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Designer Diary: Machi Koro Legacy

Rob Daviau
United States
Unspecified
Massachusetts
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"What do you think about a Machi Koro legacy game?"

The question came from Pandasaurus Games. It was a straightforward question and a variant of one I get from publishers from time to time. I had played Machi Koro. I knew it casually — but a dice-rolling game as a legacy game?

My response: "I don't know. I really don't. Let me think about it."

So I played Machi Koro again. Still not sure. Then I was talking to JR Honeycutt about it, and we started kicking some ideas around. We saw areas where new mechanisms could come in; we saw some story bits on the card illustrations.

So we thought we'd design it together.

What followed was the usual flow of game design, especially legacy game design. A legacy game tries to tell a story and add new mechanisms, with each informing the other. If you take away the narrative, then you are playing a core game and then a series of expansions for no real reason. If you take away the mechanical additions, then you are playing the same game again and again and again while being told a story.

You have to work on the twin engines of new mechanisms and emerging narrative, using each one to inform the other.

So here's the usual issue. Machi Koro Legacy is, as the name suggests, a legacy game. It's all about surprises you get while playing. This makes it hard to get into details without spoiling things, so let me write somewhat elliptically about the things we wanted to do and some vague sense of how we did them.

Engine 1: New Mechanisms

We wanted more options for players during the game. In a legacy game, we ask players to play the same core engine eight, ten, twelve, or eighteen times during the campaign, so this game had to go somewhere beyond just new cards. But yes, you get new cards as you play. We had to go beyond "more cards" while also keeping the game accessible for younger or more casual players.

At its core, Machi Koro is a bit like "My First Craps Game", which I genuinely say with affection because I don't know how to play craps. You are placing bets on probability. You can play it safe in the middle of the bell curve or go for the big payouts at the edges — or you can just stay with the even distribution of one die and try to cover all options in that smaller range. That led to us thinking of other casino games and wondering whether there could be "junior" versions of them.

In Machi Koro, there's a lot of luck in the design, although with so many dice rolls it evens out in many but not all games. This is fine in a short, casual game like Machi Koro, but people become invested in larger outcomes during a legacy game. We had to find ways to mitigate or offset that, so we did.

We took a look at the red cards. These are the attack cards in the game. You know the ones. You've been on the business end on some of them a few times. There are people we've spoken with who have had some bad moments with those. (My wife was one of them.) So we looked at ways to give players the option of playing an "attack heavy" game or an "attack light" game. It took a bit of effort, but we finally landed on something that felt smooth, so your game might have little to no red cards while another group's Machi Koro Legacy game might end up with a lot of red cards.

This is a game about dice. What other ways can you use dice? What other dice can you use?

Over the course of a year, maybe longer, ideas came in and ideas went out. We played with having one game be suddenly co-operative. It was a fun idea and not a bad game, but it was too much to ask people to shift gears that much, learn a new play style, then abandon it. And having a bunch of co-operative games made the first games of competition feel like they hadn't meant anything, so we reluctantly cut that.

Engine 2: The World and Story

We also wanted to tell a story. But what kind of story? Looking at the cards in Machi Koro, we saw a lot of shops, some farmlands. Then we looked a little deeper. That's a very tall mountain in the background on the box cover. Is that...a rocket ship? Near a fairy tale castle?! What's going on in this place?

And then we realized that Machi Koro talks about a place that is already industrialized, a place that has a rocket ship near a castle. There are shops and factories and storage facilities. But what if we went back to when the world was just gearing up. A Machi Koro industrial revolution? It was a start, but if you've studied the industrial revolution in school, you probably didn't think, "This would make a good theme for a light, silly game", so we made our story a lot sillier. A lot. Really. A lot.

We had the outline of a story and the game, and JR ended up talking about the game and the story to Pandasaurus and Grounding, the Japanese company that owns Machi Koro. Discussion led from our loose, vague story to a Japanese fairy tale that had some similar features.

That was all we needed. A fairy tale can be light, can be breezy, can be silly and nonsensical as needed, but still have an underlying story. And most Western players won't know the source material, so it will be original — yet it should be a nice surprise to the Japanese audience to see some folklore put into a game.

After that it was design, development, writing, editing, testing, and repeating all of the above until we had what we wanted.

I personally think that this game will surprise many people in all the ways we hoped it would. Stop by the Pandasaurus Games booth (#1441) at Gen Con 2019 to see for yourself...

Rob Daviau

Mysteries await!
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