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Subject: Ghostel Design Blog 4 - Stacking the deck rss

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Bevan Clatworthy
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Hi all! For this week's article, I'd like to discuss the use of variable difficulty on the human visitor cards used to occupy the ghost house.

Right at the beginning of Ghostel's development, I always intended there to be different difficulties of humans in the house, with a corresponding increase in victory points. This was one of those rare 'intuitive' moments, where I knew that a game where all the humans having the same difficulty and victory points would just make the game one-dimensional and fairly dull.

During the initial playtests, I'd planned a kind of staged release of the three tiers of difficulty of the humans. This involved a stacking system of the humans deck with the easy humans (greens) being followed by a mix of easy and intermediate (yellow), then just intermediate, then a mix of intermediate and hard (red). I envisioned the players stocking up their dice pools, Phobia cards and Spookie Favours cards in preparation for the final humans, a build of momentum to hopefully a nail biting conclusion.

What I didn't expect was for the game to actually start off quiet and boring! With no challenging humans to scare, the players just used their dice with no card play. In addition, since all the initial humans had the same difficulty and victory points, there was little incentive to interact; the players just went off and did their own thing if their scores were good enough*.


Tiering and mixing the guests gave players plenty of options.

A second more subtle effect was on the original intent of Ghostel. I wanted people to have plenty of decisions to make and to feel that every choice mattered. However, I wanted a game that was light enough and accessible enough that anybody with even basic mathematical skills could get involved. A stacked deck system just felt 'clunky', adding a pre-game difficulty to setup that frankly just wasn't needed.

In all the later playtests, a shuffled deck of all the easy, intermediate and hard humans presented a more interesting board to play on whilst still leaving enough options for players whose dice rolls may not have been stellar. This then came down to a number crunch, ensuring the mix of different difficulties was proportioned correctly through many, many playtests!

So how about you folks out there? Do you find deck stacking a clunky mechanic or useful in the right situations? How would you manage a tiered difficulty system? Is playtesting the only way to determine the best way to score these kinds of board game components? As always, I'd love to hear from you!


*spoiler alert: tactically, it would be better to try and out-compete the players with lower dice results since in later rounds those points you've stolen away early could be the difference between winning and losing*
 
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Nate
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Is this a cooperative game? Games like Pandemic (deck stacking?) and Forbidden Island have a pretty straight forward method of adjusting the difficulty levels.

I think BGG has a designer diary label for blogposts as well. Something you could look into if interested.
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Nathaniel Grisham

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I think with games like Pandemic and Ghost Stories, it's more of "seeding" than "stacking", because you are taking very few cards, and giving them a particular position in the deck. None of the other cards are taken into account, and are completely randomized around the seeds.

In the case of Ghost stories, the boss(es) are placed a specific intervals, both to ensure that they are not encountered too early, but mostly to make sure that the players have a very limited time span to defeat the boss before they lose.

In Pandemic, the pre-shuffled deck is divided into even-ish (eye-balled, not counted) stacks, which each have an epidemic shuffled in, and are then re-stacked. Again, to make sure that the epidemics are not encountered too often, or not often enough.

If you are going to have boss-like characters or encounters, then I think that seeding is a useful mechanic. Otherwise, I don't think that there is much reason to do any sort of stacking.

Games are designed with play-time in mind, but I've noticed that set-up/put-away time seem to be given less focus. Depending on the dynamic of a gaming group, multiple people can speed up the process, but if you have a lot of newbies, you may need something else to do while setting up so they don't get bored. (Thinking about games like 7 Wonders here, great game, but the setup can be tedious, since each deck is setup based on the number of players. The game plays so quickly, but it doesn't feel like that when you spend up to half of the playtime doing the setup.)
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Bevan Clatworthy
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@R4D6: It's a competitive game, but I am considering a co-op and/or single player mode, so adjusting the deck difficulty may be needed there; cotta figure that one out. Also, thanks for the heads up on the designer diary label, I'll make sure I check it out next time!

@Nathaniel Grisham: Nailed it! Ghostel doesn't have encounters per say, just different guests of differing difficult, so deck seeding is a bit of an over work. Encounters may be cool for a future edition though, like maybe a poltergeist turns up and messes with the board?
The set-up/take-down issue intrigues me; do you think it would be possibles to game-ify this process as well? That would be an interesting design challenge!
 
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Nathaniel Grisham

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BlueCatGames wrote:

The set-up/take-down issue intrigues me; do you think it would be possibles to game-ify this process as well? That would be an interesting design challenge!
I'm not sure. I remember watching Tabletop and seeing a game where they talked about how half the game was the setup, but they didn't show that part. I think the game was Terror in Meeple City?

My guess is that for your card game, there isn't too much setup, aside from shuffling the deck. If there are cards that are going to be left out under various circumstances (number of players, or only a subset of a group of cards is wanted), or if there are too many cards to shuffle very well (apples to apples, killer bunnies, etc.) then that is what starts to add to the setup time.

The simplest thing I can think of is for players to draft which cards that they want in the deck, or they draft cards to be excluded from the deck, whichever is the smaller set. It may or may not need to have a predetermined set for a beginner's setup.

Maybe with multiple decks, each deck can be assigned to a different player for setup, with some kind of bonus that comes with it. This idea seems hard to get right, but intrigues me.

Games like 7 wonders would be easier to set up if I took more time to organize the cards after each game, so that might be the simplest solution, rather than fixing something that isn't broken. I was kind of ranting a bit in that last post, making it sound like more of an issue than it is. I don't know how many complaints about setup/teardown there are on a normal basis.
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