Picture this: you’re being chased down by a superhuman abomination who’s out for blood. It’s stalking you, tracking your movements, trying to find the right time to strike. You must either arm yourself and prepare to defeat it, or you will die. There is no permanent escape. It will keep chasing.
Sounds stressful and scary, right? It’s what’s going on in the novel Frankenstein, and it’s the emotion and state of being that we were trying to capture in the form of a game. Obviously, a slow, turn-based card game with no stakes is a tough sell to accomplish that goal. Why not a horror video game? Why not a movie, where there’s more immersion? Because we like card games. It is a challenging medium, but an accessible, portable, shareable medium, and with enough creativity and work, a card game can become just as engaging as any of the more traditional forms of media.
So we had our idea. An asymmetric card game. One person would play as the monster, and everyone else would play as the villagers.
The main source of inspiration for the design of the gameplay came from Stronghold Games’ Not Alone, a tabletop game released in 2016. The game has a premise comparable to what we were aiming for in our Frankenstein game: there are survivors stranded on a hostile planet being hunted by an aggressive alien, and their goal is to elude the alien until help arrives. The game wonderfully captures the feeling of being pitted against the opponents at the table. It is stressful. It is nerve-wracking. It is not a good game for people dealing with anxiety. And that was what we wanted.
Of course, just copying another game and slapping new words and labels on everything was not our goal nor our aim. While we wanted to maintain that same stressful, tense feeling that Not Alone captures excellently, we also needed a game that felt more Frankenstein-y and tied in better with the original plot of the novel. So we kept a few things – the asymmetric structure, and a few types of cards from Not Alone which were given different names in our rendition: location cards (Place cards in NA), monster cards (Hunt cards), and villager cards (Survival cards). Everything else, including the names and even technical function of those cards, was changed. They only existed in the same capacity.
The first major decision we made was to divide the game up into two phases instead of just one. The first phase – meant to be a buildup to the action, an opportunity for new players to learn how the game worked with lower stakes, and a means of selecting who would be playing the monster – was to feature Dr. Frankenstein creating the monster. It was designed to be quick and straightforward, with the villagers trying and rarely succeeding in stopping the doctor from creating that which could not be controlled. Even the “simple” phase had its fair share of issues. Quick, easy, and lopsided were the goals, but it was very easy for those to blend into a pointless, time-wasting formality. We iterated on both the cards and the win conditions in the first phase more than any other portion of the game, but eventually arrived at a place where it felt fun. The interactive selection of who will perform the role of the monster is an enjoyable feature of the game, and though the doctor accomplishes their goal fourteen times out of fifteen, that fifteenth time is hilarious.
With the first phase out of the way, the bulk of the game came in the second phase. Meant to really be the meat of the game and the moment in which the suspense and anxiety is captured, the monster chases the villagers, who have a limited number of places to run. Getting caught by the monster once or twice can lead to a snowball effect where a villager runs out of options, and thus the monster can continue to predict their next few movements. When it happens, it really captures the futility of being up against a superhuman creation acting as a force of evil. There’s nothing you can do but sit there and feel bad for letting the rest of the village down. But the village can also get out to an early lead, gain access to new locations, and run the monster in circles. The monster can feel the chances of victory slipping away, but the game is never over until it is over – comeback mechanics (monster cards) and the streakiness of the gameplay can lead to some unpredictable results when it seems as if nothing can lead to a victory.
Then we had to test. The first edition of the game featured scraps of paper, a standard deck of playing cards, and a lot of trying to remember what cards had what effects. To our surprise, it was fun. It was supposed to be fun, but it was genuinely encouraging to have the initial draft of our card game be so enjoyable that our playtesters (roommates and hallmates) wanted to keep playing, even in its original, very rough, an-ace-means-you-pick-up-two-cards-and-a-four-means-you-pick-up-all-of-them form. One of the biggest strengths of the game, even in its original form, was that it was very easy to learn as the game went along. Those who knew how to play could teach those who didn’t in a simple, straightforward manner. The rules were detailed, but the details could just be brought up as they became relevant. It’s probably why the game worked.
But there were tweaks to be made. The monster wasn’t getting enough monster cards. Then the monster was getting too many monster cards. It was too hard for the monster to win.
A: “This is too hard!”
B: “No, you’re just bad at being the monster!”
A: “Ok, you play!”
B: “Ok, this is too hard.”
A: “I told you so!”
Then it was too easy for the monster to win. It was hard to make an asymmetric game feel fair, even if the end result was nearly 50/50. Some monster and villager cards felt worthless. Others felt way too powerful.
Game balance is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Even when you agree on the problem (which isn’t a given), there may not be an obvious solution. But we worked until we had a product that felt fun and fair to play. Point totals were changed, card effects were changed, locations were re-done, and it reached a point where nothing felt egregious, too strong, or too weak.
One trip to FedEx later, we had a game. A fun game. A game one of our roommates took home over Thanksgiving Break to play with family because it was just that good. Long after the project was finished, we were still tweaking and updating the game because we actually just kept playing it.
While the rules and cards are not the most exciting in digital form, you can find them here:
And last but not least, some actual gameplay:
- Cole Bowden and Youjia Wang