Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wait, I Did That Already...

In my recent post I Wanna Design Railroad Tycoon! I expressed my desire to (a) build a rail game, and (b) build one where ownership or development of the junctions was a primary goal. I had the notion that (b) hadn't been done before, or at least not often.

The other day I had a penny-dropped moment: I have already designed such a game. It's Spatial Delivery, in which players build trade routes ("rails in space") to reach prime locations for trade stations.

So now I feel kind of stupid for characterizing the new design's goal in that way. Fortunately, I can add a little verbiage and perhaps make it plain why the new design really isn't Spatial Delivery warmed over.

In SD, players build routes, but once built the routes are held in common. There is no ownership of the routes, and no reward is given for building them, beyond the fact that the route-builder gets to build a station at the end of each new route. Players do own the stations they build, receive substantial rewards for building them, and may receive further rewards if other players use them.

But in the more traditional rail game I'm now trying to design, the rails will be owned by the players who build them. As in SD, there may be no immediate reward simply for building rail. But there will likely be rewards for building a given strategic route before other players can do so, because by doing so you can get some rewards from late-comers who want to share the route, and you can block others from using the route altogether. The race for connectivity, for expanding your network strategically, will be an integral part of the game. This isn't the case in SD, where connectivity isn't much of an issue (because if anybody can get from point A to point B, so can everybody else).

Another difference is that in SD, making deliveries gets you Victory Points. In the new design, I think that deliveries will get you cash, which you will then spend to build more rails and to build train stations. (I say I think because the design is still up in the air.) There's nothing new about this mechanism, of course; it's just different from SD.

Reiner Knizia was the first person who told me (at a seminar, not face-to-face) that the victory conditions have a huge effect on gameplay. It's a fairly obvious point, yet before that I was thinking in terms of coming up with a bunch of nifty mechanisms, and then just slapping a win condition onto the end of the rules. But of course, the goal of the game informs all of the players' decisions. In my rail game, I have a set of reasonable mechanisms that might contribute to a good game. But I won't be able to tell until I've tuned the scoring system correctly (or given it up as a bad job). I want connectivity to be important, but I also want the stations to be significant. I want the famous "multiple paths to victory", so that a player might win by building stations, or by building the best network, or by making the most money from deliveries. To do that will require some careful tuning and balancing.

And that's my next goal for this design: to come up with a reasonably well-tuned scoring system. If I can do that, I'll have a game. After that, it'll just be playtest, tune, and repeat until it's good enough.

Well, that's the plan, anyway. Nothing ever goes that smoothly!

Later: I tried a solo playtest of the latest rules (including scoring) this evening. It worked fairly well. The biggest problem may simply be the lack of anything very new or different from other rail games. It's a mix of familiar mechanisms, with nothing in it you haven't seen before. But while originality is nice, few games offer anything really new. I won't worry about it too much.

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