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Designer Diary: High Rise, or Building Skyscrapers and Contemplating Lepidopteran Body Horror

Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Microbadge: LudologistMicrobadge: Battle Merchants fan - AxeMicrobadge: The Networks fanMicrobadge: NYC Board Game Designer's Group memberMicrobadge: Spielbany
Board Game: High Rise
In 2017, I held an event at a private convention for some fellow game designers in which we brought out some very early games of ours. My thought is that we would share a bit of a laugh at them and see how far we've come.

That didn't happen. Instead, we played a bunch of earnest games with genuinely good ideas in them that were buried in awkwardly-designed mechanisms and naive ambitions.

One of them was my beleaguered auction game called "Wag the Wolf", which I wrote about in my designer diary for The Networks. It features an amazing auction mechanism that failed to work in two different games (The Networks and Battle Merchants). If you're not familiar with that saga, I highly recommend reading that designer diary first. I won't go into detail about "Wag the Wolf"'s auction mechanism here as I described it at length there.

We all agreed that the auction mechanism was really cool and the rest of the game was pretty crummy. One of the designers at the event, Jonathan Gilmour, encouraged me to move forward. By 2017, I was, in all modesty, a fairly decent game designer. Knowing what I know now, could I take Wag's auction mechanism and actually make it work?

If you've played High Rise, you know the answer: No. No, I couldn't.

Still, the journey produced what I think is the best game I've made so far — even if it almost killed me.

The Eggs are Laid

These days, I begin making a game by looking for an interesting intersection of theme and mechanism. Once I find that join, a lot of design questions seem to answer themselves.

In this case, I knew from the jump that the players had to be greedy, wealthy players, so the first draft of the game was about stock acquisition. Players bid on a mix of cards: some face-up that were always good, some face-down that were a mix of good and bad. Most cards offered valuable stocks, but some cards did nothing (I called them "meeting" cards), and some cards were PR crises that lost the players points.

Players who folded in the auction could mitigate PR issues. Players who won the auction outright got to take two face-up cards; other players got a mix of face-up and face-down cards.

From gallery of IngredientX

This was a decent start, but as I tested it, I realized that skyscrapers were a better theme. In a couple of months, the game was about constructing huge buildings, so unlike my early designs, the game's theme was stable from the start and that helped speed up the design process.

With the new theme, I thought "Bedrock" would be a cool name, but later I realized that I had missed an excellent opportunity for a pun and switched to the name the prototype would take for a year: "Bidrock".

The Caterpillar Hatches

At this point, "Bidrock" continued leaning into the "Wag" auction mechanism. There was now a building deck with cards that came out face up and a fate deck (containing random money cards and negative-effect cards) that came out face down. The buildings had various characteristics that would award set collection bonuses. As the bidding increased, more cards came out.

Players would lap cards on each other so that a "tall" building was a series of overlapped cards. At some point, based on the style of building, the player could consider the building "done" and score points for it.

Players would place buildings in one of four neighborhoods that would give money, add floors to buildings, or create a building multiplier. There were also bonuses for being the first in the neighborhood, for having multiple types of buildings in a neighborhood, and for having the tallest building in the neighborhood.

From gallery of IngredientX

While the guts of that game were still wildly different than what's in the High Rise box, you can start to see some glimmers of the final game here. There are multiple neighborhoods, a feeling of constructing tall buildings, and tallest-building bonuses in each neighborhood.

In fact, from here through the rest of the design process, I would hang onto the feeling of constructing a building — height, verticality, dimension — as a core experience of the design.

But still, the game was far from being a gorgeous butterfly. It was still an ugly, hairy caterpillar.

The Caterpillar Munches on a Leaf

Bidding for individual buildings wasn't interesting enough. I split up the building requirements into resources that players received at auction. High bidders would receive first choice and the most materials.

From gallery of IngredientX

I had a conversion of resources to floors originally, so, for example, some buildings would require three concrete and two steel per floor, and the buildings had wildly different VP values. Thankfully NYC-Playtest hero Rocco Privetera suggested a vital maxim: Each resource corresponds to one floor, which corresponds to 1 VP. That immediately wiggled its way into the core of the game and never left. It helped the transparency and clarity of the design tremendously.

The Caterpillar Begins Spinning Its Cocoon

The "Wag" auction is a hidden-money auction. In the original game, you can't bid more money than you have. This is an okay rule; it's hard to enforce, but I've seen several games that have the rule, and player cheating isn't usually an issue.

Still, it was a loose end. I wondered: What would it be like if players could take out loans?

So I introduced a loan mechanism through which players would take out loans if they were short of money, with the loan being represented by loan cubes. This completely changed the dynamics of bidding as players could bid far more than they had. It also made bluffing interesting as a player bidding far too much money could fold for an amount they could afford and perhaps force other players to overextend.

From gallery of IngredientX

In practice, however, this change created crappy dynamics. Players would bid the maximum amount and accept a bunch of loans, and the other players wouldn't have any meaningful decisions for that auction. I tried disincentivizing this behavior, but this was the beginning of the end for the "Wag" auction mechanism in the game.

Even so, from this point onward, the game always had a negative currency. Loans were just the beginning, and even though the form and name would change, that would become a critical component of the game.

The Caterpillar Dissolves into Goo

At this point, I had a game that was working decently. Each round of the game had a "bid" half and a "build" half. The bottom of the board was the bidding track; it had lost the "Wag" bid pointer at this point, but your position on the track at the end of the auction mattered. Buildings went into the top half of the board, but you were limited in the number you could place in each neighborhood.

From gallery of IngredientX
Blueprints were across the top of the board. Anything with a bag icon was a colored cube pulled out of a bag. The "shrug" icon indicated a resource of any color could be used, and the futuristic icon at the bottom of the leftmost two blueprint spaces was a new mechanism: Elastoplastic, a fancy new resource. At the time, Elastoplastic could stand in for any resource, but you needed Elastoplastic for the blueprints that called for them.

My friend Daniel Newman, an excellent game designer who studied architecture in school, suggested the name as something architects use as a generic term — the architect equivalent of Unobtainium, if you will.

You'll also notice the big square in the bottom-left of each blueprint box. That was a neutrally-colored floor that the first player to construct a blueprint took. Another idea that survived to publication!

Up until now, I'd tried to stay thematic and give a name for each resource — concrete, steel, glass, and so on — but at this point, I just gave them colors. To handle the buildings, I took Rocco's maxim to heart and had the players actually construct the buildings out of the wood squares I used to represent the resources. One resource equals one floor equals one point.

Oh, Gil, if only you knew the trouble you were setting yourself up for...

I had tried to address the maximum-bid issue by introducing a mechanism in which as you bid various amounts on the track, you would pass boxes with bonus components. You could pick from only one box, regardless of how many you passed, so you were incentivized to make smaller jumps, not jump all the way to the end. If you've played High Rise, this should sound very familiar!

The game was...okay. It just wasn't amazing. Finally, my friend (and ridiculously good playtester, and even better designer) Ryan Courtney told me what I needed to hear: It was time to drop the auction mechanism. But maybe it would work as a Tokaido-style time track?

The Pupa Bubbles and Burbles

No designer likes to make such massive, fundamental changes to their designs so far in, but this was worth a shot. I tried a few different boards; the board pictured below is an early attempt.

One playtester suggested that removing the auction meant that I could also remove money from the game. I was intrigued by this and modeled the game currency as debt instead. Most actions would cost "favors", which modeled debt that the players could pay back by visiting spaces with the gray box and red X.

Players would start at one of the four spaces at the top and move clockwise around the board, landing on a space that gave them stuff in a one-way track. The first space (at the top-left) would give players three random resources and a favor cube. The next space gave a yellow resource, a random resource, and a favor cube.

From gallery of IngredientX

For the actual mechanical implementation of the favors, I "borrowed" the poverty mechanism from Martin Wallace's London. I didn't feel too bad about this because I figured I'd have to twist the mechanism so much during testing that it would assume its own identity — and I was right. That problematic loan mechanism eventually turned into one of the core parts of High Rise's identity: corruption.

You can also see the bonus spaces survived the auction purge. Players who crossed those spots first would get to take everything out of one box.

The white squares on the box represented Elastoplastic, which was also represented by the futuristic icon. I don't know why I had two different icons for the same thing, so don't ask. But deep inside the cocoon, the butterfly was forming.

Almost Ready to Emerge

They say that when a caterpillar becomes a pupa, it actually disintegrates inside its cocoon and reforms as a butterfly. It sounds painful. It sounds intense. And it sounds like my design process for this game.

From gallery of IngredientX

The board above shows a fundamental change I attempted. Instead of fixing spaces on the board, I shuffled cards and dealt them to spaces on the board. I later settled on a hybrid approach with some spaces being fixed on the board and others as modular "tenants" that would differ each game.

While I always had "neighborhoods" in the game, this was the first time they were implemented as modular tenants that you could build on and get powers from. Another big part of High Rise's design settled into place here.

And it's about here that another critical mechanism emerged that separates this game from other one-way track games. I noticed a lot of players waiting for other players to jump ahead, then annoyingly taking all of the spaces ahead of them one-by-one. I tried out a rule that forced players to do only one action in each block, and what do you know? It worked perfectly, serving as the stick to the carrot of the bonus spaces, and it makes the game feel really different.

I also had one more problem: I could no longer justify calling the game "Bidrock" since it was no longer about bidding. I thought about switching back to "Bedrock", but people kept thinking it was a game about The Flintstones.

I cast around for a new name (pointedly ignoring Ian Moss' repeated suggestion to call it "Buildrock"), and it was Manuel Correia who gave a name that suggested tall buildings as well as escalating tension: High Rise.

A few people have since asked me whether the game is about the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, but far fewer than The Flintstones folks.

The Butterfly Emerges, But with Wings Too Wet to Fly

Daniel had a big hand in laying out the board below, when he semi-seriously refused to test the game unless I let him help me make the board more readable.

This board is actually close to the final board, mechanically speaking. Players would start in the upper-left of the board and travel clockwise. We have fixed spaces and modular "tenant" spaces. We have bonus spaces. We have favor tokens that will soon become corruption. We have areas that cost extra favors to enter if you're not the first one in. And in the early spaces, you get a predetermined resource, and you may draw a random resource for a favor.

From gallery of IngredientX

Most importantly, the blueprints under the game title no longer have a "shrug" icon. Some clever playtester suggested folding that into Elastoplastic's abilities. It was now a two-way wild, and if players matched it exactly, they'd get an extra floor in their building. The only thing that would need to change for that part of the game was the name.

At this point, it's easier to point out the differences that still remained. Blueprints were still determined by random cube pulls, which was time-consuming and fiddly. I didn't have the trading spaces quite down; at the time, I allowed players to trade resources of one color for that number of a different color, and they could get an extra resource for a favor. And you can get resources only in the first half of the board (although Uptown still had many tenants who offered resources).

And if you look at the Construction zones, you'll see they're placed a bit weirdly. The first one is all the way at the bottom-right corner of the board. The three neighborhoods listed show the neighborhoods you were allowed to construct in from that spot. This was difficult to parse and annoyingly restrictive.

But the biggest difference was the City Center.

The Butterfly Gingerly Feels Its New Body

I wanted it to feel different than the other neighborhoods. In fact, you'll notice that the neighborhoods and the resources share colors. That's because each neighborhood was "tilted" towards a specific resource. You can see this a bit in the final game; there's at least one tenant in each neighborhood that gives a floor of a specific color.

From gallery of IngredientX

I originally wanted the City Center to feel completely different. Its buildings did not follow standard blueprints. Instead, each building in the City Center took three blue resources and as many floors as you could supply of a single different color. I wanted those buildings to be tall.

At Dice Tower 2018, Marguerite Cottrell played the game and told me at the end that if they played again, they would have focused exclusively on the City Center. I wasn't 100% sure about this, but I tried it in a playtest later that night. Another player saw me doing it and followed my lead — and we ran out of resources halfway through the game. Maggi, bless them, had broken the game. I had to pull the City Center back into line with the rest of the game!

You can see the stacks of resources standing in for buildings. At this point, I made a fateful decision: I asked Daniel to design stackable plastic pieces that I had 3D-printed to stand in for the dull wooden squares.

The Butterfly Spreads Its Shimmering Wings

The new plastic bits looked awesome. The prototype, even without art, had amazing table presence. I realized that this could be a hook for the product. It looked so good! Sure, sometimes players had to swivel their heads around past the buildings to study the board, but that was worth it, right?

From gallery of IngredientX

There was also the tiny issue that the design of the game necessitated almost three hundred plastic bits. After all, players were using the same game components for both resources and buildings, so I needed enough to last the game! But people would see how awesome the game looked, and they'd be fine with it, wouldn't they?

Other game design elements and conventions presented themselves. Favor finally got renamed corruption. The above photo shows a tile that says "13" — that's the height of the corresponding building, and I turned those tiles into flags that players could insert into the caps of their buildings, which was both more functional and looked better.

You'll notice the blueprints were now small rectangular tiles instead of cubes. I tried this to quicken set-up, while still preserving some randomness. The tiles "bunched" several cubes together, but setting them up still wasn't trivial. Finally, my playtesters pointed out that the size of the random space the blueprints offered was not important enough to require so many tiles. The blueprints became a total of 15 large cards, which made set-up infinitely easier.

The construction spaces got a huge improvement when I realized how much better it would be if players could construct on any space, but they got corruption unless they built in one specific neighborhood. It also fixed a nagging problem I had with the City Center. Until then, I had required players to gain one corruption to build in the City Center, which was an easily-missed rule. Now, players were free to build in the City Center, but the game rules elegantly forced them to take Corruption anytime they did so.

Heiko Günther, my longtime graphic designer (and quite a good game designer himself), tried the game at SPIEL and pointed out that a lot of my tenant powers were active for the duration of the game, which added a lot of complexity. With his encouragement, I made the game less of an engine-builder and more combo-riffic, with a bigger proportion of one-use and once-per-round cards. This might sound disappointing to fans of engine-building games, but it was absolutely the right call; it decreased the game's cognitive load and better focused the core challenges of the game. It was a critical improvement.

Heiko also helped me streamline the corruption track. Previously, each space on the track had three numbers: the points you lost if you had most corruption, the points you lost if you had second-most, and the points you lost otherwise. Instead, we split the first- and second-place points elsewhere and inserted gaps in the numbers in the track so it would go up faster than a plain linear progression.

Even so, the game length was starting to run very long with all my changes, almost three hours. I enjoyed this way of playing, but realized I needed a way to play in less than two hours, so I created a "standard mode" that lasted only two rounds instead of three. I've since found that several players vocally prefer one or the other, so I'm glad I put both in.

I discovered that "elastoplasticity" is actually a thing, so I decided to give Elastoplastic a fictional name, which is how UltraPlastic got its name.

I also created a three-player side of the board and started focusing on the one- and two-player game. Soon, the game was in great shape. I had people excited to back the game on Kickstarter. It was time to push the button and bask in praise of my next great game.

The Butterfly Smacks Head First into an 18-Wheel Truck

That Kickstarter lasted one day. I canceled it when potential backers balked at the US$100 price tag I had settled on to pay for all the awesome bits I thought would sell themselves.

From gallery of IngredientX
Image by Johi Smedberg from Pixabay

It was a silly unforced error. I didn't have enough art in the game and did a terrible job of communicating my vision to the public. "This is an excellent game" is not a game hook, and no amount of positive reviews and excited buzz could get backers past my ugly prototype graphic design, even though I'd already announced that I'd contracted the hugely-talented Kwanchai Moriya to handle the art.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

What if I replaced the cool plastic bits with punchboard buildings in plastic standees? The game would keep its awesome verticality, I could better frame Kwanchai's art, and I could probably cut the game's price close to half.

The cool factor of the game would definitely drop. I wasn't sure what people would think of plastic stands. Wouldn't they harm the bottoms of the cardboard buildings? And that core hook of the game was gone. Would it work?

Only one way to find out. I put together a prototype with chipboard and label paper.

The big moment of relief came early on. During a game, my friend and sparkling game designer Adi Slepack asked, "What space is that building on?" Before I could answer her, she lifted up the building in the way, read the space, and placed the building back where it belonged. A plastic building would have fallen apart, and this was so much more intuitive.

Cardboard buildings also handled the issue of reading a building's height. We wouldn't need separate "flags" to fly from the top of a plastic building; they came right on the card.

It worked. I relaunched, this time with a US$60 pledge level.

The Butterfly Gingerly and Cautiously Takes to the Wind Again

The new campaign started well, but when we hit the well-known "trough of despair" a few days in, people started doubting whether we would fund. I had launched the campaign at a time when I went to three conventions in the span of two weeks — Granite Game Summit, GAMA Trade Show, and GDC — and I dedicated myself to tirelessly showing off the game at all three. Thankfully, Heiko had come up with a prototype board in the meantime, so people no longer had to stare at my hideous abomination of a board featured in the original campaign.

From gallery of IngredientX

The campaign was touch and go. For three weeks, I had no idea whether the game would fund or not. I'm glad I was on the road; relentless demoing isn't as effective as you think it is — it's a lot of work to communicate to a relatively small amount of people — but it was great at taking my mind off the stresses of the campaign.

Towards the end of the KS campaign, Kwanchai's art for the buildings and board came in, and...my god, Kwanchai, you're amazing! Posting that art gave a bunch of people confidence in the last few days of the campaign.

High Rise hit its $50,000 funding goal six hours from the end of the campaign. The Kickstarter wasn't the smash success I was hoping for, but it was a success. Despite all the doubt and frustration, the game would get made.

It was just a matter of making it.

The Butterfly Slowly Finds Its Strength

Below is a hilariously out-of-focus selfie of my friends at the Variable Player Power podcast trying High Rise at SPIEL '19 that my friends rightly gave me grief for. Somehow, it's the only photo of High Rise I can find on my social media — but it was also at SPIEL where I made an awful discovery.

From gallery of IngredientX

You remember those plastic stands I was worried about? The most critical part of this whole enterprise was ensuring those stands didn't chew up the bottoms of the building tiles, but every sample that the manufacturer sent seemed to be too thin. Finally, I gave the go-ahead when I tried a set and it worked.

However, when I tried that set again at SPIEL, it didn't! Oh, no! What happened? I frantically begged my manufacturer to stop and take a look. Thankfully, I work with Panda Games Manufacturing, and they are absolutely amazing. They wound up custom-molding bases for me that fit the buildings perfectly.

Several months later, Tom Vasel did an unboxing video of High Rise. He punched out a building and put it into a plastic stand. I held my breath.

The building fit perfectly in the stand.

It may go unnoticed by most people, but that was my proudest moment of the year.

The Butterfly Finally Soars

Three years after Jon encouraged me to adapt my auction mechanism into a new game, High Rise is now available in stores.

I'm incredibly satisfied with the end product. It's the best game I've designed so far, and I'm so grateful for all the people who helped pick me up every time I got knocked down during this whole journey.

Will I ever go back to this auction mechanism? I doubt it. I think High Rise's one-way track nails the feeling I wanted to evoke with the auction. You can go fast and pick up bonuses, but not get as many turns as others. You can go slow and be precise, but miss the bonuses. I think that's as close to the original mechanism idea as I will ever get, and I'm more than satisfied with the end result.

This print run won't be available for long, I think. There's a lot of positive buzz about the game, but because of the Kickstarter's modest success, the print run had to be pretty tiny. It will sell out very quickly, but thankfully, I have this idea for a new Kickstarter for High Rise with stackable plastic pieces...

(Thanks to Karen C. for the inspiration for this post's title.)

Gil Hova

From gallery of IngredientX
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