Ghostel Design Blog 4 – Stacking the deck

Design Blog 4-01

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
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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