Entry #1- Why Bother?
(Coma Ward: Designer Diary Entry #1)
Horror is difficult. Game Design is limiting. Horror Game Design is like playing Operation during an earthquake on live TV: it is wild and precise, but everyone knows exactly what you should have done to get it right if you fail.
So, as an unpublished writer with no previous game design credits, why am I designing a Survival Horror board game with multiple secret scenarios and variants? Eh, go big or go home, I guess. Or, maybe I’m a masochist. Who knows…
There have been a lot of questions from various folks about Coma Ward. Many want to know exactly how the game will play. Some want to let me know that the game sounds a lot like Betrayal at House on the Hill. Others want to know what some of the Phenomenon (Coma Ward’s version of scenario) are about.
Well, I’m not going to answer any of those inquires. Except the Betrayal one. Yes, I know Coma Ward comes off a lot like BaHotH when it’s condensed down to an elevator pitch. But, the differences are as follows:
1.) Coma Ward is written with a mature audience in mind, this is not a game for teenagers. Coma Ward tackles topics of sexuality, violence, mental illness, and disempowerment.
2.) Betrayal is a love letter to the golden age of Horror, the 50’s and 60’s era camp of monsters and haunted houses. BaHotH is a love letter to Vincent Price and Bela Lagosi films. Coma Ward is more an homage to the visceral and psychological horror of Clive Barker and David Cronenberg.
3.) When the “haunt” begins in BaHotH players look at a flow chart and go into different rooms and the game stalls for a solid quarter to half hour while players read from a new rulebook. In Coma Ward, when the Phenomenon is revealed, Players are given an explanation as to what is happening in this hospital and what clues they found to discover this Phenomenon, as a group. Then, Players are given the rules of the Phenomenon, told how to win, and learn whether the strangers their characters woke up with are friend or foe. Also, information is distributed in a trickle. Players only get one piece of information at a time. You only know YOUR Role or you only know what you need to do now to uncover the next piece of the puzzle.
And, that third point is what made me want to make Coma Ward. See, Horror is really just a mystery with a terrible solution. Horror, for me, is derived from two key elements: disempowerment and a lack of information. Those two elements run VERY contrary to the archetypal foundations of Board Game Design.
Folks usually play games to get a dose of escapism and feel successful. Dominion, for example, is all about “leveling up.” The whole premise of the game is to start from nothing and develop a method for becoming a medieval real estate mogul. It’s very similar to a skill tree in an RPG or generating a cure in Pandemic, players get stronger and the game usually gets easier or quicker as the game progresses. Most people that play games, like to win. Ghost Stories is a dichotomizing game because people don’t like how often they lose. [ I know some people dislike it for other reasons, I’m generalizing for the sake of getting to a point, give your reasons for loving/hating Ghost Stories below ;) ]
So, designing a game that intentionally keeps Players at a disadvantage, knowing they can lose suddenly and without warning doesn’t really fly with folks… But, that’s what makes good Horror, the stakes are high. That is what I want in Coma Ward, I want Players to be aware that their actions have consequences and the potential of failure is real. But, what about that “lack of information” thing I mentioned. Why would a hobby that is based around everyone involved having equal information on the rules of engagement be put off by a game that intentionally hides the end goal until Players have already gathered resources they might not even need? Horror derives from a lack of information, it adds to that disempowerment.
So, keeping things from Players creates a stronger atmosphere and keeps the feeling of tension high. If everyone in “Wishmaster” knew their wish would end horribly, the movie would be over in 5 minutes and it would suck. If people knew what would result when the puzzle box was solved in “HellRaiser,” they wouldn’t be compulsively driven to solve it and we wouldn’t get to meet that infamous living pincushion. Withholding information from players is a lot like when a parent withholds affection: the less you have, the more you’re willing to do to get more.
Okay, so, after a diatribe like that anyone who managed to read this whole thing deserves a treat. Here’s a look at one of the Tiles from Coma Ward.
This is the ER Waiting Room.
Some might see this and say, “Yo, where’s that visceral gore and sh*t you were talkin’ about!?”
And, that is exactly what I hoped you’d say…
Stay posted for the next entry when I’ll discuss some of the visual design concepts of the map of Coma Ward. I’ll also talk about that most wonderful of tropes and discuss how the Hospital “is a character too.”
Oh, and I guess I lied a little… I said I wasn’t going to reveal what the Phenomenon in Coma Ward are about and I gave a few hints. My bad.
You might be hallucinating!? .... (The Room of Reflections)