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Subject: SoloPlay variant now available for TransAmerica/Europa rss

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This thread describes/discusses the design and development of the TransAmerica-Europa SoloPlay variant including an extensive blog that I updated as I worked on the development of this variant.

The download is available using the following link(s):
TransAmerica-Europa SoloPlay Rules

This file is #37 in the SoloPlay series.
More game files available here on the Geek can be accessed from the following Geeklist:
SoloPlay Variants Posted on the Geek

SoloPlay- BGG user GameRulesforOne
Design Goals: Improve game value by providing a challenging solo variant that exceeds the play level of the original.

Preface:
Both games were bought about 8 years ago now along with Puerto Rico, Caylus, Ticket to Ride, Empire Builder and Euro Rails. These represented my re-entry into gaming which had been set aside a long time ago while I went into career building, about 20 years. I was not sure what to make of my haul (I had played Empire Builder and Euro Rails many times in my youth) but they were supposed to represent what was “it” in gaming at the time.

TA and TE both were very simple games and initially I was disappointed. I chose those games for the family and it worked for the most part. Ticket to Ride was another story, flop city. I promised myself that I would read up a bit more before I spent the cash on wallpaper.

Flashing forward to my SoloPlay days and I made an early pass at a variant for TA/TE about 4 years ago but there was nothing to it. Much the snoozer. However, this go around it was going to be a bit different.

SoloPlay TransAmerica/Europa Design Comments:
The biggest issues with a solo variant for games that have no scoring, a win/lose element and mild interactivity as they do was to make it interesting to play. The cards were going to be crucial to build a mechanic that can direct the play and add a strategic element. This is where I started.

I tried drawing cards, having a certain number faceup, timing card discards, and a couple other ideas which escape me now and all them were boring and served little purpose other than filling some idle time. I needed to come up with a theme to hang the variant on.

It was then that I came up with multiple card stacks that needed to have their destinations completed but in a particular region sequence. I noted the perfect card ratio to make my plan work 35 cards, 7 for each region. The cards would then be split but how many times? I tried 5, 6, 10 (all went into 30) and finally settled on 12 because it provided the most “strategic” play. The lower counts brought in too high of a luck element. Many times the same colors were appearing on top of the stacks and this directly related to a game loss.

12 does not divide in 30 cards and so I played around with the layout a bit and decided on a 3/3/2/2/2/3/3/2/2/2/3/3 layout. It was balanced, symmetrical and a good starting place. The region sequence was next. The player must be driven to “travel” to the various cities indicated by the top cards in a particular sequence. Initially it was too easy to complete almost all of the destinations. This changed when particular scoring aspects were introduced.
The scoring system is what locked in the variant because it served many different purposes. It gave track laying a scoring purpose, it gave planning a high priority and added different play styles/paths to achieve success. When I added the 15 minimum destinations everything clicked into place as the tension rose. It was at this point that I started having negative scores. This was shaping up to be a light but challenging little game.

As I was playtesting, I tried many different methods to try and achieve success but did not grasp the balance that I needed to be successful. A full out bull rush was a resounding failure, a slow plodding methodical approach did not score well enough and efficient lines was only a minor component. What?! Efficiency is not rewarded? It turned out that efficiency was not obvious. It was not just track laying.

Needless to say it took a while before I even came close to gaining a victory condition. I did move down the scoring goals after a very low success rate in my first 20+ plays. As I began to develop successful tactics I found ways to achieve better victory conditions based on the lay of the destination stacks. I was too focused on the track laying and destinations.

It is at this point that the primary game mechanics become a backdrop to the core “travel”, refueling/passenger delivery mechanics. There had to be a purpose to the variant and “truth be told” the challenge is in managing the destination stacks and balancing the top card color representation. Knowing this helps but it is not an automatic to making it happen.

In the end this was a nice diversion and variant to put together. The loose and light gameplay gave me plenty of room to insert in the mechanics and not disrupt the overall flow of the variant. On the short side and a little thinky, works for me.

Goal of the rule design
1. Give the variant a purpose
2. Add a strategic element
3. Provide enough meaningful choices so that the random elements effect is lower
4. Add multiple paths to victory

Comments are always welcome.

Strategies:
1. Focus on how the destination stacks (passenger manifests) are setup and affect the gameplay.
2. Specialization (focusing on a couple colors) should not be implemented during the early game.
3. The subtle ways that you can alter what happens later in the game is important to realize. The “cost” of track is a balancing factor to the strength of cycling a destination stack.
4. Building the most efficient line will not always achieve success.
5. The end game scoring opportunities are very important to take note of.

Final Thoughts

Setup time: about 10+ minutes
Play time: about 35-45 minutes


If you have questions about the rules, you can be post them here or to this user’s mailbox to be answered individually, if needed. I will add a FAQ to this post as I see the need.

Other games that will be/are available from SoloPlay/GameRulesforOne are posted within a Geeklist that I created: SoloPlay Variants Posted on the Geek

All new variants and information about upcoming projects will be listed there.

A game that sits in a closet is a waste. Get it out and play it any way you can. These are just my ideas.

What follows is my design blog from my updates in the SoloPlay geek list:

Update 3/7/12: TransAmerica I have been kicking this around for a while now and would bring it out during breaks between solo variants but nothing really clicked to make it a viable solo game ... until now.

In a rather spontaneous series of events I came up with something that is very interesting and thought provoking to play. Variability was going to be the biggest problem here and I have come up with a way to deal with it.

This one is going to get done quick due to the short play time. I also have TransEuropa and will integrate it into the design as well. I wrote the rules out last night while at my son's baseball practice (which has always been a good time to work on rules). I came up with additional variability in the destination stacks creating "topography?" which increases and decreases the skills needed to be successful.

The challenge with the "final" rules is significant but play testing is still early (about 15 games) so things can change.

Given the weight of recent projects I wanted to back off a bit and knock out a couple of games that I have to cleanse the pallet so to speak.

Update 3/13/12: TransAmerica I have playtested this one a bunch of times over the past week and I broke it, fixed it and then really broke it (insomuch as a different mechanic for one of the processes was neede). I just implemented the fix and it played much tighter like initial plays. Time will tell.

Update 3/14/12: TransAmerica 3 more games played and this is a tougher animal to play. The balance between the action and passenger tracks is a tricky thing. I tried playing too aggressive and lost badly only completing a handful of trips. Just the game before I had reached a complete victory condition by taking a little here and there and keeping the action track(train) in the middle. Controlling the payoffs and deciding when to skip a region is important to game flow. Just like the normal rules it plays quick (less than a half an hour with about 5 minutes of setup). Big come down from TS.

Update 3/16/12: TransAmerica/Europa More games played and only 1 victory. You have really got to pay attention to the "passenger" colors that you need to deliver. Depending on the layout you are attempting (my last was the "continental divide") you have to address your problem areas in a focused manner. I tried performing an aggressive approach again and got the "smackdown" (-4 was the score). While this is still TransAmerica, it has a bit of an attitude now. Nice.

Update 3/21/12: TransAmerica/Europa More plays with one of the advanced setups and I cannot get the colors coordinated. I was really pushing the end game conditions in my last game to get those passengers to their destinations but this cost me twice as I had to give up 10 track to choose an alternate location. I have been committed to figuring our how to conquer the continental divide setup. I am starting to see how to better utilize the stack rotation option to better position the passengers for more successful "deliveries". Will it be too much for the regular Transxxxx players? There are "easy" setups as well ...

Update 3/22/12: TransAmerica/Europa Lower level victory playing the "continental divide" setup. It took quite a bit of planning to get over the "hump". This is definitely a top level challenge but is it too much? I have a concern but need to play the other setups to better determine this.

Update 3/28/12: TransAmerica/Europa I am doing the first draft now. I have had all of the rules on paper for a while but they were still in a bit of flux. I think that I have close to the finished product now. There is even a bit of theme to the variant.

Update 3/29/12: TransAmerica/Europa I believe that I have found the balance mechanic that I have been looking for. The game now has a weight to it that lifts it up into a higher strategy league. The options that you have are viable at different times during the game and necessary to do well. You still lay track but with a higher purpose. There is also a scoring opportunity that entices you to place on certain double track locations aside from the "savings" that you get.

Documentation continues. I am going to think up a few more starting positions to increase the variability. I think that I am OK here because I have been focusing on just 3 starting layouts and I am not bored of them yet. It plays quick which is another plus making playtesting a breeze. Setup is about 5 minutes, play:25 minutes and cleanup/reset about a minute.

Update 4/3/12: TransAmerica/Europa The first rules pass is complete. More examples are needed to clarify some key points and possibly an example turn. I tried to get as much flow into the first run as I possible could and tried to perform re-write #1 with the first pass. Looking at it now, it has a few rough spots.

This will be another example of an "advanced" solo variant for a relatively simple game. Hopefully I don't lose any fans of the game in the process. Maybe a few can be added. I think that I prefer it more solo now than multi-player because of the planning aspect.

Target release date: 4/21/12

Update 4/4/12: TransAmerica/Europa 1st edit pass completed, a tight 5 pages. The player aid is 2/3 done.

Update 4/5/12: TransAmerica/Europa 2nd edit pass started and the player's aid has been tightened up and contains all the basics of play.

Update 4/6/12: TransAmerica/Europa Rules cleanup with the addition of 2 turns of visual examples. I played with the player aid for the first time and it worked pretty well. Having the end game scoring on the aid helped the most for me.

Odd that Europa has 83 track pieces to America's 85. I had to put a line in the rules addressing this. Was it tested to that level to determine that this was needed to "tighten up" the game by 2.4%?

Update 4/9/12: TransAmerica/Europa I was finally able to pull out a master level victory on Europa. It was the perfect storm where I was able to control the passengers and keep my "fuel"/action train in check. I thought that I had broek the design but it ended up that I hit 18 on the button which is the breaking point for the master level victory. The next 3 games were a 9 pt game victory and then 2 losses. The Europa board has a very different feel than the US. The cities seem closer together but there are more "obstacles"

Update 4/10/12: TransAmerica/Europa Edits number 3, 4 and 5 have been done and they were fruitful as I discovered an important clarification in one of the track laying actions. I was able to get a play in amongst an always busy Monday gaining a major victory (2nd level). I thought I might have done better, it felt like it but I was playing one of the harder starting positions and needed to get a few more trips out before ending the game. There is a timing element that you control once you reach 15 destinations.

Update 4/12/12: TransAmerica/Europa Squeezing in a play late last night with the Europa board playing one of the newer starting setups (2nd time with this one) and I had to address the issues that I ran into with my first play. The passengers in the center of the setup were not balanced enough to get a sharp reduction in the passengers delivered. This time I focused on getting a center balance and then work the edges. I waited just a little too long to empty passenger manifests (destination stacks). If I could have emptied 2 more I would have locked in a master victory instead of just a normal game victory. FYI-the first play with this layout was -12 a crushing defeat.

It was fruitful in that I needed a way to track a specific occurrence that affects end game scoring. It worked much better than what I was doing and hopefully works seemlessly with those who give these variants a whirl.

Update 4/14/12: TransAmerica/Europa A few more edit passes and the addition of a couple more full examples at the end of the rules set. The flow appears to be decent. I have a few more formatting issues to clean up. The rules are set and solid. They will be uploaded by the coming weekend. I will perform a few more playtests.

Update 4/18/12: TransAmerica/Europa The rules are done after 2 final playtests, one of which indicated a situation that I had not explained. I had forgotten about it as it has now only happened twice in all of the plays but since it is possible it needs a resolution in the text. If not for another technical problem last night the file would have been uploaded early so maybe later today.

Concern/warning: The variant raises the bar for TA/TE much higher than normal play. The primary mechanic which is not part of normal play drives the variant and presents most of the challenge to the play. Due to this fact the same rules work with either game. I did not identify any unique situations with either board that would indicate that the board would have a large effect on the outcome. I did note that the Europe board seemed a bit easier but I also started with America and then played with Europe so it may be experience talking.

The playing aid included in the final result helps tremendously in my opinion to visualizing the mechanics along with keeping everything organized. Last night's games showed that if you are patient and stick to some fundamental principles (once you have learned them, mentioned in the strategy session at the end of the rules) that you will have a better chance of winning. Recognizing the inherent difficulties with the various starting setups is important to build your strategy/approach on.

The game has a light feel but often ended in frustration as I struggled for the longest time just to have a positive end game score let alone gain a victory condition. There was always a feel that I was on the right track because I noted that some of the tactics I was forced to find was bearing fruit. I now have a more methodical approach where the destination area is the primary focus for success and the game board merely provides the tools to guide the variant to conclusion (sort of a time keeper).

There are at least 3 distinctive paths to victory within the basic play structure that I use. Brute force is not one of them, I used this to break the variant early on but since only brings crushing defeats. You have to know when to go for a big "payout" and when to bide your time (refuel).

I will be interested in any feedback that you might have when you have a chance to play this variant. I put the "higher challenge" in the first paragraph. You have been warned.

Update 4/20/12: TransAmerica/Europa I am having problems with my scanner/PDF conversion which has hung me up the past few days. I tried a direct conversion to pdf but I did not like the output. I will try to get this done to meet my timeline. Very busy today/tonight so my next try will be in the morning Saturday.

Update 4/21/12: TransAmerica/Europa File uploaded using a merge .doc format instead of a .pdf upload. There should be 6 pages or rules and a 3 page player aid in the file. I used a standard font which will hopefully be downloadable by all.

Update 4/23/12: TransAmerica/Europa File still pending approval.

Update 4/24/12: TransAmerica/Europa .doc available for download

Update 4/26/12: TransAmerica/Europa .pdf available for download
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