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Trading Post Part 1: Origin

Trading Post Logo

Trading Post Logo… for now.

I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the first of 4 articles about it. Today, and the next three Thursdays, I’ll be writing about the game from it’s creation to the present state. Here’s the four articles I’ll be writing:

  1. TODAY 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
  2. 5-23-13: Prototyping Early Versions
  3. 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
  4. 6-6-13: Path to GenCon

So let’s jump back to 2010 when I was first diving into game design and take a look at how Trading Post became a thing…

Concept: Theme

Here you are, explorer extraordinaire! You have been selected from an elite group of explorers to develop a new Trading Post. You role, should you choose to accept it, is to utilize the resources found on your section of their territory, and contribute the most to the Trading Post. Contributions include constructing new buildings for the Trading Post, successfully exploring all of your allotted territory, and completing trades that are beneficial for the Trading Post.

Concept: The Map

Normally when I start a new game design I start with a theme. Trading Post is an unusual case in that it started with both a theme and a map mechanic to be used in that theme. For some reason I thought that a square grid with spots on the corners for putting cubes would be a good idea. And it would seemingly work very well with the Trading Post concept.

Here’s a look at one player’s section of territory in very alpha artwork, if you can refer to lines as artwork:

Octagons represent land/buildings. Diamonds represent resources.

Octagons represent land/buildings. Diamonds represent resources.

The idea of the map is that you can explore the land and add buildings to the octagons. Then each building can produce something that you can place into the diamonds. The resources would be represented by cubes, which would fit very nicely into the diamonds. The really sweet part of this map design is that you have to try and move your goods into the diamonds that adjoin to your territorial neighbors so that you can trade with them without having to use the Trading post as a middle man.

Concept: Game Play

With a theme and map mechanic in place it was time to figure out how the game would actually be played. I had found a really nice article online about what makes a game good. It included things like Tension, Replayability/Variability, No Runaway Winner, No Kingmaker, No Player Elimination and more. If anyone know of the article can you share the link? I can’t ever find it. So after working through some of those things in my head I came up with a ladder type design where you would become more capable of doing more things on your turn.

The idea of this was that you would start as just a person in the Trading Post. You would thus be able to move one spot per action, and you could only explore up to two rows into your territory. Since exploring all of your land is part of the game it would be important to build up the capability. So the first step would be to purchase a horse via trade with the Trading Post.

Once you traded for a horse you would be able to move two spots per action. You would also be able to explore the next row. In the game design the tiles that would be available in this “Horse Region” were better than those available in the “Person Region” (first two rows). This would allow you to do more stuff, make better trades, and work toward the wagon.

The Wagon was the last “upgrade” you could do. To build the wagon you would have to make a series of trades to procure the necessary components: wheels, axles, canopy, box. Once you’ve upgraded to the wagon you can then move three spaces per action and explore the furthermost regions of your territory. This is vital as the most valuable resources are only available in the “Wagon Region.”

Concept: Time and Action Points

During the game each action would cost a certain amount of time. The game would be played over 7 years with each action costing a certain number of months. So moving would cost 1 month. That’s why it would be important to upgrade to a horse or wagon as early as possible to be able to move more spots with the same action. Basically with the game being 7 years of 12 months each player would have 84 action points to work with.

Because I made “time” part of the game I was able to also have the seasons play a role. Each year had a new “Event” card come up that affected something for the year. This could be seasonally dependent as well.

So I came up with a series of event cards to add several things to the game design:

  • Replayability: Each game would be different since the draw of event cards is random.
  • Variability: Specific scenarios of event cards could be established to promote specific game play.
  • More details: Having event cards made the game deeper, in my opinion.

I found early on that having a time mechanic like this made things difficult to design. Since players weren’t always taking the same number of actions on a turn I had to incorporate a “last player gets a turn” mechanic similar to that in Glen More. By doing this I would never have to worry about how player order worked.

The other downside of having 84 actions points (84 months) in the game was that every single turn players would have to advance their “months” token and potentially their “years” token if they entered a new year. Fiddly.

Concept: Overall

I thought I really had something with this game design. I was gung ho about putting together a prototype and making this into the most awesomest game ever. With 8 different resources, 84 action points per player, upgrades to a horse and then wagon, land development, trading, exploration, etc. I knew this would be awesome. Perhaps I was being a little too optimistic.

In my mind I thought this game had a lot of potential. I put a lot of time into it early on only to realize that it was ridiculously complicated. Next week I’ll cover my initial prototyping efforts and the lessons I learned during that phase. In two weeks I’ll share with you the current re-designed version, which is night-and-day better, potentially even being a playable and fun game. And three weeks from now I’ll discuss my path forward with the game as we approach GenCon.

If you have any questions or comments about the game over the next three weeks, just let me know!

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Game Design Process: Concept

Discussing how I arrive at a concept.

Discussing how I arrive at a concept.

Last week I wrote about prototyping a board game and I shared my prototyping techniques for Scoville. This week I am sharing my concept process. How do I come up with a game design? Do I choose a theme and then add mechanics? Or do I choose a mechanic and then slap on a theme? Do I purposefully try to integrate an appropriate theme for the mechanics? These are the sorts of questions I’m answering today in a “self-interview” format.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration?

A: Everywhere awesomeness can be found. I can be easily inspired by just about anything. Make a game about boll weevils? Sure! Make a game about nuclear radioactive decay? Why Not! My main rule of thumb for game design, whether it’s the concept phase, prototyping, or potentially pitching a game is this:

Make sure it’s fun and relate-able!

If what you are designing is something that is fun, then the theme can be just about anything. I usually get inspired by the things that I waste spend my time on. If I’m enjoying the NCAA basketball tournament I’ll probably start thinking of making a card game where you represent a team in a region of the bracket and via set collection and hand management you have to play the right cards to get your team through the Final Four and eventually to win the championship. If I’m working out in the gym I might be inspired to design a game where you are a person who is trying to lose the most weight. You’d have to compete against the other players to burn the most calories or increase your bench press weight the most. The bottom line, though, is that it must be something fun. Players may love a set collection/hand management game, but if the theme is something boring that no one can relate to, then maybe you should come up with something else.

Q: Regarding a game designer’s Chicken vs. Egg Debate: Mechanic or Theme first?

Theme or Mechanic first?

Theme or Mechanic first?

My inspiration is typically theme based, so I usually start there. I’m not a huge fan of abstract games, either. So that probably guides me toward choosing a theme first.

When you choose a theme first it allows you to sort of steer your game in a direction that fits cohesively. Once you have a theme you can pick and choose the mechanics that you think will work best. Imagine you have chosen the NCAA tournament theme. It would be important to understand how the tournament works. You have 64 teams playing games over several weekends. Each game eliminates one team. Eventually you get to a Final Four. So once you understand how the tournament works you can then start to add mechanics. One way to do this would be to have players each represent one region of the tournament. Your objective would be to get your best team into the Final Four. Other players can play the spoiler role and try to cause upsets in your region. To do all this you could use a blind card mechanic with a drafting round before players apply cards. All players could draft a card and then cards could be played onto each game. The overall idea here is that when choosing a theme first you can then go and apply mechanics that you think fit the theme AND make the game fun.

On the other hand when you choose a mechanic first you are almost automatically starting with a more abstract game. A theme could be slapped on that probably fits the mechanic. Or a different theme. Or another different theme. The reason I typically don’t start with a mechanic is because the theme part of a game is typically what makes a game fun and relate-able. That’s just how I roll!

Q: What about boring themes? People seem to like them too!

Valid point, self. So there are a lot of games that have very boring (my opinion) themes that people still really like. Farming, for example. How can a game about farming be fun? The game Agricola is the third highest rated game on BoardGameGeek.com. So clearly the theme isn’t the whole picture in whether a game is fun or not. In fact, many Euro style games involve “trading” or “resource management,” which can be very boring topics. The key is this:

When the theme is boring, make sure the mechanics are innovative and unique (and fun!) (Or have awesome artwork!)

Sometimes people buy games because of the theme. Sometimes they buy games because of the mechanics. As long as the game is fun it can have a super dry and boring theme and people will potentially enjoy it.

Q: You keep mentioning “Fun.” How do you make sure a game is fun?

It looks like they're having fun!

It looks like they’re having fun!

When I first got into designing games I searched for articles about making games fun. I found some interesting things that I wanted to list here. Some of them are less about fun and more about making a game “good.” But it’s my philosophy that if a game isn’t good, it won’t be fun. So making a game “good” is a prerequisite for making a game “fun.” Here are my rules of thumb for the conceptual phase of the game design process:

  1. Interaction is Critical! (Otherwise I’d be designing solo video games!)
  2. Avoid Downtime.
  3. Provide many options on each turn – you don’t want players to only have one option on their turn. If they can only do one thing then the cease playing a game and become robots.
  4. Provide multiple paths toward victory. Even if there is only one victory condition, make sure that there are numerous ways to get there.
  5. Avoid a runaway winner.

Let’s quickly run through why each of these is important for making a game good and fun:

Interaction: If there is nothing you can do to affect the other players, then you’re playing a solo game against other solo gamers. Not fun. If there is no interaction on a verbal level then it doesn’t matter that you’re sitting around a table with friends. You may as well make your game into an app that people can play when they’re sitting on the toilet. Provide a way for players to interact in the game.

Downtime: No one likes sitting around for a long time while other players are taking their turns. Try to design your game so that people are constantly paying attention. Make sure they’re invested in what the other players are doing. It’s no fun to be sitting around waiting.

Options: Without options a game of strategy or tactics or even luck becomes a simple matter of doing whatever it is that the game is forcing you to do on your turn. That’s no fun at all! Designers: give your players options! Don’t turn us into robots.

Paths to Victory: It’s important for players to be able to play your game in different ways. This can be as simple as having destination tickets like in Ticket to Ride. Or it can be complicated like choosing the best way to fill in your estate in The Castles of Burgundy. Just make sure that you’re giving the players different ways to reach a winning condition.

Runaway Winner: I just as easily could have said to avoid player elimination. With a game where a player can get so far ahead that no one can catch up it is effectively player elimination anyway. A good and fun game design will include a way for players to catch up to a leader. This can be done several ways, including hindering the leader or benefiting a last place player. Think of the NCAA thing again. Which games are more enjoyable to watch, blowouts? or close games where a team was down big and they came back and hit a buzzer beater at the end?

Of course there are other things that can determine whether or not a game is any fun. Those above are just the main five things that I always keep in mind when designing a game. Another one that I did not mention because it is difficult to get right in a game is having an ever increasing amount of tension in a game. That is one of the things that Agricola does really well. This can be done by having limited resources or a first-come-first-serve option. Agricola has both!

Q: You’ve got a theme, now what?

So you’re going with Boll Weevils, huh? Could be worse!

You’ve chosen an interesting theme that could be fun and is relate-able. Where do you go next? I like to do a little research about whichever topic I’m thinking about designing into a game. When doing the research I try to figure out things about the topic that would work well for game mechanics.

In the Boll Weevil example I just learned that boll weevils, though not native to the United States, migrated here in the 19th century and by the 1920s had devastated much of the cotton industry. So perhaps while the boll weevil theme itself may not be very fun or interesting, as a designer I could go several different routes. I could make the game be a cooperative game about controlling the infestation. I could make it so that players represent individual boll weevils trying to infest the largest amount of territory. I could even make the game about farmers trying to grow the best cotton while other players can launch infestations of boll weevils on their opponents. So I could definitely produce a game about Boll Weevils. Question is, would anyone care?

The point is that once you choose a theme, do a little research and figure out what you really want the objective of the game to be.

Q: How do you add mechanics?

Now that you’ve gotten to the point of understanding what your objective is in your game it’s time to start turning it into a real game.  The key is understanding the theme. You don’t want to add things to your game that don’t really fit the theme. I recently ran across this with the game Archipelago. There are mechanics in that game that just don’t seem to fit the theme of exploring an archipelago and dealing with indigenous persons. One example is that if the rebels are advancing you can get them to stop by selling fruit. But you aren’t selling fruit to the rebels. You simply have to sell fruit. It just didn’t make much sense to me.

So when I think about adding mechanics to the theme I figure out how the theme really works. It’s like the boll weevil example above. Since boll weevils spread and infest I would probably add a mechanic where a swarm of boll weevils is taking over precious territory.

I also like to keep in mind the 5 points I made above about making a game good. If a mechanic adds too much downtime, for example, I might not go with that mechanic. Or if a mechanic has no player interaction I’d probably leave it out. It is important as a game designer to be cognizant of how the mechanics in your game not only allow for players to reach the game’s objectives, but also to make the game good and fun!

Conclusions:

Game designers face an interesting challenge. The whole idea of creating a game is almost a game in and of itself. Designers strive to make games that are fun, induce emotions from the players, create an atmosphere of engagement between players, and be innovative all at the same time. Finding a theme, applying mechanics, and balancing the game are all things that go into making a great game. If there’s a game out there that you really enjoy, find the designer on Twitter and thank them! A lot went into that game!

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