Amabel Holland(amabel)United States
Endurance six years ago. The idea was that it would take the "three cups" mechanism I had used in my solitaire games Agricola, Master of Britain and Charlemagne, Master of Europe and apply it to a non-military topic: Shackleton's 1914 expedition to Antarctica.
The game ended up not being a "three cups" game. That's one reason why it took me six years.
But there's also the fact that the person who made those other games didn't make this one. I mean this somewhat literally. For starters, there's a different name on the box.
At the outset, I identified three problems I'd have to solve.
First, there was the problem of agency. The previous solitaire games I had done saw the player on the move, winning battles, solving problems, building infrastructure. The actions that you took then directly impacted how your subjects felt about your rule: aggressive actions bred hostility, conciliatory ones quieted things down. A very basic carrot-and-stick model of leadership.
But none of that really applied to this situation. This isn't a game about you making things happen, but about things happening to you, and how you and the desperate men you're responsible for react to that pressure. I needed a way to model this limited agency that didn't make you feel like you were just along for the ride.
Second, there was the problem of suffering. The expedition was an agony in a physical sense. It was bitterly cold. Malnutrition and starvation wreaked havoc on the men's intestinal systems. When they ran out of toilet paper, they wiped with ice, which chafed. During a three-day lifeboat journey, having failed to bring potable water, they sucked on pieces of frozen raw meat so that its juices could slake their thirst.
These were merely the more mundane horrors. They lived these months constantly on edge, never knowing when a sea leopard might attack, when the ice underfoot might give, when frostbite might turn gangrenous – all things which happened and easily could have proven fatal.
This is not a heroic story, not an adventure; it's a very bleak, downbeat thing. The game, then, would need to be bleak and downbeat. It would need to communicate the misery and suffering at the heart of the real-life experience. The problem is, once you gamify something – once you assign it a numerical value – players are incentivized to treat it numerically. And with a story like this, that would feel ghoulish.
Finally, there was the problem of probability. Historically, all twenty-eight men survived. Barely so, miraculously so. Which left me with the question of, how feasible should the historical result be? Which once again brings it back to the question of how the player's success should be measured. Which brought it back to the question of how much agency the player should have, and in what ways would they exercise it.
Tight, Messy Little Knots
As is often the case with games, these three problems fed into each other in such a way that I couldn't really solve any one of them in isolation. The solution for all three would have to arrive at once, or not at all. And so I spent a long time tugging in vain at this tight, messy little knot, hoping that if I managed to loosen it a little, I would catch a glimpse of the whole design, but that glimpse proved elusive. The knot seemed intractable.
It wasn't the only tight, messy little knot I was tugging at. It wasn't even the one I had been tugging at the longest, nor the one that seemed the most intractable.
Because for as long as I could remember, there was something wrong. I didn't have the words to describe it. When I had tried, no one ever seemed to relate to it. More than that, they didn't want to relate, didn't want to be around the weird, scared, desperately earnest kid who was hurting all the time for no reason.
And I tugged at that knot for a long time – tugged at it for my entire life. Until, quite suddenly – finally, miraculously – it came undone all at once.
Huh, Turns Out I'm a Girl
When I started hormone replacement therapy, I purposefully didn't work on Endurance and other "heavy" games. I figured, hey, I'm going through puberty a second time. I'm going to have the emotional regulation of a teenager, I don't need to soak myself in harrowing stories of suffering and survival, so I did weird cutesy things like Eyelet and Dinosaur Gauge and Watch Out! That's a Dracula! instead. Things that would give me the time and space to find a new wardrobe, figure out what I wanted, stop sleeping on my stomach (ouch), and learn how to avoid door jambs (ouch!).
Once I was a bit more together, I turned my attention back to Endurance — and I found to my surprise that not only had that knot finally come undone, but in a way, its solution was tied inextricably to that other knot.
It took me thirty-eight years to figure out my whole gender thing. Those years take a toll. The decades of dysphoria compounded over time and hollowed me out. There are so many others who were crushed by that pain – pain that was already and always too much to bear – before they could find themselves.
That was almost me. If my egg hadn't cracked when it did, I don't think I would have lasted much longer. Months, maybe. Weeks.
I was saved at the eleventh hour, and when I look back at the circumstances that led me to that moment, at the chains of coincidence that made Amabel possible – I am intensely aware of how it very nearly wasn't. How improbable it was.
And it became clear to me that the best way to honor the miracle at the heart of Shackleton's story was to lean into how improbable the historical result was. How very nearly it could have – by rights, should have – ended in disaster. I would observe the miracle not through recreation, but through its absence. This is how I addressed the problem of probability.
Because the historical result is astronomically unlikely, I couldn't very well set it as a victory condition. And as I intimated previously, I wouldn't be comfortable assigning point values to simulated human lives – particularly when each human life represents a real and specific person, who really suffered, so there would be no scoring. Indeed, no victory conditions at all. The game ends, possibly with the rescue of any survivors, and then you decide what that means.
This framework in turn informed my approach to the problem of agency. The player exists at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, you're given a handful of options at a time.
At the beginning of a round, you draw a hand of two cards. Each card has an Action and a Test. You choose one card for its Action and one for its Test. Actions involve rolling dice and counting up successes to earn a reward. For example, a hunt action can result in obtaining meat and blubber. Tests require the use of resources – for example, a food test might see you expend the meat you hunted.
Failing an Action or a Test incurs a Penalty, resulting in men becoming demoralized. Demoralized men are less capable of completing Actions, and if they suffer a second demoralization they are injured. Injured men who suffer demoralization perish.
This core works well enough, but it lacks texture. I needed to give the player a little more control over the proceedings. And so it is that each Action has ways to modify the number of dice rolled, usually through use of a resource. For example, it's a lot easier to hunt with a rifle.
Specific men can also be flipped to their demoralized side to convert failed rolls into successes or to automatically pass a Test without the required resources. For example, flipping one of the two surgeons will automatically pass a Medical Test. Flipping one of the six dog team leaders will convert failures to successes for a sled action.
In addition to enlarging the decision space, this adds a lot of texture to the game, making specific men stand out. This also comes through in the mix of demoralization Penalties; men who were historically more prone to depression or troublemaking are much more likely to become demoralized.
As the ordeal wore on, morale naturally began to worsen. I very much wanted to capture this with the game's general arc.
As I said, you start the game by drawing two cards, selecting an Action from one and a Test from the other — but soon you'll be drawing three cards. After choosing your Action and your Test, you'll have one card left over. For that card, you'll be forced to resolve one of the Penalties. Morale starts to crack a little.
Later in the game, you'll be drawing four cards – choose an Action, choose a Test, then resolve a Penalty for each of the remaining cards. It gets more difficult to maintain morale. At the end, you'll be drawing five, and you can probably guess what happens then. Of course, with more men demoralized, it's going to be harder to succeed at those Actions, incurring further Penalties. And it's likely that you'll have fewer resources with which to pass Tests.
As the game approaches its end, the situation mathematically bends towards hopelessness and instability. It's likely that certain types of actions will become impossible to perform – forcing failure if you choose them – and certain tests impossible to pass. (As a sort of cruel joke, the threshold for the heating test at the end of the game is literally impossible.) In a way, the game is ceasing to function the way you want it to.
This isn't really new territory for me. I make weird, experimental games that are often deliberately fragile, built to become unstable. Usually this is to make a point about broken and unsustainable systems. (See This Guilty Land or For-Ex.) Here, I hope it evokes, in some small way, a certain kind of despair and desperation.
Maybe not what the men of the Endurance felt. That I have no way of knowing — but I know what my own was like, when it felt like my life was falling apart, like it had always been falling apart, like it was designed to fall apart. Until, suddenly, it all came together.
I know what it's like to feel doomed, and I know what it's like, against all odds, to be rescued. The person I was six years ago only knew the first thing and could never have imagined the second.
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Archive for Amabel Holland
- [+] Dice rolls
Eyelet is a roll-and-move game in which you thread shoelaces through holes in a board. Each turn you roll two dice, and for each die, you must thread a lace through an empty hole that number of spaces distant. Neither player "owns" any of the laces on the board. If on your turn you're unable to complete both required moves, you lose. The object of the game, then, is to lay traps for your opponent, though in so doing you're also laying traps for yourself. Zugzwang!
When I first announced the game late in 2021, a few folks assumed it was some kind of weird joke. This is a reaction I've encountered before and since, and it's not one I've really understood. Like, I don't think when other designers say, "Hey, here's this thing I'm working on", that folks respond with "LOL, it'd be cool if this were a real game" and, like, it is a real game, that's why I'm telling you about it.
I guess in this case I understood the reaction slightly better in that this is very much an abstract game, and I've never done an abstract game before. In fact, I was pretty sure for a long time that I would never design an abstract game — but I was also pretty sure for a long time that I was a dude, so it's not like I have a great track record of being right about these sorts of things. Our company Hollandspiele has published a couple of abstracts from other designers, and they never really got the traction we wanted for them. In fact, the first thing Mary said when I pitched her on the project was, "I thought we weren't going to do any more abstracts."
And certainly, I didn't intend to design an abstract. It's just that one morning I woke up with the idea, and in the space of about fifteen or twenty minutes, I had a new game. The whole thing just came together immediately.
That's not to say that the game arose out of thin air. I can in retrospect identify its antecedents. First, earlier that year I had tried my hand — badly — at cross-stitching, so that calming, repetitive rhythm of pulling thread through many tiny holes was very much on my mind. Second, I had picked up a couple of word games at some thrift stores.
For the curious, those games were Duplicate Ad-Lib Crossword Cubes and Razzle. Neither game has much to do with how Eyelet plays, but each game has a clever physical gimmick: components specifically engineered to create an experience that is difficult to proxy by other means. And looking at these games got me thinking more generally about that sort of design space where the specific nature of the components themselves are part of the game's mechanisms.
Put that together with cross-stitching and you get my weird little game with shoelaces. Something where the aesthetic pleasures — tactile, aural, visual — are as important as the game state. As I said, this game emerged fully-formed more-or-less at the point of inception. And in playtesting, the core of the game was never altered. This is due in part to the game's simplicity, and also because every trap you set for the other player you are also setting for yourself. As a result, the development cycle wasn't really about fine-tuning the balance; as appropriate for a game in which components are so integral, it was about getting the physical production right.
For example, one of the first questions I had to contend with was, how long should the shoelaces be? As soon as I got the prototype board from my printer, I drove over to the store and bought some 72" laces and some 36" laces. The long laces were too long, and the short laces too short, so then I got some 54" laces: goldilocks, just right.
One concern, of course, was how well the boards would hold up to the laces being threaded through them over and over again. We did a lot of monotonous stress testing on two kinds of material, one significantly thicker and sturdier than the other. We found that both of them held up equally well to repeated plays, so we could have gone with the thinner material, but decided, what the heck, let's use the thicker one.
So, we knew what kind of board we wanted to use, and we knew what size of shoelaces. Now what we needed to do was find a wholesale supplier of those shoelaces. We looked at several different options, weighing the price per set against the anticipated demand. The most cost-effective route at that time would be to order a "medley" of laces in a variety of different colors. And I thought, hey, this might be fun, because your set might be different than Lily's which might be different than Chris'.
We ordered a sample pack from the manufacturer. When it arrived, we opened it up to see what was in the grab-bag so that we could test the material and also so I could choose a pair of colors for my personal set that we would use in promotional photographs. And among the neon greens, the golden yellows, the various shades of red and purple, there was a pink and a pastel blue. Well, obviously those were gonna be my colors. They might as well have included a jar of pickles and a set of cat-ears.
We made a large order, which was scheduled to arrive in mid-January 2022. While we waited, we took and shared pictures of my personal set online, and the choice of those shades of blue and pink garnered some appreciative comments — to the point where I felt the need to stress that the shoelaces would come in a randomized variety of colors, and that no one was guaranteed to get that blue and pink combo. This was disappointing for folks, and I started to wish there had been a way to order just blue and pink.
Mid-January comes, and there's no sign of the shoelaces. I get a notice it's going to be delivered by the end of a certain day, and at the end of that day not only do I not have shoelaces, but we also have a notice that delivery has been postponed without warning until late March. That's far too late for us, and the lack of communication is troubling to say the least, so we put in a request to cancel the order. After having a bit of a panic attack, I start sending emails to three other wholesale shoelace suppliers. Having seen how folks reacted to the blue and pink, I ask for their pricing for those two colors only, for twice the quantity I had ordered from the other supplier.
One of those suppliers never gets back to me. One quotes a price about three times more per lace than what we had paid the other supplier, while another — Shoelaces Express of Athens, Georgia — quotes a price about 20% cheaper. Well, gee, I wish I had gotten hold of Shoelaces Express in the first place, but at the same time, I probably wouldn't have thought of using that blue and that pink if it hadn't been in that other firm's initial grab bag.
The next morning I had a shipping notification from the new company – wow, that's fast – as well as a notice from the first company letting me know that they hadn't cancelled the order and that it wouldn't be late March after all, but that they'd have it for me that afternoon. And so that afternoon a grab bag of shoelaces we no longer needed or wanted showed up at our doorstep.
But the next day saw the arrival of thousands of blue and pink laces.
"SQUEEEEEEEEEE THE SHOELACES ARRIVED I AM SO EXCITED"— Amabel Holland (she/her) (@AmabelHolland) January 29, 2022
an actual thing I just said
how is this my life pic.twitter.com/m4rPNpdSZo
One quirk of our weird print-on-demand production model is that any kind of specialty bits gets sorted and packed by hand. For example, every game of ours that has wooden cubes, discs, sticks, pawns, et cetera? All those bits were counted out and sorted by Mary or myself. In the case of Eyelet, not only would we need to sort the laces; we'd also need to tie a knot at the end of each lace, so that you couldn't pull the entire lace through its first hole in the board.
We could have let folks tie it themselves. We probably should have. But we thought it would make the thing more personal, that it would lean into the hand-crafted artisanal vibe if those laces came pre-knotted. As I started to develop rope burns on my index fingers from handling so many shoelaces — something that never really came up with the wood bits — I began to deeply regret that decision. I briefly enlisted a pal to help us with the shoelaces. They tied tight, neat little knots with finesse and exactitude. Unfortunately they also misunderstood the instructions and tied them at both ends. It was a few hours before we caught on. If I thought tying a knot in every shoelace was tedious and taxing, untying one of my friend's perfect, tiny, exquisite knots from a few hundred laces was much worse.
Still, "something-something suffering for one's art something-something", and on the whole, Eyelet has been a breeze from start to finish, far less exhausting than working on my "serious" games like Nicaea or The Vote.
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Jun 2020
When my wife Mary and I started our company Hollandspiele, we chose a print-on-demand model, which I like to describe as the most expensive and least efficient way to publish games. Our higher per-unit costs and low profit margins effectively remove us from any traditional distribution model that will allow our titles to have any kind of presence in your friendly local game store, and makes our games less affordable/accessible to customers outside the United States.
But none of those are things we really care about, and the model allows us to prioritize the things that matter to us. Yes, the games cost more to manufacture, but since we're essentially printing each one when it's ordered, paying for it after the customer has paid us, there's very little upfront cost, and our break-even point is ridiculously low: Even if the game is a flop, we make a profit, which lets us publish with impunity.
It also allows us to be flexible and somewhat spontaneous. If we wanted to, we could design a game today, send the files to the printer, and start taking orders tomorrow. The game would end up on doorsteps within a week. Now, the key bit there is "if we wanted to". There are many reasons why we wouldn't. It doesn't allow much, if any, time for testing and development, we would want to look at a proof copy first to ensure fidelity, and there would be no time to build up the sort of excitement and word-of-mouth that our sales depend on.
But in general one of the appeals of the model is that at the end of the year, we will have released games that at the start of the year we had no idea existed. That's what happened with Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater. Erin introduced herself and submitted her game in the spring of 2018, and by October of that same year, the game was hitting tables and winning accolades, becoming one of our flagship titles.Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater
We've lost some of that flexibility, however, as our catalogue and our audience has continued to grow. We have a lot of games in our pipeline, and it's been taking longer and longer to get them out the door, often a year or two after we signed it. We've effectively stopped taking submissions while we try to muscle through our backlog until we can get to a place where we can get back to those quick turnaround times.
That sense of spontaneity is something we sorely miss. Mary and I have often discussed how we want to "do something like Meltwater", which doesn't mean that we want to publish a game that's like Meltwater — it is perhaps inimitable! — but that we wanted to make room for projects we hadn't anticipated.
Which brings us, at last, to The Field of the Cloth of Gold.
In February 2020, it occurred to me that June would mark the five hundredth anniversary of the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This was essentially a very expensive three-week party in which the two young kings peacocked at each other about how great and magnificent and splendid they were. It's an event that fascinated me as a child — I was all about kings and castles and tournaments and splendor — and it's one that I had tried and failed in the past to make a game about.
Said failure was largely due to the fact that nothing really happened during that meeting. Oh, they spent an awful lot of money — England alone is estimated to have spent a third of its national wealth — and they ate an awful lot of animals, tens of thousands of them. But nothing was actually achieved, and there was no real conflict for your humble consim designer to simulate.
But the five hundredth anniversary? If I were ever going to do a game on the topic, now would be the time. Tying the game into the anniversary appealed to me, as did the topic itself. More than that, though, I was excited by the idea of reclaiming some of our early flexibility. Mary shared my enthusiasm and greenlit the project.
Designing for Production
In order to realistically release the game in June, we would need to finish everything — design, testing, development, art, layout — in April, within the span of about two months. This largely dictated the parameters of the design.
First, the game had to be short, so as to facilitate rapid testing. A game that takes two hours to play eats up most of the evening, but in that same time you can play a twenty-minute game six times. You're also more likely to find playtesters who will volunteer their time for a shorter game than for a longer one.
Second, the game had to be simple so that there would be fewer problems for me to solve and fewer things for me to screw up. I didn't have time to bang my head against the wall or pull at the loose strings of some complicated knot.
Short and simple meant that it would be a filler game, and that meant a lower price point; no one's going to pay beaucoup bucks for a quick diversion. Lower price point meant fewer components; being print on demand, we do not benefit from economies of scale, and having two of something costs twice as much as having one. Having published over fifty games at this point, I have mostly internalized this, so I immediately knew that I was limited to a half sheet of counters, perhaps a few wood bits, and a letter-sized paper "board".
Here, a peek behind the curtain might be instructive. Our letter-sized components — usually player aids and such — are printed on letter-sized card stock using a printer that handles smaller paper sizes. Our larger wargame maps, however, originate as large rolls of heavier paper, printed two maps at a time, then trimmed to the proper size. The letter-sized card stock is not only thinner, but because it isn't trimmed, it leaves an unsightly white border around the art — unsightly to the point that we've generally moved away from using that size for our actual playing surfaces and made 17" x 22" our standard map size.
The letter-sized sheet is what made sense for our price point, but at the same time we didn't want this chintzy, flimsy sheet with this ugly white border around it, so immediately we were thinking about how we might try to square that circle. Over the last couple of years, we had begun offering deluxe canvas maps for some of our most popular games on special occasions. It's too expensive for us to offer it as a standard component for our games with 17" x 22" (or larger) maps as we'd have no profit margin left — but the pricing made more sense for a letter-sized sheet and would be more attractive, with no white border to contend with. And so Mary and I decided to use the canvas as a standard component for this game.
Now, all this probably sounds fairly mercenary and mechanical — like we were counting our pennies and creating artificial constraints around the game before it was designed — but it's really a lot more intuitive and organic than that. It's not like we actually drew up a list of all this and said, okay, here are the restrictions, build something that works within them. Most of this was unspoken, all of it occurring to us at the same time; the only thing we really had to talk about was the canvas.
My Kind of Euro
When I first got into board games a little over ten years ago, it was through Eurogames, and when I say "Eurogames", I'm really talking about the sort of very mean, very clean, and very interactive games that had come out sometimes ten or more years prior. El Grande and Tigris and Euphrates were particular touchstones for me. When I first tried my hand at being a game designer, I assumed I would be designing Eurogames. I did one wargame as a lark — for giggles! — and it sold, so I did another, and it sold. The wargames kept selling, and the Eurogames never did, so I shifted my focus to wargames.
For this game, I shifted my focus back. Given the limited number of components, the short timeframe, and the fact that, once again, nothing much actually happened, it wouldn't make sense to create a highly thematic or detailed game that tried to seriously engage with the historical event. Research for such games takes months or even years, and I didn't have that kind of time. And so I would make a lightly-themed Euro — the sort of lightly-themed Euro, in fact, that had gotten me into games in the first place.
The theme was light, but not irrelevant. Two kings, of course, meant two players. While these two kings were eager to thump their chests about how glorious and grand they were, they were also careful to express the camaraderie and esteem they held for one another; they were competing but they weren't "competing". This suggested a dynamic that was indirectly vicious, and that dynamic informed all my design decisions.
The two players attempt to collect tiles that come in four kinds, representing tournaments, feasts, piety, and wealth. When they take an action, the random tile associated with that space is given to their opponent. Most of these actions involve scoring points for a certain type of tile, and most of these scoring actions expend the type of tile scored, removing them from your supply.
Therein lies the rub: Practically everything you do scores you points, but you don't want to score those points yet; you want to hold onto those tiles so that you can score more points later. And everything you do gives your opponent the ammo they need to score points, and somehow, it always seems like they're getting the better end of the deal! Never mind that they're thinking the same about you...
To top it off, once the game gets going, you essentially are faced with a choice between two options at any given time, neither of which you particularly want to do. This is exactly the sort of sharp, painful decisions I love in games. Someone once described my Irish Gauge as "Here are four terrible things you don't want to do. Each of them is going to damage your position or improve everyone else's position more than it does yours. Now, choose one." That's broadly my approach here.
I'd like to dig into the nitty-gritty of how the game evolved over testing, but, honestly? It didn't really change. Oh, I fiddled with the score track a bit and improved the icons, but the game I came up with in mid-February is essentially the game that's being released. Again, when a game is this simple, it's hard to screw it up.
Breaking the Rules of Writing Rules
Testing wrapped up in April, right on schedule, and that's when I finally set to work writing the rules. This is unusual for me; usually the rules get written before the first prototype has been produced, mostly because the act of writing is one that clarifies — but most of my games aren't quite this simple or this elemental.
When I started writing the introduction for the rules, I took on a somewhat stilted and grandiose tone, assuming I would abandon it when I got into the meat of the thing, but I was having such a good time that I kept on writing in a pompous, elevated style. Instead of "fifty-four tiles", the game would come with "tiles numbering fifty and four". Instead of "see the Actions section below", the player was advised to "Hark ye the chapter below, called The Actions".
I cackled like a maniac the whole time, pleased with myself but fully assuming that none of this would make it into the final rulebook. When I turned it over to Mary, I asked her to let me know if I had gone too far, but to my surprise she said that I hadn't gone far enough. And so the rulebook contains all of the above, plus such gems as "score ye 6 points" and "move now the Dragon back to the space bearing its terrible visage".
If I were working with another publisher, they'd probably be "very concerned" about the rulebook — but they wouldn't be publishing a game like this in the first place; these sorts of games aren't exactly the rage these days. One of the purest joys of Hollandspiele and its model is that it lets Mary and I do whatever the heck we want, the way we want to do it.
I had a lot of fun whipping together this quick, vicious little curio. I got to do a different sort of game — closer to the sort of game that got me started in games in the first place — and we got to relive some of the scrappiness of our early days.
- [+] Dice rolls
Northern Pacific because I wanted to be a full-time game designer.
That's an ambition I had almost immediately after stumbling into the hobby. And, yeah, I absolutely knew how nuts that was, how impossible, how foolish. That didn't change the fact that it was something I wanted and that I was consciously working toward it. The question, of course, was how on earth I would get from A to B, and what steps I would have to take along the way.
The first step would be to get better at designing games. While I think I had some knack for it, it was a very rough sort of talent, and I needed to learn my craft. One of the best ways to do this would be to play lots of different games from lots of different designers and to learn from them. That wasn't really in the cards for us; board games are very much a luxury hobby, and we were very much not a luxury household. I was struggling to support my wife and myself on a part-time municipal job that paid less than ten bucks an hour, so board game purchases were few and far between. I reasoned that if I found a developer who had played a lot of games and who had a lot of experience to draw on, I might be able to expedite that process.
Similarly, I was very conscious of the "auteurist" streak in the board game community and was eager to build up some kind of fan base. I reasoned that if I found a niche publisher that already had a passionate fan base, I could use that to jump start my own reputation.
These two things together — great, knowledgeable development and a built-in fanbase — naturally got me looking at John Bohrer and his company Winsome Games. It also helped that Winsome often licensed their games to other, larger publishers, who would then put my game on more tables. Thus, I decided that the first step toward reaching my ambition would be to design a train game for Winsome.
Great — Now What?
I had never designed a train game before. While I enjoyed playing them, up until that point I had no particular interest in the genre as a designer. I had no idea what kind of train game it would be. I didn't have a particular mechanism or theme in mind, and I wasn't working from some passionate inspiration. And this is why you probably shouldn't design games for purely mercenary reasons!
Because of this, I spent quite a long time trying to figure out what the game would actually be. I'll admit that I also got a little intimidated by the project. Train games are awfully mathy, and I was awfully lousy at math. Probably my income values and my stock values would be all wrong, or I'd give the players too much or too little starting cash and never realize it. What could I possibly add to the genre that wouldn't be hopelessly amateurish, just a shallow imitation of Chicago Express?
I was stuck for a good long while — then I came across Paris Connection, Queen Games' reprint of Winsome's thinky-filler SNCF, and I no longer felt this weight like I had to do something heavy. I could do a light simple filler game.Frank really wishes you hadn't put that cube there
For thematic inspiration, I turned to my favorite spaghetti western, Once Upon A Time in the West. A big part of the plot revolves around someone investing in land because they guessed, correctly, that the railroad would have to pass through that area. It didn't turn out so great for him (or his kids!), but I thought that the basic premise of investing in an area in hopes that the train would connect to it was enough to build a game around.
The game works like this: On your go, you can either invest in a city or lay track. Multiple players can invest in the same city. There's only one train, and it moves in only one direction. If it passes through a city where you're invested, you earn double your money; if it passes by without connecting, your investment never pays off. When the train reaches the end of the map, the player with the most money cubes wins.
The game played in about five or ten minutes, and this helped expedite testing considerably. If you're meeting with your playtest group for a couple of hours once a week, a five-minute game is going to get a lot more play than a two-hour game. After several dozen tests I was confident enough in the game that I wrote an email to John Bohrer asking whether he'd like to take a look at it. He said yes, and I sent it to him. The day it arrived, he and his group played it, and later that day he let me know that they'd be publishing it in the following year's Essen set, some eighteen months in the future. It was as simple as that.
I was, of course, rather elated by this. I was further elated when, as expected, John and his group went to work on the development. They gave it the title Northern Pacific, having relocated the setting from the American Southwest of my original submission, and they doubled the size of the map. This resulted in a richer and more complex decision space, but oddly didn't alter the core simplicity of the game, and most surprisingly didn't really change the duration of the game. Comparing the new map with my original was a sort of masterclass in the art of multiplayer game design, and was indeed instrumental in me learning my craft.
In late 2012, a full year before the game was to be released, John came to Michigan to meet me in person. He explained that he always met his authors before he published one of their games. Mary and I met John and one of his associates at an outdoor restaurant that, if I remember correctly, made a passable Reuben sandwich.
Now, prior to meeting John in person, I knew that he was a smoker — his "cigarette smoker" microbadge on BGG kinda gave it away — and that gave me some cause for worry. Neither Mary nor I smoke ourselves, and we find the smell of it to be extremely irritating. I particularly have a madeleine-in-tea association with the smell, as my father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 38. I saw my father die — it was a messy and ugly death — and the smell of cigarettes causes a vivid involuntary memory of that moment.
Going into it, I was worried that I might give offense by asking him not to smoke, that I would come across as overly fussy or, if I had fully explained the reason for my aversion, that I would come across as overly dramatic. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially as, at least at that time, I was famous for making bad ones.
So John was sitting in the outside dining area, and he was indeed smoking one cigarette after another, but I never smelled it. It never irritated my throat, it never attacked my nostrils, and it never brought back my father's dying moments. Partially, this was because of the way John smoked, holding the cigarette away from the table, blowing the smoke softly and gingerly upward and away. We didn't tell him that we had a problem with the smoke; he just politely and naturally directed the smoke away from everyone. I sat across from him, and Mary next to him, and when, on the way home, I marveled at how he smoked and that I'd never encountered a smoker who was actually considerate of others, Mary expressed surprise that he was smoking at all. She hadn't noticed. (And man, let me tell you, Mary notices everything!)
But partially, it was because of how charming and down-to-earth John is. His stories that night were entertaining, his insights into the various larger publishers were acute, and even as he drove the conservation and had the best lines, he made you feel like you were the center of attention. Those are rare talents, and I think they've served him well.
Initial Release and Reception
The game came out in Winsome's 2013 Essen set. I was fully expecting everyone to fall in love with it, and was more than a little surprised at how divisive it was. Some folks were quite charmed with it, and some folks were very much not charmed with it. That didn't bother me too much. My general philosophy at that time, which remains my philosophy today, is that if the people who like it like it, it doesn't matter who all doesn't care for it. Interesting games rarely achieve consensus.
But those who dug it said some nice things about it. Cole Wehrle wrote a very nice article about opening theory, which concludes by saying:Quote:Unlike most games, one positional mistake will sink you in this seemingly light filler, but that shouldn't shy away interested players. It's refreshing to encounter a game which gives such clear feedback so quickly on lessons well worth learning.It was through that article that Cole and I first made one another's digital acquaintance, and hold onto that because it will come up again later in the story.
I was also quite taken with a review by user Claudio that got at the meat of the thing:Quote:I've described Northern Pacific to people as a story written from the middle and told in halting spurts. I've described it as a zipper being yanked violently — and, as with your own zipper, you don't want to get the timing wrong or it is going to hurt. I've described it as "group-think" and "emergent alliances" and "moves as offers" boiled down to a ball-bearing-like essence. It is all of these things.If one thing did bother me, it was that last bit — folks wondering whether the game was "really" a game. Some, like Claudio, meant it sincerely as a compliment, while others were far less charitable. And from my point of view, well, of course it's a game. What else would it be?
...What path will the train take? When will it leave the Twin Cities? Each cube placed alters the tensions of the story, the potentialities.
But this is the writing. And the revisions can get downright nasty until the story is told and the type set. Your goal is to trigger — or cause to be triggered — the telling of that story at a point where there is certainty that you will win out. Once the train starts to move, it tends to keep moving. Most track is unidirectional, so the forward motion is relentless. Each player tends to play his or her part in what has been written until the script peters out. This spurt is the boundary between one set of possible possibilities and another. The buildup begins again until the balance is tipped again and the zipper zips further.
Cube or train, and don't let the other guys win. It is all just so simple. So Spartan. So completely lacking in guile or nuance or...game. Maybe it isn't a game at all but merely a brash statement about all multiplayer games — that good play depends on good play which depends on good play, ad infinitum.
"Well", I said to myself as North Pac's BGG rating started to hover in the mid-sixes, "that's what I get for designing a game for purely mercenary reasons. That's one game that's not likely to get licensed by a big publisher like Rio Grande."
The Game Gets Licensed by A Big Publisher Like Rio Grande
Speaking of the board games, things were going all right in that front; I had over a dozen published designs to my credit, including three Winsomes. I had just finished a two-year stint as the editor of a wargames magazine, and Mary had spent several months running a print-on-demand ziploc games company where she oversaw the publication of fifteen titles. Between the two of us, we had enough practical knowledge that we decided to make a go of it ourselves with our company Hollandspiele. We've published a few games since then.Here's some doofus holding the games we published in our first year in business
While we were getting all the pieces in place to launch our endeavor in the summer of 2016, I got an email out of the blue from John Bohrer letting me know that Rio Grande Games had licensed Northern Pacific. This was really a quite unexpected surprise. (The royalty advance, which was more than I had made for all my previous designs combined, was also a nice surprise!) A digital introduction was made by Rio Grande's Jay Tummelson between myself and the game's developers for Rio Grande: Scott Russell and Kevin Wemyss.
Before you ask, Scott Russell and I are not related, though we are both Michiganders. A few months later, Scott reached out to me to arrange a meet-up so that he could go over the changes they had made in development. I will admit that I was a little wary at first because this was, after all, a game that had two rules ("cube" or "train"), and its simplicity was part of its charm. But meeting Scott in person put those fears to rest. The change he suggested involved adding a "big cube" to a player's stock that counted double, and I thought it was really quite clever. He clearly understood the game, and I knew it was in good hands.
The only other thing they were trying to figure out was some kind of scoring method in which players would chain together multiple games. That made sense to me from a commercial point of view because if you tell someone a game plays in five or ten minutes they're going to balk at plunking down their cash for it, whereas if a game's duration is closer to an hour, it's more acceptable to the consumer. Since people tended to play multiple games in a row anyway — so it usually does see the table for an hour or more — that made sense.Game board in the Rio Grande edition
I had planned to follow-up with Scott as that process continued, but shortly thereafter I got into a very nasty car accident on the way to work. I was stopped on the interstate when someone rear-ended me going close to sixty miles an hour, wrecking the suspension on the car and not doing my back any favors. It's a miracle I walked away from it at all. This prompted a sort of existential crisis on my part: Why was I driving all this way to a job I hated?
I started to wonder if it wasn't time for me to make good on my ambitions and try to make it as a full-time designer. By this time, Hollandspiele had been around for about six months, and our monthly sales were starting to approach how much I was bringing home through my "real" job. When that real job disciplined me for being absent the day of my near-fatal accident, they more-or-less made up my mind for me.
publicly announced earlier in 2018, I was as pleasantly blindsided as anyone else. I knew it was coming, of course, but had no idea when.
I said up top that I designed Northern Pacific with the intention of it being the first step toward my goal of working full-time in the games industry. Now that I've achieved that goal, the question is, how instrumental was this game in getting me there? It's hard to chart a course from Northern Pacific that leads to the founding of a print-on-demand wargames company like Hollandspiele. It's far easier to draw the line to our work for previous wargames companies.
But on the other hand, a big part of our company's success story is the game An Infamous Traffic, designed by Cole Wehrle, who as you'll recall also wrote a nice article about Northern Pacific after its initial release. That was the point where we became aware of each other. If not for North Pac, I don't know whether we would have ever asked Cole to design a game for Hollandspiele, and if not for North Pac, I don't know whether he would have said yes. Traffic got us in the black and got more eyes on all our games, and it is a big part of why we were able to go full-time as quickly as we did.
Ergo, if I hadn't designed Northern Pacific back in 2010, I wouldn't have achieved my dream in 2017. Sometimes it pays off to be purely mercenary after all.
- [+] Dice rolls