Between various members being out of town, I hadn’t been able to make a Flywheel meeting until last Tuesday, the 15th. I played both Dan’s Travelogue and Ian’s Sky Castles for the first time, so I got to offer criticism and feedback for the first two or three hours of the evening.

Once we found ourselves with no more prototypes to play, someone suggested we do another collaborative game design exercise, much like last time. Since I missed out on that one, I really wanted to do it this time. The basic rules are similar to general improv games- you can’t say “No.” Only “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” Everyone’s contribution, once written, is golden. In creating this game, we discovered that the rules were sound and playable, but horribly unbalanced. While nobody vetoed a rule during creation, we certainly hammered out a few details and noted that certain values would have to be tweaked.

Here’s the rules for “Ranch Hands,” in order of creation, as best as I can recall/infer from my scribbled notes. Yes, that’s a working title. Commentary is in brackets, images are from Board Game Geek since nobody used a camera while we were playing. This game is by Ian, Dan, and myself.

  1. The player with the most points, wins.
  2. This game uses no cards.Roads, settlements, cities
  3. This game uses the wooden bits from The Settlers of Catan. [We briefly debated if the dice were part of this rule- since they were wooden, they were in. Strictly speaking, are dice “bits” or something else? Either way, the majority was in favor of dice.]
  4. The dice are not rolled during the game. [Ian squashed the use of dice pretty quickly.]
  5. Each player has one color.
  6. There are two “pots” of points, as indicated by the dice.
  7. Players can increment or decrement a die by one.
  8. This is a three-player game. The fourth color is neutral, but in play. [Remember the base game for Settlers only has four colors.]
  9. The robber pawn is used to indicate one pot of points is negative.
  10. The robber indicates one die as a “cost,” and the other die as a “gain.” [This is interesting as a direct riff from the previous rule, with no context for what’s next.]
  11. The cities are used as toggles for resources: pointing up [like a regular placement of a city in Settlers] indicates a player has a resource.
  12. Neutral bits can be acquired. [We don’t know how, but you can.]Terra Nova in play
  13. This game is played on a Terra Nova board. [Ian grounds us from an abstract game.]
  14. Players can acquire other player’s resources. [We still don’t know how yet! :)]
  15. The terrain on the board does not matter. [I had to nip those potentials in the bud. Now we’re just dealing with a well-illustrated albeit oddly shaped hex map and a track of numbers.]
  16. Players can spend resources to build fences. [Ian demonstrates with roads on the board and we start fiddling.]
  17. Fences are places inside a hex, corner to corner. [They fit just right!]
  18. Players start with $20. [We use one settlement to track money around the edge. I liked my rule because it uses the board differently than as a victory point track- it’s interesting to work with creative constraints.]
  19. Ranches (settlements) are built on the board. [Finally, we get a theme. The earlier rule about fences is only halfway there- Terra Nova is about fencing off areas already.]
  20. Ranches are built inside a fenced-in area that uses your color fence and another color.
  21. This game has a western theme. [I spent a rule to make sure nobody would whip out magic dragon powers.]
  22. When you score an area, you get victory points equal to the positive die.
  23. The dice are pieces on the board.
  24. The edge of the board counts as neutral fence.
  25. You can buy a neutral resource for $5.
  26. Building a fence or a ranch costs a number of resources equal to the cost die (marked with the robber).
  27. It costs $5 to take two fences off the board and into your personal supply.
  28. When you score, the robber moves to the other die.
  29. When the robber moves, any fence he crosses pays out $3 to its owner.
  30. Spend $1 (maximum $5) to move a die one hex without changing its value.
  31. You get 5 Action Points per turn. [We still do not know what this is for, which makes it an interesting rule addition!]
  32. There is a starting setup. [Insert diagram here: Place three neutral fences in a Y-shape. Each player places four more fences to form three two-color enclosed areas, and then one ranch of the correct color inside each fenced-in area.]
  33. Spend 1 AP to flip one resource.
  34. Spend 1 AP to gain 1 dollar. [Note well this rule for later commentary.]
  35. Spend 2 AP to change a die’s value by one.
  36. The game ends when there are ten ranches on the board.
  37. The dice are rolled for setup. [This would normally be not allowed, as it directly contradicts an earlier rule. However, the majority liked it and technically the previous rule was no dice rolling during the game.]
  38. It costs $10 to build one ranch, plus the cost in resources. [We knew this was unbalanced.]
  39. The start player is the person with the closest birthday. [It happened to be Ian’s birthday when we created this, so he was our start player. Naturally, this rule was added with him in mind.]

And so, we finished because we wanted to play our game. We stopped when we knew everyone had added an equal number of rules, then added a few more setup and housekeeping rules.

  • Players start with no resources
  • Anything costs an AP
  • Only one ranch per fenced-in area
  • Let’s use glass stones to keep track of actions

Amazingly, this game works. As noted, it’s pretty seriously unbalanced. In retrospect, we’ve got several currencies running around between resources, money, victory points, and AP- this is keeping too many plates in the air for an improv design. Ian felt that we could consolidate money and AP somehow, but I’d rather see them separate things for players to balance. That said, money drains too quickly, and building got prohibitively expensive (in terms of resources:AP over time) rapidly. We really liked the mechanic of moving the robber between the dice- it added an interesting dynamic of balancing VP and cost, plus his motion between dice is the only real way to generate significant income.

We played so each of us got a handful of turns (maybe two dozen all told), enough to basically see most every rule get touched. I think the game was a tie, and I know I was seriously broke. Dan and I cornered Ian out of the neutral resources, which bankrupted us for a long-term advantage. At the end of the day, we all agreed that we would play it again if it were balanced.