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Subject: Designer Diary for Pay Dirt: From Alien Frontiers to the Alaskan Frontier rss

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Tory Niemann
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A few months back I was perusing the Geek, as you do, and I stumbling across a shocking GeekList: One Hit Wonder Game Designers. The shocking element? I was on the list! Tory Niemann, the designer of Alien Frontiers and… nothing else.

To be clear: I am eternally grateful that I have even one game with my name on it considered to be a hit. Many a designer would sell various body parts to various elder gods to have a game as well regarded as Alien Frontiers. But the title “One Hit Wonder”? That is the very definition of being damned with faint praise.


Man, I was goofy looking 3 1/2 years ago!

There's only one thing to be done: disprove it! And here we are, talking about my next game, Pay Dirt.

Pay Dirt is a worker place/resource management/auction game about leading a gold mining operation in modern day Alaska, America’s last frontier. It’s being published by Crash Games and is on Kickstarter now. You should totally back it.

I designed Alien Frontiers originally because I misunderstood how another game worked and wanted to make a game like my misunderstanding. Pay Dirt is a very different game and it started in a very different way.

After the success of Alien Frontiers, my creative process was a bit disrupted. Every design I came up with I disliked. My mind was stuck in a rut of thinking about my last game. “This new game isn’t nearly as good as Alien Frontiers, into the garbage it goes!” As you can tell, shooting down ideas like this is not productive or healthy. I eventually figured out that holding myself to an insane standard was counterproductive and decided to approach things in a new way.

I asked “What things in the world mirror how a board game works?” My thinking was that such things would be ripe for adaptation into games and good for inspiration. I came up with a definition of gameliness as “being structured as a competition, possibly involving multiple participants, and having a defined goal and endpoint”. My search for gameliness focused on history, nature, and pop culture. I found plenty of gamely things out there, including several that had been adapted into many, many games already (Roman history, I’m looking at you).

One evening I noticed that this reality show my wife and I liked met all the criteria of gameliness. The second season of Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel was about a competition between miners for who could mine the most gold before the end of the season. The more I thought about it, the more this theme engaged me and the more game-like the whole thing sounded. All the gold mining games I knew of were set in the past, not modern day, and very few of them looked at this element of competition against rival mining crews and against the harsh conditions. I researched small operation placer gold mining and saw gameliness everywhere.

“Mining crews racing to mine the most gold before the ever-dropping temperature shuts them all down” was the starting premise. One piece that I came up with almost immediately that didn’t change at all was the pay dirt tiles. These tiles start as part of a claim and are processed through equipment to become gold. How much gold depends on the value on the underside of the tile you grabbed, but that’s an unknown before you’re done processing. It’s a gamble, just like small operation mining can be.


Early prototype of pay dirt tiles

Pieces of mining equipment that form a “path” for the pay dirt from dirt to gold seemed natural from there, as did acquiring new equipment to make your “path” more efficient. The worker placement mechanic was a good fit to represent workers that operated the equipment, but I wanted each player’s mining operation to be a totally separate entity. That meant the traditional “If I go here you can’t” element of worker placement was out. I began to see the workers in this game as a resource rather than a method of action selection as in some games. The game developed so that the workers are there to make your camp work and are resolved simultaneously with the other players. This change sped up the game play considerably, which is a big plus.


Workers processing pay dirt through the mining equipment

I wanted to make the process of acquiring of better workers, equipment, and pay dirt tiles part of the competition too, so auctions were a must. But what kind of auction? There are thousands of auction games out there and they each have their quirks and advantages. I tested for a while a method that forced the player to commit a worker to each bid. It was interesting but ultimately it meant that you couldn’t really do much else if you were active in the bidding, slowing the game down and discouraging players from bidding back and forth. I settled on a more traditional type of auction with a twist: one item per player will be up for auction, and while players choose which item to auction from a selection, each item must be a different type than the last item auctioned. If your opponent bid on and purchased a new Loader, you can’t choose to put another piece of equipment up for next auction. This restriction was to force players to really consider what they want and what they’re opponents want even when selecting the item to be bid on.


Mock ups of Personnel cards from a late prototype

The next question to be answered was the relationship between gold and money. Obviously miners are after gold because it's worth money, but I wanted the game to be about the gold, not its monetary value. Gold became equivalent to victory points but points that you could sell for money. This created a fun tension for the players: you want money to win auctions to get better stuff, but you have to sell your victory points (gold) to get money, and once its been sold there is no going back. In earlier versions I experimented with a variable gold market that rewarded players for selling gold early, but I scrapped that idea because it didn't add much to the game and didn't fit when the worker placement mechanic became simultaneous.

Another idea that survived from the earliest prototype was Hardship cards. I wanted mining to be harsh, so that you felt you were overcoming a challenge every game. I put at the end of the round a Hardship phase that inflicts random malfunctions, mix ups, and personnel disputes. But I learned quickly totally randomness isn’t as much fun as controlled randomness. Instead of each player getting one Hardship from the deck, players would draft Hardship cards with the losing players getting first choice. This became another place for interesting choices and great “screw your neighbor” moments, as well as a minor catch-up mechanism.

Hardships also drive the temperature down, bring on the end of the mining season. Because water is an important part of the wash plant that separates gold from dirt, the gold mining season ends when the temperature stays below freezing. This fit really well in the game, but the exact number of degrees that drop is variable. You know that winter is coming, but no one knows exactly when. This was thematically fitting and created more choices for players about when to invest in your operation and when to focus on hording more gold.

During the playtesting and polishing of the game, I happened to played it with a friend of mine, Patrick Nickell. At the time, his company Crash Games had published Rise! and their next was up on Kickstarter. He told me that Pay Dirt was HIS kind of game, which is a high compliment. Later he decided he had to be the one to publish it, which is another high compliment. There have been bumps along the way, but Patrick’s passion has kept things going strong. Crash Games found an amazing artist, Naomi Robinson, and an equally talented graphic designer, Darrell Louder, to realize the game visually. I’ve been genuinely blown away by their fantastic work. The end result is a game that looks and plays like a gold mining expedition in the wilds of Alaska.



It feels like it’s been ages since I designed it, but Pay Dirt is finally up on Kickstarter now and hopefully will be in production soon. I really love the game and it has been a blast seeing the positive reactions from playtesters, reviewers and Kickstarter backers. Another thing that I'm proud of is that Pay Dirt is a totally different game from Alien Frontiers. Some people might have been happy with another "dice as workers" game, but I wasn't. It was important to me to do something new and fresh, and I think Pay Dirt delivers that.

If this sounds like a game you'd be interested in, or if you just want to make sure I don't go down in board game history as a One Hit Wonder, back Pay Dirt on Kickstarter now!
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Patrick Nickell
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The awkward moment when the designer misspells the publishers last name. whistle
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Common Man Games
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Cool Stuff Guys!!!

thumbsupthumbsupthumbsupthumbsup
 
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Joseph Propati
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Ouch!
Lol
 
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Tory Niemann
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I had that spelled right! Damn you, autocorrect!
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Tyler DeLisle
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Fantastic write-up, thanks!

I was originally deterred by the sort of boring looking cover of Pay Dirt, but the game sounds great and I'm a HUGE fan of Alien Frontiers. If I can't manage a pledge on the Kickstarter, I'll definitely be first in line on it's widespread release day.
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Jason
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I'm loving hearing how the game goes on its journey from concept toward its final stages. Well done, Tory!

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Holger Doessing
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Very interesting, Tory. thumbsup

If you did a Designer Diary for Alien Frontiers I'm sorry to have missed it, so please bear with me.

Theme vs mechanics
Obviously your design process for Pay Dirt was very much 'theme first, mechanics second' as opposed to 'mechanics first, theme second'. How does this approach compare with the one you took for Alien Frontiers, and would you consider one approach more suited than the other - for you as a game designer in general, as well as for certain types of games or mechanics?

A recent BGG thread discussed how the theme in Pay Dirt is percieved. Some felt the theme was a bit dry, whereas others (including yours truly) felt that it was refreshing to see a theme tied to the modern world. Seeing as Alien Frontiers is certainly not tied to the real world, how would you describe your own preference for themes in games, and how does theme affect your design choices?

Worker placement allocation and player interaction
Your write in your Diary that you distinctively didn't want classic worker placement, where players can block actions from each other. I was wondering if this was a nod to the common critique of worker placement games, where mechanics often seem to take precedence over theme, as it is seen in Agricola's highly regulated form of birth control?

In general, Pay Dirt focuses its interaction on the auctions, effects from gear and personnel, and the distribution of the Hardship cards. One might be inclined to think that you were very deliberate about not having any player interaction at all for the worker placement phase. Would you consider this a specific design choice or merely the way things worked out?

Several of the available gear and personnel offer ways to directly mess with opponents' camps and claims. I was wondering if these dirty tricks and ways of interacting were added into the game to restore some 'take that'?

Not all the gear in Pay Dirt is purchased through auctions; some is sold on a 'first come, first served' basis. Could you please elaborate a bit on the rationale behind this decision?

Final remarks
And finally one small thing: I noticed that the thermometer on the main board counts down to 0 degrees. I'm assuming that this must be centigrade (as water freezes at 0 centigrade), yet you're from the US. It was my understanding that Pay Dirt takes place in Alaska, not Yukon, so what is the story here?


Thanks in advance and good luck with Pay Dirt on Kickstarter. I am already backing it and I very much look forward to getting it to the table!
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Xenothon Stelnicki
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Tory, I'm late to the party on Alien Frontiers, but just played it again last night with some friends. I'm early to Pay Dirt, though, having played a couple games now. They're both outstanding! Thanks for the write-up and I really look forward to seeing what you come up with next. Make it good! devil haha No pressure.
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Tory Niemann
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Great questions, Holger! I'll have to delay my full response until I'm back to my computer (on my iPhone now), but I do have answers for you. Eventually!
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J Young
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I'm guessing it is 0 deg Celsius, as this is when water freezes. And the scale looks "cleaner" on the player board than it would if it was, say, 59 deg F down to 32. Furthermore, most countries use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit - I'm sure Tory didn't want his game to look as outdated as our weights and measures system. Oh, and I think there is an actual "C" at the top of the scale.

Sorry to butt in, Tory...couldn't help myself. Our country's resistance to things metric still irks me. And don't get me started on Congress and ICD-10.
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J Young
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Btw, very nice game...hope it funds successfully! And I predict you will not be the Right Said Fred of the board game world.
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Jason
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Yeah, I'd have to second what Jeff said about it likely being Celsius. I know Alaskans are pretty weird and are willing to do a lot, even when it's zero degrees, but the ground would be too frozen by then. I'm sure many have tried, though.
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This is my kind of game and I'd normally back it but with Tokaido:CE just wrapping, Viticulture:CE and Coup Reformation, I'm tapped out of funds. Good luck though and I hope to pick this up in the future.
 
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Joseph Propati
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How did you get the cover guy to play a round of Pay Dirt?

 
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Tory Niemann
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holgerd wrote:
Theme vs mechanics
Obviously your design process for Pay Dirt was very much 'theme first, mechanics second' as opposed to 'mechanics first, theme second'. How does this approach compare with the one you took for Alien Frontiers, and would you consider one approach more suited than the other - for you as a game designer in general, as well as for certain types of games or mechanics?

A recent BGG thread discussed how the theme in Pay Dirt is percieved. Some felt the theme was a bit dry, whereas others (including yours truly) felt that it was refreshing to see a theme tied to the modern world. Seeing as Alien Frontiers is certainly not tied to the real world, how would you describe your own preference for themes in games, and how does theme affect your design choices?


No matter where you start with a game, in my opinion the theme and the mechanics must suit each other. In Alien Frontiers I started with a central mechanic and built up a system to surround it, and the theme flowed naturally out of that. But more than that, the theme informed many of the design decisions. If Alien Frontiers had been a game about Europeans colonizing North America, the choices that were made in the design would have been different. Ultimately I enjoy most the games where theme and mechanics are closely intertwined, and that's what I tried to achieve with Pay Dirt. As far as what "type" of designer I am, I think all designers have to take inspiration however it comes.

I tend to prefer games with fantastical themes, but any game with a well-executed theme is enjoyable. I love Power Grid: Factory Manager, and a lot of people dismiss the game as having a dry and boring theme. While it's not fighting dragons or intergalactic war, it executes the theme in an engaging way. However you end up with your mechanics and your theme, making them work together is the key element.

holgerd wrote:

Worker placement allocation and player interaction
Your write in your Diary that you distinctively didn't want classic worker placement, where players can block actions from each other. I was wondering if this was a nod to the common critique of worker placement games, where mechanics often seem to take precedence over theme, as it is seen in Agricola's highly regulated form of birth control?

In general, Pay Dirt focuses its interaction on the auctions, effects from gear and personnel, and the distribution of the Hardship cards. One might be inclined to think that you were very deliberate about not having any player interaction at all for the worker placement phase. Would you consider this a specific design choice or merely the way things worked out?


Reaction against criticism was not really a factor in that decision. My design process is all about evolution and iteration. I try what I think will work, see how it performs, make changes, see if that improves gameplay. During this process, I found I wanted more freedom for players and more of a sense of individual decision-making. I like the classic worker placement mechanic a lot, but that didn't suit the game I was making.

holgerd wrote:

Several of the available gear and personnel offer ways to directly mess with opponents' camps and claims. I was wondering if these dirty tricks and ways of interacting were added into the game to restore some 'take that'?

Not all the gear in Pay Dirt is purchased through auctions; some is sold on a 'first come, first served' basis. Could you please elaborate a bit on the rationale behind this decision?

In early designs, the game only had personnel, claims, and equipment for players to buy at auction. This was fine and good, but I felt game play would be improved by adding more ways to customize the mining camps. Gear, add-ons to your mining camp that gave you new abilities, was how I achieved that. I decided to leave these out of the auction because a) I liked the "three by three" structure of the auction as it was (choose from three items of the three types) and didn't want to add a fourth and b) give players who were shut out of the auctions by players with more money another way to improve their mining camp.

During the design of the Gear tiles, I found that these were the perfect place to add back in some of that interactivity and "take that." It worked out well because it leaves the choice of how interactive the players want to get up to the players. Don't like the "take that" element? Don't buy that piece of Gear.

Jefferoni wrote:
I'm guessing it is 0 deg Celsius, as this is when water freezes. And the scale looks "cleaner" on the player board than it would if it was, say, 59 deg F down to 32.


This is it, exactly. It makes much more sense to me to count down to 0 than to 32, and the number of degrees on the Hardship card are more logical and manageable in Celsius.
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