Designer Isaac Shalev has kindly provided us with a look into the creation and development of Ravenous River.
“You made a social deduction game? But you hate social deduction games!” Ok, hate is a strong word, but my top playtester was onto something. Social deduction games usually aren’t my jam. I played Werewolf in college – actually, we called it Mafia – and I enjoyed it. What makes Werewolf fun for me isn’t really the game at all though. It’s the social interaction. Werewolf does a great job of creating memorable experiences, and it’s enormously popular for that reason, but to me, it feels more like an activity than a game. Werewolf fits in the category of Truth-or-Dare, Charades, or even singing karaoke. There’s just enough structure to support the social experience, but the game isn’t about winning and losing, or even really about playing.
When I set out to make Ravenous River, I wasn’t thinking too much about any of this. My jumping-off point was a design exercise I had set for myself, which was to create games out of fairy tales, riddles, and jokes. These little snippets of culture are fascinating, and they also present a design challenge of how to identify the opportunity for a game in a story, and then how to abstract it and gamify it. Here’s how the riddle behind Ravenous River goes:
A farmer has a fox, a pig, and a head of cabbage that he needs to get across the river. His rowboat can fit him and one passenger. The problem is that as soon as the farmer turns his back, the pig eats the cabbage, the fox eats the pig, and the farmer winds up with a fat fox and not much else. How can the farmer get all three of his passengers safely across the river?
I started brainstorming from this seed. There was some kind of game in here, and I needed to find it. Even though the sequencing aspect of the riddle seemed to suggest game mechanisms more readily, I was drawn to the tensions in the story – the natural conflict between predator and prey, and how the farmer disrupts that balance for his benefit. What if the farmer wasn’t around? How does the pig survive, and get across the river?
From there, the game came together quickly. I created the chain of predation, featuring seven different animals, and ran through a few different ideas for how they might be played, how they ate each other and how they scored, but I just couldn’t get it right. Curt Covert, of Smirk & Dagger fame, gave me the key insight into where the fun of the game was. Curt explained that players wanted to identify with one animal and to root for it, even if they were not always manipulating that one animal. In order to make that work though, it couldn’t be obvious who each player was, or the game would rapidly disintegrate.
Social deduction to the rescue! By providing hidden roles through the use of face-down Totem cards that assigned each player to an animal for scoring purposes, everyone had a stake in the game, and in that animal. But players could still manipulate any animal on their turns. Figuring out who was playing which animals is a key strategy to setting yourself up for favorable outcomes, whether scoring big, or squeezing a critical point or two out of a difficult board position.
Ravenous River succeeds, I hope, at two things. First, it uses social deduction in the service of a board game, while still delivering that social and memorable experience. When playtesters took ten minutes between each round to do a post-mortem, laughing, and hooting and reliving the choices, bluffs and gambles of the previous round, I knew I’d stumbled onto something special.
I’m grateful to John Goodenough and AEG for all the work that goes into taking a rough prototype and polishing it into a game. I hope you enjoy it! And one last question: why does the farmer even have a fox?
About the Designer
Isaac Shalev is a co-host of the On Board Games podcast, a show about the tabletop industry. He is also the designer ChronoSphere which he published through his design studio, Kind Fortress. Isaac lives in Stamford, CT with his wife and three children. Isaac feels incredibly silly writing about himself in the third person, so you can learn more about Isaac and his current game design projects at www.kindfortress.com