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Designer Diary: Subdivision, or Designing From The Bits Up

Lucas Hedgren
United States
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Board Game: Subdivision
The Idea

I was driving home from work and designed the basics of two new games in my head.

I had just mentally put away a game that I had been working on actively for the better part of a year, that had been considered and got pretty far with a publisher, but ultimately was declined. I had rethemed, repurposed, and endlessly tweaked the game, only to realize that it didn't need tweaking; it needed an overhaul. And with all the variables in this game and all the components and all the dice, that overhaul would take a ton of work — and I didn't have it in me. I decided that I needed to shelve it, and that the next game(s) that I worked on would be a notch lower in complexity, and more importantly, would be easily iterate-able.

So I mentally grabbed off the shelf a couple of those simple what-ifs that gamers always have when thinking about games. First, "What if there were a filler-length worker placement game?" Worker placement was all the rage at the time, but all the games were relative monsters. I had an idea for a really short WP game in which the resources were abstract and the design had a cool turn order mechanism. The resources were just chips in different colors, and many actions had you exchanging chips for other chips or points. I called it "Chip Switcher". I threw it together, played it a bit, but it was ultimately kind of boring and had some endgame issues. I still think it has potential, though. Oh, potential — one of the most overrated qualities a prototype can have.

My second what-if followed: "What if I could do something with those little multi-colored houses I bought at the thrift store and the matching dice I had accumulated over time?" That's right; Subdivision started not with the theme, not with the mechanisms, but with the components.

Back in law school, when I didn't have a ton of money to buy a bunch of games, I made a habit of swinging by the local thrift stores to see what they had. Even a mildly interesting-looking game is hard to pass up for $0.95, especially when it had a red label, and it is half-off red label day, so I bought things that I knew were actually good (Acquire, Twixt, Loopin' Louie, Can't Stop), things that were silly-looking and ended up being kinda awesome (Payoff Machine, Blast Out, Thunder Road), and things that I planned on using just for the bits. One of the latter was Easy Money, with its multi-colored houses that stuck in my brain, waiting to emerge as an integral part of a game.

On that drive home, with "Chip Switcher" filed away, my thoughts drifted to those Easy Money houses. Well, houses need to go onto a map or plot of some sort, so a grid came to mind. I had used a cross-referencing mechanism in that overwrought game from the first paragraph so that got resurrected here. Dice matching the colors of the houses would be used to somehow place the houses onto a 6x6 grid. Houses on a grid seemed like a neighborhood, so now I had a theme. "Neighborhood Planner" was born.

The Bits

When I got home, I dug into my bin of prototype bits and found the houses and some matching dice from another game. I quickly printed up a 6x6 grid in Excel and started messing around. Putting the houses on the grid was kind of neat, but on their own houses on a grid didn't give the neighborhood feeling that I was looking for. It needed other stuff, too. Maybe each house can somehow produce other things in the neighborhood. Well, let's see — I have these green glass beads that go with the green houses; they could be parks or woods. I don't have any matching blue beads, but I have these clear ones, and water is clear, so these are ponds or lakes. I have these black square things that on this scale look like a dump or a vacant lot, so they can be a sort of negative thing that you give to other players. I have these red disks that are flat, so I'll use those as brick roads. I have a bunch of yellow stackable squares from a thrifted copy of Advance to Boardwalk. Since they stack, I’ll make them apartment buildings in the neighborhood. Finally, I have purple houses but no purple dice, so these are some sort of special building that gets built when certain conditions are met. I'll call them mansions.

From gallery of boomtron

From the rolled group of dice, the players drafted the color that they wanted to play, then played it at one of the two intersections indicated by cross-referencing the dice: 2,5 or 5,2 on the cartesian plane. If something was already there, they "activated" the house to produce its corresponding neighborhood feature. After trying the game solo a couple of times, there wasn't enough stuff happening, so I came up with the adjacency activation. If you placed a house next to other houses, the ones on the board did their thing. Finally, a key piece was introduced. I didn't like the look of a big glob of stuff in the middle of the board. People needed to drive, after all, so I added the access rule. All houses must have empty or brick road spaces between them and one of the two specified edges of the board. I added some scoring and placement rules, and we were off.

So, it worked. I took it to work and tried it with the lunchtime crew. It was rough around the edges. Degenerate strategies (like dumping vacant lots on everyone) dominated and made some games unfun, but the players liked it — and liked breaking it — so I'd fix it for the next day and we'd try again. Here, the choice to make something that could be easily iterated was key. If I had to create new tiles or boards every day, I simply would not have done it. I put all the rules on a single, central sheet and reprinted that sheet as needed. Later, I moved to having the rules on each player's sheet, which helped the players a lot, but didn't add too much to the overhead. Make a tweak, print up four sheets, and go again.

Neighborhood Not Built In A Day

A few major issues arose, though. First, the access requirement proved to be a pain. It worked well to confine a player's choices, but if someone messed up and no one caught it, it was impossible to rewind the game to fix the error — and it happened frequently. That was a bummer. Second, the cross-referencing was hard to visualize for some people, especially when looking at five sets of two dice. This also exacerbated the length of the game, which was already too long for its depth. I felt like these were both key mechanisms, though, and got discouraged about the game.

I set the design aside for a long time, and when I revisited it, I was able to correct these issues by not having any sacred cows. First, two dice per color became one. I labeled all the spaces on the board semi-randomly with 1-6, and when you chose a blue 5, for example, you could place a blue house on any of the six 5s. Because of the added flexibility, I got rid of the need for activating a house instead of placing one. This worked so much better and was so much simpler. Next, also easier and simpler, rather than force players to conform to the road access rule, I just added a decently-sized, disincentivizing penalty for blocked-in houses. The game still played the same way, but with no need to backtrack if someone fenced in a house.

From gallery of boomtron

Many other details had changed, such as adding sidewalks instead of the meaner vacant lots, and fiddling with the placement rules and scoring. I even went a step further in speeding up the game. Now, when you selected from the five rolled dice for color and number, this choice applied to everyone. The game was now a simultaneous play game, in the vein of Take it Easy!, but with player choice affecting everyone, akin to something like Mosaix. I liked the change, which virtually halved the playing time, and now the game felt snappy.

At this point, I felt really good about the game and started sending it around and showing it to publishers. I got some bites, and some publishers took the game to test, but no contracts. Again, the game got shelved for quite some time.


During this time, I moved from Charleston, South Carolina back to Cincinnati, Ohio (where I had grown up) and got back together with my old game group. The group included Dale Yu, who has worked on a bunch of stuff, but notable for this story's purpose, Ted Alspach's and Bézier Games' Suburbia. After a couple of years, we moved again to Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus, but I still kept in touch. Talking to Dale one day and thinking about my game, I asked Dale whether he thought Ted might be interested in looking at it, as a sort of dice game spinoff of Suburbia. He did, so emails were sent, addresses were cc'ed, protos were tried, and almost immediately, contracts were signed. Yay, my first published game!

As you can probably tell from the pictures of the finished game, we were nowhere near finished developing and changing the game. Ted had a lot of things he wanted to see tweaked and augmented. Ted was great to work with, proposing ideas but always with an eye as to why the changes were needed. Dale was often the tiebreaker. Also, Dale would often chime in with an idea that Ted and I summarily dismissed, until coming back to it later when we could deny that it was his idea to begin with.

Finishing Touches

All the pieces became tiles, so that all the rules and reminders are on the components themselves. No need for iteration anymore, once the rules were solidified.

The dice-drafting changed again. Now, only one die was needed to choose the spot on which to play, and each player had a hand of tiles from which they chose one to play on that space. Then all players passed their hand of tiles to the next player. This hand-drafting accomplished a few things, introducing some level of player interaction and adding nice variability from player to player, while still retaining the simultaneous selection that makes the game play quickly.

From gallery of boomtron

Lakes changed so that they earned you money to match Suburbia, but also to give players more control by allowing them to use the money to allow placement anywhere.

The game got Suburbia-ized at some point by Ted. Houses became zones, and the other stuff (lakes, parks, etc.) got a name: Improvements. It was also around this point when the name was solidified: Subdivision.

From gallery of boomtron

Hexes — yeah, surprisingly, that was one of the last things to happen. Once the game moved away from the cross-referencing grid, neither the board nor the spaces were tied to being square. This was the final piece of the puzzle, really tying the game together with Suburbia. The extra adjacencies created a more dynamic game, and all the original mechanisms worked very well on this topology.

From gallery of boomtron

A few other things happened along the way — terminology, solo game, double-sided boards, art, tweaking scoring, making the scores more positive than negative, etc. — but the development was enjoyable, and I think we ended up with the best the game could be. I hope you think so, too.

Now, the game looks amazing, thanks to Ted and Ollin Timm and Klemens Franz:

Board Game: Subdivision

I'll be at Origins Game Fair 2014 in mid-June, Gen Con 2014 in August, and most likely, Spiel 2014 in October. Come see me and try out Subdivision!

Lucas Hedgren


Subdivision Preview, by W. Eric Martin
Times played: 2 on a prototype copy

By chance, a publisher who was reviewing Subdivision for possible release in a non-English language edition returned the prototype copy by mail not to Bézier Games, but to me. Still not sure how that ended up happening — I'm envisioning a strong AC system in an office that blew a sticky note from one box to another — but however it happened I had Subdivision in my hands and (with Ted's blessing) was able to take it for a two-game test run, both with two players, before I had to ship it on to Ted for use at a convention.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

A reading of the rules (English PDF) was generally clear — aside from a few sticky details — but it still didn't give me a sense for what the game would feel like. To summarize: In each of four rounds, players receive a hand of five Zone tiles, which come in five flavors. Each round lasts four turns, and on each turn someone rolls the die to see on which type of space (red hex, yellow star, etc.) everyone must build, then everyone simultaneously reveals one Zone tile from hand, places it on the board, then activates all Zone tiles adjacent to the one just placed. To finish the turn, pass your hand of tiles to a neighbor. If you pay $2, you can place the tile somewhere else, and you each have a grove of trees where you can dump a single tile for free. At the start of rounds 2-4, everyone who has met the conditions of a bonus tile drawn at the start of the game receives a reward. After the fourth round, tally the points to see who wins.

At heart everything seems simple, but once you start placing tiles the complexity ramps up because everything after the first tile triggers tiles already on the board — and you want to make sure that things happen in the proper order and in the proper places, but often such details are out of your control and you're just trying to figure out how to make the best of what you've got. Martin Wallace's Automobile isn't a great comparison as the two games are completely different, but I still thought of Automobile because in that game you take only twelve actions — four of them probably being "make cars" — yet that game takes 2+ hours and your head is stewing the entire time. Subdivision, with sixteen actions, runs less than half that time, yet you're still stewing to figure everything out.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
One player in my group promises to buy me better lighting some day — sorry!

The shot above is from ten turns into my first game. I've placed ten Zone tiles on the board, and you can kind of reconstruct the building process. Each time you place next to a purple tile, you place a lake in one of three directions, as indicated on the tile; as Luke noted above, lakes give you money both when they're placed and when you place something next to them later, and with money you're free to place tiles where you want instead of being forced to match the locations indicated on the die roll — but money isn't the key to winning because most of the points come from you providing street access to all the Zones in your neighborhood. Every Zone tile touching the initial street or roads that you add later is worth 5 points, and in the two games I played road-scoring accounted for about two-thirds of each player's final score. Thus, you need roads and the only way to create them is to activate yellow tiles on your board.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
And this shot's hideously blurry — thankfully I don't rely on my photography skills for this job

Or do you need roads? In our second game, we had only two yellow tiles in the first two rounds and both of them ended up with my opponent as they were in his successive opening hands. (You adjust the tile counts based on the number of players, then arrange them in stacks randomly for each round.) The second round bonus related to having streets, so he was glad to shut me off in the first round to secure that for himself, and I think he took the yellow tile at the start of the second round as my complaints were a cause for joy in his malevolent heart.

I thought I was doomed, but slowly built a scattered network of parks (via gray tiles that work like purple ones) as parks are worth 1 point for each non-park tile adjacent to them. I dropped lakes on the northern border to both earn money and cover up the negative points on the game board, but without needing to connect them to roads. Late game I chanced into a couple of blue tiles, then was able to activate them enough to create a twisty sidewalk through the western half of the neighborhood. Points for a sidewalk are the product of the number of types of Zone tiles it touches and the number of types of Improvement tiles it touches, with a maximum of 20 points. In the end, the sidewalk and the park network more than made up for the points lost due to a few inaccessible Zone tiles, and I edged to victory.

That core of Subdivision — placing action-based tiles, then trying to activate them later — is a grabber, with the limited number of game turns working to keep things from getting too brain-burny. You'll activate each tile at most six times, and the majority of the time you won't even have half that many activations due to them being on the edge of the playing area or walled off by roads or schools. You're scrambling to cover as many of the 36 spaces as you can so as not to lose points while also trying to keep them all as not to lose points. It's a fine balancing act, one that you're tackling a tile at a time, and before you know it, time has run out and all that's left is the reckoning...
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