Tile-laying games have always held a special place in both my gaming life and my game design career. It was Carcassonne, one of the best tile-laying games ever made, that first introduced my wife and me to the board gaming hobby in Germany in 2001. Five years later, it was a tile-laying prototype of my own called Heartland that impressed my group of established Berlin game designers enough to encourage me to show it to publishers, and it was that game that garnered my first contract. I returned to the genre a few years ago with Citrus, another tile-laying game that has proved to be my most favorite recent game.
I don’t think I will ever tire of playing—or designing—tile-laying games, and it seems that I am not alone. There is something very appealing about building the game board with tiles as you play, and trying to solve the spatial puzzles that present themselves with each move. And as a designer, there is truly an infinite number of variations one can make on this mechanism.
In fact, there are always a mind-boggling number of possibilities each time one begins to design a game. When my contract ran out for Heartland several years ago, instead of offering it immediately to another publisher for a reprint, I decided to pursue some of these “alternative paths” that I had passed over in the original design, to make a new game from the same starting point.
From Agricultural to Urban
Many people have difficulty believing me that its theme inspired Heartland. The main idea for the game came on one of those flights back home to my native Iowa, where the square fields are laid out like a checkerboard. Being from the Euro school of game design, I admittedly abstracted the game quite a bit. Then putting tiles on top of tiles gave the game a three-dimensional quality that ran contrary to the theme of farming. Not to mention the scoring, but at some point, the game becomes what it wants to be.
One of the comments I had from the original publisher was that it could just as easily be a city-building game, especially with the 2D aspect. When I started the new design, I also decided to start with this alternative theme and make the tiles much thicker so that it would already be much different visually.
At the time, I was preparing to move with my family to the U.S. for a year, and I wanted to pitch to several publishers there who focused on the mass market. This ideal presented an interesting challenge, as there is a higher tolerance for complexity in board games in the market here in Germany. I would need to streamline as never before, and the rules would need to be understandable in just a few minutes time.
So before I could begin building a new game around the tile-laying mechanism of Heartland, I needed to demolish most of what that original game was. This task is never easy to do, as it means bidding farewell to so many elements which I took the time to develop and have been fun to play. But one of the things I often emphasize when talking or writing about game design is that the most creative solutions often come out of imposing limits.
Keeping The Foundation
When I finished the wrecking, all that was left standing was that underlying mechanism: players had domino-style tiles in different colors, and placed them on the board or onto other tiles to score points when they were adjacent to groups of the same color. Everything else was gone! But this was also the proven “foundation” that I had initially built Heartland upon, and I felt it was stable enough to build upon again, in a new and exciting way.
From the Ground Up
One of my core design values is to present players with interesting choices. I usually try to keep these from being overly complex, but one option cannot be clearly better than the others—those kinds of games only have the illusion of choices.
The domino tiles already include one simple choice: which color half will I develop more through my placement? Heartland added some extra information on each tile so that players could also choose to develop various livestock and build barns, but I cut out that part of the game. I needed another path to victory that was new and different.
I went back to the new theme for inspiration. What distinguishes one city skyline from the next? Often, it is the architecture of its skyscrapers—particularly when they are most visible, at their peaks. The alternative goal for each player, then, became one of trying to make their mark on the city skyline, placing their building capitals in the most strategic areas.
Since the game also now emphasized the vertical aspect of tile-laying, I made the heights of the buildings a prerequisite for each capital: players needed to place the first one on a two-story building, the next one on a three-story building, and so on. The tallest capitals—when well-placed—could score the most points at the game's end, but it was not necessary to do so to win the game. This mechanism created the same kind of tension that players enjoyed with Heartland: do I cash in on points now, or do I work towards getting my capitals built to score big during the endgame? It was a different game, but the beautiful dilemmas were there again!
The domino-style tiles posed a visual problem with the city-building theme, however: as players placed them, they would cover the roads in between buildings and the board would not look like a city at all! The solution again came from my home state and its capitol, Des Moines (and nearby Minneapolis to the north in Minnesota), as skyways connect many of the buildings, which allow downtown businesspeople to move from building to building without exposing themselves to the extreme weather in the winter and summertime. Instead of rectangular domino tiles, then, they would be square tiles joined by a narrower skyway. I also decided to push for plastic pieces--a first for me--so that they could interlock when placed on the game board.
The City of Tomorrow
After the game had been picked up by Eagle-Gryphon Games, we decided to have more fun with the theme. Many of the early visions of the “city of tomorrow” from books, comics, and film included skyway-type transportation between skyscrapers, and we decided to place the game in a retro-science fiction setting.
I have always enjoyed playing games that allow me to try different paths to victory, and the design process for Skyways has been like playing one of those games, as I set out to follow a different path from the same starting point. It is encouraging to see that one can continue to invent original and exciting tile-laying games that offer new challenges and dilemmas. And I have enjoyed being involved in a design whose components are both practical and visually stunning. As with all good tile-laying games, players can sit back at the end of the game and—win or lose—enjoy viewing the city they have built together.