Even though I have a nice badge above my avatar indicating «Game Designer», I don't consider myself a game designer per se. Given that I've never designed a full game, "Variant Designer" would probably be more appropriate. A few years ago, I designed some maps for Ticket to Ride (that I've never posted anywhere on the web) and more recently, I've designed the two-player Great Lakes print-and-play expansion for Martin Wallace's Age of Industry (AoI).
As The Great Lakes is a print-and-play expansion, it hasn't been professionally edited – but nonetheless there's at lot of hard work behind this creation. So today, I'd like to share some thoughts about the main mechanisms I implemented in this PnP expansion specifically designed for two players...
First, though, for those of you not familiar with Age of Industry, let's present a brief game description:
Players are tycoons in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a time when traditional craftsman were rapidly replaced with steam-powered machines. Players invest in the production of raw materials, the manufacturing of goods, and the transportation networks needed to connect them.
AoI is a "streamlined redesign" of Wallace's popular Brass, which is in the top 10 ranked board games on BGG.
Images courtesy EndersGame
In this game, your aim is to make money by creating industries. Among other things, this game features card drafting and hand management mechanisms in which player decisions are limited by cards of different colors (coded to regions) and different industry types (see left). Cards are used to invest money in industry counters that will bring profits to players once they are used (i.e., flipped to the other side). Industry counters must be linked by railways, so there is also a network-building aspect in the game, even though that's not the central mechanism.
Color and Industry cards are «generic», so they are flexible enough to be used with different maps. The base game contains maps of Germany and New England and the first official expansion, maps of Minnesota and Japan.
Why Create a Two-Player Expansion?
First, because Age of Industry is not for everyone, it's not that easy (at least for me) to find three or four other gamers to play it. Finding ONE player to play is much easier. Moreover, a two-player game can be played with your wife/husband, which is a great advantage.
Alas, this game really shines with more players and from what I read on the forums, the two-player configuration was not the best. Well, since I was interested in playing with two players and I thought other players might be as well, why not develop a new two-player map?
Once I set this goal for myself, the first thing I did was scan the forums looking for experienced players' opinion about the two-player configuration. Here is what they had to say:
-----• Too many cards: toward the end of the game, you still have cards to draft but no counters to build. The game is too long. Some players suggested removing a certain number of cards. The strategy is simple – build everything!
-----• The map is too large: There are too many spaces to build industries, so each player can develop in his part of the map without being bothered by the other player. Interaction is not high enough.
-----• Order of play mechanism is not appropriate for two: Since the order of play is decided by the amount of money a player has invested during the round, you could be in a situation in which both players always have four actions in a row if they swap play order each turn – which reduces the tension in the game.
The first thing to do was to select a region for the game. Being a transportation advisor specialized in freight movements in my job, the choice of the Great Lakes area came quite naturally. This region is one of the most important industrial regions in North America, and it features many big industrial cities and ports as well as coal and iron ore resources. Everything was there to stage my two-player version.
What I like in Martin Wallace's design is his skill in developing game mechanisms adapted to reality. In order for me to be as close to reality as well, I did research on the Internet about the Great lakes ports. I wanted to identify the most important ones as well as those which handle coal and iron ore. I also did research about the exact locations of coal fields and iron ore producers in the area.
My main objectives in developing this expansion were simple. I wanted to increase the interaction between both players by addressing the criticism raised by players, while being as thematic as possible.
The following section presents the three main mechanisms I've added or changed to adapt the game for two players:
-----1) Seasonality and Order of play
-----2) +3$ Profit Color zones
-----3) Designing the Map
1) Seasonality and Order of play
The Seasonality concept means that each round of play represents one season. During the winter season, the St. Lawrence Seaway is closed, which means that ships can't access markets outside of the Great Lakes and vice-versa. Players must rely on rail to acquire coal/iron and sell their goods since they can't do it through ports.
The concept of Seasonality was one of the first that came to me during the development process. In reality, the closure of the St. Lawrence Seaway (during about three months) has significant impacts on freight movements, particularly for resources of coal and iron ore, but also for products such as steel. For this reason, it was a necessity to include it in the game. Moreover, that would bring an interesting tweak that would help this expansion to differentiate itself from the base game. The Winter round has different rules which limit the actions that a player can accomplish, especially at the beginning of the game because there's not always a connection to a distant port. Player must have those limitations in mind when building the first industry counters.
The Order of play is not determined by the money each player has spent in the round (as in the base game), but will change only after the winter season. (The first player becomes the second player and vice-versa for the next four rounds.)
The Seasonality concept could have been implemented with any configuration of players as the concept doesn't address the criticisms mentioned above about the two-player game. However, when associated with the Order of play, the Seasonality concept becomes an even more central component of the game since players, in addition to taking into account the closure of the Seaway, must also consider that each player will get a few sequences of four actions in a row (two at the end of the Winter round and two at the beginning of the Spring round because order of play changes after Winter).
What is interesting with this mechanism is that it is a perfect fit with the seasonality concept. Moreover, it removes the advantage of being the first player because the second player will be the first to have four actions in a row in the game. The order of play came quite late in the development. I knew I didn't want to keep the mechanism of the base game to determine the order of play. I tested many other options but this one was the best and the most integrated.
2) +3$ Profit Color zone
A basic element of the game is that players pay to build industry counters in different locations on the map and receive a profit when a counter is «used» (i.e., flipped to the other side). In this expansion, all locations on the map are divided into five color zones (rather than six in the base game). During set-up, players will determine randomly two color zones that will deliver more profit (+3$) when a counter in used.
This variant could be explained as an economic boom occurring in a specific region, bringing more profits to players who invest there. The interesting element of the variant is that some locations are now more valuable than others, so both players will try to build in those locations from the beginning of the game in order to make more profits, which increases player interaction.
Moreover, the zones are variable and will change from game to game. Before the implementation of this variant, even with fewer spaces to build, both players tended to develop their own businesses in their part of the map without being bothered by the other player – which meant that the direct interaction between players arrived toward the middle or the end of the game.
3) Designing the map
Designing the map was probably the most difficult and interesting part of the development. Although the main objective to reduce the number of spaces available to build might seem simple, many other questions occurred during the development of the map regarding its configuration:
-----• What is the best general configuration for the map? A Germany-style map (as in the base game) with a coast and an hinterland to develop? A map with locations around the lakes? Another configuration?
-----• How many ports are necessary for only two players? How many coal mines? Ships? Markets?
-----• Which resources should be available through ships and where?
-----• Where should ports and mines be located? Should I concentrate them in one area or spread them at different places on the map? Should I distribute them in all color zones or only in a few zones?
-----• How many building spaces should be available in each location?
During the development, I probably designed close to twenty different maps with more or fewer differences between them. As you can see in the prototype maps below (presented in chronological order), the territory covered has changed during the development process. I started with a limited territory around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, passed to a larger territory covering most of the Great Lakes area, transfered to an area south of Lake Erie, then finally came back with an area covering almost all of the Great Lakes area. (See the final map.)
Prototype maps in chronological order
I think that the final map (seen at left)is quite balanced and well-adapted for two players.
• The map is tight with a good number of spaces available to build (25 compared to around 40 in the base game maps). Almost all spaces will be built at the end of the game. Moreover, a player won't be able to build everything, so he will have to choose his strategy carefully.
• All two-space cities have a port, which means that a player has to decide whether he wants to build a Port or another industry, with the second option leaving the port to his opponent. (It is forbidden for a single player to build two counters in the two spaces of a single location.)
• The two coal mines in the bottom-right corner of the map and the Northern Ontario location (where you can build an Ironwork at a cheaper cost) are very attractive for players because those resources are easier to get than those coming from the ships or from the Demand Display. However, if these resources are not in the color zones that give more profits, players will have tough decisions to take.
• The +3 color zone is a big incentive to overbuild again and again to get more profit. However, at the end of the game, the player who has built counters in more different locations will receive additional victory points.
The End of the Story?
Well, that seems to be the case. Of course, I would be very happy to see the map edited and professionally published some day – but I don't think I have much control on that at this point. The main reason why I developed The Great Lakes expansion was to be able to play this game more often, so I think I've reached my objective. If other players on BGG like this expansion and have fun playing it, that's even better! But the most important thing is that I had fun developing it. All the thinking behind the conception of the map and the research for different mechanisms was a great time!
One further proof that I liked developing an expansion for AoI is that I've begun to work on two other expansions for 3 to 5 players. I will post them on BGG if I feel that players are still interested in discovering new maps!!
Thanks to everybody who playtested, supported, and promoted this PnP expansion! And thanks to Martin Wallace for letting me post this expansion on BGG.
If you want more information about this expansion, don't hesitate to download the rules and the map which are available on The Great Lakes game page here on BGG.
Maps currently in development: Soviet Union and South Africa