Monday, January 28, 2008

Conjunction Junction, or perhaps Reading Railroad

Scott and I have been tossing back and forth ideas on the structure of Conjunction Junction (perhaps a better name... Reading Railroad?). Scott drafted up a ruleset, and I massacred it in my usual style. The main thing I realized while discussing it with him is this... and this may be a comment on collaborative design:

I don't think we're working on the same game.

For the most part, Scott's ideas for the format of the game seem a lot better suited to the complexity level we're going for, and more elegant in a lot of ways, so I've completely adopted them over my original thoughts of buying and selling letters and placing letter tiles on the board as track. Instead, the board has more abstract regions which you can "build track through" - and you do so by spelling words with letter tiles. The words don't have anything to do with the board, you just spell words - the longer the word, the more "Track Points" you get, and it costs a certain number of Track Points to build through a region. Leftover Track Points turn into VPs.

This I like - the idea is that you can make smaller words to connect cities, with little or no Track Points leftover for VPs, or you could make bigger words so you get more VPs as you lay track on the board to connect cities. The Cities still have City Tiles in them which you'll use at the end of the game to spell other words for endgame scoring.

This is where there appears to be a difference of opinion on the purpose of the game. In order for a non-wordsmith to be able to do well, I think it's important that the words you spell with City Tiles (which you've been collecting during the game) be pre-determined, printed on a scoring card, so you have some direction when you are choosing which cities to connect, and that motivation isn't wrapped up in your ability to recognize and spell words. Scott suggests that this is equivalent to not actually spelling words with City Tiles, and instead it's like saying "make a network that connects this, that, and the other city." This is, in a sense, true - and in fact could also be represented that way, although my actual mechanic would be like having a set of different possible network connections to make. However, doing it with letters on City Tiles goes along with the theme of the game and the wordbuilding mechanic. There are a few other reasons I think it's a little different as well, but they're specific and not important to the overarching question.

Scott has thus far preferred a system where players spell whatever word(s) they want/can with their City Tiles, and get rewarded for them... basically you get points for making a 3 letter word, a 4 letter word, a 5 letter word, etc. In matter of fact, I really like the idea, for a word game. For this game however, an original design goal (for me) was that it not be a word game at all. There are plenty of word games, and building words for the sake of building words is a well established genre - the thing I thought would be interesting was to make a game that a player who hates that genre could play with a player that loves that genre.

I think both scoring systems could work very well, and they both have some very interesting things going for them - I think they both give the player motivation to connect various cities over other cities, and I think they both reward doing a "good job" of connecting cities. However, the fundamental question remains - is this a word game, or a connection game?

I'll have to see what Scott thinks of my version of the ruleset he wrote. I'm interested to see what kind of implications the difference between word game and connection game will have, because in the end both scoring systems aren't all that dissimilar. I think the key is where the tension is when it comes down to the decision as to where you want to place track - what cities do you want to connect. Should this be based on your skill at word building, or your skill at analyzing the relative positions of City Tiles and which you need for your scoring card?

I maintain that using word building as a mechanic in a connection game is the more interesting way to go, because you don't see a lot of games like that. On the other hand there are plenty of word games out there.

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