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Subject: Homesteaders design notes, Part 1 rss

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Alex Rockwell
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The spark for Homesteaders came from the following idea: There are economic engine games in which you pay combinations of resources to build various buildings. There are games where you auction off buildings, or other items. What would be a cool innovation to these kinds of games? A game in which you auction off the right to construct certain ‘colors’ of buildings, and pay for it with various combinations of resources. This was something which had never been done before, (as far as I know), and I felt it could lead to a deep and interesting resource management and economic development game.

This idea lead to some game design questions:
Q: How would we make the buildings interesting? A: By making them lead you down different paths of the ‘tree’ or ‘web’ of other buildings that they would then help you to construct. I’ve always loved Civilization, the computer game, and the technology tree in particular. I have always wanted to make a board game that had a technology tree-like mechanic, but played in under 90 minutes.
My idea was that buildings are a bit like technologies on the tree: they open up new options for you, and they have requirements to fulfill. The requirements are the resources they require. To create a building that costs two steel, it would be important to first generate a steel source. A building that generates steel thus opens up the area of the tree containing the steel buildings. The resource requirements of buildings create a kind of soft prerequisite to creating that building, and a resource production building makes it much easier to access certain areas of the ‘tech tree’.

The main challenge here was to make sure that the tree was not too rigid - that there are enough paths through it and enough ways to gather together the resources you need for a certain building. But also it must not be too open, such that any choice you make can lead you anywhere, because then there is really no tree at all, and the strategic choices don’t matter. There must also be balance between different paths through the tree, and the choices cannot become too obvious.

This is one of the cool things about homesteaders: There is a sort of ‘tech tree’ of buildings that you learn to navigate through, in order to reach your goals at the end.

Q: How do we make the auctions interesting? A: They create limitations on the players, forcing them to adapt and follow different paths. Each auction item allows a player to choose between a few items, but restricts many other options. Additionally, there is one less auction item available than there are players, so they force a difficult valuation decision as well.

One of my favorite game designers to read, in order to learn about the design process, is Mark Rosewater, head designer for the Magic: The Gathering CCG. He has said that one of the greatest things about Magic is the Color Wheel (the abilities and theme of each color). In Magic, there are five colors of cards, and it is difficult to play more than a couple of the colors at once. Each color has its own strengths and weaknesses. Mark explains that Magic forces the player to make a choice of what colors to play, and then the Color Wheel causes that choice to be meaningful, by creating distinctions between them. Putting constraints on a person leads to creativity. They must discover how to achieve their goals while following a certain set of rules, and therefore they must adapt and seek out new ways to do things.

Buildings in homesteaders have ‘colors’ like in magic: There are Residential, Industrial, Commercial, and Special buildings. Each type has its abilities and weaknesses. Each has things they can do for you and things they cannot. Industrial buildings are good at producing resources. Residential buildings are good for income. Commercial buildings provide versatility and special powers. Once I had come up with the resources and game structure, and a variety of abilities than buildings could provide, I came up with a ‘Color Wheel’ describing what abilities ‘belonged’ to each type of building, and what were the strengths and weaknesses of each type.

Therefore, Homesteaders auctions are like making a choice of colors in Magic. Each auction contains land which is suitable for a certain type or types of building. When a player wins a land auction, they build a building of the corresponding type. The player must make a decision: What types of abilities do I need right now? Which of the available land choices best allows me to further my plan? They must then compete against other players for those land types. If several players both feel they need industrial land at the same time, it will be expensive. This forces players to adapt. If they instead bid on the cheaper, less desired land of another type, how can they still achieve their goal? Will this path end up being more efficient? The auctions and building types are interesting because they force players to make a choice (and compete against each other in making that choice). The building types make the choice meaningful, by constraining players to certain types of abilities that they can gain from that ‘color’ of building.

These are the features that make Homesteaders unique. It is an auction game in which what is being auctioned off is not an item or resource, but certain ‘color’ of option. And in order to use that option to construct a particular building, you must assemble the combination of resources that you need to build it. You must meld together a resource collection/production aspect, with an auction/monetary aspect, in order to construct the pieces of your economic engine.
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Mario Aguila
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Auctions, buildings, technology tree-like mechanic...it makes me remember in some way Phoenicia and Industria.
 
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Alex Rockwell
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I should note that the 'technology tree' thing isnt actually literal. There isnt actually any sort of tech tree or upgrading paths. It is more that there is a tech tree in spirit, in that the available buildings can tend to lead to each toher, or to a certain category of building, and acquiring a certain building can go from very difficult to much easier if you have the "prerequisites". In particular, the resource production buildings really open up access to many buildings, while the trade providing buildings (usually commercial), give a more versatile but less direct access to many areas of the tree.
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Pedro
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Sounds really interesting. Will probably buy when it comes out!

I knew you were going places, when I saw you in the old MOO3 forums! ninja
 
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Michael Mindes
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Alex,

Thanks for getting this up. I will get up on my blog also soon.
 
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Alex Rockwell
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pitris wrote:
Sounds really interesting. Will probably buy when it comes out!

I knew you were going places, when I saw you in the old MOO3 forums! ninja


Wow, MOO3, that brings back memories. That game was the biggest disappointment ever.

Homesteaders! Its what you wanted MOO3 to be!! Well, no, not really...
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Michael Mindes
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Alexfrog wrote:
pitris wrote:
Sounds really interesting. Will probably buy when it comes out!

I knew you were going places, when I saw you in the old MOO3 forums! ninja


Wow, MOO3, that brings back memories. That game was the biggest disappointment ever.

Homesteaders! Its what you wanted MOO3 to be!! Well, no, not really...


MOO3... If I wanted to play a spreadsheet, then I would have gotten Excel!
 
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Jim Campbell
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Alexfrog,

The "soft" or "implied" tech tree (with no absolute prerequisites) and the auctioning of opportunities to build within a category (rather than auctioning the buildings themselves, or auctioning resources) are both interesting design choices. Both mechanics offer more flexibility than I usually have in this sort of game, but at a cost. That flexibility was badly needed, because I usually knew what I wanted to build, but didn't usually know exactly what it would cost or how soon I'd be able to complete it. Homesteaders found a good balance between the feeling that I was stuck "on rails" and the feeling that my options were similar enough that it didn't matter what I chose. Decisions mattered a lot without constraining my future options too much.

Another indication that your game emphasizes flexibility is the lack of a known main line in the opening, such as the ones in Puerto Rico. There is a lot of divergence in the opening draw and first turn of Homesteaders, and I would guess you're one of just a handful of people who have played it enough for some of the opening sequences to become familiar. I remember watching someone start their second game of Homesteaders by attempting a specific progression of buildings which they had watched someone else (probably you!) use effectively. My recollection is that the auction draws came up differently and/or the necessary winning bids were expensive, so the attempt resulted in "good building combo plus enough debt to kill it", which was an immediate success but ultimately a failure. It pays to be a good shopper and have plans B and C ready.

The trade mechanics aren't new but have been fine-tuned until they play like something new. Many resource management games which don't allow players to trade among themselves include a method of swapping different resources for each other, or for buying and selling resources for cash. Usually these trade mechanisms are very timidly designed such that the transaction costs are high. They're included as an emergency option for situations where someone comes up a little short. In Homesteaders you were more ambitious about lowering transaction costs until you struck a balance between making resource production unattractive and making trade unattractive. Because the value of trade was balanced well, you could then include a large role for liquidity. Some resources (especially Actions) have surprising liquidity, some gain liquidity over the course of the game, and it seemed typical for each player to have different liquidity capabilities...I should wait until you've discussed this in the remaining design notes.

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Alex Rockwell
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In Puerto Rico, there are main line openings, that you can analyze and then you pretty much have to follow. In Agricola there are first picks, second picks, etc with the worker placement, that you pretty much have to follow. (But both those games are still awesome!)
In Homesteaders, there are four turn 1 openings (Farm, Foundry, Market, Pass), and they are all good! And they are all very different. And if one is better than another, you just bid 2 higher on that land type and it probably isnt better anymore. You also must contend with some variability in the auction tiles, so you cant count on everything always being available at the same time.


jimc wrote:

The trade mechanics aren't new but have been fine-tuned until they play like something new. Many resource management games which don't allow players to trade among themselves include a method of swapping different resources for each other, or for buying and selling resources for cash. Usually these trade mechanisms are very timidly designed such that the transaction costs are high. They're included as an emergency option for situations where someone comes up a little short. In Homesteaders you were more ambitious about lowering transaction costs until you struck a balance between making resource production unattractive and making trade unattractive. Because the value of trade was balanced well, you could then include a large role for liquidity. Some resources (especially Actions) have surprising liquidity, some gain liquidity over the course of the game, and it seemed typical for each player to have different liquidity capabilities...I should wait until you've discussed this in the remaining design notes.


This is one of the things I plan to discuss in later design notes!

Originally, I had a separate auction phase in which players auctioned resources to each other. It didnt work. People would often see that others were counting on them for a certain resource, and then just auction nothing.

It was important to give people enough versatility to be able to access resources that they dont produce, because you cant produce them all. But also trading cant be so cheap that its all you need to do. There is some cost for the versatility. It ends up being strogner to make a combination of production and trading, than to make all production or all trading. And thats a good thing.

Note that any time a playtester, or me, or anyone refers to 'Actions', they are referring to Trade Chips. This was a renaming to be more thematic, that occurred after many of the playtest versions.
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Seth Jaffee
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Alexfrog wrote:
Note that any time a playtester, or me, or anyone refers to 'Actions', they are referring to Trade Chips. This was a renaming to be more thematic, that occurred after many of the playtest versions.

Indeed, I think I might have done that in the demo video even... or perhaps that was the first draft, which had to be re-shot because the official Tasty Minstrel cat decided that playing with the tripod wasn't enough fun, so she jumped on the table (and into the video!)
 
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