Design Diary #3: Crank-Starting the Engine

design diary 3.1This article is part of a series documenting the development of a new tabletop game from inception all the way to… well, all the way to wherever it gets in development, I suppose.  To pick up the thread from an earlier installment, go to THIS PAGE and scroll down as far as you need to.

The pieces arrived from Game Crafter last week, and though I didn’t actually get to any initial playtesting until this past weekend, the title of the game—at least what I think is going to be the title—hit me like a freight train (get it?).

design diary 3.2

Straight Outta the Mailbox

I had spent the interim week replaying the imaginary rules in my head, and I kept thinking, “this game is boring.”  Of course, that’s where it usually begins: no sooner do you have the most earth-shattering game concept of all time (you think) than it is instantly boring to you.  It’s the curse of being an artist.  But it’s typically a good thing in game design, because it forces you to ask, “what’s still missing?”  I don’t know if it was Divine Inspiration or coincidence or what, but it struck me: it needs an engine.

Up to this point, the game-play in my imagination seemed like it would be flat and sort of monotonous, like Monopoly.  I realized what it needed was that sort of “Euro” gaming element, where you invest in little advantages here and there at the beginning of a game, and if you’ve done your job right, they lead to a kind of passive-growth, feedback model that propels you to the endgame.  I don’t know if this is the official designer-jargon for it, but I call it an “engine.”  And of course, as soon as I decided, “what it needs is an engine,” my very next thought was, “hey, engine! Ya know, like a train engine!”

(This is how I talk to myself in my mind.)

So for about 2 seconds, the potential title was Engine, but it was quickly replaced by an inspired Engine Engine, for a few reasons: (1) It just sounds catchier.  (2) It reminds me of that song Engine Engine #9, which we sang a lot as children, and I want the game to be kid-friendly. (Although I fear the more ready association will be the song The Choice is Yours (Revisited) by rap duo Black Sheep!) But anyway, (3) I like word play, and Engine Engine could also be understood as “a feedback-growth engine involving train engines—an engine engine.”  So yeah.  At this point, the unnamed train game is now called Engine Engine.

The parts I ordered were (a) four different-colored sets of little wooden train cars, (b) a single black meeple to be the “bandit”—an equalizing agent similar to the “robber” in Catan, (c) several small stacks of large-increment play-money (because railroad barons don’t mess around with petty cash!), and (d) 100 blank cardboard tiles, on which I drew in pencil an assortment of rail segments and “city” or “town” designs.  (I haven’t decided on whether these will be called “cities” or “towns.”)  I only actually drew patterns on 72 of them, because this seemed to be the print run in Carcassonne, and I do believe that multiples of 12 are an industry standard in printing tiles, just as with playing cards.  These drawings were quick and purely functional, as changes are inevitable, but I must confess my use of a ruler in many cases, because my perfectionism regularly overpowers my practicality.  Added to this, from my own collection of odds and ends, were assorted colored chips to represent abstract “goods” in the game, and a standard die.  With these, I had everything I needed to start pushing pieces around on the floor according to my imaginary rules and to see what would happen.

First playtests of Engine Engine were wonderfully awful and progressive.  The basic gist was supposed to be something along these lines: players alternate turns laying down tiles, which either expand rail lines or introduce connecting cities.  Cities are color-coded to indicate what goods need to be delivered to them, and players can lay new rails on either their existing incomplete lines or off of new cities.  At this point, I didn’t bother doing anything at all with the bandit or assigning any monetary value to anything.  I wanted to test the core mechanic all by itself.

design diary 3.3There was a little back-and-forth on whether players should have a “hand” of tiles to choose from, or whether they should be compelled to play whatever they draw, but these were minor issues, and (for now) I landed back on plan A: they have a small hand from which to choose.  The most critical problem that emerged was based on a rule that each player could only control/own one rail line coming out of a given city.  Four players; four sides on a square city tile… makes sense, right?  Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me when I conceived this “fair” rule that the player who laid the city tile down in the first place—since it was connected to his or her existing line—would already be stuck with the one and only line into or out of that city.  Players had nowhere they could possibly expand once they built one new city.  It actually discouraged players from ever laying city tiles—the exact opposite of what you’d want in a railroad game.  And after three or four turns around the table, the game came to a screeching diary 3.5

This is the exact type of problem you just don’t think about in the mental state, and this is why you play the first five to ten rounds as a solitaire game.  You don’t want to call five of your friends over for an afternoon of playtesting only to barely get through one five-minute false start and then have to go back to the drawing board again.

So where I am at this point in terms of a solution to this problem is an idea I’m calling “contracts.”  When a new city is placed, the placing player automatically is entitled to a second line out of that city, if they want it.  The remaining players immediately go into a bidding auction to claim the second (and only other) contract in that city.  Thus, only two players can have a contract in a given city, and each player with a contract can have exactly two rail lines coming out of that city.  Players can later remove their contracts if they wish (but in the meantime, they can shut out other players).  The contracts rule served the purpose of allowing players to continue expanding, while also creating strategic scarcity/competition.  So far it’s working well.

design diary 3.6

I’m pretty sure this is exactly how Cornelius Vanderbilt got started.

The only other thing I did this past weekend was one very dry and very clunky round where I tried to introduce the money.  I didn’t bother using the play-money notes; I just kept score/accounts on a piece of paper using some arbitrary numbers that seemed like they made sense. (Again, it was that very scientific process I mentioned in Design Diary #2 called “best guess.”)  I even let the accounting go into negative numbers, just to try and get an idea of what would be a reasonable “starting cash” amount for the initial set-up.  Even then, the scoresheet ended up being much less actually scoring and more annotations of HOW the game’s economy was running.  It was about as smooth as gravel, but it provided important insights about the role of money in the game and what considerations the players would have to worry about.

The weekend’s testing ended with me adjusting the tile composition.  I removed the “crossover” and “dual corner” tiles, because it became apparent that, because of the manner in which the board expanded (always outward), you would essentially never need these.  I ended up converting them into more cities, since it had begun to seem like not enough goods were moving because there weren’t enough of the right-colored cities appearing on the map.  I also took some of them and made them into more “sheriff” tiles, which are meant to counter the “bandit,” although neither one of these ideas is really clearly defined diary 3.4

My final and most important concern after this first week is whether the complexity is already starting to get a little too deep for the kids with whom I meant to play it.  I’m having fun, and it seems to be shaping up into a really cool railroad game, but part of the initial motivation for this whole project was that there’s already a whole bunch of really cool railroad games on the market—they’re just too complex for my kids.  It would be a bit senseless if Engine Engine didn’t offer something different from what the masters have already designed.  At this point, I’m considering whether there might be two or three “levels” of rules, starting with something simple and more luck-based (for kids), and adding choice and planning at each layer for older players.  I’ll come back around to this possibility later, after I feel like there’s actually a functioning “basic game.”

Until next time, keep on chuggin’ along…

P.S. Including the title and this sentence, but not the tag, the word “engine” appears 24 times in this article.

click here to go on to design diary #4

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