For those that aren’t aware, I’ve been working on a board game. It’s been boiling around in my head since May or so; where it initially saw a great flurry of activity but, due to various other things, kind of got put on the backburner until a few weeks ago. However, in the last month I’ve focussed more time on it and into getting it to a position where I (and perhaps a group of friends) might be able to actually give it a try. Hooray!
The title of the game is Penny Black, which some of you might recognise as the name of the world’s first postage stamp designed by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840 for the Royal Mail. As you can therefore imagine, Penny Black is themed around a fictional Post Office; not in Victorian England but in the fictional Republic of Sinestria. So, what’s it all about?
SUMMARY: Penny Black is a strategy board game with a postal theme. Players take the roles of trainee sorting-office workers in the Mighty Republic of Sinestria, where the postal system has recently been introduced. In this role, players compete to serve customers, stamp their letters and process them into the Post-Bot’s mailbag in order deliver these to the intended recipients and earn points. However, the citizens of Sinestria are sceptical of this new postal system, and players will need to meet their various demands and expectations in order to secure the success of the Sinestria Republic Post.
The more letters that are picked up and delivered, the more trust players will acquire from the public (measured in terms of Victory Points) and, at the end of 7 days of training, the performance of the new trainees will be rigorously assessed. If players misplace letters or deliver them late, they will lose trust from the public. Furthermore, fellow players will be aiming to hinder each other or engage in outright sabotage, so players must maintain awareness of the competition.
Due to a malfunction, the Stamp Machine does not output the correct stamps but instead spews them out randomly onto the Sorting Office counter. Players will need to collect the correct stamps, pick the most viable customer letters, and make sure that they are in the Post-Bot’s mailbag at the correct time in order to score Victory Points.
The Chief of Post for the Government of Sinestria has vowed to permanently hire the most successful worker to be elevated to the position of Post-Office Manager, a highly respected position, based on players’ performance in efficiently collecting stamps, sorting letters and getting them into the mailbag at the correct time.
I’ve just reached a point of having the rules for v0.1 of Penny Black pretty much shaped up and written down. I’m yet to get round to playtesting, but I’ll look into doing so at some point over the Xmas period. If you would like to know what the hell Penny Black is all about (and, indeed, what the hell I’m talking about during the rest of this post), then a .PDF of the rules is here:
PennyBlack_v0.1 (December 2014, .pdf)
DISCUSSION: The main concept of Penny Black is similar to a number of games that require collection of tiles/resources in order to purchase other cards, which require a varying combination of resources – these include titles like Unexpected Treasures (by Friedemann Friese) and Felinia (by Michael Schacht). In Penny Black, these, purchased, cards must then be redeemed by placing them in the mailbag at the appropriate time (and in competition with other players who are looking to do the same, perhaps with some amount of skulduggery) in order to score points.
Hopefully what is unique about Penny Black, when compared to other games based on collecting stuff and using it to buy other stuff (even so far as Alhambra by Dirk Henn), is that there is a ‘timing’ aspect to having the right things at the right time, and in the right place: the mechanic of having a semi-random method of dictating when a letter delivery takes place (defined by a dice roll which may mean that the Post-Bot moves at a steady 1-step pace [most likely], a rapid 2-step pace or does not move at all [least likely]) means that there is, hopefully, unpredictability as to when points are scored; wrestling complete control from the players and adding more tension along with incentive for skullduggery. The unpredictability of what exact delivery conditions (i.e. what earns bonus points for players when a delivery happens) also, hopefully, adds to the variation between games and leaves players guessing as to what will earn them points.
The main method of how players collect stamps is one of the key parts of Penny Black that I still don’t yet have a solid ‘feel’ for. I expect that over various iterations of the game, how stamps are collected by players will likely evolve a bit; perhaps taking cues from other games. For example, Felinia lets you collect similar tiles based on a ‘bidding’/market system, although this requires application of some sort of currency system which would add extra complexity to the game. I thought about some sort of worker-placement mechanic, but this seemed like an overly elaborate way of simply collecting resources. Maybe I’ll look into playing other games with similar mechanics, and see if there’s anything I can borrow or adapt if the current mechanic doesn’t feel quite ‘right’.
In the first iteration of Penny Black, the mechanic to collect tiles is largely similar to that of Ticket to Ride (by Alan R. Moon), yet with some similarities with Splendor (by Marc André): there is a general pool of stamp tiles, drawn randomly from a bag, that occupy six stamp spaces on the game board. On a turn, players may choose an action to activate the Stamp Machine, which re-fills any empty stamp spaces (left empty after previous players have taken stamps), and then choose three stamps to take from the available pool. Players may hold seven stamp tiles at a time. From their collection, players then trade the correct stamps with those depicted on an available customer letter in order to ‘stamp’ it and to prepare it for delivery, or use certain combinations of their stamps to influence the motions of the Post-Bot to speed up or slow down the time until delivery, or to kick out another player’s letter from the mailbag and replace it with one of their own. Yes, I know the Post-Bot is currently R2D2, shut up.
Another aspect that isn’t currently in place in Penny Black is the concept of having ‘special’ stamp cards. In addition to the way that basic stamp tiles are drawn from the bag and players may pick from them, I’m toying with the idea of having additional stamp cards that either allow a player to use them as any individual stamp, or perhaps as a double-stamp of a single colour. Further to this, something that isn’t yet fully-formed in my head is the method by which the Post-Bot either adds incentive (or penalises players) when it has reached the end of the Delivery Track yet the mailbag is not sufficiently prepared. It might be that an elegant way of killing both birds with a single stone would be to have the Post-Bot give special ‘one-shot’ stamp cards to all players that succeed in delivering a letter; although I’m aware that this might leave certain things overpowered, or lead to situations with runaway winners. In the current iteration (v0.1) of Penny Black there’s no facility for this yet, but it might be worth considering in a later iteration to see how it works. Certainly, I feel like a technique whereby players are rewarded for putting letters in the mailbag (not necessarily just for delivering them) could be an option; which might be as simple as taking a stamp tile from the available stamps on the Sorting Office Counter.
So, in a nutshell, that’s Penny Black. Of course, it’s going to take a lot more shaping up and refining before it’s something that could potentially be released to the outside world but, even at this very early stage, I’m bloody proud of how far I’ve gotten with it.
The next stage, really, is to test the game with some actual play. After I’ve fiddling with it myself and an imaginary table of gamers, I’m going to look into recruiting a few friends to giving it a go and providing some feedback on the game (in addition to identifying the glaring holes or errors in design). With a game like this that will require a significant amount of balancing in terms of how many points successful deliveries should be worth, how long there should be between deliveries, how easy or hard it is to collect the right stamps and purchase letters, etc. I feel that there will be a lot of tweaking necessary to weigh out the game so that it brings a balanced atmosphere. I’m intending on documenting the progress fairly methodically to establish what’s working and what’s not, so expect more posts in this series on the continuing development of the game and my thoughts on it.
If you’ve got ideas on thoughts on the status of Penny Black, then I’d love to hear what you think. Hey, maybe it inspires you to think about designing your own game; or just creativity in general. If I can spark some imagination surrounding interesting board game themes or creativity, then that’d be awesome.