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Designer Diary: Cupcake Empire, or Frosting, Fans, and (Find something else that starts with F before you post this)

Yves Tourigny
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Cupcake Empire was designed by Al Leduc and Yves Tourigny. Al is currently visiting his mother in the Yukon, so I have been tasked with writing this diary. It was supposed to be a dialogue between Al and I, so I'll be writing both our parts.

Al: I'm very happy with the result and will henceforth let Yves write all my designer diaries, whether we co-designed the game or not! Great job!

[Al's note: I didn't write that. Anybody can type "Al" and then a bunch of nonsense. That doesn't mean I wrote it. W. Eric Martin, can we please use a different color to indicate when it is really me?]

[W. Eric Martin's note: Sure! I'll even put it in italics. Just to be clear, however, Yves is writing this and wrote both the preceding notes, so this might get confusing.]

[Al's note: Got it!]

[Editor's note: We will call Al "Alan" throughout because otherwise it looks like I'm, I mean, Yves is conversing with an artificial intelligence.]

Yves: Cupcake Empire started off as something ridiculous, which, if my memory is accurate (and I believe it is) was called "Wizard Race".

Alan: Well, to be clear, it was about wizards racing...

Yves: Right, as opposed to a species of magical people.

Alan: ...but it wasn't called "Wizard Race" or "Wizard's Race". That's just what you called it. It didn't have a title.

Yves: I should probably keep this offline, but I do find it very annoying that your prototypes never have a title. I'll edit this out because I don't want to embarrass you.

Alan: (weeps uncontrollably)

[Al's note: Please delete this.]

[Editor's note: I tried, but it wouldn't save properly! I'm very upset that we weren't able to take this out. Grrr.]

Yves: "Wizard Race" was a game about wizards racing around a color-coded landscape, and it used your DICE POOL ENGINE mechanism (patent pending). A bunch of dice are rolled and sorted by value, then you use a value, and roll those dice, and sort the result, and so on.

Alan: I like dice.

[Yves's note: I should mention that Al had dice in his mouth the entire time we were talking.]

Yves: We both do, buddy. So, "Wizard Race". Most of the dice were white, some of them were colored, and the colored ones allowed the player to go through the corresponding colored terrain spaces or to gain a bonus of some sort when the pool in which they were embedded was chosen. It was already an engine-building game, where adding dice of certain colors to your mix would guide your strategy into certain directions.

Alan: It worked, but it needed a bit of pizzazz — or so I was told. As soon as my back was turned, Yves took my game and redesigned it.

Yves: Yes. I did. I gave it a much more compelling theme and added some thematic flesh to the skeleton.

[Yves' note: This was in January 2016, according to file creation dates on my hard drive. You can tell we didn't work on that version for too long because there are only 45 files in the "Electric Fan Co." folder. There are 629 files in ten subfolders in the Cupcake Empire folder. That's a lot of iteration.]

Alan: You made the new game about fans. Like, the portable ventilation devices.

Yves: Well, not every game has to be about wizards and space goblins. I think a game about the manufacture and sales of fans set in 1950s Canada is overdue.

Alan: I did like some of the additions you made to the gameplay, like tying each pool to a specific action and having the strength of each action increase when the number of dice in a pool was greater than certain thresholds.

Yves: It was an homage to Seth's Clyde Fans graphic novel!

Alan: I don't think anyone cares. That looks super depressing. Is that old man on the toilet?

Yves: Anyway, I'll have you notice that the "Fan Factory" player board looks remarkably like the Cupcake Empire one, so clearly I was on the right track. Specific actions are linked to each column, there's a break room, special actions, and a warehouse inventory track. There are some pretty major differences, though, if you look closely. The first is that the actions on the columns could be upgraded. That was replaced by the innovation tokens that could be added to any column. The next is that one of the columns gave you grey innovation cubes...

Alan: Grey innovation cubes. (puts on high-pitched whiny voice) Oh, I've been looking for a game about the exciting world of fan production and distribution, honey. Look, it even has grey cubes to represent my grey withered soul!

Yves: (puts on higher-pitcher whinier voice) Oh, look, why don't we get this game about generic space wizards racing across blank landscapes? I don't think I could handle something with as much gravitas as the fan game. This game with no theme about moving pointy-hatted people is much more to my liking!

[Al's note: I've never put on a high-pitched voice in my life! Why are you arguing with yourself? I'm going to have to rewrite all of this. Is this libel? I think this might be libel.]

[Editor's note: It isn't libel.]

Yves: Grey innovation cubes, which are clearly the equivalent of the "bright ideas" from the Cupcake version. There are also the machines.

Alan: Those were my idea.

Yves: Okay, buddy. There are also the machines, which permanently occupied a spot in the columns, allowing the actions further down the column to be reached with fewer dice. Those were Al's idea. We removed them because it turned out to be a bad idea.

Alan: It wasn't bad; it just wasn't right for what we were trying to accomplish. In fact, I think they could easily be incorporated into some sort of expansion to Cupcake Empire.

Yves: We did away with them and made the employee dice specialists in their own column instead, giving them the ability to jump to the next highest action space. Another important difference was the spatial dimension. It was a much more important factor, and I think your sales were tied to your position on the various boards. I honestly don't remember too much about that aspect, and I can't find any written rules or notebooks.

Yves: Anyway, I think Al was grumbling about the theme, so I tried to spice it up a bit with some color:

Alan: Those were nice, but the issue wasn't color. It was fans. It was always fans.

Yves: Well, judging from the email record, I emailed you these on Feb. 2, 2016. On Feb. 3, 2016, I emailed you the first Cupcake Empire stuff, so clearly I'm a responsive and flexible co-designer.

Alan: ...I'm not going to comment on that.

Yves: So, this is the first player board for Cupcake Empire, from early February 2016:

Yves: Several things jump out at me. First, the order of the columns is all wrong, at least in terms of the final version. Second, most of these actions were heavily modified, if not entirely changed, during development. Clearly this is still a "produce inventory, then convert into money" model of scoring. We still have "machines", and there is no dedicated space for improvements.

Alan: You can see a lot of the final version in there, however. The break room and morale track are already in their final form, and so is the once-per-turn special action, even if the actions will change. Those characters stuck around until the end of the prototype era, except for that hand. The size of the columns and the distribution of action spaces stayed consistent, except for the boss lady column.

Yves: I think people were expecting more snark from you, just then.

Alan: Oh, uh, you spend too much time making elaborately illustrated prototypes, and it makes me look bad.

Yves: Right. The geographical component was still a stumbling block. They changed the most, and the most frequently, during development.

Yves: That's February 4. Gross.

Yves: That's literally two days later, February 6. This is clearly inspired by the Raymond Biesinger map of Ottawa I have on my wall. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if I picked it up on February 5.

Alan: (silently mouths the national anthem, weeps, and hugs a beaver)

Yves: It is a powerful piece of design, which I shamelessly copied for my prototype. It has a nice Seth feel to it. Look at Seth's scale model "Dominion City", in comparison:

Alan: This has nothing to do with Cupcake Empire.

Yves: Well, the reader may be interested in what inspires the designers, and this is a thing that inspired me. If you hadn't crushed my dream of making the "Electric Fan Co." game, perhaps I wouldn't have to bore you with culture! If it helps, imagine that the foundations of the city are built on a mass grave of space goblins or whatever you like.

[Al's note: This is what I deal with every day.]

Yves: A month later we had these bigger tiles.

Alan: Are you just going to upload your entire drive? That would be quicker. *slurp*

[Editor's note: Al was drooling uncontrollably because of the dice in his mouth and frequently had to pause and slurp up the saliva cascading from his mouth.]

[Al's note: This isn't as funny as you probably think it is, you know. It's actually pretty unprofessional.]

Yves: Finally, in April 2016, we start to see the city tiles turn into something like their final form.

Yves: We've got the sales values in red on the bakery and counter spaces, and the three colors — start, green, brown — but we still have a spatial arrangement. The next breakthrough came in August 2016.

Alan: Oh, that's essentially the final version, with the customers. It's so weird to think of the game without the little customer meeples.

Yves: Yeah, this is more or less the final version, with a few differences. The customers further away from the bottom have money bonuses associated with them in the final version, and there is a variable number of counter spaces for different player counts.

Yves: We can chart the changes in the player boards also, but first the improvement tiles.

Yves: These were the earliest Cupcake Empire ones. Strangely, they were tied to specific columns (which explains the colors), and there are large ones which give you extra VP (represented by $). There are still those damned machines.

Alan: Those machines were a good idea. *sulks*

Yves: The next version of improvement tiles and player boards made some important changes. First, the improvements are column-independent. Next, they are all placed in the columns, and they are all activated when dice reach the level at which they are placed. We're still working on the "produce, then sell" model.

Alan: Oh, snap! That's it!

[Al's note: I have never said "oh, snap" in my entire life, gosh dang it.]

Yves: Yes, this is April/May 2016 when we did a big redesign. The columns are in the correct order, and the actions are...well, the actions. The correct ones: Baking, Icing, Sales, Marketing, and Managing. There are spots for the improvement tiles, which are now circular. There are customers! Strangely, the customers are not tied to specific positions on the board; you just claim them from a central supply.

Alan: Wait, what's that book in column 1?

Yves: Never mind, that's what.

Alan: Oh, those were the recipe book tiles that gave you bonuses. That didn't last too long. Whose idea were those? Let me see...

[Al's note: They were Yves' idea.]

Yves: More importantly, there are two major new elements (both probably my idea) that are central to the final version of the game: recipes and production/sales tracks. You assemble cupcake bottoms and tops to form cupcake recipes (which can be used to attract customers with matching preference), which increases your production value (top track). Your bakeries, counters, and customers increase your sales value (bottom track). At the end of each turn, you score VP equal to the lowest track.

Alan: That is a much better way of doing things. Didn't you steal that idea from Knizia?

Yves: I don't think so. I mean, I think a few games of his use similar ideas, but I don't think he does it exactly in this way.

Alan: With cupcakes, you mean?

Yves: That's right. Knizia does not have a cupcake game.

[Yves' note: Look up whether Knizia has a cupcake game...]

Yves: The new improvement tiles are essentially the same as the final version of the game, with the $2 changed to $3, and the customer given a range of 2. This is from April 2016.

Alan: Look at those cute little books. Oh, and machines!

Yves: Moving on. The next big step was in July when the customers were placed on the city tiles we saw earlier and when the bonus cards were added. These are in the final version in essentially this form. Even the values are identical. The only difference is that the final version uses tiles, and there are five in each of the four sets, instead of three.

Alan: There wasn't much left to change after that, just the endless process of small adjustments that game design seems to consist of. Overall, it was fairly painless for Cupcake Empire.

Yves: We played it a lot. Thankfully, the length of the game was consistently in the under-60 minute range. We tried different targets for the game-end trigger — 60, 70, 80 points — and we experimented with giving the bonus card points during the game or after the game. Oh, I guess I haven't shown the score track. For a long time we used a square one.

Yves: Then in 2017 we switched to a track going around the outside of the terrain since the game was more of a ra...since, uh, to save table space.

Alan: More of a what? What were you going to say?

Yves: A race. An ECONOMIC race in which you build your dice engine and try to outsell your competitors. It's very cutthroat and not at all wizardy. Incidentally, I should mention that the cupcake theme was inspired by the cutthroat vegan bakery business in Ottawa. Run and staffed by women, mainly, which is why I went for the skewed gender distribution in my prototype. Ludonova didn't stray far from our original concept and art direction.

Alan: They do make great vegan cupcakes in Ottawa, but you're trying to distract from the point that we came full circle, going from a race game all the way back to a race game. Checkmate.

Yves: That's not how Chess works, first of all, but also, I'm really hoping that some of the bakeries will see this free publicity and send us some free cupcakes.

[Al's note: I know that isn't how Chess works, and I would also like some free cupcakes, so please email us with offers for free cupcakes.]

Yves: In conclusion, we worked on this game like we do on most games. You had an interesting idea with no flavor to it, I redesigned it more to my liking, then we eventually hammered out something that pleased both of us. It's like you baked a bland little cupcake and I added a bunch of colorful icing to it!

Alan: Can we make this analogy a little less insulting?

Yves: You know, this is already much better than my original analogy in which your cupcake was made of sawdust and dog hair.

Alan: ...well, let's not forget to mention all the times you sulked for hours because I wanted to make changes that turned out brilliantly.

Yves: Fine, let's not forget to mention all the times you, uh, made... When... Um. Oh, when you failed to appreciate how much better the prototype looked than what you would have brought to the table, and how it not only made playing the game much more enjoyable for us, but it attracted a lot of prospective players who might have been turned off by a generic wizard footrace.

Alan: Or fans!?!

Yves: ...

Alan: I think we're done.

Yves: Yeah.

[Al's note: This is just about the worst designer diary I've ever read. On the other hand, I didn't have to write any of it, and it seems to have taken you 4-5 hours. Thankfully, no one reads these.]


Addendum by the actual Al Leduc

The plan was for us to write the designer diary together, so I got started by starting at the beginning. My delightful co-designer had other plans — other plans and an entirely unreasonable deadline that would have been totally reasonable if he'd told me more than a day before and had not tactically chosen it to be enacted while I was out of town helping my poor dear mother move from her home of thirty years to a little apartment.

So below is as far as I got before the rug was pulled out from under me!

Many thanks to the amazingly understanding and sympathetic Eric Martin for listening to my pleads and tacking this on without Yves' knowledge.

It all started with a dream of treachery

I'd been struggling with a dice-drafting idea for a while (which I called "dice pool drafting" as players took all the dice of a certain value, not just one at a time; Yukon Airways uses this method). I awoke from a dream in which I was playtesting my good friend Yves' new game about trading in the Mediterranean when I suddenly realized with a flash of rage that the sneaky little stinker had stolen my idea! Even worse, he'd improved on it by giving each player their own set of dice, thus mitigating a number of the issues I'd been running into. I promptly started working on a new game, while silently fuming at Yves' treachery.

It's got great potential

Players used their different colors of dice to traverse different types of terrain, while ending their turn on good spots to acquire bonuses. The players were wizards so that I could handwave the weird ways they could move. It worked well enough, and as games do, it improved over several iterations. The key elements were a central board that allowed the players some interaction, a race-style score track, the idea that rolling 6s was something special for all players, and most importantly, that each player had their own player boards, dice, and improvements.

November 2015: Even the earliest player board featured only five columns

More treachery!

One otherwise perfectly fine day I got a text from Yves: "we need to talk about your game. I have an idea you'll love. Starbucks at 7:00. You're buying"

The long and short of it was that he'd completely reworked the game to be about door-to-door salesmen selling electric fans in the 1950s. More significantly, each column of dice had a specific function, like making fans, advertising, or selling to a neighborhood on the game board's map. I liked the mechanical rethinking so much that I asked him to help me co-design it, which basically meant he got to do 85% of the rest of the work.

The double-cross

So I show up for playtesting like the innocent lamb that I am, and bam! Yves throws down a game about making cupcakes that used 70% of the mechanisms from the fan game. "Fans are boring, and cupcakes are amazing," he says. "Heck, yeah", I reply, like it wasn't the most obvious thing he's ever said. It's not that I'm a huge cupcake fan, but fans are just so dull. Fan salesmen were still better than wizards racing around a lake as themes go, so who am I to criticize? I'm not really that fussy about theme as long as the mechanisms are solid and work with it, but it matters to Yves, so I let him do whatever he wants... It's better than hearing him complain about it week after week.

Okay, now it's starting to smell really good

We'd run into a few snags with the fan theme, but the general idea of running a small business was solid. The dice were your workers, and colored dice were specialists. The dice from each column on the player board represented a certain business activity, with more dice being a stronger action. When you take an action, all the workers (dice) there pull together to get the job done, then they go off to work on other tasks. (That is, the dice are rolled and go to the task that matches the number rolled.)

Making cupcake bottoms, icing tops, advertising, and enacting business improvements (i.e., engine-building) were the four obvious tasks, but we wanted five jobs. We knew we wanted something to take place on the map to represent sales areas and to give players a good way to interact with each other, but it took a long while to figure out a really satisfying way to do this.

Oh, for crying out loud!

So that's it. I've run out of time to set the story straight. Take what he says with a few grains of salt!!

Please reply with Team Al (TA) or send me a cupcake to show your support in these trying times.
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