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Designer Diary: Witchcraft!, or Resisting Persecution while Fighting Evil

by David Thompson

(Note: Although posted by David Thompson, this designer diary was written by co-designer Roger Tankersley.)

Witchcraft! is a standalone sequel to and reimplementation of Resist!

In Witchcraft!, you assemble a coven of witches from families of women represented by a deck of cards. Selecting multiple witches from a family makes that family more powerful. Each family is focused on different tasks in the game: revealing challenges, increasing attack power, uncovering the conviction of the jurors, or capturing familiars to help you in your fight. The fight is real, and each of the eight jurors face a different villain. Is it the Headless Horseman, Baba Yaga, the Scarecrow, or some other fiend?

During set-up, you choose three jurors, their missions, and their unique challenges, providing 56 possible combinations with great variety in the types of challenges and monsters you will face. If you fail two missions or lose five villagers, you lose the game. Even if you defeat the missions, you still face the trial, and you are sure of your fate only when you reveal the conviction of the jurors and see whether you have done enough to persuade them.

This is the story of how Witchcraft! came to be…

•••

When Gonzalo Maldonado from Salt & Pepper Games asked the Resist! design team — Trevor Benjamin, David Thompson, and me — whether we would like to do a follow-up, we first thought, “What theme would we like to see Albert Monteys illustrate?!” We also wanted to share the core gameplay of Resist! with a larger audience that wouldn’t necessarily play a war-themed game. And we knew that we had to deliver gameplay that felt similar to Resist! for returning players who wanted more, while making it more than a simple re-theming.

We had several thematic ideas (which we’ll keep secret for now) but quickly settled on “horror” as a general theme. We all really like 19th century folk-horror like “The Headless Horseman”, then we hit on one of the core gameplay changes: an endgame trial rather than an open-ended measure of victory…which led us to a coven of witches. When we put that together — witches battling evil on behalf of a village that will put them on trial — we had a good framework for the core Resist! gameplay of remaining hidden or revealing: witches who take actions that are either “normal” or “magical”.

And Albert said, “I’d love to illustrate a horror game!”

Early in development we took a pause to consider the theme of witch trials. We wanted to treat the subject with care and right away decided that we would not represent real places or people, all the witches would be women, and the witches were good people who were wrongly accused. We included an historical note in the rulebook:

Our game world presents witches as forces of good that wield real magic. In reality the witch trials that swept Europe and North America were motivated by malice and ignorance resulting in the execution of tens-of-thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were women. In showcasing powerful women striving to protect their village, we as game designers hope to honor the memory of those who were persecuted. We do not intend to trivialize or rationalize the immense pain and suffering caused by the witch-hunts in early modern European and North American history.

We discussed this with close friends and partners and decided that, following those guidelines, we could proceed with the witch trial theme. Real monsters and magic gave us a lot of creative space, and we decided we wanted the world to feel like a historical version of our world, so we built our monsters, setting, and characters around the fears of an isolated village in 17th-18th century Europe or North America. We left the location vague so that we could include monsters from many cultures, and identified the core fears:

1) Fear of the unknown, particularly in the wilderness, with creatures and spirits that come from the “outside”. Forests were impenetrable, beasts were real (often killing dozens), unexplainable events were common and attributed to the devil.

2) Fear of privation. Crop failures, food spoilage, unclean water, dearth of game animals, harsh winters, destruction of dwellings by fire. Again, these are often explained by malevolent forces.

3) Fear of illness. People knew very little about why they got sick. The Plague was real and recurring. Children in particular got sick and often died.

Now that we had the setting and tone well established, it was time to focus on gameplay. How do we make a game that is a standalone follow-up to Resist! different enough to appeal to both returning and new players? We made several small changes but two big changes.

Right away David came up with the perfect way to make the village feel alive: The witches were members of family groups, and when family members enter play together, their powers combine and magnify one another. Mechanically, the families affect the gameplay in different ways: some add fight power, some let you remove curses, others affect the challenge deck, and still others impact how much you can influence the trial. This design choice made the drafting phase (you select your coven of witches using a draft at the beginning of the game) really interesting as you try to assemble family members.

Two of the powerful witch families

We knew the game would end in a trial by jury, so how we represented the jurors was really important. In Resist! you accumulate points for succeeding at missions, and the total of those points determine the success of your resistance.

For Witchcraft! we used the points as “influence” over the jurors, a measure of how successful the witches are at convincing the village that they are innocent and using magic to defend the villagers. We tried a few different ways of setting the “conviction” value of individual jurors, but settled on a small deck of cards that assigned an unknown conviction by dealing two cards to each juror. The player has ways of uncovering some of those cards during the game, but rarely knows them all. This adds variety to the gameplay because no two games are the same; in one game the farmer is strongly against you, but in the next they are more sympathetic.

You have 6 persuasion, and you know the juror has at least 4 conviction — will it be enough!?

The jurors are people in the village, and the game is vague about whether they are malevolent, scared of witchcraft, or just unsure what is causing the misfortune of the village. Trevor suggested our next major gameplay element: the missions, some of the challenges, and the “big bad” monsters are all connected thematically to the jurors. This adds a tremendous amount of replayability because you select three jurors out of eight to set up the game, making 56 possible combinations! The jurors all care about and are frightened by different fears:

• The farmer is won-over because you save his crop.

• The priest sees a wandering spirit put to rest.

• The mayor feels the edge of town is now safer.

• A mother sees a miraculous recovery of her children.

• The woodsman is able to return to the woods.

The missions are a progression from encounters in town, to the edge of town and the wilderness, to facing the big bad monster, with each juror facing a different ultimate evil. We chose monsters from across Europe and North America, and each set works together thematically. Early on, we thought of introducing “events” into the challenge deck – not just monsters and minions to fight, but bad things like poisoned water, failing crops, sick children that the witches could choose to affect — but it made the challenge deck fiddly and needlessly complicated the gameplay, so ultimately we returned to a deck of challenges in which each card is a person or creature.

One change we did make to the challenge deck was to add familiars: friendly creatures that the witches could charm to help in the fight. This added a lot of excitement to the challenge deck because the player sometimes gets help — but working the familiars into the gameplay was a real challenge! We needed them to have an impact, but not break the power-balance of the witch deck in a way that made the game too easy. There was a lot of trial-and-error with different effects and strength of effects, with David doing most of the math behind the scenes. Think of the challenge of that problem: considering 56 possible combinations of jurors, with mixing missions and challenges, and with bonus powers provided by familiars. Ultimately the familiars feel important and powerful, but don’t break the game.

We were surprised by the popularity of the scenario book in Resist! and knew we wanted a similar book for Witchcraft! — and we wanted it to tell a unique story, with each scenario telling “Tales of Wildegrens” as the forces of evil try harder and harder to destroy the village. To tie the story together even more and add unique gameplay, we introduced a group of “monster hunters” that visit the village – additional witches with powers against certain challenges. Once again we had to test the balance of the game! We had to make sure the monster hunters didn’t make the player too powerful, so it was back to the math-board for David. The Tales book came together well, and we’re really happy with the narrative elements it introduces to gameplay.

As for playtesting, we tracked our playthroughs and (we think) hit all possible combinations of jurors and most combinations of families. But we’re sure those playing the game will find combinations that we didn’t try, and we’re eager to see what you discover!

And then we turned all the game elements over to Albert Monteys – and his illustrations brought the game to life and hit exactly the tone we were hoping for. We provided basic guidance on what each card should depict, and Albert did a wonderful job interpreting our vision. The characters, settings, and monsters all feel part of the same world, and his illustrations of the witches – with the revealed side showing them using real magic – fits the theme perfectly.

(Editorial note from David Thompson: Roger did 100% of the theming in the game and did an absolutely AMAZING job. His theming and art direction for Albert was spot on, resulting in what I think is just a brilliant atmosphere for the game.)

With solid and addictive gameplay, a significant challenge that suits a solo-game, a cohesive and thematic world to play in – all brought together by Albert’s art – we’re really happy with Witchcraft! We hope returning Resist! players find enough differences to make it interesting, and we hope new players enjoy the theme and setting as they guide their coven of witches in resisting the evil that is threatening Wildegrens.

Roger Tankersley

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