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.