Some people might not like long introductions, so let's start right away. Singapore was founded on three principles:
-----1. Merchants received land from the British goverment for free, but they had to develop those lots – which cost them money and saved money for Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. In game terms: The player with the fewest points distributes the lots for all players. That's a nice catch-up mechanism rooted in theme. I can't say no to that!
-----2. If you need money, go to the Triad, which was akin to the Mafia or the Yakuza. They do bad things, but they might help you. In game terms: Origally I planned that you get loans from the Triad, but I quickly abandoned the idea. Now some buildings are illegal and these buildings offer actions that you can't refuse, like getting or trading opium or stealing money.
-----3. The third principle originally was a different idea for a different game. Singapore materialized only when I had the idea to fuse the two ideas together. It's a simple idea: A building either provides very basic things or allows you to change X into Y and Z. You (usually) get more, but you have to change first. This idea was loosely insprired by a print-and-play game called Factories.
I have to admit that for someone who loves to design games, I don't have much time to spend designing games, so I usually work in a long "theoretical phase" in which I try to think through as many elements as possible in advance before creating a prototype.
Singapore was different. After having set out the three principles I thought of only three more minor details: Instead of income, you receive money whenever you reach a certain number of victory points (VPs); when you use another player's building, he receives a VP (I later learned that this was apparently inspired by Caylus, which I haven't played in a very long time); and whenever you need money, you must trade in VPs.
Then I just designed the buildings, creating a bucketful at a time, and playtested against myself to see what was useful and what wasn't. After only a few turns, it became apparent which buildings needed amending and which were good. It helped that beforehand I had thought out the basic goods – money, VPs, bricks, textiles, tea and opium – and placed a value on the latter four: Brick and textile are worth the same; tea is pricier but offers more reward; opium lets you take special actions that are not possible with the rest, but is illegal.
Now what I still needed was a system that would allow players to participate in illegal activities, while rising up from time to time to punish them. Doing illegal things should be risky, but not too risky or else nobody would do it. At the same time, taking illegal actions shouldn't be too easy or else there is no tension. Plus I don't like mechanisms that require special rules but are used only once in a game. (I'm looking at you, dice in Cleopatra and the Society of Architects!) I came up with a bag: Every time you do something illegal, you draw a chip. If the chip is black, you place it in front of you. If the chip is blue, the player with the largest sum of black chips and opium cubes must pay for all of them. Thus, the more illegal activities you do, the riskier your situation gets. One black chip or opium cube is no problem; you're unlikely to get caught and even if you are, you won't have to pay much. Playing the kingpin, however, can cost you a significant amount of money – or even worse victory points, if you happen to be short on cash.
In addition to not liking special one-shot rules, I wanted to avoid worker placement because at the time I did not like most of them (except Stone Age), because they often felt a bit like work, and because I was terrible at them. Yeah, that was probably the kicker. In the end, I adopted a worker-run-around mechanism, with one "worker" running up to three spaces and using up to three buildings. Three is a magic number because in my book it's the best compromise between having enough options and having too many options, which bogs down the game.
Buildings from my notebook, with arrows indicating new lots that can be occupied. Sorry, I don't have any prototype here for pictures.
That was where the game stood after about five games against myself. Now, if you like to read stories about failure and scrapping a game system and how difficult it is to get things working, you have to look elsewhere. I have rarely designed a game that went so smoothly from the start. Not perfect, mind you, as some buildings needed to change and others needed to be added (especially buildings that do more than just change goods). Also, I had to figure out the right ratio between black and blue chips in the bag and solve all of the other details (prices, turn order, etc.), but the game as a whole worked from the start.
Funny thing – one of my friends posted a positive description of the prototype on his blog and a few days later I recieved an email from White Goblin Games, wanting to playtest the game. I had to decline, as it was not ready...
But of course when it was finished, WGG was the first place I sent the game and they quickly decided to publish it, for which I'm quite happy becuase it's nice to work with them.
P.S. Okay, I did find one old and ugly picture of a part of the prototype. Go nuts:
Game preview, by W. Eric Martin
Peer has laid out most of the game, but let's fill in details so that you have a better idea of how to play. Your goal in Singapore is to end the game with more points than anyone else, and the game ends when you don't have enough buildings in the deck to lay out the required number (player count plus one) at the start of a round.
Players start the game with one worker, lot markers, and £5. The six land tiles are laid out in some arrangement around the starting tile, which features four buildings, four adjacent lots costing £0, and the shore. (Think of the starting tile as the post that Stamford Raffles established at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.) Each land tile has six lots, with each lot costing £1, £2 or £4.
Players separate the buildings into three numbered piles, shuffle each pile, then stack them so that certain buildings come out first, followed by other buildings, and so on. Before the start of regular rounds, each player builds one building next to the starting tile or another building built earlier, paying any lot cost, if required. All of the starting tiles are connected by streets, and each time a player places a building on the board, he places one street to connect it to an existing building. A player can purchase any number of additional streets on his turn, with each street costing £1.
Each round, the player with the fewest points reveals buildings from the piles, then gives each player (including himself) ownership of one free lot that is adjacent to an existing building. Then this player, followed in turn clockwise by other players, takes his turn: He chooses one of the buildings on display, pays for the lot assigned to him by that round's starting player, places the building and its street, then moves his worker up to three spaces, staying on the streets and using 0-3 of the buildings to which the worker travels that turn. (The last player in the round can choose to spend £1 to purchase the face-up building tile on the deck instead of the two on display.)
Starting tile (lower right of the grid) and three of the six land tiles a couple of turns into the game
As Peer explained above, these buildings give you resources or allow you to exchange resources, VPs and money for other such items. Sometimes you must trade specific types of goods, sometimes identical goods, and sometimes anything. Some buildings allow exchanges in either direction (any four resources for £6 or vice versa), while others are one-way transactions (exchange three identical resources and £5 for 12 VPs).
Each round you must put a building into play, even if you're forced to sell VPs for money (1 VP gets you £2) to cover the lot cost. You're not forced to take actions with your worker (or workers, should you take the building action that gives you a second fieldhand), but if you take no actions, you're not really playing the game, are you?
Roughly one-third of the buildings are black market locations that give you opium, give you money, allow for much better trades than you get elsewhere, or put that opium to work to earn lots of legit resources, money or VPs. As Peer explained, you pull a chip from a bag each time that you build or use a black market location. Pull one of the 16 black chips, and you place it before you; pull one of the two white chips, and the player(s) with the largest sum of opium cubes and black chips pays £1 for each, then loses half his opium and returns all his black chips to the bag. The sinner has reformed his ways – at least momentarily.
Money seems incredibly tight, with movement being restricted unless you build additional streets and the lot choice often being out of your hands, but each time that you land on or pass one of the seals on the scoreboard, you receive £5 from the bank. Consider it a good citizen reward from Sir Raffles, who wants you to keep working hard to transform his island. Make him proud, citizen!