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Designer Diary: Top Speed – Racing on the Shoulders of Giants

Néstor Romeral Andrés
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Board Game: Top Speed
Back in 2003, Spanish driver Fernando Alonso began doing good things in Formula 1, making Pole positions and winning races. Being a Formula 1 fan and a wannabe game designer, I decided to create a racing game, just for having fun with my friends.

I called it Top Speed.

The game used a circuit, a few cars I bought at a local toy store, a common pool of cards with movement points, and a simple hand-management mechanism. It didn't work well enough at first, so after a few weeks I kept it on the shelf.

But one weekend, a planet re-alignment happened.

First, I discovered a great article on The Games Journal by Wolfgang Kramer called "What Makes a Game Good?" Kramer is co-designer of El Grande, among many other games, and has won the Spiel des Jahres – Germany's game of the year award – five times, so when Mr. Kramer speaks, I listen. "What Makes a Game Good" is a ten-minute read that every game designer should know and that summarizes all the aspects a good game should have. For me, it's like the Bible of board game design.

Board Game: Hacienda
Mr. Good Game, Wolfgang Kramer

So I started re-designing Top Speed by following Mr. Kramer's guidelines point by point. I'm not saying that I've achieved them – I'm just saying that I've tried my best. It's up to you to judge whether I've been successful!

I wanted to re-create Kramer's "sawtooth curve of tension", so I needed a simple mechanism that created rising tension with each turn and increased tension over the course of the whole race.

That same weekend (second planet aligned) I was playing Las siete y media (Seven and a half) with friends. This game is like Blackjack in that you draw or pass while trying to hit a certain point total – a very simple but interesting "push your luck" mechanism.

And that same weekend (third planet here), I was watching a Formula 1 Grand Prix, and the commentator said something that glued all this together: "The 22 drivers in the race know how to change gears, overtake, accelerate, brake... But that is not all there is to it. This is racing. And racing is about taking risks. The driver that gets closer to the risk limit has the higher chance of winning the race."

That was it. Perfect!

So all I had to do was plug a push-your-luck mechanism into the game to make it work – but this was not as easy as I expected. Plugging a Blackjack-style mechanism into the design showed limitations, such as an upper bound for the fastest lap, and created a few problems, such as the potential for a runaway leader.

So I needed a better PYL mechanism. The game went back to the shelf again.

In 2005, a great game by Bruno Faidutti and Alan R. Moon called Diamant appeared. (I think I played that game 20 or 30 times in a row.) Diamant uses a simple but perfect PYL mechanism: Players turn a card or pass. If you get two identical bad cards, you lose all the gems you've collected so far. That style of risk-taking was exactly what I needed, so I decided to adapt this mechanism to my game. Hey, if something works well, why not use it? Thank you, Alan and Bruno!

But, again, it was not that easy. Correctly implementing a mechanism is as hard as inventing a new one. Diamant looks like a small game created from a bigger one, through the distillation of the main mechanism, whereas Top Speed would be the opposite, using a PYL mechanism as the core of a bigger game. How to do this?

I decided that every player should have his own deck of cards to represent the amount of fuel remaining, and the longer you run during the race, the fewer cards you have remaining. When a player runs out of fuel, he can re-fuel the car by making a pit stop, which shuffles all of his fuel cards into a new deck and moves him a few spaces backwards.

Completing a single lap in the race took around 20-30 rounds, which was too much. So I decided that every round must be equal to one lap, plus a bit more. That "bit more" are the movement points achieved by each player in the round. As a result, the length of the game matches the length of a Formula 1 race, with one lap per round and around 1 to 1.5 minutes per lap.

Then I decided what the "problem cards" would be – tire blowout, engine problem, off track, etc. – along with the consequences of them being shown twice (negative movement points in the following rounds). I added the Safety Car and Yellow Flag rules, and balanced the distribution of the cards in the deck and the spaces on the track so that 1 or 2 pit stops are required to make a good race.

Finally, and following Mr. Kramer's commandments once again, I solved the runaway leader problem by matching the turn order to the race order so that players in the lead would have less information than everyone else. This way the race leader changes a lot as the players in front tend to take fewer risks (as they have less information on which to make decisions), and therefore go slower; the players behind do the opposite, therefore catching the leader.

I made a prototype in 2005 and gave it to my playtesters. (Thank you all!) The game changed hands for four years, and I received a lot of valuable feedback, different ideas and opinions, but one common request: Get it published.

Board Game: Top Speed
The prototype

Okay, I decided to make it happen, but I needed a publisher and which one would be appropriate? Formula Dé was already out there, and German publishers didn't seem to like racing games much. The game went back to the shelf again.

Then I created other games and started nestorgames in 2009. And a year later, I took Top Speed off the shelf for the last time.

Top Speed has been the most difficult game to produce. The format is bigger than the nestorgames' standard ( with three pads+case+carrying bag+decks+cars), and it's modular as the components are sold separately. But I was lucky to hire two of the best artists out there (Jorge Galán Liquete and Chechu Nieto), and this made things easier as they had already illustrated some nestorgames' titles previously: Robosoccer and Essentia. My friend Nathan Morse helped with the rules translation, too.

Board Game: Top Speed
Cards by Chechu Nieto

Board Game: Top Speed
Circuit by Jorge Galán Liquete, which uses three pads rolled into a cotton case

Finally, I needed a cool 2.5D laser-cut acrylic car. I designed the awful NG-2010 last year, but my laser-cut operator said, "Man, what's this crap? Give me a few days to fix it." I said, "Okay", and the cool NG-2011 was born.

Board Game: Top Speed
The new NG-2011

Hmmm... But where to keep all the components? A box? That's not very Nestorish. What about a backpack?

Board Game: Top Speed
The Top Speed backpack

And that's it. I've just published the game and hope you enjoy the game as much as I've enjoyed designing it.

Thank you for reading.

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