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Archive for Joe Huber

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Designer Diary: Caravan

Joe Huber

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What Am I Going to Do With All of These Camels?

Ideas for games can come from anywhere, at least in my experience. Often, when I learn about something new — when I visit a National Park Service site, in particular — I get an idea for a new game. Sometimes I'm inspired by a mechanism; a game will do something I like, and I want to see it in a different context. Sometimes I'll think of a new mechanism I want to try or a new combination of classic mechanisms. But every now and again, a game idea starts from a component.

Back when Tanga was starting, they sold a number of Überplay games at discount; one that frequently showed up was Oasis. While a number of these Überplay titles, including Oasis, are fine games, this was also a great way to get components for putting together prototypes. I used the boards from Oasis for a couple of different designs, but really grew to appreciate the utility of the game when I needed square tiles for Starship Merchants — but this left me with a lot of wooden camels.

So, one day I was looking at the camels and got to thinking: One of the things I hadn't seen in a game was the use of a caravan of camels to deliver goods.

Goods above, goods below

What Constitutes Delivery?

And in short order I had fleshed out the idea enough to put together a prototype. The basic idea was simple: Each good has a destination somewhere on the board and is delivered there by a group of camels that pass the good along from one place in the caravan to another.

But rather than have a particular camel pick up the good and move it to the destination, a line of camels would shift a picked-up good to any camel in the line — and deliver it, should that camel be in the right location. Given that, four of the actions in the game were immediately clear: place a camel in a space with no camels, place a camel in a space with camels already present, pick up a good, and move a good, whether to its destination or only a part of the way.

Placing a camel where there already was one clearly should be more expensive — but not too expensive as from the start I envisioned a small, tight board, keeping the game length reasonable and ensuring lots of interaction on the board. For simplicity's sake, each option required one action except for the placing of a camel where one or more camels were already present; that took two actions.

Thieves in Our Midst

But there was still not enough interaction between players. This made it clear that there needed to be a way for players to directly interact, and the obvious choice was to allow players to steal goods. At the same time, I didn't want this to become a free-for-all, so I quickly added theft markers. Each player starts the game with one theft marker, and when you steal a good, that marker is given to the player you steal from.

This solved the interaction problem, but lead to another issue, namely that the player you stole from could simply take the good back. Thus, goods stolen were considered loaded, but protected from theft, until moved.

It's a Tough Job, But the Pay Looks Right...

The final element to the game is demand markers. These were added to incentivize longer, more difficult deliveries; players can earn many points for just picking up a good, even if it's never moved. To ensure that players don't simply collect demand markers at the end of the game, a penalty was added for having too many camels loaded when the game ends.

During play, each time only four unloaded goods remain on the board, a demand marker is added to each of those goods, and four additional goods are pulled from the bag. The demand markers also serve to show the progress of the game. After the initial set-up, there are as many demand markers as goods in the bag. Rather than having to feel in the bag to determine how many more goods have to be pulled before the game ends, players can watch the diminishing supply of demand markers. When the last demand markers are placed and the last goods drawn, the game end is triggered; the very next delivery of a good ends the game.

I first grew to love German games in the mid-1990s when the focus was on simple rules with depth of play, and that's very much what I've tried to create with Caravan. Not having loaded transport move felt to me like a different twist on pick-up-and-deliver games, while still satisfying that itch for me.


There are many people without whom this game could not have come to market. First and foremost, I'd like to thank Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games for taking a chance on my game. And Ken Hill, also at Rio Grande, contributed a key late addition with his excellent suggestion of adding player boards. Martin Hoffman has done a fantastic job with the artwork and has been great to work with. And I credit the fact that Caravan was a very quick design to stabilize to the great help I received from all of the playtesters.
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Tue Jun 11, 2019 1:00 pm
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Designers' Preview: Starship Merchants

Joe Huber

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By Joe Huber and Tom Lehmann

Starship Merchants is a game for 2-4 players who buy starships, customize them with equipment and pilots with special abilities, and explore and mine asteroids, competing to earn the most money by delivering materials, such as Deuterium or Ice-9, to the known galaxy.

The board is divided into four quadrants, corresponding to each of these activities during a "business cycle". The first quadrant is the Shipyard, where players can buy or lease ships. The second quadrant is the Market, where players can hire pilots, purchase equipment to improve their ships, buy refineries to increase the income from their mines, and lay claim to mines to ensure that others don't make off with them. The third quadrant is the Belt, where players operate their ships, and the fourth is the Dock, where players unload their goods and collect money.

While ores are picked up and delivered, there is no map; movement is abstracted. Each ship has a set movement allowance, which can be used to: explore for new mines (drawn from a bag); pick up ores from mines in "local space"; steal unclaimed mines from other players' "local space"; and, if desired, travel to distant destinations for extra profit.

A player turn consists of either taking an action in the current quadrant or advancing to the next quadrant and possibly taking an action there. For example, buying or leasing a starship in the Shipyard is an action, as is running a starship in the Belt, so a player who chooses to buy and operate three ships must invest many more actions in buying and operating his fleet than a player who chooses to run a single starship. Similarly, players must weigh purchasing additional equipment or recruiting Pilots versus spending extra time in the Market. This introduces a "time versus volume of goods" trade-off that players must manage, as they move around the board in "business cycles" of varying length.

Other decisions include whether to:

-----• Purchase Scouts, with higher movement allowances for more exploration and to reach distant destinations, or Tugs, for greater cargo capacity, when buying ships;
-----• Invest in Refineries, which improve payouts for one type of goods across one's fleet; or
-----• Invest in Claims, which both protect one's mines and improve their payouts.

Finally, starships come in four "generations", Marks I-IV, where the first Mark III ship bought obsoletes the Mark I starships and the first Mark IV starship obsoletes the Mark II ships. A player who is behind can often catch up by "shaking the box", forcing the leading players' ships into obsolescence.

Mark I ships? Make way for Mark III!

If a player has earned enough when entering the Dock, she may declare Game End – and with more money, must do so – earning a bonus. Once all players have made it around to the Dock, the player with the most money wins. Whether the game ends before Mark IV ships appear is a collective decision by the players, through both their ship purchases and Game End declarations.

Starship Merchants is a joint design by Joe Huber and Tom Lehmann, inspired, in part, by an earlier game, 2038, by Jim Hlavaty and Tom Lehmann.

Joe: Starship Merchants came out of a conversation at a gaming convention during a game of 2038, when the subject of an 18xx card game came up. I thought it was an interesting idea, but difficult to pull off, since card games are inherently random, while most 18xx designs have no random element. Then, an idea struck me – 2038 had already solved the problem of adding randomness to the 18xx system and could readily be adapted into an interesting card game.

The next stop on my trip was near Tom Lehmann, one of 2038's co-designers. At the time, I was getting together semi-regularly on my travels with Matt Leacock (of Pandemic fame) and Tom to playtest each others' latest games. I met with Tom beforehand for dinner and broached the idea of a "2038 card game". As we talked about it, we refined the idea – tremendously. We finished the meal with something promising, but it was neither an 18xx card game nor a 2038 card game.

Tom: I was initially taken aback by Joe's proposal – even though I had done several co-designs and played in other designers' "sandboxes" (notably Bernd Brunnhofer's Saint Petersburg, with my New Society expansion, and Matt's Pandemic – with him – for On the Brink), I wasn't used to designers asking to revisit my games. (Now that Wei-Hwa Huang has done the same with the upcoming Roll for the Galaxy, I'm getting used to it...) As I listened to Joe, however, I got excited. I could see ways to take two ideas from 2038 – exploration and mines – and really expand on them with lots of new equipment, pilots, and destinations, while at the same time freeing the game from its 18xx roots, removing the corporations, capitalization, and stock investing elements to turn it into a much brisker game.

Two mine tiles, with the front side on the left, back side on the right

Joe: Tom and I were getting together for more playtesting Friday, and Tom arrived having scavenged parts to mock up a prototype of Starship Merchants. A few minutes later we were playing. Many of the numbers – mine values, ship costs – were off, loans didn't exist yet, and most pilots and destinations would change, but the game we played largely resembled the published game, with one major exception: While the four stages of the business cycle existed, a turn consisted of a player doing all desired actions at the current stage.

For about a year after this initial playtest, Tom and I made numerous changes and improvements, and the game was quite playable – but it was missing something: Play felt just a bit too "lockstep" and not "dynamic" enough. Gordon Hua then suggested the crucial missing piece – that players be limited to a single action per stage of the business cycle, and, thus, as they chose to take extra actions at different stages, players would proceed through the business cycle at different speeds. With this idea in hand, Tom and I reworked the game into its present form.

Two pilots, waiting for their rides

Tom: We then spent several years pitching the game to various publishers. Finding one was a bit of a challenge as Starship Merchants is slightly "heavier" than your typical "mid-range" game. Luckily, Toy Vault saw its potential and agreed to publish it. Toy Vault improved on our presentation and increased the material considerably, adding individual ship mats to help players organize their cards and visualize play better.

The result is a fast-playing "pickup-and-deliver" game, with several different strategic paths and lots of variety and interesting decisions, where the tedium of actually travelling routes has been abstracted away. We hope that players have as much fun playing StarShip Merchants as we had developing it. Enjoy!

Individual player mat
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Thu Jul 12, 2012 6:30 am
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