[For previous posts in the Essen preview series, please click here]
Walnut Grove is one of the games that I’m most looking forward to trying at SPIEL this year as it has been described as “Carcassone meets Agricola”. This succinct game description immediately caught my eye as those are two of my favorite board games. I have had a chance to take a peek at the rules, and I thought it would be fun to summarize game play and then ask the designers a few questions about the game. This rule explanation is in no way meant to be comprehensive – and I’m fairly certain that Lookout will release the full rules translation in a few days so all of you can point out where I’ve made mistakes in recalling how the game goes <g>
I’ll start by describing the game components. There is a board which depicts the town of Walnut Grove. There is a circular track on which the pawns move, with spaces in front of the multiple town buildings (such as the city hall, hardware store, church, saloon, etc). Some of the buildings are places where you buy stuff – such as more meeples or tiles to be placed on your player board to improve it. In the center of the board is a space where a disc is placed that shows special actions available in each of the 8 turns of the game. Additionally, each player in the game has his own player board which gives him room to house his workers, store his goods, and attach land tiles to.
The game itself is played over eight rounds – each representing a year in time – with each round consisting of four phases (seasons). Again, there is a disc in the center of the board which gives different rules for each phase of the game.
- Spring – draw and place a land tile
- Summer – place workers on land tiles and collect resources
- Autumn – move in the city and take an action based on where your pawn stops
- Winter – Return the workers to your player board, feed and keep them warm
In the Spring, all players draw a number of tiles (2,3, or 4) from the bag and then place some (1 or 2) tiles down into their player board area. The numbers drawn and played are both specified by the disc in the center of the town board. The main features on these tiles are different types of terrains, places to harvest resources and fences that split up the different terrains. When you place tiles, they do not necessarily have to have matching features on the sides that connect, but they must be placed so that they touch another tile.
In the Summer, your workers go into the land areas and harvest little colored wooden cubes. Each worker goes to a distinct land area – land areas might span over more than one tile depending on how you aligned your tiles in the Spring phase. At this point, you should also look at the disc in the center of town which will specify which type of terrain (i.e. color) will make an extra cube this turn. When you place a worker in a land area,the land area will immediately make cubes – one for every tile that is used to make up that area. The cubes which are made can be stored in the squares on those land tiles and excess cubes can be possibly stored on your player board.
In Autumn, the attention moves to the town board. Again, the outer edges of the board show the different buildings in the city. Just inside the buildings is a path where the pawns traverse. Each stop on this path is in front of one of the buildings. Each of the buildings has a special ability that can be used by a pawn that stops in front of it, assuming of course that the player can pay the costs associated with that building’s action.
Play starts from the meeple who is furthest ahead clockwise from the town hall. Meeples must move clockwise to any unoccupied space on the track. Your meeple could even make an entire circuit and end up in the same space where it started. Wherever you stop, you’ll be in front of a building which will offer you an action – if you can pay the cost for it.
The buildings – clockwise from the Town Hall
- Town Hall – you must pay a coin here in tax
- Post Office – receive two goods for free
- Lodge – allows you to add extra meeples to your player board (usable next turn)
- Carpenter – you can buy Building tiles here to be placed on your player board for special abilities
- Svenson’s – buy Improvement tiles here
- Small Trading Post – trade in up to 3 goods cubes each for a coin (drawn at random)
- Hotel – allows you to add extra meeples to your player board (usable next turn)
- Church Bazaar – you must pay a coin in tax here as well
- Church – receive two goods for free
- Small Trading Post – trade in up to 3 goods cubes each for a coin (drawn at random)
- Soebuck’s Hardware – buy Improvement tiles here
- Johansen’s Mill – you can buy Building tiles here to be placed on your player board for special abilities
- Saloon – allows you to add extra meeples to your player board (usable next turn)
- Small Trading Post – trade in up to 3 goods cubes each for a coin (drawn at random)
As you can see, there are plenty of possible actions to take, and each action is represented at least twice on the board – actually each is present at least once on each side between the town hall and the church. Oh yeah, that disc in the middle of town allows you to get an extra coin (for a total of two) when trading in a certain color of cube at the small trading posts. You probably don’t want to move around town too much, because each time you finish half the circuit, you have to pay taxes. Not being able to pay taxes is bad – you would have to take a Neighborly Help tile when you can’t pay. This tile can be thrown out if you discard any three cubes, and if you manage to keep it until the end of the game, it is worth negative 2 Victory Points – so you really don’t want to hang on to it!
Finally, in the Winter, you return all your meeples to your player board. Each meeple has to go back to its own room. Then, each worker needs to be fed – and each one eats a cube that matches its color. Of course, the disc in the middle of town mandates that one color of meeple eats 2 cubes this turn instead of just one. For each worker which cannot be fed, you must take a Neighborly Help tile (which again is a possible -2 VPs).
After everyone has been fed, then they have to be kept warm. Meeples that live in stone houses do not need to be kept warm, but all other meeples must have a fire build for them so they don’t freeze! For each meeple not in a stone room, you must spend one brown cube (wood) to keep that worker warm. Additionally there is a fixed cost each Winter in brown cubes which is specified on the disc in the center of town. (These stone rooms would have been bought in town at the Carpenter’s or Mill stores). Again, for each worker that would freeze, you take a penalty Neighborly Help tile.
After this, a new disc is revealed for the next year and the game continues on for a total of eight rounds following this same pattern. At the end of the eighth round, the game is scored.
- 2 points for each worker meeple
- 1 point for each fully fenced in area on your land tiles
- 1 point for each Stone Room and Storage Building on your player board
- 1 or 2 Points for collected coins (Silver or Gold)
- Points from Improvement tiles (such as +1 pt per worker or +1 pt for each good in storage)
- -2 VP for each Neighborly Help tile
That’s about it!
So, based on the rules that I’ve seen – I’m definitely looking forward to my first chance to play the game. The combination of worker placement in the town as well as the challenge of putting the land tiles together sound like a great combination. The varied improvement tiles appear to give you plenty of different ways to score VPs, and your strategy each game will likely depend on which tiles you’re able to get.
Now let me switch gears a bit and publish some short interview questions that I posed to the two designers of the game, Touko Tahkokallio and Paul Laane. I had met each of these nice guys last year at Essen as each had their own game there in 2010 – Aether for Tahkokallio and Toscana for Laane.
Dale Yu: Paul, can you talk a bit about your new game for this year, Walnut Grove? All that I know so far is that it’s being published by Lookout Games and that it is “described as a light mashup between Carcassonne and Agricola”. Any more info?
Paul Laane: Yes, for sure. So Walnut Grove is designed by me and Touko Tahkokallio. The game lets you set up your own farmhouse in a western, “Little House on the Prairie”, setting. You build your farmlands, hire workers, manage your goods and build new buildings. “Light mashup between Carcassonne and Agricola”? Yeah, that sounds about right :) Yes, the game is fairly light on rules and is nicely geared for the families, although it makes an ideal filler for gamers as well (especially since the game is played quickly as all Seasons aside from Autumn can be played simultaneously). The building mechanic of how you build your farmland is tile laying and reminiscent of Carcassonne. The theme of building your farm and feeding your workers has echoes of Agricola (yes, we did coin an earlier prototype “Agricola Lite”)… so yes, quite accurate… although the game plays very differently than either of them :)
Dale Yu: So Paul – Walnut Grove was designed by both you and Touko. Did either of you come up with the initial idea? Or did it grow out of two independent games that meshed well together? i.e. How did the design process work out for this one?
Paul Laane: Well we started by taking a whole day brainstorming and talking whether we could come up with some ideas for a game to do together. We quickly started talking about a game that would model an old rural society and its system – what basic needs they had (food, shelter, heat/energy, transportation) and how they all would relate to one another. Touko had had some early idea/prototype along this line and he brought some ideas from that – I had been thinking about doing a game that would model the interconnection of people’s needs in a simple way, so the ideas just started to pour from this mutual vision of the game’s goal. Then I did a rough draft of the first rules and we shot that back and forth and then we were ready to make our first proto. The game started out as a simple one, turned into a more complex one at which point we decided we wanted it to be lighter so kept on iterating until we came to a version that is close to the final one… then we could feel fairly confident that it was working. I don’t think the game turned out to be really what we were talking about in the first meeting, but it still turned out to be a good game.
Dale Yu: So, a lot of work done over pizza, huh? Are there any pizza toppings that I would only find in Finland? (I love the doner pizza in Germany, so I’m always on the lookout for new things to try!)
Paul Laane: I think there are a couple of things you might find on some special pizzas that are peculiar:
a) Reindeer meat
b) Smetana and pickles (more a Russian influence)
c) chantarelle mushroom (found here in the forests)
d) the place we go with Touko we order this one that has Eggplant and Mascarpone cheese – weird but great combo!
Dale Yu: Last year, you were at Essen with your maiden design, Toscana. What was that experience like? Did you learn any lessons from Toscana that you were able to apply to Walnut Grove?
Paul Laane: That was a great experience for sure. I got to meet a lot of people, sold quite a few games and explained my game ’til my mouth went dry. It was a very hectic week but the experience was priceless – yes, it’s very different going as a visitor than have your own stand.
Well the processes of doing Toscana versus Walnut Grove were quite different, first of all because I did everything of Toscana by myself (Visuals and game design) and sold that onward, now whereas with Walnut grove I designed the game with another person (Touko) and the design was picked up by Lookout who have done the rest. So definitely Walnut grove was a much easier and faster process. I think we hammered the design within 6 months while having regular meetings at a local Italian restaurant eating pizza (I probably gained 5 pounds due to that game – who says board game design isn’t hazardous to your health?!).
I guess the big lesson looking back at the 2 projects is that it takes a long time if you just design one game at a time (like Toscana) and also that it’s very beneficial to have a lot of feedback from someone else, preferably a professional game designer.
But to answer your question more precisely, whether I learned any lessons from Toscana that I were able to apply to Walnut Grove, I would have to say… maybe not any lesson in particular. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot from each project, it’s more like it feels like the projects were so different in content, mechanics, process that it’s hard to pinpoint particular connections between the two. I had more experience the second time around, and there must be some lessons, I’m sure, I just can’t see them right now.
Dale Yu: How much work is involved setting up and running your own booth at Essen?
Paul Laane: Well it’s a lot of work, but quite fun at the same time. Once you’ve done it once it should be easier the next time… I hope. You reserve the spot, figure out what your booth is going to look like, then get all your gear packed up, get a logistics firm to take it there, arrive at the place and realise that the firm that brought your stuff (i.e. the competing logistics to the fair ground managing logistics firm) has dropped your games off ealier than agreed on and the fair ground managing logistics firm stashed away your stuff and now charges you a bunch of extra for their kind service. Then you put up your decor and boxes and look at your stand proudly (mind you’re pretty beat by this time)… then somebody lets in a horde of hungry gamers and you’re talking your mouth off trying to tell them how your game works and telling how good it is (yes, selling) and scrambling to get more tables and unbroken chairs to replace the once that broke beneath previous players. Yes, you’re pretty beat after… and then it’s lunch time!
Ah, I don’t know, it’s kind of fun even with all the mayhem (or maybe because of that), just don’t go in thinking you’re going to be rich… do it for the fun of it and it’ll be great.
Dale Yu: Paul, there seems to be an increase in games from Finland that are making it to “the big time”. Has there always been a robust Finnish game scene that the rest of the world is just learning about?
Paul Laane: Yes I believe there has been an active Boardgaming scene here for a long time – on the playing side. There’s all kinds of regular meetings and small conventions around the nation throughout the year – the scene is small and passionate so people connect well. And now the game design scene has picked up too and with designers like Touko Tahkokallio (Eclipse, Principato, Walnut Grove and a bunch of others), Moliis Brothers (Hornet), Jussi Autio (The Club), Kimmo Sorsamo (Kairo) the Finnish designers are getting recognition and international exposure. Yes, we’re a Game Designing nation to look out for! :)
Dale Yu: So Paul… 2 designs in 2 years! Is this a pace that you’re planning to keep up? Can you talk about what you might be working on next?
Paul Laane: Well, I think I would like it to be 2 designs per year in the future + 2-4 graphic design/illustration projects per year. I’m doing visuals for a board game and a card game with a South Pole theme for a Norwegian company that should be out in Essen and in the begining of the year I did the visuals for the new Moliis Bros. game for a big Finnish publisher. There’s Terrarium that I was hinting at last year’s Essen still under development and a bunch of other prototypes being developped. So busy busy. I’ve got 2 small children at home so the last year I was only working half days, but now that they are going to day care the pace is picking up.
Dale Yu: Touko, not to leave you out! So… last year, you did aether. This year, it’s Principato already in print and then Walnut Grove and Eclipse, a 4X-style game, at Essen. What else do you have planned?
Touko Tahkokallio: As usual, I have many games brewing in different stages of development: some card games, some family-type games and some meatier games of course too.
At the moment, one of my most ambitious projects is to do a proper historical Civilization game (with a map), utilizing some core mechanics from Eclipse. Actually, at this point it looks like I will do two different Civilization building games. The first one will be slightly lighter and more euroish in nature, situated in the Ancient World (setting a bit similar to Mare Nostrum or Advanced Civilization). The second game will have slightly different focus and it will be more grandiose, spanning most of the human history from bronze age to space age. This is perhaps my all time favorite genre in games, and after completing this trilogy, I hope I don’t need to look out any other Civilization building games! Anyways, that’s the plan – we’ll see how it all turns out in the end :)
Dale Yu: Is there any sort of game you wouldn’t try to design?
Touko Tahkokallio: Not really – I pretty much like to design all sort of games. Lately I even have worked on a trick-taking game, although I’m not actually a huge fan of the genre. It is kind of a interesting challenge to try to see, what other people like in certain type of games. If you try to be a versatile game designer, I think important part of the job is to get inside other people’s head and understand why they find certain games interesting.
But many times fundamentally it is the theme that draws my interest to design a game. There are of course many themes that I would not be interested in to work on.
Dale Yu: So, Touko, you’ve designed three very different games – is there one style of game that you prefer?
Touko Tahkokallio: Actually, In addition to the games you mentioned above, I have also done a satirical card game about Finnish politics (Politix) and a kind of a trivia game (Arvuutin)… but these games were basically for Finns only (although Arvuutin will be re-published by a German publisher in 2012). I like to design games for variety of audience. Personally I think that games should always be matched with the right group and the moment. There is plenty of room for different type of games – at least in my collection.
That’s said, gamer’s games are my favorite type of games. But what I don’t really like are overly complex games for no real reason. I feel some modern gamer’s games have gone too far in that direction. Adding convoluted and abstract mechanics to a game that are there solely for the reason to make the game play more challenging is not actually that interesting in my mind.
Instead I like to see the following aspects combined in a game: 1) Elegance (there should be as few rules as possible. Also, the game play should be non-fiddly and intuitive), 2) Challenging game play (the game is difficult to master), 3) Theme (the rules are intuitive and go hand in hand with the game’s theme). Combining ALL three aspects is not easy task but nevertheless I think it is an excellent goal to keep in mind. Of course gamer’s games naturally have more rules than family games, but nevertheless each additional rule should be carefully considered.
Another genre that I like is meaty fillers. They combine agonizing and deep game play with fast playing time. I think good example of this type of game is Race for the Galaxy. Packing a lot of interesting decisions in short play time is something that just works for me.
Dale Yu: So, I’ve already asked Paul about the design process of Walnut Grove. Let me ask you a bit about your other big release for this year, Eclipse. For how long have you been working on Eclipse? It seems like an extraordinarily complex game that would have taken many tries to balance.
Touko Tahkokallio: Well, some early thoughts about the game (especially the resource management engine) dates back to spring 2009, but the real development process for the game started at the end of 2009. From early 2010 to Summer 2011, together with Sampo Sikiö, we worked very intensively to develop the game. For such a big game, I would say the process was surprisingly fast-moving, but that was simply because we were so excited about the game and we could not stop ourselves working on it!
The playtesting and balancing of the game was a huge project. Happily we had plenty of devoted playtesters. In addition to playtesting the game in our core groups, we also played it in many gaming clubs and conventions and had few external playtesting groups as well.
What made the development process feasible was that we got the core of the game very solid early on in the development process. With a stable base, it is much easier to work on the details. In the development process, the most time consuming part was finetuning the Technology-tree and balancing the different species in the game. But now I’m happy to say that the countless hours spent on the finetuning were worth the trouble!
Dale Yu: I know you said (in the past) that there might be issues getting copies of Eclipse to Essen. Has it been printed yet?
Touko Tahkokallio: Not yet, but it is at the printers at the moment (Ed note – this was said on 4 Sept 2011). There should be some copies flown to Essen, but I don’t know how many copies will be there, probably some hundreds.
Dale Yu: Is the game itself language independent?
Touko Tahkokallio: Basically everything is language independent, expect some flavor text and rules. For example, Technologies and Ship Parts have names like Wormhole Generator, Plasma Cannon, but you can figure out what they do by checking the symbols and rules.
Dale Yu: Great – thanks for your time and good luck at Essen this year!
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor