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Designer Diary: The Making of Automobiles, or How a Design Reaches the Finish Line

David Short
United States
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Microbadge: Happily marriedMicrobadge: My Games For TradeMicrobadge: Automobiles fanMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: Blogger
Board Game: Automobiles
Note about this designer diary: Chronologically, this picks up right where my Planes designer diary left off. Unlike with that diary, I kept a journal of my entire process this time. I tracked how I felt and what I did while I designed. What you read below is taken directly from that journal as it was written on the dates marked.

Any new comments I make will look like this. Hope you enjoy this glimpse into my process.

November 22, 2013
At BGG.CON 2013... I just finished another very positive meeting with AEG about my game Round Trip. They want to sign it and change its name to Planes. Obviously, this would link it to their game Trains, and naturally jokes about a third game called Automobiles began to surface. My wheels immediately started spinning...

What I don't mention here is that at that same meeting AEG started discussions about possibly opening up a contest for the best Automobiles design. They talked about fielding submissions from everyone and taking the best one. With my inside knowledge, I took it as a challenge to have my design done before they opened that contest.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Pitching Planes to AEG at BGG.CON 2013; the Automobiles conversation started almost immediately after handshakes
(Pictured: Todd Rowland and Mark Wootton)

November 24, 2013
On the plane flight home from BGG.CON, I'm brainstorming what an Automobiles game could be. My first thoughts all have to do with fusing elements and mechanisms of Planes and Trains — something with moving cubes using deck building. How about deck building but with cubes instead of cards?!

At this point, I thought this was a revolutionary concept. I had no idea that King's Pouch and Hyperborea existed, let alone that they would both release before Automobiles. Although, all three games have almost nothing in common. I love the diversity of our hobby.

December 23, 2013
My game Planes is officially signed by AEG. Also, they have confirmed that they are going to start a new line of transportation games with Trains. I'm even more excited to possibly design the third game in the series.

From gallery of dshortdesign

I sketched this during the development of Planes

January 7, 2014
So far I think there will be a board of a city with streets. The streets will have multiple lines of color (different colors) on them. The players want to accomplish tasks (like go to work, go to grocery store, go home) and they can do that by pulling out colored cubes out of their bag that match the colored lines of the streets they want to drive on. The more you drive on a street the better you get to know that area of town, which will allow you to add cubes of that color to your bag. Cube Building and Route Management game.

In hindsight, this sounds so terrible. I'm glad I didn't stick with this idea.

January 17, 2014
There will be 5 cards next to the board with 10 cubes below them. The cubes will be different colors than the colors on the board. Each of these cards will give some sort of cool power when the cube is drawn from your bag. The 5 colors of cubes will be of 5 different types of cards. There will be X amount of cards in each type. Shuffle and choose one for the game in each of the 5 types.

This is the first hint of the final game.

January 18, 2014
Each player's bag starts with X amount of action cubes and X amount of white cubes. White cubes follow a looonnng route around the edge of the board. In order to take shortcuts, players need to land on intersections. At the end of your move, you can add a colored cube that matches the space you are on. If you're at an intersection, you may choose any of those colors. This is how you add new and better cubes to your bag. Your goal in the game is to complete task cards. Task cards tell you where to go in the city. Various task cards could be dealt at the beginning of the game and perhaps more could be bought during the game.

So very terrible. I'm not sure what I was thinking.

January 23, 2014
Boards will be static but the places (building tiles) on it will be random each game. Additionally, each default road (Highways, boulevards (major roads), streets (horizontal), avenues (vertical), alleys (shortcuts)) will have several cards that have special abilities. Shuffle and place one of each type of card next to the special power cards. When you pull that cube, you can use the cube's special power on the card or use it to move. Also, perhaps there is something about rush hour and how the highways and boulevards are slower than the surface streets.

Unfortunately, I didn't change my course yet...sigh.

March 10, 2014
I haven't touched my ideas for Automobiles in a while. No new inspiration. Perhaps a more flashy theme would work better than commuting in a city. Maybe players are building supercars, production cars or concept cars?

Yes. Finally, I woke up.

April 3, 2014
Met with a friend today and we discussed my ideas for Automobiles. The best part of the discussion was the epiphany that the cube building is the hook for the game and should be exploited further. I need to design powers and actions that showcase the strengths of cube building versus deck building. The design juices are flowing again...

April 9, 2014
New idea!!! A racing game where the track has multiple lines of color with various lengths of dashes. Each dash represents your speed basically. The slower speeds will have really really short dashes, so even with many cubes you will only move a short distance. The higher speeds will have really long dashes so each cube will take you a long distance. There will be cards on the side of the board to upgrade your car to various things, like letting you pull out more cubes, or being able to recycle your cubes faster (shuffle). Various cards will have actions like turn one cube into the color of another cube. Or move as many spaces as you have white cubes in your discard pile. Or buy as many cards as you have yellow cubes in your discard pile. Also perhaps each cube is worth one dollar in order to buy new cards (move used cubes to your bag). And then perhaps there is also straight up money cubes and they're worth more obviously. Now, I'm going somewhere.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Early sketch of the set-up

May 25, 2014
I'm researching Monaco Grand Prix and the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. Good inspiration found.

May 30, 2014
As of this morning, Automobiles only existed in my head and on some notes and scribbles. It's always a thrill to watch that very first prototype come to life — ugly and raw. I'm a procrastinator and I always take forever to prototype a design. Typically, I play it over and over in my head for awhile. In this way, I feel like I have played the game several times before I ever build it. This lets me get out a lot of bugs before I waste time producing anything physical prematurely. In fact, I was still working on handwriting the cards while the first few playtesters showed up tonight. Eventually, we played the inaugural game. Nothing broke. What?! I was shocked. We played again. Still working. We played again. We were all in shock at just how well it was playing in its debut. It was doing what I wanted it to do. And most of all, it was fun. I haven't had this level of positive reception to a design this early in development since Planes. My playtesters are so excited. I couldn't be more pleased.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Early design notes

June 2, 2014
I've been playing this non-stop since I made the prototype last week. I'm still floored that it is as fun as it is this early in its development. Pushing forward with lots of optimism...

June 4, 2014
This morning I did my first virtual pitch to a publisher. I presented Automobiles to several people from AEG over Skype. We had the usual technical difficulties (specifically I was hoping to use multiple webcams on my end, but one device failed to connect); however we moved past them and everything else generally went smooth. It was certainly different pitching to a webcam versus face-to-face with a live person. I'm used to reading body language and watching where their eye focuses while I pitch. I couldn't do either of those things, so it was a challenge to know if they were keeping up with me, and understanding an element, before I moved onto the next. Nevertheless, I was pleased with what I presented and everyone at AEG said they were impressed. Their order was to press ahead...

I wanted to bring in AEG as early as possible in order to make them second guess if they should move forward with an Automobiles contest or not.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Prototype set-up for my virtual pitch to AEG

June 20, 2014
Here's my current card categories:
• Gears (3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th)
• Wear (Grey)
• Money (Yellow)
• Pit (Purple)
• Handling (Red)
• Performance (Green)
• Engines (Blue)

From gallery of dshortdesign

All the prototype cards at this early stage

July 22, 2014
Playtesting continues. I'm observing the balance of new card combos and exploring turn phase options — specifically drawing your cubes at the end of your turn instead of the beginning. This would decrease the perception of downtime since players would be able to plan their turn when it wasn't their turn.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Early playtesting notes

July 29, 2014
Incredible playtesting session. We tried out the new oval map. I was pretty excited to see what strategies emerged due to taking multiple laps around the smaller track. Unfortunately, the new track presented several challenges that I didn't expect, which forced me to make a handful of hand-drawn changes as we played. I love this stage of playtesting — it's so focused and productive. Additionally, I was hoping that this new track would both speed up the game duration, as well as give the players the increased feeling that they were racing. I failed on both efforts. But that's not a bad thing. Failures at this point are often more productive and better for the game than successes. We discussed various ways to speed up game play (draw more cubes, change the track colors, make culling easier, etc) — many options for me to consider. On a positive note, the new cards were all very fun.

From gallery of dshortdesign

More playtesting notes

July 31, 2014
Breakthrough! Most of the challenges faced from the last playtest session were alleviated today. I'm so excited. I implemented a couple of changes all focused on speeding up both the duration of the game and the exhilaration felt during the game. The changes include giving all players a Spending Allowance during set-up and increases the amount of cubes drawn per turn from 5 to 7. Today's sessions were very fun.

From gallery of dshortdesign

More playtesting notes

Check out all those exclamation points on the last line. 7 cubes indeed.

August 5, 2014
Spending Allowance continues to be both fun and beneficial to speeding up the game. However, I have been noticing that money has become too easy during the game, which has resulted in some bloated decks. These bloated decks increase the luck of the draw, while also diminishing the effect of gaining wear. I'd like to reverse both of those repercussions. Just one week left till Gen Con. Push push push...

At this point, it was relatively common for players to have ~$20 a turn to spend. Far too much freedom.

August 8, 2014
My solution to limit money has paid off big time. I removed all actions that gained you more money and created a few more deck customization actions. Consequently, the last several sessions have been ridiculously fun. Tonight, we blasted through 5 plays in under 3 hours and we all still wanted to keep playing. I think I’m ready for Gen Con...except I need to make a new prototype...sigh...

I remember this session clearly. These sort of breakthroughs on a design are a joy to watch unfold.

August 12, 2014
Trying out the new prototype, complete with more functional cards and a new track. Made some key tweaks to the new track, but overall I'm very pleased with how it runs and feels different than the oval track.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Early prototype of the Monza board

August 15, 2014
I'm at Gen Con. It's my first time, and man is it overwhelming. Despite that, I'm enjoying myself and being productive in networking and pitching to publishers. It's exciting that every time I see one of the guys from AEG, they tell me how much they are looking forward to my Automobiles pitch on Sunday.

From gallery of dshortdesign

At Gen Con 2014 with some of the members of AEG

August 17, 2014
Today is the big day. I meet with AEG to formally pitch them Automobiles. They know about the game and are very excited about it. From the communication I've had with them, the job is mine to lose. It's a good position to be in. I'm prepped as best as I can.

I sadly do not have a picture of this pitch.

August 17, 2014
I'm on the plane back home. The big pitch earlier today went good. Not amazing, but good. We met and played at their booth in the main exhibit hall. We were in their private meeting room, but it was still loud and the space was quite tight. Additionally, it was the afternoon on the last day of the con. Everyone was visibly exhausted. All that being said, the pitch and play of the game went well. They were engaged and having fun. When it was done, we discussed marketing briefly and shook hands to confirm AEG will publish it. Success!!

September 16, 2014
Confirmed that this is just about done. I tweaked the blocking rules because they continue to be difficult to explain. I made them more intuitive, while at the same time increasing their importance. Other than that, nothing was altered and a fun time was had by all! Oh, and AEG has informed me that art is starting!

From gallery of dshortdesign

More playtesting...

September 30, 2014
Ridiculously fun sessions. Finishes are tight, cars are unique, and plays are enjoyable. Still tweaking cards, especially the ones that grant extra cube draws (i.e. Nitro, Crew Chief).

From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign

Evolution of the pit card: First prototype, early prototype, late prototype, and final design

December 16, 2014
Still tweaking cards and values as polishing development progresses. Additionally, the art continues to pour in. Specifically, the boards, the cover and the logo. I'm so stoked with how incredible everything looks.

Board Game: Automobiles

Final Daytona Beach board

January 21, 2015
Playtesting continues to insure everything is on point. At the same time, I've finally taken a step toward writing a final rulebook. Such a painstaking process. Additionally, I have designed new "Those Aren't Pillows" promos for each game in the Destination Fun series. Playtesting for these has started and they are very fun. I can't wait to get these out into the wild. Lastly, art is really coming along. The main boards are almost final, as are the player boards, and the card backs. Gorgeous.

"Those aren't pillows." Haha.

January 23, 2015
Officially added an "Alternative Turn" called a Pit Stop to the game play. This allows a player to pass their turn in favor of removing all of the Wear from their Active area. I have toyed with this idea from time to time from the start, but it's now officially embraced. I like that players may now take a Pit Stop, instead of feeling bad about a disappointing draw.

February 18, 2015
Art continues to roll in. The box top, box bottom, cards...everything is looking great. In fact, I played on the almost-final board last night. Great stuff.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Playtesting on the final board

Additionally, AEG has really kicked into high gear to polish all the card abilities and costs for this last home stretch. We have had quite a few lively discussions lately regarding any remaining tweaks and balances. The game is getting even better.

Board Game: Automobiles

Final box bottom

March 26, 2015
I'm continuing to work on the rulebook, which is proving to be a bear. Probably the most difficult rulebook I have had to write when it comes to the examples. This is not because the rules are difficult, but because each example must reference not just the cubes on a player's mat, but also the main board and the cards. It makes for tough illustrations when it comes to multi-step actions. Sigh.

From gallery of dshortdesign

Rulebook notes and changes

May 12, 2015
One last rulebook pass... actually had a few significant updates this time. John Goodenough has been amazing keeping up with all the updates. At this point I'm feeling really confident about the rulebook. Man, I'm excited for people to start playing this!

Check out the final rulebook on the AEG website. I'm very proud of it.

July 10, 2015
The game is officially announced by AEG! I'm overflowing with excitement. I can't wait to share this game with everyone.

And that's the last entry in my Automobiles journal. I'm looking forward to racing in October!

David Short
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Mon Aug 17, 2015 6:13 pm
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Designer Diary: Planes, or How A Round Trip Starts With A Spark

David Short
United States
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Microbadge: Happily marriedMicrobadge: My Games For TradeMicrobadge: Automobiles fanMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: Blogger
Board Game: Planes
I'm very proud of Planes — a 2-4 player game that has you pushing your way through a crowded airport to reach your plane before takeoff — and I invite you to take a short hop to the past with me to see how it was created.

Lunchtime on July 24, 2013
I remember it clearly. I was meeting with friends to play some quick games during our lunch break. One of my friends in attendance was Mike Tunison. Later that year, Mike would be accompanying me to his first BGG.CON in Dallas. Naturally we were both excited for the occasion, and inevitably we were discussing the trip. Eventually the conversation focused on the plane travel. Neither one of us minded traveling, but in that situation the downside was hard to ignore: eight hours of travel each way. Ouch. Thankfully, Mike came up with a solution to the time sink problem.

His idea was to spend those sixteen hours designing a game together — but not just any game: a game about traveling by plane that could be played on the plane (on those small trays on the backs of seats). I immediately was excited about the idea.

Afternoon on July 24, 2013
I found that I couldn't stop thinking about that idea. I was so inspired. Various thoughts started flooding in: crowded airports, eager families rolling luggage, and business travelers racing to their gates to catch their plane. (To be honest, the opening scene from Home Alone 2 popped into my head a few times as well.)

Due to the "play it on a seat back tray" parameter, I knew there couldn't be a lot of components and that any sort of board would need to be small. I pictured the players moving their party through the bustling terminal and eventually boarding their plane. I thought of cubes since those wouldn't roll off the seatback tray easily while playing on the plane. These cubes would be moved on the board "Rudiger Dorn" style (Goa, Istanbul, Traders of Genoa), or maybe Mancala style; I wasn't sure at the time, but I knew it would be some sort of chain movement.

Morning on July 25, 2013
In full disclosure, I didn't get much real work done at my day job the next day. My mind was tied up designing the boards — yes, plural. I knew this game would be ripe for multiple boards. The versatility and replayability that multiple boards encourage in games like Power Grid and Ticket to Ride was inspiring. I love that the rules don't change (or not much anyway), but the play is instantly fresh when playing with a different board. I wanted to capture that beauty. The first two boards came to me fairly quickly. The first one was a simple oval, while the second was a figure eight. Oh, the possibilities...

From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign
Prototype boards

Evening on July 25, 2013
Normally, I take a long time to make a prototype. This is due to a couple of reasons. First, I'm a procrastinator, and second, I prefer to avoid those early broken sessions by playing the game over and over in my head beforehand. This may sound insane, but I get a ton of design done while l drive. I find that I'm free and isolated with my thoughts. On a typical game design, I have played it copious times in my head, long before there's a physical prototype.

However, Planes was not typical. I was overflowing with anticipation and I wanted to play it as quickly as possible. I jumped right into drawing the board and gathering components. This part of the process is always exhilarating because the game is coming to life right before you.

During dinner that night, I vividly recall expressing my excitement when the perfect name for the game popped into my head: "Round Trip". I think I even inadvertently let out an audible "Yes" when it happened. I'm not sure what other designers think, but it doesn't feel right until a new game creation has a name.

Evening on July 26, 2013
The game was ready for its inaugural play and conveniently I was having a couple of friends over for games that Friday. After busting out great games of Keyflower and Snowdonia, I slapped it on the table. The play was very satisfying. The cube movement was compelling, and the player interaction was high — and most importantly for a first play, nothing broke. We talked into the night about where the game could go and which things to improve. I was stoked.

Lunchtime on July 29, 2013
I was thankful to play again at lunch on that following Monday. Nothing changed from the inaugural playtest, but I was looking to confirm my suspicions and concerns brought up in the first session, and indeed this second session proved informative. The cube movement, while solid and fun, needed to be accompanied by another element to allow more variation and replayability.

I thought perhaps some action cards and goal cards would provide the needed motive and variety, so I starting brainstorming card abilities. As I was doing this exercise, it quickly became clear to mash both the actions and goals onto the same card instead of creating separate decks. I'm a big fan of multi-use cards, and this was a great way to provide tough decisions for each turn. Do you further yourself by playing an action, or do you cash in on the current state of the game by playing a goal?

From gallery of dshortdesign
Card ideas (I have no idea why I wrote "Puerto Rico" there)

Later that night, I dove right into making the cards. I drew that first set by hand, as I often do with prototypes. I find hand-drawn stuff allows me to be more organic and flexible with the design. There's something about dropping hard lines and pixels on a computer that pushes me toward being more formally married to whatever I drew.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Prototype cards

Lunchtime on July 31, 2013
Back at my weekly gaming lunch where the idea had sparked a week earlier, I dropped the game on the table, this time with the new double function action/goal cards. It went awesome. The variety of actions and card combos was so fun. As a designer, what I was really pleased with was that the added elements didn't add much to the duration of the game; it was still quick and accessible. One of the main observations from this session was that the neutral cubes needed to be reduced from four to two per space.

Sometime on August 6, 2013
I was enjoying where this game was going, and the reactions from my playtesters had never been so positive this early in the process. I was compelled to write about the progress in a blog post.

Night of August 19, 2013
Later that month, the game was still going strong. I decided to bring it to my monthly game design group, Gamesmiths. The great thing about getting feedback at a group like this is that the feedback is entirely different from that provided by everyday gamers playing for fun. Feedback from other designers is so rich and focused. I love it. We played a couple of times, then proceeded to dive into the nuts and bolts. We dissected each card, evaluating its ability and balance: Cut this; move that; reword those. It was great.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Card edits and redlines

Night of September 16, 2013
The following month, I was grateful to get the game to the table again at Gamesmiths. Thankfully, a new set of designers was in attendance, which meant I'd get yet another fresh perspective on the game. The session was so fun and productive that I decided to write up a session report on it.

The notable improvements resulting from those sessions were the change to goals to make them more player specific (introducing the "white cube" symbol) and the Points of Interest on the boards.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Card edits with new Points of Interest

Sometime on September 19, 2013
I made short work of updating the goals on the cards and adding Points of Interest to the boards. I was very excited to add even more theme and personal investment into the game. This simple change to the goal requirements elevated the game to another level. Thematically, it allowed the players to picture themselves accomplishing these tasks on the board. Mechanically, it made it so that every card was useful and attainable for each player. Beautiful. At this point all the main elements for the final game were present. I was pleased.

Night of November 20, 2013
Into convention season playtesting continued and continued. Tweaks were made here and there to cards and boards, but mostly this stage of playtesting was to solidify rules and confirm that the game was done. It's a good feeling.

I switched my focus to preparing the game to pitch at the upcoming BGG.CON. I updated my prototype and created the sell sheet. The game was ready.

I packed my bags and prepped my games into the early morning hours that night, and fell asleep dreaming about the plane I was going to board the next day.

From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign
Pitch-ready prototype

Afternoon on November 21, 2013
I arrived at BGG.CON that afternoon and basically headed straight to the publisher/designer speed dating event. For those not familiar, this event mimics relationship speed dating in which women sit at tables while every five minutes a new bachelor sits down. The idea is that you need only a short amount of time to know whether this person is someone you want to get to know better. Publisher/designer speed dating uses the same idea, but instead of women, the designers sit at tables waiting for publishers to stop by every five minutes. It's a complete rush and I highly recommend it (but only if you're prepared).

I reserved two slots that night. I pitched my Mars:Zero game first. It was such a whirlwind. It went really well, but the best part was that it was a perfect warm-up for pitching Round Trip in the next slot. Way to take one for the team, Mars:Zero.

Pitching Round Trip was an incredible thrill. Publisher after publisher was overwhelmingly positive. I was floored by the reception. A blink later the slot ended, and as if the night couldn't get better, several publishers immediately approached me to set private meetings later on during the con.

Evening on November 21, 2013
Of course, AEG was one of those publishers, and they invited me to meet with their entire crew right then and there. I jumped at the opportunity. Let me provide some context before continuing: At this point, AEG had already signed and started working on my game Cypher. However, Cypher was pitched and accepted online, so while we had a relationship, we didn't really know each other. I didn't know what I was getting into and likewise didn't know what to expect at the meeting. What I found was a wonderful group that made me feel comfortable and respected.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Pitching to AEG

I remember that pitch clearly. I tried my best to teach the game like any of the countless times before, but I felt the pressure and was very aware that that was the biggest presentation of my young design career. Nevertheless, I believe I taught it well and the game began. The four-player game consisted of John Zinser (CEO), Todd Rowland (Director of Marketing), Mark Wootton (Developer and designer of Doomtown: Reloaded) and Nicolas Bongiu (Operations Lead). During the entire game I was trying to read into their expressions and communication. Were they having fun? Did they like it? Was this going well? I don't recall whether they actually finished the game or not — I think they did — but before I knew it John Zinser was addressing me. He collected his thoughts for what seemed like forever, then said something along the lines of "We don't usually do this this quickly, but I think we'd like to sign this." I was elated.

Almost immediately, discussion began about renaming the design to Planes, how it would tie into their hit game Trains, and how they would start a new travel line of games surrounding them. I couldn't believe my ears. While I loved the name "Round Trip", the possibility of being related to Trains (my personal favorite game of 2013) was an incredible opportunity and well worth the name change.

Weeks later, Planes was officially signed.

Board Game: Planes
Final box back

Lunchtime on October 8, 2014
It's cliche, but you never know when or where inspiration is going to hit. Playing games with friends at lunch is a pretty typical thing for me, but that day back in July 2013 was a major spark. That spark will be wrapped in shrink-wrap and displayed at Spiel this year. I couldn't be more proud. Thanks for the inspiration, Mike. I'll meet you at the gate!

David Short

From gallery of dshortdesign
Mike and I in an airport on the way back from BGG.CON 2013
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Thu Oct 9, 2014 6:00 am
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