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Designer Diary: Tiny Towns, or A Short History of a Tiny Game

Peter McPherson
United States
New York
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Microbadge: Tiny Towns fanMicrobadge: Tiny Towns fanMicrobadge: Tiny Towns fanMicrobadge: Tiny Towns fanMicrobadge: Disc Golf fan
Board Game: Tiny Towns
The idea for Tiny Towns stems from two key concepts and a love of games in which you build something. I wanted to create a game that was short without being too simple and that scaled well from 2 to 6 players.

Tiny Towns is a town-building game in which each player takes turns choosing a resource that all players must place in their 4x4 grid. Everyone is trying to construct buildings by creating layouts on their boards with the five resources. When you have a building's resources in place, you may remove them and put the building piece in any one of the spaces where the resources were located. Since you can have only one resource or one building per space, things get crowded quickly.

The buildings score in different sets or for other buildings in your town, but Tiny Towns is more about efficiency than it is about points — naming resources that are difficult for other players but manageable for yourself, or constructing large buildings that don't earn many points but save you a few turns. It's a game of planning carefully and adjusting to the plans of others.

From gallery of Pete McPherson
Early Concepts

The first concept that inspired Tiny Towns comes from a word game my dad and I have played over the years. Each player has a 5x5 grid on a piece of paper, and they take turns naming letters which both players must place in their grids. Points are scored for words of different lengths reading vertically and horizontally. I love this little game (whose name I couldn't discover online) for its excruciating decisions — and the fact that both players had to deal with an awkward letter when it was named.

The second concept comes from games like Minecraft in which resources are combined to make an item. I was mesmerized when I first came across Minecraft's simple crafting system, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate building patterns into a board game.

I began with a grid-based system in which players put down resources that combine into different items. The most obvious theme at the time was town building.

From gallery of Pete McPherson

And so it became a game about building buildings and has remained that way.

While brainstorming at work one day, I came up with a few basic buildings, some of which survived the rounds of iterations.

From gallery of Pete McPherson

Early playtests went well with two players, and when I scaled it up to six, it played about the same. This early fundamental concept has remained, with a few extra things thrown in and some taken out.

My friend Alan was generous enough to do the prototype artwork for the board and shield (as the towns used to be hidden behind shields), and I ordered some great wooden building meeples from I always thought wooden meeples would be too expensive for a game of this size and fully expected them to be replaced by tiles later.

From gallery of Pete McPherson

After much playtesting, I was happy with the game and the two sets of buildings. I reached out to several publishers prior to Pax Unplugged 2017, with Alderac Entertainment Group at the top of my list, and headed to my first game convention ever.

I pitched to John Zinser, Ryan Dancey, and Mark Wootton of AEG, and it went well. A few weeks later, I found out that they were interested. I am incredibly lucky to have found a fitting home for my first pitchable design so quickly.

I was ecstatic to have gotten a "yes" for Tiny Towns — but the first thing I did post-PAX was change the game.

Monumental Changes

A funny thing happened when I played Tiny Towns 25 times at the convention: I got tired of it. The games felt too similar, and the building variety was too low.

My solution was to add monuments: buildings that only one player has access to that change the way they score or grant an ability when constructed. I cooked up a batch of about forty monuments and got to testing. They added a small personal goal and made each game feel a bit more distinct.

The second change was to finally follow a piece of advice I'd heard again and again: Ditch the shields.

Without shields, paying attention to other players' boards is challenging, but every once in a while you have a chance to name a resource that corners someone. It wasn't too mean, and the openness of the game felt liberating. This was a lesson for me: When you hear the same thing again and again from playtesters, there's a reason.

Development with Josh Wood

After my first Skype conversation with AEG's Josh Wood, I knew he really understood my vision of the game.

We both agreed that even more variety was needed, so we added two more building sets to bring the total up to 25 (not counting monuments). A lot of these new buildings were Josh's ideas. Then we worked on culling the monuments down to 15 that we felt were really interesting and fun to play.

Most of the development was determining which buildings were working and whether they were rewarding enough in most set-ups. Josh introduced the solo deck (replacing my completely miserable solo die), and from there we created the current solo mode and Town Hall mode, which accommodates for a larger crowd.

Earlier in development, we decided on the theme of woodland creatures; there had to be something tiny about these towns besides the game itself! I have long been a fan of Avi's Dimwood Forest books (and to a lesser extend Redwall), and I love the notion of small creatures building a great civilization. I also liked the idea that these creatures are avoiding the jaws of predators in creating their small civilization in a distant land. It didn't take long for the world of Tiny Towns to come into focus.

AEG made it clear from the start that they liked the wooden meeples, but I never expected them to change much. Then Josh designed the wonderful final meeples, and I was blown away.

From gallery of Pete McPherson

Final Steps

The whimsical and vibrant artwork of Gong Studios brought the forest and the various buildings to life, and the game headed to the printer.

There wasn’t a moment when I was out of the loop; AEG kept me creatively involved in the whole process, and it was a blast. I have been extremely fortunate to have the support of John Zinser and Josh Wood in my first design, and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.

The whole experience of creating Tiny Towns has been a dream. I hope you enjoy it!

Peter McPherson

Board Game Designer: Peter McPherson
Demoing the game at PAX Unplugged 2018
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