It was the summer of 2018 and I decided I needed to do something. Working full time as an automotive engineer was interesting and fun, but some of the challenge was gone, and I was getting anxious. Designing games had been in my blood since I was a child, but I had never done so professionally, which is about to become evident to the reader. Regardless, I decided to take 6 months leave from work to force myself to get it out of my system. It had to be done.
I have always loved boardgames as a medium. Our hobby is truly unique and I wanted to bring something back to it. I wanted to make a real contribution, something that I had not seen done before that combined two of my passions, horror and strategy boardgames.
2018 – The first design documents
The Presence started as a side project while I was wondering how to proceed with my real design, an enormous deck-based dungeon-crawl monster that would bring rogue-likes to the tabletop space. Well, this leave only lasted 2 months or so. I promptly got back to work facing some new exciting challenges, but the idea never truly died out. I continued, came back to the project over and over. Needless to say the idea spun out of control, and now, five years later I’m shaking my head as I write this.
Premise and design goals
As a lifelong fan of horror, and especially of slow emotional horror, I had an idea for a small card-game. A one-versus-all game where the ‘one’ was secretly either good or evil. The first game where you did not know whether it was one-versus-all or one-with-all. The idea was to recreate the feeling of a slow-burn ghost horror movie where you are unsure if the ghost means you harm or is just trying to reach out, seeking your aid and understanding. The tension hangs in the air and keeps you asking the question: can I trust it..?
I had a few central tenets for the design:
- Trust as the core tension
- Player driven horror
- Mechanisms first
- Emergent narrative
Instead of a ‘small card game’ like the mix between The Resistance and Not Alone that I initially imagined, The Presence became a large thematic game positioned in a genre somewhere between Battlestar Galactica and Fury of Dracula, with a dash of Nemesis thrown in. What it became was something very similar in theme to Betrayal at House on the Hill but with less randomness and more focus on strategy and deduction.
2018 – Creating the prototype
The Good-ghost problem
It was obvious where to start; the ghost player. It was clear that its’ alignment (good or evil) needed to be randomly determined since the premise required this question to be ever-present. The ghost player got randomly assigned an objective called the ‘Script’, connecting the theme to its ghost-movie roots.
During the first three years I faced the largest challenge of the whole project without a solution in sight: how to design the game such that it was not immediately obvious whether the ghost was good or evil? How to maintain the tension and dread? Playtesters pointed out again and again that when the ghost was evil the game was fun, scary and exciting, but when the ghost was good the experience fell flat.
Imagine needing to let the ghost player affect the board and the other players, and it needs to feel like it is progressing towards its goal but it should not be clear to the others which direction the game is progressing. If I would have given this up I’m certain that I could have been finished 2 years earlier. However, this was also what made the game unique. This was the whole point of the game! There are multitudes of one-vs-all games out there, and I knew it was not good enough to add one more to the pile.
In the end I believe we are now at a state where the good ghost is equally exciting to play against, and not immediately obvious. The solution was was not a single brilliant idea, rather it was to hone in on trust in everything. To make most decisions players face have a large consequence either direction at one point in the game, but also keep enough of the game-state hidden so that an evil ghost would have enough ways to pretend to play nice (for a while..).
It was a slow progress of adding and removing mechanisms, testing, refining and keeping what worked. In the end I think this is what makes The Presence unique, and I’m proud we did not take the easy way out.
2018 – High quality artwork
Excitement without an event deck?
Co-ops often keep the players on edge with a mix of punishing random mechanisms that provide a growing threat along with a random events-deck that affect the board-state, along with snippets of flavor-text. This works, but I’ve never really been fond of this system. These decks often come with heaps of flavor-text that interrupts the gameplay and rarely make much sense in the context of the story the players were seeing in their heads.
I wanted the story to primarily come through the mechanisms and player action. I wanted to let the players tell the story of their game, and not having it be told to them. The ghost would be the main driver of exciting events, and its deck formed the ‘event deck’ of the game.
I quickly got to work setting up a complex system of card effects and combos in a custom deck for the ghost player, much of which remains in the game today. Each spirit has its own unique deck of varied powers. This also allowed me to design enough effects to be viable for both good and evil ghosts, as well as evil ghosts pretending to be good.
While it saw some streamlining I never really simplified this system. By necessity it needed to be complex and varied. This was the only way I could keep the players on edge and prevent the game from becoming pure mathematical deduction. It was needed for the narrative weight. Okay, maybe I was also a bit too attached to this system to let it go..
This is the main reason The Presence grew to become a medium-weight strategic horror instead of the light card-game I initially envisioned. The rest of the game complexity grew out of the need to give the ghost varied ways to thematically affect the board state.
I hope that was an interesting read. Stay tuned for Part 2.