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Designer Diary: Yukon Airways, or Designing from Memory

Al Leduc
Canada
Ottawa
Ontario
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This game was inevitable: I grew up in the Yukon, my father was a bush pilot, and I like to design games.

We Welcome You to Yukon Airways

The real-life Yukon Airways originally began as a small charter outfit in 1927 when Andrew Cruickshank bought the Queen of The Yukon. This plane was the sister plane to the more-famous Spirit of St. Louis, which was flown by Charles Lindbergh on the first non-stop, transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on May 20, 1927. Today the Queen of the Yukon is still on display in the Aviation Museum in Whitehorse. When I grew up in the Yukon, my father was the owner and operator of Yukon Airways, so I was pretty familiar with bush planes from a young age.

When I started working on this game, I knew several places that had to be included: two-thirds of the Yukon's population lives in Whitehorse, which is the territory's capital. It serves as the communication/transportation hub in the game, as it does in real-life. Plus, that's where I was born and raised, so my ego required its inclusion.

Dawson City is most famous as the setting for the Gold Rush. When gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, word quickly spread across the world, which brought an unprecedented number of gold-seekers to the Yukon. Over 100,000 prospectors stampeded to the Klondike region, which led to the establishment of Dawson City and, eventually, the Yukon Territory. Dawson City quickly became known as the "Paris of the North" and in 1898, it was the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg.

Old Crow is the most northerly community in the Yukon and the only one that is not accessible by road.

Cinnamon Strip is famous in the Yukon because you can land your plane beside Braeburn Lodge to pick up cinnamon buns that are almost as big as your head!

Taco Bar is known to local bush pilots and outfitters but you won't find it on any map. Despite the name, it's not a Mexican restaurant; rather, it's a small gravel island, the end point for canoe trips along the Snake River. The waters here are deep and straight enough to allow a float plane to land. It was named after a memorable dinner made there.

You'll find some personal touches in the objective cards, too. "Paid with Gold Nuggets", which was not an uncommon practice, reveals that yellow dice represent miners. "Better Safe than Sorry" rewards you for having fuel left at the end of your flight; it was also one of my father's favorite expressions. "Love is in the Air" is a nod to how my parents met. My mother was a doctor who used to work in small communities around the Yukon, and she was often flown around by my dad. These cards also hint that red dice are mounties, green are adventurers, pink are tourists, and blue are doctors.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Buckle Your Seatbelt

I recall the day I decided to try to design Yukon Airways. It was June 2016 when I was driving back from a Protospiel with Gerry Paquette talking about themes we'd like to design games around and mechanisms we'd like to use. I had been trying to make a game using dice drafting in which the board location from which the dice were drafted was important, but hadn't come up with a good theme that worked. Once I realized the dice could represent passengers at a terminal, I was off to the races.

I knew that managing fuel and passengers would be the crux of the game as fuel management is a bush pilot's most important skill and any error can be fatal. Because I didn't want to include player elimination in the game, there is an assumption that you always reserve the necessary fuel to return to Whitehorse. Now you only need to worry about having enough fuel to get all the way to Old Crow. As you can imagine, the further you want to travel, the more fuel you'll need to carry. That said, this is a game, not a simulation, so there are other ways to increase your range.

Passengers limit the distance you can fly. A plane can carry only a fixed weight, and when you're flying solo, you can use all that capacity for fuel and travel a longer distance. If you've got passengers on board, then you can't take as much fuel and consequently you can't fly as far. I wanted to invoke the importance of fuel management without unnecessarily burdening the players, and the trade-off between passengers and fuel seemed like an elegant way to do that.

My first ideas included helicopters and airplanes. It was overly complicated, and involved players having a small fleet of unique aircraft at their disposal.




It took only a few months of iteration for the game to start looking like its present form. The map board geography looked the way it does now, the dice-drafting system operated smoothly, and there were a deck of destination cards and colored cubes used in conjunction with locations. Of course, the details of these elements evolved over time, but none of them were changed much in outline.




We Will Be Experiencing a Little Turbulence

In September 2016, after three months of progress, I started working on the engine-building aspect. I like to add things that increase variability to a game only after the core design is stable; otherwise it's difficult to tell which elements are causing the game to crash, and whether changes implemented over time are genuine improvements or simply patches to a shaky design.




I started by giving players a bonus when flying different types of passengers. This was a bit dull as it just gave a scoring bonus and wasn't engine building at all. You could get better at scoring for certain colors of dice, but you didn't get better at actually doing things in the game.

I also tried giving players skill cards that gave them unique bonuses. Ultimately, this proved to be too fiddly and increased the cognitive load of new players. A simpler and ultimately more satisfying solution was to give all players access to the same objective cards. This fostered competition between the players since they both raced to complete the objectives and vied with each other to gather and use the elements required for their completion. It also increased the variability from game to game without accidentally giving any player an unfair advantage.

You can also see in this photo that the player aid was a part of the player board and that I recorded a player's fuel using discarded cards. I was pretty darn happy with my cleverly efficient use of the cards.




Things Look Different from the Air

I thought the game was on the right track — until I went to Europe for a vacation. I find that traveling helps with creativity as a change in surroundings can give you a new perspective on old problems. Being captive on an airplane (or in an air terminal) can sometimes do wonders if you choose to use the time creatively. Several new ideas started to rattle around in my head while I was away, and I was excited to get back to work.

The first thing I did when I got back was to totally rework the player board. The dashboard look fit the theme of the game perfectly, and the dials granted flexibility to the engine building. As an added bonus, it was very clear to read and easy to use. Later on I added "switches" that gave players a bonus once they were turned "ON".




Shortly afterward, I reworked the dice pool board to differentiate each terminal. At this point, I tied player order to the terminal number. The pairing of a special ability and turn order was inspired by Viticulture, but the choice has a bit more weight in Yukon Airways as it also dictates which dice are available for you to draft — a decision central to your turn.




By the start of 2017, I had fleshed out the map board, too. The cubes and cards worked quite differently than they do now, and they would go through a few iterations before the final version. At first, cubes of your color were placed on a location when you dropped a passenger off there. The cards told you which color of passenger you could drop off at the indicated location.




In addition to game design changes, I also made improvements to the game's look and feel over the next three months, including the addition of my old family photos to the plane cockpits.






On Your Right, You Can See Niagara Falls

In April 2017, I attended Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends convention in Niagara. It is attended by designers, publishers, and other game industry professionals, so it represents a staggering wealth of game knowledge. I talked with friendly, intelligent people about the game and made almost daily iterations (having brought my laptop and printer to the hotel).

The most notable change was changing the whole turn structure from drafting dice and delivering them on your turn to a two-phase system in which each player drafted dice in turn order, then all players delivered them in the new turn order dictated by the value (1-6) of the terminal from which they had drafted the dice. Another significant change was the addition of barrel, card, and improvement symbols to the destination cards, a set of which could be turned in for a bonus. This set collection added some interesting depth without much complexity. (Truth be told, it resulted in more complexity than I personally like, so I don't focus on them too much when I play, but when used well, they allow for epic turns.)




I gave the almost-final version a few playtests in the Yukon when I went home for a visit in the summer of 2017. Here we see my mother and sister playing a game:




We Will Be Landing Shortly

The game was signed by Spanish publisher Ludonova in November 2017 and will debut at SPIEL '19 in October. They've done a great job of the artwork while generally adhering to the look of my prototype. While I was happy with the graphic design of my prototype, they wisely chose to hire a professional artist and graphic designer, so their version is orders of magnitude better. Have a look at the new player boards; each one even has a recreation of one of my old family photos:






These are samples of the new ticket and plane cards:






This is the map board with the seaplane dock on the left:




Thank You for Flying Yukon Airways

While I'm very pleased with how Yukon Airways turned out, I'm saddened that my father — who passed away in 2014 — will never see it . His life provided the impetus for the original design, and I hope you will enjoy this little tribute to the man who taught me how to soar. I think he would have. Have a nice flight!

Al Leduc
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