Airport Rush and Little Failures

Posted November 16th, 2010. Filed under , ,

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.

10 Tips for Being An Unemployed Game Dev

Posted October 22nd, 2010. Filed under ,

I was invited to be a guest speaker at IGDA Orlando with short notice. With the closure and recent resurrection of n-Space and the pending annual layoffs of doom at EA, I figured that something about how to deal with unemployment might be helpful, given my current Level Up in that particular skill branch. I did a lot of ad-libbing, but the talk went well and I crafted the below post from my hastily typed notes on my iPhone. Lots of folks came up to me and asked me questions as if I knew something afterwards, so it must have been moderately compelling and I must have given the impression of proficiency.

Without ado:

Item 1: Don’t Panic

So you just got laid off, huh? You are probably thinking: “Holy Hell. How am I going to pay for things? What am I going to do with my life? What did I do wrong? How could this happen?” Calm down. It happens to many of us. It doesn’t mean you are a bad artist/producer/coder/designer. Yes, it probably isn’t fair. Yes, there are probably some assholes who know nothing still with their jobs. Yes, you will have to tighten your belt, but it is okay. Unemployment insurance compensation doesn’t pay much, but with careful planning, you won’t starve.

Or maybe you are a recently graduated or soon-to-be-graduated student. You ask yourself: “How will I get a job when all these people with experience are flooding the market?” Again, don’t panic. While it certainly sucks to time your life to be graduating during an ever-deepening recession, there’s little you can do about that. Blame your parents for poor planning. You, however, can only make the best of it.

The key to Item 1 is to not take the first job that will have you simply because you are panicked that nothing else will come along. This is a common mistake simply because so many of us out there are desperate for a job and so many companies want to hire replaceable parts. You need to find a studio that will support you and make you feel that your work is worthwhile. After all, why are you in this industry?

Daniel Pink’s newest book Drive is a great read on motivation and fulfillment, if a little pop-science-y. In it, he lists three components of work that make work inherently fulfilling: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Find a place that will provide that for you. There’s so little time for us on this Earth. Don’t waste it by slaving for jerks because you are in a panic and don’t see any better options.

Item 2: Do Your Homework

Almost as bad as accepting a job you know you will hate is tricking yourself into believing that you won’t hate it. Now more than ever you need to be in everyone’s business. Do you have friends in the industry? How are they liking where they are? What does Gamasutra say today? More layoffs at such-and-such? A new EA Louse coming out about another studio? Those are good indicators (but not sufficient) of places that are not pleasant to work. If you are applying for a position, is that position open because it is new (good) or because the last guy couldn’t deal with all the BS (bad)? Does this place seem to make games that are made with care and artistry? Or do they make shovelware? Does that even matter to you? It’s okay if it doesn’t! In doing your homework, you will find out. This isn’t a one-day event. This is something you need to be doing regularly.

Moving costs a lot of money. You are only hurting yourself (and hey, maybe your family, remember them?) by picking up and moving to some place at which you won’t be happy. Don’t let it happen to you.

Ok, I promise the doom-and-gloom is mostly over.

Item 3: Play Games

Yes, sir! You have forty hours a week more than all your sucker friends with jobs and you still have a stack of games from two Christmases ago that haven’t been opened. Time to get cracking. Play great games. Play shitty games. Just play a lot of games. Not only will interviewers expect you to know what is popular, but they will want to know what you would change about titles. Stay current and play as much as you can. If you plan on applying to a social game company, you better have played more than Farmville. If you plan on applying to a company that makes shooters, then you better know why Halo succeeds and Killzone has mostly failed.

THIS ISN’T JUST A TASK FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE DESIGNERS. The dirty little industry secret that we designers keep is that everyone is a designer. Code slingers may spend their lives knee deep in Perforce, but they too need to know instinctually how games work just as a designer does.

Remember that you are playing these games with a critical eye. You are playing to learn and to have fun. If this task is work to you though, then maybe you should pick another industry, I know I don’t need to give you all more reasons to play games, so I will move on.

Item 4: Start a Blog

Hey, look, I follow my own advice sometimes. You aren’t starting a blog to get nerd-cred points, although those might come eventually. You are starting a blog to make yourself a better communicator. Take those games you played in Item 3. What did you enjoy and why? What did you not enjoy and why? What do those games make you think about? These are good starts for blog posts.

The reason I started this blog was simply that I was not a morning person. I’d get into work, fire up the computer and look at a blank Word document that needed to be a design draft by 3pm. I found that browsing the news sites of the day and then writing a short post about something I found interesting or disagreed with really primed my mental gears and got me going. Then I kept up with it, met some awesome people and it became a Thing I Did with capital letters. It doesn’t have to go that far with you, but you should realize the exercise’s potential in cultivating your written talents.

That said: Try your best not to slag people. Be constructive. There are enough negative nellys on the Internet. It is easy to be a curmudgeon. I spend most of my day as one. It is harder and more rewarding to be critical. There is a vast difference. But blogging should be an autotelic experience just like playing games. If you don’t love doing it, you won’t keep it up and you won’t get any better. If you don’t enjoy it after a while, try some other technique to keep your written communication skills sharp. This one works for me, thus I recommend it to others.

Item 5: Network

An unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of interviews I’ve done in my unemployed periods have not come from diligently applying to posted jobs but instead come from people-knowing-people-knowing-people-at-suchandsuch who happen to be looking for a designer. I can recall only two interviews I’ve done where I’ve gotten calls for an interview from traditional listings. The fact is that a lot of companies post listings just in the hopes that a Prince Charming will come along and sweep them off their feet, offering to work for a dollar salary with fifteen years of perfect experience. They don’t want you. Also, some companies have such a bad reputation that they hire tons from traditional listings because no one internally would ever recommend their friends into that hell.

It’s better for both ends to actually know someone by other means. It is better for the employer because they have someone they (hopefully) trust pre-screening schmoe applicants and it is better for the employee because they are doing the Item 2 due diligence by actually talking to a real employee beforehand to find out what the company is really like sans HR bullcockie.

But you can’t get that foot in the door unless you are networking. Sam Houston has a great list of game devs on Twitter. Find the ones making games you are interested in and ask them questions. Most are nice enough and not so busy that they can’t answer a 140 char question. Twitter is a good start.

People have been lukewarm about the IGDA, but I’ve met a lot of great folks there. I guess it varies city to city. It’s pretty cheap to attend their events generally and can’t hurt.

How about conferences? Yeah, GDC is expensive, but you get what you pay for. Are there any cheaper conferences locally? Have you thought of more non-traditional cons where you can schmooze like GenCon? Keep an open mind. Sturgeon’s law applies–90% of your contacts you meet you will only talk to a few times. But the 10% that you regularly correspond with or become friends with is really worth all that extra effort.

Of course, the autotelic warning from above applies here too. You aren’t networking for the purpose of these people helping you. You should be doing it because there are interesting people out there in the world and they are tough to meet if you are playing Farmville by yourself all day and not making an effort. Most achievers can smell out people who want to be friends only for their personal gain. We know who you are. There is no hiding it. If you are that kind of person, then I have no advice for you, sorry.

Item 6: Practice

When you were employed (or when you were studying), you were constantly engaging in behavior (hopefully) that made you better at what you do. You were writing designs, or making characters or writing code or whatever it is you did for a significant portion of your week. Now, you aren’t being paid to do that. How will you make yourself better?

I make board games. I’ve talked about this briefly before. I choose to do this over coding and self-producing my own games because there is less overhead. I can go from stupid idea to realizing my idea is stupid via paper prototype in maybe an hour or two versus a few days via my sloppy coding ability. Honestly, I don’t think I work hard enough at this. I resolve to do better.

How will you make yourself better? I ask again. Will you write a novel? Make a comic book? Record an album? Make a Team Fortress 2 map?

After you are fired, you get about one month of guilt-free time where you can sleep until noon every day and watch Ninja Warrior on G-4. After that first month, if you keep doing that, you are a slacker. You are blessed with all this free time! Don’t squander it! My next item ties directly into this.

Item 7: Finish Something

I am guilty of this and so I turn my shame into lessons for whoever is reading. The points of practicing are twofold: to get better and to provide proof of your efforts. There are many, many writers out there with unfinished novels on their hard drives. These people are not novelists, they are chapterists*.

It is easy to make a board game and not really worry about playtesting it. It is easy to write half a novel. It is easy to write janky code that sorta-kinda-works but not really in all situations. It’s harder to make a tested, elegant game system. It is harder to finish a novel. It is harder to write robust code. Finishing things is hard work and it proves you are still capable. It proves it to yourself when you get depressed that you are out of work and no one wants you. You can say: “I’m still a writer. Look at that novel I finished!” Or: “I’m still a designer. Look at that board game that my playtesters liked!” And better than proving to yourself that you still have it by finishing, you can parlay that experience to interviews: “Well, I’ve spent the last few months making a mod for Civilization 5 and it has five thousand downloads” sounds a hell of a lot better than “I’ve watched the entirety of Quantum Leap” in an interview.

But, you doth protest: I try writing stuff or coding stuff or designing stuff and it is shit and I don’t want to finish! My reply: OF COURSE IT IS SHIT! You learn by making shitty works. If you were able to summon up the great American novel by force of will then you wouldn’t need to practice writing, would you? My best advice for aspiring game designers is to not be afraid to make shitty games. You learn from making shitty games/novels/programs. Fear of failure is fear of progress. Students often wail over the catch-22 that you need experience to get a job as if the only way to get experience was via a job. Yes, it is the most salient way to show experience, but it is far from the only way.

I’m devoting another paragraph to this because I feel it is that important. Here you are, unemployed, with no penalty but deflated ego if you fail and it is NOW that you are afraid to make things? And you want a job where there are million dollar budgets on the line based partially on said ability to make things? THEN you will be comfortable with your abilities?

*By the way, I totally stole the “chapterist” term from some writer’s workshop I went to once and I don’t remember who it was so I can’t give attribution. Sorry, because I really like the term and the meaning behind it.

Item 8: Read All Kinds of Stuff

You’ve got a lot of spare time! It is silly to believe that all of that time will be constructive relating to Items 6 and 7. But even when you are feeling writer’s/designer’s/coder’s/artist’s block and you aren’t working on your blog (Item 4) or your backlog (Item 3), you can still be doing things to help your position.

Read a ton. Fiction. Nonfiction. Whatever gets your interest. I personally keep record of what I read and post it here on my blog at the end of the year, just so I can go back in the future and remember some of the things I had read and temporarily forgotten. But most important is to not get sucked into the same kinds of books you normally read for leisure. I mentioned Daniel Pink’s book Drive above that I read this year. That isn’t my normal topic for leisure reading. And while it wasn’t about Game Design per se, it is highly illustrative of a number of issues that are tangential to game design.

You will end up finding the oddest connections. And most of all, you will keep learning. But don’t strain yourself to read topics that you generally find dull. I know people who read technical manuals and can down them like they were pulp mysteries. I know if I started one, I’d never finish. Read things for enjoyment and let the enrichment happen as a side effect.

I suppose Drive ended up as being a cornerstone of these ten points without me really attempting it to be. Interesting.

Item 9: Keep a Routine

I personally again have not been following this advice, but I have special dispensation because of certain life events. As I said earlier: you are allowed to wallow in sorrow and watch junk TV all day for the first month of unemployment. After that, you need to kick yourself in the ass and give yourself a routine. Set yourself a time to wake up if you generally oversleep. Many people I know find unemployed time to be the perfect excuse to start working out again. You don’t need an expensive gym membership. I wish I could count myself among them, but I’ve been too lazy thus far. Set yourself some “work time” everyday where you write/code/whatever. I had this for a while and then aforementioned certain life events uprooted it. I firmly believe I will go back to it.

Nearly every site I’ve seen with “unemployment tips” recommends this for the simple reason of depression avoidance. I’m no psychologist so I cannot tell you why it works, but as someone who fights depression, I can attest to the fact that setting a routine certainly helps me feel more in control of my life. Maybe it will work for you, maybe it won’t. But I cannot see it hurting. At the very least it will force you to be organized and realize how much time in a day you spend poorly. You don’t have to be productive 24/7 to be happy; quite the opposite. But if accomplishing things makes you happier, and setting a routine helps you accomplish things, then it follows that setting a routine should make you happier.

Item 10: Enjoy It

I believe fully that my unemployment situation is temporary. Since it has an end, I only have a set number of days in which I have full control over 168 hours of my week (save some mandatory things I have no control over.) Someday, I will trade that free time for meaningful work and a paycheck, but in the meantime, I will treat every day as an opportunity to become better at what I do and enjoy my life. Think about what you don’t have to deal with as an unemployed person:

– Traffic Jams or Crowded Subways
– All-Hands Staff Meetings with 90 PowerPoint Slides with 12 Pt Font and Animations
– Having to Pay Full-Price Rather Than Matinee Price for Movies
– Not Being Able to Play One More Round of TF2 Because You Have to Get Up in The Morning

Hey, being unemployed isn’t so bad! Go out and make the most of it! Or stay in. Whatever.

The Rural USA Zombie/Ghoul Genre

Posted September 9th, 2010. Filed under ,

- Whirlwind tour here, folks.Two years ago when I moved into a house in Florida I said “God damn it, I’m never moving again.” Then I moved to New York City and said “Moving is for suckers, good thing I’m in this Great City.” Well, I’m moving again, this time to a cheaper city to contemplate my options. And it is just a stressful as it always is.

Unemployment this time around has left me a bit crestfallen and unmotivated. I know that this situation is entirely not my fault, but I’m still left feeling inadequate. I’m trying to distract myself by writing. My writing has significant problems but I suppose all writers feel that way about drafts. I’ve got some board games in embryonic form and one that I am submitting to publishers.

In a self-promoting turn, I’m quoted in the debut issue of Handshake Magazine about violence in gaming. The magazine is free and full of great articles with eye-pleasing layout, so check it out.

– I have had time to play a few games. I’m utterly torn by Deadly Premonition. It is wholly awful, but it exudes this sort of creative artistry that shows someone cared for it. I read the postmortem in GameDeveloper and wanted to chuck it across the room when I read how long they spent making real event cycles for the townsfolk and other behind-the-scenes stuff. Maybe they could have spent some time on making the controls not stiff and unresponsive? Or maybe they could have hired someone who has at least written a short story to do the dialogue. In the way of a lot of Japanese-derived voice acting they take thirty second pauses between lines, so when there is literally a four minute scene where the characters introduce themselves to each other and no action or development happens at all, I want to get the source code and just comment out the whole scene.

Other than that, it has some interesting themes going on. You can pick it up for like fifteen bucks now. But be prepared for some gristle.

If you were a fan of Dead Rising then the demo-slash-prequel Dead Rising Two: Case Zero is probably for you. (Dead Rising hit a two run walk-off in the bottom of the ninth to beat Case Zero, if you are looking for the box score.) Here’s another instance where I am torn by the writing. In the opening scene, there is a very tense revelation of backstory as you find out that the child was infected by her own mother and that the father has sacrificed for her. Yay for characters with motivation!

Then you get into the game proper and it just lacks any sense of subtlety. There’s the pair of, ahem, ladies, on a bachelorette party complaining about how “omigod, not hot” it is that they are stuck in a bowling alley with some zombies. Uh, what? The auteur side of me wants to say that this is (as was Dawn of the Dead that the series is based off of) a commentary on the shallowness of popular American culture. There’s evidence to support this. Zombies still stand at the slot machines in the casino compelled even post-mortem (ha! Used that in two different ways this post. Achievement unlocked). There are a pair of “extreme” athlete fans that stay put fighting packs of zombies because it’s “awesome”. If I was working on this, I’d have put a zombie on a computer in the police station with a little image of Farmville on the monitor. But then I look at the lack of subtlety thrown in across the board (sure, there are motorbike forks sitting in this locked shed, why not) and just want to assume they are being silly because it’s their damn canvas and they can use whatever paints they wish.

But here’s an honest question: how does a town with ten buildings have a thousand zombies wondering on the street? Where did those people live? Where did they come from? Who are they? Why do they congregate on the streets? The Willamette shopping mall thing made sense – these folks come from the various burbs. Here it just looks like they were using the copy-paste tool to make it scary.

Here’s another question: why does a hunting supply store have a display of broadswords?

Here’s another question: how was Zombrex named, packaged, manufactured and distributed in a few days/weeks?

Here’s another question: How does Chuck attach nails to a propane tank without rupturing the tank?

Here’s another question: Ah, screw it. I’m thinking too much.

I guess you want to know if it is fun. It is! I played it through twice and cannot wait for the full game. I’d give my pinky finger to design on a Dead Rising game. I love ‘em.

– I should write more on here, but when I think about games I start getting pensive and sad, so I’ve been avoiding it. I will rectify the situation.

Transition

Posted August 17th, 2010. Filed under

So… long story short is that I’m not going back to Gameloft. Looks like I can hire out my services to any progressive company that will have me.

If you are looking for a designer/producer/TF2 spy, here’s my card:

No, really, that’s my card. If you see me in person, I’ll dig one out of my wallet for you.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a lot of time to work on my prototypes and writing! Door closing, window opening, cliches inflating.

Interstitial

Posted August 3rd, 2010. Filed under ,

It’s pretty damning for a blogger to not post for more than two-weeks. I’ve lost the link that showed a study between post density and traffic, but rest assured that quantity is indeed a component. So I apologize for being quiet recently. Work is busy and my free time is spent gearing up for GenCon.

I’m bringing the Airport game I blogged about recently to show to publishers and also quickly adapted a design I had shelved in 2009 after randomly coming upon a novel theme and scoring mechanism for the whole thing. It’s tenatively called New York Minute. I rudely threw that together with Gloriana’s help and so I’m bringing two well-tested (I got a lot of reps with NYM in its previous incarnation. It’s a pretty good game that lacked a theme and felt a little arbitrary. It was surprisingly easy to fix.) games to the show and hope to get some useful feedback from the publishing folk.

When I come back, I’ll post a full recap of the goodies of GenCon and then I’ll be back to my regular posting schedule. I’ll leave you with a link to a very hyped new blog that posts the tired and I thought defeated argument that you can divide price by hours and get some sort of enjoyment metric, as if enjoyment was measured in hours and not something more flighty like utils. These articles are inevitably written by college kids or people who generally have the time to fully appreciate 100+ hour titles where people with demanding jobs or kids or a life really appreciate getting a full experience in a digestible amount of time, even if that makes the price/hour metric all outta wack.

Whoa Nelly

Posted July 11th, 2010. Filed under , ,

I’m not going to continue my posts about Airport Rush for the time being. I had a fantastic playtest session with some very talented designers at Eric Zimmerman‘s playtest group yesterday and I think I am going to make some major changes. While this is dangerous to do a month before I take the game to GenCon, I think it is absolutely necessary.

It highlights what I’ve known to be a problem with my process for some time now and that is the unfortunate necessity of having the same people playtest your games. Since you can’t take them out back and format their brains to see everything as a blank slate, they are forced to compare a new version with an old version. If the new version fixes problems with the old version, then the fixes must be good, right? Well, no, not exactly, because those fixes might make no sense to someone coming into the game raw.

There are problems in Airport Rush with the alignment of theme and mechanics. While I am no slave to theme – Why are there n identical San Juans in Puerto Rico? Why can only one type of good fit on a ship? Why in Ticket to Ride do you need special colors of track? What do the tickets represent? And so on – there is much to be said about congruency insofar as it helps people understand the rules and mechanics. If people are distracted by incongruent rules, then I should work to fix it. Some incongruencies will remain (to the chagrin of nitpicky designers), but I was looking for feedback, not orders.

It’s actually been a long time since I’ve received feedback that was in the form of: “Why did you do things this way?” “Because such and such.” “Oh, I see. I think that’s too slow. Wouldn’t such and other such be better?” It’s refreshing.

Notes

Posted July 6th, 2010. Filed under ,

I’ll be typing up part three of my board games post sometime later this week when I have time. I had friends come up over the holiday and we went to Central Park, MoMa, the waffle truck, played DominionPuerto Rico and Le Havre,  played at Dave & Busters, went shopping for Chinese junk on Canal Street, saw Avenue Q, saw the 4th of July Fireworks on the Hudson, went to Liberty Island (I took a great photo of the Statue with my phone that I am using as my wallpaper now. I’ll upload it later) and had delicious food in a number of places. It was a busy weekend!

This short post is to tell you about a gem of a game I played through on Thursday. It is Telltale’s pilot of Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. If you like the Professor Layton games, then Puzzle Agent is familiar. It is a point-and-click adventure game sans inventory management, where the challenges come from brain teasers, logic puzzles and riddles that are interspersed with the story.

The pilot was great, but leaves on a bit of a To Be Continued note, so I’d be very sad if folks didn’t scoop it up in enough quantity to merit a whole season. I felt that the puzzles were more fair than in the latest Layton game (in that, some puzzles could be interpreted in multiple ways leading to incorrect correct answers). But the real draw here is the ridiculous writing and voice acting. I’ve found the voice acting in the Sam and Max games (of what I have played, at least) to be a bit monotonous. Plus there is a wonderful surprise that breaks the veil of puzzle and story that I will leave for you to discover.

Airport Rush – Part 2

Posted June 30th, 2010. Filed under , ,

This is part two in a series about the ongoing process of creating a board game. (Part one is here.)

Generally when you ask a game designer what kinds of games he or she likes to create if the answer is anything but “The kinds of games I like to play, duh” then he or she is lying. Even when we attempt to stray outside that comfort zone, so much of game design is based on feel. What dynamics “feel” right are the same dynamics that “feel” fun in others’ games. It is a tough trap to escape and can really only be tempered by enjoying a wide variety of games lest one be resigned to creating the same things over and over again.

So back to the experience of designing a board game. I generally like the medium-heaviness European-style board games, so it should not surprise you that Airport Rush is designed to be a medium-heaviness European-style board game. What does that even mean? Well, it is wonderfully vague. “Heaviness” is generally defined as the amount of complexity in learning and playing the game. A light game would be Uno. A heavy game would be one of those tabletop wargames that takes eight days to play. A medium game falls somewhere neatly inbetween.

There’s a subgenre in this culture of board gaming called “gateway games” which is generally used as a pejorative. These games are light enough to attract players who wouldn’t normally play more complicated games, but offer enough interesting choices to at least be passibly interesting to the hardcore board gamers. Hitting this sweet spot was a goal of mine simply because I wanted to simultaneously create something others would enjoy and create something with tactical depth. Unfortunately, the game fell to a complexity creep that drags it a bit heavier than I’d hoped, but in the end, this complexity made it a better game. I still have time to strip out nonessential elements if I get the desire and inspiration.

One of the most successful gateway games is Alan Moon’s Ticket to Ride. Where most railway games (yes, that is indeed a busy subgenre!) deal with very heavy mechanics: bidding, terrain types, stock, loans, and so forth, Ticket to Ride strips everything but one-dimensional track laying. In doing so it is able to do something elegent with the order of play that I think is part of its success. Every player gets to do one thing on their turn: draw cards, lay track or claim tickets. There is no action point system and thus no long turns where players sit and wonder what they can accomplish in a single turn until their opponents pelt them with bricks. The game moves quickly while giving a menu of decisions from which the player can choose one entrée. (Experienced players will note that the victory point border I use in my prototype is lifted right from a Ticket to Ride board.)

On the other side of the coin is a game that is only known on these shores in highly enthusiast circles: Hansa Teutonica. The game is much heavier than Ticket to Ride. Players have a variable amount of actions per turn from which they can perform a number of actions – the potency of which change throughout the game. I found Hansa Teutonica fascinating. There were a lot of mechanics in the game, and some worked quite well. One action a player could take on their turn is to take cubes that represent merchants and redeploy them throughout the map of the game. In the context of the game, this has very interesting effects. Places opponents once thought were “safe” or had no danger of being occupied could in one move change to show a complete shift in that player’s strategy. This was the central mechanic that I built Airport Rush around.

One of the other design philosophies in Euro-games is the minimization or elimination of elements of chance. It is a founding ethos of these gamers that skill should be sufficient to determine the winner. “Bad beats” as they say in Poker makes for a poorly designed game to them. I disagree with the knee-jerk application of this philosophy, but I decided to adhere to it to make something that gamers of this ilk would enjoy and not dismiss outright.

As an aside, there are types of chance that these hardcore gamers do allow. In Le Havre (my favorite Euro-game) the majority of the buildings that are available for purchase are the same in every game but the time in which they can be bought is pseudo-randomized. In Hansa Teutonica, the bonus chips are drawn randomly, but then placed on the board tactically. In both cases, the element is randomized before any decisions about it are made. This continues to allow skill and strategy to rule the day and is generally seen as acceptable. You will see that I favor a similar mechanic in Airport Rush. Once Airport Rush begins, there is no randomness.

So without much more jibber-jabbering, an explanation of the game itself. I’m going to do this in a spiral – I’m going to give kind of the Need to Know stuff first, and then pound into the actual in-depth rules later.

The game board itself consists of three parts: the Airport (Bottom-Left), the Departures Board (Right) and the Initiatives (Top).

The airport contains six gates where the players will try to move their passengers onto flights. The flights are listed on the departure board and are randomized each game. In some games, the valuable international flights will come up early. In some, these will come late. In some games, these come at the same gate. In others, spread apart. You get the idea. The initiatives are cards that come up throughout the game that players can dedicate resources to in order to gain additional victory points or options for their turn.

Players get passengers into the airport by moving them through security. Once a passenger cube makes it through security, it gets moved to the lounge. Passengers can only get through security by being literally pushed through by another passenger. Thus, passengers can sit in security forever unless a player pushes more cubes into the security line. The number of cubes a player gets to push is called their “Passenger Interest”. When a flight leaves players can either gain Passenger Interest at the cost of victory points now or take the Victory Points and lose Passenger Interest. It is a mechanic that has allowed most of the playtested games to remain remarkably close down to the buzzer. More detail on that in the next post.

When a gate is full for the next flight or when a player chooses the Departure action, the flight leaves and the cubes at that gate are returned to their owner. Every other flight a new Initiative is added to play. When all twelve flights leave, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Additionally, just to fully explain everything you are seeing on the board here, each gate also has a 3×3 grid of squares called the Service Desk. If a player can get three cubes in a row (Tic-Tac-Toe style), then he/she “owns” that gate and can reap valuable rewards from anyone wanting to move there.

So a player essentially gets to choose one of these as their main action every turn:

  • Move passengers through security.
  • Move passengers en masse inside to gates or initiatives.
  • Move one cube to try to claim a service gate.
  • Depart the next flight if someone has a clear majority.

Now that you have a basic idea of the concepts, I will weave them all together with the complete rules in Part 3 and then write a few words on the dynamics of the game. Then Part 4 will be about the process of prototyping – both the physical and the creative aspects.