Saturday, December 12, 2009
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Saturday, October 10, 2009
- Ostrich Walk
- Aunt Hagar's Blues
- Alligator Hop
- Terrible Blues
- Tiger Moan
- Snag It
- Grandpa's Spells
- King of the Zulus
- I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind
- Chimes Blues
- Buddy's Habit
- Of All the Wrongs
- Krooked Blues
- New Orleans Stomp
- Jazzin' Babies Blues
- Room Rent Blues
- Midnight Mama
- Bay City
- Here Come the Hot Tamale Man
Thursday, October 1, 2009
(As a side note, Mr. Larue's blog site gave me a little moment of deja vú because it is formatted almost identically to my own. But that's a coincidence.)
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
As part of their startup promotions, TMG is hosting Free Games Friday: every Friday they give away a free board game to someone randomly selected from their email newsletter subscribers. The games are from TMG founder Michael Mindes' own collection, and there are some good ones in there. I'd be participating in that, but I already own most of them myself!
I'm posting about all this for several reasons. First, I think these are going to be fine games, well produced, and as I said above, the pre-order prices can't be beat. Second, if they continue as they have started, TMG will be producing a line of games of similar quality, and I want to see that happen. Third, the TMG developer (and designer of Terra Prime) is my good buddy Seth Jaffee, so I'm doing all I can to help Seth and Michael promote their business. And finally... well, Helen wants one of their plush dragons, and apparently I can get one for her if I post about Free Games Friday in this blog!
Now, I wonder what the expiration date is on that old bag of Dragon Chow that's stashed in the garage...
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
This Labor Day weekend Helen and I trekked off to Pacificon for three days of intensive gaming. Happily, Pacificon really isn't much of a trek for us: it's about 10 minutes from home, so we could spend all day and half the night at the con and still sleep in our own beds. But because we did game late every night, we we're pretty bushed by the end. (That, and an unexpectedly busy week, makes this a late posting.)
There were some parts that didn't work as well as I'd like. One new feature continues to be troublesome. I've tried a number of variations for it. One such sounds good on paper, but is rarely used in practice—and given that, why bother having the feature at all? Another does get used simply because its rules pretty much require it; but it does not foster competition or interaction among the players, so again it feels pretty pointless to me. I would happily abandon the whole notion, but it's something the publishers are interested in, so I feel that I must make a strong effort to make it work. Then if I fail, I can at least list all the reasons why the feature should be dropped.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Although I've been playing RotW games (under their original "Railroad Tycoon" name) for several years now, this is the first time I've done so while taking a global view. Instead of concentrating on my own plans and paying attention to others only to the degree that they might interfere with me, I am now watching what every player does, and why. It's been very instructive.
I've learned what should have been obvious from the beginning: that the various bonus-scoring opportunities—Major Lines, Service Bounties, and Baron cards—have a large effect in shaping the game. (Major Lines are bonuses for laying track between specified pairs of cities; other bonuses may have similar effects.) For my first cut, I set up the bonuses to motivate players to re-create the historical rail routes. Two plays showed me why that was wrong: it allowed as many as five players to each carve out a separate empire, with little need to get in each other's way. This makes for a boring game.
So I've had to throw out some of the history. I re-worked the Major Lines, removing a couple that routed around the edges of the board, and adding some to draw players together at a couple of central nexuses. The improvement in the game was immediate and marked: suddenly there was contention in these targeted areas, and players had to start worrying about their opponents' plans and activities much earlier in the game.
Last night's playtest went very well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the game, and there was nothing that was clearly broken. But there is certainly room for improvement, and I happily received some good analysis and a number of excellent suggestions. My next steps are to extend some mountains here, reduce some cube counts there, and tweak the Major Lines some more. Then print the new map and run some more solo tests before taking taking it to Pacificon over Labor Day weekend for more live playtests.
The news is not all wonderful. Part of the motivation for Rottweiler is to add a couple of the innovative features from my Hammer and Spike game to this RotW expansion. One of those features is working well, but the other one is not throwing the same kind of sparks. I need to find some way to improve it. I'd like to have a better revision in time for Pacificon, if I can swing it.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
But I suppose I can get away with some generalities. For one thing, I was mistaken in thinking that the expansion would be mostly designed by others; turns out it's mainly in my lap. The board, the cards, the variant rules, all of it. I'll have help and advice from the publisher's developers, of course.
This is not how I foresaw my first publication contract! I thought I'd design a game, get it mostly finished, then get it licensed. After that, just playtest and tweak until the publisher is happy; the rest would be the publisher's problem. I didn't expect to have much left to do at this point. Instead I have to start almost from scratch!
Okay, it's not really "from scratch." The RotW system is well-defined and so are the Hammer and Spike features that I will be adding in; I'm not inventing a whole new game. But I still have to draw the map, define the cards, tune a scoring track (the scoring track in RRT/RotW is also the income track, so it affects the whole game economy), and fine-tune the H&S features (which, after all, were not originally designed for RotW). That's a lot to do. Fortunately I think it will be tremendous fun, and I've definitely been enjoying the process so far.
I've been told what part of the world the map must cover. Given that, I've been studying the history of the region, to see how the railroads grew there and what special conditions obtained. RotW is not a simulation game, so most of the historical detail is pretty useless; but I've gotten some ideas for the cards, and some notions on how to lay out the map (for example, the towns that were important to the railroads back then aren't always the ones that are largest or most important now). In fact I have more ideas than I'm going to be able to use. That's a good thing: it's better to have too much than to not have enough!
I've also been asked to try to make the H&S features into an optional variant that can be used with any RotW map, if you've got the rules and bits from my expansion. I've been testing that out on the Europe map, and I'm pleased to say that I think they will work.
Working on the board is going to be interesting. I've never made a prototype board this big before, and my usual cheap-and-dirty technique of printing it out on 8.5x11" sheets and taping them together may be too big a pain. I think this time I'm going to spend some money and have a print shop do it as a single big sheet, and then maybe have them laminate it so I can draw and erase on it easily. (No, it will not be as big as the original gargantuan RRT board. But it's not small either.)
Finally, and just to head off the questions: no, I don't know when it will be released. I just started working on it a couple of weeks ago! All I can tell you is that it will be a good long while, so there's no point in being impatient.
But yes, when I have it sufficiently developed, some of you will be able to playtest it. In fact, I'm counting on it!
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Sunday, May 10, 2009
The in-laws paid us a visit on Friday and Saturday. I'm always happy to see them, and this brief visit was in part to deliver a car we bought from them for our son to use at college next year. We had a couple of nice dinners, some good conversation, and some excellent games with Joan. Although I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and wished the visit could have come either last weekend or next, it all worked out. I even found time to practice.
Why practice? Because on Monday and Tuesday, I'll be recording with Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band. For most of the group, this is a "ho-hum, another recording" event, but for me it's a very big deal. I have recorded before, but never in such professional surroundings; and I have only rarely been privileged to play with such a fine group of musicians. I definitely feel like the junior member of the group (my actual age notwithstanding) and am mostly hoping not to embarrass myself. Fortunately for all concerned I'll be playing second cornet, and for good or ill my efforts won't be too prominent. This, along with the fire, has been the main thing on my mind all week. I've been working hard on it, both at rehearsals and at home.
On the game design front there is little news. I now have two designs in the hands of publishers, and I'm back in the "hurry up and wait" mode. I have nearly completed the Spatial Delivery prototype (still have to paint the spaceships) that I'm building just to have handy, and I finally got off the dime and sent Seth his promised copy of Hammer and Spike. I'm looking forward to his group's feedback on that one.
And that's all for now. I gotta go practice!
Saturday, May 2, 2009
It may seem injudicious to start a new business venture in the current economic climate. But this may be a very good time to do it, because in contradiction to most of the rest of the economy, sales of boardgames are rising.
Veteran gamers are not surprised. We know that to take a family of four to the movies, you will spend $40 on tickets, plus $10 to $20 on munchies, plus whatever it costs to flog the family car to the theatre and back. In return for your $60 investment, you get the hassle of driving, the joy of parking, and the giddy fun of standing in line (sometimes two lines, one after the other). You do all this in order to sit in the dark and be silent for two hours. And when you're done, you're done.
Or you can spend the same amount of cash on a boardgame (sometimes two), and spend an hour or two of quality time with your friends and family, having face-to-face fun and actually talking to each other. And when you're done, you put the game on a shelf... and next week you can get it down and have all that fun all over again, and this time it doesn't cost you an extra cent.
So I think Tasty Minstrel has a shot, just from that. But obviously they'll need some good products, and here again I think the signs are hopeful. They'll be starting with a good strong design, Seth's Terra Prime, and with another game I haven't played but which I'm eager to try: Homesteaders. Tasty Minstrel has engaged Josh Cappel to do the graphic design for Terra Prime; his work is always excellent. (If I'm a very good boy, maybe he can do the art for a game of mine someday!) Homesteaders is being handled by another artist of my acquaintance; having not seen his name in print in connection with Homesteaders I'm not sure if I should name him here. But I've seen some of the artwork, and it's good stuff.
Obviously I'm biased here. Seth is a good friend and I wish him well; and I have a nodding Internet acquaintance with the two graphic designers as well. You folks out there in Readerland are welcome to wait until you read a review or two before deciding whether to invest your movie money in a Tasty Minstrel game. But I've already played Terra Prime, and followed some of the development of Homesteaders. I am entirely ready to give the latest X-Men epic a miss, and I will be in line to purchase copies of both games as soon as they're available.
I've also been building a new copy of Spatial Delivery. I haven't had one since I sent my last copy to a publisher, last June. Having heard nothing since then, I figure it's time to give it some attention. I have no immediate plans for it except to start playing it again, but I should at least have a copy of my own, yes?
Hammer and Spike did get another playtest today, at the Los Altos Games Day. The day was great fun, as always. Helen and I particularly enjoyed a session of Age of Empires III, an excellent game that we've neglected for too long. I finished the day with the four-player H&S session, which seemed to go well on the whole. It did run kind of long, but perhaps that can be chalked up to having three newbies in the game. They all picked it up pretty well, and by the end were building fuel depots and switchyards and making the long deliveries like veterans. Two of them said they would happily play it again sometime, which is always nice to hear (although you have to make allowances; sometimes people are just being polite to the game designer who, after all, is standing right there). A couple of folks who stopped by to watch also expressed interest in playing the game, so I can hope to have more guinea pigs playtesters soon.
It was a good day!
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Terra Prime is a fun blend of the European and American styles of game design. (Those distinctions are really starting to blur these days.) In the game, Terra Prime is a station on the edge of explored space. Players are explorers who load their ships at Terra Prime with weapons, shields, and colonists, then head out into the unknown to establish colonies, placate or defeat hostile aliens, and bring goods back from the colonies to Terra Prime.
On the European side, Terra Prime has a nicely-done economic engine, where goods brought back can be exchanged for money, ship improvements, and Victory Points (VPs). Decisions about how best to spend your goods are a key part of the game.
On the American side, the game's mechanics are faithful to the theme, and include some fun dice-rolling and direct conflict (although the battles are against aliens provided by the game, rather than against your opponents).
There is no board per se; instead individual hex tiles are laid out in a spreading fan from the large Terra Prime tile. The hexes are face-down so that players initially can't see the hazards and opportunities on the tile faces; but the backs are color-coded so that the more dangerous (and lucrative) tiles are the farthest away. To see a tile's face, you must either visit its vicinity with your ship, or view it from a distance (costing an action but granting you an exclusive, secret peek).
The tiles plus the economic engine give the game a solid development arc. Players start with basic capabilities, and at first only need to cope with the easier neighborhood near Terra Prime. While the near neighborhood is explored and its potential realized, players improve their ships and become ready to head out to the dangerous, distant edge of space, where the real profits are.
I first played this game two years ago, at KublaCon 2007. Seth has been working on it steadily since then, and the game has acquired a lot of polish. It plays quickly, offering good depth in just 90 minutes or so. Players are given plenty to think about, and their decisions are important (as shown by the masterful way Seth trashed his opponents, including me, at GameStorm!), but the dice allow for push-your-luck opportunities for adventurous (or desperate) players.
Seth posted recently that Terra Prime will be published, and I'm delighted to hear it. I've been wanting a copy for two years, and now I can look forward to actually getting one!
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
This is all very gratifying, and quite astonishing to me. I simply did not expect it, and wasn't prepared for it. It was Helen who saved the day. She invented an amazing new way to make certain prototype bits, and got up this morning and drove around town collecting supplies and packing materials; then returned home and sewed up a couple of drawstring bags (emerging victorious over a cranky sewing machine), reviewed and corrected the rulebook, and finally drove us to the shipping office, just in time. We literally watched them slapping the last stickers on while the UPS guy held the box for them. I could not possibly have done all this without her, and would not have dared to try.
So now it's hurry up and wait again, I guess, just like it's been with Spatial Delivery for the last eight or nine months. If anything comes of it, I'll let y'all know. In the meantime I have to make two more prototypes (one's for me, as I cannibalized some of my original) and get in a lot more playtesting... oh yeah, and I have to run off to a rehearsal tonight.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
GameStorm has a "GameLab" track for game designers and playtesters. I got an appointment to present Hammer and Spike to a panel of local game publishers, not so much in hopes of getting it published but in order to get feedback on the game and its presentation. It was a good session, maybe 20 to 30 minutes. I got good advice and answers to a few questions I had about the industry. (For example, I learned that the game duration shown on a game's box is for new players, not experienced ones! I didn't know that.) There wasn't time to play the game so the panel doesn't really know if a game is any good. But they were impressed with what they saw, which was very gratifying; and I got invited to bring Hammer and Spike to an invitation-only playtest session on Sunday (tomorrow, as I write this) for the best of the games they have reviewed this weekend.
I had one informal playtest yesterday with Seth, his friend Jeremy, Joan, and myself. It went well, but we all agreed that it went too long. I currently set the game at a constant 20 rounds, but the game was definitely "over" after 17 or 18 rounds. This is a point I've been dithering over, and I now think that 20 really is probably too many. I'm going to try 18 for a while: a bigger cut than it sounds like, since the last rounds are analysis-paralysis festivals and take way longer than earlier rounds. I still want a typical game to come in at 2 hours or less.
It's now Saturday morning, and I'm looking forward to playing some of Seth's designs: Terra Prime, Homesteaders, and/or Brain Freeze. I played Terra Prime two years ago and I'm eager to see the changes he's made since then. Homesteaders (designed by Alex Rockwell, but Seth helped with development) and Brain Freeze are games I haven't played yet, and I'm eager to see them.
I'll update this post with a few links later on, but right now it's time to gather our aggies and head for the con. Game on!
P.S. Saturday evening—I've added those links, and here's another: Seth's GameStorm reports.
Monday, March 23, 2009
I made the board because a flat, stiff, foldable board is a lot easier to transport than the taped-together big sheets of paper I've been making for home use. Helen and I are about to head up to Oregon to visit family and attend GameStorm, where I hope to get more playtesting done.
And the beast may finally have a name. The new board is labeled Hammer and Spike, which may not be great but is not in use by any other games. It will serve until and unless I hear a distinctly better suggestion. My thanks to all those who suggested alternate names, but I have to live with Helen and she didn't like some of them, so Hammer and Spike it is.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
The changes I made after last week's session worked well. Playtime came in at about two hours, and I suspect would be a bit shorter with experienced players. Players successfully built transcontinental networks and made coast-to-coast deliveries by the end of the game. A few switchyards were built in each game, but never all six. That all seemed just right.
On the down side, my long-standing worries that the scoring system is badly balanced were borne out. The reward for connecting all six cities is so high that a player who fails to do so is almost guaranteed to lose. This would be okay except that it's usually clear which players will fail by around halfway through the game. It's no fun being the goat in a game in which there is almost always one designated goat.
The way to fix that is probably to raise the VP reward for building switchyards. The trailing player has an advantage here, in a way: if he is flexible enough to give up on the six-city goal early enough, he will save several actions and a fair amount of cash. He can then devote those resources to switchyard building, and remain competitive with the six-city players.
I have also recently revised the simulator to play by the new rules, and run another couple hundred thousand simulations or so. These were, as before, mostly explorations of balance. It has become quite clear that an intelligent first player has a huge advantage over his opponents, because the choice of starting locations is not even remotely balanced. This isn't unusual for rail games. The simulations show that it can be balanced by giving the players differing amounts of starting cash. In the game rules, I expect I will express this in two ways: a "standard game" in which the starting cash is simply dictated by the rules, and an "advanced game" in which the players hold an initial auction for turn order. Players will use the standard rules until they feel qualified to judge fine differences in starting positions, and can then advance to the auction rules. (Unlike Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon, I don't think this game needs a turn-order auction every round. One at the start of the game should be sufficient, and the turn order need not change after that.)
Finally, I came away with a clear understanding about the current inadequacies of the board graphics and the player aids. This is not part of game design (since I have no plans to self-publish), but a well-made prototype really helps newbies concentrate on the game instead of on decoding the board and remembering the rules. I have some ideas for improvements, and I will be playing around in Photoshop to try to turn those ideas into clear graphics.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
There was good news, and bad news. The good news was that all players agreed that the game presented interesting and difficult decisions; it wasn't just a matter of turning the crank. (I was worried about that.) The bad news was that it took over three and a half hours to play!
Everyone was very nice about the length of it, and pointed out that it was a learning game for everyone except me, and that we also stopped periodically to discuss the design. True, but I think those excuses only go so far. I don't want the game to last more than two hours. In my playtesting it usually takes only two hours. But you have to allow time for people to chat, and I also don't want a newbie's first experience to be a marathon. So I'm going to give some attention to speeding up play. This probably means reducing the number of rounds and tweaking things to allow players to get stuff done in fewer turns. I received some very good suggestions about how to accomplish that, and I intend to try them out. The best idea I heard was to change a couple of actions into non-actions, so that you can get a bit more done in your turn. I think that will not only speed things up, but also remove some of the major sources of player frustration that I observed.
Between those suggestions and a few tweaks of my own that I've been thinking about for a while, I have a laundry list of things to experiment with. But none of these items are major changes; they all amount to streamlining of one kind or another. I'll try them out in solo play over the next week or two, to see which ones help and which don't. In two weeks there's a Games Day, and I'll probably bring the latest version to that and see if I can get another live test. After that I can bring it to GameStorm in Portland at the end of March, and eventually KublaCon at the end of May. I can hope that by then it will be pretty stable.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
But I don't want to design exclusively for four. Any game will sell better if it can be labeled for "3 to 5" or "2 to 6" players. And any game will be more popular if it actually works for the given range. (All experienced gamers have seen games that really don't play well at the low or high end of the claimed range.)
So recently I broke from my usual simulated four-player rail game sessions, and tried a five- and a three- player to see what would happen. I'm pleased to say that the game survived, and seemed playable. But unsurprisingly the game gives a different experience with different numbers of players.
With four, I've tried to tune things so that the winning player will likely connect all six cities, and build a switchyard: the two highest-scoring achievements. Usually two of the remaining players will get one or the other goal, but not both; and one player will get neither. This makes for vigorous competition to link up the cities, which is one of my design goals. It also often results that most players have little money left at the end of the game: although money is also worth victory points, you're usually better off spending it on connectivity or switchyards if you can. The losing player may actually finish with the most money, having been unable to spend as much of his income on connectivity and switchyards as the others; but sometimes such a player prospers so well just making deliveries that his cash hoard pulls his score up into the middle of the pack.
In the three-player game, there was much more elbow room. All players were able to connect all cities, which soaked up more time and money than in the usual 4p game. It was a less competitive, more open game. I found that I prefer the four-player experience, but some players may enjoy the easier, free-wheeling nature of the 3p game.
In the 5p game, the board was crowded and tight, and competition for connectivity was fierce. Only one player connected all six cities. Also the board filled with track rather faster than in the 4p game, so players could tell early on when (for example) it was clearly impossible for them to reach New York or Seattle. That meant more concentration on switchyards: five were built, and one player built two. This game ended with a lot of money in circulation, because more players were simply making deliveries in the late game rather than building.
Unsurprisingly, the game seems to have a different character depending on the number of players. With three, it's relatively open and easy-going. With four, competition is tight but most players are going to be able to do well. With five, money is tight in the early game as players race for connectivity, then piles up in the late game as players concentrate on lucrative deliveries.
J. C. Lawrence says a game should end when the winner is clear. I think he's right, so I was watching these games to see whether they ended too soon or too late. In the 4p game, 20 rounds seems exactly right. (I originally had a variable end-of-game trigger based on running out of goods, but decided it didn't work well.) I'm prepared to alter the 20-round figure for the 3p or 5p games, but so far it seems to hold up. The 5p game, for example, might have ended at 17 rounds; but then some serious new delivering and building took place in round 20, enough to convince me that the final three rounds weren't empty activity.
Another way to balance the game for different player counts is to alter the map. A smaller map for a 3p (or 2p) game, a larger one for 5 or 6. I haven't gone there yet, but of course I have the possibility in mind. Completely different maps is one way to do it, but it might also work to vary the main map by adding or removing junctions and connections. But before I go there, I want to shake down the current design some more. When (if!) I'm really comfortable with the 4p game, I'll look harder at variations to improve the experience with other player counts.
Monday, February 2, 2009
It continues to surprise me how much difference a small rule tweak can make sometimes. I recently introduced the notion that deliveries can only go so far without "refueling." You refuel at Stations, which hold Fuel cubes. Each time you refuel, you consume a Fuel cube and your delivery is able to continue for up to another three towns. With multiple refuelings, very long (and very profitable) deliveries can be made. Refueling from your own Station is free; to use someone else's Station, you pay them $2 (equal to a little less than half a Victory Point). When a Station is emptied of Fuel cubes you can pay to refill it.
But a solo playtest with this mechanism produced a game that moved too slowly, and that bogged down at the end. There was not enough incentive to build Stations—every player wanted to wait for the other players to build them—so the long, high-paying deliveries could not be made.
I reworked the costs and benefits to make Stations more attractive, but then I started to worry: maybe the Fuel cubes were unnecessary mechanism. Why not get rid of them and simply always allow refueling at every Station? So I tried that next, and it almost worked. I got the wide networks and long deliveries I wanted. But the players' decisions were not challenging enough. Stations with exhaustible fuel added complexity and interest to those decisions.
So I tried again, putting Fuel back in the game but with the new costs and benefits I'd worked out. And that, thankfully, seems to work. The latest solo playtest had interesting and challenging decisions, players were able to build the big networks and reap the big profits I was after, and the game never bogged down.
Well... I think the decisions were interesting and challenging. I find that very hard to gauge when all the players are me. But I believe it's finally time for some live playtests. (Huzzah!) So I'm going to spend the next week or so re-drawing the board and creating some good player aids, and then I'll start bringing it to local game days and nights and see what other folks think of it.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
But it set me to thinking. How interesting, and how difficult, do the choices have to be in order to have a fun and playable game? I tried a wargame design once; it was judged by the KublaCon playtesters to be boring because the decisions were obvious and easy to make. I don't want to repeat that mistake. On the other hand, while it's good to have ambitious goals, as a fledgling designer I can't expect to design the next #1 game at BoardGameGeek. So how good is "good enough"?
For an answer I am looking at my own favorites among the published rail games. These are:
* Ticket to Ride
* The crayon rail games (Empire Builder and its sequels)
* Railroad Tycoon
* Age of Steam
* The 18XX games
What kind of game experience do these successful games offer?
Ticket to Ride has simple rules and simple play, and is over in an hour. At times you spend move after move simply drafting cards into your hand. Your decisions are mostly of the push-your-luck variety: should you grab that route now, before someone else does? Or wait until you can grab several connected routes in quick succession, so as not to tip your hand too soon? The fun comes mainly from the tension of that basic decision. And it is fun, without a doubt. The Ticket to Ride series is far and away the most commercially-successful rail game ever. So we learn this: Tension lends interest and excitement.
Empire Builder and its sequels are straight-forward games of building track and making deliveries. These are flawed games, in my opinion. They take too long to play, especially if you make the mistake of playing with more than four players. There is little player interaction: you don't have to worry very much about what your opponents are doing. And the decisions are simple: which of my nine potential deliveries is the best to do next? Where should I built my next track? Is it time to upgrade my locomotive? The answers are usually fairly obvious, once you've done the gruntwork of figuring out sources and destinations for your potential deliveries (which usually is a lot of work: another flaw). And yet the crayon rail games are fun anyway, popular enough to have spawned a dozen or so sequels, and due to be re-issued this year by Mayfair. Lesson learned: A game can be fun even if its choices are not difficult. Sometimes the activity itself is entertainment enough.
Age of Steam is an amazingly good game, at least if you enjoy high levels of competition. Often described as "a knife fight in a phone booth", AoS crowds players together and forces them to compete viciously for routes and deliveries. A tight economic system makes budgeting a challenging and crucial exercise, and an auction system that controls both player order and access to important actions adds tremendous tension. Lesson learned: Holzgrafe, you will never design a rail game this good! More seriously: budgeting and pacing issues add interest to a game, and player interaction is important.
Railroad Tycoon is my favorite. This game has the same basic notion as Empire Builder (build rail, then make deliveries) but avoids the flaws in the crayon rail system. Spotting viable deliveries is easy and quick; the choices are interesting and difficult; and the game does not outlast its fun factor, even with six players. It has excellent player interaction, because players must compete for track routes, deliveries, and bonuses. It's really more appropriate to compare RRT with Age of Steam because it is directly derived from AoS. RRT is less competitive than AoS. But if Age of Steam is "a knife fight in a phone booth", Railroad Tycoon is still at least a barroom brawl: more spacious and forgiving of errors, but still highly contentious and with plenty of chairs and tables to swing. Lesson learned, from both AoS and RRT: Competition for scarce resources makes for tough, interesting choices.
The 18XX series adds a new element: a stock market. In an 18XX game players build rail and make deliveries. Players compete mainly to acquire stock, drive up the value of companies in which they are heavily invested, and sell high-valued stock to reap the gains and ruin the stock's value for others who still own shares. 18XX games are complex, long, and deeply strategic. I have played only once and I'm not competent to discuss them in detail, but there is a lesson learned: A volatile, interactive market adds a whole new level of interest to a game.
Silverton is the rail game that has most recently grabbed my attention, although it's now over 15 years old. Silverton features a volatile market, but it is a goods market rather than a stock market. Players compete not only to lay track, but to claim mines. Mines are worked to produce goods, which you then convert to money by delivering to market cities. Market prices vary, partly at random and partly influenced by recent sales. Taking a big load to market can drop market prices ruinously for anyone who shows up late. Silverton combines a fairly standard build-and-deliver mechanism with features such as the market, the high-risk nature of mining, and the difficulties of winter operations in the Rockies, resulting in a fascinating game with good levels of player interaction. Lesson learned: Volatility forces pacing, making players choose between urgent actions and important actions.
So what does this all imply for my own design? I'm still evaluating that, but I'm encouraged. My latest rules revision (with the compelling sobriquet of "Straw Man 6") adds complexity in a way that improves player interaction and gives players more to worry about. I think the game is now at least as interesting as a crayon rail game, because it has more interaction, more complex decisions to make, and more tension. But maybe not—maybe the decisions, for all their complexity, still have obvious solutions. I need to work with it some more to find out whether that's true.
And then there's this whole business about volatility. There isn't much, in the current design. I need to think about adding some, and I have a few ideas to play with. I'll keep y'all posted, and I may even post the latest rules sometime soon.