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Balancing Yardmaster Express

David Short
United States
Tucson
Arizona
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Board Game: Yardmaster Express
I love designing inside guidelines. I enjoy the challenge and the thought gymnastics needed to solve a unique problem.

So, when Crash Games challenged me to make my 24 card micro game, Yardmaster Express, compatible with 5 players, I was up for the task.

Before I get into how I designed the game to handle 5 players, let me first briefly explain the anatomy of the 2-4 player game.

Yardmaster Express (YmEx) is a very simple drafting game inspired by my love for the original Yardmaster. YmEx captures the essence of the original and stuffs it into a tiny form factor.

The cornerstone to the game is the fact that the drafting centers around an evolving communal hand of cards. The key to making that communal hand offer compelling decisions for the players turn after turn, game after game, is the dichotomy between low value and high value cards.

This dichotomy exists solely because points aren't just awarded according to the values on the cards, but also to the longest cargo run of a single color. This provides a worthwhile incentive to playing lower value cards, which directly balances the choice between choosing low value cards versus choosing high value cards.

This balance between low values and high values drove my design of the cards. Each color is made up of six cards: three low value cards that don't change color and three high value cards that are mixed colors. The low values are easier to connect and offer greater chances at creating a long cargo run of a single color. The high values are more difficult to connect and discourage long cargo runs, but offer greater victory points.

From gallery of dshortdesign


So, that brings us back to adding the 5th player. I had 24 balanced cards for the 2-4 player game and I knew I needed at least 26 cards to handle 5 players. The first thing I tried was to just throw in one more card in each suit (four cards total). But whether I made those cards low or high values, I knew I still needed to mirror that addition on the opposite end to keep the balance between low and high (which meant eight cards total). This solution was not appealing for another reason as well. It spread the colors too thin amongst the 5 players. It increased the chances that more than one player would be going for the color that I was going for. Now this competition is healthy, and I encourage it, but this was going too far.

This led me to the fact that I needed a fifth color to accomplish the 5 player balance. However, I knew I couldn't haphazardly just throw in a couple of purples and call it done. Keeping in mind, my goal was to add as few cards as possible, I also knew I couldn't just add purple to every mix of color - which would result in the deck ballooning drastically. I wanted to avoid that.

Naturally, I tried to make purple work with the same six card architecture as the other suits. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that since purple needed to match up with all four other colors, it couldn't pull off just six cards. Bummer.

So, I knew I couldn't escape having four 3/3 cards that matched purple with each other color. Which side of the card the purple resided on was not set yet. But the need for four 3/3 cards was a definite. And since that was a definite, then in order to respect my balance between low and high, I also needed to mirror those four high value cards with four low value cards that didn't change suit. Obviously, I threw in the same 2/2, 2/2, 2/3 set as the other colors, but that left me with a need for a fourth card. At this point, I also knew I still wanted a value 4 purple in the deck as well. Of course, designing a mixed color purple 4/4 would again balloon the deck. No thanks. Immediately, the question came... could the purple 4/4 be purple on both sides? The design puzzle was almost complete.

So, I now had a balance between the four non-mixed purple cards and four 3/3 mixed purple cards. However, I knew I wasn't finished, since I had four purple cards that didn't change color, but one was a high value 4/4. This needed to be balanced in a whole different way. Sigh.

I started investigating how each card chained and the probabilities of various scenarios. It was at this point that I conceded that if I wanted a small deck, I couldn't balance all five colors perfectly... but I refused to let that hamper the game in any way. I continued to investigate and play with numerous sets and combinations. Eventually, I came back to having eight purple cards: four non-mixed cards and four mixed cards. The key is that the mixed cards all have purple on the left side. This means that it keeps the vital balance of the original four colors, while simultaneously making it both an advantage and a disadvantage to flirt with purple in the game.

Purple Advantages:
- Capable of achieving a nine railcar run (other colors could have eight).
- The purple 4/4 is a high value that could continue a run (not achievable in other colors).
- There are eight possible left side railcars (other colors have six).

Disadvantages:
- Everyone knows purple has potential, so everyone will be competing for it, which can translate to no one benefiting from it. Fun!
- There are only four right side railcars (other colors have seven), which means that purple has less chance of starting a cargo run.
- Connecting purple is more difficult, because 75% of the cards don't have purple.

So, there you have it. I knew I found my solution. It was quite the challenge, but I loved the fight, and I'm very happy with the final product (feel free to try out the game here).

Now go play it!!!
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