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Designer Diary: Planes, or How A Round Trip Starts With A Spark

David Short
United States
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Board Game: Planes
I'm very proud of Planes — a 2-4 player game that has you pushing your way through a crowded airport to reach your plane before takeoff — and I invite you to take a short hop to the past with me to see how it was created.

Lunchtime on July 24, 2013
I remember it clearly. I was meeting with friends to play some quick games during our lunch break. One of my friends in attendance was Mike Tunison. Later that year, Mike would be accompanying me to his first BGG.CON in Dallas. Naturally we were both excited for the occasion, and inevitably we were discussing the trip. Eventually the conversation focused on the plane travel. Neither one of us minded traveling, but in that situation the downside was hard to ignore: eight hours of travel each way. Ouch. Thankfully, Mike came up with a solution to the time sink problem.

His idea was to spend those sixteen hours designing a game together — but not just any game: a game about traveling by plane that could be played on the plane (on those small trays on the backs of seats). I immediately was excited about the idea.

Afternoon on July 24, 2013
I found that I couldn't stop thinking about that idea. I was so inspired. Various thoughts started flooding in: crowded airports, eager families rolling luggage, and business travelers racing to their gates to catch their plane. (To be honest, the opening scene from Home Alone 2 popped into my head a few times as well.)

Due to the "play it on a seat back tray" parameter, I knew there couldn't be a lot of components and that any sort of board would need to be small. I pictured the players moving their party through the bustling terminal and eventually boarding their plane. I thought of cubes since those wouldn't roll off the seatback tray easily while playing on the plane. These cubes would be moved on the board "Rudiger Dorn" style (Goa, Istanbul, Traders of Genoa), or maybe Mancala style; I wasn't sure at the time, but I knew it would be some sort of chain movement.

Morning on July 25, 2013
In full disclosure, I didn't get much real work done at my day job the next day. My mind was tied up designing the boards — yes, plural. I knew this game would be ripe for multiple boards. The versatility and replayability that multiple boards encourage in games like Power Grid and Ticket to Ride was inspiring. I love that the rules don't change (or not much anyway), but the play is instantly fresh when playing with a different board. I wanted to capture that beauty. The first two boards came to me fairly quickly. The first one was a simple oval, while the second was a figure eight. Oh, the possibilities...

From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign
Prototype boards

Evening on July 25, 2013
Normally, I take a long time to make a prototype. This is due to a couple of reasons. First, I'm a procrastinator, and second, I prefer to avoid those early broken sessions by playing the game over and over in my head beforehand. This may sound insane, but I get a ton of design done while l drive. I find that I'm free and isolated with my thoughts. On a typical game design, I have played it copious times in my head, long before there's a physical prototype.

However, Planes was not typical. I was overflowing with anticipation and I wanted to play it as quickly as possible. I jumped right into drawing the board and gathering components. This part of the process is always exhilarating because the game is coming to life right before you.

During dinner that night, I vividly recall expressing my excitement when the perfect name for the game popped into my head: "Round Trip". I think I even inadvertently let out an audible "Yes" when it happened. I'm not sure what other designers think, but it doesn't feel right until a new game creation has a name.

Evening on July 26, 2013
The game was ready for its inaugural play and conveniently I was having a couple of friends over for games that Friday. After busting out great games of Keyflower and Snowdonia, I slapped it on the table. The play was very satisfying. The cube movement was compelling, and the player interaction was high — and most importantly for a first play, nothing broke. We talked into the night about where the game could go and which things to improve. I was stoked.

Lunchtime on July 29, 2013
I was thankful to play again at lunch on that following Monday. Nothing changed from the inaugural playtest, but I was looking to confirm my suspicions and concerns brought up in the first session, and indeed this second session proved informative. The cube movement, while solid and fun, needed to be accompanied by another element to allow more variation and replayability.

I thought perhaps some action cards and goal cards would provide the needed motive and variety, so I starting brainstorming card abilities. As I was doing this exercise, it quickly became clear to mash both the actions and goals onto the same card instead of creating separate decks. I'm a big fan of multi-use cards, and this was a great way to provide tough decisions for each turn. Do you further yourself by playing an action, or do you cash in on the current state of the game by playing a goal?

From gallery of dshortdesign
Card ideas (I have no idea why I wrote "Puerto Rico" there)

Later that night, I dove right into making the cards. I drew that first set by hand, as I often do with prototypes. I find hand-drawn stuff allows me to be more organic and flexible with the design. There's something about dropping hard lines and pixels on a computer that pushes me toward being more formally married to whatever I drew.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Prototype cards

Lunchtime on July 31, 2013
Back at my weekly gaming lunch where the idea had sparked a week earlier, I dropped the game on the table, this time with the new double function action/goal cards. It went awesome. The variety of actions and card combos was so fun. As a designer, what I was really pleased with was that the added elements didn't add much to the duration of the game; it was still quick and accessible. One of the main observations from this session was that the neutral cubes needed to be reduced from four to two per space.

Sometime on August 6, 2013
I was enjoying where this game was going, and the reactions from my playtesters had never been so positive this early in the process. I was compelled to write about the progress in a blog post.

Night of August 19, 2013
Later that month, the game was still going strong. I decided to bring it to my monthly game design group, Gamesmiths. The great thing about getting feedback at a group like this is that the feedback is entirely different from that provided by everyday gamers playing for fun. Feedback from other designers is so rich and focused. I love it. We played a couple of times, then proceeded to dive into the nuts and bolts. We dissected each card, evaluating its ability and balance: Cut this; move that; reword those. It was great.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Card edits and redlines

Night of September 16, 2013
The following month, I was grateful to get the game to the table again at Gamesmiths. Thankfully, a new set of designers was in attendance, which meant I'd get yet another fresh perspective on the game. The session was so fun and productive that I decided to write up a session report on it.

The notable improvements resulting from those sessions were the change to goals to make them more player specific (introducing the "white cube" symbol) and the Points of Interest on the boards.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Card edits with new Points of Interest

Sometime on September 19, 2013
I made short work of updating the goals on the cards and adding Points of Interest to the boards. I was very excited to add even more theme and personal investment into the game. This simple change to the goal requirements elevated the game to another level. Thematically, it allowed the players to picture themselves accomplishing these tasks on the board. Mechanically, it made it so that every card was useful and attainable for each player. Beautiful. At this point all the main elements for the final game were present. I was pleased.

Night of November 20, 2013
Into convention season playtesting continued and continued. Tweaks were made here and there to cards and boards, but mostly this stage of playtesting was to solidify rules and confirm that the game was done. It's a good feeling.

I switched my focus to preparing the game to pitch at the upcoming BGG.CON. I updated my prototype and created the sell sheet. The game was ready.

I packed my bags and prepped my games into the early morning hours that night, and fell asleep dreaming about the plane I was going to board the next day.

From gallery of dshortdesign
From gallery of dshortdesign
Pitch-ready prototype

Afternoon on November 21, 2013
I arrived at BGG.CON that afternoon and basically headed straight to the publisher/designer speed dating event. For those not familiar, this event mimics relationship speed dating in which women sit at tables while every five minutes a new bachelor sits down. The idea is that you need only a short amount of time to know whether this person is someone you want to get to know better. Publisher/designer speed dating uses the same idea, but instead of women, the designers sit at tables waiting for publishers to stop by every five minutes. It's a complete rush and I highly recommend it (but only if you're prepared).

I reserved two slots that night. I pitched my Mars:Zero game first. It was such a whirlwind. It went really well, but the best part was that it was a perfect warm-up for pitching Round Trip in the next slot. Way to take one for the team, Mars:Zero.

Pitching Round Trip was an incredible thrill. Publisher after publisher was overwhelmingly positive. I was floored by the reception. A blink later the slot ended, and as if the night couldn't get better, several publishers immediately approached me to set private meetings later on during the con.

Evening on November 21, 2013
Of course, AEG was one of those publishers, and they invited me to meet with their entire crew right then and there. I jumped at the opportunity. Let me provide some context before continuing: At this point, AEG had already signed and started working on my game Cypher. However, Cypher was pitched and accepted online, so while we had a relationship, we didn't really know each other. I didn't know what I was getting into and likewise didn't know what to expect at the meeting. What I found was a wonderful group that made me feel comfortable and respected.

From gallery of dshortdesign
Pitching to AEG

I remember that pitch clearly. I tried my best to teach the game like any of the countless times before, but I felt the pressure and was very aware that that was the biggest presentation of my young design career. Nevertheless, I believe I taught it well and the game began. The four-player game consisted of John Zinser (CEO), Todd Rowland (Director of Marketing), Mark Wootton (Developer and designer of Doomtown: Reloaded) and Nicolas Bongiu (Operations Lead). During the entire game I was trying to read into their expressions and communication. Were they having fun? Did they like it? Was this going well? I don't recall whether they actually finished the game or not — I think they did — but before I knew it John Zinser was addressing me. He collected his thoughts for what seemed like forever, then said something along the lines of "We don't usually do this this quickly, but I think we'd like to sign this." I was elated.

Almost immediately, discussion began about renaming the design to Planes, how it would tie into their hit game Trains, and how they would start a new travel line of games surrounding them. I couldn't believe my ears. While I loved the name "Round Trip", the possibility of being related to Trains (my personal favorite game of 2013) was an incredible opportunity and well worth the name change.

Weeks later, Planes was officially signed.

Board Game: Planes
Final box back

Lunchtime on October 8, 2014
It's cliche, but you never know when or where inspiration is going to hit. Playing games with friends at lunch is a pretty typical thing for me, but that day back in July 2013 was a major spark. That spark will be wrapped in shrink-wrap and displayed at Spiel this year. I couldn't be more proud. Thanks for the inspiration, Mike. I'll meet you at the gate!

David Short

From gallery of dshortdesign
Mike and I in an airport on the way back from BGG.CON 2013
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