A board game designing diary: Pioneer Days

Some game designs come together easy – while others certainly do not. For every back-of-a-cigarette-packet mechanism that just goes from theory to ironing out the details, there are many, many more that are years in the making.

Rather fittingly, I guess, Pioneer Days – a game about the long, hard struggle of winning out against adversity – falls into the latter category.

Fact junkies: Add 200 years to the dates for a more accurate reading… (and much love to co-designer Matt Dunstan, who also wrote the original draft of this diary).

December 1813

We first set out, from Australia and England, on a journey quite unlike the one that would shape out fate: to design a game about dwarves brewing beer. But as with so many grand designs, our plans were dashed on the rocks and the expedition was a failure. Over complexity, and ideas that didn’t quite hang together, saw us walk away from yet another promising adventure.

But those initial dreams did bear some fruit: a crumb of an idea in which dice were rolled but, no matter whether they were 6s or 1s, you’d have an advantage of one kind or another. Here, we had individuals rolling their own three dice then using them to draft cards, each representing a worker dwarf: low rolls would get the first choices of cards, but higher rolls would use the cards they drafted more effectively. I still hold some hope for the idea, but at the time it had too many issues. Hate drafting was rife on low numbers, choices limited on high ones, and all round it was unsatisfying.

March 1814

Undeterred by our earlier failure, we set out with a new destination in mind. America! Matt had a plan: three cards per player will still be drafted with their dice (lowest first), but the cards will have a number of profession symbols (traveller, miner, farmer etc) on them.

The dice now only give a one-time bonus to the players, with the highest collection of each profession giving that player a bonus for the round; meaning the drafting was also about long-term strategy with the professions, rather than just short term tactical play.

Actions saw players move caravans across the plains; mine the hills; build in new territories; fight off hostiles, and of course feed their hardy pioneers. But something still wasn’t right. While we were now firmly on dry land and resolved to discover a new destiny, the dice mechanism still didn’t sit well with us. Low rollers were still denying others of the actions they want and the compensation for the high numbers wasn’t strong enough. Are we simply doomed to repeat our earlier failures?

May 1814

A breakthrough! Dysentery and terrible weather had laid us low, but the skies cleared and we could clearly make out the way ahead. Rather than different coloured dice for each player, the dice colours will represent disasters that may befall all our pioneers – and will be rolled from a bag each round. Players will draw one more dice than there are players, and draft one each – with the one leftover moving that disaster one step closer to befalling those brave souls. Colours represent illness (medicine required!), raids (there goes your money!), heat (your cattle will suffer) and terrain (say b-bye to your wagons – which were holding all your stuff!) – with the dreaded black dice seeing all four disasters moving ever closer.

The game has five turns, with each player taking five dice each turn, for a total of 25 actions in the game. Each can be used either for money (where high is better – and can be spent on wagons, specialist workers etc); or for an action (with better actions tied to lower numbers). And as an added twist, your final set of five collected dice will create a Yahtzee/poker style ‘hand’ which will give bonuses at the end of the round. We feel confident in our new-found mechanism – but will it just be another false dawn?

August 1814

We spent the previous few months on the trail with a more singular purpose and it finally bore fruit! The answer wasn’t poker, it was people! While we fine-tuned the mechanical side of the game we realised what it really needed was the personalities that made the original idea so compelling – the people (now pioneers) themselves.

These hardy folk have added a whole host of interesting abilities into the mix, adding more interaction between players and making the base actions far more varied and complex. But as well as adding colour, these pioneers have brought two levels of mechanical progression that have sealed the game’s structure.

The poker idea has gone. Instead, your pioneers offer a third (neutral, in terms of number rolled) option when choosing what to do with a dice: each number now has a person randomly drawn next to it each round, who you can add to your wagon train with that roll. And better still they each have a way of scoring end game points, helping you choose a particular path to follow. If you can keep them alive to the end of the trail…

January 1815

An investor! Our very own Oregon Trail seems to have ended, in fact, in Utah – via Essen, Germany. Back in October we met with a character named Seth Jaffee who represented a company called Tasty Minstrel Games: a publisher we trusted to do the right thing by us and our game, then called Frontiers. He took the game away to show it to his partners – and low and behold, we have ourselves a deal! The game we gave them back then was rough around the edges, but mechanically sound – and we’ve spend the last few months going back and forth with them smoothing the edges.

The difference between publishers is astonishing. Sometimes you can hand a game over and out it pops into the shops a year later with nary a detail changed; while with others you can be all but cut out of the development process. But if we thought we’d be able to hang out spurs up and relax this time, we were in for a shock! We’re consulting every step of the way, with not a week going by without discussions of a particular pioneer’s ability, or the relative strength of a particular action. It’s a long process, but worth every second – because each week, you know the game is getting better.

June 1815

While the trail is long and winding, and we often feel the end is in sight only to find another fork in the path, we continue to persevere. I was worried we may be taking too many rough edges away: this is the Wild West, after all.

But in hindsight I can see the wisdom behind Seth removing some of the more trouble-making townsfolk. Who knows, maybe they can return one day? Elsewhere, wagons now take damage rather than being destroyed by storms – meaning you won’t lose as many valuable resources!

As fun as some of them were, some ‘take that’ elements are just a little too crass for this style of euro game: especially when the key focus should really be on the disaster track. You should be worrying if bandits will take your gold if you let a disaster happen, rather than another player sniping it from you. If I’ve learned one thing from all the game design blogs I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listen to, it’s this: find where the game is. For us it is on the disaster board, and the tension that it brings – that shouldn’t be upstaged.

December 1816

The end of the trail cannot be far away now! Many months of further small iterations have seen us create themed decks of townsfolk, while working on individual player board abilities. The game is now called Pioneer Days, and artist Sergi Marcet has been brought on board to bring the game to life. He’s done an amazing job, even bringing some of our family members and play-testers to life on some of the townsfolk cards. You may even recognise a few of our fellow Cambridge, UK-based designers.

The different decks of townsfolk really help make each game feel different, as you can mix and match; some add a bit of randomness, others interactivity etc. The varied player board characters encourage different types of play style. You get two to choose from at the start of the game, but each also has a standard pioneer on the back (always a solid choice), so you can still opt for a balanced game if that’s what floats your boat.

October 2017

A limited supply of copies arrived at Essen Speil via aeroplane. Opening the first copy to find a beautiful game – but no dice – was a little terrifying! Especially as we opening the next, and the next to find the same thing… But a few phone calls later and we knew (prayed) they’d arrive the next day. They did – and the limited copies soon sold out, leaving us waiting on the rest to arrive by boat – perhaps even in time for Christmas?

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But once again, in a fitting nod to those hardy pioneers of old, transportation of the game across the seas hit rough waters. But despite what clearly must have been a succession of black-dice-level disasters, we never lost hope – and in Spring of 2018 Pioneer Days finally completed its troubled journey to the USA. We hope you like it!

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