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Designer Diary: Of Airships and Trains and Those Kings of Air and Steam

Scott Almes
United States
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Board Game: Kings of Air and Steam
Engineers and Airships

Unsurprisingly, Kings of Air and Steam started with a love for pick-up-and-deliver and route-planning games. As an aspiring game designer, I was determined to design a game of my own within the same genre that housed classics like Steam and Railways of the World.

As an engineer, I work best when I have problems to solve so that's where I started with the design: finding problems. I listed everything that I disliked about the genre and promised to myself that I would fix them. The list went as follows:

-----• Enduring a lot of AP (analysis paralysis) between turns.
-----• Managing auctions. (I love auction games, but they always seem to slow things down.)
-----• Having only one or two maps with the base game.
-----• Presenting new players with unforgiving gameplay.

Once that list was set, I was fueled to create the best pick-up-and-deliver game ever. So I grabbed my pen and a stack of paper and ... nothing happened, so I designed a simple game about pirates.

The Inspiration

As it turns out, having a list of problems won't lead you directly into a game. You need a concept form which to start, so my list of problems for a game that didn't yet exist sat in a notebook for a while, along with other doodles and scribbles.

Board Game: Wings of War: Famous Aces
It wasn't until I was preparing for a game night that the idea hit. I was going through my bookcase of games trying to figure out what to play when I saw Wings of War: Famous Aces on the lowest shelf. "It's been too long since we've played that," I thought – and then the idea hit me. You could use the movement mechanism from Wings of War to make a pick-up-and-deliver game.

A flurry of doodles and sketches followed. I decided on using airships instead of planes, and everything seemed to fall into place. I had my concept. Taken from my super-secret design notebook, my concept was: "Players preplan their movement using cards. Cards will dictate turn order. After a player resolves a movement card, he gets to take an action. His airships move around the board to collect and deliver goods. Most money wins." There was also a smiley face scribbled after that paragraph, along with a drawing of a stick figure fighting a bear. Looking back, I believe the smiley face was there because I felt confident in the idea. I'm not sure about the bear, but things didn't look good for the stick figure.

Board Game: RoboRally
It's also worth noting that even though Wings of War sparked the idea, the influence of RoboRally is very apparent. From Wings of War I have a static deck, but from Roborally you can see the four slots to program your card and the speed relating to turn order. I think this was bound to happen as Roborally is easily my favorite game. Go, Twonky!

Problem Solving

Now that I had a concept, I was able to pull out my list of problems to solve and was relieved to find that most of the problems were already solved!

Reducing Analysis Paralysis – The simultaneous turn order helps this out significantly. All players plan their turn at the same time, and the actual turns go quickly. Although the planning phase can take a while, I find it less frustrating than waiting long periods of time between turns of individual players.

Removing Auctions – In heavier games, turn order can be very important. A lot of games will use an auction to mitigate any unfair turn advantage. Since I combined airship movement with turn order, this was solved without me having to think about it, although checking this one off did make me feel productive.

Including Modular Boards – I love it when game boards are modular; it's one of my favorite features of modern games. From the hexes in CATAN to the track in Snow Tails, modularity creates so much replayability, and as a gamer, I dislike having to pay a fair amount of money for extra maps, especially when a little additional effort could have made the game modular in the first place. Naturally, I made sure this game had modular boards.

Incorporating Somewhat Forgiving Gameplay – I wanted the game to be deep, but still playable right out of the gate. Some games with especially unforgiving gameplay can turn players away after their first game. I didn't want this to happen with my game, so I did my best to make the game challenging but not leave you gasping for air. I wanted the game to challenge you, but still leave room for the other players to make things difficult for you. I think I succeeded.

Board Game: Kings of Air and Steam

Backs of the movement cards

Trains to the Rescue

As I developed the game, I ran into another problem. The airships were too slow. In the initial version you had only airships, which went from factories to cities and that was it. I planned to have actions after each movement, but I didn't know what they were; I just knew there needed to be more going on. Getting from city to factory and back was tedious and took too long, and the game felt like it was missing something big.

My first try was to have a second airship, but that was scrapped quickly because I knew steering two airships would be too difficult. Planning one was hard enough.

But what if the airships could drop off goods to depots? Then, you can use an action to deliver them to a city. Thematically, the action needed something – and that's when I got trains in my airship game.

I decided to use preprinted routes for the trains. I thought about having modular tiles that you could build, but decided against it because it would add to the cost of the game and could be fiddly. Besides, most of the routes were obvious anyway so it didn't add much to the game. The trains created a fantastic two-phase shipping method. You used airships to take goods from factories to depots, then railroads from depots to cities.

After the trains were in place, the idea of having "actions" after a movement worked out perfectly: Building a depot was an action; shipping a good was an action. I added upgrade tracks for the airship (which added the diamond concept) and the train, which meant additional actions. And to make the game a little easier, I allowed an action to move your airship one space.

This was the final piece to the puzzle, and soon I had a working game on my hands. The two-phase shipping and the planned movement felt fresh in a pick-up-and-deliver game. Playtests were successful. The game was fun! Now the only question was where the send it...

Board Game: Kings of Air and Steam
Board Game: Kings of Air and Steam

Sample landscape tiles

To Publication

At that time Tasty Minstrel Games was fresh off of its successful funding of Eminent Domain, and both Michael Mindes and Seth Jaffee are well known for being transparent about how the company operates, so it was easy to research them. They were the first (and luckily only) company I submitted to, and it was for a few reasons:

-----• TMG's first two games, Terra Prime and Homesteaders, were well designed.
-----• Although TMG started with production problems (which happens), I admired how the company handled the situation.
-----Eminent Domain looked great, and TMG clearly knew how to market games!
-----• After reading Seth Jaffee's blog and his activity on (Board Game Designers Forum), I could tell that he had a passion and talent for game development, which made me feel comfortable having him involved with my game

I created a sell sheet* and sent them an e-mail. Seth got back to me within hours and requested a rulebook. Then things went quickly...

I don't know how many e-mails Seth and I exchanged when developing the game – far too many to count. I'm fairly certain there is a Gmail server somewhere that contains nothing but game design notes for KoA&S. With his help, we made a good game into a fantastic game. He had two suggestions that I would like to highlight that made the game significantly better. (These are by no means the only two things he tweaked for the better.)

The first was to simplify the movement deck for the airships. Originally the deck contained thirty cards and required you to plan your exact route. Seth reduced the deck to twelve cards, so you needed to plan only the number of spaces you planned to move.

The second change was to include player characters with special abilities. This was a fantastic change as now each color has a special movement card, two unique abilities, and varying airship stats. They were a bear to balance, but the end result is fantastic.

The development was a wild ride. Somewhere in there, I designed Martian Dice, also published by TMG, but that was a mere blip on the radar compared to the work we've put into Kings of Air and Steam. It's been a long run, and I'm excited to see it finally in print – especially with art by Josh Cappel. Woo!

Scott Almes

*I also want to thank Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim for running their fantastic blog, From Inspiration to Publication, which is a fantastic resource for aspiring game designers.

Board Game: Kings of Air and Steam
Board Game: Kings of Air and Steam

Two of the game's player characters
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