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Designer Diary for The Legend of Wendigo, by Christian Lemay

 

The Legend of the Wendigo was born somewhere at the end of summer 2013 when I wanted to add a secret identity game to the Little Monsters line. I can tell you right now I failed! 

I envisaged about a dozen ways to do it which I almost all abandoned without even trying them. Actually, a bit like what good ol’ Bruno Cathala suggests,  I “play” in my head a lot before making the initial prototype.  I try to push the boundaries I give myself as far as possible to anticipate any problems. This lets me avoid several useless iterations of the game. I quickly realized that bluffing, secrets, and disseminated information, the core principles of secret identity games were very difficult to fit together and play for the children I had in mind (between 5 and 8 years old). I was stumped. I was going round and round in circles.

cover visual

 I then got the idea to transfer the identity of the hidden player onto the game contents. The child wouldn’t be the enemy itself, but would control it. And so if all the players knew “who” they were facing, I needed to mix up the clues, not around the table, but on it. To do so, I just needed to multiply the characters. One of them would be a beast with human traits, but only one player would know which one it was. Every night, it would devore a member of the village (I was inspired by Werewolf, remember?). How could the “good” players identify it? Easy! The creature would obviously have to enter the house of its victim and stay there until daybreak. There needed to be a card that moved. There you go, that’s it! I found the engine for my game!

 Games in my personal collection make up most of the material I use for prototypes - didn’t I tell you I was lazy?! During a game night with my friend Philippe Beaudoin (designer in Québec) and his  girlfriend, we tested the engine thanks to the material found in a Pick-a-Pig game. I still needed a system to determine the winner. Since everyone wanted to be the “bad guy”, I needed the game to last 1 round per player (so everyone could play the beast once) and whoever ate the most humans before getting caught would win. Bam! Despite the lack of cards (with different characters), it worked at first. Stuff like that never happens! I almost could have published it like that.

contents

I made the prototype as soon as possible. I tried different stock cartoons found online: a prince, princess, dragon, knight, robot; trying to see how many characters I needed and how hard it would be. Would you need very different characters to have to a chance to win or, conversely, should they resemble each other to the max? The second option was a must.

Fortunately for me, I randomly came across the game 32 Suspects at Essen 2014. This game contained 2 identical sets of 32 characters who resembled each other tremendously. This let me test and refine the game and choose the artistic direction BEFORE starting the illustrations. This was crucial for a work like the Legend of the Wendigo, since the images were part of the mechanic, contrary to the vast majority of games where they are mostly decoration. We observed that we couldn’t have defining characteristics like the red and green clothing you see on the little guys here. It’s also for this reason that all the characters are pale-skinned with hair more-or-less in the same shade. If we gave them defining traits like darker skin (or even red hair! - we have nothing against redheads, I promise!), the game wouldn’t work as well, unfortunately. Today, I noticed I never actually played 32 Suspects. Is that a good thing?

 Now we’re at the winter of 2015. We just released Qui Paire Gagne, the French version of Pluckin’ Pair, from R&R Games. I wanted to release my new game the following year, but I needed a theme. I couldn’t realistically use the same theme as Werewolf.  I needed a new creature AND a pretext to gather all of these characters that resembled each other so closely in an enclosed space. The spirit of the Wendigo, a creature from Native American legends, came to mind. While doing some research, I learned that the beast could manifest physically or take possession of people’s spirit. The latter incarnation fit perfectly with my needs! Of course, I had to “soften” the original legend a bit to make it suitable for our little wolf cubs…!

 Evidently, I needed to stick with characters found in the woods to respect the origins of the legend. And lastly, and most difficult, I needed to explain why they looked like each other so much! During my studies in literature, I read several tales that took place in the lumberjack camps in Quebec. Lumberjack camps? Yes, remote places where brave men spent the winter cutting down trees that they brought to large city centers via several waterways. It worked: the men could all have big beards, plaid shirts, tuques, axes… All sorts of little details could make them look alike and stand out enough, like in “Guess Who”.

visual

 I was happy with this theme for awhile. Even if only a few people knew what the Wendigo was, the name sounded good. We didn’t pull it from thin air: there are a lot of people who’ve heard the name somewhere. By adding “The Legend of…” to the title, we contextualized the name. But with time, I worried that the story we created wouldn’t appeal to people outside of Quebec, who weren’t familiar with our lumberjack stories. And thinking about it more, even the kids from around here ignored pretty much everything about the stories! I had to admit that it would be hard for young players to identify with these lumberjack “gentlemen”... Manual, our awesome creative director, thought of replacing them with scouts…

 The idea made the whole office (2 persons!) go silent when we heard it. Nobody moved as we thought about it. We had found a winner!

 There was one last thing that bothered me about the gameplay. In a four- or five-player game, imagine that the first player to play the Wendigo scored 2 points and the second player scored 3. The first player would know, well before the end of the game, that they didn’t win. This is demotivating, especially for a child!! First, I thought of how we could combine points with other players’, to have a semblance of suspense. Too complicated. Then I reminded myself it would be better to have a short and intense game that we could play over and over, rather than a single drawn-out game. I realized the theme and mechanics lent themselves perfectly to a cooperative game, well, semi-cooperative…. All versus one!

visual

The scouts had to find the Wendigo within a certain number of tries or risk losing, plain and simple. In this way, games would last at most 10 minutes. This gave the game a certain flexibility. Of course, nothing stopped players from chaining games so that everyone could have a chance at playing the Wendigo, but it was not required. Since victory (or defeat) was now “complete” every time players found the Wendigo (or not), the feeling was intensified and the game experience improved…

 I hope you’ll enjoy!!

 

Gameplay explanation video in 90 seconds:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgBbS1QgPR0

Published 14 June 2017

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