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Subject: Designer Diary: One Year on GMT's P500 rss

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Tom Decker
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One Year on GMT’s P500: A Designer Diary of Circus Train
By Tom Decker

It’s been a long journey aboard the Circus Train, and this month celebrates the one year anniversary of Circus Train being available as a Deluxe Version on GMT’s P500 listings.

With just about 50 more to go to reach 500, I’m hopeful that we can make it a reality within the next few months!




My Background:
Like probably a lot of you, I’ve loved designing games as a hobby for a long time. I think some of it comes from wanting to capture a little bit of a movie I saw, book I read, or some experience I had and try to make it last. I grew up in an age before video and YouTube and the internet where now you can re-live things easily. When I’d come out of a movie, there was sometimes a feeling that I may never get a chance to experience that movie again. Games gave me a way to re-capture some of the feelings I’d get and then share them with friends and family, over and over again. But moving from drawings on paper to a published game is a huge step.

I credit two major breakthroughs for allowing Circus Train to exist as a published game. The first was discovering BoardGameGeek and what I would call the revolution in board game design. Growing up, my only examples of board games were primarily what you could buy at a department store like Sears or Macy’s. I was fortunate to find some game stores that sold SPI and Avalon Hill games, but in that era, most of these games were all hex and counter games that could take five or more hours to play. So of course my early designs from my high school years mimicked these games, like my epically big Battle of Azanulbizar from J.R.R. Tolkien or my Ice Planet of Hoth game out of Empire Strikes Back (I mean, who didn’t design a Hoth game after that movie?). I also made simple games using mass market staples as inspiration, like a card game I made of America’s Top 40. I had no concept of “eurogames” or how to make anything like what’s out there today. So discovering games like Puerto Rico, The Princes of Florence, and El Grande were really eye-opening to me. The smoothness of the game mechanics, the elegance of the way they all fit together, and the beauty of the components and themes really inspired me to get back in there and make board games again.

The second breakthrough was Chris Taylor introducing me to Victory Point Games and their method of making our game designs reality. Since about 2004, I had been putting together “eurogame” designs, starting with Disaster on Everest, but also designing You Run The Zoo!, Circus Train (First Edition), Final Frontier, and a few others that never quite made it. But these designs were very crudely built, often using the backs of business cards, printing on Avery stock cards and stickers, drawing out boards on a piece of paper or in MS Paint, and sometimes just scribbling notes on scraps of paper. Victory Point Games not only gave me artists to bring the game ideas to life, but also taught me how to build components and organize my thoughts about the way the players interact with the components to play the game. I guess that might sound kind of obvious but there were many times when my game idea didn’t translate really well to the components I could use, so it sort of became a puzzle to try to fit the concepts onto the component templates.

(The image here is an MS Paint version of an early game board. I cut it into 4 JPGs so that I could print each out on an 8.5 x 11” sheets and tape the four sheets together for a complete game board.)

The Origins of Circus Train:
So Circus Train begins with Sara Gruen’s novel “Water for Elephants.” Like many of my game designs, there is an inspirational source which sets me off on the path of a game design, and this book is what got me started on Circus Train. It wasn’t just trying to re-create the story, which is fantastic, but that the story is set in such an interesting time period and deals with the hard-edged business of running a massive entertainment production that travels from place to place, which I find very interesting. The book deals with the Depression, with Prohibition, with trains in the Golden Age of railroading, and with animal rights issues. Circus Train the game was never intended to be “based on” the book, but it definitely was “inspired by” it. In other words, it launched me in the direction of making the game, and then a lot of other factors and research were molded together to make the finished product.

Other games inspire me, too. People often say there are no original ideas out there anymore, and I see lots of debate over who came up with which mechanic first or which game was the first to use a certain mechanic. In any case, I’m not too proud to admit that there are no original mechanics in my games or that I’ve come up with anything revolutionary or new. I would hope that I’ve come up with some clever ways to put these mechanics to work and new settings in which to place them, but all of the innovation lies with designers and writers who have far more experience and talent than I have. So with that said, although many mechanics came together to make Circus Train, the single game that most inspired the design of Circus Train was Colosseum, from Wolfgang Kramer and Markus Lübke. Colosseum is a game ultimately about coordinating special events, and the mechanics used to hire talent and put on shows in Colosseum really inspired me. And “Water for Elephants” gave me the perfect stage for a game about organizing and putting on spectacular events.

Many people relate circuses to families and children, and so there has been a small misconception that Circus Train is a children’s game. But to those familiar with “Water for Elephants,” it is not a children’s story. Circus Train was never intended to be a children’s game, either, but a light strategy game focused on the hiring and firing of talent and moving around the country putting on circus shows, managing money, resources, and renown. It also has a competitive edge of reaching a city first to put on a show where there is demand or hiring talent away before your opponent has a chance.

The Mechanics:
The first mechanic for Circus Train was the concept of the “performance demand.” In Circus Train, locations randomly show up on the game map demanding performances made up of various talent types. Just like with Colosseum’s shows, each demand requires a certain group of entertainers, and if you can’t meet all of them, you earn fewer points. Some have said that Circus Train is a pick up and deliver game, and I can see where that comes from now, but that was actually not the original concept. It was more of a “traveling colosseum” that was the original goal. So the very first parts of the game that I conceptualized were the various types of talent that would be available in the game, and then creating the values for each type.

The second mechanic that came into play was “how to move the train around.” I went around and around debating several mechanics for possible use, but ultimately I settled on a hand management technique of playing a set of cards that would be exhausted before you could use them again. This also forces the player to pay the talent (and feed the animals)! This is a mechanic that’s been used a lot of places, but I suppose early games that inspired it for me were Sunken City from Kramer/Kiesling and Knizia’s Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation.

So putting these two mechanics together gave me my “traveling colosseum” that makes up the largest part of the game. I won’t go through all the remaining mechanics in the game in detail, but I had to come up with a way to hire the talent (which became hiring it from bankrupt circuses around the area), measure your reputation, and deal with tracking and scoring issues (which I will discuss a little bit below).

Concept to Paper:
I just wanted to throw in a note about this here because this is a step where a lot of game designs (for me) go to die. There are a lot of games floating around in my head, but so many times when I try to express them onto a real game board, I just can’t come up with a way to make it work. One of the first problems I encountered with this game was how to make these performances appear on the board. I originally had cards with the performance demand information on them…so it would have to be a pretty big board to be able to place a card next to each city with a demand. I then had a concept of putting the performance demands and city names off the board, but that was nearly impossible to build any sort of strategy because every time you visited a city, you had to look off the board to see if that city were there with a demand. There needed to be a way you could see where the demands were, directly on the board. It was Chris Taylor, then, who said he thought he could fit all of the performance demand information onto one small counter. Without that bit of inspiration, this game could not have moved forward.


(Image uploaded here by user Frank Strauss, showing off his custom-made train pieces!)

Tracking:
I started to blend in elements from the book here. Money was critical. You needed it to pay for your current talent and employees, and you needed it to buy food for your animals. “Perform or starve” was a concept I adopted very early as something I wanted players to feel. So I went a little “Railroad Tycoon” here and rather than start players out with a scant amount of money, I started players out with nothing. “That’ll get them performing, even in non-optimal locations,” was the thought I had. “Sure you can maneuver your train all the way down to Richmond where they want to see a show exactly matching your talent, or you can just play in Duluth, where all they really like is clowns, but heck, it’s a paycheck.” (That’s just as an example of how things might play out I hoped.) So players would have to track (1) MONEY.

But how you perform needed to be important, too. You should get an advantage, beyond just money, for putting on a great performance. So in that example above if you do get down to Richmond and put on the show of a lifetime, you’ll be remembered and you’ll build your renown. Tracking a combined number of total performance scores might have been interesting, but it would have probably made numbers go through the roof, so I decided to just track (2) BEST PERFORMANCES. In this way I was also borrowing a bit from another Wolfgang Kramer popular mechanic from The Princes of Florence. In that game it was a “Best Work” and then a total score. Here I use a “Best Performance” and then a total score. There have been others games that have used this dual scoring concept as well.

And finally, I needed to track (3) SCORES. But what would scores consist of? Certainly Best Performances would play a big role. But the game needed some things beyond just that. And those “things” took a lot of testing and balance to figure out and get just right.
In the original version of the game, there was a scoring track along the outside of the board to keep track of best performance scores and total scores. I was using paper money, too. The game released by Victory Point Games moved the money and best performances to a player scoring board (seen to the right here), while the overall scores were kept on a two-track system (tens and ones) on the map board. The Deluxe version will return the game to having a scoring track around the outside of the board for best performances and overall score. Money will be handled with die-cut counters and coins.



Spreadsheets:
One thing very nice about working toward a fixed template of potential components is that you really have to focus on staying organized and making everything fit. I use spreadsheets for tracking this kind of stuff. For Circus Train, I used 6 different tabs to track the counters to be used in the game, three for tracking each season of performance demands, one for the bankrupt circuses, one for the points counters, and one just to keep track of all the changes made during each version of the game.

For tracking the performance demands, the rows list every counter in the game while the columns list the talent types and base renown values. Each cell contains the point value listed on the counter for that type of talent. In that way, I can easily check the maximum value of each performance cross-referenced with the total points for each talent. This let me build things like putting either clowns or acrobats into every demand, but at a lower point value, and then increase the points from there on a progressive scale.


(Here's an early counter sheet side by side with the final. I would print the early one out onto sticker paper and then hand cut out each counter.)

By keeping these charts seasonal, I could control when the bankrupt circuses would show up with available talent, and also control an ebb and flow for the demand of certain types of talent, even though some of that will be randomly controlled by drawing from a cup.

Victory Point Games Version and the Expansion:
When Chris Taylor first presented me with the idea that perhaps Victory Point Games might have an interest in publishing Circus Train, I was also confronted with the fact that a lot would have to be cut from my original “blue sky” version that I had built on business cards and with MS Paint files. After meeting with Alan Emrichand Vince DeNardo, we came up with the concepts of how to handle the various scoring tracks and the sheer number of components. Victory Point Games has had a lot of success with solitaire games, so I thought that cutting the game back to just 2 players and then adding a solitaire variant would work better for the components and with VPG’s constituency.

So by cutting back the game to just 2 players, I was able to reduce the number of talent counters and performance demand counters by a lot. This is where the spreadsheets came in really handy, not only in keeping the old numbers around, but also to keep the balance correct. As I mentioned before, I also had to compromise on the tracking issues, and we came up with the individual player boards for some of that information. The other issue was that I didn’t need as many cards, then, for the players, which helped keep the component size down as well.

The next thing that Victory Point Games adds to the mix is the ability to send the game out to play testers. This is actually a very scary moment for first-time designers, because at this point in the process, only friends and family have seen your game. Sending the game out to strangers for opinions can be rather tense. I got some great feedback from testers, though, some with great ideas that I implemented (like the optional Event Cards), and others that just made me realize that something wasn’t working well. One of the bigger changes I made at this point in development was to give a straight cash reward for putting on performances, depending on the season. The original game scored one dollar per performance score. But this was making money get way out of control in the end game, which wasn’t a terrible thing necessarily, but it made tracking it, with our new tracking systems, a lot more painful. The straight cash rewards actually simplified the game a lot and served to keep money tight almost to the end of the game. This is also the time where I added point bonuses for having “famous” talent. This served as a great “catch-up” mechanic for players who were lagging in performances, but could catch up through having a more famous show.

Finally, we knew right away that we would want to do an expansion, which would add everything back in to take the game up to 5 players again. But with all the changes I had made in the meantime to the game, it wasn’t exactly the same as it had been in its previous state. Then again, I think the game had greatly improved with all the changes, each iteration bringing something new and improved to the table.

Not Accurate History:
I’ve disappointed a few people with some of the lack of accurate history. For one, “performance demands” didn’t just appear out of nowhere, and the trains didn’t just follow them when they appeared. Most circuses had schedules and would spend time planning their routes and performances before the circus season began. But forcing players into this sort of planned environment didn’t seem like it would make for a very fun game. Chasing the performance demands and sometimes competing to see who could get there first made for more interesting gaming moments.

There have also been people who have pointed out the lack of all the accurate historical railroads through the region. There are some that did not exist and some that were left out. Again, my reasons for the placement of the railroad tracks were more based on play balance. Tracks came and went in early versions of the game, until this final set was ultimately decided upon.

To be honest, much of my additional historical research for the game ultimately came directly from “Water for Elephants.”

Conclusion:
Circus Train was my first published game, but it was about the third or fourth I had designed since I had started back up again in 2004. It just shows that you can never tell which game is going to get picked up or attract the most attention. So the lesson there is to just keep designing because you never know what’s going to catch fire.

Thank you for reading through my rambling here and hopefully it gives you some insight into the creation process of Circus Train. I hope all of you have had a chance to play the game or try out the sample PC Solo version available here at Boardgamegeek from Dave Eggleston. I hope also that one day Circus Train gets to grow up and become a Deluxe Version from GMT, but this version from Victory Point Games will always be very special to me.


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Erik Racer
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Thanks for the write up Tom. I enjoyed getting to learn about the background of Circus Train and it has definitely piqued my interest. Of course now I apparently I have to put Water for Elephants on my reading list.

Oddly enough, I think VPG has been the only company to inspire me to actually pursue other media (books/movies) due to its games. For example I have read No Way Down by Graham Bowley and watched National Geographic's The Dark Side of Everest and the BBC's Lost On Everest - The Search For Mallory & Irvine because of Tom's Disaster on K2. I finally scratched watching Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove off my bucket list because of Chris Taylor's Toe-to-Toe Nu'klr Combat with the Rooskies. Finally, I've started on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because of Nemo's War. However, I can't give credit to Forlorn: Hope for watching Aiens as I saw that when it came out in the theater (has it really been 26 years).

Since I started gaming again, I find that I have lots of ideas floating around in my head and occasionally they will even get written down. Someday I'll swear off buying anything new (new toys distract me) until I've actually put something together. There's a game with a particular set of mechanics and theme that I'm interested in playing, but I just haven't found it yet. So, it may be up to me to design it myself.

So, while others may have been a bit disappointed that your game isn't 100% historically accurate, I am not. It sounds as if you did a good job of exploring a theme that intrigued you AND managed to make it interesting for a wider audience. Keep up the good work. I'll be interested to see what you come up with next.
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Scott Everts
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Thanks for the Designer Diary! That was really interesting to read. Hoping the game races to its target soon so everyone can enjoy the GMT deluxe edition!
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Steve Carey
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That was a masterful post, Tom.
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Adam O'Brien
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I have the VPG version and expansion, and have enjoyed it quite a bit. I would love to see the deluxe edition in future.
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