Design Diary #2: Unnamed Train Game

locomotive reverse

click here to go back to design diary #1

One of the great things about the modern era and the accessibility of information is that you will never again be without the rules to your games. Lost the rulebook? Spilled coffee all over it? Kid threw up on it and then the dog ate it? No problem. You can just go on-line and print a new copy, and if the game is relatively new, you’ll easily find a beautiful PDF version that’s just as good as the original.

Better than that: you can print rules for games you don’t even own and have never played before. I do this all the time as a way of “previewing” a game to see if it’s something I might like to purchase and play. And that’s the first step in creating a new game. If you want to be great, you start by emulating the ones who are already great. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, as they say. Many of the problems you will face as a game designer have already been solved in a variety of ways. The key is to look at what’s already out there and to go right ahead and use the mechanics that will work for you. It isn’t “stealing” the idea—it’s relying on tried and true methods that your audience will often already be familiar with (making your game easier for them to learn), and allowing you to focus your real energies on the parts of your game that need to be different from what’s already out there.

A game of Carcassonne in progress.

A game of Carcassonne in progress.

As I described in Design Diary #1, I knew the unnamed train game would combine two essential elements: the tile-placement mechanic, and the “true” railroad game experience. I haven’t played many tile-placement games myself, so for consultation purposes, I printed the rules to what I believe is one of the leading tile-placement games: Carcassonne. The goal here was to look into exactly what the players do on a turn, how many tiles are in the set, what the variety of tiles looks like, how they’re supposed to fit together, and so on. As for the “true” railroad game experience, I turned to one I have played before which I knew had the elements I wanted: Railroad Tycoon (adapted from Sid Meier’s video game and now packaged as Railways of the World). The goal here was simply to have something of a “checklist” of all the considerations necessary for a “complete” railroad game, and then to eliminate the ones that were too complicated or unwanted, and to streamline the other ones so they matched the level of complexity I wanted.

So far, everything up to this point is a mental process. So far, I have produced nothing, except to print the rules to these two games. So far, the process looks a lot like me just reading and nodding and saying, “Ah, I see how they did that,” or “Right, so that’s how it works.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking about how things might be adapted in my own project. I’m also thinking about ways in which my own project is still sort of flat and boring, and what kinds of things might be added to make it more dynamic and interesting for the players. This, in my opinion, is one of the most difficult, but most important problems of game design: providing the players with the right level and right amount of decision-making. Too little decision-making, and you end up with something that is strictly for children, like Candy Land. Too much decision-making, and you ruin the seamless, intuitive flow of play. Also of consideration is “how will the players get in each other’s way?” If the game is going to be competitive, you have to puzzle out ways in which the players have to decide how to help themselves, as well as how to impede the opponents, and both of these have to be fair and balanced. There is tremendous work that goes on strictly in the mind while considering, denying, and reconsidering all the possible shapes your game might take.

train game sketchThe first thing I actually produced for the unnamed train game was a series of sketches for what the tiles might look like and how many there might be of each pattern. How do you decide on numbers like this? Great question. It’s done through a very careful and scientific method called “best guess.” It’s the same for when you are trying to build a deck of cards for a game. Basically you just start with your experience as a gamer and what you think will work, and you make that many. If you actually want to publish, you should be cognizant of industry printing standards, such as the fact that playing card counts should be divisible by 12, but beyond that, it’s not all that important. Whatever numbers you settle upon are going to be wrong anyway, but you won’t know how wrong or what needs to be calibrated until you playtest it, so you basically just start anywhere.

I drew the sketches on the back of my Carcassonne rules, mainly because I could see the silhouettes to the Carcassonne tiles through the page, and it was easy to draw neatly spaced squares. On the bottom of the page, I jotted down some very skeletal ideas I had for what a turn sequence might look like, and then I wrote a shopping list: things I needed to assemble so that I could make a very raw prototype that could actually be played. And really, this is the heart of game design: playtesting.

The game MUST be played. It must be played OVER and OVER again. And it WILL malfunction 10,000 times before it actually starts flowing at all. But only through this process can you see exactly what isn’t working and how your imagination was off, and only through this process will you begin to think of solutions to actual problems, because there are 10,000 problems you couldn’t imagine.

Cheap, disposable, and easily replaced materials are necessary to the earliest playtest sets. You will need to throw out, destroy, and replace many of them over and over, and it simply won’t do to spend good money on them. Furthermore, there’s a really good argument for intentionally using ugly components for your early playtesting, even if you can get good-looking ones on the cheap. The reason is something that we in the hobby call “toy factor.” Half the joy in gaming is the game’s ability to satisfy the child in us who still wants to play with toys and pretend. The better-looking and more “toy-like” the components are, the easier it is to fall in love with them. However, if you fall in love with the components before you’ve actually written a game that works, it becomes that much harder to say goodbye to those components, even when the only rules requiring them don’t work. You must kill your darlings, I’m afraid. The toy factor should be the icing on the cake, not the cake.

Toy soldiers: the reason we invented

Toy soldiers: the reason we invented “serious” war games.

I ordered my first set of components from a site called The Game Crafter, which specializes in game printing services. (I’ve not yet used them to publish anything, and I’d be interested to hear from any readers who have.) Besides their printing services, they have a nice selection of basic and generic game pieces for replacements and for design projects. The most essential of the components I ordered was a set of 100 blank white 2-inch square tiles. These are going to form a core component of the game, and though I could create the same thing by simply slicing a piece of poster board into 100 squares, it’s worth the extra little bit of money to me to not have to do that. Plus, I intend to use pencil to sketch the patterns for some time, so these will see a lot of use and re-use, and I’d like them to be sturdy.

In the meantime, while I wait for the components to arrive, I continue to process my ideas at the conceptual level only, constantly asking, “what’s boring about this?” and “what gaps and loopholes exist in the current rules proposal that could matchingbe exploited (and which need to be corrected)?” Since my oldest son is going to be one of my chief playtesters on this one, we broke out some random junk items from the game closet so I could explain the working concept so far. As it happens, Memory tiles are the very same size (an industry standard) as those I intend for this project, and an eraser head looks like a train, right? Close enough, anyway.

Click here to go on to Design Diary #3

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