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Designer Diary: From Medieval Traders to Indian Zamindars to Old Western Trains, or The Long Winding Journey of Whistle Stop

Scott Caputo
United States
Santa Clara
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Microbadge: John Coltrane fanMicrobadge: CatholicMicrobadge: Copper GeeklisterMicrobadge: 2008 Secret Santa participantMicrobadge: Kachina fan
Board Game: Whistle Stop
How did a game originally about medieval merchants bringing tributes to various kings become a game about Old Western trains traversing the USA, supplying goods to boom towns? It's been quite the wild ride for sure.

It all began with a crazy idea: Could I make a tile-laying pick-up-and-deliver game? I was just coming off of the publication of my tile-laying game Kachina in 2009, so I was eager to make another tile-laying game but of a totally different type.

Tile-laying and pick-up-and-deliver? Those mechanisms seemed a bit at odds with each other. Sure, Steam has tiles in it, but you buy the tiles you want and place them where you want. I wanted a game in which you drew random tiles and built the board as you went, playing as medieval merchants who pick up goods and pay tribute to kings as they appeared on the board. My first game name was "Tribute".

From gallery of scottwildcatman

But what if no kings appeared on the played tiles? Early on I realized I wanted to have some known goals at one end of the board that all players could work toward. These were kings who wanted a lot of goods, so players needed to plan carefully to gather all of the right items. There would still be a number of lesser kings mixed in with the normal draw stack that would come out randomly, and these kings generally wanted fewer goods. You scored points with each successful tribute.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

What if you needed a good that wasn't on the board yet? I realized there needed to be a trading post where players could trade one good for another — yet scarcity was a good thing. I didn't want it to be too easy to get the goods you needed, so I decided there should be two classes of goods: common and rare with rare resources half as likely to appear on the tiles. A player would have to trade two common resources to get a rare resource.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

I knew I wanted "crazy" tiles, tiles with lots of twisting paths much as in games like Tsuro and Metro. I love mazes, and I liked the idea that even building the routes you needed with these "crazy" tiles would be a challenge. The early tiles had arrows going all different directions. Every turn, each player would draw one tile and place it on the board where they wanted. Players had to follow the arrows. Arrows went either forward or up and down; players were not allowed to move backward.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

I also knew I wanted players to control not one, but multiple traders, each of which could traverse different parts of the board. Each turn after playing a tile, players could move one trader. Players would need to decide which trader to move and players' traders would block each other. I didn't want players to have to remember which resources were collected by which traders, so I decided that all collected resources are available to all of your traders. This eliminated the need for elaborate bookkeeping.

I liked the idea that players could gain extra moves and store up extra moves for future turns. I called these food tokens. Players would be limited to how much food they could spend on their turn, but they could ration out the food as they saw fit. There would be an inn where players could gain these food tokens.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

So what happened when players paid tribute to a king on the far end of the board? The player's trader would come off the board and be placed on a special bonus track where the player could receive free resources and food. It was strong incentive for players to reach the end of the board and when one player got all of their traders off the board, the game would end.

Players would start the game by placing their traders along one of twenty starting spots on the far right of the board. I quickly realized that players needed more reasons to place their traders, so I added another starting column, this one in the middle of the board which players could reach in a few turns. This column would start with an inn, a trading post, a couple of kings, and a few other tiles. In this way, players had both mid-term and long term goals to consider when placing their traders.

Somewhere around this time as I was playtesting, I got feedback that the theme didn't really make any sense. If the board was a map of Europe, how were there so many kings so close to each other? My dad did some research and proposed a startling idea: What if the game were set in India and the kings were zamindars, that is, Indian aristocrats? The unusual exotic theme appealed to me, so I decided to retheme the game.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

I arrived at SPIEL 2012 to promote the release of my game Völuspá, and I brought four games to pitch to publishers, including "Zamindar", my newly rethemed "Tribute" prototype. Based on good advice from another game designer, I asked my publisher, White Goblin Games, for help in getting contacts at companies I wanted to meet. I ended up pitching "Zamindar" to KOSMOS, Ravensburger, Lookout Games, Argentum Verlag, and White Goblin Games. Several of them wanted to play a full game, and I remember fondly playing "Zamindar" in the SPIEL cafeteria while drinking a cup of tea, people walking by with plates of food, peering at the game we were playing. Both Lookout and White Goblin Games expressed interest, and I went home pleased that I had placed both copies of "Zamindar" with publishers.

After SPIEL, I got the most feedback from Lookout as they were definitely playing the game and seemed to enjoy it. They told me they were bringing the prototype to Nürnburg, where they would play all of the best prototypes to decide which games to publish. I was excited my game was in such serious consideration, but soon enough Lookout let me know they were passing on my game. From their perspective, there wasn't enough going on in the game, and the dominant strategy was to always go for the end goals as quickly as possible. White Goblin Games went dormant for a while, so both publication leads ended.

This led to the first round of soul-searching for the game. How good was this game? Could I really overcome Lookout's feedback? I got to work. First, I decided that there should be more incentive for players to make tributes to the zamindars in the middle of the board. Each of the eight "lesser" zamindars would have a unique crest. When you made a tribute to one of these zamindars, you received their crest. The player who collected the most crests would earn a large number of points, and players in second and third place would receive points as well.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Then I brainstormed a ton of new ideas for other types of tiles that could be in the game. Originally, I thought these extra tiles might be an expansion idea, but I realized the base game needed these new tiles. I came up with the stables tile that could give players a horse token, which was like a food token, except players could skip over other players or go backwards. I came up with the elephant tile that could give players an elephant token, a way to earn extra points for making tributes. There was also the Royal Court, where players could turn in their crests for points. Needless to say, the gameplay transformed with all of these new mechanisms.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

I attended Protospiel San Jose in April 2014, showing off my newly revised "Zamindar" along with other games. I caught the eye of Victory Point Games, to whom I showed the design, but they had some concerns about the game length. The game ended once one player got all of their traders off the board. This variable ending condition could lead to longer games — sometimes over ninety minutes — and it certainly could lead to a feeling of drag toward the end.

At Protospiel, I also ran into Ted Alspach of Bézier Games, whom I knew from attending a local game convention year after year. I approached Ted and asked him whether he wanted to see my game. About a month later, I showed the game to Ted and Toni at Kublacon. I remember the session well. We played on the top floor of the hotel, a room with lots of windows filling the room with mid-day sun. Toward the end, Seth Jaffee walked by. He quickly picked up how the game worked and started making suggestions to Ted and Toni about "you can do this and this and then go there…" Within a few weeks, I heard from Ted that he wanted to sign the game, and I felt like it might be finally be done.

I quickly realized how wrong I was. First came an intense period of changes. Ted assumed the role of developer for the game. As Ted likes to say, I had a created a train game; I just didn't know it yet. I was open to the new theme of Old Western trains, so I set about thinking of new names and metaphors for all of the game components: Player would control trains, not traders. They'd use coal to move, not food. They'd deliver to towns, not zamindars. They collected stock, not crests. They gained whistles, not horses. They found gold instead of elephants. They brought their stock to the stock market, not their crests to the royal court. It all fit together pretty well.

Next came development on the tiles. The arrows had to go. I had a feeling the arrows were too busy. First, Ted tried long rectangular tiles, but that still seemed overwhelming to players, so he suggested hex tiles.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

This reduced the number of paths per tile from 8 to 6. I was worried this might limit mobility and the maze-like feeling I wanted, but this change ended up working fine. I still got to have some pretty crazy twisty paths even on the hex tiles. Also, Ted added blank tiles (i.e., tiles with no stops on them) which turned out to be really useful in letting players move their trains further down the board.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

In the prototype, players got a free move, then could spend coal to make two extra moves, but Ted didn't like the two types of movement in the game. Instead, he proposed that players receive two coal on every turn to do their normal moves as well. Players also got to start with three whistles, so they could avoid getting blocked by other players.

In order to address the game length issue, I first suggested that once the board was completely filled with tiles, there would be a maximum of five more turns. This involved giving the start player a special marker that they would need to flip over, after which they would keep track of the final five turns. This was an improvement over the old ending condition, but it involved too much bookkeeping for the start player and felt less streamlined.

Ted suggested the game should take a set number of turns, and he thought the supply of coal could work as the timer. A trail of piles of coal tokens signaled which turn the game was on. On each turn, players took all of the coal off one pile. The working title was "Western Steam", and it seemed to really be coming together.

I had to go to London for a business trip in January 2015, so I brought "Western Steam" to a Meetup event by the London On Board group and they seemed to really enjoy it. Drinking a pint of beer and eating a hearty plate of fish and chips while playing the game in the quaint upstairs of a pub, I felt like the game development might finally be done.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Ted decided to do a blind playtest of "Western Steam" with a group of gamers at Yahoo in March 2015. I posed as another playtester, but I was in charge of explaining the rules. I was hopeful, but my hopes were quickly dashed as the other playtesters at the table completely trashed my game. Nobody enjoyed it. One said there was literally no game in the box. They struggled to say anything good about my game. Afterward, Ted said he had never experienced such a harsh playtest. Ted was still committed to the game, but he said it was up to me to make changes so that it could pass the same test again. Gulp.

Thus came the second round of soul-searching about the game — even deeper this time. Maybe I couldn't make this game work. Maybe I would fail. Though the criticism from the blind playtest hurt, I had to listen to the underlying complaints and try to address them. They seemed to boil down to 1) not enough player interaction and 2) not enough meaningful decisions.

I had some ideas of how to address the first point. Many parts of the game were too nice. If players tied for the most stocks, they shared the points. Effectively, most people could gain some points from the stocks without working too hard. Also, players started with three whistles, so they were never really blocked. Both of these parts needed to change. I changed the stock scoring so that there was a separate score for each stock type and only the top player received the points — no ties! To accomplish this, I numbered the stocks 1 through 6, and if two players tied, the player with the lower stock number would win. In this way, players needed to pay attention to which stocks other players were collecting. Also, I reduced the number of starting whistles to one to make players sweat a little more and have trouble getting around opponents.

I belong to the League of Gamemakers, and one benefit of the League is being able to rely on the collective knowledge and expertise of its members. I met up with Teale Fristoe, a fellow Leaguer and designer of Corporate America, in the summer of 2016, and he proposed the most important change yet. From the beginning of the design, players were forced to play a tile every turn, and that was part of what the playtesters at Yahoo didn't like. Being forced to play a tile every turn may not help you. and it slowed the game down, too. Teale suggested that players should play a tile only when they need to, as in only when their train would go down a path with no endpoint. I loved this idea. This changed everything. Players moved their trains every turn, but they played tiles only when they really wanted to go somewhere off the edge of the board. I allowed players to play multiple tiles at once so that they could potentially move a train a long distance on one turn, something that was never possible before in the game.

I went back to Ted saying I had fixed the game, but Ted wasn't so sure. He still wanted more. He wanted more ways to use resources. What if players could trade in resources to do various actions like trading? I admit I initially hated the idea. It seemed overly complex, but then it inspired a variation of his idea. What if players could hire workers who gave them a special action or ability? Once hired, these workers would stay with the player, who could use their benefit turn after turn until they were hired away by another player. That seemed fun. In my initial prototype of this idea, I had characters like the Coal Loader, who let players turn in a coal for more coal, and the Store Owner, who let them gain any token they wanted. Soon, I had twelve characters, each with interesting powers and some of them highly interactive. The Outlaw, for example, forced other players to pay the Outlaw's player to leave a town.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

The addition of these workers seemed to kick the game into an even higher level of fun and strategy. Every game would have a random set of workers available. They added variety and another way for players to build their own path to victory. Ted opted to turn the workers into upgrades, and all of the powers were themed around different railroad cars, objects, or buildings.

When Ted played the new version with the new tile-laying rules and the upgrades, I could tell by the smile on his face that the game might finally be done. We did another blind playtest, this time at his house with another group of gamers. Again, I sat in and this time at the end of the playtest, everyone at the table seemed to really like the game, giving an average rating of 8. That felt good.

To give a little more praise for Ted, the first pass of the art was more realistic, featuring gritty landscapes like traditional train games, and he rightly decided it wasn't the right look for the game. Eventually, he decided on a more whimsical direction, with brighter colors and cheerful tokens. (Those whistle-shaped whistle tokens are very cute.) He also came up with the final game name: Whistle Stop.

I'm grateful for all the help I received along the way in Whistle Stop's six-year development. I'm glad the version I submitted to Lookout Games did not get picked up and the version I blind playtested at Yahoo did not get made. As fellow Leaguer and game designer Luke Laurie likes to say, "Good games take time." I feel like that has been true with Whistle Stop, and I'm very proud of the final version.

Scott Caputo

From gallery of scottwildcatman
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