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Designer Diary: Sierra West

Jonathan Pac Cantin
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Howdy! Jonny Pac here. I'm gonna share some of the story behind my game Sierra West. It's a mix between a deck-builder and action-programming/worker-placement game, but the two stand-out features are the multi-use cards that overlap into the player boards, and the modular content that makes the core game more of a "console" than a game in itself. Upon set-up, you choose which mode to play and add the special mode-specific cards and tokens required to fill it out. There are four different modules in the box — with lots of room for future expansions.

First Spark

The game's mechanical roots probably stem back to a conversation I had with with designer Kevin Riley (Aeon's End) after a playtest of what would later become Coloma, by Final Frontier Games. In Coloma, you build a tableau of cards. Each card has a couple of different abilities that can get triggered when your pioneer meeple visits certain "sites" on the main board's wheel.

At the time of this playtest, the cards had all kinds of wild mixtures of actions: cards that gave you money, extra workers, trades, all that — lots of busy icons spread out over your field of vision. Kevin's suggestion was to sort the cards by type so that everything that would, say, generate you money would be lined up in one area, making it easy to digest. But the cards were not designed in a way that would facilitate that; they had split abilities, making organizing them on the table nearly impossible. Then I interjected an idea: What if you had a meeple that would visit each of the actions on the cards from left to right? This would keep track everything nicely, right? But before really entertaining the notion, I dismissed it myself; there was a lot going on in the game already. Perhaps that should just be its own game someday...

Over the following months, I kept thinking of how to make a game with moving workers that visited action spaces on your face-up cards. I had one idea that involved frogs jumping from toadstool to toadstool. I even imagined that the frogs would leave your play area and move to your neighbor's, going all the way around the table and back to you, but that idea never even made it into prototype form. More time passed.

First Prototype

One afternoon in my studio, I got out construction paper and markers and started making cards that layered over each other, covering some of the icons. I began by playing five cards at a time (assuming it might be a good twist on a deck-builder). Then I made a toothed player board that filled in the gaps between the cards. I marched a couple of meeples from icon to icon. How fun!

But wouldn't it be the same if I just "read" all of the icons? No need to have meeples fiddling around if it adds up the same in the end. That's when I knew: the order in which they moved had to matter. That was key. It brought to mind the classic NES game, Gyromite. In Gyromite you had to coordinate with the other player — who was in charge of moving pipes with their controller — to get your little old dude around the level. If you did things in the wrong order, you'd get trapped and eaten by monsters or squished by your own pipes by mistake. This inspired me to make it so that you had to juggle moves between the two meeples to get the best results out of your turn.

Mind you, I'm not one for making board games that really want to be video games. I believe that each media has its strengths — and the content for that media should play to those strengths without obvious envy for the other. Plus, I'm a medium-weight Euro junkie. I'm all about the cardboard and wooden pieces. My favorite games usually fall somewhere between Carcassonne and Caylus in complexity. My goal as a designer is to make games that can sit on the shelf next to those — and add my own unique touch to the canon. Therefore, this idea of mine was probably going to end up as a dry, economic game involving resource management and building stuff — even if that is just a deck. Or will it? Dot, dot, dot

Player Board Evolution




Hangtown, Coloma, and Donner Summit

If you know anything about me, you'll know that I live way out in the sticks of the Sierra Nevada foothills, just upriver from where gold was famously discovered in 1849. My self-published game, Hangtown, was tightly based on California's Gold Rush history and filled with actual historic photos. Coloma, Hangtown's new reimplimentation, is also based on similar historic events, though expressed more loosely with whimsical art by The Mico.

In a similar vein, Sierra West was originally called "Donner Summit", inspired by the infamous events that took place there in the late 1840s. (And yes, if you ran out of food you had to eat your meeples to survive!) The whole mountain of cards was bleak and snowy. Your pioneers had to gather resources and food while avoiding becoming popsicles. It had a spinner, too! This determined the weather conditions: avalanches would tumble down over the cards and so on. As dark of a theme as it was, I tried to keep it light feeling with everything being about meeples — instead of actual peoples. It was not looking to be a historic simulation or freaky parody — it was more of a tactical Euro-style game. (Spoiler alert: The snowy theme will find its way back into the game as an expansion in 2020!)

Three-Card Panorama Evolution




Two Sparks!

In early 2018, I went to the GAMA Trade Show in Reno with a bag full of unsigned games. I had cold-contacted several publishers that seemed like good fits for my work. One of them was Board&Dice, a company from Poland with a growing catalog of games that stood between the familiar and the radically different — in fact, their game, InBetween, with its intriguing box art and lack of front logo, was just coming out.

I met with Filip, one of the company's founders, who was wearing a two-piece suit covered in Pac-Man patterns. Fun dude! He looked over all of my games and sell sheets, sitting through brief demos of each. He liked one called "Meeples on Main", that was inspired by mancala. He said it had a "spark". (This game has since evolved into A Fistful of Meeples by Final Frontier.)

Then I ran out of polished games to show him (no pun intended!), and all I had left was this crazy deck-builder about cowboy meeples stuck in a terrible blizzard eating each other out of desperation. I warned them that it had a questionable theme and was far from done — I didn't even know how the game would end. Is the winner the one who ate the fewest meeples? Eff, I don't know. But I whipped it out anyways. I demonstrated the core system of sliding cards into a custom-shaped player board to make trails for your meeples. Instead of just worker-placement, it was worker-flow, I explained. His eyes widened. This game has two sparks! After a quick aside with his business partner, Ireneusz, he came back and asked whether they could take it home to Poland and send me a contract the following week. Sounds good, boss!

After the ink had dried, we began meeting online regularly, usually midnight in California and 9 a.m. in Poland — which eventually made me more-or-less nocturnal. Between my work with Board&Dice and Final Frontier (in Macedonia), I now stay up just about every night until 3-4 a.m. in my studio, hammering on games. Around noon, I wake to find caffeine, food, and innocent playtesters. It's the developer life, I tell ya! Anyhoo, back to Sierra West.

Re-Theme and Modules

As half-expected, Filip asked me to rethink the theme. He felt that as cool as the local history might be, the game might do better in Europe without the meeple-eating bit. He asked whether I could make four seasons instead. These would be modules that could be swapped out to create unique thematic experiences. I agreed, but was not sure exactly how to tie seasons to the Wild West tropes people might expect. What exactly did the pioneers do in the spring, summer, and fall? Don't know. Harvest season was literally the only low-hanging fruit I could think of since apples grow really well in the Sierras — in fact, so well that a nearby region is called Apple Hill. Perfect. This game has a hill. Add apples, and we're good to go! The unique mechanism in the Apple Hill mode is that you gather apples from a growing orchard. On your turn, you may use as many apples as you can, but here's the catch: Leftover apples are available for the next player to use...

Aside from "autumn" I was stumped. Nothing came to mind for spring or summer that didn't feel forced. Then I thought, seasons? Phooey. This game isn't about seasons. It's about life in the Western Frontier: Exploration! Outlaws! Shootouts! Gold mines! Yee-haw! After that it was much easier to think of appropriate content: Gold Rush, a mode all about mining gold; Outlaws & Outposts, chucking dice to shoot at bad guys; and Boats & Banjos — um, guys, did ya hear that ominous twang? Better paddle faster!

In the follow-up meeting, I pitched loose drafts of these new modules. Filip was impressed and willing to proceed with development on them. With just a few months to finish everything, I needed as much outside perspective as I could get, so over the summer I went to every local convention that had a Protospiel or designated room for designers to test their games. It was at RageCon (in Reno) that I met a new designer, Drake Villareal, who was immediately fascinated by the game's systems. We quickly became friends and began to workshop the heck out of it, even to the point where we reversed the way the cards were layered on the mountain. That's where things really started to gel. Drake and I have since become a developer buddy-system duo, working for Final Frontier on the upcoming game Merchants Cove and various other projects.

Is There a Solo Mode?

Enter Dávid Turczi. He was brought on to oversee the development of the solo mode, which I had already begun to design on my own. Liking most of what I had done, he decided to "teach a man to fish" instead of redoing it all himself. We spent several hours going over what makes a good solo mode. It was like getting a music lesson from a master, a literal game-changer for me. It even made me reevaluate multiplayer games. Where exactly are all of the interaction points? He also taught me to "name your solo mode's AI". For Sierra West, I chose "Hastings", named after the man who lead the Donner Party to a "shortcut" that wasn't so short after all...

GAMA, One Year Later

In early 2019, Coloma hit Kickstarter and was an immediate success, funded in just hours. This was the first time I actually saw real value in my work. Since I began making games in 2012 I never knew whether I was just fooling myself, Dunning-Kruger Effect style, but now there were thousands of people excited about Coloma, including some big-name reviewers. *major sigh of relief* Overlapping the tail of the Coloma campaign, Sierra West made its first sneak peek appearance at GAMA 2019 (one year after I had pitched it to Filip). It has since made appearances at UKGE and Origins Game Fair, and it was officially released in the U.S. at Gen Con 2019, where it sold out right away. It will debut in Europe at SPIEL '19 in October.




Mechanisms

Here I'm going to dig more into the mechanical side of things — assuming enough people have seen or played the game now to know what the heck I'm even talking about.

As noted above, I had the idea of organizing the way a series of card actions could fire off by having a worker move from left to right across the card faces. At first I thought this might be a tableau-building game in which you add more and more cards face-up to your play area (maybe like Coloma). But instead, I began experimenting with the standard deck-builder model: play cards, buy stuff, clean up, draw a new hand.

By default, I had players play five cards per turn, layering them in a similar way as seen in the final version of Sierra West — but with two cards in the back and three in the front. As you might imagine, this took players quite a while to sort out. Once they finally placed their cards, it took a few more minutes for them to finish moving their pioneer meeples across the paths. The only thing saving the game from utter downtime despair was that the non-active players were constantly puzzling over the cards in their hands. After testing it for a period like this, I eventually slimmed it down to hands of three. This helped cut the analysis paralysis and gave the game a bit more momentum — something it really needed.

In most deck-builders, players wrap up their turns by buying stuff (usually more cards), then they discard, clean up, and draw new hands. There's nothing wrong with that process — in fact, it's great — but this design offered the possibility of tying the buy phase into the worker movement flow; players could move their pioneers from their lower paths to the upper spaces on their cards where they could buy stuff. These spaces are now called "summit actions" (since the background art forms a cute mountain panorama).

One extra feature that emerged from this flowing system was that I could tie the resources gained on the path-actions to the summit action costs. For example, a card that would allow you to gain wood would also allow you to spend wood. Would you? I sure would. Of course this would lead to turns in which things just self-fulfilled. You would get stuff, then almost immediately after spend that same stuff, so why bother throwing fiddly bits around? Therefore, there had to be more meaningful decisions to make; players needed more choices of what to spend resources on and to juggle timing into the mix. Aside from the costs of summit actions, there are other actions with costs, such as gaining new cards from the mountain, building cabin tiles, and paying for mode-specific path-actions (like harvesting apples, mining for gold, and so on). Many times the order in which you resolve your path-actions determines what you can afford to buy in the end.




Now let's turn our attention to the main "board". There is one long strip of cardboard that represents a wagon trail through the Sierras. Each player's wagon begins on the far left and slowly progresses to the right over the course of the game. Above the wagon trail is a mountain of cards — literally, a big mountain of cards. Players acquire cards from here to build their decks, and unlike the basic cards each player starts the game with, these allow players to interact more with the given module in play. For example, cards from the Gold Rush mode allow you to mine for gold, fill mine carts, and get mining tools.

One thing that really tied the whole design together for me was the idea that some cards from the mountain would get unlocked and automatically "fall" face-up into a row below the wagon trail. These cards would not only be the game's timer, but the centerpiece of the given mode. In Gold Rush they reveal the mines in which you seek gold; in Apple Hill they grow a bountiful orchard; and in Boats & Banjos they extend a river that players can paddle up to go fishing. Once the last card has fallen into place, the final round is triggered.

I feel this is where the development process was at its peak (pun intended). The systems all tied together; the interchangeable modes fit right in; and the flow of play was at an acceptable tempo — at least, to me and my playtesters. It was the solo-mode developer, Dávid Turczi, who felt otherwise. He wanted more direct player interaction, more reasons to care what other people are doing on their turns with no feeling of "multiplayer solitaire". He proposed the ideas that eventually lead to the "Trapper" and "Tracker" off-turn actions. In essence, the non-active players would be able to chime in and gain benefits from what the active player was doing. This was also implemented to break up long wait times, say, if the active player was in low-gear, optimizing everything in every possible way.

Now, as a designer, I believe that there are two main ways to speed up a game: one is to make it literally faster, and the other is to distract people with entertainment, giving them brain candy and letting them lose track of time. The off-turn actions were added as a form of the latter method. An alternative might have been to dumb down some of the game's tougher decisions and let the turns flow fast and loose. Of course, if you've played any of Dávid's heavier games, "fast and loose" might not be the first words that come to mind.

In the end, we added the animals, (controversial) traps, and other off-turn benefits. I personally think these little "interrupts" may divide the game's audience; some folks will love them, and others — well, not so much. But that's a risk you sometimes have to take when you develop a game that doesn't fit an exact mold. No matter how you cut it, Sierra West is an ambitious and unique game; we can at least give it that. But you can decide for yourself where you fall on the yea/nay spectrum. Hopefully you'll enjoy it. And if it's the downtime at higher player counts that bothers you, maybe try it two-player or solo — it flies by that way.

What's Next

Board&Dice reached out to several well-known designers to make new expansion modules, which are scheduled for 2020. It is my understanding that these will come in packs that can be purchased individually. I will probably have only a small hand in their making, allowing for the designers to be as creative as they'd like, to explore the design space Sierra West offers them.

My own expansion pack will lead us full-circle, back to that terrible blizzard in 1847. Players will have to race their wagons to avoid getting caught in avalanches, share a very limited supply of food, and compete for survival. The meta-design idea for this module is to make a fast-playing version of the game that has lighter rules overhead and an exciting press-your-luck element. Stay tuned for more details as it finishes development. I'm hoping it will be released this winter.

Happy gaming,
Jonny Pac
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