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Designer Diary: The History of Coal Country

Kane Click
United States
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Coal Country is the second prototype I developed, starting work on it immediately after the 2012 Origins Game Fair and first showing it at Gen Con 2012.

The first prototype I developed, the one before Coal Country, was intended to be my one and only game design, which I had worked on sporadically over the span of a couple years as a personal project. At the time, I was running our campus's gaming research group, which developed from an overwhelming number of students being interested in video game research in my popular culture classes. Upon forming the group, I made the decision to also open it up to board games as I was primarily a board gamer.

What we found was that the students interested in board games were primarily interested in designing board games, whereas students interested in video games were primarily interested in writing about video games. These two interests did not work with one another for a single meeting. As such, we made the decision to spin off a board game design subgroup where we would play prototypes. At some point, this first prototype of mine made an appearance and received a strong reception, which encouraged me to pick up the pace on its design and take it more seriously.

Eventually, I considered this design "finished", but didn't know what to do with it. It was very large, and I came to the realization that if I ever wanted to send it to a publisher, it would have to be broken up and pitched as a core game with a number of expansions. With that in mind, I remembered reading a post by Donald X. Vaccarino on BGG about his prototype for Dominion and decided to revisit the post for ideas. What really struck me upon revisiting the post was the process of showing a game to Rio Grande Games, specifically Jay Tummelson.

At the time, I did not understand how games were pitched and how meetings worked, but I really connected with the description of the face-to-face process; I felt as a first-time designer I could best explain my prototype and how it worked in that setting, as opposed to sending it somewhere unsolicited and not being able to salvage a decision with a properly explained answer. I was also a humongous Rio Grande Games fan and figured my sensibilities, which were largely shaped by their games anyhow, would jive with theirs. After some back and forth with myself, I decided to take the plunge and emailed Rio Grande about setting up a submission meeting at a future convention. Within an hour, which I eventually learned is par for the course with Jay's communication, I had a response and after a couple of more emails, a meeting was set for Origins 2012.

Why am I telling you about a game other than Coal Country? Well, one of the takeaways I hope readers get from this post is about the benefits of working with a publisher, or at the very least, taking meetings with publishers. For instance, the idea for Coal Country was born out of my first Rio Grande meeting. For that meeting, I knew I had thirty minutes, which at the time seemed incredibly tight. I worked out a much-rehearsed twenty-minute presentation and left ten minutes for questions and comments.

While waiting for my meeting, Walter Hunt (designer of Rails of New England) came over, chatted with me for a bit, and offered some pointers for meeting with Jay. First, he said that if the meeting was going well, Jay would interrupt and ask a slew of questions. I was particularly excited about this, as with all my prototypes I write a personal-use version of the rules that includes justification or support for every single inclusion and rule in the game. Second, he said that even if Jay was not interested in signing the game at the convention, I should ask him whether he would be willing to see the game again pending revisions in relation to his suggestions and comments.

Well, that thirty-minute meeting ended up going over two hours, with Jay asking his slew of questions and me responding with why X was this way or why Y was that way, and so on. Jay also pitched a series of ideas aimed at increasing player interaction and breaking up the certainty of results that the game's economy could possibly lead to amongst experienced players. All told, I filled half a Moleskine with notes from the meeting. Jay was interested in the design and wanted to see it again. Feeling particularly invigorated, and wanting to get to work on the game as quickly as possible, I set up a second meeting for Gen Con 2012, which gave me only two-and-a-half months to alter and test the game. After the RGG meeting and with encouragement from Jay to do so, I went about trying to show the game to other publishers at the convention, with a few taking me up on it, which produced even more notes.

That night in the hotel, I began going over the notes from these meetings, classifying them into what was useful for the prototype, what was not, and what was a great idea that did not work with the prototype, but was intriguing nonetheless. As it would turn out, that final category gave me enough material to flesh out a whole new game, which is now Coal Country.

I found that the third category could be broken down into two larger trends. First, there was some concern amongst publishers about worker placement games in general and how their sales had fallen off the cliff. I heard this at multiple stops. Oddly, I thought of my prototype as an area control game, not a worker placement game. Also, I was still purchasing a lot of worker placement games, so I was intrigued by this seemingly incongruent statement. Jay had mentioned that he, personally, was growing disinterested in games in which you simply put a worker in a certain area to perform a certain function, with nothing innovative beyond that aside from slight variations in goals and theme.

Second, there was some concern about my initial game's economy being too static, with everything costing a specific amount and taking a specific number of turns to build, and that experienced players would know the probable outcome too soon in the course of a game. (A very popular worker placement game at the time was used as an example of this issue by different publishers.)

The next morning I got up and started my very long drive back to Lincoln, Nebraska from Columbus, Ohio. With the notes still clear in my head, and with lots of thinking time ahead of me, I put a notebook on the passenger seat and would pull over to take notes whenever I had what I thought was a good idea.

It ended up being an incredibly long drive. I was particularly intrigued by the economic comments as I was growing increasingly bored with that first prototype's economy. The core of its mechanisms, I felt, were fresh and fun, but the economy was probably chosen because, well, that is just how the games I had been playing worked. I figured that was just what companies were looking for.

I felt that games are chiefly about social interaction, and we know that social interaction disrupts traditional social scientific notions of economic practices, so I had kind of told myself that if things went well and I could make a second game, I would want to make one that reflected a more humanistic approach to economics. I wanted to make a game that would embrace concepts that I, myself, found fascinating, such as Austrian economics, roundaboutness, dissolution of supply-and-demand relationships, etc.

I had also just come off the mountain of testing and spreadsheet work needed to accurately determine cost and build lengths of various building types, and I was mostly burnt out on it. For example, that first prototype's pitch binder contained over 75 pages of spreadsheets, charts, and visualizations of the balance data alone, which was the product of a pile of testing and modeling to determine the range of turn value against player interaction against game length. I am glad I did the work as I learned a good deal about game design and testing from doing so, but, man, it was certainly an endeavor for me at that stage of my design "career".

Being interested in developing a game that was about the manipulation of traditional supply-and-demand relationships, I started by thinking about real world influences on said relationships and their disruption. Growing up in Chicagoland, I always found the role that corruption played in infrastructure to be fairly fascinating. I decided that a good way of bringing this to life in a game would be to assign your actions differing levels of "influence", which would then disrupt pricing to varying degrees. I felt this idea worked best if the institutions charging you a price were also in on the corruption, with what they are charging being based on what they know you have. In this way, the corruption was a negotiation, not a one-sided affair.

Additionally, this pricing-based-on-earnings mechanism provided a natural comeback mechanism, which helped alleviate issues I was hearing about a game's economy inherently producing certainty of results. In regards to theme, the two that immediately came to mind were mafia and mining, two areas that we know utilized corruption to achieve various ends. Having had experience writing about the rhetoric of mine unionization in Harlan County, Kentucky, I went with mining.

The second obstacle to tackle was the whole "worker placements are dead" trend I was hearing. As a player, I was unwilling to accept the suggestion, so I set about thinking about ways to do something about the whole "put worker here, do this action" concern. I had already decided to make an economy that was tied more directly to player interaction and I wanted to allow players to interact with the economy, so I simply tied the degree of influence per action to the placement of workers. In this way, worker placement achieves two things: completes an action and disrupts the economy. I achieved this by assigning each worker a different strength, so you had to manage a workforce that was both limited and varied. The placement gave you the ability to act, and the influence level of the worker determined both the acting order and the degree to which you acted.

To up the ante on player interaction, I decided to make the influence level of a player's work force secret, with their influence number placed face down, only to be revealed upon action. Thematically, I rationalized this as, "Sure, you know where your competition is sending its workers, but you don't know the degree to which they are going to act until you get there". To fit with the mining theme, I converted "workers" into "foremen" and gave players the task of building and expanding a mine. Foremen could be placed on mineshaft tiles to mine an amount of coal tied to their influence level, on the brokers to sell their mined coal, or at the market to purchase mine expansions, utilities to increase the production of your mine, or buildings to provide special action opportunities.

By combining my solutions to these two trends that I was hearing at the convention, I was left with a worker placement mechanism that layered multiple workforce management concerns while also allowing me to include principles of humanistic economics in a board game. Furthermore, I had a game idea that reflected things a publisher — one I very much wanted to work with — told me he wanted to see in a game.

On top of these agendas, I also set myself a final criteria: The game needed to be played in under an hour. This came about as a result of three things. First, the previous prototype played at two hours, which was a concern for many publishers. Second, I knew I would be working a tight schedule if I were to get this new game ready for Gen Con, so a game that was shorter would get far more testing than one that was two hours long. Third, my favorite games are all generally under an hour long as they get on our table more.

Upon arriving back in Lincoln, I had almost the entire game and the game's general value pyramids journaled out. I spent the next day at the university library looking up 20th century coal-pricing data and its degrees of variation to help firm up the backbone of the game's economy.

A couple of days later, I had a playable prototype, and it was off to the testing races. Now, if you recall, I previously mentioned that my original intention was to have only the one game and be done with design depending on the results of that Origins convention. I certainly pitched it that way to my wife. So when I returned saying that I wanted to go back to a convention to show the game in a couple months, she was a little confused. My justification for that second convention was that, in addition to having a revised version of my first prototype, I would have a totally new prototype to show as well. That way, I could take even more meetings and make the cost of a second convention more justifiable. Since I was not teaching that summer, it was agreed that this was a generally safe way of keeping myself busy, and my "career" as a game designer (instead of "a designer of a game") had officially begun.

The initial Coal Country prototype focused primarily on the marketplace, with the only actions available to everyone every turn being selling coal and mining your mineshaft tiles. Everything else — from mine expansion, to utility acquisition, to special action building construction — was all achieved from a combination of a blind market tile draw every turn and the manufactured scarcity produced by outmaneuvering your opposition. In that configuration, the game played almost purely tactical as your best laid plans could be dashed from a poor draw or a singular misread of your opponents' goals. It was a game about making the best out of bad situations, which seemed to me to be a great fit for a coal mining game.

The second thing the Coal Country prototype did was it took its theme perhaps a bit too lightly. Listen, corruption in coal mining can be pretty bleak stuff. Moreover, while we know corruption existed, and we mostly know exactly where it existed, there are still very real people living in those areas that, perhaps, would not want to be painted with that brush today.

As such, I developed a fictional game world set in the Black Lung Mountains, which was sort of a compression of various moments of 20th century coal mining. The game initially relied on a heavy degree of dark humor to lighten the theme. I named the game "Black Lung", and pitched it as such. Unfortunately, both publishers I showed the prototype to did not care for the name. When the game went to art, RGG suggested changing the name and, perhaps, tightening up the location. Since mid-century Appalachian coal mining was always my personal mental touchpoint during design, and also an area of personal interest, we landed on that for a theme, while still keeping the exact location vague for the aforementioned reason. The name Coal Country was a natural fit and came about almost immediately.

At my Gen Con 2012 follow-up meeting with Jay on my first prototype, we wrapped up relatively quickly and he saw that I had another box with me. He asked me a question, one which I have come to regard as one of my favorite recurring Jay-isms: "What else do you got?" I showed him the prototype for "Black Lung". To my pleasant surprise, he immediately got what was going on, compared the game to a former "big deal" title, which I regarded as a huge compliment, while also commenting that it solved that game's "problems". I was over the moon — he liked BOTH my games!

Then he added, "I have bad news for you. I'm off this game (first prototype) and I'm now on this one (Black Lung)." He immediately followed that up by mentioning that the 30- to 45-minute playing time as a big plus as the marketplace was short of complex economic games that could be played in a relatively short period of time.

Since Jay had some time in his production schedule before he could get to the game, we started spitballing ways of firming up the mechanisms. During this back and forth, Jay wound up asking a question that totally reinvented the way it was played: "If I own a mine, why can't I just do whatever I want?" It was a fascinating question and was asked earnestly. What would happen if we just let people do whatever they wanted?

The conversation flowed from there, and it ended up with me flipping the script on the game. Why don't we make this about the mines instead of the market? Everyone could do everything; you were no longer simply cut off from a desired action by the game's mechanisms, as before. Whereas the original marketplace was largely metaphorical, we could now create direct marketplaces by shifting the focus to the mines. As such, foremen would now go to the construction company to build, to the utility companies for utilities, to the permit office to expand, etc. Everyone could do everything as long as they could pay for it and (in some cases) as long as supply remained.

This idea also reverberated with my interest in human irrationality disrupting economies. For example, what if someone overpays to expand their mine in some way and it negatively impacts their chances of winning? Oh well, it was their decision to do this. And you know what? Perhaps they got a feeling of satisfaction or completion from building their mine in that way. It is essentially impulse buying, but in game form. In this new configuration, the game did not govern those behaviors; the players playing the game did. Not only did this seemingly simple question change this game, but it changed the way I evaluate games that I play and design today. It was simply brilliant.

This suggestion also produced a couple of additional changes, both for the better. First, it placed a higher degree of emphasis on properly managing shifts in economic pricing. If I can do anything, I need to make sure I am managing affordable prices for those actions. This also placed more weight on the relationship of your company earnings to supplier pricing. Since players were no longer fighting primarily over individual tiles, the order of purchasing became even more tied to company earnings. In the initial prototype, company earnings were used to break ties. In the new prototype, ties became rarer, which gave earnings-tied pricing more influence in the game as it established the entire purchasing order, not just the overall purchasing winner and the price they would pay.

Second, the game developed a more even balance of tactics and strategy. You can plan long-term strategies now, but there will be turn-by-turn disruptions that require tactical navigation. Conversely, you can still play the game completely tactically and have a fair shot of winning. This grants a wider range of players, whether experienced and inexperienced, the ability to win a game of Coal Country.

After talking through this suggestion, Jay and I set a time frame for revisions. The revisions ended up getting postponed until the 2013 Origins Game Fair due to shifting production schedules. At that time, Jay took the game and the decision to publish was made shortly thereafter.

Now, you are probably saying to yourself, "Man, that was a long time ago!" or "What kind of problems came up in the game that delayed it so much?" There is a funny story about that. At Origins 2013, Jay and I had wrapped up our meeting and were chatting about this and that. Jay started telling me about a movie he had just watched and how he thought the theme might make a good board game as it had never been done. He wondered whether I had any games, perhaps even "Black Lung", that could use that theme. I spent that night researching the theme, but came to the conclusion that I could not fit it onto my then-current slate of games.

However, once again, I had an idea for a game that was a direct reflection of a publisher's stated interests. As such, I set about making a game based on that theme, which I showed Jay at Origins 2014. He liked that game and took it. Because the theme was new and unused, the decision was made to flip the publishing order of the two games and to get the new one to market before someone else used the theme. After some time passed, and after Jay had discussed this new game with his partners, the decision was made that it was "too controversial to publish". Now, think about all the games out there and how many have questionable themes or inclusions. I had somehow managed to make one that was more unpublishable than all of those!

As much of a bummer as it was to have the game dropped, I took solace in having achieved something so unique. Since then I have told a few people in the industry about this game and its theme, which I will not state here because it is still unused, and it produces the largest eyerolls ever. It is an extremely underwhelming answer to the question "What is too controversial to publish?" Still, everyone agrees they themselves would not touch it. So, after some delay, that game was dropped and "Black Lung"/Coal Country got put back on the schedule.

I hope in reading this diary that not only will players get a better understanding of what Coal Country is attempting to achieve, but also what confluence of events produced the attempt. It is a sophisticated economic game, in my opinion. It is a totally separate post, one that I may write someday, but the game is deeply steeped in economic and cultural theory at its core. It is also a product of a fair degree of historical research, even if we decentralized the final product. For instance, coal pricing shifts in-game in a manner that is generally historically accurate, while also fully embracing players' ability to influence and disrupt pricing. This is the product of some good, old-fashioned, dusty book research.

Furthermore, I hope readers who have themselves developed a household game will find the process of pitching games to publishers more approachable and, quite honestly, fun. By preparing myself, listening, and engaging with publishers, I have developed a number of games beyond what I originally intended to achieve. Coal Country is my first game on the shelves, but more are coming soon.

Current players may be interested in a set of supplemental variant rules we have posted on the Rio Grande Games website and on BGG. The game's boxed rules include two variants, one set in a world where mining is more highly regulated, and one in which mining is less regulated. Beyond those, there are number of individual rules that players can basically toggle on and off to adjust the game to their interests. These are listed in the online rule variants, and they have been arranged according to whether they add or subtract time from the game as we know for a lot of families and groups that playing time is a big concern when choosing games.

One variation I strongly encourage players to implement is the ability to store coal between turns. This adds money shortages into the game and empowers the village buildings. Coal Country's economy is fairly unique, so the boxed rules are presented in a fashion to help players dive right into the game, without too much added adversity. However, experienced players may enjoy the added intrigue and strategy that money shortages add into the game. For intermediate players, I recommend holding five coal; for advanced players, ten coal; for expert players, fifteen coal. I recommend it highly.

On a final note, I want to thank Jay Tummelson for, more or less, developing me as a game designer. The meetings described in this post came at a time in my life when I had deep reservations about the career that was basically chosen for me, and I had lost faith in my ability to perform in it while maintaining a balanced life. I was concerned with how I wanted to support my family, and with what kind of husband and father I wanted to be. I wanted to do something that I, myself, had chosen, something that made me a happier person. I would not have kept making games if that first meeting with Jay had simply been a ten-minute blow off session. I have had those since, and they hurt. Instead, Jay took the time to ask questions, learn about my game, learn about me, and learn about how I thought about games. He has made time for me at every convention and has responded to every email.

So while Jay and I are not close and I am probably just another designer to him — there are 500+ RGG titles before mine, after all — he has had a profound impact on me. This game has made a difference in my life. I hope you enjoy it.

Kane M. Click

Thirty pounds of Coal Country
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