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Designer Diary: Passing Through Petra, or The Making of a Tile-Pushing Game

J. Alex Kevern
United States
Mountain View
CA - California
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In early August 2018, the Renegade Game Studios team was preparing to submit the BoardGameGeek entry for Passing Through Petra. BGG has a list of mechanisms that are available to choose from to categorize a game:

"Which mechanisms apply most to this game?" asked Danni Loe, marketing manager at Renegade, in our Slack channel.

As I read through the list, I realized the game doesn't fit really any of what's listed. "Maybe set collection?" I answer. "It definitely doesn't fit cleanly into these categories."

Dan Bojanowski, lead developer at Renegade, chimes in. "There are elements of engine building & action selection, but neither of those are listed.... tough to define."

'Combo-rrific mid-weight euro", he adds, with a smiley face.

How did we get here? A game that defies classification! Well, it all started when… (flashback music plays and suddenly we are back in time, eighteen months earlier...)


I had been experimenting with different prototypes that involved "tile-pushing" for a while. One thing was clear — pushing tiles was fun, but it needed to be integrated in a way that felt natural to avoid a "gimmicky" feel. The mechanism naturally felt like pushing a caravan or an assembly line of things, but it was clear I needed to wed the mechanism to theme before it could start to come together.

In an extraordinary breakthrough by humanity, we have access to all of human knowledge inside our magical pocket-rectangles. So in a typical internet deep-dive, I started reading about Petra, an ancient city in present day Jordan built in a vast canyon complex with towering buildings, a city literally carved out of cliff-faces. To my delight, and frankly surprise, I couldn't find a game that had been made about this place before.

One of the most distinct qualities about Petra is the long, narrow slot canyon — called the "Siq" — that the caravans passed through to enter the city. In my previous tile-pushing experiments, I had played around with a mechanism in which I had a long line of tiles pushing into a supply area from which players could take tiles. I realized that this functioned much like the Siq did in Petra — where the long line of tiles would represent the caravans entering through the Siq, and the supply area would be the plaza at the end of the Siq, where the canyon opens up at the base of the famous Treasury building. (Fun fact: It's not actually a treasury, but rather a mausoleum.) These became the two supply areas: the Siq, which held more tiles but players could take only one, and the Plaza, which held fewer tiles, but players could take two.

The Siq

The end of the Siq, with the Treasury coming into view

The Treasury (Al-Khazneh)

The second tile-pushing element to come together was how the player boards functioned. You have a line of six tiles sitting below your board that constitute your market. Anytime you take new tiles from the Siq or the Plaza, you push them into the left side of this line. This literally pushes the line of tiles, and anything that spits out the right side, you put above your player board in a designated slot for that tile type. It's like an assembly line of tiles that you're constantly managing throughout the game.

Thematically, as traders enter Petra, they're looking to sell their wares. They'll enter your market area and look to trade with those around. Once they've been around for a bit, they'll eventually end up in your settlement area, looking to then refill their supplies before heading on their way. So the tiles in your market trade with the tiles in your settlements, then those in your settlements head on their way and spread your influence throughout their travels.

Prototype player board

Final player board

To facilitate these trades and spread your influence, you take what is called a "market action" in which you facilitate trade between tiles in your settlements and market. Tiles in your settlement area get to trade with matching tiles in your market area, then move you along their respective tracks as those settlement tiles are removed and sent on their merry trader way (meaning, discarded back to the bag). These transactions are multiplicative, so if you have three "Greek" traders in your settlements and you have four matching types in your market area, you get to move your Greek marker twelve spaces. (3 x 4, for you mathy people.) The better able you are to fulfill their needs, the more your influence will spread. You get to place an influence cube for every seven or eight spaces you move, and the first player to place all nine of their influence cubes wins.

Clearly, the power of these trades builds as you get more and more tiles in your settlement area. There needed to be a way to incentivize more frequent, smaller "transactions" rather than have the dominant winning strategy consistently be to save and save for a massive 6x6 transaction that moves your marker 36 (!) spaces and allows you to place four or five influence at once.

Breakthrough #1: Discovering a New Action Selection Mechanism

Passing Through Petra, at its core, is a race. Each player has nine influence cubes to spread, and the first person to spread them all, by using market actions to make traders happy and completing influence cards, wins.

It became clear early on in the development that the best way to rack up a ton of influence quickly was to take trader tiles over and over again to accumulate tiles in your settlement area, leading to huge multipliers when you take the market actions. I knew I needed some way to limit the number of "take" actions you could take before you had to do a market action. I experimented with a few ways of doing this — flipping "action" tiles, traditional worker placement, etc. — but then I stumbled on a much more interesting solution: an action grid.

Picture a 3x3 grid — or you can look at the picture below, that's fine, too — that makes up a large square. Each side of that large square is associated with an action. You have a pawn that starts in the middle of the grid, and to do any of the four actions, you have to move your pawn toward that action. So, if I start in the center and I move toward the "Take two tiles from the Plaza action" to, well, take two tiles from the Plaza, my pawn will be all the way up against that side of the grid — which means that I cannot do that action again until I move at least one space in the opposite direction, which conveniently is toward the "Market action" side.

This created an interesting way to force players to plan and navigate their actions, and it creates a way to limit repetitive actions in a way that feels natural.

Prototype action grid surrounded by the influence tracks you move along after taking a market action

Breakthrough #2: How Do We Create Strategic Variety?

Even with the action grid, you still wanted to be able to save up for big multipliers, but you were limited in your ability to do so. This got me thinking: How do we make players want to take smaller market actions? There were already "track specific" benefits you would earn on each influence track that you could use to help build your engine. These are limited to one per turn, no matter how many times you circle a track after a big market action. In addition, I introduced villager cards that gave players one-time or ongoing special abilities that let players get creative with their strategies. Each market action you took would give you a coin, and these cards could be purchased for three coins when you recovered your workers. (Each time you perform a market action, a worker is placed under the settlement area you used.) But even that wasn't enough to make smaller market actions desirable.

Through working with the game's developer, T. C. Petty III, we came upon a much more elegant solution. When you recover your workers, the workers themselves become the currency for acquiring the villager cards. Recovering one worker gives you access to only the first villager card in the line, whereas recovering three or more workers gives you access to any of the three available cards. The villager cards give you actions that are slightly better than the standard actions in the game, which means that there's often a reason to take a less powerful market action in order to use that worker you placed as currency later to then claim a more powerful villager card. This system creates a wide variety of strategic pathways players can follow and lets players get creative in how they plan out their victory.

Some of the 24 villager cards

Through months and months of playtesting and constant refining, I feel like we've created a game in which the mechanisms integrate intuitively with the theme, moreso than in many of my previous games. Though the goal is simple — spread nine influence — we've focused heavily on ensuring that the ways players can go about doing that are dynamic. It doesn't fall cleanly into any existing category of game, but the various engine-building components and villager cards create lots of little avenues for players to explore, in lots of fun, satisfying, combo'rrific ways.

J. Alex Kevern

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