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Designer Diary: Paperclip Railways – a Brief but Fasten-ating History

Anthony Boydell
United Kingdom
Newent. Glos
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It's Day 0 at Spiel 2010, the Wednesday set–up day when we're all supposed to be sticking up posters, assembling shelves, stacking product, writing out itty–bitty price labels, grabbing premium spots in the press room, disposing of excess cardboard, etc.

In reality, many exhibitors are often waiting for pallets to arrive, chasing down car park permits and desperately trying to drive a hired van through the maze of decoration, dump its contents and leave before the time limit expires and a €50 fee kicks in! Once that little rush is over, one can settle down to arguing about stand layout and/or wandering off to pick up an enormous sausage in a bap, your pre–orders of 7 Wonders or the latest Agricola goodies.

It was during a lull in any/all of the above that word got to me of String Railway.

There were no other details – just the name! My first thought was of little plastic trains threaded on to string and then, somehow, the shaking of the string causing the piece to move. Cute idea. As it turned out, that was (and still is) MY cute idea!

When I finally got away to the Japon Brand stand to take a closer look, all became clear: Stations are square tiles to be laid in an adjustable, geometric play area, and you score points by laying out one of your strings and getting it to touch as many stations as possible whilst avoiding obstacles – a delightful and unusual spin on an old classic theme!

Due to customs problems, Japon Brand didn't have any copies to sell at that time, so I duly pre–ordered a couple and thought no more of it. When I got my copies on Saturday during Spiel, it was first to the (dining) table that evening and much fun was had by all! Quick and quirky – and it looks GREAT on the table when the game is done!

Of course, this being Essen, String Railway got me to thinking: What if I were designing such a game? What would I bring to it? After all, this string business is just too brilliantly off–the–wall to leave alone! Let's look at what's in String Railway:

1: You play what you draw.

In SR, that's it. There's no deep thought to be had – you pick up a station (or stations since you end up with TWO to place if you draw a Countryside station first), put them down to your best advantage, then place your string.

If it were me, I'd want to have more choice about what I placed. I'd need a plan to work around or, at least, the stations to suggest a plan!

There's a small pool of station abilities in SR, but the ex–CCG–er in me (there's no such thing as an EX CCG–er) wanted many more – a whole, proper deck of stations with interactions, bonuses and "odd effects" to boot.

And with a large, variable deck comes hand management (but of course!)

2: You have only five strings to place: four short and one long.

SR is wonderful for the 20 minutes it takes to knit your playing area, but if it were me, I'd want the game to take a little longer and give me more thinking to do!

Why restrict yourself to fixed lengths of track? Wouldn't any sensible railway baron want to have short, medium AND long routes? This, of course, is where my "pièce de résistance" comes in – what can I use to show railway links that are as quirky as bits o' string but variable like tiles in Age Of Steam / 18XX?

The clue is in the name: paperclips!

Yes! Those bendy, clippy, multi–coloured, Yale–lock–breaking, paper–fastening devices.

3: You can build out of your station to ANYWHERE.

In SR, as long as you start in one of "your" garrison–ed stations, you can twist, turn, overlay and travel as much as you like given the restriction of your string.

If it were me, I'd want to make good station bonuses harder to get because the stations themselves are harder to get to! The basic types of SR – City, Urban, Suburb and Countryside – remain core to the concept, but I introduced the idea of stations showing you where they can build to; some would be open and free, allowing you to connect anywhere, while others would be closed, but more desirable!

4: Your turn is just the one action: draw, then play.

If it were me, I'd want the choice of drawing OR building a link. By standing on its own, drawing allows me to cultivate my options AND time the right builds for maximum effect / point–age.

Thus, Paperclip Railways was born. It was a surprisingly–quick process from initial light–bulb to defining the turn structure and building an initial set of abilities to put into stations.

As I often remark, first playtests can be stressful affairs, as you will often witness your ideas caving in under real player pressure. For PCR the deck obviously needed to be large – it is now almost 100 cards strong – but the basic concepts stood firm. The deck also serves as the game's time counter, and the current size suits it well in this role: If it were too small, no one would have time to make any particular progress; too large, and you're playing into the wee hours or bringing a sleeping bag to each session!

Veterans of my thought–processes have remarked that Paperclip Railways is similar to one of my previous designs – an area control, cube–shifting and card–driven affair currently "under consideration" – which will go most of the way to explaining how this all fell out of my head in such a state of near–completeness!

The initial run from Surprised Stare Games will be very limited (120 copies) and cost £20 excluding P&P. It is being launched at the UK Games Expo in June 2011, and you can pre–order a copy by sending an email with your contact details to: feedback@surprisedstaregames.co.uk

Tony Boydell

P.S Here's a little bit of fun – there are more hidden around the place, too:

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