For several years, a few salespeople at Smart asked for a zombie-themed game. Personally I am not a big fan of zombies, so developing this game for SmartGames in 2023 required me to step out of my comfort zone. While the theme was chosen, finding a matching game mechanic became the next challenge. Contrary to the common misconception that I start with a game mechanic and apply a theme afterward, in most instances, it's the opposite. So all I had was “zombies”. What is typical about them is the way they walk, with their arms in front of them, seemingly afraid of bumping into walls. Walking around like that must be exhausting. But hell, they are dead anyway, so who cares.
Given the zombie theme, an obvious game mechanic was a sequential movement puzzle, as nobody wants to stay around when zombies are in town. I started with the most straightforward sequential movement puzzle, which is a sliding puzzle. But instead of sliding a puzzle piece from one square to the next (adjacent one of course), I also allowed it to rotate. This would not matter for the game play if every puzzle piece was a simple square. Therefore I changed the sides of the puzzle pieces, so each piece gets a unique shape. All figurines feature a protruding part in the direction they face, making moving and orienting the pieces challenging, because this protruding part can never overlap the border of the game board or other puzzle pieces. This way the zombies can never catch the girl either, a fitting aspect for the chosen theme. Because if they could grab her, the game would be a bit pointless. This makes of course the movement of the zombies a bit stupid, but don’t forget they are brainless creatures ;-)
If you aren’t one, you must have noticed by now that I talked a lot about zombies, even though the game depicts skeletons. At some point during development, we adjusted the theme to avoid a dull appearance with dark, earthy colors. The game is still a bit dark (in more than one meaning) but at least the skeletons are white. Originally the human figurine also had black clothes. We wanted a brave personality, not some frightened one, inspired by the character Wednesday from the Adams Family. But to add some contrast and color to the game we changed her to pink. For many years the sales people are also asking for a SmartGame with pink to have something very girlish. I don’t think this is what they had in mind, but that’s what you get if you ask questions like that to me. And I am quite confident that Wednesday would hate that color too, so there should not be any problems with copyrights.
We added the little cat to the figurine to explain what a girl is doing in the middle of the night on a graveyard. The answer is: she is looking for her cat. My colleague Hans suggested the girl stealing a skull, with skeletons chasing her. That would also have been a great story line and definitely something Wednesday would have approved. We even tried it, but it had one big flaw: you use the skulls on top of the skeletons to pick up the pieces and to rotate them. If a figurine lost its head, handling that piece would become more challenging. One of the reasons that this game is 10+ (apart from the theme), is that it requires fine motor skills. Pieces must be moved one by one AND step by step to avoid any mistakes. The puzzle piece of the girl is the only one that has a triangular shape at the bottom side. This way, she is the only figurine that can leave the graveyard, where there is the opposite triangular shape in the border. This triangle also indicates the exit of the graveyard, in case that was not obvious.
In the initial prototype, the game didn’t have any tombes and was played on a 3x3 grid. Although this worked, all challenges looked almost identical with 7 skeletons and one girl on a square game board. And variation is one of the most important features I look for when I am designing a game or selecting challenges. So we changed the game board to 3x4 and added the 3 tombes. With these pieces the starting layout of each challenge can look different. The original challenges are still possible by placing the tombes on the left side of the game board. Most of those challenges ended up in the Wizard level, because they are so hard to solve. If these tombes are placed elsewhere, they create dead ends and corridors. Visually this made each challenge look different and also results in different strategies. Another advantage of adding the tombes was that challenges with only a few skeletons were suddenly possible. Because of the game mechanics (picking up pieces, rotating them before placing them back) I was afraid that the challenges would be too similar to Cats & Boxes. But it’s a completely different game. The game play feels more like a very difficult challenge of Turtle Tactics, with the added complexity due to the different shapes of the pieces. The hardest challenge needs 158 steps to be solved! So Graveyard Shift is definitely not a game if you are out of brain! Set to be published in the summer of 2024 (so available in time for Halloween), this game is not yet finalized. Therefore the top of this page still features a rendering. This page will be updated when final pictures become available.
Example of a MASTER solution of Graveyard Shift with 21 moves
GAME RULES GRAVEYARD SHIFT
1) Choose a challenge. Place the puzzle pieces with the tombs, girl, and skeletons on the indicated places on the game board. Pieces must be placed in the correct orientation; each skeleton piece has a specific shape and letter to help you with this.
2) Move the pieces with the girl and the skeletons ONE BY ONE, until the girl reaches the exit of the graveyard:
A. The tombs can never be moved.
B. You can move the other pieces one by one to an adjacent empty place - if the shape of the puzzle piece fits there. You are allowed to rotate pieces to make them fit before you place them back on the game board. You can also lift up a piece and place it back on the same spot, but in a different orientation. Figurines will never jump over each other!
C. When moving a figurine (skeleton or the girl), the orientation of the figurine is not important for the movement. So a figurine can move in a different direction than its own orientation.
D. You are NOT allowed to pick up more than one figurine at the same time. Before you pick up the next figurine, the previous one must be positioned back on the game board on a valid place.
E. Puzzle pieces cannot overlap each other, the border of the game board or the border of the tomb pieces!
F. Pieces with skeletons will never leave the graveyard, but you are allowed to position a puzzle piece with the protruding part in the direction of the exit. The only puzzle piece that fits completely in the exit (indicated by a triangle) is the girl.
3) You have found the solution when the girl reaches this exit. The shortest solution is shown at the end of the booklet. The minimum number of steps to find this solution is indicated next to the challenge number.
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