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Designer Diary: New Haven, or Design from Dirt to Delivery

Brian Leet
United States
South Burlington
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Microbadge: Roleplaying Since 1980Microbadge: Golden MeepleMicrobadge: Carnegie Mellon UniversityMicrobadge: I love Vermont - The Green Mountain State!Microbadge: Architect
Board Game: New Haven
Here is the story of how a game evolved from Roman City building, to Fashion Show hosting, to a Farmer's Market and finally to settling a colony in New Haven – including its origin in the dirt pile, honorable mention in a game competition, input from noted designers, and a lot of persistence.

In July 2012, Kevin Worden and I finally signed a contract for our game New Haven with R&R Games. It was an exciting moment for us. Although we understood that the game would have a new theme and that its place in the production queue was still unknown, we knew that the rest was just a matter of working out the details. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work. Over ten years ago – it seems life got in the way of game design – we had set out with a few main goals: to make a game accessible to a wide range of players in which players work together to create common resources for all players to then use for their personal benefit. But of course, the story doesn't really start there.

The story really begins in a dirt pile in 1978. I was five and playing in the dirt pile next to my house. Kevin was six and out riding his bike. He saw me and came closer. My father literally lifted him over our fence so that he could join me to play in my dirt pile where we made our first cities and hosed them flat at the end of each day. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship punctuated by countless hours of playing and designing games. He went on to become a civil engineer, and I became an architect. We have shared creative play ever since — and also work on professional projects together.

From gallery of PghArch
Kevin on the left and me on the right. The hapless figures don't know what's coming!
Our game would reflect this through its core of tile-laying mechanisms. Everything the players do in the game is constructive, whether developing the landscape to gather resources or placing buildings within their town. The strategy comes in how, when and where you build. In this regard we were influenced by Carcassonne, a game that matched our goals of easy accessibility and interesting play. Admittedly, every day of construction in the dirt would end with the hose destroying all our work and leveling the pile to be built again the next day — Tigris & Euphrates anyone? — but that destructive impulse in us will need to wait for another design.

Fast-forward to 1995. I was attending my first Origins game convention. After playing a game of Dune, one of the players pulled out a brand new game. He explained that even though it was printed in German it was worth the effort to play. Thus I was introduced to The Settlers of Catan, and a whole new world of games opened up to me. I brought home my enthusiasm for these games and introduced them to my friends. And as Kevin and I completed college, we turned to game-design efforts that were inspired by these new "German games".

Our efforts meandered a bit at first, but by 2001 we had become aware of an amateur game design competition in Germany called Hippodice. Due to communications challenges, it took us another year to get our game involved, but we submitted a drafting and tile laying design called Civitas. Like New Haven, it used tiles with 2-3 resources represented on the four tile corners, which create resource regions when aligned with the same resources on adjacent tiles.

From gallery of PghArch
A bit of Civitas, with Roman numerals!
Six tiles were placed in four quadrants of the city. The quadrants were primarily necessary to limit the amount of resources a player could generate in one play and were also a function of scaling from 2-4 players. Resources were used to play sets of cards from which scores were determined at the game end. On a given turn you needed to choose as a player how to use your two actions, whether to draft or play a tile, or draft or play a card. Civitas was a Hippodice finalist, and feedback was quite positive.

Several publishers participate in the final judging, and one even wanted to keep Civitas for further evaluation! It seemed like lightning might strike on our first try, but it was not to be. Three different publishers seriously considered that game, in one case for over half a year. Another small publisher told us they would publish it, but closed shop thereafter. The experience inspired our continued effort, however, and gave us the confidence to keep pushing forward.

In Civitas the players were jointly building a shared Roman city, but they were doing so to court individual political favor with the city's future inhabitants. So, we had a card-drafting system in which you selected the individuals of influence that you would later play out using the joint value of the city created. The game was punctuated by completion of districts in the city, one per player, and then a rush to expend the shared political capital. It was, and is, an intriguing concept — but it was a very unforgiving game, and sometimes a clear leader developed about two-thirds of the way through.

In 2003, with the excitement of Civitas percolating through me, I attended a gaming event in Atlanta. There I met designer Stephen Glenn in person. I had already been considering attending Protospiel, the game design convention Stephen had (at that time) recently helped found. We had so much fun in Atlanta that I headed off to Michigan later that same year to meet fellow designers. For the next few years, I attended several invitational and designer-oriented conventions, to the point where I have met the publisher or designer of a substantial portion of the games that enter the market. Getting both honest feedback and peeks at the priorities of all these good people — and to a person they have been wonderful folks — was invaluable.

During this period, I had the good fortune to show Civitas to many published designers, and I think William Attia summarized a flaw best in his critique. Using an analogy he knew I would understand as an architect, he said, "Sometimes the only way to improve a home is to knock down a few walls." I also showed Civitas to a group that included Alan R. Moon. When he says something about your design, it sticks. In this case, he just asked a question about the collecting and playing of cards, which we had at the time, and suggested that we explore something more tactile and constructive, like tokens.

We were inspired by these ideas, but struggled with how to attach them to our game. What it took was re-thinking the theme to open up our minds to new possibilities, so we came up with a new concept around 2006: The Fashion Game. Now value was created by the players on every turn as they played tiles defining the streets and neighborhoods of trendy New York. A parallel set of tiles were drafted and placed based on the value to create a personal catalog. Each column was a different fashion model, and each row was a piece of clothing or accessory from shoes to hats, much like a silly children's flip book. It was rough around the edges and graphically forced, but we had the bones of what would in the future evolve to become New Haven.

At this point life intervened. I had moved from Pittsburgh to Vermont. The change meant a much greater expense to travel, and I stopped attending as many conventions each year. I also took on many more responsibilities at the architectural firm where I worked. Meanwhile, Kevin had young children. The combined effect was a multi-year hiatus on moving our game designs forward. Occasionally I would bring some half-baked ideas to a convention to put in front of a group, but I didn't have good pitches.

Board Game: New Haven

Side A of the game board – get ready to start planting!

In 2011, we discovered a new theme that gave us the interest and energy to rededicate ourselves to the effort of completing a game. In Vermont, there are few summer social institutions as important as the Farmer's Market. Now we had an idea that we felt tied together the parts we'd struggled with. In the center of the table was a board where players played tiles representing types of farms and created value in categories like vegetables, fruit, or dairy. Then the player placed farm stands in his own private market. Since all players are opposed to food waste, any produce a player didn't use could be used by the opponents. With this new filter we were able to efficiently filter the rules and quickly adopt or accept ideas according to how they matched the constructive theme and our original goal for a simple, well-paced, and accessible game.

From gallery of PghArch
Playtest in progress; did the photographer just want a peak behind the other screens?
This is where our playtesters really shined for us. Unabashed about expressing what they enjoyed or when they were frustrated by the game, they made suggestions for endless rounds of tweaks. We increased the starting selection of tokens and tested the number of tiles from which to pick. We added special tiles to the game, which guaranteed that players could at least connect and get value from a resource when needed. Off I went to The Gathering of Friends in April 2012, ready to pitch the game.

One of my first pitches was to Frank DiLorenzo of R&R Games. He immediately was intrigued and had some ideas. He had a new theme in mind (which he kept to himself), and it meant a few more changes. The first idea he shared was big! Instead of special extra tiles for the landscape, we repurposed the back of a standard tile as a wild and let players use one per game in a way that increased both their power and the drama of when it would be played. But there was also a level of frustration about drawing and placing the right tokens onto a personal board to build your market. Frank was interested but wasn't convinced. I relayed the feedback and in a series of quick communications that day, Kevin and I devised the last key element of the game.

By allowing players to play tokens face down, we could remove a big restriction on token placement while retaining the color connectivity that makes placement on the player board a strategic challenge. This keeps the important drafting elements of the game without making it too punitive when the perfect option doesn't turn up.

I quickly tested the idea with friends, then took it to Frank. He adopted it, took a copy of my prototype — I had brought two for just this sort of eventuality — and had others he trusted play the game over the course of the week, based on his explanation of the rules. By the end of the week, we had a handshake agreement. We continued to playtest the new rules back in Vermont along with some other last explorations to verify all this late energy, and it was good!

The nearly last step was to hear from Frank about the theme. I had always believed we would know the right one when we found it. After a bit of back and forth, we knew it would be a town- or city-building theme of some sort. There were some ideas that worked but didn't quite inspire me, and I let Frank know that. And then he sent an email saying something to the effect of "How about having you settle the colony of New Haven?" And I knew we had our theme.

Board Game: New Haven

A sampling of the building tokens

You see, this is where the story really starts in a certain sense. My family greatly enjoys genealogy and family history, and it turns out that I'm a descendent of William Leete, who arrived in the Americas in 1638 and came, along with a few others, to the brand new New Haven Colony in 1639 to settle Guilford, one of several villages. He went on to become the only individual to have held the position of Governor for both the colony of New Haven and then Connecticut after the two were merged. Even the covenant those Original Planters signed reflected the ideas of the game!

We whose names are herein written, intending by God's gracious permission, to plant ourselves in New England, and if it may be in the southerly part, about Quinpisac [Quinnipiac, later named New Haven], we do faithfully promise each for ourselves and families and those that belong to us, that we will, the Lord assisting us, sit down and join ourselves together in one entire plantation and to be helpful to the other in any common work, according to every man's ability and as need shall require, and we promise not to desert or leave each other on the plantation but with the consent of the rest, or the greater part of the company, who have entered into this engagement.
These tidbits are hinted at by the New Haven: Charters promo expansion, which will be distributed free with purchase at Spiel 2013.

Board Game: New Haven

Some of the resource tiles

The rest is pretty straightforward. Frank engaged Dennis Lohausen, an amazing artist, who rendered it all into a package that comes alive. We traded a few last notes on rules and fulfilled the goal of packing as much value into the box as possible by developing and testing a "Side B" game board, which has a few small twists on the rules and shortens the game length by one turn.

There are easily scores of other folks who contributed to New Haven. In the end, games are about people. So, I think, is game design. Most important, a game is about the players around the table. New Haven is a game that is designed to be quick, broadly accessible and challenging to all levels of players. I hope you will try New Haven, become one of those players, and find it adds to your good times.

Brian Leet

Board Game: New Haven
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