1 bullet and you don't get attacked.

Furthermore, if the player somehow is prepared, or has a particular item, or maybe knows something about the person coming up to him (that he's more or less likely to be a werewolf), then instead of just drawing 1 card, he'd draw a couple - maybe 3. He'd look at them, then decide to use a bullet or not, then shuffle them up and choose one at random to encounter. This means that you can see how likely the card is to be dangerous, which would give you a better idea whether you should use the bullet or not. Maybe some cards are actually good (like additional bullets, or health), so if you see one of those you might not want to use your bullet so maybe you'd get the good thing. But the main point is, you don't know exactly what you'll get, and you only have so many bullets!

The way to create suspense however would be not just in the existence of these cards, but in how and when you have to draw them. One quote from Scott's post stood out to me: "In other words, it doesn't just instantly jump monsters out at you, but alerts you to the fact that something MAY be jumping out at you in the very near future. Which makes a lot of difference." Suspense in the movies come from the anticipation of something happening, not the thing actually happening. The more you wait for it (knowing it's gotta happen any second), the closer to the edge of the seat you get. To capture that essence in a board game, I think you'd need to figure out a way to make the player know that at any moment they might experience some event (maybe drawing from that deck of werewolves), which could be really, really bad - or just completely unknown.

Not knowing what is going to happen, but knowing that whatever it is will happen any minute, is probably a great way to build suspense!


Shea said...

When I think of suspense or thrills, I generally think of drastic consequences. Here would be my general attempt:

Theme: Haunted House

Concept: Each player tries to make it through the haunted house with their sanity in tact.

Twist: It's quite probable you will go insane. As soon as you go insane, you start fighting on the side of the haunted house. You never regain your sanity.

Win Conditions: The first player out of the haunted house wins. If all players go insane, the player who caused the most damage while insane wins.

As for adding actual suspense, I'd probably put in some push your luck mechanics like Circus Flohcati or Diamant. The insane players could use their abilities to alter the deck once you've started drawing.

Just some thoughts :)

Shea said...

And because I didn't want to do work this morning:

Haunted House!


Board with 20 squares in 5x4 grid: One exit square, one entrance square. Some spaces have impassable walls between them. All spaces have 3 arrows leading out of them. One red, one black and one white arrow. They may all point in the same direction or 3 different directions. 12 spaces towards the middle are numbered 1-12.

9 Monster Tokens: 3 Ghosts, 3 Werewolves, 3 Vampires

Deck of 36 Cards:

Each card shows Either a Ghost, Werewolf or Vampire in either a Red, Black or White circle. 4 sets of the 9 combinations.

5 Player Tokens

Handful of Sanity tokens

1 twelve sided die

Start player token


Put all player tokens on the entrance. For each monster token, roll the die and place them on the corresponding space.

Give each player 4 sanity tokens.

Give out the start player token.

Take player turns in clockwise order from the start player token.

Player Turn:

Shuffle the deck of cards. Draw and reveal the top two cards of the deck. Now you may continue drawing and revealing cards as long as you wish. If you reveal 3 cards of the same monster, or at least 1 card of each of the 3 monsters you immediately fail. If you fail your turn ends and you return a sanity token to the supply.

If you stop drawing cards before you fail, you may then move your character a number of spaces equal to the number of cards you drew. You may not enter a space with a monster or cross through a wall. After you move, your turn is over.

Monster Move:

After all players have had a turn, now the monsters move. Shuffle the deck and draw the top card. All the monsters that match the card move along the arrows that match the color on the card. When a monster enters a space, all players there must give up a sanity token. After the monsters have moved, pass the start player token to the left and start a new round.


Once a player has lost their last sanity token, they go insane and become a part of the house. They remove their figure from the board and no longer participate in player turns. From now on, they are part of the haunted house. The following rules now apply:

1. During a normal player turn, after the player reveals the first 2 cards, play temporarily stops. Each insane player now draws 5 cards from the remaining deck. They secretly keep 2 of them and return the rest to the deck. The remaining deck is now shuffled again and the player turn may continue. Insane players retain these cards for the rest of the round.

2. After the normal monster move, each insane player may cause one additional monster move by playing one of the monster cards they drew during this round. This is done in player order. If a living player is harmed due to a card play, the living player gives their lost sanity tokens to the insane player who caused it. Afterwards, all played and unplayed cards are returned to the deck and the start player token is passed on.

Win Conditions:

If at the end of a monster movement phase, any player has made it to the exit and survived, they are the winner. If multiple players have made it, then the player with the most sanity tokens wins.

If the last player goes insane at any time, then the game ends immediately. The winner is the insane player who has collected the most sanity tokens from their fellow players. Ties are broken in favor of the player who went insane first.

Shea said...

Hrm, didn't really leave any commentary than just a game design earlier eh? How about some context:

1. Consequences. I wanted there to be real and irreversible consequences for a failure. Once you go insane, there's no coming back. I pulled this from my FPS gaming. In counterstrike, there are no respawns. If you screw up and die, you just get to watch.

2. Thrills = Push your luck

I put push your luck mechanics into two places:

A. Card Draw movement: The game is a race and I did want players to try to move as far as possible each turn. However, I wanted them to realize there was always a chance that they would just "freak out" and not get to move anywhere.

B. Monster Movement: Yes this is a blatant Arkham Horror rip off. However, I added a good chunk to it by allowing the insane players to have a strong influence on the monster movements. Once one or two people bite the bullet, it should become increasing difficult to avoid all the monsters each turn.

As you said above, when you're close to a monster, you know that something *MAY* be jumping out at you in the near future, but you don't know for sure...

I do think that a truly "scary" game would be pretty much impossible in a true board game environment. A good DM in a RPG might pull it off, but I just don't think you'll ever have enough empathy with your player presence in a board game.

The push-your-luck mechanic is about the closest feel I think you could get. You know that if you keep going, something bad is definitely going to happen.

Maybe some added theme would be to actually have double the number of monster tokens, but only half of them be real. You put them all on the board face down, and when one lands you reveal it. If it's fake, it's taken off the board. This could add even some more unknown suspense...

Scott P said...

Of all the games I can think of, I think Pandemic nails the fear/suspense factor in a huge way... When you pull an epidemic, and have to shuffle the infected cities, then put the back on top and start drawing again - it's a great moment. You start calculating odds in your head and drawing The other mechanics (outbreaks and chain reactions) feed nicely from this as well. A great design.