It's a Monday morning in late June 2011. I've just started a long train journey, and it's giving me time to reflect on the events of the last few months. I hope today's journey isn't as eventful as one that started not too long ago with a Facebook post...
Angus Abranson was sharing news of a contest – $10,000 for designing a new Ticket to Ride map – and that sounded right up my street. I've been designing games for years, and competing in the Ticket to Ride world championships, from the regional qualifiers to the Paris final, gave me a great insight into the license and its community. I couldn't imagine many contestants with that kind of edge. There was a serious downside, however. The deadline was a matter of weeks away and, unlike some, I'd be starting from scratch. There was some serious catching up to do!
I made a bold decision. If I could come up with a good idea quickly, I'd put my all into developing it; if not, I'd walk away and let my ideas rot on the design shelf.
The problem with shelving decisions is that they rarely get any easier down the line – but thankfully that wasn't to be a concern this time. A chat with my regular design group (David Brain, Sebastian Bleasdale and Paul Mansfield) edged me away from setting the map on The (Alan) Moon and towards India. In particular, David pointed me to a post on BrettSpiel in which Brett Gilbert had set out the thematic core of the license in a beautifully simple way and left me with no doubt. The winner was going to be based on a real map and it'd better be steam trains, which means pre-WWI.
It took only a week to pick the source map – search for "1909 India railway map" and, if you're feeling lucky, you may find the one I used – and by then I knew what my rules tweak would be. When work colleagues asked about the game I was traveling to Paris for, I told them it was like "The Traveling Salesman Problem", but you didn't have to finish where you started. If that sounds like gobbledygook to you, imagine how my colleagues feel when I start talking about board games. I knew that making players finish where they started would be rather harsh, but I couldn't see any harm in rewarding it.
The tricky part was figuring out exactly what the reward was for. I wanted established playing styles to remain viable, so that you'd feel at home in exotic lands, while making the new bonus an interesting option within each style. That meant giving a larger reward to playing styles that need to make larger sacrifices in order to earn the new bonus, and that style of play turns out to be players focusing on tickets (instead of earning points via building). The original bonus was 5 pts per ticket, and the Mandala table was added later to refine this, although it wasn't called that at first. "Grand Tour" would work fine for the French- and English-speaking judges, and the production version would be someone else's problem. Kudos to Art Director Cyrille for solving that one, by coming up with a name that's equally confusing for everyone!
I'm getting ahead of myself. I had just sat down with the map and the important part of this diversion is that I knew each city would need to have multiple connections to support the rules tweak. That's tricky when you are trying to be historically accurate, but the source map came with a couple of handy hints. Firstly, the crucial Raipur <> Waltain route was incomplete, so I moved the date forward to 1911. Secondly, the map shows steamship routes which provide valuable connections for locations with blue wobbly stuff to one side. They also allowed me to approach 60 train slots per player, the number needed to support 45 train cars each. Having less would risk the map feeling too similar to TtR: Switzerland. [At this time, I had no idea that Switzerland was due a reprint.] I wanted my map to feel unique and squeezing 240-ish train slots on to a triangular map, with the standard dimensions, was an interesting puzzle.
My favourite version of TtR is the Ticket to Ride: USA 1910 Mega Game. It's amazing how much more dynamic the original map becomes when a couple of cities have extra tickets, and I was always going to follow suit. My first effort went a little too far by giving Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta six each. This seemed fine until I played with a logistics analyst (Lizzie Baggott). All three players completed 10+ tickets. Having that many tickets to manage is hard work – but not compared to designing a new set of tickets!
Doing a new set of tickets, from scratch, gave me the opportunity to make some important balance changes. Poona went from three tickets to two in order to reduce congestion. Calcutta <> Calicut was too good and became Calcutta <> Erode. The hard part on such a densely populated map was finding 58 tickets without any set of three forming a triangle and without any pair being too similar. In the end I had to accept a few tickets being only three train cars different; two of those require a locomotive so they feel more like four, and the other one will continue to bug me. Frustrating as this was, it was time well spent. India's big cities ended up with five tickets each and just over a quarter of tickets include one of them.
The European map had just as big an influence on my design. Locomotive cards are needed to build steamship (aka ferry) routes, and the route lengths are deliberately similar. I knew these worked well, and I was confident that combining them with some American features would create a distinctive feel.
When it came to coloring the map, I wasn't going to be so traditional. I have long believed that the weaker routes, which Chris Martin helped identify, should be grey because this makes life easier for players who have been forced into taking a detour. I also wanted to have fewer grey routes to discourage players from drawing train cards from the top so often (in the hope of getting cheap locomotives for ferry routes). These changes were made with tournament play in mind, and I hope the online community will get to try them out soon. For tournament level play, I'd also suggest dealing an extra card to the last player (last two with four or five players ) as this minimizes any start player advantage.
I've included a picture above of the first map I printed (3rd March 2011) and, at first sight, the layout looks very similar to the final one. Don't let that deceive you. My playtesters put up with negative experiences so that you won't have to. The tiniest detail, like making Calcutta <> Dhubri a double route, can make the difference between players competing on a tense and exciting map or a player being blown away because half of his tickets are impossible. Francis Dickinson is the record holder with the only negative score, and you can thank him whenever the Madras <> Waltain connection saves you from a similar fate.
Having three blind test groups was key to the rapid development process. Their feedback meant I needed to see a problem only once, for myself, to know it was a recurring one. Linda Lait's feedback, in particular, gave me the confidence to make a vital last minute change: Khandwa <> Waltain became a single and Bezwada <> Waltain a double (again). This ensured East-West parity in a four-player game and helped ensure that players wouldn't fight too much over the short routes between Bombay and Delhi.
I lost track of how many test games were played at local clubs, and I owe much to the kindness of the many strangers who joined in. I'm going to limit myself to one more playtesting tale, one that involves three work colleagues (Sarah Appleby, Tim Dellard and Peter O'Neill) who were relatively new to board games and at their first Swiggers meeting. Watching the way they interacted with the game – and each other – reminded me what all the hard work was for. Game design, at its best, is about creating an environment where positive interactions flourish, and seeing such a vivid example helped fuel my continuing efforts. I'm pleased to say they've been back multiple times!
The biggest "thank you" goes to Michal Cross. Try to imagine sifting through 600+ entry forms and you'll realize how important first impressions are. Writing about strategic options, balance, and the spirit of the country may be great when someone sits down and carefully reads your form – but how was I going to get that far? A flashy new mechanism or map idea might work, yet I didn't have one worth playing. Name recognition might help, but is the sifter going to recognize a runner-up's name a year later? A well-drawn map, on the other hand, that captures the eye and shows that some serious effort has gone in. It must be worth reading this lengthy form again...
So, when Fransje Koning was done showing me how to play and suggested I ask her husband to do the artwork, I leapt at the chance. It was only a week before I planned to post the entry form, but Michal was between jobs at the time and may have been suffering from cabin fever. Even so, I am amazed that he was able to produce this in such a short space of time, with a little one to look after.
The trickiest part, from my perspective, was getting the city colors right. I'd had a lot of complaints from testers (mostly Stephen Wright) about not being able to find the cities on their tickets. The cities are more tightly packed than usual and that makes them harder to find. I needed some way to make it easier, the kind of thing a player wouldn't even realize they were using. My solution was to introduce city colours and to base them on a two-dimensional color wheel, with lighter shades toward the center and darker ones toward the edge. My trigonometry skills were a little rusty but I had the easy job. Michal had to translate my single color per city into shaded city icons, without compromising his artistic standards. I'm sure you'll agree he did an amazing job.
If you compare this to the final map, you'll see a few differences. Time was precious, and continual testing led to both route changes and color changes. The artwork was overhauled by a talented and patient (with me) team at Days of Wonder. It looks even more fantastic, so I'll excuse their (historically inaccurate) Pakistani Tiger!
I fear I've made Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 2 – India & Switzerland sound like a military operation with which few contestants could compete. There's an element of truth in that. A large cash prize will attract organized amateurs and professional designers alike. Don't be disheartened. We all have to start somewhere and I hope you've learnt as much as I did from my first design contest. That was Hippodice many years ago, and my feeble entry fell at the first hurdle. It's been an epic journey from there and I've been fortunate to have some great companions. I'm glad I made today's journey, too. The train has just arrived in Stroud and I'll be testing prototypes with some of Britain's most talented designers. I wonder what will be on the cards today?