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Designer Diary: The Canals of Tempest Were Dredged by Rejection

Philip duBarry
United States
Cincinnati
Ohio
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Microbadge: Revolution! fanMicrobadge: Square Meal fanMicrobadge: ChristianMicrobadge: I'm a Black Orchestra fan!Microbadge: Spirits of the Rice Paddy fan
Board Game: Canalis
In Canalis, players continue the story of Tempest by developing a tract of swampland recently opened up by one of the city's famous storms. Resources must be connected to production buildings and then to the harbor. Canalis combines tile-laying, network-building and card-drafting (as well as secret missions and variable powers) to form the next installment of the Tempest series of games.

In the Beginning

Our story begins way back in mid-2008, over a year before Revolution! was released. After signing with Steve Jackson Games, I immediately started thinking of new game ideas, one of which happened to be about building a zoo. I've always been a fan of Tetris-type games, and I love spatial-reasoning challenges, so my zoo game required players to place various weirdly-shaped tiles on a grid. Pathways connected exhibits to food, water and electricity sources, as well as to one of the zoo's entrances. Only correctly-connected buildings would score. Gardens would also be available as an extra bonus for all adjacent buildings. Players began the game by choosing any tile. Simple. A handful of bonus tiles obscured the score until the end of the game to retain a bit of tension.

My family and friends had some good times playing this game. It was light and casual, but had a nice, puzzle-like feel to it. I refined the design a bit, constructed a sharp-looking prototype, and headed out to Origins 2010. I was flying high that year, still dazed from my success with Revolution! My backpack also included prototypes of Henry the Great ( published as Courtier), Kingdom of Solomon, Family Vacation, and a little card game called Chief Inspector. By the end of the show, the zoo game (which I called Zootopia) had been taken by a publisher!

Board Game: Canalis

Rejection #1

In the coming weeks, I chatted with this company while working on other projects. Eventually, I noticed the messages coming farther and farther apart. Until they just. Stopped. No more answers; no more communication. I'm not exactly sure why this happened, but sometimes things just don't work out. It would have been nice to have had the prototype back as it took ages to cut out all the weird shapes, but fortunately I had printed several copies of my materials, so I just made another one.

The next time Zootopia made it in front of a publisher was at Origins 2012. This session went well, but it was clear that something was missing. The design was getting stale, and it needed a change. Later that Origins, I met Dan Yarrington of Game Salute. I pitched all my games to him, with varying degrees of success. He thought my zoo game would work better as a zombie/post-apocalypse type game. I gave that some thought. However, once I returned home, I heard that AEG was looking for more Tempest games. Light bulb. Why not make the roads of the zoo into the canals of Tempest?

Board Game: Canalis

Rejection #2

I spent the next several weeks retheming the zoo game into the canals game. I added cool art straight from AEG's super-cool developer toolbox website. Everything came together and felt close to right. I liked it; the game was fun. Should be a slam dunk. I played the prototype with the guys from Alderac Entertainment Group at Gen Con 2012. They seemed to like it fairly well, but I didn't see any sparks like there were over Courtier. Then I waited for the feedback. Finally, I learned that the canals game was "not quite there".

Board Game: Canalis
Rejection #3

The big problem with the game (and with the zoo version, too) was that the options triangle was inverted. At the beginning of the game, players had too many options. They should have only a few, so as not to be overwhelmed. As designers, we want players to be gradually sucked in. Also, at the end of the game very few tiles, mostly boring ones, were available. Players should have more options as the game progresses to its conclusion, not fewer. This was a fundamental flaw. Time for some soul-searching.

Board Game: Canalis
After much struggling, the answer presented itself: card-drafting. I had completely fallen in love with 7 Wonders. I also noticed that while Dominion had spawned the grand deck-building revolution, card-drafting could be found in only a few games. This had to change (and is changing). I would add card-drafting to the canals game. Players would be limited by their cards to a much smaller selection of buildings. Then, later in the game, players would have access to bigger and better buildings. Each card could also be a choice in its own right, allowing the top half (placing a tile) or bottom half (performing an action) to be played. One set of cards would be used during stages 1 and 2, with another set of cards for stages 3 and 4.

I put everything together and sent the files off to the BOGA group, an awesome group of playtesters in Akron, Ohio. They liked it, providing loads of helpful suggestions. I fixed some things and sent the prototype to AEG. Finally, I would be finished with this game!

Edward Bolme from AEG let me down slowly with his letter of rejection. It felt bad, but it wasn't really rejection — just more constructive feedback. He said the game was much better than the first prototype he played. It just wasn't there yet. Apparently, card-drafting is harder to do than I first thought. Lots more adjustments had to be made, but the real problem was even deeper: lots of gamers aren't good at geometry and spatial orientation, and it's hard to find the right tile among all the different pieces. My lovely, beautiful, wonderfully weird shapes would have to be *gasp* simplified.

Cutting My Favorite Scene

I've often heard moviemakers talk about the agony of having to cut their favorite scenes for the good of the whole movie. This seems kind of silly when you first hear it. If it's your favorite scene, why can't you figure out how to keep it in? Nevertheless, it's something that happens in creative work. The whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, and sometimes your favorite part is what's messing things up.

The cool, twisty shapes were my favorite part of the design. Could I let go of that and still like my game? Would my game ever even get published? This was a difficult moment. I simplified the shapes, condensing them down to six choices, but left in as much variation as would fit. This also allowed me to create a holding area for them on the board, making them much easier to find. In short, everything started to work much better with the simpler shapes.

Success!

I sent the new version to BOGA again. They loved it. I had also sent one to AEG. After more internal deliberation, they agreed to publish it. Edward got the files ready for the printer in record time — a truly heroic effort — so Canalis will be available at Spiel 2013. As I look back, I'm glad for all the rejection. We would not have such a complete and polished game without it! Thanks for reading this article and playing my games.

Philip duBarry

Board Game: Canalis
A sampling of the final components
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