The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Look me in the eyes before you do that to me!

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How do board game designers make gaming more social?

The author avoiding paparazzi while enjoying "Wildlife".

I greatly prefer playing games live to playing them over the internet. This is despite the fact that I'm not an especially extroverted guy. Some who speak to the advantages of board games over electronic games speak to the benefits of just being with people and having the opportunity to socialize. When I play game, I tend to focus on the game and not the social interaction. So why do I prefer gaming in a social setting?

An important aspect of playing a game is the feeling that you are playing with and against people. Some games bring that spirit out and some games bury it. To some degree, I can understand when players complain of a game having little interaction, even when, objectively, players absolutely can affect each other. The question begins to become - how much of the game is personal and how much of it is purely about the game mechanics? Sometimes the interactions in a game are like the interactions of a pinball against the bumpers - lively but impersonal. The greatest gaming interaction brings out the players' personalities and lets you feel that you are playing with and against the people at your table, and not just managing a bunch of battling wooden cubes.

In the question of interaction, one of the more controversial games is Seyfarth's "Puerto Rico", which some people feel has little interaction and which others say has plenty of interaction. I find there to be plenty of interaction in the game, but the naysayers have a good point. The interaction in Puerto Rico tends to be impersonal. Players must, for example, consider when to produce and when to ship, and these choices can have substantial impact upon opponents. Players will often strategize in a way to avoid producing the same key commodity as their right hand neighbor in order to avoid getting shut out in a trading round. But look at how that is couched: avoid mirroring your right hand neighbor as opposed to, say, avoid mirroring a very aggressive player. When making tactical decisions in Puerto Rico, the consideration is overwhelmingly based on the way that decision affects the complicated interactions of player positions - who is a strong producer, who is vulnerable to having goods thrown overboard, etc. These decisions generally play out in a clear and predictable manner once you understand the game. The interactions in Puerto Rico are important but generally impersonal. Players keep their eyes on the playing mats as they ponder the next best move. A game with greater interaction gets players to also look not only at their opponents positions, but into their eyes as well.

Compare Puerto Rico with a game like "Louis XIV" by Rudiger Dorn. Louis XIV is a majority-control game in which many contested areas have a "do-or-die" element. "I really-really-really need a helmet to insure that I can complete one of my missions this turn. I think I can take it by putting two units on the Dauphin - but what is Bryan going to do? It looks as though he'd be better off spreading his units across several nearby characters, but Bryan is the sort of guy who likes to play defensively and smack people down when they look like a threat. But I'd really like to place my third unit on Louvois, where I think I can pick up an easy influence card..."

In both Louis XIV and Puerto Rico players can have an important effect on their opponents. In Louis, though, there is a much greater degree to which a player naturally considers the motivations and alternatives of his opponents. I'll call the player interaction in Louis XIV "warm" and the interaction in Puerto Rico "cold". It is warm interaction in which you have a great awareness not only of your opponent's positions, but of your opponents as people and are likely to interact with them as such. Play styles differ - and a game of Louis XIV might take place without any table talk, but a player of Louis XIV is much more likely to want to look into the eyes of his opponents when playing.

There are lots of different mechanics that generate player interaction. I'll break them into two large categories: interference and trade. Hurting and helping.

Interference is the more common. It involves any way that an opponent interferes with your effort to achieve your goals. The most obvious is attacking: In a military game, I use my assets to destroy yours. In Eurogames, interference most commonly takes the form of a challenge for control of a resource, or challenge for dominance.

Challenges for control of a resource take place in games ranging from Power Grid to Caylus to Age of Steam. In Power Grid, only one of us is going to get into that nearby city, and if I can get there before you, I force you to expand into a more expensive city - or none at all. In Caylus, all players are competing for the benefits on the tiles, and with the use of the provost, I can even insure that nobody gets the use of certain tiles. There is also the competition for the extra favor provided by building the castle, which only one player can get each turn. In Age of Steam, I am challenging you for control of key routes, and also threatening to deliver goods and deprive you of them.

Every auction is a challenge for control of a resource. I'm going to be the high bidder or else you are. Someone is going to deprive someone else.

A challenge for dominance typically takes place in the form of a majority fight. I want to put more units on a personality in Louis XIV than you have, so that I can reap the benefits. In Samurai, I try to put more points around the Buddha so that I can snatch it away. A challenge for dominance is really just a challenge for control of a resource. The distinction is just that it is more strategic than tactical: it might take place over the course of several turns, it would typically involve investment of other scarce resources like tiles, cubes, or game turn actions, and winning the challenge is often an end in itself (victory conditions) rather than a means to securing some future benefit.

Games with trading naturally have warm player interaction because they require communication and subjective valuation. In Settlers of Catan, when I offer wood for sheep, my potential trading partner can "just say no", even if on the surface the trade might benefit him. He must consider whether it disproportionately benefits me. He must consider whether he might be able to extract another card out of me. He might hold off, hoping to get the card on the next roll of the dice, or from another player. Once we open our mouths and negotiate we are dealing with each other as people and not just impartial players.

Apart from games that involve direct trade or other negotiation, how do designers create games that make player interaction warmer? A key element is that a player is given choices over whether or not to interact and with whom. If an opponent has a meaningful decision over whether or not to mess with you, you take on an active stake in his game.

Two good examples of games which provide warm interaction over common resources are "Ticket to Ride" and "Through the Desert". In each case, players are expanding their reach over the map knowing that, at any given time, only one person can stake a claim to certain assets - whether it is a route or a water hole. What makes it especially warm is the degree of uncertainty in your opponent's move. How long can I continue to draw cards before Albert would take one of my key routes away from me? I'd like to make a move toward that oasis - but will Kelly take the two point watering hole I wanted, or will she leave me alone and take the one near Jason?

What makes it tense is that I have to make a critical choice whose outcome depends on what other players might want to do. Our motivations and our fates are intertwined. Can I see into Kelly's mind? When she does take my water hole away, I take it a little personally. She knew that it was me she cut off. She could have hit Jason. I see Kelly as a person and not just a machine-player.

There is some debate over how much Andreas Seyfarth's "Thurn & Taxis" is too much of a solitaire game. One element of player interaction in the game is the fact that players are racing to pick up scoring bonuses. The sooner you fill up the green area (for example), the more points you score for it. Your decision to fill up the green area is very dependent on what cards are coming up - and the same holds true for your opponent. Most of the time, either of you are going to create a route that fills in an area whenever it works best for you given other considerations. How many stations can I play if I extend the route? What cards came up? Rarely is a player going to try to anticipate the motivations of his opponent to make competing choices. Opponents seem like impartial movers who make the best tactical decisions based on circumstance.

Let's look at some ways that designers make the interaction in their games hotter.

As discussed earlier, the element of player choice is key. How much can a player control whether to directly challenge an opponent and choose the opponent? In many games there is the "Why me?" effect. "Why did you have to go against ME when you could have gone against Peter?!" This pops up consistently in Reiner Knizia's "Through the Desert". In the earlier example, my best choice of move depends on whether Kelly is going to challenge me or Jason for the scoring opportunities that are close within reach. When Kelly decides to move against me, she's not just playing against the game. She perceives me as the stronger threat - whether because I'm leading or because my position threatens her more, or just because she knows I'm the sort of S.O.B. who is more likely to hit her next turn. Either way, I take it personally.

The "Why me?" effect is what can make multiplayer war games so much more contentious than two player war games. You can't exactly get ticked-off when your Memoir '44 opponent takes out one of your tanks. That's his job! But when he kicks you out of a region in Shogun/Wallenstein - well that's NOT his job! His job is to pick on the other guy, and leave you alone, right? When you're in that position, the choice to attack Aaron versus Erin isn't totally strategic. You're also going to consider what their reactions will be - both emotionally and strategically. Aaron tends to blow up and immediately counterattack, but he's better off going south and hitting Ryan. Erin is cooler, but she's in a corner and has no one to hit except for you. How do you choose? Your answer depends on the players, not just the game.

Bruno Faidutti had some very amusing things to say on this subject when interviewed here about his design for Silk Road. He talked about specifically introducing features that caused players to "snivel". "Don't use the thief against me! Use it on Sean! He' doesn't look like he's winning, but he's got the stronger long range position!" Faidutti loves putting in "take that" elements into his games, and by giving his players a reason to snivel, he is introducing more human interaction.

The "why me?" effect isn't for everyone because it can create bad feelings in a game. I think that those bad feelings are strongest when the choice of who gets picked-on is most capricious, and it is weaker when there is some tactical excuse behind the decision. The perfect balance is a matter of taste. At one end of the spectrum is a game like Stefan Dorra's "Intrigue". In this game, players are doling out financially advantageous favors to selected players - based partly on bribes but ultimately selected out of whim. You just offered me $4,000, Mike just offered me $2,000; I keep both of your bribes and I give the position to... Mike. Somewhere toward the other end of the spectrum is a game like Kramer and Ulrich's "El Grande". In this game of majority controlled regions, I might have the opportunity to either take control of Valencia away from you or to take control of Old Castle away from Richard. The choice is entirely mine, but when I choose to attack you, it may be because I can better defend Valencia, and not just that I chose to pick on you.

Hidden information has the ability to enhance player interaction. When a player's assets are entirely public, the game becomes more purely strategic. I know exactly what the effects of my actions are going to be, and I know what Alan can do in response on his next turn. If, on the other hand, Alan is hiding something from me - the difference between what I know and what I don't know is hidden in Alan's brain. How can I read his mind?
We are playing Euphrates and Tigris, and the black leader on my monument is vulnerable. Alan chooses not to try taking control of it. Why? Is he lacking the red tiles that are needed to boot a leader? Is it because he doesn't see the move? Is it because he doesn't need more black points? If I think Alan is a conservative player, he'll probably only attack if he has lots of red tiles. But if he tends to take risks and still doesn't attack my juicy monument - maybe he's really low on red tiles, and I ought to try attacking his blue leader. The element of uncertainty forces me to go beyond what is purely on the board and begin to enter my opponent's mind. I'm playing the player.

The extreme case is in a game such as Liar's Dice, where psyching out your opponents is the main appeal of the game. Not only does the intrigue of the game come from trying to bluff your opponents and to decipher their own bluffs, but the moment when dice are revealed is very satisfying because it pits the challenger and the challengee up against each other in such a personal way. Paul jumped bid to nine "6's". Do I really think he has more than one or two? I challenge. Everyone at the table has their eyes on Paul, and when he reveals his dice... he's got five 6's! Paul suckered me in! The groans and laughter at the table make it clear that this game is about Paul and me - not about dice.

There is an important case where hidden information destroys warm player interaction. It is when you don't know which player controls which pieces. This is a mechanic I strongly dislike. It is seen in games such as "Clans", "Top Secret Spies", and "Drunter & Druber". In these games, players are dealt a card, face down, indicating which color pieces they control. During the game, they may make moves which might benefit any color - with the purpose of advancing their own position, but not in so obvious a way that would tip off other players as to which color they control. At the end of the game, when "red" wins, players reveal their cards to see who was playing red.

By its nature, this mechanic hinders the personal relationship between players. I try hurting "blue". But who is "blue"? My relationship focuses on the innocent little pieces of wood. Even the moment of victory is anti-climactic as it requires another step to reveal which player won. To some degree, the player interaction takes the form of trying to guess who is behind each color based on the players' actions. Even so, the fact that you can't reveal what you think you know means that players play in a very sheltered manner hidden behind poker faces.

The components of a game can even contribute to making the interaction in a game warmer. To the degree that players are all competing in the same physical space, and to the degree that these conflicts are graphically evident, players tend to feel the competition more directly.

This is a shortcoming of Thurn & Taxis. A part of the competition in this game involves taking cards away from opponents who might otherwise need them. However, it's a pretty abstract and indirect process to visualize this. I need to look at the route of area cards that my left-hand opponent is collecting, check the board to see what areas are adjacent to his route, then check the card display to see if any of those areas are currently available, and finally check my own card display to see if I can use the card that I'd like to take away from my opponent.

Usually, I'm too lazy to do this on a regular basis. For me, the physical layout of the components encourages a more solitaire play.

Imagine how differently the game would feel if the six available areas on the board had a black pawn on them. As a player takes a pawn (instead of a card), he puts down a marker to indicate that it is part of the chain he is building. (Note that this would not conform to the actual rules of Thurn & Taxis because in the game, players do not immediately add cards taken to their route but instead take them into their hand for later play.) In this scenario, players are all engaged together in the same space. I can see exactly where you need to go and I can see exactly where you can go. By playing in the same space, players have a greater awareness of their relationships with one another and will naturally play more actively against each other. This sort of scenario is closer in spirit to "Ticket to Ride", where everyone's position, and their potential to block, is right out there. It's one reason that I prefer "Ticket to Ride" over "Thurn & Taxis".

Mike Doyle, the artist who has contributed new designs to games such as Caylus and the upcoming El Capitan, recognized the value of having players share the same space when he created an alternative version of Puerto Rico, which uses a central board rather than individual player mats.Doyle talks at greater length about what he wanted to achieve with this design on his site,
and also created a mini-site in which he provides detailed graphics and instructions for the player who might want to try creating his own map and playing Puerto Rico this way.

As we've seen, player interaction in a game is more than just the ability to affect your opponents. The interaction becomes hotter when the game is designed to force people to come out from behind their wooden cubes and relate to the people at the table. The most significant way that designers do this is by giving players choice in whether and when to interact, and with whom. Similarly, when a player's strategy is dependent on the whims of others, it forces him to look away from the board and into the minds of his opponents. All these things bring out the social nature of gaming and help to insure that each session we play is as unique as the people playing.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Gamer's Journal: Board Game Designers Are Alive and Well and Living In Utah

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Being raised in New York and currently living in Los Angeles, I tend to think that the nexus of all civilized activity occurs in the big cities on the coasts. There is nothing better than actually getting away from the supposed center of things to open your eyes up to what the rest of the world is really capable of.

I recently had the occasion to travel to Salt Lake City (pop. 182,000, 5% of Los Angeles) on business and, being a gamer, part of my travel plans included locating a local games group. Some SLC expatriates directed me to the Friendly Local Game Store "Game Night Games".

I googled them and was immediately impressed with the website. Not only did they have the expected game search feature, plus an obvious focus on Eurogames, but also a detailed calendar of events, and even a forum for local gamers to communicate with each other. I knew I'd probably be free on the 15th. When I checked the calendar I saw the night was reserved for... the Board Game Designers Club of Utah.

Double take.

How many Board Game Designers can there possibly be in Utah?

When I arrived in town I called the store, and the man at the desk told me that, yes, I was welcome to just show up as long as I understood that I'd be playing prototypes but that "some of these games are actually pretty good." I was a little dubious, but the guy behind the desk seemed genuine. Any way, who cares. I was out in a new place and I HAD TO PLAY GAMES.

I arrived a teensy bit after the eight o' clock start. The front door said "closed" but the place was lit up and filled with about a dozen board game designers of Utah, and the door proved to be unlocked. Inside I was immediately impressed. The store was small enough to be cozy, but fastidiously organized, and entirely inviting. Shelves of games were carefully lined up and obviously dominated by Euros. The selection, it turned out ran really deep. There were of course the expected Settlers games and Tickets to Ride, and Puerto Ricos. This being Salt Lake City, I took a look over by the Settlers section and sure enough saw a sizable stack of the Mormon-themed "Settlers of Zarahelma". But in addition to the obvious choices, the catalog ran deep - into the old catalog of games like "Doge", a lone copy of "Himalaya", SEVERAL copies of "Canal Mania", and way on the top, a proudly displayed copy of "Roads & Boats"!

The store being cozy, I was quickly in the middle of the meeting being held. The dozen people were seated around on some nice, sturdy wooden tables in a section of the store clearly reserved for playing. From the warmth of the wood and the comfortable poses of the guests, any visitor might easily think he'd just walked into a coffee house - not a Starbucks, but rather one that encourages you to relax, sip leisurely, and stay a while. One club member was laying down the law - literally - to the other members, telling them about how they could go about submitting games to publishers. He talked about trust, legal copyrights, "poor man's copyrights", costs, and even the option of patenting. He also made a discouraging assertion to the effect that one reason not to worry about having your brilliantly original idea get ripped off is that it probably isn't all that original. Publishers get so many submissions that the chances are they've seen something pretty close to it already. He further warned his audience to expect waiting a long time, like six months, before hearing anything from a publisher.

The audience listened, asked questions, and offered their own perspectives. There seemed to me to be a fair amount of realism in the room. Everyone of course wanted that golden opportunity to be published, but there was no one there (I think!) with fantasies of getting rich, selling their home, quitting their jobs, and pursuing their game design dreams for the next twenty years (for that story, try seeing the story of Marc Griffin and "Bulletball", and bring your hanky.)

Then another individual opened his laptop and discussed a new website he'd designed for prospective game developers. Actually, he'd developed it for himself - as a way to present his own works - but he was presenting the site as something that could be shared by anyone else who was willing to help with the expenses. He was open to many ideas - one might post rules, or rules summaries, descriptions, pictures of components - whatever. It would be a way to give possible publishers a taste of your prototype and a way to introduce yourself. People seemed interested, but no one said "sign me up", at least not yet. It happened that this idea was remarkably similar to something I had been cooking up in my mind, and I said so. It seemed to me that maybe a site like this can be used as a way to find a large network of playtesters - people with a taste for new games who could download the rules and some basic components, try out the games, and share their comments with the designers and with other playtesters. A sort of Proto-geek. This was one of many ideas shared by the group, and the designer took note of the ideas as he considered where next to take his new web site.

All this time, I'm seated at a table with one other person who has got his prototype nicely boxed up and ready to go. While everyone is talking, I'm eying the first page of the rules book, which is formatted exactly like a typical rule book for a Eurogame. The components are all described and illustrated. There is an introductory paragraph about the setting and theme. It seems to take place in Africa, with elephants transporting different types of fruit, each of varying values, to sundry places. Players have "baskets" and there even seem to be some sort of baskets that the "chief" controls.

Of course, just glancing at the cover page of the rules, there is no way of telling whether the game is any good - but I'm immediately impressed. The thing seems to look, eat, and breathe just like a "real" Eurogame. The components stir up Eurogame feelings in me. Most telling - I want to play this game. I'm waiting for the group to end their administrative and educational schmoozing so that we can finally break into groups, and I can say: "I'm playing this."

The group doesn't seem in a hurry to get on with the playtesting. I'm getting nervous. Did I come all this way just to attend an administrative meeting? How much time have we burned? In time though, someone says exactly what I was waiting to hear. "Hey, why don't we get started playing soon?" A few more friendly grumbles get voiced. "Yeah, let's play." The people who have been running the meeting up to this point realize that their time is through. Bring on the games.

"Well, I'd be happy to try this game here", I quickly volunteer. Of course, since everyone knows that the evening is all about playing prototypes, everyone is shopping around for a game to play. To my surprise, there seems to be a good balance between people who have brought their own games, and people who just want to play something. I had expected twelve people, each with their own game, fighting it out to see whose games get played, but there seems to be no such problem. Several people swing over to my table and comment on how this is a good game and they'd like to try it again. Another player unfurls an impressive game that seems to be a wargame-Euro-chess hybrid. It has oversized hexes with no terrain detail and gorgeous illustrations of special powers - knights and dukes and other stuff - and everyone who sees the board and its illustrations "oohs" over the slick presentation.

The creator of the African-themed game that I've volunteered for introduces himself as "Alf", and he seems surprised that people want to play the game tonight. He was fully prepared to play something new, but as long as I've publicly volunteered, others soon come to join us, and we have four ready players available in a matter of seconds. The name of the game is "Tembo", which I'm told means "elephant" in Swahili. I've got high expectations, but also high doubts. From a glance at the rules and the overall presentation, everything looks authentically Euro. So it talks the talk, but can the game walk the walk?

The game has a lot of walking - most of it done by elephants. Tembo uses three hefty little elephant figurines, each of which has a colored platform on its back. All of the components are the sort of things Eurogamers love - squat, colored wooden cylinders signify different types of fruit that players are trying to collect; they are placing larger wooden disks of their color both to control the movement of the elephants and to claim the little fruit nuggets. My opponents and I are all trying to both control the direction and timing of the elephants in order to get the best fruit most quickly. A characteristic feature is that players may place their wooden disks either on the board, to direct the elephants, or onto the elephants, in order to capture fruit - and a series of rules make these alternatives nicely balanced and suitably "agonizing".

I think I'm doing pretty well right off the bat, being the first to snag a valuable coconut, but the guy opposite me seems to be getting lots of everything. A majority battle which I thought I had sewn up is getting threatened, and finally trumped when he makes one of those killer moves that ends the game. We can all see that this guy is king of the jungle. When we add up our scores, I come in third. Alf, the game's inventor, pulled ahead of me by focusing on a long term strategy of securing the most valuable majority fight. The player to my right came in last, a victim of more than his share of screwage - he picked up too much spoiled fruit.

Once the post-mortem begins, everyone offers some very specific criticism to Alf. Not too surprisingly, the fourth place player is not too keen on that spoiled fruit rule. Although I also was a victim of that rule, I want it to stay. It gives players that "do or die" moment when they know that they must control the game situation so as to avoid getting the dud.

What is apparent to all of us, though, is that the game absolutely works. All of our recommendations are intended to tweak and jazz up the game, not to fix it. My own opinion is that the game is in its "Geek Rating 6.5" stage, and the goal is to bump it into the "Geek Rating 7.5" stage that makes people not just want to play it, but to want to buy it - and play it a lot.

So how unusual is it to find such a solidly designed game coming from an unknown, unpublished board game designer, in a town that is barely on the map in terms of Eurogames? It turns out that Alf is not your typical unpublished game designer. While talking with him, I learn that he has had as many as three games appear as finalist entries in the international Hippodice games competition. In 2005, Alf Seegert had two games on the recommended list: "Ziggurat" and "Troll Bridge". In 2004, his game "The Vapors of Delphi" took second place, right behind "Harem" (later published as "Emira"). One prominent German game company had expressed serious interest in publishing it, but eventually balked due to internal problems, and perhaps also because "Vapors" was a two player game.

In 2007 - well, Alf tells me that the winners of the 2007 contest will be announced in just a few days, so anything can happen with his new entry "Mont Saint Michel". How often does lightning strike twice - much less four times - in the same place? It seems to me that one can always look back and find someone who has had a strong showing in any given contest, including Hippodice. The interesting question, to borrow a phrase from the world of mutual funds, is whether past performance is an indicator of future results.

Meanwhile, I have time to kill, and so I circulate around the store a little. The player to my right, Mike, has brought a prototype this evening that didn't get played, and so I ask him about it. He's not at all shy about pulling it out of the box and giving me a very full and enthusiastic explanation. He's playtested it something like a hundred times - many of them solitaire, but perhaps twenty five times with a full group. Another gamer walks over to hear the latter half of the explanation and he's hooked. They agree to try to pull in a couple of more players this evening to try it, but it's past ten o' clock, and I can't stay too much longer.

Before leaving, I get into a conversation with Gregory, a manager at Game Night Games. What is the secret of their success? Gregory tells me that the owners have full time jobs, including one who runs an advertising agency. The sharp look of the store, the appealing logo, and many other aesthetic touches are made possible because of the owner's own design talents. The store has been open for two and a half years, and its survival is possible because the owners do not rely on it as a source of income. During this time, the store has maintained ties with its customers, remarketing to them with discounts and special events throughout the year. The advertising agency knowledge helps the owners identify good advertising opportunities as they arise. Somehow it seems to be working, but it will take more time to determine whether this is just a beautiful avocation or a profitable business.

It turns out that, besides Alf and myself, the two other players at my table are both employees of the store. Their enthusiasm for games is evident, and so it is just as evident that any prospective customer coming off the street into this particular FLGS will benefit from the one service that such stores ought to be able to provide: helpful, knowledgeable (and cheerful) advice. I doubt that any of the "employees" were being paid for their overtime this evening. They were just game lovers like the rest of us.

Looking around the room, I see several boxes of prototypes. Some have been
played this evening; some will have to wait their turn. Some have very impressive art; some were just put together functionally. On one table, I see a stack of "parts" boxes - the sort used to hold hardware, only these are loaded with wooden bits for sale. There is a box chock full of meeples for 30 cents each, another box has settlers houses and roads in a variety of colors, elsewhere are the ubiquitous wooden cubes, as well as cylinders, and other familiar wooden shapes. The owner of Game Night Games obviously has enough interest in encouraging local designers that he has made available all manner of wooden pieces to support the development of quality prototypes.

This is what strikes me so forcefully about my evening spent with the Board Game Designers Club of Utah and Game Night Games. There is such a wonderful infrastructure in place to support their efforts. While many new board game designers fly around the country to meet once a year at Protospiel, or google the internet in search of a source of purple meeples, or set up websites and blogs to display their developments, here is a group of a dozen people in a city of 182,000, who all have the opportunity to get together every month to play each others' games, swap ideas, create and share websites, buy meeples and barrels and cubes, and to do it all in a comfortable and supportive setting. The best prototype of all the ones on display in Salt Lake City may be the club and game store itself - an encouraging prototype for future communities of new board game designers which may some day be replicated in cities from Boston to Los Angeles, and which could benefit everyone involved.

Post script: On Friday night I return to Los Angeles and on Monday I'm back at my desk at work. I do a routine check of Boardgamenews and see that the top story is an announcement of the 2007 Hippodice contest winners. Hey! I know someone with an entry! I click through to see if Alf's name is on the list and it turns out that his game Mont Saint Michel did not make it to the finalists, but did make it onto the Recommended List. So out of maybe 150 - 200 entries, Alf's game was in the top 15. Not neccessarily what anyone wants - but still impressive, especially considering his ability to so consistently place in the top tier.

I write to Alf and he tells me that he's still pretty happy with the results, and knew that the game needed more revisions - which he's begun. He's also developing the game that took second place a few years ago into something that can support four players, for wider appeal.

So for now, all we can do is keep our eyes open and wait.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Designer's Mind: Silk Road


The development of Ted Cheatham and Bruno Faidutti’s “Silk Road” from conception to publication.

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I love to pick apart a game and see what makes it tick. Behind every finished product is a story of how that game came to be.

This month I’m delighted to be able to bring the story of the complete development of Silk Road in the words of its designers, Ted Cheatham and Bruno Faidutti, as well as its publisher Zev Shlasinger of Z-Man Games.

Silk Road started out as an abstract game, and I got to play a very early version of it in 1999, when Ted was its sole designer and the game was known as “Valencia”. In the intervening years, Ted developed it, shelved it, then got Bruno Faidutti involved, and in late 2006 a very different but still recognizable game, “Silk Road” was published by Z-Man Games. Along the way, the game evolved from an abstract, to a fantasy theme, up into a science fiction game, and ultimately to its current historical setting in Southern Asia.

It is my hope that “The Designer’s Mind” will be the first of a series of articles to profile the development of a single game in great depth.

Silk Road is a “pick up and deliver” game – in which all players share the same caravan, which moves each turn further west from its starting point in Changan, China. With each move, players must bid for the right to control which direction the caravan will move. Once it arrives at its new city, the high bidder gets to choose which of the actions available in that city he will take for himself. Then it is he who decides which player gets second choice of action, and so on, until the last player who gets… no action.

In the first half of the game, players are investing in goods, and in the last half they are selling off the goods they collected previously. However, if a player cannot direct the caravan in a way to sell off what he has collected, he will receive little or nothing for it at the end of the game.

JBD: Well, let’s get started learning about Silk Road by asking about the very first idea that started it. I’ll gladly fall the into cliché trap and ask “which came first – the theme or the mechanisms?”

Ted Cheatham: Silk Road definitely came from mechanisms first. I decided it was time to try my hand at a game when I was in Mississippi (around) 1997.

Auction games always have a trade off of bidding for what you need at the cost of letting another player get the thing that he needs most. The initial premise I had was, let's make an auction more important as things leave the board since people will have less to choose from and in many cases not get anything at all. What if there were circumstances where only one or two people would benefit by winning an auction and the other players got screwed over? So, with 4 players, if the first player moved and made a play that only lets one other player have an action, it is critical to be second or first. Anyway, that was what drove the idea of the game initially.

Commentary: This basic idea does make it into the final product – but with a twist. The winner of the auction gets control of the pawn and gets first choice of the spoils. However, instead of the second choice going to the next highest bidder, the high bidder gets to choose who goes next, and so on.

Ted: The first cut was a grid with no real theme at this point. The base part was a set collecting game.

A player would bid to place a leader pawn on a spot on the grid. (He) could then take that tile or any tiles around the spot where the leader pawn was placed. It was a true auction where you auctioned 1st, 2nd , 3rd and 4th place player (one auction with most money first, second money second, etc).

So after the first turn, the board may look like this after 4 players played. The shaded spaces represent tiles taken.

The “1” shows where the pawn is. For the next round after bidding, if a player who won the bid moved the leader pawn to ”2”, only that player would get a tile since there are no longer tiles adjacent to it. This was the value of the bid and the screwage factor as I like to think of it. And, remember other players paid money for the follow on places...more screwage.

As the game develops and tiles are taken, the bid winner forces the tiles that are available for other players to take. And, with the right play, (he) can keep follow on players from getting any tiles at all.

Anyway, that was my goal and this game seemed to accomplish it. The game played four bidding rounds as a turn. By that time, enough tiles were gone and the scoring occurred.

Here was another point I was after. I wanted players to have a challenge in choosing which items to hold for the best score and which items to sell in order to raise needed cash. Starting capital was limited to only get you through a round or so. I thought that the pain of going last at auction was so bad that people needed to manage their money well and insure they could get into at least a couple of auctions. This was carried over to the next version of the game as well.

Commentary: Ted Cheatham is making the game really hard on players! He’s setting players up to get shorted out of winning any goods if they bid too low, AND he’s adding tight money management. I can easily imagine a player getting shut out of the game early. In Silk Road, there is a further complication. Not only do you want money to bid for control, but then you need money to buy goods in the first part of the game. You can’t sell your goods until the later half of the game. However, there is enough money so that players aren’t likely to get shut out of the action.

As is the case with the next version of the game, sets were valuable, and players needed to win auctions to insure they could complete sets.

JBD: How did playtesting go?

Ted: Reaction was favorable. My game groups have been pretty good about play testing for me and letting me know their comments. In recent cases one guy in our group has made both of these comments after playing prototypes several times:

"Ted, this one is ready, just send it off to someone" and "Ted, I have played it three times and it doesn't work...put it away".

JBD: Did you have a written version of the rules at that point, or did you just teach it verbally? Did that present any problems?

Ted: I probably didn’t have written rules at this point. I jot down the essential items on a piece of paper to make sure I remember the basic rules and any special items. At my first play tests I assume something will have to change. Only after a "solid" play test to I try to upgrade components and add rules.

The next logical step for me was an external play test. Fortunately, I had the venue. In those days, Greg Schloesser and few other friends would meet at least once per quarter. We used to call it the "Gathering in the Woods". I decided to take the game there and ask them to try it out. They were willing.

Responses were that it was a good game that fell in the "7" rating category. Well, I found this encouraging since I have seen many games published that rate well below a "7". I don't recall any recommended changes so I decided a few more play tests would be in order.

JBD: I would have been afraid that I was getting biased comments because they came from people I knew. That a "5" to anyone else would have been a "7" to friends. What made you feel that you were getting the unvarnished truth?

Ted: You never know here. I try not to wear my heart on my sleeve. A part of this again is that I do play a lot of games and I have a feel for what I like and don't like, and a little feel for what other gamers may like. If I cannot get one of my games to work, I stop forcing it on people until I can make it better. There is some bias at work with friends, I am sure, but even today I can tell by comments what is working and not working in my prototypes. Today, BTW, I do what I call "blind play testing". My blind testers won't let me play with them and they won't let me answer any questions about the game unless something is very, very confusing.

At this point, I asked a group to try it without me and give me comments. The real change came from Frank Branham. Frank is a fine designer in his own right and has vast experience in game play.

Frank Branham is the original and offbeat designer of "Warhamster Rally" and "Dia de los Muertos".
Ted: Frank was concerned it was just too abstract and plain and needed a theme and a feel. He recommended and suggested that I could accomplish the same goals by perhaps putting the game onto an island with limited areas. This was the major take away I got from this play test session.

I worked to adopt the island idea. I spent a bit of time pondering how the island should lay out and what the sections should be. There were important parts of the earlier game that I wanted to keep. The bidding had to be important and would be motivated by the fact that tiles are leaving the board, causing some players to lose actions. To me this was a major goal of the game.

So, I laid out what I thought was a good mix on the island sections to force some tough decisions. I put in harbors to let people move to other areas of the board so the game would not get locked into a corner. The island of Valencia was born.

Now I felt I needed a theme. So far, the game was purely about its mechanisms and I was like Reiner Knizia in search of a theme. My theme was clearly pasted on.

Ironically, Knizia has said that he often starts with theme. However, the way Knizia approaches theme and spins it into a set of mechanisms is sufficiently abstract that many people feel that the theme is pasted on.
Ted: I thought about it for quite a bit and took the easy road of sci fi and fantasy to invent a world and why in the heck people would want to collect things.

Full rules and fantasy story of Valencia

JBD: It's a pretty thorough backstory - one that seems more like it came with an American-style, simulation-heavy fantasy game than a modern Euro. Even though it was "pasted on", did it direct your design in any way?

Ted: Not really.

Now, I had an island lay out and I felt to get the game to the next level, I needed some nice art and a board, etc. By sheer fluke in discussing this with Greg one day, it turn out that his wife, Gail, was a nice artist and like drawing. She agreed to take a crack at the board and pieces. I think she did a wonderful job and just what I asked for. If you look at the board, you will see some areas where I cut and pasted some grass over some paths. This is where later play testing showed my original map needed to be changed.

As for the tiles, Gail sent these to me in black and white. I went into MS Paint and added color to make four sets of different colored tiles. That is what you see today. But, the art is just what I asked for!

With a game that has been well received by its playtesters and a set of attractive components, Ted submits it to the experts at the international Hippodice competition. Hippodice regularly receives over a hundred new game submissions. Some are from new designers like Ted Cheatham, and many are from seasoned professionals such as Michael Schacht. Judges include board game enthusiasts from the Hippodice club as well as professionals from game publishing. Games to have emerged from the Hippodice competition include Spiel des Jarhres winner “Mississippi Queen” and “Chinatown”.

Ted: 2001. I decide to send my creation to the Hippodice competition. This will tell me how good the game is.

Well, the game made it to round two...which was promising but never what you hope for.

The notice from Hippodice Authors Competition telling Ted Cheatham that Valencia advanced to round two, but not the final round. It includes comments from playtesters criticising the game for being too "dry", lacking tension during rounds, and being too long for what it is. They are definitely encouraging, though - are they also encouraging with games that did not make it into round two?

Ted: I always listen to comments...even if I don't necessarily believe. But, I took these to heart.

Getting an honorable mention may not be what Ted Cheatham hoped for, but the competition at Hippodice is pretty stiff! Buoyed by this encouragement, Ted continues to develop the game… but suffers a big setback in morale.

Ted: OK, more play testing. The next big play test with changes was at the Gathering. I asked Alan Moon (who I greatly respect as a designer) to take a look. We got in a 4 player game in which I did not play. Alan's comments were that the theme was really pasted on and the game was too dry. Ok, here is a guy who knows success and knows what sells, Spiel des Jahres winner. My walk away, this game does not stand a chance, it is time to put it on the shelf.

JBD: Did he really come across as flat-out discouraging? Was it that you weren't sure how to take the criticism and turn it into an improvement? Or were you just at a point where you needed something positive to keep going?

Ted: I think Alan was being fair and honest in his opinion. I think he understands the game industry and he understands what sells. I think I was discouraged because at this point, I really did not know what to do. Maybe I had just invested too much in the game and saw the things I liked in it and saw as working. The bottom line is that I was out of ideas. I really did not know how to fix this problem and liven the game up without taking out the key ideas that I originally wanted in the game.

JBD: I can see that being a tough crossroads. As you say, the game does what was intended. Finished. But on the other hand, it is not really successful. But does this mean you're at a dead end? Was your goal then to try to make it into something OTHER than what was intended?

Ted: At this point, I think I resigned myself to give up. Let's face it, I had a career at the time, family, etc. I play a lot of games and enjoy them and that is what gaming is about. I am not a designer. I gave it a good college try. At this point, I felt that the game did what I intended it to do. I think I decided to just give up the game design thing and spend my gaming time playing good games. It is a lot of work to put together prototypes, rules and then continue to play test and tweak little things.

Life is just too short to push an issue that is a losing point and of no real significance.

Ted “officially” gave up on his game at this point, but we know that the story has a happy ending! It shows how game development, like fairy tales, can take unexpected turns – if the hero is willing to fight!

Ted: After a few months I decided that there really is a decent game in there. And, there are some ideas that I really have not seen in any other game. Maybe I just need some help to get this to the next level and bring some excitement into this pasted on theme, dry game.

JBD: OK, so how did Bruno Faidutti get involved?

Ted: Well, I was true to my word. I put Valencia on the shelf. And, there it stayed for a couple of years. Although I had game ideas pop up now and again, I did not act on them.

Some time later, my friend Ty Douds had his first game, "Victory and Honor", published. This is of significance as both Ty and I were play testing our games at Gulf Games II. At the time, we all thought “Victory and Honor” was a great game idea, but that it was too long and complex. Over time, Ty did a wonderful job of streamlining an excellent idea into the game that was eventually published.

Right after Victory and Honor came out, Greg Schloesser asked me how Valencia was coming. I mentioned it was dead.... on the shelf. Greg was ever encouraging and said, it takes time and ideas...there are some nice ideas there and you should not let it die.

Now my thoughts changed. I thought, "you know, Valencia is not a bad game. At its heart, it does work and has some unique ideas. It just needs help." I still did not know how to fix it. It was time to turn to someone else and ask for help. And, at this point, the idea was to get it published and I felt, selfishly, I should get the help from a published designer because that would add some credibility to the game. My thought process here was this was like book publishing. An unknown author has a heck of a time getting a break. I was a nobody and needed help from a professional. The real question was, who?

To me the choice was obvious. My first choice was Bruno Faidutti. He had worked with a lot of people and had so many different style games.

I had never met Bruno. I went to his web site to find his email address and sent him an email. Basically, I told him I had a game that had done well in Hippodice and it was just dry and not that fun, worked. Would he be interested in working with me to spice it up. Thankfully, he said yes. I sent him the files and we were on our way!

JBD: Wow! I would never have guessed that you didn't know Bruno Faidutti when you invited him to contribute to the game. That's an awful lot of guts - to just contact a well-known designer on that basis.

So, what were the first issues you addressed with Bruno?

Ted: I sent the email and waited patiently. Bruno responded with something like “let me see what you have and I will let you know”. An objective person would say that he is hedging his bets. Be nice, take a look and one can easily get out of this saying they are busy with other projects. Not me! I am thinking and telling my wife, “ Bruno is going to look at my game!”
In hindsight, you wonder why Bruno would be interested at all. Since I did not know him and he had probably never heard of me, he was taking a big chance. Maybe it was the fact that I mentioned Hippodice to him that made a difference. Maybe he was just interested in looking at something new. As he says to this day, the timing was just right. I am very glad it was and that he took the time to look at a game from an “unknown”.

JBD: Well, Bruno, what was your reaction when you got the invitation from Ted to contribute to the development of Valencia? Had you gotten "cold" invitations like that before?

Bruno Faidutti: I regularly receive proposals from game designers, usually wannabees but sometimes also well known designers, asking me to help them on a design and make it a collaboration. I get three or four such requests every month, and necessarily decline most of them.

From time to time, there's one where I feel both that there is something interesting and that I could add something else which is also interesting. And even when I accept, it doesn't necessarily mean that we will succeed. I think I went on with Valencia because I had heard a bit about Ted on gaming mailing lists and he seemed to be a nice guy, and because the core collecting and trading system sounded interesting. Also, from his email, it seemed he was really open to dramatic changes to the game, which is necessary. My few bad experiences with such requests were usually when we tried to keep too close to the original idea of the original designer, so I always ask "are you ready to change almost everything and end up with something that may look completely different?" It seemed this was clearly the case with Ted, so I decided to try it.

JBD: At what point did you decide to commit to the project?

Bruno: I told Ted I was ready to try, and he sent me the files for Valencia. I made a copy, playtested it with some friends, and discussed it with them. We all felt there was great potential in the game. I emailed back to Ted, probably with already a few ideas concerning the mechanics and the theme based on our first play of the game.

JBD: Did you feel that it was close to completion, or that this was really just the beginning?

Bruno: I was sure it was the beginning, since Valencia worked as a game, but had a theme problem, and my experience is that when you change the theme of a game, it leads to many more changes in the systems. My first take on Valencia was to try to find a setting that would make more sense, and see what implications it has for the game.

JBD: Ted, I recall you saying earlier that the one core distinct mechanism in the game was the bidding in which one player gets left out. Ted, were you ready to change this mechanism if Bruno suggested it? Because then, I could imagine you feeling that the game may become a good game - but is no longer the one you had a passion to develop.

Ted: This idea of passing the start player was the one change that I had come up with when I went to Bruno, as was the fact that someone got left out of an action. I think these were two core ideas that were unique in the game, at least to me. But, I really was open to ideas and I think if the ideas are good enough you can convince the other designer of the merit. This process took on a give and take and exchange of ideas. It was like “let’s try this” and we would. We would then get back together to discuss what we liked and didn’t. Over time I think we both kept the two main ideas of the game that I wanted.

JBD: Bruno, apart from a general sense that "there is a game here", what did you see as being the essential mechanism that you wanted to build your changes around?

Bruno: I don't remember exactly now how Valencia played, and exactly what I liked in it, but [the mechanism in which players bid to avoid getting shut out of a turn] is probably one of the ideas I really liked and didn't want to change. And I also felt it did fit very well in a commodity trading game, which was a kind of game I liked and had never designed so far.

JBD: I'll add that I can see the similarities - but also the distinct differences between Valencia and Silk Road. In Silk Road, there is a bid for control - and one player does get left out. But in Silk Road, the player left out is not the lowest bidder. The high bidder passes the turn to any player of his choice, who then does the same, and so on - until there is one player left who gets no action. That’s very different. Also, in Silk Road, being left out is not so bad because you get the proceeds of the following auction. This mechanism I see as the key similarity – and also the key difference - between Valencia and Silk Road. As you mention, Bruno, another key difference is that the game has now a track, and goes from a starting place to an end, which was not the case in Valencia.

Bruno: Yes - Valencia was kind of free form, like a normal map. The high bidder has control of the movement pawn, gets the first choice of adjacent spaces and it goes anywhere adjacent from there.

JBD: I thought that the track was the single freshest idea that was added to the original design. It definitely gives the game a story line as players begin accumulating goods and then hustle to try to sell them off at the most advantageous price.

Bruno, what were some of the very first things you changed?

Bruno: The first version we made together with Ted was called Nebula's Hoard, and had a science fiction setting. The game worked well, well enough to present it to some publishers, and we still have some hope to have it published, since it feels quite different from Silk Road, with different actions and a very different scoring system. The game was about getting ore from different planets, with all the players taking part of the same expedition in the same big spaceship. I think that the idea of having everything visible from the beginning on a track gave the idea for the Silk Road theme, and then it went quite fast. There have been, if I remember well, fewer versions of Silk Road than of Nebula's Hoard, and this probably means the game was better. Also, the theme feels much stronger.

Ted: Bruno did manage to keep the original feel of Valencia. He now used Suns and the system of planets around it similar to the sections of the board in Valencia and he kept the trading and set collecting idea. Also, with limited cubes or planets around the solar system, he kept the "somebody does not get an action" that we both really liked. Additionally, he added some event cards. This game went through three or four variations and lots of play testing with various cube selections, planet powers, and planet mixes.

Why did we stop with Nebula's Hoard? My push back was that in this version it was a little too random for my tastes, space games don't sell, and there were some rather large scoring swings. I have heard a similar complaint from Silk Road that the scores can be very out of line. And, I have seen it happen. However, if people are paying attention and involved, the game will be very close. When you play a game and everyone at the table says to a player, "How could you let him have a turn now???!!!! You know what action he will take!" You know that you have a player that is not paying attention.

The next step was Bruno suggesting tiles much like you find today in Silk Road, and a setting in the desert with a caravan type theme.

First the tiles - we played with a mix of characters that eventually became the final ones in the game...Grand Vizier, Thief, etc. But, the original cube tile mix remained fairly constant throughout the design from this point.

Bruno suggested a board that looked somewhat like an Elfenland board where you would move from city to city collecting goods and selling goods. I suggested we take the board to a linear model much like you see in Silk Road. This proved to be the design we kept. Also, this is where it went into two colors of tile mix, the Orange and Purple. Basically, you are acquiring as you move along first and then selling in the second half.

Next, Bruno who is extremely quick, put together the final tile set and board layout in a nice graphic and we were off to play testing. BTW, Bruno's prototypes were far superior to can tell he is a professional.

Now comes the cool part! Shortly after all this occurred, I met Bruno for the first time at the Gathering of Friends and we played the prototype together !!! My guess is this was April 2004. At this point, we decided it was ready and decided to look for a publisher. We got our contract on February 9, 2005.

Ted, Bruno and Rick Thornquist playing Silk Road together for the first time

JBD: It seems that the game transitioned from being more of a set collecting game - where players score based on what they've collected - to a trading game - where you try to buy low and sell high. Selling in Silk Road is key, and being able to sell is one of the critical goals you work toward. How did that change come about?

Ted: This one, to me, just evolved naturally. When Bruno suggested the desert theme and the tiles, it just happened and seemed to work very well. I will give Bruno all the credit for this one.

JBD: The idea of having each player choose the next player to take an action is, as far as I can tell, unique to Silk Road. Why did you move to that, and away from the more obvious choice of high bid goes first, then next high, etc. Were there distinct playtesting problems there that you had to work out?

Bruno: This is an idea I had long time ago, and thought it could be used some day in some game, but never found the right occasion. Then someday when thinking on Nebula's Hoard / Silk Road it came back to me and I thought that it might well fit there - and it did.

Ted: I am glad Bruno was supportive and it stayed in the final version and in my opinion it is key to making the game work.

JBD: Do you remember any particular ideas from playtesters that made it into the game?

Ted: Actually, at this point, people played and there were not a lot of suggestions from my playtest groups. This is really why I thought we had hit the mark.

Bruno: I'm sure the idea of dividing the tiles into two series, for the first and second half of the game, came during playtesting. At one time I even thought of three different parts. but it was not necessary.

JBD: By the time you were submitting the game, what was your opinion of the game? What were you going through during this time?

Ted: Once the game was ready, my frustrations were the same as my early frustrations with Valencia. I felt we had a solid game that really should be printed and fit into the family/gamer market as a strong 45-60 minute game. I felt (and still do) the rating for the game should have been 6 - 9 out of 10. We found in pitching the game that this game was not for everyone. Some people really will not like the passing of the start player mechanism which is a core part of the game. Some people will not like the fact that someone will not get and action every turn. Early on, I felt the game could be very mean if you pick on one player. As a matter of fact, this is one of the few games that my wife never played in play testing because she is not a fan of "in your face" type games. Realistically, the game is nicely balanced to compensate players for not getting an action. The other thing we encountered was a company or two said the scores were too wild. Again, if you play this and pay attention it will be a very close game all the way around.

The real bonus was finding Zev. I had taken a prototype with me to GenCon to show around. He volunteered to look at it and had enough interest to take a copy with him. To Zev's credit, he likes new ideas. Silk Road was right up that alley because it had some unique ideas that worked very well together. And, after playtesting, he knew he liked it and he had several ideas to spiff it up.

JBD: One key criticism of Valencia that Ted mentioned was that it was too "dry". This is a criticism I see levelled at many games, and it seems to be the most vague and most difficult to address. If someone said of a game, "it is too chaotic" or "there are not enough decisions", or "there is too much down time", I can imagine specific ways to address that. But how do you make a game less dry?

Bruno: Well, you could say that dryness can be thematic in desert games, but yes, I did feel this. I even think the game still is a bit dry, with few rules and a rather pedestrian basic system of just swap and sell. However, a more plausible setting, a story arc, and some fun tiles with effects that are a bit out of the main system, such as the thief and the great vizier, are all ways to reduce this "dryness". I also have troubles defining exactly what dryness is in a game, though I have no problems feeling it in a game.

JBD: When you playtested, did you encourage negotiation, discourage it, or say nothing? Do you know what people did in practice? I can see this being a game that plays very differently depending on how players interact.

Bruno: I think this is less about real negotiation than about sniveling, and I always felt that games where you could snivel and try to explain your opponents were fun - as long as it didn't become the heart of the game, which it doesn't in Silk Road. I've never seen players play Silk Road really seriously, remembering every cube taken by every opponent, but I've always seen it played seriously enough so that you can try to explain other players why you were losing. And, of course, there can be some petty vengeance, the thief being very useful for this.

JBD: Zev, generally, what do you recall your subjective reactions were once you read the rules?

Zev Shlasinger: I liked the simplicity of the rules, knowing that the actions were where the complexity lies. The rules also seemed pretty clear.

JBD: Did playing the game tend to confirm your initial opinions, or open up a very different set of opinions?

Zev: Pretty much the game confirmed my initial opinions. The most surprising thing was the short length of play.

JBD: What immediate changes did you propose and why?

Zev: I believe the main change was disallowing some of the tiles in the last cities because they were useless there. We also added permanent tiles to some cities, solidified the rule to play the game from West to East, etc.

JBD: There is, I'm sure, a very big line between "really liking" a game and seeing something that makes you want to put your money on the line and publish it. Where is that line generally, and how did it apply to Silk Road?

Zev: It's hard to draw a line - it's subjective and differs with each game. I might have a business reason for doing a game or vanity one or a prestige one. Of course I always look for good, but of course my "good" can be different from other's value of "good". In Silk Road, I really like the mechanic of choosing who goes next. I thought that was unique and really had me take notice. I confess I also wanted to do a game with Bruno's name: he has a fan base, is known in the industry, and thought this would be a good opportunity to form a relationship.

Bruno: And it worked – now we know that we are in the same hotel in Essen, and Zev had a few other prototypes of mine in test.

Ted: The addition of Zev to the process was very helpful. Zev came up with the idea to add permanent tokens to the board.

JBD: These are bonus actions that the high bidding player gets to take in addition to getting first pick of the regular actions.

Ted: I thought this made very good sense especially to put them into the choke points where the caravan was forced to move there anyway. This was a very nice incentive to keep the bids up.

The next discussion from Zev was the strength and the powers of the various character tokens. Oddly enough, the one that had the most discussion was the “thief” token. We all had ideas and we play tested a few to include things like, take money instead of cubes, look at cubes and pick one of your choice, etc. Of all of the items that we talked about, this one got the most traffic. In the end, we kept the original power of the thief!

Also, the end game scoring was initiated by Zev. (This gives points for having majorities in each color of unsold cubes that you have at the end.) After various point allocations in play testing we settled on the rules as they are today. This was a nice addition to give some additional points to players who could not get their cubes sold earlier.

JBD: Tell us about the finishing touches - adding the historical material and the design of the game board art.

Ted: This part became a research project. Zev said, ok Silk Road what period? What are the cities? We need artwork to match the time frame. Well, I just had a game board with lines and circles….now I had to figure this out.

One of the maps I got looked very much like our board. So, I took that year as the general time frame. Next, I worked very hard combining several Silk Road maps to put actual city names in about the same area as the circles on the board. Some cities on the maps had to be omitted, but generally, you have actual cities on the Silk Road in about the right location on the game board.

Early board art for Silk Road

The board design graphics were next. What came from Zev was a board background without the roads and cities that looked great. However, when the roads and cities got added, it just did not work for us. Although it was functional, Bruno and I both did not care for it. I scanned a section of the Elfenland board and sent it to Zev as an example of how we thought it might look better and more functional. Thanks to Zev who took the time to start over and give us the great looking board we have today.

Bruno: I'm also impressed by the graphic work - it's light, discreet, but looks wonderful and fits the game perfectly.

Ted: Then Zev commissioned the cover art that has remained the same and it is wonderful.

Next we wrote a blurb for the back of the box, and with the help of Patrick Korner and Henning Kroepke, we got some German rules.

JBD: Please offer some thoughts on the final product. I'm especially interested in not just hearing that you like it, but any thoughts on how it compares with your vision of the game - and what it might become - when you first got involved. If it's better, missing something, or just different - in what ways is that the case?

Bruno: My main surprise when receiving my set was how similar the functional design was with my prototype - but after all, it probably means that my prototype was well made. I really liked the added printed tiles as chief of the caravan bonus, which bring some more variety in the game; but unfortunately I didn't playtest enough the other last minute addition, the two points bonus for color majority. If I had, I would have noticed that it didn't add anything to the game.

JBD: Also - I've seen that some players have complained about the turn-passing mechanism. Some seem to feel that it can be too arbitrary, that it can freeze a player out. So please feel encouraged to talk about that mechanism and what in your opinion makes it "just right".

Bruno: I think it's exactly the opposite - it's a balancing mechanism, since you are usually given your turn at the best times when you are behind - or perceived as being behind, which brings back the sniveling issue...

Ted: Silk Road definitely would not have happened without Bruno who is just incredible to work with. I hope that we can do another project together one day. And, it would not have happened without Zev who was also wonderful to work with. He showed us everything at every step, he involved us in all decisions. I just want to say thanks to Zev, Bruno and the West Virginia Appalachian Gamers who put up with all of the playtesting and gave me encouragement.

JBD: I've played Silk Road several times and what always strikes me is how such an effective game comes out of so simple a set of rules. The reaction to the rules is invariably "That's it?" It soon becomes apparent that these few mechanisms - bidding for control, picking an action, and choosing the next player - deliver exactly what is needed.

With such a simple rule set, it might even seem as though the entire game was created in a day. As is the case when playing Silk Road, getting it right is a matter of choosing the winning path from many alternatives, of selecting the one action that pays off best, and of knowing whom to trust with the next decision.