You need to fail to get better. It’s a tenet of design, really any endeavor.
A few months ago, I commented on a board game I was working on that I was proud of called “Airport Rush”. No, don’t look. I’ve un-published the posts. I had worked on it for a number of months and had been stewing on the concept for even longer.
As you know from my Dominion randomizer, I’m a big fan of that particular card game. But I find that the cost balance is really decided by the group playing. If everyone tries to buy Chapel whenever it comes out, should it not be more expensive than two for that group? Should Treasure Map not cost five if it is bought in every game in your group? When you are dealing with cardboard instead of digital, you can’t make those switches on the fly without confusing house rules. But this stoked an interest of mine in designing a board or card game that was as self-balancing as possible.
So I spent roughly five months prototyping and playtesting and tweaking Airport Rush. In it, you get a number of passengers per turn and can fly them out or sit them on special cards that give you additional choices. The cards don’t have a cost. Whoever has the most passengers tied up on one gets the benefit. Thus, you spend the possibility of current points at a market rate for an ability which you judge to be worth more by endgame. The balance worked perfectly – I’ve never played a game, even with noobs, that was a runaway yet the player making the best decisions rarely lost.
I was excited enough about it that when my friend Mark said he was going to GenCon to pitch one of his designs, I was right there with him. My playtesters were asking to play Airport Rush. That’s a good sign!
After getting my appointment pushed back, I finally sat with one of the major board game publishers in the business. I removed the board and pieces from my backpack and gave some overview of the game. I had barely finished what choices one has on a turn when I got my first (and one could say, final) feedback.
“The theme doesn’t work.”
I paused. “What do you mean?”
“Who is the player that he can move passengers around an airport? Is he an airline? Then it doesn’t make sense that he can put passengers on flights to different cities.”
Now, it appears to me that there are two different methods to board game design. Either you can come up with clever mechanics to meet some sort of aesthetic end and apply a theme on top of it for flavor with a stronger coupling helping to flesh out that theme, or you can start with a theme and build mechanics around that theme. In the former case, you tend to get stronger systems with themes that are questionable at times. Look at Puerto Rico. How can you be a Governor and a Mayor simultaneously? How can you choose when there is a harvest? Why can you only have one type of good on a ship? Look at Dominion. Who the hell are you in Dominion? Look at Race for the Galaxy. That game makes absolutely no sense thematically. In the latter case, you tend to get very strong themes with more bland game systems. Obviously, I went the former route. The game systems work very well and I thought the theme worked well to support those but not perfectly.
I knew the publisher’s lineup and thought this fit. First impressions mean everything. I blew mine.
I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere with that, so I took out my backup. It was a card game called New York Minute. In it, you place New York landmarks and try to get three in a row.
“You are placing known landmarks. The Statue of Liberty isn’t next to Broadway. It doesn’t make sense.”
Later in the weekend, I met with a small publisher who expressed serious interest in New York Minute only to renege by email a few weeks later. GenCon was a bust. I was so defeated by my experience that I unpublished the Airport Rush posts I had made on here. Now that I’ve had time to reflect, maybe it isn’t such a failure. What should I do with the designs? Keep working on them? Shelve them and try something new? Try to produce them myself? Kickstarter? Keep sending to publishers I didn’t meet at GenCon? The games are good fun and unique, I know this and I want to share them.
My tenacity is not the problem. I just don’t know what to do next. It’s not so much a design problem as a business problem. If you were looking for some lesson beyond “failure happens”, I’m afraid I don’t have one for you all on this particular post.