Designer's Notes: Spooks

by Jason D. Wittman

Once, my love and I were meeting
For a night of trick-or-treating
When a storm arose and drove us
To an old house on the moor.
Through an open door a-fleeing,
What on earth should we be seeing
But all sorts of ghostly being.
Spiders crawled across the floor.
Bats and Spooks and Skeletons
And Goblins rose up by the score
In this old house on the moor . . .

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. Aside from the costumes and trick-or-treating, I've always liked ghost stories (in my other career as a fiction writer, I've even composed a few). The quiet suspense, the creaking floorboards, the flashes of lightning providing snapshots of things best left unseen-ghost stories contribute a lot to the atmosphere of Halloween. So it should come as no surprise that, as a game designer, I would want to create a game with the feel and atmosphere of a Halloween ghost story.

So what sort of game should it be? Well, since Halloween is a kid's holiday, I thought the game should be fun, the sort you would play at a Halloween party, so I decided on a card game. "Haunted Palace," as it was first called, started out as a trick-taking game, similar to Hearts, played with an ordinary deck of cards. The Hearts were the good ghosts, which you tried to collect, and the Spades were the evil ghosts, which you tried to avoid. And, because I thought a little gimmickry would spice the game up a little, I gave each Heart and Spade a card-specific rule, which would only take effect if that particular card was led to start a trick-things like, "All players give their hands to the player on their left," or "Take one Spade from your trick pile and put it in another player's trick pile." It looked good on paper, but you don't know if a game is good until you play it. Fortunately, I had a handful of gamer friends on hand, and in exchange for a few pizzas, they were gracious enough to playtest it.

From the Spooks and Goblins fleeing,
In the dark we groped unseeing,
Running blindly for our lives
Across the creaking wooden floor.
My love screamed when one big Spider
Scuttled on the floor beside her,
Then leaned toward her neck to bite her
In this old house on the moor.
I watched helpless as she struggled
With the Spider on the floor
In this old house on the moor . . .

Well, they liked the idea at first, but as time wore on, problems began to surface. Trouble was, the game was too similar to Hearts. Trick-taking games have been played for centuries, and it was hard to come up with something new in that field. The card-specific rules, which were supposed to spice the game up, instead slowed it down a lot. That, and I couldn't come up with a point system that worked right . . . what it all boiled down to is that the game did not have the atmosphere of Halloween. One of the playtesters suggested using a five-suited deck (which certainly sounded like a good idea, since four-suited decks have been done ad nauseam), so we jury-rigged one by cannibalizing two ordinary decks with the help of a magic marker and tried it. But the game still didn't work out quite right.

So "Haunted Palace" was shelved -- for the time being.

Trapped inside this mansion manic,
Both of us quite close to panic,
I espied a Cat that huddled
In a corner on the floor.
Seizing this feline, I threw it
At the Spider, though I knew it
Would be angry at me. (True, it
Could not be entitled more.)
Cat and Spider fell to fighting,
Leaving my love free once more.
She fled screaming through the door . . .

The creative impulse is a weird thing. A lot of it is non-volitional: Ideas come to you more often when you're not trying to come up with them. It's almost as if the idea decides to show up in your mind. (I've heard other creative types say things along these lines, so no, I'm not crazy.)

Such was the case here. I was in bed, it was around midnight, when the idea finally came to me (see what I mean?) of how to improve this game. A lot of the more popular card games (especially those for kids) are of the get-rid-of-your-cards-first variety. (Trick-taking games, like Hearts, Spades, and Bridge, are more for adults, so that might have been where I was going wrong.) Since getting rid of your cards is often referred to as "going out," that would fit in nicely with the Halloween theme: all the players would be trapped in a haunted house and trying to escape. And that led to a great idea for the Ghost cards: I would add an element of danger to the game by assigning a penalty to any player who could not discard on a Ghost (of course, you would not have to discard on a Ghost if someone else hadn't already played one, which fits right in with those stories and films where the ghosts are only able to wreak havoc when some idiot lets them out).

This left the problem of the method of discard. I didn't want to make it too difficult to discard on a Ghost, but the easiest method of discard, matching the suit or the number of the card in play, was too common to be interesting (one popular card game, which is really just a glorified version of Crazy Eights, depends solely on this method of discard). But I couldn't think of any other method that would work well with this game mechanism.

And then another idea hit me: what if I used, not one discard method, but two? The above easy method would apply to the Ghost suits, and would carry a stiff penalty for inability to discard. The non-Ghost suits would be more difficult to play on, but if you couldn't discard, the turn would simply pass to the next player. I wanted to keep the idea of good and evil Ghosts, so I invented a different penalty for each of the two Ghost suits. And I also kept the idea of five suits, because of the novelty.

But when I sent this version to the playtesters, they said there was no need for five suits; the game played identically with four. So I was faced with a decision: either ditch the fifth suit (at the time called Stars), or invent yet a third method of discard for it. This was when I found a way to bring a little bit of trick-playing back into the game: anyone playing a Goblin (as the suit is now called) would start a trick-playing round, with the winner of the trick playing the next card.

The friends who playtested this version said they liked it. So I pitched it to Steve Jackson, and when he said, "Send it over, we'll playtest it," I sent him a jury-rigged 67-card deck, with five 13-card suits, plus two Jokers. Steve Jackson and Company did some tweaking-the deck was reduced to 56 cards, with only 11 cards per suit (the suits now being Spiders, Spooks, Goblins, Bones, and Bats) and one Joker (here called the Cat), plus the penalties for the inabilities to discard were modified-and we at last had the finished product before us.

I would like to take this opportunity to compliment Alex Fernandez for the artwork he did on Spooks. The images he put on each card, particularly the Cat, contribute much to the Halloween atmosphere of the game.

So I hope you enjoy Spooks, especially around Halloween. Think of it as a ghost story told through playing cards.

My escape by Spooks impeded,
My dark doom I now conceded.
Then a hooded Spook approached me,
Seven feet in height or more.
Hood removed, dark hair cascaded
To the floorboards unabated.
And she said, "You now are fated
To stay here forevermore.
But it's not all screams and anguish.
Here, come through the kitchen door.
Would you care to have a S'more?"

Article publication date: October 31, 2003

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