When Katie asked me if I’d be up to contributing to her blog, I readily agreed, but was at a loss as to what I should write about. The trouble is that I generally write two articles a week over at the Hollandspiele blog, where I offer various musings about our games, about aspects of wargame design, about graphic design, and about the ups-and-downs that come with having the best job in the world. There’s not much that I don’t write about over at the company blog, and I didn’t want to just grab something that I had written for our site and say “let’s give it to Katie to run on her site instead”. I wanted something that wouldn’t necessarily fit in with our regularly scheduled programming. I asked Katie for some suggestions and she provided a good one, but it was one that I didn’t think I could do justice.
But then I thought, wait a second, Katie likes train games too, right? She was on twitter the other day holding a copy of 1825, for goodness’s sake. One thing that isn’t a great fit for Hollandspiele are my thoughts on the only games these days that I design for an outside firm – the train games I design for each year’s Winsome Essen Set. In the days before Hollandspiele, if anybody heard of me at all, they heard of me because of the Winsomes – so much so that when I met Edward Uhler of Heavy Cardboard fame at Origins 2017, he admitted that he hadn’t realized that the Tom Russell who designed Winsomes and the Tom Russell who designed games for Hollandspiele was the same Tom Russell.
And so, here is the true story behind four train games.
Northern Pacific (2013)
In 2011, I had yet to see one of my games published. I had a couple of games under contract with publishers (who, it would turn out, never got around to publishing them) but was feeling generally frustrated in my desire to make some kind of name for myself.
I was very acutely aware that I was still very new to this whole thing. I wasn’t a particularly “well-read” gamer – we didn’t have the money to go out and buy a lot of games – and that put me at something of a disadvantage compared to more “literate” game designers. I wanted to expedite the practice of learning my craft, and to do that I figured I needed to find and work with a great developer with lots of experience. Winsome Games came on my radar around this time, and I was aware both by reputation and by playing a handful of their games that John Bohrer was one of the best developers around. I was also aware of what a feather in my cap having a Winsome game could be, and that Winsome titles often got licensed to larger, splashier firms like Queen, Eagle, and Rio Grande.
All those seemed like pretty good reasons for me to work with Winsome, and so I decided that my next game would be designed with Winsome in mind. That’s where it started. I didn’t come up with a great mechanic or theme idea. It wasn’t out of any particular love for train games – though I do love train games. It was the purely mercenary motivation of “I want to do a game for this publisher, which might help further my game design career for reasons X, Y, and Z.”
Because of that, I had some initial difficulty coming up with an actual, workable game. I knew who I wanted to publish the game, and I knew the game was going to be about trains, but I didn’t know anything else about it. For a long time I just sputtered and spun my wheels, at a loss as to what the game would actually be. I started to question the wisdom of designing a game “backwards”, as it were.
I was also somewhat intimidated. At that time, Chicago Express (Wabash Cannonball) was one of my favorite games, and anything I could come up with would fall far short of that game’s glories and ecstasies. There was a lot of math involved – sorry, maths, forgot I was writing for a blog on the other side of the pond – and I was and am rubbish at maths.
But in early 2012, a few months into my faltering quest to design a game for Winsome, Mary and I happened to play two quick games of Paris Connection, Queen’s version of SNCF. That game is a simple and elegant filler, and playing it, something just clicked in the old noggin. The next day I started work on a simple, streamlined, and stripped-down filler game. My intention was to distill one of the primary features of Wabash Cannonball and the other stock-holding cube rail games, the forming of emergent, elusive, and transitory alliances.
Those two games, SNCF and Wabash Cannonball, were primary influences on the game that would become Northern Pacific. A third influence was cinematic in origin – my all-time favorite Western film, Once Upon a Time in the West, had a plot which turned on someone buying land where he guessed (correctly) that the railroad would have to pass on its way to the Pacific. That, in essence, is what players are doing: they invest in cities hoping the railroad will connect there, profiting when it does and cursing their losses when it doesn’t.
The game played in anywhere from two to ten minutes, which had the distinct advantage of making it very easy to test. Consider: a weekly playtest group that is given a ninety minute game to play can get through the game once each week. But my little train game got in a dozen plays or more every time we got together. Changes were minimal but rapidly implemented. The most important change was the double-sided arrow, providing additional but brittle flexibility to the players. This was Mary’s idea, and it was brilliant; it really held the whole thing together.
I wrote an email which I addressed to Mr. Bohrer (he quickly asked that I call him John) and inquired about submitting the game. He gave me the address, and I sent it off. Usually when I submitted a game to a publisher, it would be weeks or months before they got it on the table, if they did at all. But John and his group played it on the day it arrived. They liked it, thought it would be a good contrast to the brain-burning epic Continental Divide, and offered to publish it in the following year’s Essen set.
I was of course rather elated by this. I was further elated when, as expected, John and his group went to work on the development. They gave it the title Northern Pacific, having relocated it from the American South-West of my original submission, and they doubled the size of the map. This resulted in a richer and more complex decision space, but oddly didn’t alter the core simplicity of the game, and most surprisingly didn’t really change the length of the game. Comparing the new map with my original was a sort of master-class in the art of multiplayer game design, and was indeed instrumental in me learning my craft.
In late 2012, a full year before the game was to be released, John came up to Michigan to meet me in person. He explained that he always met his authors before he publishes one of their games. Mary and I met John and one of his associates at an outdoor restaurant that, if I remember correctly, made a passable Reuben sandwich.
Now, prior to meeting John in person, I knew that he was a smoker – his “cigarette smoker” microbadge on BGG kinda gave it away – and that gave me some cause for worry. Neither Mary nor I smoke ourselves, and we find the smell of it to be extremely irritating. I particularly have a madeleine-in-tea association with the smell, as my father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 38. I saw my father die – it was a messy and ugly death – and the smell of cigarettes causes a vivid involuntary memory of that moment.
So, going into it, I was worried that I might give offense by asking him not to smoke, that I would come across as overly fussy or, if I had fully explained the reason for my aversion, that I would come across as overly dramatic. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially as, at least at that time, I was famous for making bad ones.
So, John was sitting in the outside dining area, and he was indeed smoking one cigarette after another. But I never smelled it. It never irritated my throat, it never attacked my nostrils, and it never brought back my father’s dying moments. Partially, this was because of the way John smoked, holding the cigarette away from the table, blowing the smoke softly and gingerly upward and away. We didn’t tell him that we had a problem with the smoke; he just politely and naturally directed the smoke away from everyone. I sat across from him, and Mary next to him, and when, on the way home, I marveled at how he smoked, and that I’d never encountered a smoker who was actually considerate of others, Mary expressed surprise that he was smoking at all. She hadn’t noticed. (And man, let me tell you, Mary notices everything!)
But partially, it was because of how charming and down-to-earth John is. His stories that night were entertaining, his insights into various Eurogame publishers were acute, and even as he drove the conservation and had the best lines, he made you feel like you were the center of attention. Those are rare talents, and I think they’ve served him well.
The game came out in the 2013 Essen set, and I was fairly confident that it would be well-received, it being (in my own estimation) such a charming clever little thing. So I was actually surprised at how divisive it was. Some people loved it and some loathed it. It was either the purest distillation of train game player dynamics that ever was, or it was barely even a game. Even folks who liked it argued over whether or not it was “really” a game at all, which I found disconcerting and discouraging. If I had a thinner skin, it might have put me off of doing another train game at all, if not for the fact that I had already designed and submitted Irish Gauge.
Irish Gauge (2014)
So, back in 2012, a month or so after meeting John but still a year off from the publication of Northern Pacific, I was driving home from work when I came up with the idea for another Winsome game. Having a long commute – I spent an hour on the road each day – I had ample time to think and to more-or-less assemble the entire game in my head. I spent that evening creating a prototype, and we played Irish Gauge for the first time two days later.
The core of the game is that there is a cup filled with three colors of cubes. Some of these cubes are pulled out at the start of the game and assigned to cities to seed the board. A player could use their turn to call for Dividends, in which case they would pull three cubes out of the cup: cities of the same color would pay out, cities that didn’t match those pulled wouldn’t. As you call for Dividends more often, the probability of a given color paying out decreases. Further, players could turn towns (which always pay out, but only a little) into cities by purposefully removing a cube from the cup, potentially killing a rival’s income.
That was all part of the game from the first play to the last, as was the minimum stock bid values which the players recouped at the end of the game. Really, everything about that game came out of that hour-long drive home from work. After several months of uneventful testing that confirmed the overall soundness of the design, in April of 2013 I submitted the game to Winsome, and John agreed to publish it in the 2014 Essen set.
The game’s reception was much less divisive than Northern Pacific, which somewhat took me by surprise. I was assuming, especially given the random/probability element, that some of the train gamers would have their pitchforks at the ready. And so my first foray into a “proper” stock-holding game seemed to go over very well, and I still get people telling me it’s their favorite Winsome, which is very kind of them.
Trans-Siberian Railroads (2015)
Almost immediately after John said yes to Irish Gauge, I got right to work on another train game. Now, remember: at this point in the timeline, it’s the spring of 2013. Northern Pacific won’t be released until later that same year. Each of my train games is thus being made “blind”, without receiving any feedback from gamers at large which I can use to improve the next design. This is a crucial part of my process these days; I can’t imagine what Charlemagne, Master of Europe would look like without the useful feedback I got from gamers on Agricola, Master of Britain. While these days I do very much appear to be working in my own peculiar idiom, it’s an idiom that’s informed by what customers respond to both positively and negatively.
I say this because, while I have a soft-spot for Trans-Siberian Railroads, I do think it’s something of a misstep, in that it moves away from the simplicity of Northern Pacific and Irish Gauge and takes things into a more baroque direction. Someone once said of it that it has “more scaffolding than game”, and someone else found it “overwrought”: “Ideas are spilling out of the sides of this thing and rotting on the floor.” And, you know, they’re not necessarily wrong about that.
Trans-Siberian Railroads was my first attempt to take some of the elements I enjoy in the 18XX and Winsome-fy them. The most obvious of these is the way that money can be shuffled from one company to another. In the 18XX, this is largely a matter of buying trains. In this game, the track-leasing or leap-frogging mechanism allows players to pump money from one company to another. The two late-game companies are primarily used for this purpose in my game, which mirrors player patterns in some 18XX games that see early companies propped up by late-starters. I emulated the Phases that you often see in an 18XX, originally having three such phases but cutting it down to two in order to control the game length. Companies need to be floated by purchasing at least two shares before they can operate, and there is a distinction between “private” and “public” companies. Lots of little echoes like that – probably too many of them, in retrospect.
The Nationalization aspect of the game was inspired somewhat by 1856, though it resolves quite differently in my game and proved to be needlessly punitive. To be clear, I don’t mean “needlessly punitive” in the sense that it’s something amiss with the design, but rather, that this feature of the game is cruel, capricious, and disproportionate – that was always the intention. I’ve a fondness for economics games that are borderline psychotic.
I think the game works and can be compelling, but only for certain and very specific definitions of compelling; in retrospect I don’t enjoy it as much as my first two Winsomes, or as much as my fourth. That seems to be the consensus with gamers as well, who seem to prefer either of my two Gauges. But being a longer and more complex game I also think it’s harder for folks to get it on the table, and so it might be that as more people play it and are exposed to it, it might merit a better reception.
Iberian Gauge (2017)
So, it’s the summer of 2014. Northern Pacific debuted in the previous October, and Americans are getting their unnumbered Essen Sets in the mail, including Irish Gauge. Having received feedback about both of those games, I start thinking about doing a fourth Winsome title. My ambition was to scale things back after the comparatively epic Trans-Siberian Railroads, producing another game with modest rules overhead. I did however want to experiment again with Trans-Siberian’s track-leasing mechanism, and to make it the focus of the game. The difficult terrain of Spain and Portugal would be ideal for this, and thus I began work on Iberian Gauge. There was another great idea at the core of the design which I was fairly proud of: each stock would be numbered, and each player would build track for each company according to the order those shares were purchased in. If I have the red number one and three stocks, and Mary the red number two, then when it was red’s go, I’d build (number one), Mary would build (number two), then I would build again (number three).
Pretty much everything that you see in the final game was there from the start, but despite that, the game had an absurdly long development cycle. It wasn’t ready in time for the 2016 set despite my best intentions. It very nearly missed being in the 2017 set.
Primarily this was because I had less time and less playtesters. My regular playtest group more-or-less dissolved. No, there wasn’t any drama behind it. Folks got married or divorced, got new jobs and moved, found new interests and pursued them: the normal, sad, inexorable drifting away that comes with adulthood and the passage of time. My own free time became a rare commodity when I took on editorial duties for a magazine in late 2014, shortly before being promoted to a stressful, overtime-prone management position at my day-job.
I was pretty sure the game was ready, but I held onto it, tinkering here and there, worrying that I wasn’t getting enough testing, hesitating before sending it off to John. Eventually of course I did.
John and his group made one change after accepting the game for publication. In the original submission, the player who held Priority Deal at the end of the game got an extra $10. The Winsome folks didn’t feel that this was really necessary, and playing the game recently I can’t say that I’ve ever really felt its absence.
The game came out last year, and the reception has been largely positive. More than that, it’s been useful. For example, discussions with one player about groupthink and the use of the three-paper company in a four-player game has pushed me away from asymmetrical companies in my next train game. The ability of some gamers to completely sidestep the semi-cooperative aspects of the game (resulting in a very different and potentially flat experience) likewise inspired me to make cooperation somewhat mandatory the next time around.
As for that next game – well, I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, but I think it’s the best and most interesting train game I’ve ever done, perhaps even the culmination of my train game mini-career, and my last word on the track-leasing mechanism it shares with Trans-Siberian Railroads and Iberian Gauge. I have no idea how it will be received – for one thing, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with “hate play” and screwage, making the game less cutthroat and more about “running good companies”, which is a red flag for some players.
Working with Winsome did greatly increase my profile among certain gamers, and probably made some of them take a second look at Hollandspiele and it’s wargames. It made me a better, more confident, and more idiosyncratic designer, to the point where I don’t think the games I’m making today would exist without Winsome. Heck, without selling those first three games to Winsome, there’s a fair chance I may have thrown in the towel and focused on turning my terrible, soul-crushing day-job into a career.
So I’m very thankful that nearly seven years ago I said, “I’m going to design a game specifically so I can have a working relationship with Winsome”, and even more thankful that it paid off.
You can find out more about Hollandspiele and the incredible games that are published there here: Hollandspiele.com