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Designer Diary: Whistle Mountain, or How Beers and Pentomino Tiles Led to Dirigibles Saving Workers From Drowning

Scott Caputo
United States
Santa Clara
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Board Game: Whistle Mountain
It was Thursday, March 9, 2017, and my pizza was getting cold. I was at the Round Table Pizza in San Jose for prototype night — except it wasn't a normal night for me or my co-designer Luke Laurie, who lives hundreds of miles to the south in Santa Maria. I was hurriedly setting up our game prototype, "Rising Tide", hoping to get it all ready for Ted and Toni Alspach of Bézier Games, who would soon walk through the door to evaluate it. Though Luke and I had worked together on this project for nearly a year, tonight I was on my own. Pizza could wait. Maybe just a bite.

At this time, Ted and Toni were already in the process of publishing my game Whistle Stop, which was to be released at Gen Con 2017. I felt like I had an open door to pitch other games to them, except the Alspachs had decided to move away from the Bay Area to Tennessee. Soon, they would be halfway across the country, and this sort of informal pitch session would be next to impossible. Improbable as it seems, Luke and I created this game, our first collaboration, in just nine months. How the heck did we pull that off?


Flashback to June 2016: Luke and I met for a beer in San Jose to kick off the game. Luke was in town with his family touring colleges. I had known Luke for a few years as we were both writing for League of Gamemakers, an online resource for aspiring and emerging game designers and publishers. We had blogged on various topics and enjoyed the camaraderie of design discussions.

In one of my articles, I interviewed game designer Sen-Foong Lim, who talked about the virtues of co-designing games. I wondered whether I should try it and thought Luke would be the right person. I had played and enjoyed Luke's games, and I knew that he had experience in co-designing games with veteran Tom Jolly and collaborating on various other projects. The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire was a really interesting design, and I had playtested another of Luke's games that should be coming out in 2021. (Yes, yet another great game that's neither Whistle Mountain nor Dwellings of Eldervale). Luke brought a rigor of worker-placement design while I brought the spatial puzzle of tile-laying. I approached Luke with the idea of working on a game together, and he agreed to give it a try.

As time would tell, our collaboration was like peanut butter and chocolate. Together, we built something that neither of us could have possibly created alone.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Before our first meeting in person, we had traded game ideas back and forth online. I started with the basic concept of players building a shared board with pentomino tiles and placing workers beside the tiles to gain adjacent resources. Additionally, players could place rectangular building tiles on top of the pentomino tiles, but only if the rectangular tile was fully supported underneath. These rectangular tiles came in different sizes and had various powers; some gave resources, while others gave strong or even game-changing effects.

Luke had chimed in with his own design ideas about turn sequence and game flow. Luke prefers designs with a continuous, player-controlled flow, like The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire in which players place workers, then bring all their workers back for a big exciting turn. There are no set "rounds" or set-up stages that occur during the game. Instead, set-up and effects are a result of player actions throughout the game. For our design, we decided that players should place their workers to gather items to build, but they should build machines and scaffolding only when they bring all their workers back. That would make the "pull-back" turn exciting and interesting and create a sense of suspense building up to those dramatic moments.

Luke also loves the concept of an "external threat" in his games that all players must manage. In Energy Empire, players must mitigate pollution in their environment to avoid disastrous effects. In Dwellings of Eldervale, players must deal with giant monsters on the shared map. What kind of external threat would fit our collaborative design? And how would that threat become part of a unifying theme for the game?

So after meeting in an empty hotel breakfast bar, Luke and I sipped our beers and cut out pentomino pieces. While we worked with the simple prototype components, we chatted and debated about design principles and thematic concepts.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

We are both very concerned about climate change and the environment. Luke was thinking that maybe since we're using a bunch of resources and intensely focused on building, then perhaps we should create some harmful consequence of our reckless industrialization. We settled on rising water. The more you build, the more the water would rise. This concept also established that building would be somewhat directional. You build "up" on a two-dimensional game board that you're viewing from the side rather than using a top-down view as in many tile-laying games — and as you do so, you face the adverse consequences of the rising water.

Not to be too realistic or preachy in our environmental theme, we decided on a dystopian steampunk theme, loosely inspired by science fiction movies such as Metropolis. In that film, workers toil in the dangerous underground while the rich live in beautiful towers. In our game, players use dirigibles to gather resources and construct the city, but by doing so, they produce pollution, causing the world's ice caps to melt and waters to rise, putting everyone's workers in danger.

The workers would start in buildings at the bottom of the board and scaffolds would be built on top of those barracks. Players would need to spend resources to keep climbing their workers to safety while avoiding rising waters, even as they earn points building machines and scaffolds. Workers would need to prove their worth by being present on a spot where a machine is built. At that moment, the worker is promoted to a tower, where they would be safe. Additionally, Luke had the idea that the higher a player promotes a worker, the more points they are worth. Plus, bonus cards could be available at different heights in the tower, so that players who promote their workers first get a bonus card they can use at any time.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

We used unpunched token boards as the worker barracks. We used other unpunched token boards for the tower. We drew resource icons on the tiles and played around with placing cars (standing in for airships) adjacent to them. These were just a few scraps, not a full prototype, but it gave us enough confidence to move forward.

First Prototype and Playtest

It was mid-2016, and the Pacificon Protospiel in Santa Clara, California was a couple of months away. Luke assembled a team of volunteers to run the Protospiel, including myself, so it would be the perfect opportunity for us to meet and playtest this new game. To make that happen, I went into full beast mode trying to produce an initial prototype in time. Making prototypes is time consuming, especially when you're cutting out lots of pentomino tiles. The game had a lot of bits: scaffold tiles, machine tiles, worker meeples, airships, a tower, cards, and my favorite piece, the blue foam water line.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

That first playtest at Pacificon was rough, let me tell you. I discovered too late that the meeples were too big to fit on the scaffold tiles. The special powers I had come up with for the first machines were overpowered, underpowered, and all over the map. The game was clearly unbalanced. The blue water line was a challenging component. It covered up the board, so you couldn't see what was underneath. When you promoted workers, it was weird to have tower points on one side and bonus cards on the other side — yet as the water began to rise in the game and players watched the impending danger get closer to their workers, we could feel the tension.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

As ugly and unbalanced as the game felt, there was something there, something we could build on.

Rising Tide

At the end of Pacificon Protospiel, Luke took the prototype and agreed to make a new cleaner version of the game. Luke sent me detailed layouts of what the new prototype could look like.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

In Luke's new version, three starting machines were between the four worker barracks at the bottom of the board. This gave players more places to get valuable resources. Luke also consolidated the left and right towers into just one tower with variable bonus tiles that were available for anyone who promoted a worker onto the corresponding levels. Luke created a rising water bar on the left side that didn't cover any board elements, while also providing a game end trigger. When the top part of the water bar reached the top of the board, the game ended. Luke built other worker-placement spots into the board where players could place airships to gain scaffolds and machines of three sizes, as well as a spot to gain resources to help players if none of a resource were available on the main board.

With a brand-new prototype, Luke began testing the game with his family and local playtesters — but something wasn't right. It just wasn't as much fun as he hoped, and despite the early promise of the game, Luke felt stuck.

Eventually, as Christmas season arrived in 2016, Luke shipped the prototype to me and told me to run with it for a while. I had enjoyed a rather blissful fall, providing feedback on Luke's pitches and proposals, but not having to do much else. This co-designing venture was amazing so far. I had picked the right partner, someone who could do prototype art and graphic design so much better than me. However, it was my time to step up, salvage the game, and find a way forward. Still keeping track of the timeline? Yes, we were three months away from pitching to Bézier Games. Impossible, you say? Keep reading.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

I playtested the new prototype Luke had made and agreed with how he felt. The gameplay was flat and too constricting. Some of the things Luke had added were maybe taking the game in the wrong direction. Luke had added the concept of security clearance, which players needed before they could receive a bonus for promoting workers in the tower, but until they got security clearance, they could not build or place workers on certain buildings marked with security fences. This seemed to limit players' options too much. Luke had also added permanent airship docks on the board where players could gain and trade resources. I felt strongly that players should be able to get resources only from the main board.

Aside from removing these elements, I thought the game needed more surprises, more twists and turns that would cause players to adapt their game play strategies. I came up with two ideas that really helped.

First, I added "epic" buildings to the game to amp up the player interaction and add new possible endgame conditions. For example, there were "hoarding" buildings for each resource type. If a player activated one of those buildings, they would gain two of a particular resource, then permanently remove two of that resource from the game. This could cause players to take resources from other players. If a resource were entirely removed, the game would end immediately. The "Doomsday Machine" let players spend resources to raise the water and earn money — cue maniacal laughter.

I was leaning heavily into the dystopian theme, increasing player interaction and tension as players had to scramble to adapt their plans to the appearance of epic buildings. I remember one playtest in which you could activate a building and remove a worker from the board to score 3 points. A playtester quipped, "I just killed one of my own workers to get 3 points. This game is dark."

Second, I added cards to the game. Every player started the game with three cards, but players could play a card only if they placed an airship on a new "play a card" spot and if they paid the cost of the card. Again, I took a lot of license in creating crazy powers, some one-time effects ("Water Bomb") that might raise the water and others that would give the players a permanent ability such as making a resource wild. With the addition of the cards and the epic buildings, the game felt looser and more surprising. Players responded well to the new elements. There was definite fun in the game.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Luke and I met up again at the DunDraCon Protospiel in San Ramon in February 2017. We were able to get in multiple playtests of the revised prototype, and feedback seemed mostly positive — yet there were signs of future trouble. The game did seem to have a lot more "take that" elements, and the new epic buildings and cards tended to unbalance the game. Some game effects could produce infinite loops and very long turns. Also, players found it constricting that there was only one spot to play a card.

Luke kept an open mind, but I could tell he had concerns. The game was maybe straying too far from its "Euro" roots.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

The Pitch and the Kickback

Yes, we are back to the first scene with the pitch about to happen and my pizza getting cold.

Ted and Toni Alspach walked into the prototype night happening at a pizza parlor in San Jose, California. I was upfront that the game was still pretty new and probably needed more development, but I hoped they would like it anyway. I thought back to the first time Ted and Toni played the Whistle Stop prototype at KublaCon in a room overlooking the San Francisco bay. As any game designer can tell you, you can only hope the game will speak for itself since it doesn't matter what you say. Publishers play tons of prototypes and can see problems more quickly than most people.

In any case, Ted and Toni said thank you and that they would get back to me, but they seemed impressed. Maybe since this is a designer diary for that prototype, there isn't that much dramatic tension here...

Board Game Publisher: Bézier Games
Monday morning, the email came from Bézier Games: They wanted to publish the game, and Ted wanted Dale Yu to develop it. Yu runs Opinionated Gamers and was the developer behind Dominion and Ted's own games like the Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Things seemed to be progressing the right way. The next few months, Luke and I sent files and answered questions, and we hoped final publication wouldn't be too far away. Unfortunately, we were wrong, so wrong.

In mid-2017, Luke and I received an email from Ted and Dale that was hard to read, but necessary. Our game was falling short. The feedback from playtest groups had been mediocre, and there was animosity towards the "take-that" elements. Ted said he would still be interested in publishing the game if Luke and I could solve several key problems:

1. Get rid of the take that elements.
2. Increase the replayability of the game.
3. Make the bonus awards more varied and useful, avoiding the issue that they come up in a bad order.
4. Improve the prototype graphics so that the design is more intuitive.
5. Shorten the game length as it seemed to overstay its welcome.

There was too much to solve for Ted and Dale to do it themselves, so it was up to Luke and I figure it out. I had been here before on Whistle Stop. Ted had signed that game, but then early playtests were not encouraging, so I had to spend time in the design wilderness to figure out a way forward. Could I do it again? Encouragement from family and friends helped.

Airships and Gadgeteers

Luke and I talked through the feedback and agreed we needed to remove the "take that" machines and the machines that added new endgame rules. It was hard for me to let go, but I had to trust the feedback. Maybe we could create machines inspired by those epic buildings without going so far.

Card play was too restrictive. Players should be able to play cards on their turns without going to a spot on the board. We decided the restriction should be on getting the cards, not on playing the cards. The new rule was that players could play one card at any time during their turn. That would allow for interesting combos since you could play cards when you really needed them. To get cards, players could go to a spot on the board to buy them.

Luke also took it upon himself to completely revamp the prototype from the bottom up. What Luke created was stunning, a true beauty of a prototype with wood block airships. The worker barracks was moved to the left side, and there was now no need for starting buildings. Luke crafted a water line on stilts that could sit above the board and slide upward easily. Iconography was cleaned up.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Luke also added starting roles, that is, a permanently asymmetrical power each player would gain at the start of the game. These starting roles added replayability as it would take players a long time to play through them all, and each would offer a different way to score and excel in the game.

During the next six months, Luke took the lead in getting the design to a good place. Luke shared the files of his new prototype, and I was able to build my own copy to playtest locally while Luke used a remote playtest group he had gained while working on other games. It was an amazing arrangement. The remote group would send us detailed audio files of each playtest, and we could hear how players responded to new starting abilities or machines. Luke changed the endgame trigger from the water rising to the players running out of scaffold tiles, which meant that players would use fewer scaffold tiles with two or three players. Luke created new large machines that were still surprising without being overly aggressive.

One building, called "The Trap", would capture all workers it covered instead of promoting them. Players had to fly their airships to the building and pay to rescue their workers from The Trap. This felt like a nod to my earlier epic buildings. Luke also added the concept of the whirlpool. Workers that drowned were not lost forever but could be rescued if the player paid enough resources. Players had to pay two gold to rescue a worker from the whirlpool. At some point, Luke experimented with having all players start with a worker in the whirlpool to increase tension. That seemed to work well.

During this time, the name of the prototype changed to "Airships and Gadgeteers". Mat Leacock had just published a new Pandemic game called Pandemic: Rising Tide, so we had to adjust the title. The new title felt snappy and suggestive of the game play.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

As Luke balanced the game, adjusting VPs for various elements and tweaking game powers, I felt like I learned a lot. I appreciated Luke's methodical approach to game balance and tried to internalize his thought processes into mine. Given our target player, we wanted to avoid mechanisms that were too swingy, random, and attacking. Instead, powers should be focused on giving players more options and more ways to accomplish their goals.

By the end of October 2017, we felt like we had answered all of the publisher's concerns and were ready to send the game back to Bézier.

Still, Ted wanted us to do blind playtesting to ensure the game was solid. We agreed. I approached some mutual friends of Ted's and mine and had them playtest the game, then send Ted their feedback. As Ted took the game back, he announced he would handle the development personally. I felt comfortable with that arrangement as Ted had developed Whistle Stop and that design had turned out well.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Down the Stretch

As we came down the stretch toward publication — which in the end took 2.5 more years — several issues came up as Bézier Games took the lead in playtesting and finishing the game.

First, the game's release kept getting pushed off. This is not necessarily a bad thing and publishers are busy, so this sort of thing happens. We were compensated fairly for the delay, and it was better to wait for Ted's full attention.

Second, the theme was a big struggle. Ted was reluctant to adopt a dystopian theme, and he didn't like the name "Airships and Gadgeteers". At least according to Ted, games named "Airships" tended to fail. At one point, Ted suggested a theme with dwarves working in a volcano with rising lava, but how did airships fit into that and why were there dwarves working in a volcano? I'm not sure Luke and I were enthusiastic about going high fantasy with dwarves.

Ted even jokingly suggested the title "Whistle While You Work", a pun on the dwarf workers. Ted is a funny guy, but I wasn't sure this joke would hold up. I suggested putting the dwarves in a Viking epic universe in which Loki was causing the water to rise on the dwarves to punish them. Okay, maybe that was a weird idea too.

Eventually, Ted decided to put the game into the Whistle Stop universe and call it "Whistle While You Work". It would be a cheery steampunk theme with airships over a beautiful landscape. The idea was that after finding success in Whistle Stop, players were mining a mountain for resources, which was causing ice to melt and water to rise. Since all the action took place on a mountain, I suggested changing the title to Whistle Mountain and Ted liked that, so finally we had a theme and name.

Does everything 100% make sense? There probably weren't airships in the Old West, but it's fun and maybe a bit cheeky, which fit Bézier's sensibilities.

Board Game: Whistle Mountain

Third, finding the right endgame trigger was tricky. In the prototype we gave Bézier, the endgame was triggered by running out of scaffolds. Ted found that a bit fiddly. He preferred having the same number of scaffolds for all player counts and thought having fewer scaffolds for two players felt restrictive. Maybe the endgame should be based on the water rising to a certain level? That was pretty good, except sometimes a player would get all their workers to safety in the tower and had little to do after that happened. Eventually, Ted came up with the idea that the game should end when all workers were out of the barracks. This could happen because of rising water, but it could also happen because of proactive players. This endgame trigger seemed very flexible.

Fourth, finding the right penalty for workers still in the whirlpool was challenging. We had started with a -1 point per worker in the whirlpool, but that was too low to be motivating. Ted suggested that at the end of the game, players had to remove one worker from the tower for every worker in the whirlpool. That felt incredibly punishing and sometimes erased a game's worth of hard work. Maybe you had to move one worker down one floor per worker in the whirlpool? No, that was too fiddly.

Board Game: Whistle Mountain

Eventually, I tried keeping the penalty a straight-up loss of points per worker, increasing that amount until it started to hurt. In the end, -5 points per worker seemed like the sweet spot as it hurt just the right amount. You cared if you had workers in whirlpool, but the penalty didn't erase your whole score. You could still recover if you lost a couple of workers to the whirlpool.

Along the way to final publication, Ted adjusted the set-up phase of the game, letting players place scaffold pieces themselves to set up the initial board the way they wanted. Ted separated out cards into two types: cards you used immediately remained as cards, and cards that were ongoing abilities became upgrades. In fact, the upgrades would look just like the upgrades in Whistle Stop, a thematic element in common between the two games.

Board Game: Whistle Mountain

Ted also loosened up some of the restrictions we had had in the game from the beginning. Why limit the number of airships that can be on a building, and why limit the number of machines an airship can activate? These changes led to even more combo possibilities for players.

Last Minute Additions

Two important additions happened near the end of the production process: Ted added three different sizes of airships — a brilliant idea that really opened up the strategy of the game. Previously, the airships all had the dimension 1x2, but now players would have a 1x1, a 1x2, and a 1x3. Sometimes you wanted to use a large ship to scoop up a lot of resources and activate a lot of buildings, and sometimes you could fit only a small airship in a particular spot on the board.

Board Game: Whistle Mountain

Ted also asked for a ton more content. He wanted more cards, more medals, more machines, more upgrades, and more starting abilities. Luke was feeling tapped out after having spent his time playtesting many factions for Dwellings of Eldervale, so I took the charge on this new influx of content.

Brainstorming all of the new content was fun. In some cases, it made sense to add duplicate cards and medals. In other cases, I went crazy with new starting ability ideas and big machines. This time around, I had a better sense of which ideas would keep the game in balance and which ideas provided the right amount of player interaction without going overboard. My thought process was to figure out the relative value of all the elements (resources, cards, machines, upgrades, etc.) in the game and how many turns it would take to earn each element naturally. As I created new abilities, I made sure players were not gaining the elements at a significantly faster rate than normal. I also looked at all of the abilities in the game already and tried to create abilities that would combo well with them. I took inspiration from the cards and medals already in the game. For large machines, I let my mind run wild coming up with wacky concepts, such as the "Jetpack Lab" that would let players place their workers floating above scaffold tiles. Ted's playtest teams rigorously tested all of the new content in record time and gave a thumbs up to the new abilities.

So we've reached the end of the story. I think Luke summed up the design best: We accomplished something neither of us could do by ourselves. Whistle Mountain is truly a collaboration of my tile-laying design sense with Luke's worker-placement design sense. Throw in Ted's expert eye as the developer, and I think the three of us cooked up something unique in the world of board games. We hope you will enjoy it, too.

Scott Caputo

Board Game: Whistle Mountain
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