Design Diary #1: Inception of the Unnamed Train Game

locomotiveTwo weeks ago, a colleague of mine, who isn’t much of a gamer and was very curious, asked me very straightly: “What makes a person want to make a board game? How does an idea like that even start?” So we talked a little bit about the development of Parenthood, which was the game that had inspired the question, and then a little more about the process in general.

In an unrelated event, last week, I was inspired to start work on a new potential game design. Always on the lookout for new blogging material, and having been provoked a little bit by my colleague’s question, I thought it might make for interesting material to document the evolution of the game from its very inception. After all: I would like for this blog to have something to offer for not just hobbyists, but generalists as well.  I want it to highlight the juncture of geek hobby life and daily family life. Hopefully I can get a little closer to that with this new series. I plan to post this first installment in two segments, especially since there has been something of a prologue filling up this first one.

thomasThe new design is currently known as the “unnamed train game.” It began when my son invited me to come upstairs with him and the other two boys to play with their Thomas train set. I accepted, only to discover that something a little sad has happened to me. I do not know how to engage in unstructured play anymore. Here were the boys: busily assembling tracks in some Byzantine arrangement, happily pushing trains along them and back again, all with no objective or end purpose in mind. My oldest son had gone as far as designating one structure a “production plant” and another structure a “market,” but that was the extent of any role-play, and among the three boys, there was neither competition nor even cooperation to speak of. This was pure, unstructured, parallel play. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I kept staring at the trains and the tracks, hopelessly wondering things like, “well what do I do?” I kept looking for order. For structure. I was looking for the game, when all that was really happening was simply play. I don’t know how to do that anymore, it would seem.

On the bright side, it did set me on the hunt for a game that would serve as that juncture between my sons and me: a railroad building game.

Simply having trains does not a railroad game make.

Simply having trains does not a railroad game make.

There are many railroad-themed games out there. In fact, “railroad gamers” exist as a sort of sub-sub-culture amongst gamers in general. Perhaps the most popular/mainstream one on the market right now is Ticket to Ride, although this is not considered a “true” railroad game by the connoisseurs. This is because Ticket to Ride is essentially what is called a “set collecting” game, more in the “Rummy” family of games, having little to do with simulating the actual business and tribulations of being a railroad baron in the 19th century. What I wanted was something more like this, but not as complicated or “serious” as many of those hobbyist railroad games are. I wanted three elements for sure: (a) track-laying, (b) goods-delivering, and (c) middle-to-low range complexity. Something with the theme of 18XX but with the complexity and feel of Catan. A “true” railroad game for families.

I first searched the internet and polled the gaming forums and my Twitter followers for suggestions on possible railroad games that fit the bill. Unfortunately, results were rather unsatisfactory. All of the railroad games I could find that had the track-laying and goods-delivering aspects I was looking for were simply too complicated for my kids, and simply too long for me. In my search, two games emerged that had some promise. The first was called Trains and Stations. This is essentially a dice game in the Yahtzee family, with the added elements of simplified train routes connecting key American cities. I felt that it had a lot going for it, and that it sounded pretty fun, but ultimately, an extensive review on nohighscores.com convinced me that it just wasn’t quite right and didn’t have the “feel” I was looking for. In particular, it felt like it would require more negotiation tactics than my kids could handle in a board game.

Detail view of Rivers, Roads, & Rails

Detail view of Rivers, Roads, & Rails

The other interesting prospect was a little thing by Ravensburger Games called Rivers, Roads, and Rails. What I really liked first about this game was that the whole idea of the “board” or “map” had been completely eliminated; the track-laying concept had been abstracted into a tile-placement mechanic. This really spoke to me, since it would allow for more variety in “geography,” and because tile-placement simply “felt” closer to the behavior of building toy railroad segments. Unfortunately, this game had three strikes against it: (X) Its target audience seemed younger than my own boys, (X) it did not have the goods-delivering aspect I was looking for, and most importantly, (X) it was absolutely brutalized in the Amazon reviews for being boring and having incompatible components. Caveat emptor: Negative reviews are just as important as—if not more important than—positive ones.

After a fairly exhaustive search of the genre and even remotely related toys and games, I ultimately arrived at that place where every designer of every game has ever begun their next labor of love. As expressed on my Twitter feed:
twitter postAnd so, to return to my colleague’s question from a couple weeks back, this is what makes a person want to make a board game. This was how the idea for my unnamed train game began. In Design Diary #2, I’ll discuss the first, raw stages of development.

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