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Designer Diary: Have Painting, Will Design Taschkent

Peer Sylvester
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Board Game: Taschkent
The Challenge

In 2011, a retailer of boardgame tokens (or better THE retailer of boardgame tokens), launched its second boardgame design competition. The goal was to design a game using these pieces:

-----• Glass tokens in three colors
-----• Five discs in various colors
-----• Wooden cubes in the same colors
-----• A die
-----• The "runner" token from Candamir in all the player colors

I wanted to participate but there was a tiny problem: The pieces didn't spark any inspiration as they were too universal – which was somewhat funny as I didn't participate in the previous competition because the pieces were from Giganten and I didn't want to design a game about oil, so they were not universal enough. Anyway, I got my pieces and put them on my desk.

As chance would have it, a friend of mine rented a house outside of Berlin and invited my family and me over for a visit. In that house hangs a painting of a scene from central Asia that shows a caravan with camels on the botton and several areas with huts. I was immediately struck by how close this painting came to an actual boardgame map: There was topology, there was an "action track" (the caravan), there was a theme! I asked a friend to copy the painting for me (picture below) and decided that I would use this painting as the basis for my game! If the pieces are fixed and the game map is fixed, it will be a challenge to make a game out of it!

Well, the theme was soon established: A caravan in central Asia? The silk road! A theme that I always wanted to make a game about anyway. The main trading post between the caravans travelling on the silk road was Taschkent (which today lies in Uzbekistan). I did some research on the topic and used some of it later (for the good cards and IIRC for some of the action cards that you can purchas).

The Game

The basics were established pretty quickly:

-----• The caravan should be used as an action track: You have two actions each turn, one using the upper board, the other using the caravan (with the runner). The caravan gives you stuff, mainly the goods you trade. (It was fitting that some camels and the cart had the same color as the glass tokens.)

-----• The upper board gives you trading options, i.e. the huts. Here you sell the goods. For that you need to place merchants (i.e. the cubes) and sell goods to the huts. Each hut will take only one good of each color and you receive more money if there is less of your good sold in that region already. Your disc is your own hut that you can place to sell goods there.

-----• The cost of moving along the caravan and for placing merchants depends on the number of players already there.

-----• The die should be used in a way so that everyone is affected the same. (That was my idea from the beginning, the only thing I established before seeing the painting-board-thingy.) Now the die is used to determine the end of a round: All players take their actions twice around the table. Whether there will be another round of actions depends on the die, with at most two additional rounds. Afterwards everyone who has placed a merchant can sell goods.

From gallery of Peerchen
The board of my prototype, based on a painting, which pretty much looked like this, minus the icons

The Problems

After one game against myself, I nearly gave up because the main mechanism didn't work – but I had a good idea of how to tweak the prices and add aditional options and suddenly everything worked out fine. Another problem was that I didn't use the relative position of the regions, i.e. how they relate to each other. I used a graphic element in the painting to introduce trade routes which you can place between regions, allowing you to use a merchant in one region to sell in another (which can be useful if the neighboring region is empty and cheap to place merchants in).

Or so I thought. In the first test game with real players it was quickly determined that a) the game worked but b) the endgame was boring and the huts quickly fill up.

So I used the to-this-point-useless clown in the painting as an opportunity to place new (neutral) huts on the board. I also introduced probably the most important concept: You don't just get money, but can also choose to buy cards. In the end you need sets of cards to score points. I always like games that make you choose between doing something for victory (i.e. the cards) or doing something for money so that you can get better later.

Here I also added one of my favorite rules from other games: The player with the least amount of money loses automatically. Now, you have trickier decisions between trading for money and trading for cards, especially in the final round.

The following test game went very, very well. The only criticism was that one player didn't like this auto-lose rule (and joked that I might lose the competition because of it). So I started a small poll in the forums on Spielbox: Do players generally like or generally dislike a rule like that? In the end, most were in favor (about two-thirds) if the players have control over this auto-lose condition (which they do). I kept it.

Board Game: Taschkent
The published game board

The Competition

After the usual tweaking and proofreading and what-have-you, I submitted the game to the competition. The review time was extended because they had so many applicants, but after a couple of months Harald Mücke (the owner of Spielmaterial) sent me an email saying that I was something like a runner-up (so I didn't win) but he did want to publish the game in 2012 under his own Mücke Spiele label. Would that be okay with me, or did I want to try another publisher first? I have a soft spot for small publishers, so we made a contract. I asked for a good graphic artist and to my joy Harald hired Klemens Franz, who did a superb job and even helped me with testing and tweaking the two-player variant. His style closely resembled that of the original, but at the same time he increased the "usability" – which is important because the options are many.

Sorry for that, but...

Let me close by saying that Taschkent is a fun game. (Of course I'm saying that! I'm the author! Pffft!) But there is more than meets the eye in the first rounds; the options of the trade routes and the neutral huts are usually discovered later in the game, so if you play a round in Essen and think placing the merchants is all there is – think again! It's not...

Peer Sylvester

Board Game: Taschkent
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