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Designer Diary: Creature Feature

by Richard Garfield

The basic structure of Creature Feature is that players have a hand of cards, choose two every round, then have a poker-like competition to see who wins what points. Each player chooses one card to reveal from the pair they have chosen to play, and which cards are revealed and how a player behaves will guide decisions on whether to compete or back down.

If a player reveals their lower card, then they will beat any other player in a showdown who revealed their higher card (or who played a pair). This means that revealing the higher card, called “playing a twist”, is a bluff. You are presenting power, but any other player can beat you if they did not play a twist. Winning with a twist is not a secret; you show the cards and score more points as well…and the other players will generally know that if they had competed against you, they could have won — as long as they had chosen not to twist themselves.

There are eleven ranks of monster from Puny Human (1) to Abomination (11). The value of the hand is the sum of the cards, so the best “twist-free” hand is 21: Vampire (10) + Abomination (11). About half the cards have special abilities, with the same special ability for the entire rank. For example, the Ghost (4) allows a player to play their hand as if it had no twist, so when you see a face-up Vampire (10), you know that the player has a 21, has a 14, or is playing a twist.

This approach makes bluffing feel satisfying. The power is almost always in a player’s hand to “not bluff”, and, in fact, just like in poker a player can win with honest and straightforward play provided they get reasonable cards and read the other players fairly well. However, any time a player wins without being challenged, that player could have earned more points by playing with a twist. This leads to a temptation to bluff even when you may not need to…but that leads to players with inferior cards realizing that they could have won if they challenged the players with better cards.

Rather than betting, calling, raising, and folding, Creature Feature has a system in which each player in sequence has the option to drop to a lesser prize and compete for that. In a 5-6 player game there are two lesser prizes; in a 3-4 player game there is one lesser prize. After a player has dropped out of all competition or folded, they score a small score for their cards, which they would have lost if they competed and failed to win.

This system makes reading the board a constant consideration. Players early in the play order will be tempted to stay just because they want to see how things play out, banking on the fact that later players will make an action that will allow them another chance to act. This adds nuance to later players’ decisions; they may not have the luxury of a reliable second chance since all players passing ends the round. Did the earlier players choose not to drop to show a sign of strength, or were they simply waiting because they didn’t want to be the first to drop? The system is, on one hand, much simpler than betting in poker, but on the other carries its own depth and character.

In addition to monsters, there are action cards that do a variety of things. All action cards, when played or discarded, allow the player to draw a replacement card. This guarantees that a player will have enough monsters to play out all the competitions, although they may find that to field a team toward the end requires them to dump some action cards. This can lead to interesting hand management problems. For example, the nurse allows players to add +1 to their total in a showdown. There is every chance that this will not be relevant, that the player will have no showdowns that are close enough to be swung with a +1. However, if it is relevant, it can be a very big effect. Quite often the player with a nurse will find that they must get rid of it on the last hand to get a monster to play — and that player will wonder how much better they would have done if they had dumped the nurse right at the start so that they could manage their hand more effectively.

Once players are familiar with the cards that are out there, it will affect how the hands play out quite a bit. For example, four “Igor” cards allow a player to draw an extra card provided they folded. Since extra cards are going to be worth more earlier in the hand, this will be something to consider in early rounds — and I have found that I can get good points with weak cards while other players are getting rid of their worst cards in order to score an Igor.

The flavor of the game being monsters from the golden age of monster movies was inspired by the publisher being Trick or Treat Studios. The flavor was not adapted to the publisher’s needs, but designed along with the game. I was pretty excited by this as it reminded me how much I loved these movies growing up. They were, of course, before my time to see in the theater, but I was at a perfect age to see them on TV every weekend.

It was a pleasure to work with Terry Wolfinger on the art. His portfolio showed that he had a similar love for these characters, and we talked about which to include, what style they should be, and what the appropriate ranks were. He would present options, and it was always an embarrassment of riches. I always like to give a lot of flexibility to artists for my games because I want to have them participate in a creative fashion, and working with Terry in this way was really rewarding.

I didn’t know what to expect with Trick or Treat Studios as they have not done many games. I was pleasantly surprised, and the product they put together was everything I could have hoped for. Chris Zephro was attentive to what I wanted to deliver and pulled it together effectively. Jody Henning supported the game with flavorful and effective graphic design. I found myself listening seriously to the product manager, Andy Van Zandt, who made many insightful suggestions and comments along the way that improved the final game.

Richard Garfield

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