I can remember it pretty clearly... the day we put together our first prototype of The Train Game.
We were at Lauren's parents' house one lazy Saturday afternoon. Armed with the theme of our game (Trains - specifically the Melbourne train network), I got up off the couch (probably after watching Carlton notch-up another honorable loss), and rifled through the house, searching for some paper, pens, a ruler and some scissors.
Funnily enough, the only paper that I could find wasn't your regular A4, white copy paper. My search yielded an assortment of multi-coloured paper - the sort you might find in an arts and crafts shop; the stuff we all used in school to put together a respectable-looking poster on the Ancient Egyptians. It wasn't much, but it would do.
I set to work on ruling up some rectangles (our playing cards) and scribbling down the names of the various Melbourne train lines. It quickly became apparent that using coloured paper for a prototype card game involving set-collection, was less than ideal - imagine playing a game using normal playing cards and on the back of each card there's a big symbol (think heart, diamond, club, spade) indicating to other players the suit of the cards you were holding. As I sometimes like to say, "we are where we are". Onwards!
Figure 1: The very first prototype of The Train Game - very obvious what cards you were holding!
With my rectangles ruled and cards labelled with the various train lines of the Melbourne train network, it was time to add in a few action cards to spice things up a little bit. I mean, at this stage, I didn't really know what I was spicing up exactly, but I do remember feeling like my game was going to need more than just a few names of train lines and possibly some train stations.
The first action card introduced was the 'ticket inspector' card. Second, was the 'undercover ticket inspector'. Was there room for both ticket inspectors and undercover ticket inspectors in this game about the Melbourne train network? I had no idea. But there was really only one way to find out - keep going. I really liked the idea of the ticket inspectors and undercover ticket inspectors - I wasn't quite sure what they would do or how they would interact, but they were on-theme and there was something about them that made me think "these can definitely be played to mess with other players" - I liked that.
Our first prototype included ticket cards, which would be played in response to being inspected by a ticket inspector. And the last action card in the original prototype was the 'city loop' card. When played, the city loop card would reverse the direction of play. When I used to catch the train to school every day, I remember trains in Melbourne's city loop would go one way in the mornings and the other direction in the afternoons. Again, this was another card that was on-theme... but it had the classic card game UNO written all over it. I definitely didn't like that. I was determined that this game was going to be unique - I wasn't about to start piggy-backing off one of the most successful card games of all time with a poorly disguised effort at originality. It's no surprise that the city loop card didn't end up making the cut in later iterations of The Train Game.
Now, I know what you're thinking... where are the trains?! That's absolutely a valid question. It might surprise you to learn (as it does me to actually write this!) that the first prototype of The Train Game didn't actually have a 'train' card in it at all. Yep, you read that correctly. And we've got the original prototype to prove it. I actually had to flick through our original prototype to double-check that there were no trains in it!
On reflection, I think that we probably got so caught up in the 'Melbourne' part of the game and the greater 'Melbourne train network' when haphazardly putting together the prototype that we totally neglected the trains themselves. Don't worry though - within a week of the first prototype coming together, we were 'back on track'. The 'train' card quickly became a key feature of what we were loosely referring to as 'The Train Game' - a working title for our game, which we planned to eventually give a bit more thought to and change.
After roughly putting together this first prototype, I needed some willing test subjects to participate in some play-testing. Fortunately for me, Lauren and her sister Anna weren't up to much that lazy Saturday afternoon, and after a little but of coaxing, they agreed to give this thing a go. I half-explained the general premise of the game (collect a full set of stations from the same train line to win) and a few of the rules that I thought might work (in theory!). We dealt out some cards and away we went.
After each hand, we chatted about what we thought was working well and what wasn't working so well. We played around with the number of cards that each player was dealt at the start of the game and what penalties applied if you were inspected by a ticket inspector card but didn't have a valid ticket card. The ticket inspector cards quickly became a favourite amongst the three of us and the power that came with holding an undercover ticket inspector card became a little addictive. We quickly ruled out the city loop card based on the similarity to UNO and after an hour or so, we seemed to have a handle on the basic strategy. Most importantly, we were having fun!
At this early point, it was difficult to identify whether the 'fun' we were having was in playing something we had created, or the game itself was actually fun. I guess it didn't really matter - we were having fun, and for the moment, that was enough. We needed to rope in some more play-testers who hadn't been part of the initial experimentation, to put our little game to the test.
I remember spending the next week feeling pretty excited that we seemed to be moving in the right direction with our game. I also remember spending a lot of time on my way to work each day thinking about what we had created so far and how it could be improved - what thematic improvements could be made? How could we adjust the powers of the action cards to make it even more fun, even if it was just fun for us. I stayed back at work one evening to put together a sturdier prototype of The Train Game. For the first time, this new iteration included 'train' cards, as well as the other key action cards. This prototype also included the station names of the various Melbourne train lines that we had chosen to include and if I do say so myself, some killer artwork by yours truly, courtesy of Microsoft PowerPoint.
Figure 2: The Train Game prototype version 2! Courtesy of Microsoft Powerpoint. Complete with train cards (missing from the earliest version!)
While my artwork design skills evidently leave a lot to be desired, I think that creating something like this personally, entrenched a huge sense of ownership and pride - I don't think I've found a single person who didn't love the undercover ticket inspector design that I had whipped up on Microsoft PowerPoint. The sunglasses in particular have remained an important feature of the undercover ticket inspectors the whole way through our game and brand development.
That following weekend, I called up my brother Ricky and asked if he was up to anything. Knowing Ricky was free to catch-up, I called by other brother Daniel who was playing footy that morning but was free afterwards. Ricky and I went to watch Daniel play footy and then drove over to my place to hang out, where I unleashed our second prototype of The Train Game.
We literally sat on the lounge room floor of our two-bedroom apartment for about 7 hours that day play-testing this new prototype. We were having heaps of fun and I was starting to think that maybe it wasn't fun just because we'd made it - our game had some serious appeal and we were laughing the whole way through our mammoth play-testing session. We'd play a hand and then discuss that hand for the next 5 minutes, making slight changes to the number of various cards included in the deck, trialing new rules for a few hands to decide whether or not we liked it, and fine-tuning the overall balance. The day culminated in me shouting by brothers some Uber Eats and us giving ourselves a bit of a pat on the back for a job well done. We were excited, and my brothers were excited for us too.
From this point onwards, the main rules of The Train Game changed very little. We put together a few more prototypes (this time utilising Lauren's amazing skills in the world of Adobe inDesign for the artwork), and continued to rope in friends and family for play-testing sessions. One of the best play-testing sessions we had was a weekend away with friends at Mt Hotham, where we simply introduced this 'new card game' we'd come across. We pulled out our most recent prototype of The Train Game, explained the rules and got playing - they loved it. At the end of each hand, when a winner was declared, there were always roars of "but I was so close!" and "Again, again!". Following a lengthy games session, when we revealed that we had made the game, we needed to spend a fair bit of time convincing our friends that we weren't pulling their leg!
Figure 3: The Train Game prototype 3 - a little bit more professional this time!
Looking back at the process of prototyping, play-testing, rule-tweeking, re-testing and so on, we gained a few insights that we believe are worth sharing for anyone who is looking to create their own game:
1. Don't worry about getting it right the first time. No one who has ever created a game got it right on the first go. Most of the time, creating a game is going to take many hours, days, weeks, months and sometimes, years to get to the point where the mechanics and the game-play work. Unless you're some kind of game-creating genius, it's going to be close to impossible to know exactly how your game will play-out without a rough and ready prototype and lots and lots of play-testing.
2. Once you've got a respectable looking prototype, play-testing with people who don't know that you've created the game. A lot of the play-testing we did in the early days was with close family and friends. This play-testing took place with the very early prototypes that were very clearly that - prototypes! These play-testing sessions were always prefaced by letting everyone know that this was a game that we were working on. Early on in the game-creation process, this is totally normal. It would have been pretty hard to convince anyone that our early prototypes were anything but a prototype! The best feedback we received though, was from people who didn't know that we had created the game we were playing together - they weren't worried about offending anyone or hurting anyone's feelings, and naturally, this resulted in the most honest feedback.
3. Did I mention the importance of play-testing? Play test, play test, play test!
4. If you're not having fun, it might be time for a break. Games are supposed to be fun. Though the process of creating them can be long and frustrating at times, it's important to stay positive and treat each setback as a learning experience (trust me, there will be many, many setbacks!).
That's all from us for this blog post. We hope you've enjoyed hearing a little more about our 'origin' story and some of the insights we've gained along the way, so far. Stay tuned for more!
As a final little bit of fun, here's the evolution of our game box containing The Train Game cards. We used a metal tin box design from the very beginning but there were clearly a few changes along the way! I'm sure the evolution of our tin design will be mentioned at some stage in future blog posts!
Figure 5: The Train Game box design evolution! From stickers on a tin to printing directly onto the tin.
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