Mary Russell

Note: this article originally appeared on Board Game Geek on August 12th. It's being reposted here because I was lazy and forgot to write a blogpost for today.

It is customary I suppose to begin a designer diary with where the idea for the game came from - what the impetus was for the design. I wish I could say that it started with a theme or a mechanism or a player dynamic, but the simple and mercenary truth is that I designed Northern Pacific because I wanted to be a full-time game designer.

That's an ambition I had almost immediately after stumbling into the hobby. And, yeah, I absolutely knew how nuts that was, how impossible, how foolish. That didn't change the fact that it was something I wanted and that I was consciously working toward. The question of course was how on earth I would get from A to B, and what steps I would have to take along the way.

The first step would be to get better at designing games. While I think I had some knack for it, it was a very rough sort of talent, and I needed to learn my craft. One of the best ways to do this would be to play lots of different games from lots of different designers and to learn from them. That wasn't really in the cards for us; board games are very much a luxury hobby and we were very much not a luxury household. I was struggling to support my wife and I on a part-time municipal job that paid less than ten bucks an hour: board game purchases were few and far between. I reasoned that if I found a developer who had played a lot of games, that had a lot of experience to draw on, I might be able to expedite that process.

Similarly, I was very conscious of the "auteurist" streak in the board game community, and was eager to build up some kind of fan base. I reasoned that if I found a niche publisher that already had a passionate fan base, I could use that to jump start my own reputation.

These two things together - great, knowledgeable development and a built-in fanbase - naturally got me looking at John Bohrer and his company Winsome Games. It also helped that Winsome often licensed their games to other, larger publishers, who would put my game on more tables. And so I decided that the first step toward reaching my ambition would be to design a train game for Winsome.

Great - Now What?

I had never designed a train game before. While I enjoyed playing them, up until that point I had no particular interest in the genre as a designer. I had no idea what kind of train game it would be. I didn't have a particular mechanism or theme in mind and I wasn't working from some passionate inspiration.

Because of this, I spent quite a long time trying to figure out what the game would actually be. I'll admit that I also got a little intimidated by the project. Train games are awfully mathy, and I was awfully lousy at math. Probably my income values and my stock values would be all wrong, or I'd give the players too much or too little starting cash and never realize it. What could I possibly add to the genre that wouldn't be hopelessly amateurish, just a shallow imitation of Chicago Express?

So I was stuck for a good long while. Then I came across Paris Connection - Queen's reprint of Winsome's thinky-filler SNCF - and I no longer felt this weight like I had to do something heavy. I could do a light simple filler game.

For thematic inspiration, I turned to my favorite spaghetti western, Once Upon A Time in the West. A big part of the plot revolves around someone investing in land because they guessed, correctly, that the railroad would have to pass through that area. It didn't turn out so great for him (or his kids!), but I thought that the basic premise of investing in an area in hopes that the train would connect to it was enough to build a game around.

The game works like this: on your go, you can either invest in a city or lay track. Multiple players can invest in the same city. There's only one train, and it only moves in one direction: if it passes through a city where you're invested, you earn double your money. If it passes by without connecting, your investment will never pay off. When the train reaches the end of the map, the player with the most money cubes wins the game.

The game played in about five or ten minutes, and this helped expedite testing considerably. If you're meeting with your playtest group for a couple of hours once a week, a five minute game is going to get a lot more play than a two hour game. After several dozen tests I was confident enough in the game that I wrote an email to John Bohrer asking if he'd like to take a look at it. He said yes, and I sent it to him. The day it arrived, he and his group played it, and later that day he let me know that they'd be publishing it in the following year's Essen set, some eighteen months in the future. It was as simple as that.

I was of course rather elated by this. I was further elated when, as expected, John and his group went to work on the development. They gave it the title Northern Pacific, having relocated it from the American South-West of my original submission, and they doubled the size of the map. This resulted in a richer and more complex decision space, but oddly didn’t alter the core simplicity of the game, and most surprisingly didn’t really change the duration of the game. Comparing the new map with my original was a sort of master-class in the art of multiplayer game design, and was indeed instrumental in me learning my craft.

My Dinner with John

In late 2012, a full year before the game was to be released, John came up to Michigan to meet me in person. He explained that he always met his authors before he publishes one of their games. Mary and I met John and one of his associates at an outdoor restaurant that, if I remember correctly, made a passable Reuben sandwich.

Now, prior to meeting John in person, I knew that he was a smoker – his “cigarette smoker” microbadge on BGG kinda gave it away – and that gave me some cause for worry. Neither Mary nor I smoke ourselves, and we find the smell of it to be extremely irritating. I particularly have a madeleine-in-tea association with the smell, as my father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 38. I saw my father die – it was a messy and ugly death – and the smell of cigarettes causes a vivid involuntary memory of that moment.

So, going into it, I was worried that I might give offense by asking him not to smoke, that I would come across as overly fussy or, if I had fully explained the reason for my aversion, that I would come across as overly dramatic. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially as, at least at that time, I was famous for making bad ones.

So, John was sitting in the outside dining area, and he was indeed smoking one cigarette after another. But I never smelled it. It never irritated my throat, it never attacked my nostrils, and it never brought back my father’s dying moments. Partially, this was because of the way John smoked, holding the cigarette away from the table, blowing the smoke softly and gingerly upward and away. We didn’t tell him that we had a problem with the smoke; he just politely and naturally directed the smoke away from everyone. I sat across from him, and Mary next to him, and when, on the way home, I marveled at how he smoked, and that I’d never encountered a smoker who was actually considerate of others, Mary expressed surprise that he was smoking at all. She hadn’t noticed. (And man, let me tell you, Mary notices everything!)

But partially, it was because of how charming and down-to-earth John is. His stories that night were entertaining, his insights into the various larger publishers were acute, and even as he drove the conservation and had the best lines, he made you feel like you were the center of attention. Those are rare talents, and I think they’ve served him well.

Initial Release and Reception

The game came out in the 2013 Essen set. I was fully expecting everyone to fall in love with it, and was more than a little surprised at how divisive it was. Some folks were really quite charmed with it, and some folks were very much not charmed with it. That didn't bother me too much. My general philosophy at that time, and it remains my philosophy today, is that if the people who like it like it, it doesn't really matter who all doesn't care for it. Interesting games rarely achieve consensus. 

But those that dug it said some very nice things about it. Cole Wehrle wrote a very nice article about opening theory (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/997215/playing-close-open), which concludes by saying

Unlike most games, one positional mistake will sink you in this seemingly light filler, but that shouldn’t shy away interested players. It’s refreshing to encounter a game which gives such clear feedback so quickly on lessons well worth learning.

It was through that article that Cole and I first made one another's digital acquaintance, and that will come up again later in the story.

I was also quite taken with a review by user Claudio that got at the meat of the thing:

I’ve described Northern Pacific to people as a story written from the middle and told in halting spurts. I’ve described it as a zipper being yanked violently – and, as with your own zipper, you don’t want to get the timing wrong or it is going to hurt. I’ve described it as ‘group-think’ and ‘emergent alliances’ and ‘moves as offers’ boiled down to a ball-bearing-like essence. It is all of these things.

… What path will the train take? When will it leave the Twin Cities? Each cube placed alters the tensions of the story, the potentialities.

But this is the writing. And the revisions can get downright nasty until the story is told and the type set. Your goal is to trigger - or cause to be triggered - the telling of that story at a point where there is certainty that you will win out. Once the train starts to move, it tends to keep moving. Most track is unidirectional, so the forward motion is relentless. Each player tends to play his or her part in what has been written until the script peters out. This spurt is the boundary between one set of possible possibilities and another. The buildup begins again until the balance is tipped again and the zipper zips further.

Cube or train and don’t let the other guys win. It is all just so simple. So Spartan. So completely lacking in guile or nuance or… game. Maybe it isn't a game at all but merely a brash statement about all multiplayer games - that good play depends on good play which depends on good play, ad infinitum.

If one thing did bother me, it was folks wondering if the game was "really" a game. Some, like Claudio, meant it sincerely as a compliment, while others were far less charitable. And from my point of view, well, of course it's a game. What else would it be?

"Well," I said to myself as North Pac's BGG rating started to hover in the mid-sixes, "that's one game that's not likely to get licensed by a big publisher like Rio Grande."

The Game Gets Licensed by Rio Grande

Fast-forward three years. In those three years, a lot has happened: I got a new and better day-job that at last let my wife Mary and I breathe a little. Said day-job mostly consists of looking at photos of dead animals, moldy drywall, and bathtubs filled to the brim with human faeces, involves ten hour days including Saturdays, and is an hour away from my house - an hour's drive every morning, an hour's drive every night - but it pays the bills until I can make board games a full-time concern.

Speaking of the board games, things were going alright in that front; I had over a dozen published designs to my credit, including three Winsomes. I had just finished a two-year stint as the editor of a wargames magazine, and Mary had spent several months running a print-on-demand ziploc games company, where she oversaw the publication of fifteen titles. Between the two of us we have enough practical knowledge that we decide to make a go of it ourselves with our company Hollandspiele.

While we're getting all the pieces in place to launch our endeavor in the summer of 2016, I got an email out of the blue from John Bohrer letting me know that Rio Grande had licensed Northern Pacific. This was really a quite unexpected surprise. (The royalty advance, which was more than I had made for all my previous designs combined, was also a nice surprise!) A digital introduction was made by Rio Grande's Jay Tummelson between myself and the game's developers for Rio Grande, Scott Russell and Kevin Wemyss.

Before you ask, Scott Russell and I are not related, though we are both Michiganders. A few months later, Scott reached out to me to arrange a meet-up so that he could go over the changes they had made in development. I will admit that I was a little wary at first, because this was, after all, a game that had two rules ("cube" or "train"), and its simplicity was part of its charm. But meeting Scott in person put those fears to rest. The change he suggested involved adding a "big cube" to a player's stock that counted double, and I thought it was really quite clever. He clearly understood the game and I knew it was in good hands.

The only other thing they were trying to figure out was some kind of scoring method in which players would chain together multiple games. That made sense to me from a commercial point of view, because if you tell someone a game plays in five or ten minutes they're going to balk at plunking down their cash for it. Whereas if a game's duration is closer to an hour, it's more acceptable to the consumer. Since people tended to play multiple games in a row anyway - so it usually does see the table for an hour or more - that made sense.

I had planned to follow-up with Scott as that process continued, but shortly thereafter I got into a very nasty car accident on the way to work. I was stopped on the interstate when someone rear-ended me going close to sixty miles an hour, wrecking the suspension on the car and not doing my back any favors. It's a miracle I walked away from it at all. This prompted a sort of existential crisis on my part - why was I driving all this way to a job I hated?

I started to wonder if it wasn't time for me to make good on my ambitions and try to make it as a full-time designer. By this time Hollandspiele had been around for about six months, and our monthly sales were starting to approach how much I was bringing home through my "real" job. When that real job disciplined me for being absent the day of my near-fatal accident, they more-or-less made up my mind for me.

Once Hollandspiele became a full-time job, I didn't have as much time to follow-up with Scott and Kevin regarding Northern Pacific - our own games took up all my time. This only became more true as our company's profile continued to grow over the course of 2017. When Northern Pacific's reprint was finally publicly announced earlier this year, I was as pleasantly blindsided as anyone else - I knew it was coming of course but had no idea when.

I said up top that I designed Northern Pacific with the intention of it being the first step toward my goal of working full-time in the games industry. And now that I've achieved that goal, the question is, how instrumental was this game in getting me there? It's hard to chart a course from Northern Pacific that leads to the founding of a print-on-demand wargames company like Hollandspiele - it's far easier to draw the line to our work for previous wargames companies.

But on the other hand, a big part of our company's success story is the game An Infamous Traffic, designed by Cole Wehrle, who as you'll recall also wrote a nice article about Northern Pacific after its initial release. That was the point where we became aware of each other. If not for North Pac, I don't know if we would have ever asked Cole to design a game for Hollandspiele, and if not for North Pac, I don't know if he would have said yes. Traffic got us in the black and got more eyes on all our games, and it is a big part of why we were able to go full-time as quickly as we did.

Ergo: if I hadn't designed Northern Pacific back in 2010, I wouldn't have achieved my dream in 2017.

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