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Designer Diary: Riding the Train of Thought to Publication

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game Designer
Board Game: Train of Thought
Editor's note: Since Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim designed Train of Thought together, it made sense that the designer diary would also be written by both of them, but since BGG News doesn't have a "double author" option, I'm posting it under my username. Sorry for any confusion! Jay and Sen will alternate telling their side of the story of the creation of their first published game. —WEM

Jay's Turn:

As published designers we're often asked three questions over and over, so this designer diary will attempt to answer these questions:

    1. Where do you two get your ideas?
    2. How did you get it published?
    3. Are you guys millionaires now?

1. Where do you two get your ideas?

We met each other at McMaster University in 1992, forming a friendship based on a common love of games and movies. In fact, I still have the ticket stub to the first movie we went to together: Stay Tuned!. Bromantic, right? Okay, that's about all the history you need to know – let's fast forward to 2005 and I have to relocate to Vancouver for my "day job". Up until this point, Sen and I only dabbled in designing games. For some reason, the increased distance between us was the motivation we needed to get serious about game design.

Challenge #1: How can we possibly design games together when we live over 4000km apart?

Sen's Turn:

Jay and I work though this series of tubes known to the greater public as "the Internet". We use a forum to generate ideas, then develop them into full-fledged games. This has been our secret weapon and we probably shouldn't tell anyone about it, but what the heck – we're generous!

We use the forum to keep track of all our ideas for each game. We actually have a whole section of the forum where we post random thoughts on game ideas and concepts. It's lovingly referred to as the "Brain Farts" section. There are no rules for a Brain Fart - it could be an idea about a specific mechanic that we'd like to see in a game, a title for a possible game, or even a theme we'd like to explore.

Train of Thought came from one such Brain Fart.

Everything on the forum is logged for posterity as we often come back to old ideas for new games, so here is the EXACT Brain Fart (complete with lack of capitalization, etc.) from October 19, 2008 that put the train of thought on the track, so to speak:

Just another thing I thought of while thinking of another thing... (Train of Thought - another good game name - oooh, about trying to guess what someone's trying to describe as they're describing things that are linked to the item but not the item itself...and the score is related to how quickly you can get your team to guess what you're thinking...
So, to expand, what if we have a deck of cards with tons of things...people, places, things, adjectives, adverbs, actions - basically pictionary haha.

But the goal is not to draw/hint at the exact thing that we're trying to describe. The goal is to get people to guess it quickly by using as few "logical links" (train cars, in this case, I guess) as possible.

As you can see, I actually started to think about Train of Thought when we were discussing another game in the Brain Farts section - that happens more often than not with my divergent way of thinking.

Jay's Turn:

I have to travel from British Columbia to Ontario for work several times in a year. On each trip, I try to tack on some extra time to my business trips to design games in-person with Sen. We usually have numerous games at varying levels of development – but we always spend time reviewing the latest Brain Farts.

On one such trip in May 2009, Train of Thought was one of the ideas that caught our collective eye. 

One challenge we had was that our initial envisioning of the game seemed too much like Password - a game where you just give one word clues. Sure, our game would have three word clues but that wasn't enough to differentiate it from the pack.

But then it happened...

We thought, "What if you had to use somebody’s guess as part of your next three-word clue?" 

And that was it! That was the key "a-ha!" moment for this game.

Here's the post on May 12, 2009 once we figured it out:

A game where players must try to get their team to their next destination by making them guess what they're thinking - but only by using 3 word sentences that contain the previous answer given by the team mate...

Start at Point A - Dragon
Get to Point B - Skating

Don't get derailed! And try not to have a one-track mind!

Within that week, we had hammered out the entire game. Here’s the original excerpt from the Forum:

Okay, we made it.

It's very fun.

1250ish of the most commonly used nouns in the English language broken up by 6's onto small cards (check to see dimensions for boxes, etc.)
Roll a die, get a start word on one card (face up), use same number to get destination word on other card (face down).
Turn timer over, use 3-word phrases (1 of which must be the start word) to try to get closer and closer to the destination word. Each guess from your team/group becomes a possible new start word. If the destination word is guessed within the allotted time, the team gets 1 point (represented by claiming a card that has a train card printed on the back of it).

Sen's Turn:

We really liked it and played it between ourselves incessantly while driving around London sourcing out game bits and parts. Of course it needed to be playtested. We spent a few sessions with our various playtesting groups around London and Stratford, Ontario, working out some of the kinks and trying to think of variations.

We tried to make it more "game-esque" by adding steals if a team couldn't guess correctly, derailment tokens to allow the Conductor to go back on the track, and even a "Name That Tune" sort of betting mechanic. ("I bet I can get you to the destination in 3 guesses!") But, in essence, the game you see now is the game it started out as. The rest of the elements seemed too "tacked-on" to include as the main game.

Sometimes, less is more.

The one major thing we did change was the team play. Originally, Train of Thought was played in teams, where someone from your team gives the clues and only people on your team can guess – though the other team could steal the point after a certain amount of time had passed. It was through our playtesting cycle that we stumbled upon the idea to make it as it is now – where one player gives clues and everyone else guesses.

Now everyone is playing the game at all times. That is one of our central tenets in game design: We want to keep all players as involved as they can be during all phases of a game.

So after playing it many times with many people and putting it through its paces with our other playtesters in Toronto and Vancouver as well, we were sure that we were on to something worthwhile. Mucho gracias to all our playtesters, family, and friends!

2. How did you get it published?

Jay's Turn:

GAMA is an annual trade fair for the Game Manufactures Association held in Las Vegas, NV. Now, normally, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but we'll break the rule in this case. I had been to GAMA in 2008 and was able to get some of our games into the hands of publishers, but none of them got picked up; our designs were definitely less refined than they are now. Still, the trip proved worthwhile, so we planned for a repeat appearance in April 2009.

GAMA 2009 was where I first met Michael Mindes and Seth Jaffee from Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG for short). I offered to playtest one of the games they were getting ready to publish called Homesteaders (a great game, by the way), and while playing I spoke with them about our game Belfort. They kindly offered to playtest it and liked it so much so that they offered to publish it after the conference concluded! 

So, to recap for those of you keeping score at home: Chronologically, we had started thinking about Train of Thought before GAMA 2009 *but* it wasn't completed until after the April conference. This is because we were preparing other games, like Belfort to be shown at GAMA. So, in a weird quirk of fate, Belfort was the game that delayed us from finishing Train of Thought sooner!

But everything happens for a reason, right?

The next piece of the puzzle fell into place when Seth Jaffee, the developer for TMG as well as the designer of Terra Prime and the forthcoming Eminent Domain (both from TMG), came to stay with me in Vancouver. Seth came up to the "Great White North" from the blazing heat of Arizona after playing in an Ultimate Frisbee event in Seattle in June 2009. While here, I showed Seth Train of Thought, even though we had been told that Tasty Minstrel wasn't interested in publishing party games in the least. I honestly wasn't trying to pitch it to him; I just wanted his feedback since he's a fellow designer. Seth became enamoured with it and while he wasn't sure if it was something that TMG would publish, he really wanted to show it to Michael. So the prototype flew back to Arizona with Seth.

After Michael got his hands on the game and played it, we got this via e-mail on Sept 9, 2009:


Tasty Minstrel Games wants to publish Train of Thought... Officially.


Sen's Turn:

One of the toughest things about designing Train of Thought was writing the rules.

The first draft of the rules wasn't completed until December 2009 - almost 3½ months after the contract had actually been signed. That's just ridiculous! How did we get a publisher to publish our game when we didn't even have the rules typed up yet? 

Our reason for not having written rules wasn't that we were too busy with other things or that we were procrastinating. Writing rules is quite frankly the hardest and most tedious part of designing a game. And Train of Thought was no exception. We found that, while Train of Thought is dead simple to explain while teaching the game to someone with the cards in front of you, it is really difficult to put the same rules into words that make sense yet leave no room for interpretation.

The biggest point of contention was what constituted the so-called "Spirit of the Game".
In game terms, Train of Thought can be "broken" easily if people want to abuse the rules. One of Seth's concerns was that someone could just use the word "of" as part of their three-word answer and then the Conductor could easily say "type of…" and have an easier time of it.  We tried several solutions:

• Having a list of banned words.
• Having players be able to "call foul" on the Conductor's clue and have them explain the logic of their phrase afterwards.
• Allowing only a two-word clue as opposed to a three-word clue.
• Having a section in the rules describing the best way to play the game.

In the end, we decided to go with Option 4 as this solution was the most flexible and allowed gaming groups to self-moderate. The rules that Seth helped us develop also contained a good section on guesses that are "close enough", "misplays", etc. So we drafted the first set of rules with these points in mind.

It retrospect, the first iteration was dry, very mechanical, and not digestible at all. It was like "un-funning" something by trying to over-explain it. Once we saw the fantastic art that Gavan Brown was doing for the game, we knew there was a mismatch. His artwork and design was so fun that it made our rules feel cracker-crumb dry and completely out of place! So we all went back to the drawing board and hemmed and hawed over the rules for about a week until we finally came up with rules that not only made sense to the rules-lawyers in all of us, but could be graphically represented by the artist, and taught quickly by the demonstrators.

Jay's Turn:

With the artwork and rules completed, the files went off to Panda Press in Vancouver on September 16, 2010 - just over a year after signing the contract. Panda sent the specs to their affiliate manufacturing plants in China and the wait began. Before we knew it, it was November - time for BGG.con in Dallas, TX!

For those not in the know, BGG.con is a convention put on by this website and is all about gamers coming together to play games. More than 1,200 gamers descended upon Dallas, hungry for the latest and greatest in boardgaming, and I was one of them! TMG had 90 copies shipped directly from China to the convention centre for the pre-release debut of Train of Thought. For most of the convention, I was stationed at their booth so that I could demonstrate the game and sign copies for people who purchased it.

Throughout the convention, players could rank any game that they played using their personal code at a computer station, which generates an overall "BuzzList". Throughout the four-day event, the Top 25 ranked games were displayed on a huge screen in the lobby so everyone could see what was hot and what was interesting. As the convention came to a close, Train of Thought ended up being the number 2 ranked game at the convention! And for the week following, it broke into the Top 10 on "The Hotness" list on BoardGameGeek itself - a list of the top traffic-generating games listed on the site. All of this was very exciting, to say the least, and a bit overwhelming as well!

3. Are you guys millionaires now?

Sen's Turn:

No. We're not millionaires - not even close. It was never our goal to become rich doing this. We enjoy working together and we enjoy making games that people like to play. It's really that simple.

If you're getting into game design as a way to become a millionaire then you're probably in the wrong business! Many people know the Trivial Pursuit story and the millions they eventually made, but for every Trivial Pursuit, thousands upon thousands of games don't even break even.

On the plus side, Train of Thought has been well-received by the gaming community so far. The hype generated by BGG.con has lead to Train of Thought being voted as one of the Top 50 Most Anticipated Games of 2011 and the #4 Most Anticipated Family/Party/Abstract game for 2011, out-ranked only by reprints of two well-known games and a sequel to a popular game. We're in the process of exploring how Train of Thought could be implemented as an iPhone app and looking for non-traditional distribution channels for the game that could prove to be lucrative. So we're hoping for commercial success with Train of Thought. While it's more about making the game than it is about making money, neither of us is adverse to a little spending money!

We're also not about to put all of our eggs in one basket. We have Belfort set for release in Q2 2011 through TMG, and they picked up a third game of ours called But Wait, There's More that we were able to show them at BGG.con. That one is due to come out before the 2011 holidays. On top of all of that, we have several game designs currently doing the rounds with other publishers and countless games in development. Hopefully, some of them will be on your game shelves one day. You can keep track of our progress by reading our blog "Inspiration to Publication".

As one of our colleagues puts it, we like to "follow the fun" in our games. We like to make games that we'd want to play ourselves and hope that other people will want to play them too. It's our passion for design and our love of playing games that will keep us designing well into the future – whether we become millionaires or not!

Jay Cormier
British Columbia
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Sen-Foong Lim
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