Timely Transports (Part 1)

devlog

Ever since inventing a new genre of board games (the One Paper Games), my mind has been overflowing with ideas for innovative types of games.

In this devlog I proudly present the first result of all those ideas: a hybrid board and computer game!

(I don't have a strong name for this type of game yet. A comboard game? A "smart game"?)

How the hybrid idea works (taken from rulebook)

The game itself is played on a physical board with physical pieces, but all players must also have their smartphone on the table and use that for many actions in the game. It took me a long time to figure out how to make this work, and accessible, and as fun as possible (instead of people just staring at their phones all the time).

So, in this devlog, let me explain the original idea, my steps in pursuing it, and how it finally let to the first game of its type: Timely Transports

(I'll explain the game in detail later. All you need to know for now, to understand the text below, is that it's a game about transporting goods across a jungle. The game boards are randomly generated on the website and you need to start a timer on your phone for each movement of your vehicle(s).)

Where did the idea come from?

Lately, I played a lot of "Magic Maze" games. In that game, the sand timer is instrumental. When it runs out, you lose. During the game you can "reset" it, but only four times, and you usually need all four of those if you want to be successful.

Magic Maze (on Mars) in action

It reminded me of my love-hate relationship with sand timers. It is very easy to miss it when they run out. They can get knocked over by an enthusiastic player (certainly in a cooperative, all-around-the-table game like Magic Maze). But they also automatically add a time limit and a sense of urgency to any game, which is very useful.

So I thought: why aren't there any boardgames where all your actions are timed? Where you need to place a sand timer for doing something, and you must wait until it runs out to complete the action?

Turns out those games exist! I stumbled upon Kitchen Rush and Medic Rush.

The first game is basically the analog version of Overcooked (in case that game is familiar to you): you must gather ingredients, combine them, cook them, and then deliver them to customers for points. All of these actions work by placing a sand timer on the appropriate spot and waiting until it has run out.

I'm still waiting for these games to ship to my country, but when they do, I'll surely try them out, because they seem to be amazing, cooperative, family-friendly, accessible games.

Anyway, this got me thinking: instead of including twenty sand timers in a game box ... why don't we let the computer do this?

Computers are amazing at timers! (And numbers in general.) Instead of having loads of physical timers (with fixed lengths), I can just start a timer of any length on my phone with the press of a button.

And that's where the original idea came from. I wanted to create a regular board game, but with the addition of a computer/smartphone component that gives me great new possibilities, such as easy and precise timers.

Update: I just learned about the game Pendulum that Stonemaier Games is releasing. Seems like everyone is discovering the use of timers in games these last few years :p

Do we really need a smartphone?

In the rules of Magic Maze, it states that you should NOT use a timer on your smartphone for the game, as the experience is noticeably different.

And I like the inclusion of that warning, because I agree with it.

If I made a game which required only a single timer, yes, I would just include a physical sand timer. It's faster, easier to use and understand, keeps you in the game.

So, for my hybrid idea, I needed a very compelling reason to include smartphones. We're still in the early idea stage now, so if I couldn't find a good reason, I would've just thrown this idea into the bin and worked on something else.

The first thing I did was list the pros and cons of this approach.

Advantages of using a digital component

These were the main advantages I could find before and during development.

  • Memory. A computer can store and display loads of values, so players don't have to keep track of anything or calculate values in their heads. Most noticeably, it can keep perfect track of score.

  • Dynamic. Instead of having only a limited set of timers with a fixed length, I can create as many timers as I want, with varying lengths.

    • In fact, instead of having only one stage (full -> empty), I can chain stages. In this game (Timely Transports), when a timer runs out it goes into a second stage: overtime. This gives you 10 seconds to either click off the timer or upgrade your vehicle.

    • Of course, the possibilities go far beyond timers, but I want to keep it simple for now.

  • Fast Setup. Most people always have their smartphone at hand. With these games, you only need to take out your phone and visit a website, and you're ready to go. (As opposed to board games, where you'd need to take things out of the box, arrange them, perhaps hand out cards, etc.)

  • Sound. Surprisingly, this only occurred to me halfway development. Phones can play sounds! I can play a sound whenever something interesting happens in the game, and I can provide a general background track that suits the game and the theme.

    • This is a far greater advantage than you might think: when you're starting at the board trying to decide your strategy, the sound of an alarm bell is sure to bring your attention back to a new event on your phone.
  • Endless Possibilities. Seriously, I can display anything on a phone, and even make it interactive or use the internet! This allows countless innovative mechanics that have never been done before in gaming, which is at least worth exploring.

An aside about Timers & Psychology

An additional advantage to using timers specifically, is that the game is guaranteed to be quick (and end after a short amount of time) and simultaneous, without any dead moments.

If there's one thing I've learned over years of game playing and developing, it's that quick and (near) simultaneous games appeal much more to people than any other game. What turns people off, usually, is the "waiting on your turn" or "I don't want to risk spending the next 2 hours sitting at a table". Just a small nugget of wisdom.

(Additionally, if you have a general crowd instead of frequent gamers, cooperative games are your best bet. Many people are like "I'm just not a competitive person" and only want to play those types of games. And when they do, ironically, they become extremely enthusiastic and competitive :p)

Disadvantages of using a digital component

And these were the main disadvantages I could find before and during development.

  • Hard Requirements. It's highly unlikely, but possible, that someone doesn't have their phone, or doesn't have internet, or my website is temporarily down. This would render the game unplayable, as the digital component is absolutely necessary.

  • Too Many Screens. People are already sitting behind screens enough these days. I don't want to make "placing your phone on the table when playing a game" a normal behavior. I play board games (instead of video games) most of the time, because it's not behind a screen and because it's a live social interaction. I don't want my games to have a bad influence on people's habits or expectations.

  • Size Restrictions. Smartphone screens are quite tiny, simple as that.

    • When building the interface for Timely Transports, I had to completely rethink my design (and rewrite the code) three times, because the first three versions were just too small. It was hard to see icons at a glance, and it was easy to click the wrong thing.

    • So, lesson learned, I really cannot expect to have more than 5 or 6 elements on the screen. (Where an element can be an icon, or a score counter, or an event popping up.)

  • Loose Links. I cannot "connect" a smartphone with a piece of paper ( = the game board). I also don't want to connect multiple smartphones with each other, as that is hard to program and maintain, and makes the setup considerably harder. So, I can only design games where a loose link is enough to make them work.

    • For Timely Transports, I eventually decided to give each game board an identical number of cities (with identical names). That way, phones would automatically shout city names that existed on the board, regardless of the game board you printed or your player count.

    • Additionally, most of the information is on the game board itself. At first, I wanted the phones to determine which goods a city wanted to have. (For example, it would say "City X now wants Fruit for 3 points!") But ... this allowed the accidental possibility that, for example, all cities wanted fruit, and they wanted nothing else. Which would make the game boring or simply unplayable.

That's it for part 1. In the next article, I'll discuss how I used these observations to work towards the first version of this game.