I love it when a plan comes together.

Back when we were designing our first game, it seemed like we went into every play test thinking:

“This has gotta be the one! Surely we fixed all the issues and it’ll finally come together. I feel really good about this.”

And we walked away feeling completely defeated, the entire game having fallen apart in a completely new way.

Not so with this little gem of a tile placement game!

This makes 2 play tests in a row, with a small iteration between, where it’s starting to feel really smooth and exciting! Holy hell it feels good to finally get some positive feedback from the game itself for once.

To review the changes we made from the previous version:

  • remove oxbows, add forks (I may have added too many forks)
  • reduce to 3 flags per player (this worked out perfectly)
  • reduce to 1 worker per player (this worked out perfectly)
  • reduce extra turn rewards (these are crazy overpowered and add a lot of order-of-priority niche issues, which I’ll get into)
  • add neighbor town milestones to score track (this worked out perfectly)
  • remove dumb contract rewards (better, but needs some more refinement)
  • reduce resource icons on landscape tiles (better)
  • gold is not wild, it’s endgame points gold is wild (this worked well)
  • 3 gold per player on the game clock (perfect game length)
  • add the 1d6 for whenever you add a road (love it)

Delightful Frustration

These are some examples of the delicious dilemmas we ran into this session:

  • Wanting resources, but also wanting to move your worker. You can do one or the other, but not both in one turn.
  • You want to move your worker toward that enticing export contract, but you’re short on resources and you don’t have any regions claimed.
  • You add a tile to an unclaimed terrain and choose not to claim it so that you can move your worker, hoping your opponent doesn’t swoop in and claim that region before you get back to it.
    • Sure enough, they claimed it on their next turn.
  • Completing your opponent’s region to get first dibs on the pile of resources it contains.
  • Your opponent completes your region for you, and even though they took all the wood, you still get the rest, and the points.
  • Puzzling out how to chain together your tile placement to complete a region > gain resources from that region > gain points from that region which earns you “Swap 1 resource” from the score track > complete a local contract with those resources > gain a move reward > move your worker > complete an export contract > gain a move reward > start moving toward the next town… The decisions are weaving together in very interesting and unexpected ways. We’re finding all kinds of new approaches.

Different Player Journeys

For the first third of the game, Collin had all his flags out, but wasn’t completing things. He kept drawing road tiles or tiles that couldn’t legally be placed to complete his regions. This resulted in him being very resource poor, and rather frustrated at his bad luck drawing hex tiles.

Meanwhile, I was completing small regions one after another and had just enough resources to complete the contracts on hand, maintaining a steady churn. I flew up the score track and hit every single neighboring town milestone and almost lapped him before he started cashing in on his (by that point) huge stockpile of resources for one contract after another in rapid succession.

At that point, I became starved for resources and didn’t have my flags out on the map. I wanted to move my worker toward an export contract to get there before he did, but I had to use my turn to place a flag instead or I’d never get my engine up and running again.

Our late game turned into a tactical timing conflict where we were paying closer attention to the resources our opponent had so we could anticipate their movement.

“Hmm… He’s got everything he needs for the export contract at Town B & Town C. Maybe I should head off toward Town D so I don’t risk him getting there ahead of me… but I don’t have the wool I need… dammit!

The 6th gold coin was taken, marking the end of the game. The score was 147 me, 130 Collin. I completed 6 local and 7 export contracts. Collin completed 6 local and 5 export. Pretty close despite the variance along the way!

Final Scoring is like a box of chocolates

During the game, you may have completed contracts that show an endgame reward. This is usually some kind of personal scoring criteria like so:

  • +2 points for every contract you’ve completed that involved stone
  • +3 points for each gold you collected
  • 5/10/15 points for 3/5/7 contracts involving wool
  • +3 points for each unused grain in your supply
  • et al.

We aren’t at a level of familiarity with this game, despite having designed it, where we pay much attention to this sort of thing during gameplay, although Collin was trying to stockpile grain whenever possible. Despite this, we can both imagine experienced players leveraging these tiles over the course of the game for a surprise burst of points in the final tally.

When it came time to look through our stack of completed contracts for these scoring criteria, it felt like we were kids on Christmas morning, looking in our stockings to see what we got.

This made the final tally a moment of tension and excitement. We were only separated by a few points. Will he earn enough extra points to squeeze past me? Will I earn enough to hold him off?

On the one hand, this feels somewhat random and swingy, but closer scrutiny shows that you chose which contracts to complete. You sought out the ones with endgame points. You can choose to lean into them over the course of the game and prioritize stone contracts or not-grain contracts. You can pay attention to the contracts your opponent takes and wonder why he’s not using his grain. All the information is available if you have enough brainpower to process it all. I think if you’re smart enough, you can calculate the final score in your head before the box of chocolates is even opened — if you can maintain a memory and count of which contracts your opponent completed and which resources they required.

But because we didn’t even attempt to pay attention so closely, the final scoring was a lot of fun.

I made a comment about how this surprise swing at the end makes this game more family-friendly, where even though my 7 year old son is behind in points, he might pull ahead in the final tally for an exciting race to the finish. And there I was, so self-assured of my victory that I wasn’t even paying attention to his mountain of excess grain.

It makes for a good family gaming memory. The kids have a chance to win against adults. The game can be played casually or with intensity and be fun for both approaches. I think that’s pretty cool.

What didn’t work?

I forgot to take photos again. …hang on… I’ll go set the game up and snap a few pictures. (the sounds of hammering, sawing, drilling, swearing, …was that a chainsaw?). Ok. Got ’em. As you were.

So many points!

Several export contracts reward waaaay too many points. I was flying up the score track by leaps and bounds, sometimes hitting 2 town milestones in a single turn. Not only do all these score track rewards make the turn very complicated (draw 2 tiles, keep 1 + draw 2 local contracts keep 1 + place a town tile + swap 1 resource in addition to the contract reward that earned you the points in the first place!), but it created another problem where simply because I was adding so many towns to the map so quickly, I was able to place all those towns right near one another, giving me shorter travel times for my worker to move between them.

By dialing back on the score amounts, we can slow down the rate at which neighboring towns are added to the game. This will result in the road network being more fleshed out, forcing us to put towns at greater distances, and encourage more worker movement. The game doesn’t need to score 150+ points. It’s actually kinda fiddly having to loop around the score track. Do I get the score track rewards a second time? 😛 No. Just reward slightly fewer points to let the map develop a bit more.

Extra turns on top of everything else?

Take the complexity of earning so many points from one contract that you earn multiple score track rewards, and then double it. That’s what happens if you are rewarded with an extra turn. What if your extra turn lets you complete another contract that rewards an extra turn? When do you draw a new local contract? At the end of your turn? Which turn? Both turns? Holy crap, you just earned 92 points.

This is way too much to track and opens up the game to a lot of confusing order of event problems. Collin suggested we have a very precise order of operations player aid. I suggested we simplify the game down so that we don’t even need one. Just ditch the extra turn reward and the problems go away. Easy.

The Rich Get Richer

I get annoyed in games where the person in the lead gains rewards for being in the lead. Since I was the one climbing the score track, I was the one passing the town milestones, so I got to place the towns on the map. Since all town tiles are also road tiles, I gained the road bonus where I get to roll a 1d6 and get a single resource, a free move, or 2 more points.

Instead, I suggested that whenever the lead player crosses a town milestone, the player in last place gets the road bonus and can place the town tile wherever they want. This gives them a small cookie to help them catch up and allows them to place that town far away from the lead player, slowing them down a bit. As far as catchup mechanisms go, it’s not the worst. Broad playtesting will sort out whether this is enough or too much.

Too Many Combos?

Whenever I started chaining too many things together and using rewards from one thing to complete another to moving to a new town, to completing another…. I felt guilty. Like I was abusing a privilege or hogging all the fun.

“Surely one person shouldn’t eat this much cake.”

We ad libbed the following rules:

  • your movement must be used in a single move action. If you stop to do something, that ends your move action.
    • Example: On my turn, I place a tile and choose not to claim anything so that I can move my worker instead. I complete a local contract that rewards me with +1 movement. I can now move my worker a distance of 2 intersections from his current position. 1 intersection away is an export contract. I stop at that town to complete that export contract. This ends my move action. The remaining leg of movement is forfeit. Had I not stopped to complete that export contract, I could have moved 2 intersections instead.
  • you can complete as many local contracts on your turn as you have in your hand at the start of your turn, with whichever resources you gain during your turn.
  • at the end of your turn, you draw 1 new local contract if you don’t have any.
    • if the score track rewards you with “Draw 2 local contracts and keep 1”, you do this at the very end of your turn. It just gives you some choice in which local contract you draw. It does not allow you an extra local contract. We felt that this gave players enough of a bonus without opening up the floodgates.
    • the only time you ever have more than one local contract in your hand is when an export contract rewards you with an additional local contract when you already have an incomplete local contract in your hand. The result of this is that you have 2 local contracts in your hand, and on a subsequent turn, you may complete both in one turn if you can.
    • This results in you being able to complete, in a single turn, at most: 1-3 local contracts and 1 export contract. 3 locals + 1 export would be a pretty big turn, and if you can pull that off, perhaps you’ve earned it.
      • The ramifications here are that you’re collecting 4 contract rewards in one turn. What happens if multiple contracts reward you with “Draw 2 local contracts, keep 1”? How many local contracts do you have now?
      • A potential solution is to remove this kind of reward from contracts altogether but leave them on the score track. If they’re happening so often that it’s confusing for players, we can just remove the confusion and come up with a more straightforward reward.

What worked?

  • Gold as wild worked fine now that we reduced the overall resource quantities.
  • 3 flags per player + 1 worker per player is nice, clean, and simple. It forces some hard choices quite often, which makes for interesting gameplay. Turns are not 100% obvious.
  • Not having an enormous hand of contracts to consider, but limiting them to 1-3 or so gives you just enough to chew on that you start hemming and hawing about where best to place the tile, whether to claim it with a flag, whether to complete your opponents are for a fast grab of loot, whether to move instead, how to chain the rewards from one contract to help you complete the next. It’s surprisingly rich for such a simple setup, but it’s never too much.
  • Not being able to chain unlimited local contracts together felt good, right, and proper. You don’t draw a new local contract until the very end of your turn.
  • The road bonus 1d6 die roll is great. If you drew a road tile in previous versions of the game, it felt like you just lost your turn. Now it feels like you get a small step closer to your goals. That one extra resource gain feels like winning at a slot machine. If it’s the one grain you needed to complete your contract, it doesn’t feel like a wasted turn at all.
  • 3 gold per player on the game clock felt good, right, and proper. Took us about 60 minutes or so (with breaks for deliberation), and we used ~50 tiles or so. The export contracts that came out all rewarded gold, so the game ended sooner than if other export contracts were sprinkled in between. I like this variable game duration. You never truly know how much time you have so it keeps you on your toes.
  • We scored 1 point per tile when a region was completed. This was super easy and fast. No math. Just count the hexes in the region.
  • It felt very different than Carcassonne, which makes me feel good.
  • We played that you cannot place a tile so that it creates a “single” (a 1 hex region). Nor can you place a tile so that it completes your opponent’s region as if it were a single. No singles allowed.
  • Endgame scoring surprise was awesome.
  • During the postgame discussion I mentioned that this game can have whatever theme a publisher wants and it still works the same.
    • We could be wizards or witches collecting ingredients and bringing them to stone circles to cast spells.
    • We could be scientists gathering samples and bringing them to labs to find cures for diseases. (That sounds a bit too familiar.)
    • We could be Little Red Riding Hoods picking flowers and mushrooms in the woods to bring to various grandmother’s houses. (Alright, settle down.)
    • Or worshippers gathering stuff to sacrifice / tribute to gods at various temples. (Enough already!)

What’s next?

  • Remove extra turn rewards from the game entirely.
  • Dial back the points for contracts across the board to slow players down on the score track, slow the addition of towns, and force towns to spread out a bit more.
  • Add a few high scoring export contracts that require 5 resources (the highest difficulty). Maybe they’ll even require a gold to make them even harder.
  • The player in last place gets to place the new town onto the map wherever they want, and they get the road bonus.
  • Discuss “Draw 2 local contracts, keep 1”. Relegate to the score track and remove from contracts entirely?
  • Work on some sort of UI to help players organize their completed contracts, keep track of endgame scoring criteria, and display their earned ongoing abilities.
  • Clarify the order of operations.
    • 1. Place a tile
      • Did it add to the road network?
        • Yes. Roll the die and gain the reward.
      • Did it complete the region?
        • Yes. If it’s your region, get your flag back, gain 1 point per hex, and gain all the resources shown.
        • Yes. If it’s your opponent’s region, gain all the resources of one type shown. Your opponent earns 1 point per hex and gains the remaining resources.
        • No. Claim it with a flag OR move your worker 1 intersection.
    • 2. Complete as many local contracts as you have and are able AND complete an export contract if your worker is in that town and you are able and your player disc is not in that town.
      • You may complete these contracts in any order you wish, using the rewards earned to help you complete subsequent contracts if you are able.
    • 3. Draw 1 hex tile.
    • 4. If you do not have any local contracts in your hand, draw 1 local contract. This ends your turn.
    • 5. If you are the lead player and crossed a town milestone on the score track, the player in last place places a new town to the map wherever they want, gains the road bonus, and places an export contract onto that town. It is now the next player’s turn.

This can probably be streamlined a bit more. Let me know if that sounds like stereo instructions.