Friday, December 08, 2006

I Couldn't Design Canal Mania

In London in the early 1890s, Oscar Wilde wrote a series of hit comedy plays that culminated in The Importance of Being Ernest. Reviewers started noting that Wilde’s recipe for a hit play included lots of witty banter attached to a conventional someone-has-a-secret plot. Some reviewers eventually hinted that they or their favorite playwrights could probably also have similar hit plays if they were willing to stoop to using Wilde’s formula. This kind of smugness provoked George Bernard Shaw to write: “Apparently, I am the only man in London who cannot write an Oscar Wilde play at will.”

I was reminded of this story because so many of the reviews of Canal Mania have noted that the game is a merger of Ticket to Ride card-drawing and Age of Steam cube shuttling that you might think that there was nothing to the game but borrowed and overly-familiar game mechanisms. Yes, lots of things about Canal Mania will remind you of other games. So much so that my original opening for this essay was going to be something like this:

On a dark and stormy night, Alan Moon brought his teleportation experiment to fruition. He slipped a copy of Ticket to Ride into telepod A, and then hurried to the control panel to press the button that would close the heavy door.

Unseen by Mr. Moon, a copy of
Age of Steam--drawn by the smell of plastic railroad engines--slipped into the telepod.

Moon pressed the button. The door of telepod A slid shut with a satisfying hiss.

Moon’s fingers danced over the control panel, completing the initiation sequence in seconds.

Light blazed from the window of telepod A. Across the room, light began flicking from the window of telepod B.

Moon stared at the control panel computer screen. The computer message sent a shiver of delight up his spine: Teleportation Complete.

He jabbed a shaking finger at another button.

The door of telepod B slid open.

Moon ran toward the pod. But as his staring eyes beheld what was within, his grin of triumph became a grimace of horror.
Ticket to Ride was nowhere to be seen.

On the floor of the telepod was--

It’s all too easy to be snide.

And it’s all too easy to mock Canal Mania as the abandoned-on-the-doorstep love child of Alan Moon and Martin Wallace. At least most of the reviewers have admitted that Canal Mania is a good game in spite of its assembled-from-borrowed-parts heritage. The general attitude is: Of course, it’s a good game. Ragnor Brothers stole from the best.

Well, I think there is a little more going on with the game than just borrowing-as-game-design.

For one thing, the designers apparently opened at least one history book about British canals. In the game, players build historical canals. The game also uses historical canal builders as an excuse to give players some special ability cards. The special abilities may or may not have much to do with the real-life careers of these men, but the historical figures give the game additional period flavor.

Also, the game’s cube-shuttling system forces players to reverse the usual strategy that gamers must employ in Age of Steam (and in Railroad Tycoon, Age of Steam’s prettier sister). Instead of building transportation networks near available goods, players in Canal Mania must place cubes near the networks they have already built or hope to build. This also means that Canal Mania players will shuttle cubes over other players’ networks far more often than players in Railroad Tycoon. Making cube placement part of players’ draw-card strategy may seem like a modest change from the Martin Wallace games, but it only takes a few innovations to give Canal Mania a different flavor from the earlier games.

Because cubes don’t have to stop in most cities when moved, players often concentrate on building extra-long continuous networks to maximize their points. This is a bit of a challenge because players can only build a canal between two cities if they get the appropriate government contract card. And because players can only hold two uncompleted contracts at a time, there is constant pressure to finish one canal so that a player can grab another important contract card before someone else snatches it up.

I think Railroad Tycoon will always be my favorite transportation network game. As far as I am concerned, Eagle Games did not live and die in vain because at least they gave the hobby RRT. (Someday when I don’t have an inspired idea for my weekly blog, I will do a joy-of-toys essay, and RRT will be one of my prime examples).

But even though Railroad Tycoon is my true love, I will enjoy flings with Canal Mania.
And just for the record: even if I borrowed every ingenious game mechanism that Alan Moon or Martin Wallace ever invented, I still couldn’t have designed Canal Mania.


Fellonmyhead said...

One of the most common ways used to describe a game is to compare its mechanisms with those of other games.

This is at the same time both useful and misleading, but as even describing the process of a mechanism will conjure up the same sort of comparison there really isn't a better way.

We simply must remember (as I said elsewhere) that it is the differences and not the similarities that are important when it comes to a game like Canal Mania.

Gerald McD said...

Nice article. Relating the Oscar Wilde story to designing Canal Mania was very clever and appropriate. More like this, please.

huzonfirst said...

You must be hanging around some pretty cynical gamers these days, Kris. I've heard mostly praise for Canal Mania, as witnessed by it's excellent Geek rating of over 7.5.

As Anthony says, comparisons to other games is a very common way to initially describe a game. But CM actually features a lot of innovations. And, of course, mixing and matching mechanics from other games is a perfectly reasonable way to design a game--it's the final product that matters. Not every game needs to be screamingly innovative. In the case of CM, though, I think it has both familiar elements and new ones in a very appealing package. I think it's an excellent design.