Design Diary #5: Wartime Economics

railroadThis 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.
click here to go back to design diary #4

It’s been nearly five months since my last Design Diary entry, and about that long since I worked on Engine Engine at all.  For one thing, I have been extremely busy working on development and preparing the Kickstarter for Sans Alliés, but on the other hand, I had reached a kind of block with Engine Engine, and nothing new or interesting about it seemed to be coming to the surface.  This is all very good and normal.  Sometimes the best thing for a design is to just sit on a shelf in a closet for an extended period of time; the best thing for the designer to completely forget about it for awhile and come back to it with fresh eyes and new experiences gained in the interim.

During this particular interim, I had participated in an on-line Twitter chat called #BoardGameHour, the topic of which was “pick up and delivery” (PU&D) mechanic, which Engine Engine most certainly had.  It was great to hear the wide range of perspectives from various players out there: likes, dislikes, and desires all related to the PU&D function, and it gave me some very useful feedback for what the next steps for Engine Engine should be.  Here were my main take-aways from that session:

Good Advice for Making Pick-Up & Deliver Games
  • Try not to make the game feel like “a job,” which so many PU&D do.
  • Consider a “push your luck” mechanic.
  • Make sure to mitigate/prevent “runaway leaders,” which are discouraging in all games.
  • Create an interesting theme—so many PU&D themes are really tired.
  • Allow multiple paths to victory—a game stagnates when the “optimum” strategy is discovered.
  • Force the players to re-think their strategies mid-game, which also defeats stagnation and “optimization.”

These last two items encouraged me to retain some element of chance and maybe even changeability of the rails/tiles in play.  Of course, whenever injecting random interference into a game, we must be careful that it is to a limited extent and does not undermine the players’ decision-making. However, I believe that some degree of chance is important to a good game; I feel it is the “Euro” games and the pure information games that are most susceptible to stagnation and “optimization.”

I also was particularly keen to the need for an interesting theme. There is certainly no shortage of train-themed games in the world. Thus, looking to enrich the theme, and looking particularly for a theme that would sensibly create random or changeable elements to the game, but still hoping to hold on to that 19th Century, railroad baron feel, I began to wonder if the Civil War might serve. I set about doing a bit of research on the function and history of railroads during the Civil War, not looking for anything specific, but rather just letting the history inspire ideas and inform the game.  As it turns out, the situation on the southern (Confederate) railroads was more interesting and more applicable to the game’s needs than that of the north.  Union railroading was basically awesome and ass-kicking all the way around, with a well-maintained, elegant network of highly-efficient rails that rapidly delivered men and materiel to the front. Not much of a game there, I’m afraid. At least not a competitive railroad game. However, by contrast, here are some relevant key points I learned about Confederate railroads:

Interesting Tidbits About Confederate Railroads
  • Their primary function and source of income was to move cotton and tobacco to port cities to be exported to Europe.
  • Their primary function was made obsolete as soon as the Union Navy blockaded these ports (1861) and prevented exports, effectively starving out the southern economy.
  • Southern railroads were already not so much a “network” as a “confederacy” of independent lines that did not cooperate well, especially since different lines often used different gauges of track. Furthermore, the local towns and cities discouraged regularization of the tracks, since freight would have to be physically moved from one train to another, and this provided job opportunities.
  • The Confederate government did not at first put much stock in the usefulness of railroads in wartime—perhaps understandable because of the lack of actual “networking” among southern rails. Thus, southern rails received no new equipment and very few repairs.
  • Even when the government basically commandeered the rails (1863) for military purposes, they still could not provide the necessary maintenance and essentially ran these things into the ground, even tearing up rails along feeder lines to use the steel for replacement parts on trunk lines. The whole system was self-consuming.
  • On top of all this, we mustn’t forget the Union soldiers’ constant raids and deliberate destruction of rail lines.

So all of this was lending itself much better to the kinds of changeable and combative conditions I was hoping for. There were three points of contention I had, however: (1) I did not want the game to become a “war game” or even too much of a “war-themed game,” which meant the players had to be either on the same side of the war or somehow disinterested in the war’s outcome (except as concerned their business interests). (2) The Union side didn’t offer as much in the way of interesting game mechanics, but I was hesitant to make a game where the players ran businesses in support of the Confederate, slave-based economy.  Also, (3) as I’m still hoping to make the game kid-friendly, I don’t want war considerations to be prominent.  It took some brainstorming to think my way through this, but ultimately what emerged was a radical alteration of the PU&D mechanic, and one that I hope will prove to be very interesting indeed.  Many of these ideas are still nascent, and I’ve yet to get back to the prototype and start pushing pieces around, but here’s the next direction I’m going to try:

Possible Next Stages of Evolution for This Game
  • The players are aspiring southern railroad barons who see the writing on the wall: the Confederacy is going to lose the war, and the Union will prevail. These shrewd business tycoons want to survive into the new era and be on the same playing-field with the “big-dogs” like Union-Pacific, and they want to “get in good” with the government at Washington D.C. for potential future contracts.
  • To these ends, each player is trying to build the best railroad network possible, while beating the competing barons, but while also delivering as few goods as possible in favor of the Confederacy. So you end up with opposing goals: the traditional PU&D “best network” goal juxtaposed with an unconventional idea that you want to avoid actually using this network.
  • Random elements/equalizing agents could include the destruction of rails and the destruction or capture of towns and cities. These would be partly random, as it would represent Union military activity, but the players should be given some agency over this in the interest of game strategy.
  • The players (particularly the player in the lead) will be forced to deliver goods, which will represent Confederate impressment of the rails, and should (hopefully) discourage runaway leaders.  In my imagination at this point, everyone will be vying most of the game for second place, hoping to squeak their way into first at the last minute.
  • The game will end when X-number of cities are captured by the Union forces, representing the end of the war.  This should be something the players can predict to some degree, but not down to the exact turn.

I’m looking forward to working with these ideas in the coming weeks and further testing/shaping the prototype. I feel like these proposals are somewhat radical, but at the same time, potentially very interesting. In fact, these inspirations have accidentally addressed a few issues/desires that hadn’t been dealt with yet. For one thing, my wife hates war-themed games or games that are directly combative. She much prefers “economics” games like Euros and the like, where players are never eliminated, but rather victory is a relative concept.  By contrast, I love war themed games, and I have long sought to find or design a game that is actually an “economics” game but disguised as a “war” game. This may do the trick.

Another “fix” that I’m excited about is the fact that the rail/tile laying in Engine Engine had been showing a tendency to lack cohesion, and players ended up all going off in their separate directions. The introduction of the “towns” dealt with this to some degree, but now, if this theme sticks, it actually makes sense that the players’ rails operate separately. This will also lend itself to the players NOT using other players’ rails to move their goods, thereby sharing in the wealth. To my knowledge, most rail games allow “rolling freight” like this, so disconnected rail lines may prove to be a unique feature of this one.

Finally, the new theme may necessitate a change in the title, as Engine Engine is already beginning to feel like it doesn’t fit anymore. Phrases like “Southern Rails” and “A More Perfect Union” have been bubbling up in my mind already, but I haven’t quite decided if a change is necessary or what the new title might be. It’s a very low priority at this point. As I tell my students: the title is actually the last thing you put on the project.

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