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Designer Diary: Snowdonia, or Battling the Elements and Taking in the Scenery Along the Way

Anthony Boydell
United Kingdom
Newent. Glos
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From gallery of tonyboydell
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!

From gallery of tonyboydell
A train card from the final game

From gallery of tonyboydell
First edition
(circa 1960s)
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.

From gallery of tonyboydell
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...

From gallery of tonyboydell
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)

Mechanical Breakdown

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:

From gallery of tonyboydell
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.

From gallery of tonyboydell

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.

From gallery of tonyboydell
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.

From gallery of tonyboydell

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.

All Aboard!

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.

From gallery of tonyboydell
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!

From gallery of tonyboydell
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.

From gallery of tonyboydell

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!

From gallery of tonyboydell
Really early Contract cards
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*

Almost There

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'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...

Tony Boydell

From gallery of tonyboydell
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.
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