Time only offers itself once. So you’d better use it as efficiently as possible. As every designer knows, it’s rare if you are ever working on only one project. I am just the same. I am currently working on four projects, not including Scoville.And I could certainly use a few more hours in the day. So I thought I’d give you a status update for each of the games currently in my “active” queue. My hope is that by writing this I’ll get a better idea of which game(s) on which I should focus my few game design hours per week.
And I’ve decided to set a goal: I want to have a playable and fun game by Christmas.
In the past I have set emotional goals, like “I want to send a game to a publisher by October.” How is that an emotional goal? It’s emotional because it has to do with making me happy versus making a good game. So this new goal is avoidably non-emotional. It’s all about the game. So I am going to attempt to spend the next three months hammering away at the stone to reveal a beautiful sculpture, and hope that it is a decent board game!
Let’s get started with last week’s Design Me game…
I designed it last Friday and by Saturday evening it had already been through four playtests. I’m not sure what your typical Concept to Playtest timeline looks like but this isn’t my typical timeline. There are a few things that the game has going for it to have allowed for four playtests.
- It’s simple to prototype
- It’s simple to teach
- It plays in about 10 minutes
So when I arrived at Protospiel-Milwaukee last Saturday I snagged a few of the free components that The Game Crafter had donated and threw together a copy.
In the game you are a killer whale who can jump across time, which is represented by jumping across the 4×4 grid. The game lasts 8 rounds. Each round two new boats are placed randomly into the grid using two d4s. Then each player chooses one card, which represents a location on the grid, to jump to. If there are boats there, they can eat them. If there are multiple boats, then they’ll have to discard cards to eat them. There are a few other rules, but the player who eats the most boats wins the game.
I think I might be able to design this into a complete game by next week, let alone by Christmas. It could also easily be rethemed. In fact, during Protospiel-Milwaukee I did retheme it based on some components available there. Several people playtested it with the theme of Space Monsters eating asteroids. So maybe I’ll have the game be dual-themed. If you like the killer whale idea you could play on that side of the tiles. If you like the Space Monsters theme you could play on that side.
The bottom line is that this game was fun, plays quickly, and comes in a small box. That’s an awesome combination.
I’m not typically an area control/area majority kind of guy. However, Conclave is all about area control. In the game you represent one of the Preferiti, the cardinal’s on the short list to be the next pope. You are also representing a order of Catholicism, which can allow me to do some interesting things with the design.
The current state of the game is that it isn’t very fun. While I think there are some interesting mechanics in the game, they just don’t seem to work together to make something that is fun. That’s not good.
But I have some ideas. Since the game revolves around holding the control of different tables, with varying numbers of cardinals sitting at them, then I can add in objectives to the game while keeping it reasonably thematic. The idea would be that the game can be won if a global victory condition is met, otherwise it will be won by a combination of points, which represent how well you manipulated the college of cardinals.
There would be both shared and secret objectives. Once a player completes a shared objective, they place a pawn on it and will earn those points at the end. When a played completes a secret objective it must be revealed. This card will remain in from of them and will be scored at the end.
So I have some good paths forward with Conclave. Now I just have to decide where it actually resides in my priority queue.
Call me Ishmael, for I have discovered a white whale by the name of Trading Post.
Trading Post was my first experience with trying to design a really heavy game. I failed miserably. However, I love the theme and some of the core mechanics so I’d like to do a third complete reboot. Note, however, that the first two reboots were more like retrofitting rather than redesigning.
To redesign the game I want to achieve the following things:
- Make it more historic
- Make it focused on Trading, explicitly about trading furs for European goods.
- Make it fun.
- Make it complex.
So I sat down at the end of August and came up with what I think will be a really great game. The idea of the game is that you are a Trader working for a Trading Post. Your objectives in the game (read: “Ways to score points”) are to go on hunting excursions to collect furs, trade furs for goods, use goods to help build the Trading post. That’s the 10,000 foot view of the game.
There are a few other things going on in the game that I think are unique and interesting. There is a time-dependence for being able to do things in the game. For example, when you send furs to Europe, they have to ride on the boat, which takes time. There is also a concept of chopping wood and floating it down the river towards the Trading Post. So players would have to set themselves up to receive the large amounts of wood when they arrive.
Overall I’m pretty excited to be able to think about this game from a fresh perspective. It’ll be interesting to see how it comes along.
This is a very recent game design of mine. As you can imagine, the theme is that of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the game you represent a crew of workers that are helping to build the bridge. It is similar to Stone Age in that you place workers in different areas of the board one location at a time. It is different from Stone Age in that one player cannot remove all their workers and take all their actions at once. Instead, players will remove their workers and take the actions one location at a time.
What that introduces is an interesting dichotomy about placing and removing workers. You might be able to get a good spot in the Materials office, but someone might beat you to building a section of the bridge. You might get lucky and not experience the bends when working in the caisson, or your worker might have to undergo a stage decompression.
This game will be a balance between obtaining goods and earning money. The goal is to contribute the most to the bridge and that will ultimately be the player who earns the most money.
As of today this is still a pretty rough concept. I’ve mocked up some tiles so that I can test a few things. I’m not sure this one (or Trading Post) could really be a full prototype by Christmas, but we shall see.
The Path Forward
So those are the four concepts currently in my active queue. This gives me enough variety and enough challenges to work on while not being overwhelming. But if I try to work on all four then I’m afraid none of them will be ready before Christmas. So I present my first ever poll, for which I am sure to get thousands of votes. Please vote for the game design you would most like to see fully prototyped:
Thanks for reading and voting! I’m hoping to bring you good game design updates over the next three months!
Over the past four weeks I’ve been writing about a new game redesign of mine by the name of Trading Post. Since there has been a decent level of interest in the game concept I thought I’d write one more article about the game. So far I’ve covered the following:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
- BONUS Today 6-13-13: More on Trading Post
Today I’m giving you some bonus material on where the game is at, how to make it better, and some other tasty morsels. But let’s start with how good I am at focusing on things other than actually designing this game!
I’m Good at Wasting Time (and Effort!)
One of my downfalls in life is my desire for perfection. Perhaps perfection is the wrong word. That paints me as someone with OCD, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Perhaps a better word would be aesthetics. I desire for things to look good.
At the end of May an article was posted on Example of Play called, “The Benefits of Crappy prototypes.” I will provide a rebuttal for that article next week, but I wanted to mention it today because I am not a believer in crappy prototypes. And this may be my downfall.
I love a good looking prototype. I love good game art. If you’ve read my board game reviews you’ll see that artwork is consistently mentioned as either a like or a dislike. I approach game design as though I’m reading a story. I like to be enveloped in a different world and escape this one for an hour or so. Artwork is a key way to get that experience across to the players.
What this means is that I spend way, WAY too much time in Inkscape making prototype artwork. The upside is this:
The downside is that I have four logos (as seen above) for a game that no one has yet even played! I just can’t help myself.
So I had a think about what this all really means. I was a little disappointed in myself for the artwork side of things when the game design part of it seemed lagging. But then I remembered the whole purpose:
Games, and game design, are supposed to be fun! Why else design games or play them?
So I’ve realized that though the artwork doesn’t specifically help a game design move forward, I’m having a lot of fun working on the artwork. Thus, I shall continue.
Solo “Playtest” #1
Last week I showed the picture of the game setup. I’m repeating the image here for easy reference:
Since this is an insight into the inner workings of my mind I am sharing the thoughts I wrote down while attempting to play the game for the first time.
First, some rules. On your turn you can take up to 3 actions. These can all be the same, or they can all be different. That’s up to you. The actions you can take are determined by the number of action points you have for each action. For example, if you had three points in the EXPLORE action track, then you could use all three actions on your turn to EXPLORE. After you have taken your 1, 2, or 3 actions, you must then move other action’s track cubes up in value. This is what I am calling a “Zero-Sum Action Point Allowance System.” (I would go with the acronym ZSAPAS, but I’m not going to use the term again in today’s article). Basically, for every action you take there is an equal an opposite reaction.
Here is a little game design nugget that you might enjoy:
During testing, if it seems like the first turn for all players is dictated, SKIP that first turn and make the result the new starting condition in the game.
What that means is that if all players have no choice (or only one beneficial choice) for what their first turn should be, fix it! Ever wonder why players start with 4 train cards in Ticket to Ride???
During the first solo playtest I made it 6 turns before I realized I wasn’t happy with the design. Here is the list of my chosen actions on this six turns:
- Explore/Harvest/Explore – Increased Fulfill/Trade/Trade
- Harvest – Increased Explore/Explore/Trade (I suppose you can always move up three action cubes – so much for “equal and opposite”)
- Explore/Explore/Trade – Increased Harvest/Harvest/Harvest
- Harvest/Harvest/Build (Stable) – Increased Explore/Explore/Explore
- Explore/Explore – Increased Harvest/Harvest/Harvest
- Harvest/Explore Quit.
After 6 turns I had been unable to fulfill any orders and I was only able to purchase one building. In Scoville players only have a total of about 7-10 turns. So after these 6 turns I realized that I have basically done nothing. At least nothing very fun. I need to adjust it so players feel a sense of accomplishment on each turn, or at least feel like they are setting themselves up for accomplishment soon.
Here are the notes I took at this point:
- Should the “Orders” be stacked? (What I meant here is that should the low level orders come out first, then the better ones, then the best, a la Power Grid Power Plants?)
- Should the highest valued Order card be replaced each turn that an order is not fulfilled?
- Should players always get to move their pawn 1 spot per turn without taking an action to do so? (Using the Explore action seemed critical and it was thus used very often. Then it had to be refreshed, so there were turns where I couldn’t move anywhere.)
- It takes too long to build even the basic buildings, which means it takes too long to get the man-made resources. How can this be sped up?
- Should players be able to complete a trade even if their pawn is not on a spot with another player or in the Trading Post (a la Settlers of Catan)?
- How do I make TRADING the focus?
That last point is a big one. Let’s talk about that…
Put the “Trading” in Trading Post!
Thus far in the design the trading aspect of the game has, for some lame reason or another, been the lesser focus of the design. I have always been more interested in the land exploration and development side of things. Why?
I don’t know. So I am going to switch over the focus of the game to actually put TRADING at the forefront. Sometimes I wonder how I get this far without realizing something so critical to the design. Which leads me to another game design nugget:
Designers should step back from their design every once in a while and pick apart every aspect. Ask yourself specific questions about each design decision and try to think if there is a better way!
One big example is when a level 1 friend pointed out that the black and white peppers in Scoville should cross-breed to silver/platinum/other grey color rather than gold. Color-wise it made sense. But since my original design was that they made gold I had simply stayed with it because I had never gone back and questioned why I did it that way. And I never asked myself if there was something better.
So the new thrust of the design for Trading Post is to bring trading to the forefront. Now I think that on every turn you will complete a trade at the start of your turn. This could then aid you when you choose your three actions for your turn. I’m imagining a “Trade Route” of trading cards on the table, which would still represent things the Trading Post needs. They could be set up like the races in Small World or the foraging trail in Morels or the buildings track in The Manhattan Project. In each of those games players can choose the first option(s) for free or pay to take one further done the path. This mechanic would work very well for the “Trade Route.” Or I could use a rondel for increased Euro-y awesomeness!
Another way that trading would become more integral, and increase player interaction at the same time, is to allow trading with other players no matter where you are located. Sometimes it’s easy to let thematic correctness run the show. But this is game design and we can fudge things now and then. Settlers of Catan is a very popular game that allows player to trade resources with other players no matter what. Now, explain thematically how that makes sense. What if your settlements and their settlements aren’t anywhere near each other on Catan? Well, if it’s good enough for Catan, then it’s good enough for this game!
The bottom line is that trading needs to be what makes this game special. If you want a game where exploration is the focus, then find some 18XX game.
How to Reboot…
So I am going to jump back a little and try to re-figure out how to play this game. Admittedly it wasn’t ever really set to begin with. But to make trading the focus will take some effort. I really think this can be a fun theme/game and so I will continue to work on it.
So it’s time to take some of the blank cards I ordered and put them to use. I’m excited to work on the Trade Route/Rondel idea and see how it changes the focus on the game.
Another thing I’ll probably change is that players should draw all their land from their set of ten land tiles as part of their setup. What this would do is drastically lower the exploration aspect of the game. Players would also be able to plan their moves more deeply and more intentionally. I like the sound of that.
Once I nail down how I want the trade route to work then I can put the pieces back together for how the rest of your turn would work. This should be pretty interesting and I’m going to take an open-source approach to this design. That means I’ll be posting about it for all of you to read. I hope to provide you with a designer’s perspective on making appropriate choices within the design process, and how to keep things simple. Trading Post posts likely won’t be weekly from here on out, but they will definitely pop up now and then as I work through stuff.
Thanks for reading and joining me on this ride!
I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the last of 4 articles about it. Here are the four articles in this series:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- Today 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
Today we’re looking at my path forward with Trading Post as we near GenCon. I am hoping to have a game that has been playtested, is fun, and is able to be played near the Blue Noodle (UnPub area). So I’ll cover some development and what I’m hoping will happen with the game.
The Development Phase
Currently the game has not been played. What? You mean you’ve been reading a month’s worth of posts about some guy’s game that hasn’t even been played? Yes. And thanks for reading! I have nearly all the components together for the game. All that is missing is a scoring track and coins. Here is a picture of the game in its current prototype state:
So let’s talk about the different components that we see in that picture and discuss their purpose in the game.
Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. In the center is the land portion or map portion of the game. Each player has their own region, which is shown on the right. It is a player’s objective to explore their territory throughout the game. As they explore their territory they will draw a tile from their land tiles. These tiles are shown in the image above as the stack of hexes next to the player mats. The tiles will be either Meadow, Hill, Forest, or Mountain.
On the right of the map portion is the tree of buildings. Besides exploring your territory during the game you will also want to build buildings. The downside of building is that you lose a resource region of your territory. The upside is that you have a new trading opportunity in your own territory. Other players may visit it to complete the trade shown on the building hex, but they will have to pay you to do so. Buildings also count towards some of the scoring cards, which I will explain below.
To the left of the map portion are the resources. There are four natural resources in the game and four man made resources. The four natural resources are gained by harvesting them within your territory. The man made resources can be earned through the trade opportunities in certain buildings.
Below the map portion in the image are the Orders cards. Thematically here the Trading Post is requesting certain orders to be fulfilled. On your turn you have the opportunity to fulfill any number of these if you have the action points available. Along with building buildings it is also critical to fulfill orders during the game. This is a significant way to earn points. It is also a way to earn endgame points if you have a scoring card that requires certain colored orders be fulfilled. Once orders have been fulfilled, at the end of the current turn they are restocked to the number of players.
In the image the game is set up for six players. Each player has a player mat, their ten territory tiles, a pawn for the scoring track that is not in the image, and two scoring cards. Each player will also have some coins to begin the game, but I have not yet totally figured out the role I want coins to play in the game. They may ultimately be excluded.
Scoring cards represent hidden endgame scoring conditions. These are similar to the route/destination tickets in Ticket to Ride. Some of these are requirements for building certain combinations of buildings. Others are for fulfilling certain combinations of orders. But they are all ways to score points at the end of the game. I chose this because I like all players to be able to hold on to hope. And endgame scoring is a mechanic for hope.
The player mat is where I think a lot of the interesting strategy comes into play. The mats in the picture do not have numbers on them, but you can imagine each row having 0 1 2 3 4 5 on them. Each row is a different action. The number on which your cube sits tells you how many of that action you have available on your turn. At the start of the game all players have two of each action available. On your turn you can do three different actions, each as many times as your cubes indicate. The cool part is that as those actions decrease, other actions have to increase equally. What we have here is a zero-sum action point allowance system. Here is an example of a first turn where the player has chosen to EXPLORE twice and HARVEST twice. This allows them to discover new parts of their territory, set themselves up to have more resources available on subsequent turns, and have some resources to use on their next turn. So they spent a total of four action points. Then they have to move non-used actions up by four points. In this case they chose to increase FULFILL by 1 and TRADE by 3.
On their next turn they will be unable to explore and harvest. So likely their only option is to move their pawn to the Trading Post and hope they can fulfill an order or perform a trade based on the resources they harvest on their first turn. I think having this zero-sum action point allowance system in place will lead to some tense decisions in the game. Players will have to make sure they’re leaving themselves with the action points they want for the next turn.
Obviously, since this hasn’t yet been tested, this zero-sum action point allowance system will have to be extensively played. That leads me to the next thing I wanted to mention…
The first time I tried to play Scoville it played through to the end in a surprisingly well manner. I am a little worried about that with Trading Post. I feel like this will require much more testing than Scoville to get it to a point where I am comfortable showing it to a publisher. But GenCon is two months away, so the testing shall commence soon.
My main objective with any playtesting is to continually make sure the game is any fun.
It’s all about fun, right? Who wants to play a boring, crappy game with some weird, offbeat theme that doesn’t relate to anyone?
Now, perhaps there are a bunch of you who think the western trading post scene is for old guys who grew up watching John Wayne. I can assure you that in Trading Post out here a man settles his own problems. Trading Post is designed with a Euro identity in mind, but without anyone from the 13th-18th centuries looking boring on the cover of the box. I am very excited about this game and its potential.
I am fortunate to have a great group of friends who are willing to playtest my games here in town. So I am guessing they’ll try out this one as well. Since playtesting will be my focus for Trading Post over the next two months I figured I would list the things that I view as important during the playtesting phase of game design.
- Keep your design objectives in mind – do not get carried away on wild tangents just because one player mentioned something unusual. Keep asking yourself why you are designing this particular game and why you think it is unique and interesting.
- Offer bribes of beverages, snacks, and an awesome atmosphere to lure playtesters. And telling them their name would be in the rulebook if it were to get published doesn’t hurt either!
- Try to make sure the game is playable before subjecting anyone to it. This means solo playtesting.
- Don’t change major things on the fly during a playtest.
- Don’t implement more than one major change at a time between playtests – if you add two things and the game gets way better or way worse you may not know which change should be attributed to the difference in play.
- I recommend playtesting at least ten times before integrating major changes. This gives you a solid pool of plays from which to draw an understanding of an “average” game and also gives you enough opportunity to perhaps see any unusual play.
- One of the keys to playtesting is watching for patterns. If several different people all mention the same thing (not in the same playtest) then you’d better start paying attention to it.
- And I’d like to recommend shooting for a playtest goal of 100 playtests, but I’ve not done that with my games, so how could I hold you accountable. Do it! I don’t. You should. So 100 it is!
Those are just some guidelines. I also like to get into some nitty gritty stats when playtesting. For Trading Post I’ll be keeping stats on how often each color of orders get fulfilled, how often each type of orders get fulfilled, how often players will get to the green buildings, and so much more. There is a lot I could analyze with Trading Post so I have another recommendation for playtesting:
If your design is complex, playtest the game ten times and only focus on one element. Make no changes to anything else. Once that element seems “good,” move on to another.
I think I will have to proceed this way with Trading Post. I may start by watching how the buildings get purchased and built for a set of ten playtests. Then for the next ten I may focus on how the scoring conditions seem to play out. (Note: the data from the first ten playtests where scoring conditions were not the focus can still be used in this portion of the playtesting).
My goal over the next two months is to get 15 playtests completed. That’s one every four days, which might be a bit much, but you gotta have ambition if you wanna get anything done! Entering Protospiel-Milwaukee I had had 18 playtests in on Scoville. By then, even with only 18 under my belt, I felt I was able to teach it quickly and explain the thrust of the game. That way I was not wasting other playtesters time. I hope to meet this goal so that I don’t waste anyone’s time at GenCon where there is so much awesomeness to be had!
Pitching at GenCon
Well I’d be a knucklehead if I assumed that a game that hasn’t even yet been played could be pitchable by GenCon. That will depend on how playtesting goes. So I am not going set of goal of pitching this game while there. My goal for moving forward with this game as GenCon approaches is to have something where the wrinkles have been ironed out and it seems fun.
But for those of you who may be pitching your own games I recommend reading the following two articles:
- Networking Earns Pitching – http://www.cheveedodd.com
- Pitch Like a Pro – http://www.hyperbolegames.com
The first is something you should probably be working on right now if you haven’t already done it. The second is an awesome guide to how it all works and how to do it right. I’m guessing my 2014 GenCon will be more about pitching than my 2013 GenCon.
While I won’t be pitching the game at GenCon I will definitely have at least one copy with me. If you want to give it a shot just let me know and we can schedule something! Head for the Blue Noodle! (www.UnPub.net)
Path Forward for Trading Post
Now I just gotta sucker my friends into playing an unpublished game that likely has no balance, and no reason to be good. Of course I’ll have to figure out those insignificant things like what you actually do on a turn. But I’m getting very close to solo testing. If this game seems to work after a decent amount of playtests then I’ll likely send a copy into the Prototype Penpal Program run by Grant Rodiek. It’s a great way to get designer level feedback and to see if your game is broken. Plus, it’s always fun to know that somewhere out there other people are playing your game!
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed my articles over the past few Thursdays about Trading Post. I’ve received some interesting feedback already and I appreciate all the kind things you’ve all said. I hope that this game seems fun to you. I’ll keep moving forward with it and will definitely keep blogging about it. Someone also suggested making Thursday the default Trading Post day. We’ll see. Thanks for reading! And don’t be shy with any comments about any of this.
I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the third of 4 articles about it. This is the third article about the game from it’s creation to the present state. Here are the four articles in this series:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- Today 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
Today we’re looking at the current state of the game, and how I got there. In my opinion today’s article covers the most important details of game design. Let’s call it “distilling” and “skimming.” But first let’s look at why I took a break from the game.
The Hiatus, or “This game stinks… let’s take a break!”
If you’ve read the past two articles on Trading Post then you’ve learned what I want the game to be like (week 1 – Origins), and you’ve learned how I don’t want to be (Week 2 – Early Prototyping). At its heart I want Trading Post to be a competitive game about exploration and development of a western Trading Post. I want the game to flow smoothly, create tense decisions, feel thematic, and be easy to teach/learn.
My previous version was none of those. I had spent a lot of time on this game. I thought I had something very thematic. But I realized that I had a big pile of garbage that didn’t work together. It had several things in it that felt like busywork rather than a game. And ultimately it was not any fun. That’s a huge problem. Remember that we are game designers and games are supposed to be fun!
So I decided to put Trading Post on the shelf. That must have been early in 2012. At the time it was a pretty easy decision because I really didn’t know how to move forward with the game. I could easily have abandoned the project overall.
During the hiatus I worked on a few other games. The most notable (at this point) was my card game Dam It! But I was working on another game with a level 1 friend. It used several of the same elements of Trading Post but in a more thematic and historical context. Ultimately I realized that Trading Post was a game I wanted to bring back. To resurrect.
So after having Scoville turn in to the PnP behemoth that it has I figured now would be a good time to try and bring back Trading Post from the dust in my basement.
A Fresh Start – Land Exploration
There were certain elements that I thought would be good to carry over from the first version of the game. And there were others that I knew I should ditch. I figured a good way to redesign the game would be to start with the elements I wanted and add from there. I could then completely ignore the bad things from version one.
My starting point was the land exploration portion of the game. I knew that this could be dramatically simplified. To get things more simple I decided that the game would have only four natural resources – Water, Lumber, Stone, and Gold. The previous version had more – Lumber, Grain, Animals, Fruit, Cotton, Steel/Iron, and Water. That was too many. And four would allow me to do what I want with the game.
So I set up a way to make things be as equal as possible, without forcing identical conditions on players. I devised a set of ten tiles that each player would have. Throughout the game, as they explore their territory, they would draw seven of the ten tiles. It was designed at that number so that no player would be without any of the resources. Here are the ten tiles from which each player draws when they explore:
Players will add these to their portion of land that the Trading Post has given them to explore. Each player starts with a Meadow (1 Water) and a Hill (One Water OR One Lumber).
With this design players will always have access to all of the resources. Sometimes players may end up with all four mountain tiles and thus a bunch of stone. Likewise players may end up with only one mountain tile and thus very little stone.
Here’s a look at the starting region for each player:
With the understanding that some players may have only one gold tile or stone tile while others may have four stone tiles or four gold tiles I knew that I’d have to design the game so that you can win under any of those conditions. That leads me to my next design element that has carried over from version 1… the buildings.
In the original version of the game the buildings only entered into the mix late in the game. They acted the same way as the Orders – that is, they came out four per year and you could fulfill them from the pool of face up cards. I didn’t like that.
So I decided to make buildings a more integrated part of the game by allowing them to be entered for some benefit to a player. Also, I decided that buildings should be available from the start of the game. Thematically the idea of building buildings is that you are developing the Trading Post so that it offers more to any guests that may visit. So buildings are a part of the game play from the get go.
There are 14 different buildings in the game. Each building offers players some sort of trading opportunity. Players can purchase buildings and build them on their land. Once they build a building they will earn points for building it, but will also cover up the natural resources that they could produce on that territory tile.
When a player purchases a building they will take the associated hex for that building and place it onto a section of their territory that they have already prepared for a building. Note: preparing land is a separate action.
Whenever another player enters the bank tile, the owner is to be paid two coins as a sort of “trade fee.” These buildings will be critical to success in the game. You want to own them, but you also don’t want to give up the resources of the land that they are covering. It’s a sort of Catch-22. But that’s part of the fun of a game, right?
My objective with the design of the buildings was to utilize both stone and gold equally. This would aid the differing land resource conditions that I mentioned above. As an example, there is another building where you can trade one gold for two stone. Imagine owning both that building and the bank! You’d be able to create a huge supply of both stone and gold.
Now that I had redesigned the buildings in a much simpler manner that will be more integrated into the game play it was time to give players options for scoring points. And it made me ask the very important question that I seem to neglect until the late stages of game design: How do you win the game?
Let’s Get to the Point(s)!
I struggled a lot with how I wanted scoring to be handled in Trading Post. So far we’ve only discussed earning points via buildings. In the previous version of the game players could earn points from fulfilling orders. I wanted that element to remain in the game.
But I also wanted more opportunity for scoring. And I wanted that scoring to be hidden. This mechanic is the core of the famous game Ticket to Ride. In that game players play the game and attempt to complete routes from one city to another. They are the only person who knows the route. At the end of the game the routes are revealed and players score positive or negative points based on whether or not they connected the two cities.
You Can’t Order Me Around!
So I decided to distill my original set of Orders from the first version of the game. Maybe now is a good time for me to explain what I mean by distill. Here’s a definition of the word “distill:”
to extract the essential elements of; refine;
That is exactly what I’ve been doing with these game elements. I am extracting the parts of the elements that make sense and work as a game. You could also look at it like separating the wheat from the chaff. Version 1 had a lot of chaff and very little wheat. But the wheat that was there was very good wheat. I recommend to all game designers who have projects that they’ve shelved to try and distill them. This is a great way to get back to the core elements that you originally desired while removing the garbage that you added needlessly.
So I took the concept of orders and basically “Mathified” it. What I mean by that is I basically designed the orders to be different combinations of the resources used in the game.
Version 1 had a huge list like the spreadsheet that I showed last week. These were things like hats, pies, and musketballs. I decided that with the redesign I would ignore the naming of the items and just use the mathy combination of things.
So there are orders that cost 1 wood or 1 lumber or 1 stone or 1 gold. Then there are orders that cost any combination of two of those resources. Then there are orders that add in the secondary resources (hammer/nails/bricks/trowel). And it gets more complicated from there.
The design has a scale for how many points each order should be worth based on the costs. In the example shown the gold may be worth 2 and the bricks and trowel each worth 5 to get to a total of 12 points. So players are able to earn points during the game by fulfilling orders. (I know… that seems similar to Scoville. Oh well.)
You’ve Got a Hidden Agenda!
The other scoring I mentioned is hidden scoring. There are many games that have scoring conditions that are revealed at the end of the game. So I’m not doing anything groundbreaking here. But having hidden scoring conditions that only get revealed at the end of the game is a great way for players to never feel out of a game!
So I designed a set of scoring condition cards that have a two-fold purpose:
- Give players hope.
- Give players goals.
Hope is a big deal in board games. If a player doesn’t think they can win they may as well give up. I’ve seen players who know they can’t win start to help their favorite player win the game. I do not like that in a game. If a player has hope that they are doing a great job meeting their own scoring conditions then they have hope that they could pull it out in the end. Games like this include Stone Age, Archipelago, Ticket to Ride, and Suburbia to name a few.
Goals are also important. It helps guide a player’s strategy. It gives a player something to plan for. And it can help eliminate analysis paralysis. One of the newer games that has goals that definitely guide my strategy is 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders each player has their own “Wonder” which is shown on a player mat in front of them. Each of these is different and provides some sort of bonus. The wonder that you receive can steer your strategy in the game.
I designed a deck of scoring condition cards to meet those requirements. These include having certain sets of buildings or certain combinations of fulfilled orders. So players can have hope throughout the game and never feel completely out of it. They may not be totally thematic, but I can give up a little theme for a better game. If players want to think of these scoring conditions more thematically then they can think of them as private commissions from the Trading Post.
Here are two examples of scoring conditions. The card on the left would award points to the player only if they managed to own two blue buildings and a green building. The card on the right would award different numbers of points based on how many orange orders they fulfilled.
But How Do You Play?
Ironically this is probably the one question to which I don’t know the answer. I am debating about having the game play several different ways. Options include:
- Role Selection a la Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, Carson City.
- Turn based game play with players choosing one thing to do per turn.
- Turn based with an action point allowance system.
- Rounds where players each do action A, then action B, and so on.
I truly have not decided which is the best approach for this game. I may end up testing all four options and seeing which works best. Here are the things I am trying to design for in the game:
- Minimal downtime
- No runaway winner
- Tense decisions
- Ramping up of awesomeness
- Accessibility – Easy to learn, easy to teach, easy to play
So I’m going to choose the game play option that best fits those game design goals. I am initially leaning toward the role selection option but making it less about a role and more about providing a specific set of actions that a player can do. I’m not sure that makes sense.
The bottom line is that I have several game play concepts within the game but I don’t have an overall picture of the game play. That’s what I’ll be discussing more in depth in next week’s article about my path to GenCon with Trading Post.
So next week I’ll cover the game play options for the game. I’ll also cover how to get this game ready to potentially pitch it to publishers at GenCon. Stay tuned! As usual, your comments are welcome. I’d love to hear what people think about this game design.
I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the second of 4 articles about it. Including last week, today, and the next two Thursdays, I’ll be writing about the game from it’s creation to the present state. Here’s the four articles in this series:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- TODAY 5-23-13: Prototyping Early Versions
- 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
So today let’s again jump back in time a few years and take a look at my early prototyping attempts, from when I didn’t know anything about prototyping games!
One of the first things I attempted to make when I thought I had the design “together” enough was a board. I figured black and white was a great place to start. So I drew a few sketches about the layout and then opened The Gimp.
For those of you who don’t know what The Gimp is, here’s where you can go to learn more: http://www.gimp.org/
It is an open source image editing software. While it used to be my weapon of choice for image editing and graphic design, I now use Inkscape since it is a vector graphics software (and still free).
So in The Gimp I got a 21″ x 21″ file open and began by creating the main hex grid. Last week I wrote about a grid of squares with truncated corners where cubes could fit. Well, that was gone by the time I decided to make a prototype. So here we are already discussing a hex grid map with square tiles. In the earliest designs all the tiles were going to be 1″ squares. So the board reflected that. You’ll understand why I went with squares a little more in the discussion about components below.
The hex shaped grid for player territories was a beast to design. I actually had to do math to get the grid to be a hex in The Gimp. This would have been relatively easy in Inkscape. But it wasn’t very fun in The Gimp.
After wrestling with the hex grid territory region I added a few other smallish things to the board. This included the title, resource areas, a time track, and a spot for cards. After spending a completely ridiculous amount of time on a board for a prototype that hadn’t even been played, here’s what I ended up with:
As you can see it values function over form. Ugly though it be, it would still get the job done. So I printed it on 9 different sheets of paper and tried to get all the edges lined up. Maybe my struggles with creating a full size game board when working on Trading Post are what subconsciously led me to not having a full size board for Scoville.
The Territory Tiles:
The main concept of the design involves exploration of your territory. Players start with their pawns in the center and eventually should try to explore all of their territory. So I had to make tiles to put on the sections of your territory as you would discover them.
These tiles would represent different resources that could be available, AND the amount of that resource that the piece of land would produce… for the rest of the game. This included things like Wood, Stone, Fruit, Grain, and more.
Here is a lesson I learned when prototyping the territory tiles: Just buy chipboard components from someone like Printplaygames.com. For the cost you can get just about everything you would need to get your game to the prototype phase.
Did I make such a wise decision? Not even close. I actually bought a wood board and went to a friend’s house to use their table saw to cut 1″ square tiles. Then I cut out square pieces of paper. The paper got glued to the tiles. Then I drew little icons on each one and colored the edges to match the icon. Here’s a recommendation: Don’t do it like that!
Eventually I got to the point where a hex-based grid seemed like a better idea and I began to work toward a hex-based prototype. I used a computer aided drafting software called SolidWorks to render a hex grid that I could print out for the hex-based prototype. I don’t recommend using CAD software for board game design unless you’re making minis. The main problem is that the CAD software typically doesn’t allow you to save images in high quality. The downside of the change to a hex-based system was that all the effort I put into the wooden square tiles was now wasted. (I can say that it was wasted because it was never even used in a playtest).
The hex-based system didn’t change how the game was played. It just made things fit a little better and look neater & tidier on the board. It was at this point in my board game design career that I decided to purchase a hex-punch. I bought a Creative Memories Double Hex Punch off eBay for about $8. It turns out that that’s a crazy awesome price! Despite the price I recommend buying a variety of punches, especially circles. I just searched and found a few of the Creative Memories hex punches on eBay for about $37. Another free designer tip:
Punches can be your best friend!
Here is a link for punches from Fiskars. I would recommend starting on eBay, though.
Ugh. Looking back on all of this makes me wish I had been familiar with Inkscape at the time I was working on this design. All of the art and tiles could have been made with Inkscape so much more easily than what I was doing.
Well I now had my territory tiles made. Now it was time to add the other unnecessary ingredients in this poor game design…
The Event & Order Cards:
After reading the article about what makes a game good (Note: here’s the article I mentioned in last week’s Trading Post article, thanks to Neil Roberts who found the link – What Makes a Game Good?) I knew that I wanted to especially avoid monotony in the game design. I already had a random draw for territory exploration. But how else could I increase variability and replayability?
I came up with the idea that each “year” in the game would have something different going on. I called these “Event” cards. They typically affected how the market worked for different goods. But they also could positively or negatively affect all players. A few of the event cards are shown here on the right.
These were masterfully made in Excel. The bottom row of the event cards is a spot for players to put a cube of their player color when the card affected them to show that it had done so. Cards could only affect a player once. The top box on the cards is also color coded. The DROUGHT card in the image affects GRAIN and thus matches the yellow color of the grain. Pretty awesome, huh?
But this wasn’t enough! Another free designer tip:
Don’t add complications until the game needs it!
At the time I was designing Trading Post I hadn’t learned that lesson. So I added ORDER cards in a seemingly theme-less way to make each game different. I guess I was really worried that people would be bored with Trading Post after one or two plays.
Thematically the ORDER cards represented things the Trading Post needed during that year. That at least made sense. These things included blankets, hats, pies, buildings, flagpoles, and on and on. I struggled to make a list long enough of the sorts of things that a Trading Post might need. But eventually I got them all together and started making more “awesomeness” in Excel. Here’s a glimpse of the result:
So made a stack of about 50 order cards that would come out randomly, four per year. These would be available on a first come-first serve basis. The cost is shown on the left. In the image above, for example, the curtains would cost 2 cotton. The reward is on the right. In the same curtains example the reward was 2 Trading Points and 4 coins. I even added further complication by having some order cards provide a bonus if the owner already had fulfilled a prerequisite. In the image above an example is the BLACKSMITH. If you had fulfilled the HAMMER order card for the Trading Post and then fulfill the Blacksmith card you would earn an extra point and an extra coin. I suppose I added this to the design to produce a more guided decision tree to players.
In most of these images the way the prototype components were made was by printing on normal paper and glue-sticking them to 60lb. paper. The problem with this method is warping. And it was a big problem with the original Trading Post components. This is one reason that I have moved on to gluing stuff to matte board or chip board.
By this point in the design I had the board, the territory tiles, the event cards, and the orders. A market board was also built for the game to allow people to trade for different goods. This would be the driving economic factor of the game, but would also allow players to obtain goods that their randomly seeded territory did not produce. With all those components in place it was time to focus on what was in front of me… the player mat!
The Player Mats:
Since I knew that I wanted a main concept of the game to revolve around exploration I decided that upgrading your ability as an explorer would be critical. Thematically that meant going from a “trader” to a “trader with a horse” and eventually to a “trader with a wagon.” From early on in the design I limited the explorable zone for a “trader” to the first two rows out from the Trading Post. The idea behind this that fit the theme was that a man or woman could only walk, explore, and carry enough food for an expedition two rows out from the Trading post. By upgrading and purchasing a horse you’d be able to move faster and thus could explore more territory on the same rations. So when you purchased a horse you would be able to explore rows three and four away from the Trading Post. Finally, if you wanted to explore the outer most regions you would need to build a wagon.
So there is a side objective of all players in the game to be collecting the components they needed to be able to build their wagon. In the design I set it up so that you had to procure certain items. Once you had all these items you had a de-facto wagon. The wagon would allow you to explore the fifth row from the Trading Post.
I designed the player mats to show how far you could move and how much you could carry based on your status. And I included a Wagon Construction Area showing your progress toward a wagon. Here’s a look at the first and second versions of the player mats:
The cool thing, or at least what I thought was cool, was that in the second version you would actually be building your wagon by placing the pieces on top of the illustration.
One other thing to point out about how the game worked is illustrated in the second version of the player mats. There is a row for INCOME and a separate row for MONEY. Thematically the INCOME row represented any money earned during your turn. This would be like getting a paycheck. The way it worked was that after your turn, your income would be added to your money and then the income track would be set to zero. This means that any money earned on your turn isn’t available until the next turn.
I would say that through this whole prototyping process, which occurred in mid-2011, my favorite components were the player mats.
Overall Prototyping Experience:
The best possible tip I could provide to designers regarding prototyping would be this:
Just make something functional and test it. Only put in the effort to make it look good once you know it’s working.
Next week you’ll see that I don’t heed my own advice. But I’m inhibited by my desire to make things look good. And now that I know how to use Inkscape it takes much less effort to produce something that looks good.
Looking back at all the things I did for Trading Post I’ve realized that I wasted a lot of time. I built spreadsheets. I wasted hours using The Gimp to make that board. I added needless complexity, which then required me to make more components.
The game was only attempted to be playtested in its previous form twice. The effort to playtest ratio for this game is just ridiculous. So next week I’m covering my hiatus from the game, how I’ve advanced as a designer during that hiatus, and now how I’m going about redesigning the game. With that in mind I’ll leave you with one final image, which is a printout of a spreadsheet that I made so I could take notes on. This illustration sums up all the things that I am trying to avoid with the redesign!
Thanks for reading. I’m happy to answer any questions you have about Trading Post and the things I’ve posted so far. Just share your comments below!