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Designer Diary: The Grand Trunk Journey, or Does the World Need Another Train Game?

Claude Sirois
Quebec City
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Microbadge: Spielworxx fanMicrobadge: The Grand Trunk Journey fan!Microbadge: I play with red!Microbadge: Train GamerMicrobadge: Age of Industry fan
Let's go back to 2012, even if just for a few minutes...

You remember 2012? Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States, the UEFA Euro was held in Poland and Ukraine, and "Gangnam Style" got a billion views on YouTube. On the game scene, Terra Mystica, Snowdonia, and Trains came out.

A lot less significant, but also in 2012, I started to work on The Grand Trunk Journey, a pick-up-and-deliver train game in which players operate their own railway, trying to be as efficient as possible while delivering goods to cities and ports by using cards that consist of rail equipments and locations. The game also features hand management, a time track turn system, and point-to-point movement.

Board Game: The Grand Trunk Journey

During mid-2012, I'm finalizing my Age of Industry (AOI) maps — specifically the Belgium & USSR and Great Lakes & South Africa maps finally published in 2013 with the help of BGG! — and got caught by an urgent desire to keep designing something. I had a couple of ideas for additional AOI maps, but why not try a bigger challenge: Designing my own game! I didn't feel completely ready to do so, but hey, I had to start somewhere.

Very quickly I decided that I would try to design a train game. Just for fun. Just to practice. Why a train game? I just love train games. Steam was (and still is) probably my favorite. I wondered whether the world might need another train game, but who cares? I was just practicing!

blacktrain A Few Guidelines

I knew I wanted to focus on the operations of a train company, not necessarily on the building of a network, so I gave myself a few guidelines:

E It would be a pick-up-and-deliver game: Nothing new here. Even though this game mechanism is not an obligation, pick-up-and-deliver and trains blend well.

E The movement of trains would be abstracted so that trains would be able to reach a destination each turn: I used to play Auf Achse and Empire Builder during that period, and even though I liked those games, I found it a bit frustrating sometimes to not be able to reach my destination with my truck or my train during my turn.

E The "level" of a locomotive would indicate the number of railcars it could pull, not (as in many train games) the distance it could travel: Okay, here I thought this element could bring a different perspective to my game. For example, a level 1 train could pull one railcar, a level 2 two railcars, etc. But trains, whatever their level, could travel the same distance to deliver goods. This element is related to the last item on my list...

E Different types of railcars would be used to move different goods: Often, trains are abstracted as one entity without taking into account their composition. In my game, a train could be composed of more or fewer railcars (depending on its level) that could move different goods.

Those guidelines were not bad considering they are still relevant in the published version of the game!

blacktrain The First Attempt

My initial design was about managing a shortline railway in Québec (my home province) during the 1990s, picking up and delivering goods to the two national railways: Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). There was a management phase in which you could found a new railway and purchase equipment for your railway(s) and an operational phase in which you could build and upgrade lines, move trains, and load/unload goods. What was interesting is that rail equipment could break because it was getting old.

The first attempt was...playable, which is not bad considering that most of the time first prototypes of a game are awful! But the mechanisms were not that interesting, so I decided to take a few steps back to see whether I could find something better.

From gallery of Klode

From gallery of Klode
The oldest relics of The Grand Trunk Journey, then called "Another Train Game"

blacktrain Why Not Use Cards?

The core of the game emerged somewhere in 2013. I'm sure you all know A Few Acres of Snow from Martin Wallace. That is a great game! In that game, Martin was able to cleverly adapt the deck-building mechanism to the theme of the game. If you remember, you had location cards that you could play by means of transport cards to settle a new location or develop an existing one.

Why not use a similar deck-building mechanism for my game? To move your train, you would have to play a location card. In addition, the management of railcars would be simulated by the utilization of the railcar cars you had in your deck. During the game, you could add new location cards and additional railcar cards in order to move more goods (in railcars) to more destinations.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
In this early version of the game, this train was moving one iron loaded in New York

From gallery of Klode
Later in the development, that train was aiming to Chicago moving iron and oil

From gallery of Klode
In the final version (with an image from the rulebook), this train is moving iron to Burlington

That mechanism evolved and was simplified during the design process, but it has always been the heart of the game!

I pursued the design of the game during the next couple of years around that mechanism. The game went into many different versions that I won't talk about here because it would take too long, but I give some details on that development on my BGG blog.

From gallery of Klode

From gallery of Klode

From gallery of Klode
Cards and components of the game at different steps of development

At a certain point, I thought I was ready to show the game to a publisher. With no contacts in the board game industry, I decided to test the route of game design contests. Between 2016 and 2018, I sent the game to four contests, and the reactions were not bad at all! Under the name "Routes of Steel 73", the game finished in second place at the Cardboard Edison Award (U.S.) in 2016 and won the Best Longplayer Special Award at the Hippodice Game Club Competition (Germany) in 2018!

From gallery of Klode
Ready to be shipped to the Cardboard Edison Award contest

What is great with contests is that you raise awareness about your game. You also have the opportunity to present your game to publishers and get relevant feedback. I just think you have to choose the right contest for your game, and if you're very lucky, you might find a judge willing to give you additional feedback!

During that same period, a few publishers looked at and even playtested the game, but they provided negative answers. The good news is that the game was still evolving and improving. I knew it had a certain potential, but something was still missing...

blacktrain Finally on the (Time) Track!

Spielworxx finally showed interest after the Hippodice Game Club Competition. Uli Blennemann, one of the Hippodice jury members, told me that he had taken my prototype with him and wanted to test it.

That was great, but I said NO! More specifically, "No, don't test that version. It is good, but I have a better version with an interesting addition to propose to you. I can send you a new prototype.

That was the right move to do!

I had replaced the system of train movement based on resources (oil) with a recording of train movement on a time track. This system is quite easy: Spend one day for each rail link you travel. The most interesting part of it is the addition of "special deliveries". In the game, you can deliver goods to fulfill the demand of each city. Those are regular deliveries. You can fulfill them at any moment during the game. With a special delivery, however, you must deliver the right good to the right city at the right moment on the time track. Such deliveries are worth more victory points (VPs), of course!

From gallery of Klode
In this example, you must deliver an iron in Québec during days 14, 15 or 16 to get 4 VPs

I like this "special delivery" time-track mechanism a lot because it is relevant in the context of a train company that tries to be as efficient as possible. I think it is a great addition to the game, giving players another way to score points and come back in the game if behind. Moreover, it brings an interesting tension to the game. First, do you want to try to accomplish the delivery? Second, do you have a good chance to be the first to do so? Planning and timing are necessary!

I always thought the game had the potential to be published, and the "special delivery" mechanism was the last element that was missing!

blacktrain Development with Spielworxx

I don't have much to say about the development of the game with Spielworxx other than that it was amazing! We didn't change that many things in the game itself, but we did move the setting of the game back to the 19th century (instead of the 1970s) to link it with a second game I've signed with Spielworxx, a game with the working title "Griffintown". That's why The Grand Trunk Journey is tagged as game #1 in the Griffintown Series.

Working with the Spielworxx team was great! I was involved at every step of the process and had good communication with Uli, who was always open to my suggestions. It was also great to work in collaboration with Henning Kröpke for the development and the rulebook, and with Harald Lieske who did a great job on the visuals! I've already met Uli, and I hope to have the opportunity to meet Henning and Harald in October at SPIEL '20! In the meantime, thanks to you guys!

The game is now available for preorder on the Spielworxx website and in the BBG Store. For more information about the game's development, have a look at my BGG blog.

So, does the world need another train game? Hmm, probably not, but we like them anyway!

Thanks for reading!

Claude Sirois
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