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.

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.


Yehuda said...

Wow. Good job.


huzonfirst said...

Great article, Jonathan. It's always cool to hear the stories behind the design of a game and this goes into great loving detail, covering just about every aspect you could want. I can't imagine anyone who likes games not appreciating this article. Thanks for all the work in putting it together!


Doug Orleans said...

It's great to read the history behind the game. It sounds like I would prefer Nebula's Hoard, because the "sniveling" aspect, combined with the fact that the game is fragile if not everyone is paying attention, really ruins Silk Road for me. I suppose it's good to know that these were intentional design goals, and the game is just not for me, rather than them being unintended consequences of other design goals.

By the way, I don't think the "choose the next player" mechanism is totally new. I think it's a close cousin to the mechanism in Nicht die Bohne and Oasis. The difference is that in those games, you have some direct reward for choosing a particular player to go next, and thus better and more immediate information on which to base your decision, whereas in Silk Road it's all about the indirect reward of who would benefit the least from going next, based on imperfect information about what they have and what they want (and their knowledge about what the next player would want, etc).

bruno faidutti said...

I didn't think about them while designing Sllk Road, but you're right, the system is akin with that in Nicht die Bohne, Oasis and Andromeda. All games that I really like - especially Andromeda and Nicht Die Bohne - and may be it's part of the reason for it.

Matt Miller said...

Great article, as always.

In the middle of this article, you bring up the question of what makes a game seem "dry". Maybe simple games that are poorly themed tend to feel more dry than games with a bit of chrome and better connections to their themes, but that's clearly not the whole story. The game of Go doesn't seem dry to me, even though it's extremely simple and has no theme at all.

I'd be really interested in seeing more of your thoughts on the question of dryness in a future post.

-- Matt

lochrist said...

Great article! If designer could provide an history of its game the world would be a better place (the boardgame world anyway) :)

Anonymous said...

Doug points out the changing of the player order based on imperfect information. This was also intentional. I actually played the game with no starting cubes so that imformation was perfect. I do not want to speak for Bruno, but, I felt and I believe Bruno did as well, that you needed a little random element for the game and thus the starting secret cubes. Working with imperfect initial information makes you wonder what the other players are thinking. I believe it is much better than perfect information and making it a strong memory game.
For my point, I want the game to flow and play by feel. I do not want people counting cubes and over analysing. On the caravan, who knows what secret deals are happening in cities behind your back?

Snooze said...

Very interesting! I finally took the time to read most (you sure do write a lot! Good thing it's such interesting read!) of these articles on my flight today. I love hearing these kinds of stories ... could be a blog in and of itself! I played Silk Road only once: it was a fun experience (thanks for teaching, Ted!) even though I don't necessarily want to try to remember which cubes everyone has been collecting.

Re: the "dry" discussion. No one asked me but ... it seems that a game is dry when it doesn't evoke any kind of strong feelings. Usually that means something with a pasted on theme; but not necessarily. I'd like to comment on the Go example, but I've only played that once or twice so I don't think I can discuss it very intelligently. However, Go evoked some of the same feelings I have when playing Blokus: both games, although clearly very abstracted, feel very combative to me. In Blokus you're simply playing pieces so your own pieces touch only on the corners. But you're playing in a limited space that the opponent(s) are also trying to use. For me there is a terrific feeling of attacking and defending, gaining territory and losing it, protecting a strategic area and breaking into the enemies' strongholds. So Blokus (and Go, I guess) don't feel "dry" at all -- it seems like they are, in fact, themed (although in a very abstract way :) ).