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Designer Diary: Old West Empresario

Stanislav Kordonskiy

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Part 1. Origin

Every board game is a story, no matter how grand or small the game might be. Sometimes it's told through pages of text, sometimes through dazzling artwork, and sometimes through the apps that provide sound effects and atmospheric music. Regardless of which other methods are used, the story in a board game is also told through the gameplay itself.

When I started working on this game, I wanted to tell a story of growth and discovery, of seizing opportunities and facing adversity. I wanted for the gameplay to be fun, varied, and engaging, yet also simple and accessible. I decided to use a setting from real life, one that players will be familiar with without the need for a lengthy introduction and one that would ring true to the mechanisms of the game.

My original title for this game was "Margrave", and it was set in the late Middle Ages Europe. Margraves were nobles ruling over border regions of their kingdoms. They were tasked with securing the borders, so they had more extensive rights compared to other nobles, such as the right to a larger personal army, more independent rule, and tax exemptions. Often times margraves would conquer adjacent foreign lands and grow their holdings to rival those of the very rulers to which they were subjects. In my game, players started with a castle and a couple of random buildings in their province. Players then used dice drafting to add more lands and buildings to their province or to activate their provinces to produce goods and score victory points.

After playtesting "Margrave" for a few months, I felt that it was ready to be shown to a publisher. Gen Con 2017 was coming up, and I decided to enter this design into a publisher speed-dating event there. For those not familiar with it, the publisher speed-dating format gives you five minutes to pitch your game to a publisher — then you repeat this 15-20 times depending on how many publishers are in attendance. It was essential to have a game that you could present and explain in a short time, and I decided that "Margrave" fit the bill.

I met the Tasty Minstrel Games crew at this event and pitched this game to them as well as about a dozen other teams. Afterwards Seth Jaffee, head of TMG development, invited me to play a full game with them. I ended up leaving Gen Con with high hopes that TMG would want to publish this game. I left my prototype with Seth so that he could play around with it more before they made their final decision. One of the questions I was asked was whether I was willing to change "Margrave" to an Old West theme. I was very happy to agree to that as it was not lost on me that building a town in the old west was not unlike building up a medieval province. The western setting would make this game fit in the universe with Pioneer Days, a new game that TMG was publishing at that time.

In order to prepare myself for re-theming this game, I picked up a couple of history books at the library and watched Ken Burns' excellent documentary "The West" on Netflix. I suggested the name Old West Empresario as the new title since empresarios were the land agents contracted to aid a settlement of Texas in the mid- to late 1800s.

Part 2. Evolution

I'd like to welcome you to the Old West circa late 1800. It's the time when new railroads are bringing thousands of settlers from the east. Towns boom around newly discovered mineral deposits, and ranching and agriculture are transforming the landscape. Land speculators, businessmen, miners, and builders flock westward where opportunities are seemingly limitless.

Those people did not see themselves as participants in some abstract historical westward expansion but rather had very personal goals and motivations. So what motivates players in Old West Empresario? There are several attractive options available: accumulating wealth, attracting new settlers to your town, completing important projects, and creating a glorious town to name just a few.

Let's talk about game mechanisms for a bit. The game is a competitive one at heart in which the adversity comes from the other players who are all too eager to impede your progress and steal your opportunities. For that, a drafting mechanism is perfect in my opinion. The basic act of choosing the best option for you while also blocking your opponents is very satisfying. I added dice to the mix to represent luck but also gave players the ability to manipulate these dice to reward planning. I also wanted to make sure that the tiles players use are varied and easy to understand. We have mines bringing in wealth, railways, and inns for faster growth; churches and saloons to cater to your citizens' needs; and much more. I wanted players to experience through gameplay the joy of starting with a couple of buildings and watching them grow into a unique and believable town.

Even though the core game play did not change, many other changes had to be made during the thematic transition. Farms, castles, taverns, and ports turned into gold mines, town halls, and train stations. Some of the more fiddly aspects of the game were streamlined as well, such as moving coins from tile to tile to represent resource conversions until they could become victory points.

With this new theme, I also felt there was an opportunity to add more tableau-building decisions to the game in the form of "stock symbols" printed on the tiles. Initially I opted to have a "stock track" on which players advanced a token whenever a tile with a matching stock was added. The more of that symbol players added to their towns, the more points that stock would be worth. About halfway through the game, the "stock track" would freeze so that players would know what value certain stocks would have during endgame scoring, while still having the opportunity to hunt for the most valuable tiles. In practice, this system proved to be a little too much for this game. Players already had to keep track of their town layouts, special goal cards, and activation strategies. The TMG team simplified this stock system into a more straightforward method based on adjacency and majority of the symbols with no extra components or additional rules necessary.

With the rules finalized, the game moved into that stage in which the publisher moves on to the questions of production, manufacturing, and shipping. All the designer can do is wait patiently for the game to come out. Fast forward to July 2019, almost two years later, and I'm holding a finished copy of Old West Empresario. I'm thrilled and excited for this game to be released on August 1, 2019 at Gen Con. My sincere hope is that many people enjoy this game and the story which it tells.

Thanks for reading!

Stanislav Kordonskiy
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