Archive for Anthony Boydell
Not very long ago...
Though the books and authors have varied over the years, there has always been a common seam of "old faithfuls" with which to entertain and delight my children at bedtime. I have five children, with a gap of fourteen years between the eldest and the youngest, so there has been a pretty-constant stream of bedtimes to be filled with Julia Donaldson/Alex Scheffler, Shirley Hughes, Harry Potter, Maurice Sendak and — of course — Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin.
Firmin and Postgate "at work"
Those of you who grew up in the UK between the 1960s and 1980s will almost certainly remember The Clangers (pink pig-mice on a remote moon), Noggin the Nog (Viking saga inspired by the Lewis chessmen), Bagpuss (toys come alive temporarily to fix broken things), Basil Brush (Terry Thomas in fox-form) and/or Ivor the Engine. For the rest of you (outside the UK and/or not of "a certain age"), it's hard to sufficiently express the depth of love and loyalty that these characters and stories stir; they are nostalgic, beautifully realized, witty, occasionally subversive and always charming. Utterly "warm-sunshiny, glass-of-milk-and-a-biscuit, curled-up-on-the-sofa-with-your-favorite-toy" charming!
Ivor is a railway engine that lives and works on the fictional, rural lines in the top left-hand corner of Wales, running errands between towns such as Llangubbin, Tewyn and Llanmad ("damn all" backwards, in homage to Dylan Thomas' Llareggub from Under Milk Wood) and having adventures along the way.
Five minutes of gentle pleasure
Ivor has never been far from my thoughts since making a covert appearance in Paperclip Railways in 2011:
...and, officially, in 2012's Wales-themed Snowdonia. I was working in London at the time and popped in to the offices of Coolabi (an independent, international media group and rights owner that handles all of the Postgate/Firmin property licensing) to see whether I could use Ivor's image on a promo card; I felt so thrilled that a piece of my own imagination was going to be linked, however slightly, to that of my childhood heroes.
Coolabi were welcoming and enthusiastic, and I asked, on a whim, if it might be possible to go one step further and get a license for an entire Ivor game? "No reason why not", they said. "Just get back to us when you have something ready". And that was that.
In early 2013, the fuss around the first edition of Snowdonia was beginning to abate and my thoughts turned, again, to Ivor and what I would do (having been) given half a chance. My first design was a ridiculously-overwrought "dumbing-down" of Snowdonia: worker placement with sheep and cups of tea, component-heavy and far too complex for a family market. Those beloved stories were being crushed under the weight of a graceless Eurogame and it took some very straight talking from long-time Ross-on-Wye confederate Ben "Boffo" Bateson to remove the scales from my eyes!*
After I'd stopped sulking, I popped on the three-hour DVD of the complete (in color) Ivor the Engine TV series and immersed myself in its simple pleasures: the gentle jeopardy of a spoiled hat or a motherless lamb, a lost elephant, choir practice, and the magical-yet-perfectly-ordinary emergence of dragons. Being a Proper Game Designer™, I also scribbled copious notes linking key events and characters to the geography of the Top Left-Hand Corner of Wales; I grouped everything together into location "sets", then let it all percolate for a few days.
Ivor is a hard-working engine and is constantly being badgered by curmudgeonly Stationmaster Dai to get on with his work; many of the adventures are set against taking something from A to B with a diversion occurring in-between. Looking at the list of "jobs", I focused on one particular story in which sheep, stuck in snowdrifts, delayed the delivery of vital supplies to the snowed-in village of Llaniog.
Sheep. Sheep in the way! Sheep, an obstacle, stopping Ivor doing what he needed to do!
Something chimed, then, and I cast my mind back to the mid 1990s when I was working for another government department and at the very beginning stages of my hobby life as a game Designer. During our lunch hour, a group of us working on the same IT project squirreled ourselves away in the corner of the subsidized canteen and "played stuff" – mostly it was prototypes, churned out and mocked up using blank business cards. We were an undemanding, yet enthusiastic, group and none of us had ever heard of "Euro Games". One of the most popular Boydell prototypes was "Ecology", a game I'd put together after reading a Children's Atlas of the Animal World; this nicely-presented educational tome had maps of the world with animals, rare and common, around the outside and arrows showing which animal lived where. In "Ecology" (terrible name, I know), players represented campaigning groups (Friends of the Peace, GreenEarth, etc.) traveling the globe and cleaning up pollution; the map board started off covered in chick peas (representing humanity's muck). As-and-when regions of the map (habitats) were cleared, animals could be returned home for extra points. Pollution collected was points, animals saved were points, and when someone got over a given points threshold the game would end. The animals were in a deck of cards along with events and effects. As you would expect, effects did neat things like take extra pollution off, make you move faster, etc.; animals had their real rarity reflected in the points you gained for taking them back, and the events modeled oil spills, eruptions, governmental interference and other eco-disasters. It had a slightly activist edge to it, dressed up as a family game, but also a naïveté of design borne of inexperience. "Ecology" survived the 1990s intact, enough playtests proving the heart-of-it was robust, and — despite a lack of publishing potential — it remained fully mocked-up and occasionally taken out of the cupboard in the holidays.
Ecology's world, with habitats seeded with pollution at the start
Returning from my wobbly-screened mental stroll down Memory Lane, I realized that if I were to replace "pollution" with "sheep", "animals" with "jobs", and the map of the world with a map of North Wales, then I had a much better place to start for Ivor the Engine. The final touch was combining the job and effect/event cards to provide that all-important tricky decision: "Do I use this card for A or for B?" From that point, the core design was fixed – though, strictly-speaking, it had been fixed (but sleeping) for nearly twenty years.
I mocked up some sample cards using library art, an embryonic board layout, a company bio, and other "misc details" and built a PowerPoint presentation for Coolabi (and, by extension, Peter Firmin). At this point I'd not approached anyone else formally about joint manufacturing or distribution, I was simply exploring possibilities, albeit with a lifetime hero, keeping it as low-key as possible.
Within a couple of weeks I had a response: "Do you want us to talk to Peter, or would you like to show him the prototype yourself?". At this point I think I should hand over to my 2013 blogging self to explain what happened next!
A GRAND DAY OUTOutside it was HOT; well, "hot" for the UK at least, with my helpful on-board computer pronouncing 31 degrees. Stopping only for after-tasteful spring water and an expensive biro, I reached my destination "just outside Canterbury" at 1115HRS, pulling up into the square courtyard walled by a barn, a house and a cow-shed. I ding-a-linged the doorbell, but all of the doors were open to the heat and Joan Firmin greeted me with a hearty handshake and smile, calling out to her husband that I had arrived. Peter was in the dining room, a badger's cough distant from the entrance porch in which I stood – I could see him sat at the table occupied with something. He rose, turned and stepped on to the patio with a bearded grin.
Pitching the game to the man who created Ivor
At this point, there will be some of you who have picked up the subject of this blog entry but for those not yet in the know I shall include an Internet link: http://www.smallfilms.co.uk/
This is the stuff I grew up with: worlds of wit and charm, beautifully written and realized, that still bring a dewy tear to the eyes of British adults. Oliver Postgate provided the stories and Peter Firmin the art – scenery, cut-paper figures, puppets, props and landscapes. It is Smallfilms' late 1950s and resurrected late 1960s Ivor the Engine series that is the reason for my visit – as I have mentioned in other blogburps – because I have designed a game about him and I want to publish it with his blessing.
The genial octogenarian, now shaking my shaking hand, is the surviving half of that genius duo – the man responsible for me taking up cartooning, the man who has visualized the stories I have read (and am still reading) at bedtime to all of my children. I am not a little trepidacious.
We talk of the wonderful weather, put in an order for drinks, and then I get the first part of a guided tour; the house and outbuildings have been the Firmin family home (Peter, Joan and their six daughters) for 50+ years and the place they constructed and filmed their beloved series' in. Peter is officially retired but his studio – his shed (!) – is still stacked with paper scraps, cuttings, layout sketches, lino and vinyl prints (framed and unframed), rejected pressings and – teasingly – some wonderful works-in-progress (about which I am sworn to secrecy)! Craft knives, paint, balsa wood, model aeroplanes and papier mâché masks, book samples, proofs and pencil shavings. Animation was a diversion for Peter who, after leaving art school had yearnings to be a formal illustrator (woodcuts and the like); glorious happenstance put him and Oliver together and it was no easy job to make their careers from the new "children's TV" market. They experimented, first, with magnetically-moving mice on live television, a Welsh engine (first in monochrome), penguins and wooden puppet folk; later came Viking sagas, psychedelic moon mice and a saggy old cloth cat.
Peter had been distracted in the dining room (see my arrival paragraph) by a box of Pippin magazine cuttings – hundreds of pages of Ivor the Engine in B&W and then full wraparound cover glory. He dismissed the early pages with some disdain – pointing out the odd proportions of the bodies/heads and the simplicity of detail: "not very good" he said; "I think I'd use the word 'charming'", I replied.
The game design has sixty or so cards with illustrations on almost all of them – the stock library I have from the licensing company covers about two-thirds of my needs — so Peter suggested he could (re-)draw from the rest using these magazines to remind him. The fact that he's willing to produce new art for the game – including the map for the board and a new cover – is a fantastic development, brimming with Boydell family cameo possibilities! Peter doesn't have access to the originals (just the faded cheap comic printing) because the publishing company had kept them all; they tried to auction them off in London a few years back and Peter fought to get them back, which he did. He decided to have an Open Day at his home and let locals pop in and pick them up for £50 a pop – denying those naughty dealers and giving us ordinary folk a little piece of British history.
I set the game prototype up and talked Peter and Joan through the mechanisms – not going into too much detail because they both admitted to being "not very good with games"; my presentational focus was, therefore, the trueness of theme and respect for the source.
Oliver Postgate was always the one for games, apparently, coming up with abstracts (for the Noggin The Nog world in particular) including his own rules for Hnefatafl a couple of years before the British Museum posited their own.
Joan nipped off to serve lunch, so Peter and I ambled around the lush, cottage garden and chatted some more: here an acacia, forty foot plus, grown from a seed pod brought back from Zimbabwe by his youngest (the Emily from the Bagpuss series), there an oak tree grown from an acorn planted by their eldest. He showed me a field at the back — gone to wildflower seed — recently bought from a neighbor, now high-grass and uncuttable with his little mower.
Tales of family holidays in Europe, of huge handmade kites and odd German hotels and back to the weather-beaten cast-iron table for pork chops, (freshly-dug) boiled new potatoes and salad fresh from the garden. The shade, and the homemade Elderflower cordial, kept the three of us cool in the hazybaking afternoon; I don't think I could've dreamt a more idyllic setting.
Digesting the simple summer luncheon, Peter showed me the famous barn where all of his and Oliver’s labors were undertaken: now a stock room cum gallery..."that's where Oliver had the camera set up", "here was the Clangers' moon", "Noggin was filmed there" and so on.
Our time was drawing to a close, however, as Joan took their little terrier for a walk around the meadow; Peter and I discussed "next steps" and he dug out a couple of his crafting / make-and-do books for my children (including a model aeroplane book, which he signed, for Arthur). Too soon it was goodbye and the air-con roared in protest against the stifling heat as I crunched along the gravel drive to the main road and I was heading home.
A grand day out by any measure.
So everything was "a goer" and to really "sauce the gateaux", the original artist was willing to do NEW art for the game; how could anyone refuse such an offer? For international readers of this diary, imagine Bill Watterson signing up for new art on a Calvin & Hobbes game or Hergé willing to scribble up some more Tintin! That was the clincher, the deal-maker; add to the mix the later announcement that another Firmin/Postgate classic was making a return to television — The Clangers — and you've got a lot of forty-something men foaming at the beard!
At this point, let me hand over once again to by blogging self:
A CANTERBURY TALEOh those poor, tired dogs! Lookit them, the soggy barkers, fresh back from the long grass and the snouting:
Collecting the new art for Ivor the Engine
The weather was gloomier than the summertime when I last crunched up the short driveway to Hill Farm, all honeysuckle and clematis over the fences.
Mr. Firmin shuffled to the door; he beamed me a straggled-bearded smile and offered a crumpled-paper handshake. "Come in", he says, "Joan is off with the dogs down the field." I come in. On the kitchen table is some Bagpuss paraphernalia, and in the dining room, too — great boxes of philatelic envelopes waiting for signing — because next year this most beloved of British children's characters celebrates his fortieth birthday. There's so many of the bloomin' things waiting for autographs that Peter has split the job between himself and his youngest daughter — the famous "Emily" of the story, a little girl who finds lost things and delivers them to the saggy old cloth cat for repair.
We retire to the lounge amongst samples of his children's crafting output and the continual background noise of licensed goods sent over "for your archives": there are books, videos, toys and miniature figures peeping from beside and behind the family photos and the furniture. All at once there is a scampering book-ended by the opening and closing of a latched door and the two canines trot in, happily panting, to join us. Tim is the little one, the other is a guest, and they leap on to the sofa — turn exactly three times in a clockwise circle — and plonk themselves down. I love dogs and I love old "family dogs" like this in particular: gentle, funny and loyal. Tim plays the piano, apparently; Peter trained him (and other dogs before him) to jump up on the stool and bash at the ivory with his front paws (much to the annoyance, sometimes, of grandchildren Chopin or chopsticking to impress the ay-jeds). Joan shakes my one hand with her chilly two: "Gosh, you're warm!" she says, then in to the kitchen for some chocolate cake and tea.
We chat about how the Ivor the Engine game project is going, timings and progress, then he hops up — stiffly (he's in his eighties, for goodness) — and fetches a brown-wrapped, flat parcel: map for the board (oh, goodness), miniatures for the cards that needed new art:
and — Lordy! — something extra for us to use as a limited edition print:
We talk about Clangers: There is a new series (52 episodes) coming in 18 months or so and Peter is an Executive something-or-other, as is Dan Postgate — the son of his Smallfilms partner Oliver. Despite what seemed to have been a long journey and day, Peter enthuses about most of the design proposals: new sets (the old ones were just thrown out and burned when the original filming was done — why would anyone want to keep them?), the new Clangers themselves knitted to an original pattern and the shape of their ears a major agenda item. Peter the-opposite-of-enthuses about some of the more modern tropes of entertainment:
• You can't differentiate male Clangers from female by their clothes (armor or dresses) because that's sexist;
• You can't show characters leaping blindly into holes or stuffing cotton wool in to their ears because of Health & Safety; and,
• Does it always have to be dark in the sky? Children watching in the morning might thinks it's night and get the wrong impression of time...dark in the sky? That'll be "space", then. We chortle, cakey-fingered, as Peter admits to finding the Clangers a little boring — when faced with a time-filling choice, Oliver could add more dialogue (quickly) or spend a week on a more intricate action sequence...mostly preferring the quicker solution!
Lord love them both; these gentlemen made heart-filling, wit-filled, eye-gorgeous dreams for whole generations using jam-jar lids, string, paper and invention.
No committees, no writing teams, no demographics and focus groups; just mischief and practicality.
The family Boydell and a brace of Paulls wait on the platform...and then we're done. It had only been an hour but time stops when you're having fun (and drinking in every moment). Unless I can tempt Peter to some event(s) when the game comes out in the spring/summer, it may be a while before I get to do this again but it's worth the wait; it's worth its "wait" in gold.
Putting it all together was as pleasurable an experience as one could wish for too: SSG's Charlie Paull (putting in masses of manual labor to prepare the cards for final finessing) and all of the print-ready templating / layouts by the astonishingly prolific Mr. Klemens Franz. And where would we be without proper rules? Probably spending ten hours a day handling BGG forum queries! However, thanks to the electron microscopic attention-to-detail of Messrs Alan Paull and Brett J. Gilbert, even the rulebook is a thing of beauty and a joy forever! Ivor the Engine is a beautiful entity indeed: wood, cardboard, and drenched-to-the-marrow with those classic images.
There you have it, I have come to the end of my story: the long journey of a game design through three decades, finding its way home. Rarely do you get the chance to do something as part of a job of work that gives you such marrow-shaking, soul-cuddling, heart-bursting joy. Chuffed to bits? "Ivor" feeling I'll never enjoy designing anything quite as much as this ever again!
*He said: "It sounds terrible, to be honest."
Dig It, Build It, Climate!
(Note: For the uninitiated, you may wish to take a look at this blog post for an overview of Snowdonia before launching into this biography. Or not. As you will...)
Digging the Foundations
For me it seems that the annual Spiel convention in Essen, Germany is as much a muse when it comes to game design as reference books, documentary films and random life-events, e.g., just hearing the name of String Railway in 2010 led to a kooky and successful twist for me – Paperclip Railways – in 2011 (as previously detailed on BGGN). That's not unique, however, as the poor people who have heard me bang on about Colon (lots of colored cubes converted to brown cubes) or Bazelgette will attest.
In this instance, consulting the dates on some of my archived Word documents and graphics files, Snowdonia's origins stretch far back to the mists of Spiel 2006 (gasp!). Surprised Stare Games was a hungry fledgling with its third product and first board game – Tara, Seat of Kings – freshly minted; it sold in pleasing numbers and came fourth in the Fairplay poll of that year's show. What little time we had before each very busy day usually involved a coffee and some banter. Specifically, I recall a discussion about railway games and how we would approach the theme should the occasion arise. Always keen to put an alternate twist on a genre, I jokingly suggested players wouldn't build a full network of rails or invest in shares, but instead work together to build just the one line – and I mean properly build it, i.e., dig, lift, strain, wheeze and struggle. (Could one sculpt a meeple with a hernia?) Paramount in my idea was to avoid the usual top-hatted, stock market wheeler-dealering; not for us the cube-shipper mechanism or the cardboard hexagonal piece! Having to quickly justify this nonsense with an example, I pulled "Snowdon Mountain Railway" out of my neural net and the conversation came to an "Oh, Tony!" exasperated halt.
Those initial files contained the tentative results of some follow-on research: web-sourced historical nuggets such as the dates of the Snowdon railway's construction, the landmarks and stations along the track (with height above sea level), the names of the first locomotives, etc.
Nugget: The game uses the trains to lend theme to the concept of bonus-bestowing artifacts even though only the first two – L.A.D.A.S. and Enid – were actually around-and-about the site during construction!
A train card from the final game
This online research was supplemented by my chance spying of a 1960s Snowdon Mountain Railway guidebook which contained a full history of the whole construction with archive photos, route descriptions, and (for the obsessive) tables of chain distances, gradients and altitudes.
Chains, gradients, and other uber-geek detail
Such is my collecting compulsion that over the next few years I acquired different print editions of this book, worrying that each successive issue would contain additional info essential to the game I was designing. I also have badges, postcards, modern "route plans", walking guides and maps – all the better to adorn the SSG stand come Spiel...
Some of the ephemera you might see in Essen
Theme has become very important in my general approach to design over the years for getting my headspace in order. I prefer to let the story suggest the quirks of mechanisms rather than taking the more abstract approach of "starting with the numbers". Snowdonia, for example, had a number of key inspirational elements from the beginning that I needed to resolve:
-----• Ensuring the competitive co-operation of everyone trying to build the same thing (= 1 segmented track & stations, worker placement with limited spacing, and so on),
-----• Having some element of weather to interfere with everyone's efforts (= the Weather),
-----• Preserving the "story of the construction" rather than have it descend into abstraction (= the Theme and Art), and
-----• Making the whole thing timely to play. After all, it took just 72 days to lay the railway track (four miles of it) after the workers had built the brick-heavy "Two Viaducts" near Llanberis! Seventy-two days out of an 18-month exercise! (= Events)
The underlying "laborer placement" mechanism was in the design from the start; given that each "team" had a number of employees to be assigned to tasks, that's pretty much the best way to implement it! Laborer placement also allows you that wonderful tension as players vie to do the things they want and need before their fellows do: Will that space be free next time round? Do I need to do (A) before (B)? Etc., and so on, yadda-yadda. Of course, in the mid-2000s "worker placement" was a little less prevalent than now...
There was an auction house (forerunner of the Stock Yard) in which players bid for "lots" of materials and bonus cards; the "everything comes out of the bag" was there, too, as only contract cards were bought by taking "contract cubes" and there was no concept yet of integrated weather or events.
Importantly – before the game proper began – a number of building contracts were put up for auction between the players; these contracts were for the building of the specific landmarks and could be won individually or by a pair of players who would then work to complete them together:
Building contracts held between players (later to become Stations along the track)
Building contracts also had a countdown-style "time to build" mechanism (using a d6), so you had anywhere between three and six turns to collect and convert all the required resources to fulfill them! TBH they were bloody tedious to manage; lots of checking and re-checking and counting dice-pips down each round. There was also a penalty for players who failed to complete their contracts on time – even more paragraphs of rules, admin and general messing-about. It didn't take long for them to hit the recycle bin! From the ashes of this complexity came the simpler idea of the Stations – the same basic idea of "packets of work" that needed doing but without all that money-counting, dice-adjusting nonsense.
In this final state of design, a Station is made up of X bits of work that need doing: digging (the excavate action) and/or building (the build action), with the latter needing steel bars or stone. Players can do as many or as few of these spaces between themselves, with the game's event mechanism filling in the gaps!
The central board started as a hex-based railway line – that also needed building – which looped around its quarters, along with the scoring track. A scoring phase was triggered when each quarter was complete. At this point, the action spaces were a set of cards laid out along the top edge.
The first incarnation of the game board
The idea of miniature scoring phases persisted for most of the development period (albeit reduced from four to two), but interestingly (to me) even a five-minute hiatus to total things up halfway through the game interrupted the flow of play too much. The second half always played quicker than the first anyway – people now had resources, trains, a direction, etc. – so the design naturally evolved into play-score-finish. This also eliminated the need for a scoring track, which is always problematic when peeps reach over to place meeples, gather resources, etc.
Also, it didn't take long to reverse the layout and have actions on board and the railway around the outside.
This approach also opens up design space for alternative scenarios, i.e., the game becomes a system. Thus Snowdonia as it will appear in October 2012 when first released comes with the Snowdon Mountain and Blaenau Ffestiniog scenarios – but I also have prototypes for Jungfrau (dynamite!), Darjeeling & Himalaya (tea!) and a funicular railway in Aberystwyth (very small indeed). All of these scenarios use the core game in differing (and, hopefully, interesting) ways.
It was in 2010 that the final incarnation of Snowdonia took shape. I threw all of my printed bits away and laid everything out afresh – a shiny, slate-wiping exercise with new board, all new cards, new wooden pieces, and so on. I think the ingenious graphic design of Le Havre inspired me to boil down the components for Snowdonia into the tight, double-sided and no-space-wasted system it now employs. Why have cards with branded backs when you could make use of that second side in game?
The 2010 version (then code-named "Mountain Railway") is, at its core, the version surviving today; what needed shaping at that point were the Events (the white cubes in the resource bag) and that all-important weather.
The Event track
The Events were a simple exercise in "how many cubes do I want?" I had long settled on the idea of Events coming out with the other resources. Events keep the game moving (and down to its pocket-sized playing time), but if you have too many, everything is done before you've started, and having too few leads to stagnation (and too much time for players). Combine slow Events with bad weather and you really did feel like you were suffering for your constructive art! Balancing that magic number was difficult – four-and-a-half would've been best – but I'm happy with the element of urgency these cubes now inject: If the players hoard or dawdle, the game will complete itself!
The weather key
The weather was always designed to adjust a work rate track, but how to do so was probably the most frustrating part of the whole development. I tried a custom colored-face die roll, then a regular die roll consulting a weather table – but die rolls are random in a special annoying way all their own. More importantly, both methods still gave you weather only for the next immediate round.
Wanting to let players plan against/with the weather in advance, I moved to a miniature deck of pre-set weather forecasts. This introduced the idea of "this round and the next two rounds" – but with presets, I felt the pendulum had swung from "too random" to "too prescribed". It was a chance comment from Alan Paull at a game development day about the Contract cards that solved the problem almost immediately: Use the back of those cards while they're still in the draw deck as the generation system. It was but a matter of moments to establish the proportions of rain, sun and fog across the thirty-card deck and to ensure (in case discarded cards needed to be re-shuffled and re-used) that all the perceived "powerful" cards had terrible weather on the back. With the cards being refreshed, to some extent, every round this eliminated a component (the die), simplified the mechanism, and facilitated a weather forecast that would enable planning.
Pretty much the whole of 2011 – bar a few distracted months spewing out Paperclip Railways – was spent crafting the Snowdonia prototype, balancing card powers and scoring values, checking the action spaces for the different player configurations, tweaking the Event track (what happened and in which order), and pricing the trains.
The Surveyor action (walk a man up the mountain for increasing VPs) came out of this period, when certain players felt they needed "a sort of pass action but NOT a pass action". (I'm looking at YOU, Mr. Richard Breese.). This new space also introduced the alternative build rule idea that lead to the Blaenau Ffestiniog scenario!
Speaking of Contract cards (ooh, sleek link!), these underwent fierce scrutiny in order to balance effects and deck size and to keep the endgame bonus distinctly different from the cards one-off ability. As the key part of the game – you won't win without completing some – I also needed to ensure players had some (but not too much) of an opportunity to collect them. I must (at this juncture) give a quick nod of the head to Mr. Iain Shirley of our Wycombe gaming group who, in particular, is responsible for there never being more than two spaces in the Office action; in one game he took so many Contract cards that the deck ran out completely and we had no method of calculating the weather! *nods*
Really early Contract cards
In January 2012, I was sitting in my library – yes, I have a room wholly devoted to books and games! – scanning the shelves absent-mindedly when my gaze fixed upon Walnut Grove (which I like very much). It sparked a mad idea: Snowdonia has a lot in common with the Lookout Games house style, so why not see if they'd be interested in it? I Geekmail-ed Hanno Girke "on the off-chance"; after all, the worst he could say was a polite "no thanks"! It turns out that North Wales, and the Snowdonia region in particular, is one of his favorite places in the world to be; thus, he was naturally predisposed to being interested. That same day, I sent my only prototype to Germany and crossed everything in anticipation!
Aside: Throughout Snowdonia's development, I had a nominally spec-ed out two-player variant, but never got round to paying more than a derisory interest in it as playtests always involved at least three. I paid it no mind.
A fortnight or so after I had sent the whole shebang off to Lookout Games for evaluation, Hanno's first comments came back with a disturbing introduction: "We just finished our first game - 2 player." Oh, sweet cheeses, no! This wasn't supposed to happen; I've not tested it at that level. I was deeply depressed; my chance for a good first impression seemed to have crashed and burned. He wrote: "First of all - I think it's a great game. Still - the 2p version needs some more spading. ;-)" - at least he was making puns, so there was light at the end of this tunnel! He added: "2-player is really important...it's the 'play-with-the-wife aspect'."
I resolved to fix everything as a matter of urgency. The main issue was having too many workers to use (three instead of the normal two, and >1 Train allowed); I had mistakenly assumed that to keep the same pace of game with fewer players, I needed to let those fewer players have more tools. Therefore, too much was done too quickly and too easily, and players inevitably ran out of useful/desirable options. The simple fix was to make the two-player game pretty much the same as the main game and – hey presto! – tension and meaningful decisions returned! Once again I must pause to give a quick nod of the head, this time to Mr. & Mrs. Carl and Elizabeth Crook who sacrificed many hours playtesting to hammer this into shape. *nods*
Hanno's early e-mails also suggested "a solitaire version", which of course shouldn't have been a surprise given Lookout's 1+ preoccupation. He continued: "It makes the game easier to learn if you can walk up the mountain all on your own and then chase your own high score." I don't play many solo games myself, but having entered "enthusiastic design mode" for the two-player game, I ran the one-player project in parallel. In the end, it's the same as the other variants except that you cycle through a series of games with a different starting train, fewer cubes in the bag, and quicker "churn" through the contract cards!
Summit All Up!
It is satisfying to find that, after the flurry of work in February and March 2012, the heart of Snowdonia proved resilient and true with just the fine edges being honed. Those two months belie, of course, the five years of effort herein described to get it into that "reviewable" state. Since April 2012, Snowdonia has been a flurry of graphic work (sketches, line art, "coloring in", final layouts), firstly for showing off at the UK Games Expo, then as part of the final production.
Dealing with, and to a great extent being guided by, Hanno and Klemens Franz at Lookout has been an absolute pleasure; their positivity and professionalism have made the whole experience an absolute joy. I feel this is wholly reflected in the quality of the final product, which is tantalizingly close to being in my hands!
I guess you could say that, overall, I'm pretty (chuff-chuff) chuffed...
My layered, tracing paper line art for the cover; the man "resting" on the wagon
was posed for by my middle son Benedict on the edge of the kitchen table.
It's Day 0 at Spiel 2010, the Wednesday set–up day when we're all supposed to be sticking up posters, assembling shelves, stacking product, writing out itty–bitty price labels, grabbing premium spots in the press room, disposing of excess cardboard, etc.
In reality, many exhibitors are often waiting for pallets to arrive, chasing down car park permits and desperately trying to drive a hired van through the maze of decoration, dump its contents and leave before the time limit expires and a €50 fee kicks in! Once that little rush is over, one can settle down to arguing about stand layout and/or wandering off to pick up an enormous sausage in a bap, your pre–orders of 7 Wonders or the latest Agricola goodies.
It was during a lull in any/all of the above that word got to me of String Railway.
There were no other details – just the name! My first thought was of little plastic trains threaded on to string and then, somehow, the shaking of the string causing the piece to move. Cute idea. As it turned out, that was (and still is) MY cute idea!
When I finally got away to the Japon Brand stand to take a closer look, all became clear: Stations are square tiles to be laid in an adjustable, geometric play area, and you score points by laying out one of your strings and getting it to touch as many stations as possible whilst avoiding obstacles – a delightful and unusual spin on an old classic theme!
Due to customs problems, Japon Brand didn't have any copies to sell at that time, so I duly pre–ordered a couple and thought no more of it. When I got my copies on Saturday during Spiel, it was first to the (dining) table that evening and much fun was had by all! Quick and quirky – and it looks GREAT on the table when the game is done!
Of course, this being Essen, String Railway got me to thinking: What if I were designing such a game? What would I bring to it? After all, this string business is just too brilliantly off–the–wall to leave alone! Let's look at what's in String Railway:
1: You play what you draw.
In SR, that's it. There's no deep thought to be had – you pick up a station (or stations since you end up with TWO to place if you draw a Countryside station first), put them down to your best advantage, then place your string.
If it were me, I'd want to have more choice about what I placed. I'd need a plan to work around or, at least, the stations to suggest a plan!
There's a small pool of station abilities in SR, but the ex–CCG–er in me (there's no such thing as an EX CCG–er) wanted many more – a whole, proper deck of stations with interactions, bonuses and "odd effects" to boot.
And with a large, variable deck comes hand management (but of course!)
2: You have only five strings to place: four short and one long.
SR is wonderful for the 20 minutes it takes to knit your playing area, but if it were me, I'd want the game to take a little longer and give me more thinking to do!
Why restrict yourself to fixed lengths of track? Wouldn't any sensible railway baron want to have short, medium AND long routes? This, of course, is where my "pièce de résistance" comes in – what can I use to show railway links that are as quirky as bits o' string but variable like tiles in Age Of Steam / 18XX?
The clue is in the name: paperclips!
Yes! Those bendy, clippy, multi–coloured, Yale–lock–breaking, paper–fastening devices.
3: You can build out of your station to ANYWHERE.
In SR, as long as you start in one of "your" garrison–ed stations, you can twist, turn, overlay and travel as much as you like given the restriction of your string.
If it were me, I'd want to make good station bonuses harder to get because the stations themselves are harder to get to! The basic types of SR – City, Urban, Suburb and Countryside – remain core to the concept, but I introduced the idea of stations showing you where they can build to; some would be open and free, allowing you to connect anywhere, while others would be closed, but more desirable!
4: Your turn is just the one action: draw, then play.
If it were me, I'd want the choice of drawing OR building a link. By standing on its own, drawing allows me to cultivate my options AND time the right builds for maximum effect / point–age.
Thus, Paperclip Railways was born. It was a surprisingly–quick process from initial light–bulb to defining the turn structure and building an initial set of abilities to put into stations.
As I often remark, first playtests can be stressful affairs, as you will often witness your ideas caving in under real player pressure. For PCR the deck obviously needed to be large – it is now almost 100 cards strong – but the basic concepts stood firm. The deck also serves as the game's time counter, and the current size suits it well in this role: If it were too small, no one would have time to make any particular progress; too large, and you're playing into the wee hours or bringing a sleeping bag to each session!
Veterans of my thought–processes have remarked that Paperclip Railways is similar to one of my previous designs – an area control, cube–shifting and card–driven affair currently "under consideration" – which will go most of the way to explaining how this all fell out of my head in such a state of near–completeness!
The initial run from Surprised Stare Games will be very limited (120 copies) and cost £20 excluding P&P. It is being launched at the UK Games Expo in June 2011, and you can pre–order a copy by sending an email with your contact details to: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S Here's a little bit of fun – there are more hidden around the place, too: