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Designer Diary: New York 1901, or How Our Family Stumbled Upon the Board Game Revival and Went on to Make Our Own Game

Board Game: New York 1901
Computer Games

I left for Japan in 1994 as a 26-year-old bachelor with degrees in law and Eastern Asian studies. I came back to Canada ten years later in 2004 with a Japanese wife, two kids in tow (I clearly chose the "total immersion" package), and one more diploma, a master's degree on the Japanese political economy.

Beyond the Japanese skills and the scholarly pursuits, my ten years in Japan had allowed me to live an extended youth and to pick up a few hands-on skills: I became reasonably adept at assembling my own computers. The ability to do my own upgrades (new CPU, new video card, new mobo) allowed me to maintain machines that were powerful enough to run the latest and most demanding first person shooters. I played them all in Japan: Quake, Quake II, Quake III, Unreal Tournament, Half-Life (and its many "mods"), Battlefield 1942. I also played the addictive "just one more turn" games like Sid Meier's Civilization – which goes to show there are designer games in the computer world, too. This last game had a great influence on some of the board games that helped spearhead the board game revival of the late 1990s.

Eventually my growing family and the demands (time, financial) that came along with it forced me to put aside what was mainly a solo hobby to focus instead on my wife and kids. Whatever hobby I would find next needed to be a bit more inclusive...

From gallery of shocko

My gaming set-up in Japan, c. 2000

Cold Canadian Nights

I returned to Alberta, Canada in 2004 with two young kids ages 5 and 2. I would put my Japanese experience to good use as a provincial civil servant in charge of developing export markets in Asia for Canadian agricultural products. Dad (me) adapted to his new job and the family slowly adapted to its new life in dad's home country, Canada.

Now, winters in Canada are generally long, but they're even longer in Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton has the distinction of being the northernmost city in North America with a population of over one million people. Cool distinction, cold city. As the kids were getting older, the family soon settled into traditional weekend activities such as game night, which is a very fitting indoor activity when the thermometer is in negative territory, often double digit negative.

My wife and I both had a history of playing card games, so we taught the kids a few of our favorite games. When my wife taught us all how to play "Babanuki", it certainly felt familiar. In fact Babanuki is the Japanese name for the card game Old Maid. Goes to show that some classics travel well.

Once the thrill of card games was starting to wane, my wife and I started looking for something new, something that could provide the family with entertainment while helping our kids build their social and analytical skills. My wife would find it at Winners (the Canadian equivalent of Marshalls) in Calgary, c. 2006. While stopping at Winners for a quick fix of bargain hunting, my wife stumbled upon an intriguing board game in the toy section. That game was That's Life! (the English title for Ravensburger's Verflixxt). Different people have different games they can point to as "the game" that got them started on board gaming. Ticket to Ride and Catan often come up among gamers. For me it was That's Life!

Well, that's not exactly true. That's Life! didn't get me started on board gaming, but it did bring me back to board gaming after a hiatus of over fifteen years. Not long after that, I discovered the BoardGameGeek website, which led me to a string of purchases that would severely lighten my wallet: Ticket to Ride (the family calls it "the train game"), Thurn und Taxis ("the Germany game"), Finca ("the fruit game"). Within a year or two, I'd bought about 25 games. I'd buy close to one hundred more after we moved to the U.S. in 2011 where games are much cheaper...

From gallery of shocko

Jean and Sakura in Edmonton, c. 2006; in Edmonton you get to
wear spiffy warm clothes as early as September! (Accentuate the positive goes the song...)

Flashback to the 1980s — Before Japan

As an adolescent in the 1980s in Montreal, I played a lot of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. I enjoyed playing the packaged adventures that publishers would put out – I remember they were called "modules". It was great fun, but even then I remember wanting to be more than just an actor in a story someone else had created; I wanted to become the storyteller. I remember trying my hand at designing modules and I started to create a few, but I would never finish them. I simply didn't have the discipline. In hindsight, it's probably better that way. There's a time for playing and a time for creating. Years of passively playing (and reading, and watching movies, and watching TV) aren't all bad; in fact they're necessary because they allow you to fill up on hundreds of mechanic and thematic references. You need to fill up on references before you can make anything yourself.

Role-playing wasn't my only gaming pursuit in junior high and high school. Those years also saw me play many classic board games. I remember playing Cosmic Encounter. Anyone remember the name of the alien that can silence other players? It was just a hoot trying the different aliens. Eric had Cosmic Encounter. I also played Squad Leader. Nicolas had Squad Leader plus a few of the expansions. (His parents spoiled him a little.) I think I remember that some of the tanks even had turrets that you could direct. And the game had many different scenarios, too. It was a pleasure simply to go to Nicolas' place and open his boxes of Squad Leader and just hold the pieces in your hands and look at them. The tactile "hands on" part of playing games is something I really enjoyed. I was taking notes subconsciously...

I remember we played Diplomacy. (Mark had that one.) I remember that on more than one occasion I ended up in a solid alliance with my friend Philippe. In a cutthroat game like Diplomacy, even a single solid alliance can often get you pretty far in the game. (There might be an analogy to be made about the strength of a good marriage...) We also played The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a complex simulation of the Second World War. Third Reich fascinated me so much that I saved up my money to buy the game. Again, I felt a strong pleasure just in laying out the armies on the board — which is often the only thing we could do since playing a full game required ten hours and there was no table available at my home that I could monopolize for that long. You needed a basement game room for that one, which is something I didn't have as an adolescent.

From gallery of shocko

So cool that I just had to save up enough to buy myself a copy

I was still gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was in college pursuing a law degree. There weren't many gamer types in law school, so I was the guy who would come up with board games for the others to play. It had to be light and easy to jump into. I bought Nuclear War and a few expansions at my FLGS and brought it to the table. It was a hit, and we must have played it forty times over my four years of law school; remember that these are non-gamers, so forty sessions made it a bona fide "crossover hit". Nuclear War is a grisly game when you think about it, but it's so absurd that it always got a laugh. I last played it over 25 years ago, but I still clearly remember your odds were significantly better when you had a few of the bigger population cards. (The biggest ones were what, 25 million people?) Predictable but still fun.

I even got the non-gamers to play relatively more complex games like Junta, a hilarious banana republic simulation that centers mostly on negotiations over the country's budget. The game also allowed disgruntled players to start a revolution to settle scores. One of the few games in which disgruntled players are part of the core mechanisms. A riot! I think I got the group to play this two or three times.

And thus, sometime in the early 1990s after graduating from law school, the first phase of my gaming career ended unceremoniously. After articling and being called to the bar, I soon left my budding legal profession behind, deciding to go back to college to study about Asia. It would be at least fifteen more years before I played another board game...

Fast Forward to 2010

I'd end up living six years in Alberta, from 2004 to 2010. The first three years I worked for the government of Alberta and the next three as vice-president of the Canada Beef Export Federation, peddling Canadian beef around the world. That last job was one of those "pinch me" moments in life. As a young French Canadian growing up in Montreal, not in your wildest dreams do you foresee ending up on the leadership team of an Alberta-based trade association promoting beef. Life just sends you on wild tangents sometimes, but I loved the job.

From gallery of shocko

Towering Canadian selling beef in Macau, c. 2008

After three years with the Canadian Beef Export Federation, I got an opportunity to join the Canadian Foreign Service, something I'd always wanted to do. I headed to Ottawa in 2010 and after a single (and painfully bureaucratic) year at headquarters, I learned that I would soon leave on a four-year posting to Houston, Texas. Yeehaw! (Utterances of the word "Texas" in eastern Canada are very often accompanied by a lively cowboy interjection like "Yeehaw!" Then again the word "Alberta", where our family had lived for six years, generally gets a similar reaction in Ontario and Quebec, so we'd be in familiar territory and I was sure we'd love it there.)

Diplomat/Game Designer

The whole family arrived in Texas in the summer of 2011. On the way from the airport to our rental house, we observed the city that would be our home for the next four years. Houston was definitely the quintessential urban sprawl metropolis, a city of freeways, long avenues, and lots and lots of strip malls — a shopper's paradise.

Another thing we noticed on the way from the airport was that the parks and green spaces were all empty. This offered a strong contrast to Canada where green spaces are full of life during the summer. Canadians are very conscious of how fleeting that gorgeous season is. Now where did Texans go during the summer? The answer was that they stayed indoors because it was simply too hot to go outside. I have to admit that we were greeted by a scorcher of a summer in 2011 with temperatures above 100º for thirty days in a row, possibly a record. If it's too hot in the evening for a BBQ, I guess we'll just have to stay inside and play games — and play games we did. Beyond the too-hot-to-play-outside weather, the sudden Canadian-U.S. dollar parity coupled with the much lower price of board games (and pretty much everything else) in the United States saw dad literally go nuts. Our collection of games probably doubled over our first year in Houston and would double yet again soon.

Now playing new games is loads of fun, but pretty soon we'd played all the "gateways" dad's petro dollars could buy. Thus, it wasn't too long before dad would be bitten by the creative bug again, and this time — with the family's help (and some early PR support from a friend in Vietnam) — he'd have the discipline to see it through.

December 2011

I'd be lying if I told you the family "collectively" decided to create a game. My kids were 12, 9 and 2 when we set out on our creative adventure, so it was more a case of dad enlisting the family – a.k.a., conscription. By the time Blue Orange signed the game in the middle of 2014, my family had played over two hundred recorded and annotated sessions of what would become New York 1901. Although the game would eventually benefit from the input of over ten playtesting groups both in Houston and across the world, and from a creative hands-on product manager at Blue Orange, Stéphane Maurel, in terms of number of games played, my family was clearly the core playtesting group.

Knowing Too Much

Now here is where I could microanalyze every little decision made during the development of the game — and there were literally hundreds of such decisions made for both mechanisms and theme. (The theme would (happily) remain untouched after the acquisition by Blue Orange.) I could write a long list and cover each of these decisions and tell what the concerns were and how they were solved — but how much do people want to know?

I always wondered how much should be revealed about the process behind the development of a game — or a movie or video game for that matter. I personally love to know about the creative process, and when I pick up a gaming magazine, the only articles I systematically read are the interviews with creators because I just love a good story. However, I'm not sure I want to find out too much about the "guts" of a movie, book or game. I always thought that knowing too much about something might somehow make it a bit less magical. Does anybody agree? I guess that's my excuse to streamline the last few pages of this diary. I won't expound on all the decisions and the stories behind all of them — there are just too many — but I'll identify a few core ones and share some insights into how I saw them and how they evolved.

Because It's New York

"Theme or mechanisms — which comes first?" the question is often asked. Sometimes it's asked just to determine a designer's preferred approach. Sometimes it's asked to try to determine a best practice - which is rather pointless. But the various responses are still entertaining and it's just fun to find out how different creators approach their craft. The answer is, of course, "to each his own". But one thing is for certain, New York 1901 the game and its mechanisms evolved and flowed from New York the city. The theme informed mechanisms.

There are many reasons why I chose to make New York the theme. The first one is simply because New York is a special city. Very few cities in the world have so rich an imagery that they leave almost no one indifferent. Paris and London are such cities, and New York is another — but New York has a modern and dynamic "new world" ring to it, a ring it keeps to this day. New York is the New World's Paris or London. And even today, many still call it the world's greatest metropolis. If board games are little playgrounds — little sandboxes if you will — and if you're choosing your playground, what better playground than New York.

I've always liked games that have a historical backdrop. I'm not referring to historic simulations, which tend to be heavy, but rather to the aesthetics, to the immersive "stage" that history provides. As a historical stage for a board game, New York had been done many times before. More often than not, the chosen period is the late 1920s and early 1930s with its beautiful art deco imagery filled with the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Although clearly a beautiful period to explore, I wanted to do something different. Through my research, I discovered the first wave of New York skyscrapers at the turn of the last century and chose that period for my game. The game would first be called "New York 1899" since starting in the 1800s made the setting feel that much older. It would eventually change to New York 1901 to ease in the use of a turn counter that would start in 1901. Turn 1 in 1901, turn 2 in 1902, easy no? The turn counter would be dropped later in development but the name would stick.

From gallery of shocko

An early prototype (Sep 2012) when the game was still called New York 1899;
the game included an action point system (bottom right) that would later be dropped

When I like something, I tend to do it a lot, maybe too much. Turn-of-the-century New York became a bit of an obsession. The turn-of-the-century period has been elevated to special status in many countries around the world. In France it's literally called "the Beautiful Period" (la Belle Époque) and I think the French name is used "as is" in the German language. In England, the turn-of-the-century period straddles the Victorian and Edwardian eras, both very evocative eras. The period also saw the United States grow at tremendous speed during its "Gilded Age". It was a period of great technological and artistic achievement around the world. That era's early days even inspired the Steampunk movement, which goes to show how deep and seductive its imagery is. The "Beautiful Period" ended with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 by the end of which the World greeted a new world power, the United States.

I devoured book after book on the subject, and since it was imagery that I was after, it was fine to be intellectually lazy and prefer books with lots of pictures. Of course my efforts focused on New York City of the period. I discovered hundreds of beautiful skyscrapers with elaborate facades. I got so enamored with the period that I started collecting vintage New York City postcards. The turn-of-the-century was the heyday of postcard collecting, so cards are very easy to find on eBay. It's also a relatively cheap hobby, and a few dollars will buy you a nice 100+ year old postcard. No half measure for me, so my collection continued to grow and eventually reached well over two thousand cards. I got so enamored with the period that I created a Facebook page devoted to vintage New York City postcards and to this day, I still update it daily.

I find lots of pleasure in knowing that the aesthetics in New York 1901 are based on authentic imagery, and I'm happy my publisher bought into this obsession wholesale. However, and you might find this strange, on more than one occasion I've refrained from telling people too much about the research behind the visuals when I introduce the game. The reason being that New York 1901 was always meant to be a family game and in my mind — tell me if I'm mistaken — I fear that if I mention all the historical sources behind the imagery, namely that every single skyscraper tile in New York 1901 was inspired by an actual building from that period, the game might come across as one of those heavy historical simulations which it simply isn't. Maybe I think too much.

Now the vast majority of the skyscrapers from the first wave were built in Lower Manhattan, in New York City's financial district. I'll admit that a game like Ticket to Ride and its familiar geographic theme (a map of North America with its biggest cities highlighted) showed that geographic familiarity would truly help ease players into a board game. It was definitely one of the creative process' Eureka moments to identify the financial district, and its familiar streets like Broadway and Wall Street as the ideal setting to use as backdrop for New York 1901.

From gallery of shocko

The almost final game board (above) and a vintage 1916 map of Lower Manhattan (below) with the game's play area outlined

From gallery of shocko

Now if you're going to build skyscrapers, you need to acquire the land to build them on. Here again, a bit of research would be the inspiration for some of the core mechanisms. Lower Manhattan was the oldest part of the city, and the size of the lots was determined when New York was just a small city in a young British colony; therefore, the lots were very small. Turn-of-the-century real estate developers had to acquire many small contiguous lots of land before they could finally build a "big" footprint building.

Moreover, it wasn't uncommon for pesky real estate holdouts to ruin a developer's grand plans. When confronted with a holdout, the developers often built around them. This gave us quite a few skyscrapers with very peculiar footprints. The fact that such Tetris-y structures actually existed gave me the freedom to use these shapes in the game. I didn't start with Tetris-y shapes in mind; in fact, the skyscrapers in my first prototypes were square or rectangular. If these Tetris-y buildings hadn't actually existed, I wouldn't have used these shapes since they would have felt somewhat "forced" onto the game. History dictated the shape of the tiles, or rather, it allowed me to "go Tetris" on them.

From gallery of shocko

The City Investing Building of 1908; a real estate holdout (lower left)
forced the developers to change their plans and build around the holdout

From gallery of shocko

City Investing tile in New York 1901

Some more historical tidbits: Turn-of-the-century construction technology was advancing rapidly, making structures obsolete very quickly. These advances were making it possible to build better and higher skyscrapers. It wasn't rare for buildings that were just ten or fifteen years old to be demolished to make way for better ones. This is also one of the concepts that I used in the game. Many of the game's concepts were "revealed" (sounds quasi-religious) by New York City history. I was just there to push it along and make it fit into a nice, efficient and, hopefully, fun format. I borrowed so much from New York that I feel that I owe the city. Then again, I am feeding the New York City myth by creating a game around it, right? So I guess I'm even with New York!

From gallery of shocko

Study using only two-square lots; in the final version, I opted for a mix of two- and three-square lots
which makes the evolving landscape more unpredictable

From gallery of shocko

Some of the prototype boards; I must have made thirty variants throughout development,
and it's actually relaxing to make a prototype on a Sunday afternoon

From gallery of shocko

My bathtub serving as archive. Can you spot the old (and moldy) copy of Machiavelli in there? A leftover from my teenage years

Final Thoughts

I'm off to Gen Con this year for the first time! I'm just thrilled to be able to attend the Mecca of North American gaming, and I'm pinching myself that all of this is happening to me. My family will be there, too, on the convention floor on the first day. It's not dad's game; it's the family's game. I went to Japan and immersed myself in the culture and brought back a Japanese wife for the "full experience". When our family (re)discovered board gaming, our passion culminated in the production of our own game. No half-measures at our house.

Chénier La Salle

Board Game: New York 1901
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