Most of the time when I design a game I start with a very basic concept, possibly pairing a theme or game type with a mechanism I think will be interesting, such as a train game with a modular board that is built during play. From this I try to let the idea evolve, adding in the game mechanisms in as organic of a way as possible, such as having your train require more coal if you have a heavier load.
This is where I started with my first real attempt to make a train game, which was to focus on route-building and deliveries. I decided to use large hexes for the modular board and sticks for rails – some spare Catan parts would do the trick. I put two locations on each hex where you could pick up and drop off freight and the positions where rail could be built cheaply. Freight would be replenished by drawing it unseen from a bag.
A recreation of a hex in the first prototype, the original having been lost in a hard drive crash
I threw together a crude prototype and gave it a solo test. It worked mostly as planned – game designs are rarely gems right from the start. The freight load rule worked well; you could load your train with multiple cars to carry more by paying more coal, allowing you to deliver large loads if you could get to them. What I didn't like was that the route-building was too fiddly and the game too long for what it was. At the time I had other more promising projects, so I put it on my prototype shelf with other misfits and moved on.
Running Off the Rail
At this point you're probably thinking someone messed up and put the wrong title on this diary. Not so, as Tahiti started out as the aforementioned train game. Several months after I had set it aside, I was doing some writing for a different game when the "Modular Train Game" folder caught my eye. After rereading the rules and my notes I was keen to fix it. The problem seemed to stem from building routes, so I tried placing predetermined track on each hex with track exiting on three sides. Depending on how you placed the tiles, there could be dead ends all over the board. Adding more track to the tiles connected everything to everything else, which didn't seem very rail-like either.
I decided to chuck it – not the game but the track. Since trains don't work well without track, I knew that required a theme change. Trucks need roads so that was out, too; planes didn't seem intersting either. I decided that boats delivering to and from islands would work best. I also made the leap of players delivering to a central hub rather than to locations all over the place, which helped jell the theme of islanders gathering food.
I still had the problem of over-connection as some paths needed to be better than others, so I decided to add reefs.
From the first prototype, salvaged from 1.5 Gigs of design files on the hard drive
The reefs would act as a barrier, allowing the player who was placing the island to make it easier or more difficult to get to depending on its location and orientation. This addition required a rule to prevent players from completely blocking off an island, but it worked. I had to change a great deal for this transformation; coal was changed to muscle power, and I removed the currency from the game, changing the goal to collecting instead of becoming wealthy. I changed all the commodities to food and goods that could be scavenged on or around the islands, including fish.
Fish Don't Grow on Trees
Wait, fish? I had introduced a good that needed to be handled differently. I have done my share of fishing and know that the one constant in fishing is uncertainty. I wanted this uncertainty to be reflected in the mechanism for collecting fish but didn't want to add dice to the game.
Turns out that I didn't need dice as I already had a better randomizer: the bag of cubes. Fishing in Tahiti means just that, reaching into the bag and trying to fish out a fish cube. Unlike with dice, the bag's state evolves over the course of the game and you know what that state is based on what has already come out. This makes fishing a risk but one that can be mitigated.
The Goddess Arrives
The game worked well most of the time but there was trouble in paradise. The archipelago building rules allowed players to place an island tile anywhere as long as it shared two sides with other islands. This could cause the archipelago to become quite elongated. When a player placed an island he was not interested in, he would generally place it far from the home island to keep others away from it. This was disastrous as another player might have to travel many hexes from the home island to reach it, traveling around reefs in the process. If the island was six hexes out, it could take three turns to reach it. Three boring turns!
I needed a way to control the archipelago expansion, and this is where the fertility goddess comes in, traveling the edges of the map and guiding where islands may be placed. This mechanism helps drive the archipelago formation in a way that gives everyone an equal share of control. Although the goddess will allow elongation of the archipelago, it can happen only if the players collectively push it in one direction.
Print-and-play version of Tahiti, with Haumea showing the way to unexplored islands
Small Change = Big Effect
Tahiti was working well, and I was testing it with a fellow designer to ready the game for Protospiel when it dawned on me that the reefs would be more interesting if they were a decision point rather than just a barrier, the decision being whether to risk goods by traveling over the reef or to stay safe (but spend more time) by going the long way around. Once again I needed a randomizer, so I turned to the bag again.
The Protospiel testing not only went well; some of the testers raved about the game, which is unusual since we typically pick them apart with the goal of improving them. Tahiti was 90% done at this point, which was enough for James Mathe at Minion Games to ask for a submission copy. The remaining 10% was balancing the game and eliminating first-player advantage – which took almost as long as the first 90%.
Minion Games has successfully used Kickstarter to fund several games but this one is my first. Finalizing the art, making videos, figuring reward levels, getting the rules (PDF) and print-and-play files ready so people know what they are supporting – all of that took months. Now that the Kickstarter campaign is underway, it's exciting to watch the pledging and read comments from the participants. Hope you're interested in checking it out...
David E. Whitcher