Sunday, October 5, 2008

I Wanna Design Railroad Tycoon!

It's my favorite game, is Railroad Tycoon. And I like most rail games in general. They offer a type of competitive problem that I particularly enjoy. Every design is different, but often you are competing with other players for real estate and scarce resources, while constrained by connectivity and budgeting. In Railroad Tycoon, the real estate is the rail you lay between cities, and the connection points to those cities. The scarce resources are the goods to be delivered. Laying rail costs money; to raise money you can issue shares or make deliveries to increase your income.

Games like this offer the player a rich matrix of decisions. With a limited number of actions to complete your goals, every action is a significant choice. You need to build as early as possible, to grab scarce real estate before someone else does. But you need money to do that. Make deliveries first, to raise money? Or issue shares to get instant money? But shares will cost you more money, and penalty points, later; and if you delay the deliveries, someone else may "steal" them from you. No wonder rail games are fascinating!

This isn't a new or original pattern. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of rail games. Many form easily-extensible systems: the 18XX series, Age of Steam and its many expansions, the crayon rail games. Rail games are easy to extend because once you have a good basic game, you can vary it with new maps and minor rule tweaks to keep it fresh.

So with all these excellent rail games already available, why would I want to design another? The real answer is that I like rail games, so I'd like to have the experience of designing one myself, hopefully a good one. But I could also reply that new rail games come out every year, and if they're good, they get bought and played. There's clearly room for a few more yet.

Of course, I can't design Railroad Tycoon. (As Helen told me: "You know it's been done, right?") So I needed a new idea. Seth Jaffee has a nice design called Reading Railroad, which has a new twist: he's melded a word game with a rail game. The result is much more rail game than word game; it's fresh and different and it works well. But I wasn't looking for anything quite that radical.

What I came up with is this. In most rail games, you compete for the connections between locations. The locations themselves are usually not owned or monopolized by the players. I decided to try a design in which the rail network is built as a means to the end of "owning" the junctions: you are building stations and switchyards. (I'd be surprised if this actually hasn't been done before; but I haven't seen it and it doesn't seem to be common.)

I followed my usual design procedure: did a lot of thinking, wrote it up on the computer, refined it until it looked good. Then I made a quick-and-dirty mockup and tried a solo game, pretending to be four players at once. As usual, the initial design didn't work very well. I took the lessons learned, rethought things for another couple of days, and came up with a different variation, and tried that one. And it was better, but still flawed... I'll spare you the details, but I'm still trying out different ideas. I may wander away from the original notion altogether; I've learned not to be too wedded to my original notions.

What surprises me, again and again, is how difficult it is to design a truly interesting, playable game. More than once I've started with a successful but complex game (someone else's, of course) and tried to trim it down into something similar but simpler. And every time, it's failed. Yesterday I played a Railroad Tycoon variant, designed by a fan of the game. It's pretty much the same rules as the base game, just a few variations for interest's sake, and (the main difference) a new map. And it was... lackluster. It worked, but money wasn't tight and there wasn't as much interaction between the players as there should have been. I don't want to damn the variant on the basis of one play; maybe the map was designed for more than the four players we had, for example. Still, either of the two official versions (the original Railroad Tycoon and the Rails of Europe expansion) offer much superior play experiences.

And there's my own design. I borrowed some notions from RRT, some from other rail games, added a notion of my own... as I said, there are bazillions of good rail games. How hard can it be to come up with another one?

Apparently it can be pretty tough. So far I'm not impressed with my own design. But... at least it's not a complete heap of trash. Used to be, all my new designs turned out to be steaming heaps. Lately they've been almost-playable, with a strong sense that there might be a real game lurking in there somewhere, if I can only find it. I guess I'm getting better at this game design stuff, but I clearly have a long way to go.


Nunya Bidness said...

Good on ya!

I'm interested to hear about what you've got.

You might be wrong about rail games - it might be harder than you think! Martin Wallace said he's only designed TWO rail games and everything he's put out is a variation of one of those two (I want to say Prairie Railroads and Volldampf, but don't quote me). Of course, I don't know how many rail titles he's actually put out.

Also, even the prolific Knizia has only Stephenson's Rocket and Through the Desert as noteworthy route games in his portfolio. But again, what do I know?


Seth Jaffee said...

I didn't even know you were working on a new game! Cool...

Something you said I found interesting -
In most rail games, you compete for the connections between locations. The locations themselves are usually not owned or monopolized by the players.

I have recently been working on a few ideas about an airline game, one version of which was sort of an inverse rail game. Players would establish routes on the board not by laying track, but instead by 'owning or monopolizing' airports (!)

Funny that you'd mention that. Maybe that's the key I should be concentrating on for that game...

Meanwhile I'm leaning toward a simpler version of that game (originally it was supposed to be like Railroad Tycoon in scope). Details can be found on my blog.