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Designer Diary: Yunnan, or From Railroads to Tea-Roads

Board Game: Yunnan
When it comes to designing a game, my approach is to first work out the game mechanisms, then once these are stable I start looking for a suitable theme. (I know a lot of designers design games based on a particular theme, and I'm not going to argue whether one approach is better than the other as I believe it's mainly a matter of personal style for how you work.) In this case, I had been thinking for quite a while about the pros and cons of bidding mechanisms and had come up with an idea that I hoped would solve most of the issues I had identified:

• The price range becomes fixed, with no more guessing about what an appropriate bid should be.
• Smaller bids can be outbid, while larger bids are safe, which together creates a balance between taking risks to get a bargain and being able to plan one's budget.

Based on this, the initial idea for a game design evolved: How about developing a game with a playing time of about 15 minutes per player, with little downtime by involving all players at all times, and without any elements of chance?

The basic game mechanisms used three phases: In phase 1 players would bid on "improvements" that they would then use in phase 2 to build a network in order to connect valuable resource locations, while in phase 3 they would use their network to earn money and resources. No excitingly innovative mechanisms here, but the interweaving of the game mechanisms was designed in such a way that players feel involved all the time as their actions are highly dependent on one another. At the end of a round, players choose between keeping their income to bid later on more improvements or exchanging it for victory points. This choice makes correct timing an important factor as players try to set up their income generating "engine" in the first few rounds so that it can work smoothly and they can let it run to generate victory points — if only it weren't for the other players...

All I needed was an appropriate theme for the game.

Robber Barons

I am a fan of the 18xx series of games, in particular of 1830 with its cutthroat approach to trading shares and to running railroad corporations. So why not use railroads as a theme with their networks of stations, tracks, and trains?

From gallery of Caversham

Railroad themed game board

The theme seemed to fit perfectly: the improvements to bid on were track laying, depot in cities, and technology needed to travel longer distances.

The bidding phase worked quite well right from the start, but the railroad network development phase turned out to lack competition in the early rounds. The main reason was the rather large game board, which made it too easy for players to build attractive routes independently of each other. Hence, while the bidding phase involved all players, the building phase was far too solitaire, which was completely against my design goal, that is, "no multiplayer solitaire".

Lost In Space

After fiddling with the game board for more than three months, I came to the conclusion that network-building needed a clear direction and at the same time the number of network nodes should be drastically reduced in order to create more competition. Well, mapping this new approach to a railroad theme turned out to create a somewhat awkward looking map with little resemblance to a railroad network and a complete lack of "railroad" feeling.

From gallery of Caversham

Space themed game board

But how about moving the game to space? Traveling from the outskirts of a galaxy to valuable systems at its center would give the building phase a clear direction, while providing a limited number of planets on the route to the center would create a competition for the best planets to explore without feeling too artificial.

"Depots" changed to "spacecraft", "track building" to "range", and most importantly "technology" to "shields". Because of the limited number of planets, players were now required to fight for planets on which to land, and the number of shields was used to determine whether a player could displace the spacecraft of another player already on that planet.

Playtests with this version went rather well. The bidding phase was short and interactive, and the space flight phase incorporated just the right amount of competition between players to keep everyone involved. That said, I was not really happy with the theme. The whole set-up had a rather abstract feeling to it with little resemblance to space flight and fighting spacecraft.

Trading in India

Why not go back to Earth? Let's establish a trade route in India instead. "Spacecraft" became "traders", "reach" changed to "movement points", and "shields" became "experience". For the setting I chose the state Manipur with its provinces in northeast India.

From gallery of Caversham

India trading themed game board

The number of trading posts was still limited in order to keep the competition for trading locations high. In addition, the revenue generated in a particular province now depended on the number of traders in that province. The more traders, the lower the revenue would be per trader.

For the first time, I felt the theme to be right. My test players also liked it better than the previous ones, but with income now dependent on the number of traders in a province, more calculation was required than before. I had provided tables on the map to help to determine the correct amounts, but the feedback unanimously stated that while this worked, it should be taken out again. As it turned out, this mechanism did not add value to the game experience from a tactical point of view, so I removed it without hesitation.

The Ancient Tea-Horse Road

One day I received a comment from Peer Sylvester on a session report from the Westpark Gamers, one of my test groups. He suggested I take a look at the "Ancient Tea-Horse Road" that was used by Chinese tea farmers to deliver their teas to India and Tibet. I was stunned when I discovered how perfectly this theme matched to mechanisms and components of my game.

My playtesters liked this new theme a lot better than any of the previous ones. Everything fit together; nothing felt artificial anymore. This had an added benefit in that I could convince more and more people to play the game and help me to improve game balance and scaling, depending on the number of players.

One-and-a-half years later, after having decided on the final theme and having added a few new elements to allow for more strategic variability, I deemed the game as "ready to market".

Yunnan

For quite a while, I had asked myself how I should approach game publishers. In order to receive more information, I had joined the German game designers association Spiele-Autoren-Zunft. Through them I learned about a seminar for game designers held by Christwart Conrad, and as it turned out attending this seminar was an important stepping stone to get Yunnan published.

From gallery of Caversham

Yunnan prototype game board

We had been asked in advance to bring our prototypes as they would be used throughout the seminar, so I brought Yunnan, together with two other prototypes. The feedback Yunnan received was very positive, and it was even suggested that I submit the game to the Hippodice Game Designers Contest, something that hadn't even occurred to me. Above all, Christwart suggested that he present the game to Argentum Verlag.

Then matters started to develop with surprising speed: Argentum informed me that they want to publish the game and offered a contract, which I signed without hesitation. And a few weeks later I was told that Yunnan had made it to the list of finalists of the Hippodice contest. High five!

As it turned out, Christwart was tasked by Argentum with the realization of Yunnan, and Dennis Lohausen was engaged to illustrate the game.

Going Gold

So after a surprisingly short marketing phase, Yunnan was now in the hands of Argentum with Christwart and Dennis tasked to get the game ready for production in time for Spiel 2013.

First, playtesting was intensified with new test groups of various sizes and experience to make sure that the design had no glitches and that the balancing was right for all targeted group sizes. Playtesting yielded the necessity to make a few tweaks to the bank payouts and the trading post income as well as the introduction of Tea Houses to counterbalance the strength of the Province Inspector.

From gallery of Caversham

Early sketch of the game board

Once these changes were sufficiently tested, Dennis started to design the first layout of the game board. Here, the goal was to create a very thematic design. The tables in particular, which gave a rather abstract and mathematical touch to the game, should disappear. At the same time, the game board should provide sufficient rules support to help new players understand the two main game phases, especially the somewhat unusual change of the turn sequence between them.

The latter was another result of the intensive playtesting with the new groups. During the early design phases, I had already changed the logic of defining the turn sequence of a round several times as this was crucial to the balance of the game. At the time, the turn sequence was fixed for each round. Christwart then proposed splitting the turn sequence track and reversing the sequence between the two main phases. This change turned out to make the balancing much better; the only problem was how to represent this somewhat unusual approach on the game board.

My prototype board was neither geographically correct nor accurate about the real path of the tea-horse road — two issues that Christwart wanted changed — but there was no way to map the required game topology to the Chinese provinces in that area. In the end, we decided to cheat a little and use the Tibetan district of Qamdo as a standalone province and mention this little tweak in the rules.

Several iteration were needed to get the turn sequence track as intuitive and self-explanatory as we wanted it. The idea was to incorporate it into the design of the board as unobtrusively as possible. Quickly it became clear, though, that the track had to be placed as a kind of separator between Pu'er (which is used during the bidding phase) and the provinces (which are used during the travel phase). At the same time, we wanted to show the important actions of the two phases to ensure that none of them were being missed. Thankfully, Dennis constantly provided us with several sketches of possible designs.

From gallery of Caversham
From gallery of Caversham
From gallery of Caversham
From gallery of Caversham

Four stages of the turn track

Coming from a kind of three-dimensional, curved track followed by a wall-type structure and a scroll layout, we ended up with a beautiful plateau design that perfectly represented the game phases with all their intermediate actions while blending nicely into the overall scene.

All in all, after more than three years of development,Yunnan has become much more than I had ever dreamt of: a great theme with fantastic graphics to support it, an excellent rulebook, and (last but not least) challenging, well-balanced gameplay that is easy to learn but difficult to master. Yunnan has been designed as a Eurogame with plenty of planning options, but it will also attract gamers who like cutthroat player interaction.

Yunnan will debut at Spiel 2013 in Essen, Germany, and I'm looking forward to meeting you at the Argentum booth in hall 3, stall E103.

Aaron Haag

From gallery of Caversham

The final game board
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Fri Oct 4, 2013 6:00 am
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