Thingvalley Designer Diary #1

I’m working on a game I came up with on a trip to Iceland (it’s getting to the point that I can’t even leave Boulder without coming up with some kind of game concept. If you need some ideas, hmu), after visiting the Þingvellir — a valley between the two moving continental plates — where Vikings conducted trade, enacted laws, and settled scores among each other.

Scribbles in the notebook, made from the back seat of a rental car.

I love games with a strong economic component; Wealth of Nations and its flexible markets were one of the first things that drew me into the tabletop hobby in adulthood, so I’ve always wanted to work a mechanism like that into a design, and I’ve had a note about doing so in my Catch Sheet for a while. I’d also just come off of a stop at Geekway to the West, where I played a game of Sidereal Confluence, where open trading among players figures prominently, so that was fresh in my head. Scribbling some notes in my notebook, on a fresh page I titled “All thing / Between the plates” and wrote out a list of possible resources that might be interesting, along with a central “market” like the one I’d fallen in love with in WoN, with the intent that it could be a good ‘release valve’ in case a player got stymied and couldn’t trade with anyone.

When I got home, I analyzed the markets from Wealth of Nations, because it seemed important to understand how those worked, since they always “felt” right during that game, so I entered each of the buy/sell/trade values from the markets into a spreadsheet. (Here’s an example if you’re not familiar) I plotted the supply/demand curves, and compared the gap in the discrimination between buy and sell price. All this would later turn out to be irrelevant, but I needed to know this data to proceed.

I picked a few resource types (six), enough to give some diversity in holdings, but not so many that players might end up with some resource no one else needed. Then I made up price curves for each. It turned out to be pretty hard, since the quantities I wanted for Thingvalley (3–15) were much smaller than the quantities in WoN (roughly 40 on average), so the markets are short, stumpy, and quite drastic in price change.

High level, gameplay boiled down to this: You and your tribe show up to the annual Allthing with some resources (which are dealt via “supply” cards as the game starts) and you attempt to collect sets of resources based on “need” cards (like “route” cards from Ticket to Ride), or, as they’ve been nicknamed by players… your “shopping list”.

Another thing I had in mind from the beginning was a clear vision of how I wanted this game to look on the table. One specific element I thought would look cool: (which later turned out to be an incredibly lucky inclusion) larger tarot-sized cards on the table to represent the “Lands” your tribe controls — these lands would be fungible for trade, and perhaps be included on shopping list cards… Our population is growing! We need additional lands on which to live!

First playtests were lukewarm to average; the game had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there were one or two interesting decisions for players in between, but not a whole lot else. Then, at Protospiel, I playtested twice in two days. The first day, Alex Yeager — formerly of Mayfair — said “There’s absolutely nothing new here… and you’re going to be compared against every other resource exchange game, including Bohnanza, the literal Spiel de Jahres winner which set the tone for resource trading games.” The next day, I changed a few things, and Andrew Stackhouse, who played both days, quipped “This was more fun yesterday.”

Yikes. Harsh but both very fair. So the game needs work.

Stay tuned for how I may have found an interesting game in some of Alex’s feedback about those “Lands” cards I’d included on a lark.