Last year, I started working on a weird route-building game. The idea hit me during my prep work for the PULL! Kickstarter campaign, and it wouldn’t go away. No matter how hard I tried to put it down, I couldn’t. So, I let it just sit in my head for a while until, one day, I had an idea and decided to prototype it.
I teased it many, many times on Twitter over the last half of 2014. I promised to write about it. I promised to VLOG about it… I did none of those things. Why? Well, mostly because I didn’t know what to write. I had a functioning prototype, but it didn’t excite me. There were some core mechanics I was excited to develop, but they really aren’t anything new or groundbreaking. How do you write about making something mediocre? This was my first foray into making a large(ish) board game and I wanted it to be something special.
Spoiler alert: it’s not.
About the First Nations People
The game stemmed from the idea that there really aren’t many games that focus on the Native people of North America. There are games that include them, yes, but not really games that tell their story… and they have great stories to tell! The one I set out to tell is simple: the fur trade.
Prior to European settlements, North America was wholly settled by the Native people. What we refer to as tribes today were actually large populations, or Nations, of people that spoke different languages, had different import and export goods, and governed themselves independently of the other Nations. These people were great craftsmen, hunters, farmers, and tradesmen. They fought each other for land, just as most neighboring nations have done throughout the centuries, but for the most part, there was plenty of resources to be had, so they co-existed peacefully.
Then the Europeans came.
They brought with them iron… something the Natives simply didn’t have. They brought tools, horses, new building techniques… and most importantly… guns. At this time, wool was particularly popular in Europe, and specifically fur wool. When the Europeans discovered the superior felting qualities of beaver, the North American fur trade became one of the richest, and bloodiest, in North American history.
Europeans wanted fur. The First Nations wanted steel. It was a perfect setup… until the guns. In a matter of only a few years, the First Nations began fighting… warring even… over the most bountiful fur lands. A once peaceful people were now driven by greed and empowered by steel… and the Europeans just sat back and collected their precious fur.
First Nations – The Game
This is the story I wanted to capture. The players would spend the early turns of the game developing trade routes between the various settlements on the board. Eventually, the players start gathering enough fur to be able to trade with the Europeans, then the game takes an abrupt shift. It turns into a sort of area-control game.
Yeah, in theory. The idea of playing two different games isn’t new. The first time I played Downfall of Pompeii I was in awe of the idea. It wasn’t necessarily on my mind when working on this game that I would develop two abruptly different games… and I didn’t… it’s just the way it worked out. The problem is, it doesn’t really do this in any sort of meaningful way.
So, I made the prototype. Tested. Tweaked. Tested. Tweaked. I took the game to Protospiel and got many “yeah, this is good” remarks. The problem is, it’s not good… and I knew it. The game functions, sure, but it doesn’t have a reason for existing. There are goods, and ways to spend them. There is player interaction. There is a scoring mechanism. The problem is, none of it is exciting. While it is a playable, balanced game… and one person will win… there’s just no reason to play it. And I knew this.
I don’t want to design a game that is just playable. I want to design a game that players want to play. The problem is, I have no ideas how to make it better.
So, I sent it off to a friend. His name is Ignacy and if you don’t know him, the guy wrote a book called “Board Games That Tell Stories.” Seriously, he knows how to make games that tell stories. He’s like the sultan of games that tell stories. So, I asked him to play it because I’m stuck.
He did… and there’s great news… he hated it.
That is exactly the response I was hoping for. It’s not often that you hear someone say, “man, I hope this publisher hates my game!” but that was my hope. To be clear: I sent this game to a friend, I did not send this to him asking for him to publish it.
Ignacy was able to put in very simple terms the reason I don’t like the game. He was able to tell me why I don’t like it, even when I, myself, couldn’t figure it out. The scoring is not fun. The actions have no meaning. There is no progression. It’s things like this that make a game just another game and not something special.
So, now I can start on the real game. I still want to tell this story. I just need to take a different approach. Maybe I should scrap the whole thing and come at it from a different angle. Maybe I can find a way to inject a better scoring model, and thus, better decisions into the existing prototype. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do to make it better, I just know that I finally have a clearly defined goal.