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Designer Diary: Phantom, or the Frightening Yet Funny Tale Behind the Game

Xavier Lardy
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Board Game: Phantom
Foreword: This article was first published in 2010 on my print-and-play webpage in the Hantise folder and is now revised for publication on BoardGameGeek in a shorter version. Below I refer to the game variously as Phantom, Hantise, or Haunted depending on the moment of the game's life! If you want to read about the development of Phantom only, jump to Chapter VIII.

Chapter I: How to become a game designer overnight, or the perils of friendly bets...

Everything began with a friendly bet, in 2004, during an evening at the "Virtuel" gaming club around an oldie-but-goodie board game: Kings & Things. The game lasted for a couple of hours, and the players, somewhat tired, started to leave the table one by one. I expressed my frustration about the game being way too long, and the only response I received was to design a game myself since I was so smart!

Since I like challenges, I needed nothing more to throw myself into the great adventure of game design – or should I say re-throw myself because it was one of my favorite pastimes when I was a kid; since I had also worked for three years in the video game industry, I had something of a headstart.

I first decided to start with a simple card game because I thought it would be easier both to develop (wrong) and to prototype (almost right). I spent a few weeks finding the theme of the game and it came to me while watching the movie Ghostbusters: being – at least once – the ghosts having fun frightening people! Hantise ("Haunted") was born.

From gallery of aVe_BGG

The first version of the game featured three decks of cards. The first deck was composed of four types of monsters – a little different from the current version: Poltergeists, Ghosts, Specters and Revenants – numbered from 1 to 13 for a total of 52 cards. The second deck featured the seven family characters: Grandpa, Grandma, Dad, Mom, Sonny, Girly and Baby – without the Priest that was created later. The third deck was composed of six different places for the four house areas (Basement, Ground Floor, First Floor, Yard) plus the scary places: Cellar, Closet, Attic and Well plus four Lost Objects – including the Ear Trumpet for Grandpa and the Pair of Glasses for Grandma – for a total of 32 cards. (The Area cards came later, in 2010.) Hantise was played in this form until approximately 2007.

The principle of the game then was similar to the current version, except that it was also playable for 3 to 4 players. The game turn was strongly structured: Every night, a new character was revealed to all players. (There was no concept of a character in a specific area at that time.) Then the players bid to scare the character using a poker-like combination of Monster cards. My first mistake as a designer was to grant each player only 13 Monster cards at the beginning of the game, and this had to be enough to scare all the characters!

In retrospect, I acknowledge and thank my friends for their patience because the game was... well... long and frustrating! Another singularity, the winner of the bid was rewarded two random Place cards, and to win the game he had to "lock" one area by owning the six usual places plus the corresponding scary place. The game also featured a mechanism to steal Place cards from the opponents, based on combining the power of two scared characters – later leading to the birth of the Squatter!

As with many game designers, I took part at the beginning of 2005 in the famous Boulogne's Game Designer Contest – with only good will and no experience at all! I took the time to create simple pencil illustrations for the game to be more enjoyable to play and waited for the results.

Chapter II: From game enthusiast to convention addict, or the never-ending delight of entertaining people

Alas, Hantise was not selected based on the reading of its rules for the Boulogne's Game Design Contest...

Still armed with a steel-like motivation, I took part in my first convention, which happened to be the first edition of Cholet's Game Designer Festival – something that's still to this date one of my best memories! During the convention, the game was tested many times, constructively criticized, and labeled as having "high potential"!

From gallery of aVe_BGG

Powered by this first immersion, and following the suggestions of the organizers, I registered at Tric Trac (the leading French board game community website) and published the prototype of Hantise in a print-and-play fashion. I started to receive a lot of feedback from members that suggested many mechanism enhancements.

Then I took part in the FLIP Game Designer Contest – FLIP stands for Festival Ludique International de Parthenay, which can be translated as Parthenay's International Gaming Festival – my real first game design contest.

At the end of the contest, I had a personal reward: Hantise won third place! The game also drew the attention of the publisher Ergomia, which asked me for a copy of the prototype. Here started the adventure of the game – and mine – in the publishers' world!

Chapter III: Into the realm of game publishers, or be careful what you wish for as you might get it... (and get it again...)

A few months passed, and I took advantage of a trip to Lyon to meet the publisher of Ergomia. A couple of games were played with his children and, at the end, he simply suggested that I add jokers to ease the bidding. Without any insight, I added jokers, and also tested the masters and the masks, only to remove them later – in short, I was experimenting. Alas, Ergomia wasn't really interested in the game, and it went straight to Esprimo, its distributor, which didn't find any way of putting the game in its collection either.

The game then mostly evolved through discussions with the members of the Tric Trac forum, who helped me to develop and write the rules. If I had been told before that writing game rules was such a painful task, I probably never would have tried to design a game – and, of course, I would have lost my bet!

From gallery of aVe_BGG

In 2006, a new publisher was born, Rôle et Strategie, and invited all the non-published designers to send rules of their best games from which the publisher would choose three to publish. I sent the rules of Hantise and received what I still consider a model of playtest feedback: Each game was described in detail, and the wise suggestions invited me to rethink some of the mechanisms to speed up the game.

I finally found a solution by linking the strength of the bid with the number of places won: the higher a player's bid, the more he received. I sent the revised rules and learned that, in spite of its qualities, the game wasn't listed in the top three, but only in the first six. That said, in that list Hantise stands near Olivier Warnier's Western Town and François Combe's Quattrocento, which are excellent games from veteran designers – and it's always a pleasure to be beaten by better games!

Then followed a quiet and peaceful time for Hantise during which I mostly developed other games. At one time the publisher Tilsit showed interest for its new collection. Strangely, another game then caught the publisher's attention, but since it was facing numerous setbacks, the company finally ceased its activity a couple of months later...

Chapter IV: When things get tough, or the sweat and tears of a remake

Luckily, I got in touch again with Michel Pinon, the designer of Les 7 Blasons, whom I had met during the FLIP Game Design Contest and he helped to solve a design issue. He wanted to suggest Hantise to the publisher Asyncron Games, for whom he was in charge of a collection. The game pleased the publisher, who wished to develop it in a board game fashion, and not in a single card game.

Certain of my ability to work this out, I signed a development convention with the publisher and started to work with Michel.

At that time, I didn't know that I would face a complete rebuild of the game and not a simple adaptation. I worked first on the board part, experimenting with many ideas before finally settling on double-sided tiles, each tile being a place in the haunted house that players must acquire by scaring out the characters.

From gallery of aVe_BGG

Numerous concepts were born, noticeably the Aura, which identified who owned the tile and set the level of defense against its theft. The characters became pawns that were chosen and moved on the board at the beginning of each night (the major game turn).

If the creation of the board was relatively simple, the monster cards were completely shaken. As a matter of fact, the game was fun for three or four players, but uninteresting for two, so I took advantage of the visit of a gamer friend, Florent, to flush all the existing cards and rebuild from scratch all the best mechanisms for two players that are the foundation of the current version: the Servants, the Slaughterers, the Ticklers, and also the Misses; all of them later becoming the Charmer, the Howler, the Knocker, the Invoker and the Queen. In this version, many objects were added to buff the monsters, but later removed to keep only the ones that affected the characters.

The game then reached a plateau – if I may say so – with a balanced mechanism that seemed to work properly. Michel left Asyncron a few months later, however, and I had to complete the developments alone.

During the summer of 2009 Asyncron contacted me again to ask for some insights into the game rules, then announced a couple of days later that the board version of the game interested him, but he couldn't publish it until 2011 – a two-year delay). Quite satisfied, I announced the good news!

Chapter V: All by myself, or the way of the self-published

Alas, in September 2009, I had to face very difficult issues in my life – something I wouldn't wish to anyone – and during these dark times, I made the decision to have at least one of my games published before the end of the year.

By luck, my personal situation improved and I was contacted by the publisher Pygmoo to take part of the launch of its game pre-ordering service, La Fabrik, with my game The Mermaids Song. Pygmoo also asked for a copy of Hantise to evaluate it, with a classical publishing in view. Even if they finally didn't take the game, they noticeably contributed to what later became the Area cards, which identify where the characters are in the house!

I got back in contact with Asyncron to find out whether they would option the game or not, and they invited me to come and show them the game during the Cannes' Gaming Festival at the beginning of 2010. I then reopened the prototype box, started a game to refresh my memory – and here came the drama...

While taking the part of all the players, I discovered that while the card mechanims were doing well, the board side wasn't interesting at all. I talked about it to the head of Asyncron, who reassured me that he was not attached to the board aspect; the only goal was the quality of the game.

Then I started a complete rebuild of the game – back to the original source – to have not two but only one deck of less than 64 cards. Why 64? Because in the meantime I had discovered The Game Crafter, which prints games on demand with sheets of sixteen cards each. I chose among all the places the ones that would stay, and the ones that would be flushed. The items completely disappeared from the game, and the principle of victory was revised: The players didn't have to collect places anymore; they had to scare the characters to win. Call it a major breakthrough!

Having launched a series of tests among multiple gaming clubs in France for another of my games, I asked some of them if they were willing to test Hantise and the game started to develop at a steady rhythm: simplification of the rules, redesign of cards, and balance of the points.

Unfortunately, it wasn't possible for me to attend the Cannes Gaming Festival, so I couldn't show the game to the publisher in its new version. Thus, I decided to publish Hantise exactly like Barbecue, under a Creative Commons licence for anyone to print and play. I posted an announcement in major French groups at deviantArt to find an illustrator who would be happy to join me in this adventure in a "fandom" like spirit.

That's when I met Morlock, the future illustrator of Phantom who also happened to be a game enthusiast, with a style fitting perfectly the game mood. We decided to publish Hantise before the Fête du Jeu ("Games Day") on May 29th, 2010.

For many weeks, we worked almost every day to develop the visual universe of the game and Morlock suggested a new character, the Witchdoctor, currently known as the Priest. Many playtest reports came back at the same time. We had to take difficult decisions about the mechanisms, the ergonomy, and the balance: points, effects, number of cards – a real brain burner. And we made a final major leap, making Hantise a two-player game! Yata!

Chapter VI: The Drill part I, or it's not over until it's over!

Once we decided to make Hantise a two-player game – and a visually attractive one at that – the playtesting entered a new dimension. Here I must thank numerous people who helped me to convert good ideas into powerful mechanisms.

From gallery of aVe_BGG

I'd like to start with Cédric Chaboussit, game collector and hobbyist designer, who introduced me to the critical importance of mechanism over theme and challenged me by showing the already existing games that used similar mechanisms, the easily breakable or exploitable rules, how to strengthen the dilemmas, and how to develop the dynamic of the Area cards. Epic Contribution +1!

Then, among all the testers, I'd like to thank François Alix, designer of Wakfu TGC, who one day told me, "Stop, Xavier! The game is good as it is! Don't touch anything!"

Finally, the game was published a few days before the Fête du Jeu, on deviantArt, for anyone to print and play.

Chapter VII: The first assembled games, or being real about it

After we'd published Hantise, I decided to use the services of The Game Crafter (TGC) to publish Barbecue in both French and English versions.

After I released the assembled copies of Barbecue, I suggested to Morlock that we release an assembled version of Hantise with nice features like small ghost figurines. Since the rules were more complex, and some of them were written on the cards, it took us many months to rewrite the rules in French – and in English, thanks to the TGC community!

Finally, we launched the pre-order for Hantise and nearly doubled the initial volume hit by Barbecue!

Chapter VIII: The Drill part 2, or Phantom as we know it

At the beginning of 2010, Morlock and I decided to join forces to show Maswana (another game of ours) and Hantise at the Alchimie du Jeu game festival. Here we met a lot of other well-known French game designers, and discussed with them some aspects of our two games.

After my departure, Morlock met Cédric and Anne Cécile from Ludonaute, who played a couple of Maswana games and loved it.

Later, Cédric contacted me about Hantise after downloading and printing it from deviantArt as they were interested in publishing it in their upcoming card game series called "Ludobook".

We decided to meet at the FLIP game festival where Maswana was competing in the "strategy" category. Here we discussed all the aspects of the publishing contract, and they were enthusiastic about Morlock revamping the illustrations.

Our first task was to reposition the theme of the game because we noticed a gap between the cartoon style and the game's strategic depth. We decided to go for a darker mood and agreed on a more realistic style, with a mood in between classical Hammer movies and genre American "haunted house" films like Poltergeist or Amityville Horror.

From gallery of aVe_BGG

Since the game was planned to be published with a novel, Anne-Cécile wrote a first draft of a novel (a kind of background tale) and I helped her as much as I could in choosing the right narrator and the novel's pace based on my experience of scriptwriting for the cinema.

As Morlock progressed in sketching the different places and characters, Cédric suggested a couple of additions.

First, we would need more Place cards, so I brought some back from the board game version that could be placed in two areas, such as the Stairs or the Balcony. We also renamed some according to the era in which the game takes place, between the 19th and 20th century.

Then, Cédric suggested ungrouping the scary places, like the Attic, from the Objects that protect the monsters, and we used another idea from the board game – the utilities that run across the house, such as the Pipeline – to become the new objects, later leading to the Chimney, the Telephone, etc. These special place cards could be placed in every area, but protect all the monsters from the same family from the adult humans. It actually took us a great deal of playtesting to come to the idea that these cards should have no points at all!

In the end, we had 6 + 4 more Place cards, which were enough to ensure a fluid gameplay.

Board Game: Phantom
Board Game: Phantom

Along with the tests, Cédric suggested splitting the Servant abilities in two. Originally, the Servant was used to draw a character and put it in the area of the Servant's apparition, or to move a Character from the area to an adjacent one. So we created two different types of monsters: the Charmer that attracts a character in the area of the Charmer's apparition, whether he comes from the draw pile or an adjacent area. To reverse the effect, we created the Howler type of monster, which can repulse a character from the area of the Howler's apparition to either the adjacent areas or the draw pile!

Along with the small changes, we decided to raise the level of terror for all characters to match their respective victory points; now each threshold of 3 grants 1 victory point.

As the illustrations started to come, Cédric started to edit the cards and design the upper symbols to ease the counting of points since all the cards are placed on top of each other, with only the upper part visible.

When the first prototype of the commercial version of Phantom was ready, Cédric and Anne Cécile went to Asmodays (a gathering of game activists and game publishers in Paris organized by Asmodee), received many positive comments on the game, and signed a distribution contract with Asmodee for all their games!

Then they created an English version of the game for the Spiel 2011 convention and came back with only one issue to address – replacing the lower text on the cards (which slows down the game) with a set of symbols for the different monster abilities.

Then, they launched a collaborative playtest session with ten gaming clubs in France to reach at least a hundred more games. During these sessions, a few problems surfaced.

The first one was a potential advantage for the first player, which was solved by giving more rooms for the second player. The second one was the need of a quickstart for new players, which was solved by placing one character in the upper floor and granting haunted rooms to the players. The third one was a potential victory path by either rushing for rooms or monsters, which was solved by adding a room capacity for ghosts, so the players now have to carefully build their apparitions!

The last addition to the game – and a nice one – was the special character, the photographer Cymon Kraft, who was inspired by the author of Crimebox Investigation, the first Ludobook game, with the ability to reduce the room capacity by one unit – wicked!

Phantom was released in France on September 10, 2012 during Le Monde du Jeu (Gaming World).

Chapter IX: Lessons learnt, or practice and dedication make perfection!

As you have seen, Phantom wasn't built in one day or in one week. (I don't have godly powers for that.) Hantise was my first real game, which paved the way for numerous other ones – and with every new game, I gained experience that fed back into the development of Phantom.

What is great about game design is that it's relatively easy to dive in (simple picture and text editors are necessary) and you always find motivated gamers to help you test your games. Game design is also a lesson in patience and humility, an apprenticeship on how to turn a goal (like being published) into actionable milestones.

You can compare game design to music since you spend half of your time alone (or with the illustrators) actually polishing your creation, and the other half in front of your audience actually playing it – except you have no stage in between!

What makes me tick in game design is "reality" and not "fantasy". Each of my games, even Phantom or Galipotes, is strongly linked to experiences to which gamers can relate. It's obvious with Barbecue or Cosmetic Driver. Also, I like to look at what's behind the theme, the unusual point of view, especially if it's funny. The last element that drives my creation is the presence of female characters, as in Mermaids Songs, Cosmetic Driver, Gunslinguettes and Maswana, to go beyond their "traditional" roles in games.

The two tipping points I search for in all my games are when the players comment only on ergonomy (as that means the game mechanisms, theme and content are set), and of course when they spontaneously want to play again! I seldom publish any game without these two green lights.

Xavier Lardy

Board Game: Phantom
Board Game: Phantom
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