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The Hungry Gamer Interviews The Ghosts Betwixt Designer Dustin Freund

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a sucker for a Dungeon Crawler. It is a FACT that a Kickstarter Dungeon Crawler is the most dangerous thing for my wallet that has ever existed. In fact, one of my friends jobs is to tell me why the latest Dungeon Crawler I want to back is similar enough to the ones that I already have in my home.

Now with that said, it is true that SO many of them are very similar to others mechanically, and many more fall into a generic fantasy world and though the play mechanics vary slightly they are all variants on a theme. But they can still take my money! A few weeks back I stumbled on The Ghosts Betwixt which was coming to Kickstarter in a few weeks. Two things grabbed me. 

One was the art, it has this stylized comic book-esque art style to it, but the heroes are CLEARLY regular people. The second thing that caught my eye was this is no normal fantasy dungeon crawler. Right there, I was interested. 

On a whim, I reached out to Dustin asking if I could do a preview for Hungry Gamer. He was more than happy to send one of the prototypes out to me to check out (though it has been an adventure with UPS as I still wait for it to arrive…I can only assume that the UPS workers are playing it until they beat it). However, as I learned more about the game (a big thank you to the work by Meet Me at the Table), I realized that I wanted to know more about how this idea came to be.

Dusting was kind enough to spend more time than he should be while his Kickstarter is running to answer several questions via email for me. I will also be doing a written and video preview of the game should UPS ever finish their playthrough.

Can you share a little bit about your background as a gamer?

Gaming has always been a huge part of my life. It’s in my blood, especially from my dad’s side of the family. At the dinner table, my dad and his parents would play poker with his allowance.

And, I remember when I was a kid, I had just received my first Game Boy. We took a road trip from Kansas City to New York, and my grandma fell in love with the Game Boy and she wouldn’t give it back to me! She ended up buying one herself on that trip.

So yeah, I was predestined to be a gamer. I grew up in the most amazing time ever as a blossoming nerd. The original Nintendo got big when I was just old enough to effectively use a controller. I remember when Zelda came out, it was a truly mind-blowing experience. I was fascinated with its simplicity but also by the secrets it held. At school we’d talk about all the new things we’d found, and how to get through the Lost Woods. If you found something new, you were a hero.

Authors note: Unless you sent your friends to the “Pay me for the door repairs guy.”

But my most vivid memories of my early gaming years were with Final Fantasy 1. It just blew my mind. I LOVED the process of “grinding,” it would later be called. And the challenge was absolutely perfect. Diving into the Earth Cave, coming out alive and making it back to town felt like a true accomplishment. 

Then came the Super Nintendo, which featured some of the best RPGs ever created. Earthbound was eye-opening to me. It proved that a roleplaying game could take place in a modern setting. This would be a huge inspiration for The Ghosts Betwixt.

How did you get into designing? 

After more than 30 years of video gaming, I began feeling let down by the industry. The fancier the graphics, the less I cared. It was weird. Possibly old man syndrome. It was becoming harder and harder to find that feeling in video games I craved when I was younger.

Author’s note: Back in our day we had 8 bit graphics and we were happy!

So, one day about five years ago, I was in a toy store at the mall, and I happened to look at the board games section. I saw the Legend of Drizzt, part of the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Game series. For whatever reason, it really grabbed my attention. I started researching other board games, and I learned of Descent. I purchased Descent 2nd Edition, and fell in love with it.

However, there were a few things I wish were different about it. Then, I purchased Shadows of Brimstone. Same situation – I loved it, but again there were things I would have changed about it. I noticed I kept trying to house rule these games in certain ways. 

I kept searching for that “perfect” dungeon crawler. Again, I loved many of them, but never found THE one. At the time, I was working on a novel about a creepy family who ran their own haunted house on their property. One day, while mowing the yard, a crazy thought occurred to me: why not try making my own game?

You mentioned you were working on a book when the idea for The Ghosts Betwixt came to you, was it published? If so what is called and where can we get it?

Nope, the book was never published. I was in the middle of formulating it and had some pages written for it, but then I decided to convert it over to a board game.

One of the things that stands out to me about Ghosts is the theme; these are not normal heroes, nor is it the common trope of “nobodys meeting in bar”, but it is a normal family dealing with danger. Why did you choose to base the game around a family?

That’s a really good question. I think the short answer is that family means everything to me. And within a story that involves family members, there are certain elements you can include that likely isn’t possible with a group of random adventurers who met in a bar. There are those tight family bonds that have been built far before the story begins, which are referenced in many different ways throughout the game. There’s a lot of love shown in this game.

Plus, I knew I wanted lots of dialogue and interaction between the characters. I know how a dad talks to his child. I know how a wife talks to her husband. I know how siblings speak to one another. This dialogue between a suburban family is familiar to me. I actually sometimes tear up when writing the dialogue.

Lastly, I knew I wanted to include an adopted child in the family. I worked in the adoption field for seven years, and it’s a beautiful process in so many ways. You’ll notice his adoption is never referenced in the game because Maddox IS their son/brother.

Author’s note: This made me so happy to learn. One of the other things the game does for me is it makes me think of my brother and his wife and their adopted daughter who is of a different ethnicity. However, though they get stares in their less than always accepting state she IS their daughter. Without question. Having that kind of family represented, and potentially be something I could share with her is awesome. 

So, those are a few reasons why this story evolved into a story ultimately about family.

What does The Ghosts Betwixt mean?

Another good question! It’s actually has a double meaning. First, is obviously the reference to the ghosts in the game. I don’t want to spoil some major plot points as to what is actually going on at the Bennerts’ Worlds of Terror haunted house, but what I can say is the title references these ghosts caught between the spiritual world and our physical world. 

Secondly, it’s a reference to those people within our society that live under the surface, those that slip through the cracks, if you will. The Bennert family are one of these groups of people who’ve operated covertly and have largely been ignored by society. That is, until tonight…

Thirdly, there’s a surprise at the end of the game that kind of brings the whole title full circle. That’s all I can say on that front!

I did battle with the name for a while. The Ghosts Among Us was a possibility, but after a Google search I noticed there was already other media and I think a band that used the name. I wanted a truly unique name that would be easily recognizable.

Last thing I’ll mention is including the word “The”. A lot of people suggested I just name it “Ghosts Betwixt,” and I considered it for a while. But, I ultimately decided “The” was super important, because like I mentioned, the title is a direct reference to specific characters and people. 

Was there ever a moment when you thought “Wait, I am going to create a dungeon crawler, there are so many Dungeon Crawlers out there already…what am I doing?”

Honestly, no! I think there’s still so much untapped potential in the dungeon crawler genre. And I can’t imagine trying to tell this story in any other game genre. The Ghosts Betwixt worker placement game wasn’t going to work! One of my game design heroes, Jerry Hawthorne, creates games like Mice and Mystics, Stuffed Fables, Comanauts and upcoming Aftermath where the story is every bit a part of the game as the gameplay itself. He’s proven time and time again there’s always room for more dungeon crawling/adventure style games.

Plus, I’ve essentially been playing dungeon crawlers my entire life. I know what makes them fun, I know what makes them suck, I know what makes them challenging, I know what makes them easy. I knew I had the knowledge and passion to develop a fun gameplay system. I knew I could see the project through. Therefore, I dedicated myself to the project, knowing it would be high quality if I truly committed to it.

What would you consider your greatest moment as a designer, yes I am asking you to try to pick one?

There have been so many “wins” throughout designing TGB. The biggest win I can think of was solving an issue of combat being too predictable. As you have probably seen, each monster draws a Target Token – which indicates the family member it will try to attack.

While I loved this system, it became too predictable. For example, if three monsters owned Maddox’ Target Token, he could simply just stay out of those monsters’ attack range. What was missing was the chance of him aggroing another monster.

Therefore, one day I thought of the Re-Target mechanic. One Re-Target symbol is found on every defense dice. Without getting too in the weeds on how it works, the Re-Targets gives combat an added element of unpredictability, as monsters can quickly change targets, which players can’t always prepare for.

This little change made gameplay feel less like a puzzle and more like a dynamic battle.

Any other games in the cooker?

Nope – I’m fully committed to The Ghosts Betwixt for the next few years at least. I honestly don’t know if I’ll venture into other game ideas!

Just a few weeks into the fist Kickstarter you decided that it was a smarter move to cancel, and reboot it later on after making some changes. Why did you make that choice?

Our first Kickstarter campaign got off to a great start. After 12 hours or so, we were already 25 percent funded. However, backers slowed considerably, with the cause being the price of the game. Therefore, we made a decision to cancel the campaign and readjust the components and therefore the price of the game. We are really excited about the next campaign because we believe we can significantly reduce the price while maintaining almost everything in the original vision.

Any thoughts of giving up?

The opposite happened. Some how, some way I’m even more driven to make The Ghosts Betwixt a reality. There are a lot of people that want to play this game, and I owe it to them to complete it. 

This is a deeply personal project, and one that’s very special to me. I’ve sacrificed a lot to reach the point in which we currently stand, so there’s no turning back now. We’ve simply come too far to give up!

What changes are you anticipating for the reboot?

We are likely going back to the original vision of the game by telling its story in two separate parts. By doing this, we will reduce the amount of punchboard and cards in Part 1, which will significantly affect the price and shipping cost. That said, while we seek to reduce components in Part 1 to make it more affordable, we are also adding more missions to take advantage of the components that do come in Part 1. In the original campaign, The Ghosts Betwixt consisted of 8 story missions and 5 side missions. But with this new direction, Part 1 alone will have 5 story missions and 5 replayable side missions. There’s going to be a lot of dice-rolling and dungeon-crawling action in this $50-$60 priced game, which should keep players busy for 30-40 hours at least. And what’s really cool is those side missions can be grinded on to gear up for Part 2. The first mission of Part 2 will be awfully challenging (which is disclosed thematically within the story of Part 1), so players will be enticed to find the best gear they can and learn the best family member talents in preparation of what’s to come in Part 2. As a gamer, I love grinding and leveling up – but especially if I know there’s a big challenge waiting ahead.

So do I understand this correctly, that there will be a second KS “relatively” soon after the first for players to get the content for the second part? Or will this be an expansion/ add-on option?

For our next campaign, the plan is to offer Part 1 (fulfillment around October 2020), Part 2 (fulfillment TBD), and a Part 1 and Part 2 bundle. And yes, after Part 1 is fulfilled, it’s likely we will launch another Kickstarter campaign to once again offer Part 2.

We have additional plans for more content, but all that is TBD based on this next campaign and how well the game is received.

When will the reboot launch?

The Ghosts Betwixt takes place during the Halloween season, so what better time to relaunch than around Halloween 2019? Anyway, that’s the current goal, but of course it could change.

Later this year you will be relaunching your Kickstarter for The Ghosts Betwixt, if there is someone who is reading this, what is your elevator pitch to get them to pledge?

One thing I’m really excited about is that when someone backs TGB, they are getting the FULL game. There are no add-ons for more content, weapons, monsters, missions, etc. People who spend their hard-earned money on TGB are essentially going “all-in.” And, we do plan on providing on-going content through free downloadable PDFs.

What does the future hold for ITG? What is the goal? (ie do you want to stay small-a la Chip Theory Games, or take over the gaming world as a Fantasy Flight or CMON sized company?)

Honestly, Innocent Traveler Games was founded for one reason: publishing The Ghosts Betwixt and any future expansions or sequels. That’s the only goal I have for the company at this point – to make TGB as awesome as possible. 

You talked about potential expansions in the future. What can you share about that? I would assume that the end of the base game, if you are successful results in the family safe and reunited…are they just going to be one of those really unlucky families that keeps finding themselves in trouble?

It’s really difficult for me to say without spoiling the end of the game. We will just say, the Bennerts’ have a global expansion business plan for their Worlds of Terror haunted house.

At G33k-HQ, the label “geek” is a source of pride, though it means different things to different folks. Do you consider yourself a geek? What does geek mean to you?

Everyone is a geek about something. My wife is a geek for counseling. My friend Travis is a geek for cars and guns. My friend Corey is a geek for wrestling. I just happen to be a geek for board games!

Being a geek just means being passionate about something. It’s what makes you YOU! I love the fact that society is seeing board games and RPGs in a positive light. It no longer has that nerdy stigma. In fact, if you’re into board games or Dungeons and Dragons, that’s actually viewed as pretty cool these days!

We live in a great time where no matter how unique your interests might be, it’s really easy to find like-minded people (geeks) to share and enjoy those interests!

The Ghosts Betwixt has been cancelled for now, but will be relaunched around Halloween. I, for one, cannot wait to get to test out the prototype, and learn a little bit more about the game, and see where it is heading. Even without playing it, I can say for certain that the theme is different from any other dungeon crawler out there. If you love dungeon crawls then this is a game that you must check out. To keep apprised of the latest news on The Ghosts Betwixt you can learn more here on BGG.

The Ghosts Betwixt A cooperative and soloable Dungeon Crawling tabletop game set in the 1990s haunted heartland.

About Will "Hungry" Brown

Will "Hungry" Brown is an actor, producer, teacher, and passionate board game player, hoping to find new games and help you find new games to play.

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