Airport Rush and Little Failures

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.”

Scoop.

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.

8 thoughts on “Airport Rush and Little Failures”

  1. Hey chin up Zack!

    I say you try another game and see if you get any urges to come back to Airport Rush or New York Minute later.

    Keep walking or you won’t get anywhere. Even if your not going the right way at least you’re going somewhere and seeing something new.

  2. I can understand why the board game manufacturers pay so much attention to themes- it’s often what people see on the shelf and think about when they’re making the decision whether “This looks fun”.

    You have fun game systems, which ensure games will be played over and over again, and probably grow in popularity as first time players become fans, but I think the learning I would take from what you wrote is that you need to think about the impression people who have never played the game will have of it. And that the market for weird-board-game-fans is fairly small. Are you targeting kids? Adults to play at parties? These are larger markets.

    If it doesn’t make sense for you to just put people on airplanes to different cities, will someone reading the rules for the first time think “That’s weird” or will they think “okay, cool”. Maybe you need to change it from planes to taxis or something. Or from new york city landmarks to cookie ingredients.

    These things don’t have anything to do with how fun a game is. Like you pointed out, Dominion is fun and for a first timer is really complicated. Its also not very well known outside of gamer/geek circles. And if you’re pitching to a company that sells exclusively to that market, that’s fine. But when you’re pitching to a company that wants to make an investment and a large profit from your game, your target market is probably the most important thing.

  3. Don’t get discouraged! Do like Bryan suggests, and see if you can rejigger the theme so it fits better. In the meantime, keep pushing it, and try to find a publisher that’s okay with disconnects like that. And in the even longer term, maybe your next project should have a strong theme, so you can be flexible along that axis when demo’ing your stuff.

  4. I wouldn’t take their specific objection too seriously. Obviously ‘theme’ is highly subjective, and realism not very important in many games: what bizarre abstract godlike creature are you supposed to be in Ticket To Ride? The answer from a marketing perspective is “Alan Moon designed it and hey look, it’s fun”. Since you don’t have the cachet of Alan Moon (yet), a publisher views everything you do through their own quirky filter, and if it doesn’t ‘feel’ right, they’ll justify their feeling with whatever comes to mind.

    Unfortunately, this means you don’t know if there’s something broken or unappealing that the publisher couldn’t/wouldn’t express in that meeting, or if it’s actually fine but they intuitively know it wouldn’t sell to their target market, or if it would actually sell brilliantly but they’re not willing to take a chance in this economic climate, or what.

    So, now what? If it’s awesome and you know specific people who would pay money if it came in a nice package, then self-publish. If it’s not quite there but you’re sick of working on it, wrap it up with a bow and stick it in your portfolio. If you think it has untapped mass-market potential, then keep tweaking and trying other publishers.

    It takes about 10 years of disciplined, diligent, for-the-love-of-the-craft effort to ‘make it’. If you continue to develop game mechanics and themes and rule variants and connections, you’ll look back on 10 years of prototypes of pretty fun games, and you may have no idea why this particular one was bought and became successful.

    For that matter, the future-you may be quite grateful for every rejection of a decent game that wouldn’t sell very well. With one hit, you can produce a dozen duds, and publishers will continue looking at your games. If your first game is a dud (even if undeservedly so), you may not get another chance.

    Best wishes,
    Saul

  5. Keep making lots of designs; it seems you’ve got a lot of reusable stuff going on.

    It’s funny, the passenger thing is like Transport Tycoon – an abstract cargo moving game, since the game simply has no direction for where cargo should go, simply that it is taken somewhere, which also means passengers. Your mind works around it by it being a good approximation of “These are the potential passengers, which now actively are taking this new route I put up” – that a continuing bus station gets more popular because of the route being one people want to use, not just because you’re moving cargo quickly to a profitable location (which is what happens). Perhaps if you somehow got that into at least the theme side it’d work better in peoples heads – you are not physically moving passengers, only potential passengers/tickets/passenger futures or something (but I don’t know how the game works fully so sorry!).

    Dominion; funny, I always thought you were a lord, trying to build up large tracts of land (possibly near swamps) through some initial investment, spinning up the economy of a medieval style feudal system, thus the lack of aggressive actions available against other lords. It’s a fitting theme to a card deck building game at least.

    As for New York Minute *shrugs* you don’t explain it much but perhaps fictionalising it would help? I don’t know. For me it doesn’t sound too fun, but little is the info given 🙂

    In any case, it is a lot on the matter of taste – I presume at GenCon there are tons of new games being prototyped and shown, so an overload of publishers and big critical comments are common. A portfolio to take along another time sounds like a grand idea. I would love more inventive board games, don’t stop trying 🙂

  6. Don’t get discouraged! Sounds like the process was educational. Success stories usually have early rejections, so keep trying 🙂

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