Welcome to part 2 of the devlog! Let's dive right in.
The First Version -- Space Shenanigans?
With a strong idea about how such a game might work, I went on a hunt for simple gameplay ideas and accessible themes.
My first pick was a cooperative game, where everyone is on a spaceship together. During the game, you can place tiles to extend the ship and send people on missions, but all those missions and extensions cost time.
Additionally, events would regularly occur, such as space pirates entering your ship or a meteorite damaging it.
The rewards for your missions (space credits, probably) could then be used to buy things in the shop on your phone.
The idea is still promising ... but I was already making it way too complex. This has at least four or five interconnected unique systems, whereas I still didn't know if the original idea would work at all.
So let's simplify. Let's think.
What always costs time? And what has an immediate negative impact when it takes too much time?
Ah, I know: traveling! (Or, well, my first thought went to: hmm, packages that arrive too late are annoying. But even that lead to a more complex game design than I wanted for my first hybrid game.)
The Second Version -- Timely Transports
So here's the reason I think this theme is ideal.
In the real world, traveling takes time. Additionally, different vehicles or routes take different amounts of time.
If you take too long, the negative consequences are obvious. Someone else will arrive before you, stealing your points. Or your cargo will go bad (if it's something edible or fragile or whatever). And if you are slow once, that will lead to a chain reaction where you're constantly too late.
Without any extra rules, such a game would work and heavily rely on timers. People understand how it works and why there's a timer to everything.
(That's also the reason why I think those cooking games work wonders. People know cooking takes time, so it's only logical to put a timer on it, and force them to do something else in the meantime ... possibly causing them to forget their original project and let the kitchen burn down.)
There are many games with modern transportation or semi-modern vehicles (like the old steam trains in Ticket to Ride). Let's do something different. Let's go ... traveling through the Jungle!
(This was partly inspired by the font I chose. It just gave that Jungle/Rainforest/Indiana Jones vibe, and I liked that.)
Finally, we've arrived at a working concept: you are transporting cargo across the jungle. For each movement, you start a timer. Once it runs out, you can finish the movement and go to the next space. Delivering goods to cities that want them yields you points. The first to 20 points wins!
To give you a preview, this is how the game board and interface looked at the end of development:
The Obvious Inclusions
With a game like this, many of the early choices I made seemed kinda obvious. Nevertheless, they were very easy to add and explain, and make the game as good as it is today:
I need different types of routes on the map. Why? So you need a specific kind of vehicle to travel it. (Only boats can move over water, only trains over railroad, etc.)
I need different goods with different characteristics. Why? A low-value good will appear very often on the map. A high-value good will only be accepted by a handful of cities. This automatically adds variety, an interesting choice, and a fallback decision if you're having a tough game. ("Man, I just keep missing out on those high-value ones. Maybe I'll just very quickly deliver five low-value things.")
I need events. With everything fixed on the game board, I need some more variety. Prices should fluctuate, weather should influence traveling, that kind of stuff. I decided to make events pop up at random that say something like "City X doesn't accept any goods anymore", which automatically went away after 30-60 seconds.
I need upgrades/stuff to buy. This would add a necessary sense of progression to the game. After moving 5 goods in a row with your boat, you want to do something else. So I wanted to include the possibility of upgrading your current vehicles or buying new ones (which would be faster).
All these things were immediately put into the game, and stayed there, because they worked. (Nevertheless, I do try to push myself to diversify, as I introduce these concepts a lot in all my games.)
I did eventually make several "difficulty levels", and only introduced the more complex mechanics on higher difficulties. This works all the time, in my experience. It makes the game super simple when you play it for the first time (or with a new group of people), but doesn't take away any of the super fun and interesting stuff I also wanted to add.
Problems, Problems, Problems
And then, as usual, problems started to appear.
Problem 1: Too little space! The game board was getting cramped (the one you should print and play on), as well as the game interface (on your smartphone).
So, let's forget the idea of buying new vehicles, because I simply don't have room for them. Let's cap it at four vehicles, which you can upgrade.
Let's also reduce the number of routes and airports. In fact, let's not display an icon for airports, and just display an underline below the city name.
While we're at it, let's zoom in on the board on lower player counts, so everything is bigger and clearer.
(I tried, but with 8 players you'll have so many cities on the board, I can't make it any bigger than it is. I propose printing on A3 paper if you can.)
The work I did on randomly generating a playable jungle with cities is a whole topic on its own! So I'll probably write a separate devlog or chapter on that alone. (Spoiler: it's really hard, and messy, and takes a lot of experimentation to get right.)
Problem 2: Loose Connections! Remember when I talked about this disadvantage?
It might seem obvious now, but at the time I really didn't know how to proceed. How to make sure the phones said sensible things? Even if they didn't know the game board at all?
It took me a while to acquire the current solution:
Given a certain player count + difficulty, the board will always include the same cities (with the same names) and goods. The board is still entirely random, but at least there's the name of cities and goods that will always exist.
Each city's desires are printed on the board. (But events can change this temporarily, to an extent.)
Airports are only placed when they are necessary to connect all cities. (Otherwise it was too easy to just fly anywhere. Also, airplane connections are the hardest to visualize for players. All the other connections have a clear line from A to B, but plane connections are just "yeah, teleport from A to B")
- In fact, as I write this, I'm wondering whether I should move planes to a higher difficulty level. I can easily imagine people getting overwhelmed by learning how four vehicles work on their first game. Even if they are extremely simple and intuitive.
Forests! Surprisingly, placing forests in the world gave the board a lot of clarity. Routes were easier to follow, because they had less space to wiggle around. It was easy to see where a city was, because it surely wasn't anywhere in that big forest.
- It also sped up the board generation, because I didn't need to check any possible paths through forests. But that is, again, a whole topic on its own.
Problem 3: Too little space, again!
When I thought I had the space problem figured out, I found a few new issues with the game board by simply thinking it through.
I was like "Okay, so, how many cities do I need with each player count? Suppose we have ... 6 players, would, say, 6 cities be enough then?"
Then I remembered each player had 4 vehicles. With 6 players, that's 24 vehicles, moving around the board all the time. Not to mention actual goods lying around as well. I don't think 6 cities is enough.
Thus, I invented a (very scientifically sound) rule of thumb: on average, there should be at most three things on a city. With 6 players, that means 24 vehicles, and about 6-12 new goods per minute. (The time between new goods is slightly less than a minute, per phone.) So, worst case, 32/3 = 11 cities.
For what it's worth, all tests and generated boards so far have been quite balanced, so I have reason to believe this will all work out in the end!
Now the final aspect. The most important aspect to get right, because moving vehicles is all you'll be doing in the game. (When writing the rules, I realized it's literally the only type of action. Which is always a good thing, as it made the rules super simple.)
In my head, there is always this four-sided die of navigation: car, train, boat, plane. (Which also happens to rhyme.)
I used this again, because even after all my research into jungles and their transportation, this still seemed the best option. (I mean, I considered making people hop on the back of monkeys, but that just didn't work out. For too many reasons to mention.)
So everyone has four vehicles. This means we need three road types and airports. When moving, simply start the timer, wait or do something else, and when the timer finished, actually move to the new location and stop the timer.
You can always take one good from your current city with you. And while you're moving this good ( = it's placed on your vehicle), nobody else may touch it.
Thankfully, the hybrid setup helped me here. I didn't need to give vehicles any other properties, because the computer could take care of that.
The different vehicles have slightly different timer lengths, but players don't need to have that explained to them. They just click on the matching icon, and a timer will magically start and do everything for them!
Also, because each vehicle was unique (you couldn't purchase a "second boat"), you always knew exactly what each icon (and timer) was referring to. Tap it to start the timer. Tap it to stop the timer. Simple stuff!
One Last Problem
There was just one problem left: how do I get a boat from A to B ... if there's no route that's 100% over water?
(More generally, how to move vehicles to cities if there's no route towards the city they can travel themselves?)
I found two solutions this time, which are both in the game!
First solution: vehicles can also be used as goods. So, you can literally transport your boat to another town using one of your other vehicles. This automatically turned the game into a much better and bigger puzzle, as you now need to plan ahead to get your vehicles where you want them to be.
Second solution: each player receives a capital. I needed that anyway, to give players a city to start from, and to make the world feel more alive. (Players want ownership and customization! Give them something that's theirs.)
(This image is taken directly from the rulebook, so it also includes another rule I will talk about soon: bumping other people off the board.)
But this allowed the Teleportation Rule to be added: at any time, instead of moving over a regular connection, you can teleport your vehicle back to your capital. (This follows all the same rules as moving: you still start a timer, wait, etc.)
It's an extremely simple addition, but it helps out a lot. When you're stuck, you can always just decide to go back to home base and navigate your way back into the world.
Finally, finally, we have a complete and working first version. So we can playtest it! In the next article I'll discuss this playtest and what I learned from it.