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Designer Diary: Nevada City, or Refining in the Old West

Alan Ernstein
United States
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Board Game: Nevada City
As a designer, one of the themes I enjoy working with is growth — as in expanding an empire or developing a city. Nevada City is part of a series of designs about the growth of an Old West town. The trajectory began with Dry Gulch, was followed by Dry Gulch Junction, and culminates with Nevada City.

One of the approaches I favor is using familiar game mechanisms in unusual ways. Dry Gulch was based on assembling combinations of cards, as in rummy, which matched the requirements of completing a particular task, e.g., construction of a building. Expanding on the rummy comparison, instead of numbers and suits the Dry Gulch cards assume the form of building materials and skills. I also include a deck of events that affect players by forcing them to draw or lose random cards.

Board Game: Dry Gulch
Dry Gulch

From here, Dry Gulch Junction elaborates upon the same set of buildings and adds drafting and a second deck of cards, known as "improvements", which are cards that add value to a building. These improvements assume the form of added height, but they also have a second use in the form of a claim that is printed on the card. The claim provides the mechanism by which everyone at the table earns the cash required to pay for construction activity.

Board Game: Dry Gulch Junction
Dry Gulch Junction

In moving from the creation of Dry Gulch Junction to Nevada City, I wanted to explore worker placement as the game's driving engine. The evolution of play moved from each player taking only a single action per turn (as in Dry Gulch Junction) to being able to perform multiple actions or tasks each turn. This evolution represents a departure from traditional worker placement. In service to this, I created "family" characters in the form of Pa, Ma, Son, and Daughter. Each character has a different number of actions and unique set of skills available to them. Consequently, instead of taking one action at a time, players activate a character and take all of that character's actions at once. With those provisions in place, we were off and running and it was time to put the prototype together.

Board Game: Nevada City

Once again, town growth in Nevada City starts outward from a familiar set of buildings: city hall, Sheriff's office, bank, etc., to form the basic town layout, which includes a central Main Street and two side streets. The buildings bear an associated cost similar to those in Dry Gulch, and this cost assumes the form of a thematically-appropriate set of materials such as lumber, iron, brick, etc. After their construction, each building not only earns its builder victory points, but also provides opportunities to improve the town more efficiently.

The First Try

Now it was time to put my notes into something that could be recognized as a game. That process included the following steps and considerations:

• I created a board similar to Dry Gulch — one long Main Street with city hall, a bank, and a hotel at one end and a trading post, market, and stock yards at the other. These represented the buildings and associated actions that would be needed by every player at the start of the game.

Board Game: Nevada City

• The economy needed to be more than just finding things or buying things, so I began with a homestead from which players could mine, farm, and ranch. These resources would then be the items that could be sold to earn money. As part of the Old West theme, I also wanted the "production" of resources to be the inverse of their "market value", so I created two charts with a set of cubes that filled both aspects of the economy. If a random draw filled the production track with crops so a farm produced a lot, the market value of those crops dropped because the cubes could be on only one track — as the availability of a product increases, the price decreases.

Board Game: Nevada City

• Once players generated revenue, they could then purchase the commodities needed to construct buildings. Of course actions would be required to do all of these things. A character would have to take an action to work a field, to sell those crops, to buy materials, and to use those materials in construction activities.

At the time, it seemed as though a lot of actions were necessary to accomplish anything, so the idea of "skills" made the process more efficient. For instance, a character might have a farming skill that allows the character to farm two fields with a single action. A character might have a carpentry skill that allows them to bring the equivalent of one lumber to the construction of a building. Of course, during the game, players might discover abilities their characters previously lacked, so I allow for characters to spend actions on education, with which they gather new skills and abilities.

The Theme

From here it was time to make the theme an integral part of the design. I have found that the more I design systems, the more important the story becomes to how action unfolds in the course of play. This process included the following considerations:

• The buildings need to fit the needs of a growing city, so the buildings that start on the board are the ones necessary to get the game rolling. Buildings available to construct each year are improvements — that is, they make the process more efficient, so instead of buying iron one unit at a time from the trading post, a player might build a blacksmith to provide iron 2-4 units at a time. Of course, the blacksmith should get paid for doing their work, which generates a new source of income.

Board Game: Nevada City

• The improvements to the city, in the form of "contracts", had to improve a specific building (e.g., bellows for the blacksmith) or provide something for the entire community (e.g., a prize-winning pig at the fair). In addition to more income, the buildings and contracts become a source of prestige—which assumes the form of victory points.

• The rough, random aspects of Western life also needed to be a part of the game. Events represent all of the things that happen in an Old West town that affect players both positively and negatively — everything from the positive arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon to the less positive occurrence of an Indian raid. Since the most important commodity in the game is actions, events need to affect the number of actions players have available. Events also need to affect the economy — for instance, drought reduces crop production (and therefore increases the market value of the crops when brought to market).

Board Game: Nevada City

• And somehow the town would need new blood as it grows — and this takes the form of workers.

The Reality

The next step in the evolution of making an idea a reality is repeated playtesting. The first few plays of the game took hours. Well, some of the sessions took minutes as we set up, played a few turns, and immediately broke something. I like to work with printed paper in sleeves so that minor changes can be made immediately. Cards frequently bore hastily scribbled notes on their back and changes penned in on the front. From week to week, I would then print replacements to slip into the sleeves before the next play session. I also like to keep older versions of cards, so I usually slip the replacements right in front of the original card. That said, some of the card sleeves got quite thick.

Here are some of the things we learned in these early playtesting sessions:

• Education seemed too slow for the game. A solution seemed to be that instead of going to school as adults, families would probably fill needs in skills and actions by hiring additional workers. As a result, the workers that come into town to be hired needed to become more useful.

• Then there is the idea of gunslinging in the Old West — and the logistics of how to do shootouts that wouldn't give one player a huge advantage over another. Shootouts became event driven. A renegade might arrive as the result of an event card. In addition, workers who were not hired in a year became a liability. What else would an un-hired worker do but get drunk and shoot up the town? In this way, troublemakers were created. Characters who were shot would lose an action, or they could pay the doctor to heal their wound.

• Originally, all of the buildings were available for construction at the beginning of the game. Players began claiming valuable buildings early, and our city often had an opera house before it had a post office — not really the thematic story based in history for which players were looking.

• Events could take a player out of the game. They needed to be balanced so that the effects were similar for all players.

• The game originally had three different ways of ending, which led to the player in the lead being able to control the end of the game.

• When the game ended, the scores were final, which seemed a bit boring.


Playtesting revealed that changes were needed. Many changes were introduced to balance the game, but a large number of changes were also needed to reduce its playing time. Here are some of the most effective changes introduced so as to improve the game's playability:

• Instead of drafting each type of character (i.e., Pa, Ma, Son, Daughter), families were created that had comparable numbers of advantages (actions, skills, and starting property) so that an entire family was drafted instead of one member at a time.

• Instead of educating families, workers were changed so that they were more useful. They were great to hire, but they left town at the end of their contract.

• A worker could be married into the family if a player wanted to keep them.

• The end of the game needed hidden scoring, so goals were created. Each player got to look at two goal cards and decide which one was going to score and which one was not. These goals were things such as the player with the most cash on hand or the player with the most completed contracts.

• The events needed to be balanced; the impact of the events were reduced, and starting events were added that guaranteed positive or neutral events in the first year of the game.

The Producer

Once the game worked, there were still changes to be made. Every production company has preferences. Some of these relate to style of play, some relate to game length, and all of them relate to the audience the company wants to convince to purchase the game. Some of these changes are hard on the designer — requiring that some favorite element of the game needs to be revised. Some of these changes are easy, some not.

Here are some of things that happened between Rio Grande Games' acceptance of the initial project and the finished design:

• Gunslinging created problems because the company disagrees with the idea of killing a character. In order to justify it, characters could no longer be killed and removed from the game. Instead, they could be wounded (losing actions), and the doctor could heal wounds.

• Events still could have a disproportionate impact on players. This resulted in a change by which the events no longer occur at the start of every turn, but instead on turns one, two, four, and six. This allows time for a player to recover if they are adversely affected by an event.

• The game ran long. Many of the minor changes in play were introduced to streamline action so that the game would play in about 90 minutes. In addition, the game was limited to exactly four turns.

• The biggest change to facilitate the time reduction was to reduce the number of actions each character could take. Families now have only nine total actions. At first I was reluctant to make this change, but after playtesting the reduced number of actions, I found that workers became much more important to the game and a more interesting aspect of play with the introduction of this change.

Board Game: Nevada City

• Buildings and events were constantly tweaked to balance their effects. The fire events were the most altered. Many playtesters wanted them removed, whereas I wanted them to remain since fire was one of the most common threats to Old West towns.

Board Game: Nevada City

The Result

Nevada City has been an adventure. It has taken years to achieve its current form. I have personally played or observed more than fifty tests of the game. The groups of playtesters in Maryland, Indiana, Nevada, and Ohio who have been subjected to the assorted iterations of the game's prototypes have been instrumental in this process, and I am grateful for their time and candid feedback.

And now the final version is in print. It looks like this:

Nevada City is, at its core, a worker-placement game.

• Every aspect of the game relates to the Old West theme. Character names are spoofs of real or fictional characters from the past. Events and contracts relate directly to the development of, or damage to, a town of the 1850s. Even simple activities are thematic. For example, if a player wants to marry a worker into their family, the cost is two spirits (there must be a wedding) and a combination of any two silver, livestock, or crops (there must be a dowry).

• Players have four family members, each with a different number of actions and a different set of skills. The families start with a homestead of at least one mine, one farm, and one ranch as well as a starting building (Sheriff's office, assayer, market, or stock yard).

• Each year, action markers are placed on each character, four contracts are displayed, workers for hire are displayed, and the production/market value of resources is established.

• The first turn is begun by the Sheriff, who reveals an event that affects everyone, then each player activates one character who uses all of the action markers on the card.

• Actions can be to mine (find silver), farm (grow crops), ranch (raise livestock), use one of the actions at a building (to either sell resources or purchase commodities), construct a building, or pick up or complete a contract. This cycle is repeated until all characters have used all of their actions.

• The board is reset with workers either leaving town or marrying into the family.

• Points are scored by completing buildings and contracts.

• After four years, hidden goal cards are revealed and scored, then the player with the most points wins.

It looks simple when pared down to the basic steps, but the best laid plans can be sidetracked by a poorly timed negative event or another player's choice.

Board Game: Nevada City

I hope that you enjoy Nevada City as much as I have enjoyed researching, designing, and refining it.

Best wishes,
Alan D. Ernstein
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