The week starting July 31, 2022 marks the U.S. release of my Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer game at Walmart, with the first five hundred copies debuting at Gen Con 2022.
I noticed that CMON chose this past week to announce Rob Daviau‘s upcoming Stranger Things game, which is a full year away from release. These are two different games for two different audiences, and the world can handle multiple Stranger Things games. I’m actually flattered if they were concerned my game would take sales away from theirs.
This won’t be a very technical designer diary, not because social deduction games don’t deserve deep analysis, but because sometimes a rose is a rose. My games don’t have anything to hide, and I generally avoid games with airs of sophistication or arbitrary mechanisms; the chaotic complexity of human psychology is mechanism enough.
I really like Stranger Things. I like the writing and characters and friendships, and I like how rarely the show dips into the postmodern; the characters treat the world they live in as their real world; they don’t see things as merely a stereotype of their decade. These are characters who learn and grow, and the show has value and stands on its own (all the Easter eggs and nostalgia shout-outs aside).
Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer began life as GROWL, which was a project I funded on Kickstarter. There’s not too much to say about the design; there’s not much TO the design; it’s a light little game that, for the most part, is beloved by casual gamers and disliked by some hobby gamers. Yes, it has player elimination, but it is very rare to get eliminated until the game is nearly over (and it’s a short game anyway). If you get killed early, you probably should have passed away your wounds…
Tom Vasel hated the game, but I agreed with pretty much everything he said in his negative review. His biggest complaint was that GROWL has the same theme as Werewolf — but I chose that theme because it helped my branding; it helped my sales to have the werewolf theme because I could pitch the game as “Werewolf, but as a quick card game without a GM or app”. In other words, it’s a game designed for the mainstream gamer, not even something competing with Bézier Games‘ One Night series.
I never took GROWL very seriously as a design; I didn’t worry about trying to make it anything other that what it is. Playtesters liked GROWL, so I published it. It got great reviews in the casual market for the most part, with one reviewer calling it “the most tense 10-15 minute game I’ve ever played in my life”. I think that is a bit hyperbolic, but trust me, I milked that quote like crazy during the Kickstarter:
Despite the werewolf theme, however, GROWL was not inspired by Mafia/Werewolf very much. It’s actually the grandchild of parlor games from the 1950s where you wink at someone to murder them or perform a handshake with a finger-tickle. Casual gamers don’t mind the “honor system” that drives hobby gamers (and reviewers) crazy. Most casual gamers also don’t mind player elimination as long as the game is short and you were not the target of bullying that resulted in the elimination. The basic rules didn’t take me long to concept, and I designed and published six expansions for GROWL pretty quickly.
I didn’t worry about potential issues, like the fact that it uses the dreaded “honor system” to change into a wolf, or the fact that a subset of players don’t like how easy it would be to cheat. My comeback would be “Why would you play with people who cheat, and why would the idea of cheating come so easily to your mind?” I’ve had the same experience with all of my games: most people like them and a small subset of people loathe them. I can’t complain about that; I would happily play 1980s dice-chuckers over almost any modern social game or Euro-style game, so it’s normal for some gamers to be on a different wavelength.
I don’t worry about people who don’t like my games; my goal is to brand them correctly so that people who would like them can discover them. This gets risky when working with IP because there’s a lot of love for Stranger Things, and it isn’t easy to satisfy everyone. My guess is the Walmart crowd will buy the game but not play it, and the hobby gamers will play it but not buy it — except for you delightful people (you know who you are) who will buy every version of the game. Salut!
I began my journey by playing a bunch of other social deduction games. I wanted to make sure my idea was at least semi-original. The goal was to not reinvent Werewolf (or One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which I knew would be a potential rival).
The initial idea probably started in 2017 when I was playing a prototype for Little Red Riding Hood: Full Moon Rising by one of my favorite designers, Ta-Te Wu. In that game, you can walk in the woods (draw a card), but there’s a single Big Bad Wolf card that can turn you into a werewolf. (There’s a similar system with the exposure cards in Who Goes There?)
I suggested that it should take three cards to turn you into a wolf because it’s a slower, less radical role change. Ta-Te didn’t use the idea for that game, but he was kind enough to let me explore that one mechanism. I imagined a game in which you can get “bitten” but still have time to say “Guys, help me out, I have two bites already and I’m almost a wolf” and a player who is secretly already a werewolf can say “Here’s a charm to fix you”, but actually gives you a third bite — and you can’t now be mad and yell that she’s a wolf because you just switched to her team.
I knew I needed a night phase a few times during the game so that a small amount of new information can get added and prevent the discussion from circling endlessly. I may have been inspired by Lifeboat by my friend Jeff Siadek, a game in which players have an end-of-round phase when they must drink enough water to make up for their actions, or else they take wounds.
I designed GROWL on a weekend gaming retreat in Dallas, and I had the luxury of other designers willing to try different formulations of the prototype over several days. The main mechanism is simple:
Look at the top card of the deck. Show it publicly, then give it to someone other than yourself, then pass the deck to the left. Your hand represents your role, so if you get three bites you turn into a werewolf, and if you get three wounds, you die. A charm negates an active bite, and a salve negates an active wound. If a night card is revealed, players pass a card to each of their two living neighbors and shuffle the two cards they get in return before looking at them, so if they got a bite, they aren’t sure which neighbor is the wolf. When the deck is empty, the wolves win if all players are dead or wolves, and humans win if at least one human is still alive.
I needed a neutral card. Someone suggested that food could be neutral, and two food could supplant a wound, but I thought it would get too complicated. I am not sure why I ended up going with gold as a neutral card, but I think it was the idea that you can collect gold over several games and thus collect personal “points”. Some players like this, but ultimately I think this was a mistake. I now think I should have gone with the food concept, especially since each night could require players to eat dinner (discard a food), which could reveal information.
Perhaps I leaned away from this concept because the werewolf theme is already a bit wrong — wolves are not killing humans so much as purposely turning them — so adding an abstract food that humans and wolves both want seems weird. I didn’t want to slow down the game by having wolves learn who the other wolves are (except in high-player counts), but if they did know early on, they could facilitate other wolves getting the necessary food. I explored the gold/food concept a bit more in the Spells expansion and the Plagues expansion, and I added some fun things in 7 Sins. (The greed sin card kills a player if they accrue too much gold!)
First prototype; note the individual player powers and poison
I vaguely remember that Bang may have played some small role as one of the inspirations for GROWL. I’m not a fan of that game (especially the length), but I remember that some weapons can target only your neighbors, which likely got me thinking about adjacency. I remember thinking I was very clever for realizing that wolves should have the ability to bite their neighbors only at night — then I got my copy of One Night Ultimate Alien and was embarrassed to learn that all my werewolves have the same rules as the cow in that game. Ob la di, ob la da. (By the way, Ted Alspach from Bézier Games has been very supportive and generous to me over the years, despite my game riding on a thread or two of his coattails. Thank you, Ted, and I enjoy your games very much.)
One goal I had that never came to pass was to have a simple set-up; I wanted to add more night cards to the deck depending on players, and shuffle the deck once before dealing. I thought it would be faster to balance the number of nights to the player count rather than adding more wounds and bites, but obviously that didn’t work, so now there are cards that say “6+” and “9+”.
Ultimately I was convinced that a major flaw in many social games is the lack of a “dramatic reveal”. It’s embarrassing to say “I’m the wolf” if there’s no big card to flip over, so I committed to the idea early on that there needed to be a “growl” at the end of the game where players vocalize and physically mime if they are a werewolf. This part never changed and has been a core part of the original conception of the game and its branding.
Anyway, the game was tested, people liked it for the most part, a few people hated it, but the feedback from the latter was generally that there was simply “no game here” and that I should not make it. Lots of my friends told me this, and I might have listened except for one glimmer of hope: The people who were not fans of GROWL didn’t usually suggest specific changes to improve the game system; they simply didn’t like the system. So I decided that this game would not be for everyone, and I moved into heavy playtesting. The biggest problem in playtesting was that humans would accidentally pass bites, or that wolves would be too timid and refuse to pass bites. This led to various problems that mostly got ironed out in the balancing stage.
Old-school GROWL from 2017, with homemade box and fur bag
The Kickstarter did well despite my unfinished art and renderings. Regardless of the fact that I did the so-so graphic design myself, I sort of knew the overall concept and branding was on-point. I like to pretend I’m Don Draper sometimes, even though I usually feel like Harry Crane. (Sorry, Rich.)
I sold about 12,000 copies of the game, and eventually decided to send a bunch of copies to bigger publishers as I was nervous that I would never get a distribution deal otherwise. I hired a wonderful Dutchman named Richard to demo the game at SPIEL ’19, and he attracted the interest of Repos Production, which shortly afterward became a subsidiary of Asmodee.
Asmodee picked up the license but had a different game with a conflicting theme (Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow), so they asked me to think of re-themes:
• I suggested CULTS! (Nope, they said, not family-oriented.)
• I almost suggested POD PEOPLE, but then I remembered that I’m working on a pod people game, and I didn’t want to compete with myself.
• I suggested VAMPIRES! (Maybe, they said, so I whipped together a version in which three stakes kill you.)
• They suggested STRANGER THINGS! (Yes!)
I hadn’t gotten to season 3 yet, but the Mind Flayer seemed to be an obvious match for the game, so Repos paired with another Asmodee subsidiary named Mixlore to make the licensing deal with Netflix, then a talented developer at Repos named Pierre began percolating ideas.
Netflix didn’t give us any advance information about season 4 — remember how mad the Duffer Brothers were when Stranger Things Monopoly spoiled minor plot points? — so this game is set in season 3, which has lots of fun locations for meetings (nights).
Ultimately, very few things changed from GROWL, but I like the changes:
1. Simplified event cards (meetings/nights), and the third one isn’t a special, crazy “Final Night”.
2. Lots of events were canned, and there are several new events that I would not have included due to fears of balance issues — but this is a casual game, and I suspect Pierre knows what he’s doing!
3. The deck is now face-down rather than face-up, but the rule to show the card before giving it away is still the same.
4. Mind Flayer players know who the other Mind Flayer players are at the beginning if you have at least six players rather than the eight-player limit in GROWL. My guess is that playtesting revealed the Mind Flayer players had trouble winning in casual game groups.
5. Gold coins are now waffles. Eggo — I mean, ergo, we can play around with waffles as a mechanism rather than just as a point system. We can have meetings (nights) in which players have to reveal waffles, discard waffles, or have waffles serve secondary functions if we do expansions. I love the waffle cards. They make me so happy for some strange reason.
• I was disappointed that the English edition uses the word “possessed” rather than “flayed”. Admittedly, “flayed” is a pretty gory-sounding term.
• I don’t know why Repos got rid of “wound” and instead used “hard hit”. Imagine a Belgian accent, and it makes more sense for some reason. This was a co-production between Belgium/Canada/France, so there’s bound to be some minor differences in speech.
• You flip your “in play” side to “knocked out” when you get three hits — but the game box strongly suggests that the shadow versions of the characters represent the flayed/possessed versions of the characters, or at least indicates a connection to the Upside Down. I guess showing a bunch of mortally wounded 14-year-olds is not really “family friendly” either, so I accept this decision. (In GROWL, there’s a gravestone on the back of your tile that says “I died”.
Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer will be at Gen Con 2022, and it should be popping up in your local Walmart stores over the next few days. It’s definitely a mass-produced game as far as the card thickness goes, but I am very proud of how I was able to help shepherd my game without any real compromise all the way through the process. I would like to thank Pierre B., Tanguy G., and everyone else at Repos Production for their hard work.
I’m hoping to add player-power expansions or make other games within the license. Fun stuff could be in store for the future if the game sells. If it doesn’t…then we still have Rob Daviau’s Stranger Things game to look forward to in 2023.
P.S. I’ll be at Gen Con 2022: booth 520 (Vigour Games), and Stranger Things will be at booth 815 (Asmodee).