Sunday, July 02, 2006


If there was ever any doubt, let there be none now. I am an idiot. My apologies to Kris Hall, who I introduced as a female a couple weeks ago. Kris, if I ever meet you, just give me fair warning and you can deck me. I extend the same offer to your wife.

Here is his second article for Gone Gaming. Enjoy.

A few weeks ago I had my first win with Railroad Tycoon. The victory was all the sweeter because on the first turn I went last, and got stuck with the location that the other four players didn’t want. My first route connected Manchester and London, and while the other guys were fighting over routes in France, Germany, and Russia, I quietly dominated the British Isles. Only in the last third of the game did I bridge the English channel and move into Holland and France.

What’s that you say? Railroad Tycoon has a map of the eastern United States, and there are no European expansion boards?

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that we used a European mapboard drawn up by Chris Boote. You can download the board and the appropriate cards from the Railroad Tycoon page of Boardgamegeek. It’s an amateur-designed variant.

How did the variant play? Just fine. I may even prefer the European map to the original because the cities are more evenly distributed. And I like that instead of Tycoon cards there are extra-point cards that can be claimed by anyone who fulfills the necessary conditions.

There are a lot of amateur variants on the internet, and many of them—maybe a majority—can be found on Boardgamegeek.

But aren’t most variants just suggestions for fixing broken games?

Not at all. In fact, the opposite is true. Gamers tend to design variants for games they love. A lot of variants are usually a sign that a game is popular, not that it is broken. In fact, when I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy a game, I don’t just read the reviews of game on Boardgamegeek—I check out the number of available variants. Reading the variants tells you a lot about the original game, and the more variants I see, the more confidence I have that the original game is a good one.

Last November, Shannon Appelcline wrote an essay about scenarios for this website, and described how they add value to the original game. Variants add value as well, and for the same reason. If a game has ten variants or ten alternate game boards, then the original game has greater replay value. There’s a good chance that some of these variants will be boring or inappropriate, but it only takes one or two good ones to add value to the original game.

And there is an added bonus for game companies concerning amateur variants: the companies don’t have to spend time or money designing them. The gaming community does the work.

Amateur variants are just part of a larger trend of consumer participation in the development, production, and advertising of consumer goods that has been made possible by the internet and other advanced technology. The most sophisticated example of this trend would be open-source software which is developed by the computer geek community. Another example would be multinational corporations soliciting consumer participation in company advertising efforts. In the May 28th edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Rob Walker wrote an essay describing how companies like General Motors and Mastercard are using consumer-created advertising to market their products. The amateurs creating these commercials may be aspiring film directors more interested in developing their careers than in the products they are hawking, but that doesn’t affect the quality of their efforts, or their usefulness to the corporations who reap the benefits of their creativity.

So if giant corporations can tap the creative potential of the world for their own efforts, gaming companies can surely find ways to harness the collective imagination of the game geek community.

So how can game companies promote variants? What policies should they adopt?

1) Companies should feature variants on their websites, and make them easy to find. Some companies have message boards where postings about variants can be found, but often a gamer will have to wade through months of other postings to find them. If I was a marketing director at one of these companies, I’d suggest that any decent variants should be available right on the pages for individual games. Or maybe there should be a button on the company’s main page labeled “Variants.”

To their credit, some companies already do this. Days of Wonder has a page devoted to amateur maps for the Ticket to Ride series (go to and click on the rules and goodies button). Some skeptics might think that promoting amateur maps that can be down-loaded for free would cut into the sales of the professional Ticket to Ride games. But Days of Wonder is smart enough to know better. The kind of rabid fan who would download and paste up an amateur Ticket to Ride map is the kind of fan who is very likely to sell his pet to a science lab just to afford Ticket to Ride Antarctica when that finally arrives. And in the meantime, Days of Wonder is building up goodwill in the Ticket to Ride cult by making it easy for the cult members to play on variant game boards.

2) Game companies should actively encourage variants by holding contests for the best variant. Many game companies already hold contests related to individual games. You might argue that the ease-of-entry factor would ensure that trivia contests and other simple contests will have broader appeal than design-a-variant contests, and that is probably true. But the design-a-variant contest could add lasting value to the game. And because the prizes of such contests are usually inexpensive, companies could experiment with variant-promoting contests with little risk.

When I started writing this essay, I thought I was ahead of the curve. But I had written most of it before I saw that Mayfair Games has a Settlers of Catan Scenario Design contest (enter at with five first place winners allowed. Winning scenarios may be published in Games Quarterly Magazine. I predict it won’t be long before others follow the Mayfair lead.

Here are some other contest suggestions:

Eagle Games could hold a design-an-alternate-game-board contest for Railroad Tycoon. Yes, they are planning to eventually release professional expansions, but a contest would generate excitement in the gaming community, and would probably have little impact on future sales. Just ask Days of Wonder.

Fantasy Flight could have a design-an-alternate-monster contest for its Fury of Dracula game. A werewolf is the most logical alternate monster because it’s linked to a day/night cycle the way Dracula is. This contest would surely add value to FOD because there is only one basic scenario for this game.

Rio Grande or Ystari Games could have a design-a-building-tile contest for Caylus. They could either produce twenty or thirty of the best tiles as a low-cost expansion or just place them on their website as a free download.

Mayfair or Rio Grande or any company with a big stable of games could have a general design-a-variant contest. The three gamers who design the best variants for any of their games each gets a prize.

I foresee the day when gamers will be able to find a whole smorgasbord of variants for most popular games on company websites. And there will be a lot of postings on Boardgamegeek that sound like this: “You think playing Railroad Tycoon Middle Earth is good with Bob Johnson’s Galadriel Silver Cube variant? Try it out with Amy Green’s Sauron Express option and Harry Smith’s troll train cards—it’s the best Tolkien railroading experience ever!”

It’s time the game companies started exploiting the creativity of gaming community. This is one kind of competition where everybody wins.

Kris Hall

1 comment:

Shannon Appelcline said...

Wolfgang Kramer seems to increasingly include variants in his games, which is nice.