Grand Coachman Design Brief

May 22, 2017

Designing Horror

The shining is one of my favorite movies. What I've been trying to do with my personal design project, The Grand Coachman Hotel, is to capture the oppressive feeling of place that Kubrick captures so well. I've played Betrayal At House on the Hill a few times, and enjoyed the overall experience, but was also inspired to build on the format of cooperative horror. Hence, The Grand Coachman.

In brief:

You play as a socialite who has been invited to a party at the recently rebuilt Grand Coachman hotel. It is to be a masquerade ball, and the event of the season. However, you also carry with you a dark past. When you arrive at the hotel, you realize that you may very well have walked into a trap. Specters roam the halls, the walls shift around you, and your fellow guests all seem to be hiding something. Through play, you explore the decaying rooms of the once great destination, alongside two to four other party guests. However, can you hold on to your humanity, or will the hotel change you entirely?

The game takes ideas from the "deck builder" genre, and smashes them together with the cooperative exploration of dungeon crawlers. There's a little traitor game in there, too. Gameplay goes like this:

Players are represented by three elements:

  • Character Tokens - These come in four flavors: brawn, brains, bravado, and luck; and each of those categories has tokens of values 1 to 4. Each category does what it suggests, with brawn tackling physical challenges, brains tackling mental tests, and bravado being used to schmooze your way out of a problem. Luck may be used for any of the above. Tokens are placed into an opaque bag, and then drawn in order to make "checks". Checks represent challenges that they face throughout the hotel, such as climbing a pile of rubble, or deciphering a cryptic puzzle. As players sustain physical (fatigue) and mental (delirium) damage, they add "wound" tokens to their bag. Any check where you have drawn a majority of wound tokens means that you have died (although rumors persist that the hotel may have a way around death). One of the primary strategic elements of the game is to build you character through choices you make in the game, specializing on one or two of the main token types.
  • Items - Items are placed in front of a player, and may be used at different times throughout the game to cause an effect on the game state. For example, a pistol (when activated) may allow you to bypass certain physical challenges. However, once activated, items need to be reactivated through a specialized check on the card (or may disappear altogether in some cases). The first item that a player receives is their Masque, representing the costume that they have been assigned by the master of ceremonies at the hotel, which grants them a singular and especially potent power.
  • Archetypes - These are hidden information, and contain individual win and loss conditions for each player. Some archetypes are heroic (e.g. you must help other players X times to win), others neutral (e.g. you must accumulate five items) and some villainous (e.g. you only win by blowing up the hotel). Archetypes can be triggered by events in the game, which makes them more powerful, but also reveals your secret to other players.

The board of the game is represented by three elements:

  • Rooms - These are the main interactive object of the game. Each room has a name, a picture, a bit of flavor text, and a list of operations. Operations are numbered, and followed in order. Typically the first or second will be a check, described above, that indicates how the player should approach the challenge of that room. Players will always have three tokens drawn from their bag at any one time. When attempting a check, they draw three additional tokens, and then may put those tokens towards satisfying the conditions of the check. For example, a room called "Demolished Pantry" could have a check of "Play brawn tokens with value of 5 to clear the rubble". A player would need to play 5 brawn tokens to the check in order to succeed. In addition to checks, rooms may also have lasting effects, give players an opportunity to build their deck, and change certain rules of the game. Rooms are laid out in a 5 x 4 matrix, with only the first column being visible to players at a time - if players don't like what is available, then they may take their chances with a card not yet revealed.
  • Anomalies - These are modifiers to rooms. They are all random, and generally don't effect rooms TOO much, but do add a little bit of spice to the decision making process. Anomalies may increase the difficulty of a check, add additional bonuses in case of a success, or make failure more dire. They may also have instantaneous effects, such as dealing damage to all players within a certain radius of rooms.
  • Dread - In addition to delirium and fatigue, there is a third type of damage that is shared by all players: dread. This represents the slow, creeping fear that one would expect in exploring a haunted hotel. As dread reaches certain thresholds, the rules of the game begin to change. If it reaches its max, then the hotel explodes, and it's game over.

Changes Over Time:

Developing this game has been interesting, for sure. It's pretty radically different from how it started out, and I think that it's better over all. A big trend has been simplification. I'm hoping to do another prototype build relatively soon, and then beta test over the summer. A few major shifts have been,

Cards > Tokens: I think tokens are just a better form factor for that type of drawn. More suspense, no shuffling, more possibilities.

Fewer Counters: I started off with four different types of counters. One was a deprecated mechanic (called favor, sort of like an all purpose resource), two were my damage types (delirium and fatigue), and the last still exists: dread. I slowly started to think of counters as being pretty boring, and adding another taxing bit of arithmetic to the game state. Favor was eliminated because it was bloat, and didn't do anything that wasn't already being done. Delirium and Fatigue made more sense as a part of the character, rather than something external to them, so they went into the bag (where they can also do cool things, like act as a resource in certain checks). I sort of wish I could move dread to another part of the board, but I think that the feeling of seeing counters stack up towards a giant explosion has a lot of value.

Rooms and Movement: This is still a tricky bit of the design for me. I started with grids that room tiles were placed into, with a separate character resource (speed) for movement. This didn't add a whole lot to the game, and three character card/token types worked better thematically and mechanically. I then moved to a market row style, with three different "floors" (each floor having escalating difficulty). This took up too much space, and also wasn't very fun. You had to spend a turn to move between floors, and wasted turns are boring. My current system of having a hidden and revealed information grid gives players choice, but also takes up less table space, and requires less book-keeping. Escalating difficulty is achieved with a stacked deck instead (so harder stuff on the bottom).

Anyway, I'll be using this blog as a way of posting updates. I find that writing about the design process also helps me think through it.