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DESIGNING IRISH GAUGE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

The most remarkable thing about Irish Gauge (originally published by Winsome in 2014, and just recently republished in a handsome new edition by Capstone) is that I designed it in about an hour while driving home from work in the autumn of 2012.

Now, I'm not supposed to say that. I'm supposed to talk about ideas percolating for months, about trials and errors, about the inherently iterative process of game design, about the versions of the game that didn't work but were refined via playtesting into something that was first playable, and then, eventually, something that was good. But that's not really what happened.

What happened was, the whole thing sprung into my head uninvited and more-or-less fully formed. The entire structure, all the mechanisms, revealed themselves to me as I gently fought what I remember to be relatively mild traffic on a Tuesday night. Everything was there except the details to hang on this frame, and when I got home, I spent about ten minutes wondering what poor location to inflict this on before settling on Ireland. Just before dinner, I had finished printing up a prototype map and set of stocks, and had cannibalized another game for wood bits.

I fully expected that I would have to redo the map (moving a city from here to there, adding a town over in this hex), redo the stock splits and face values, redo the number of cubes allotted to each railroad. But we had the first test a couple nights later and the thing really fired on all cylinders. The map was right, the splits and values were right, the cube allotments were just where they needed to be.

But I know how deceptive a successful first test can be, and figured that when we had the second, the truth would out. But, no; nothing really needed to be changed. It's not that I didn't get suggestions and feedback from playtesters; I did. One of the playtesters suggested for example that there be some mechanism by which she could sell off stocks for some quick cash, and I thought about it and decided I didn't want to do that. This actually started a long tradition of that playtester always making that suggestion every time she tests one of my train games, and always being terribly disappointed when I ignore it. I ended up making some very slight changes to what qualified for paying dividends, but that was it.

We kept testing the game for five more months, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. And so at last in April 2013 I submitted the game to John Bohrer at Winsome, and he accepted it for publication, giving it a slot in the 2014 Essen set. Winsome began testing the game, and I figured if there was anything amiss, that John and his team of sharks would find it. But the testing confirmed the soundness of the design, and the game that was released in the Essen set, and republished in 2019, is more-or-less the same game I came up with out-of-the-blue in an hour.

Which is nuts. Don't ask me to explain it. Most of my games have a long gestation period; I spend months or even years just thinking about them before the mechanisms come together, then it's months of testing with all sorts of changes, some major and some incremental. To have the thing just pop out of my head like Athena from Zeus's brow, and to spend months just shrugging after every test, "yup, everything is still exactly what I want it to be, guess I got it right the first time", is a completely alien experience, something I never had before or since.

And so of course this effortless thing, this daydream I casually threw together just before dinner, is already my best-selling game. That probably has more to do with John Bohrer at Winsome, Clay Ross at Capstone, rules editor Travis D. Hill, and superstar artist Ian O'Toole. I certainly can't take much credit for it; it feels like all I did was drive the car!

1 comment

  • A great read. You creative types….
    For us mere mortals this entire design thing is a complete black box.
    Thanks for all your fantastic games.

    Peter

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