As you know, the Kickstarter campaign for the "Carson City Big Box" is already a huge success.
I would like to take this Kickstarter campaign as an opportunity to tell the story of the creation of Carson City.
I have not taken the time to transcribe, day by day, all the different stages of the creation of the game. It is therefore not a “game designer Dairy”, as other authors have written with great care and talent. But I have enough material to tell you where this game comes from, and try to explain how and why I came to design and create Carson City.
Aerial view of Carson City in 1975 by Augustus Koch. Source: The Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection. Site: http://wnhpc.com
Episode 1: In the beginning, there were games
As far as my memory allows me to go back in time, I remember loving board games. I played a lot of great classics such as Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, Cluedo, Magellan, etc.
I remember one specific day - I was about 10 years old - I broke my piggy bank to buy a new board game. Attracted by the nice cover, I bought Destin (called “The Game of Life” in English speaking countries). After my first session, I felt very disappointed. This game, to me, was a simple “improvement” of the game of the goose: very random and quite inferior to Monopoly. I was a bit miffed that a nice-looking game could be so uninteresting. I told myself that one day, perhaps, I would try and do better ...
Fortunately, as I grew older, I discovered roleplaying games and wargames. Gradually, more and more good games called “German”-style games, such as Settlers of Catan, appeared on the market. The diversity of game mechanisms also increased, especially with the advent of collectible card games, of which Magic, The Gathering is the common ancestor.
1989-1994. During my architectural engineering studies, I became interested in urbanism, urban development and regional planning. In our architecture courses, we learned that the creative process is primarily based on knowledge of what has already been done on the so-called “references”, i.e. the “examples” of the great names in the history of architecture that are part of our collective memory. In Architecture, wanting to start from scratch, taking no account of what has already been done, makes little to no sense. We can try to distinguish ourselves from what exists, but it is a very conscious process, not a random one. I think that, perhaps, it is the same for game design.
During my studies, I was lucky enough to attend a seminar based on a simulation game, called CLUG: The Community Land Use Game. CLUG was developed by G. Allan Feldt and published in 1972. This simulation game allows to study the choices you have to develop and to expand a city based on cost constraints (particularly travel costs), profitability of economic activities and general profit income. If you wish to know more about CLUG, you can visit http://www.clug.co/
The simulation game CLUG - Community Land Use Game by G. Allan Feldt
For 4 months, at a rate of one afternoon per week, six teams competed with the sole objective to increase their small starting capital. I have fond memories of this game. I think I missed the educational value of the game a little bit. But on the other hand, I found CLUG very interesting from a gaming point of view. At the end of the seminar, our team had managed to make more money than all the other teams together...
Episode 2: The list of my desires
Why did our team win? Because we had managed to perceive which were the best choices to make before the other teams did. I really loved that feeling of making choices (regarding the purchases of land), which meant that you had to bet on the future, and that those bets would prove rewarding or not according to how the city would develop.
It was at the end of that project that I asked myself the question: why not try and create an adaptation of CLUG in a “real” board game? CLUG is too long, too complex, too serious ... but basically building a city is a wonderful theme for a board game. Apart from Monopoly, quite a few games exploit this theme.
CLUG is too rigid a game, in that it imposes inexplicable constraints. For example, the game requires you to make three secret bids for the purchase of land, every turn. Since it is secret auction, a team can unfortunately be left with nothing to buy! This doesn’t work. Why three and not zero bids or perhaps six depending on needs and resources? Why do the bids have to be secret?
I dreamt of a game where each player is “free” to perform as many available actions he wishes (including no action at all) during a given turn, and therefore is also free to adopt a very different strategy from the other players.
This was my wish list for this “dream game” of mine:
A game where players “really” build a city, by purchasing land before they can construct the buildings;
A game where mastering geography – i.e. the map of the city – is important to win;
A game that can be quite “tight”, that is not too long (maximum 1h30);
A game where nobody is eliminated during the game, which keeps the suspense going until the end;
A game where very different paths can lead to victory;
A game where there is a strong player interaction level;
A game where choosing actions is not a constrained process, but rather a flexible, a la carte, process.
In terms of theme, I of course wanted to keep the theme of building a city on a regular “checkerboard” map (or grid map). This type of city planning has been used many times in history, so I still had plenty of examples to choose from: Greek and Roman cities, Beijing, Kyoto, Barcelona, new cities in France, England, the United States...
Episode 3: First prototypes
This project has long been in the back of my head before I was ready and decided to give the whole idea a go. And so, I began to create prototypes of different games in 1996 with some friends. Yet it is only seven years later that I created the first prototype of a game inspired by CLUG.
So in 2002, the first prototype of Carson City was born. He was then called “Wincity”. It used the same sequence of play of CLUG, free of its overtly complex aspects. The theme was the construction of an English town during the industrial revolution.
I tried to make game rounds more flexible: the idea was that the first player would decide which action would be performed by all the players in a given turn (purchase of land, construction, equipment, or income). This worked, but I still felt it was too rigid, because in reality, action sequences are effectively repeated, making them predictable.
Out of convenience, I preserved the land purchasing mechanism of CLUG based on three hidden auctions. Tests confirmed that this much too random mechanism needs to be changed.
After some tests, the conclusion became clear: an adaptation of CLUG into a board game appeared to be feasible. It is mostly the duration of the game that scared me, but I came to realize that it is possible to build a city in a reasonable amount of time (i.e. about two hours). However, the mechanism felt very flavorless. If the theme was very convincing to me, playing still lacked “fun”.
In December 2002, the second prototype was called Chicago (one approaches the Wild West a bit). The action selection mechanism did not change, but I introduced the production and sale actions: ranches produce cattle, mines produce gold and factories produce goods. Shops, banks and warehouses allow each player to store and sell his products more easily.
The mechanism of buying existing land remained based on three secret bids, to be revealed simultaneously. But to avoid having to write down their offers on a piece of paper, each player has 10 pieces numbered 0-9 he places on land he covets, and he pays the price if his bid is the highest one. Luck gets reduced in this way because players know which are the grounds coveted by the other players.
January 2003. After reflection, the theme of building a city in the Far West in the days of the gold rush feels obvious. What else could be more exciting? The prototype took the name of Kansas City, which, I must admit, is not located in the Far West (as you know, it’s in the Midwest). However, we are getting closer and closer and I thought the name sounded really good! The name of the prototype will now remain until the publication of the game. Versions 1, 2 and 3 of Kansas City were created to refine the concepts and rules, without any major changes.
The first three versions of Kansas City include a production and storage resources (red = livestock, yellow = gold, black = goods).
The bank which stores the gold produced by the mines.
The ranch which produces cattle, which are mainly stored on neighboring vacant land.
The game worked. Yet I wanted to give players even more freedom of choice in their actions. Because players should be able to play (and win) the game by either buying very little land or a lot, building in the city center or investing in the suburbs, attacking other players or remaining peaceful, etc.
How to achieve this?
This is what you will discover soon in the second part of this History of Carson City ...