Theme Park Board Game Design Blog – Week 1

To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland Theme Sparks is your land board game …with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration a couple of hours of solid fun to all the world.
Walt Disney Trace Dressen

Welcome to my development blog for Theme Sparks, my competitive, multiplayer theme park-building board game! For the next several weeks, I’m going to walk you through my thought processes, playtests, and research as I continue to develop this board game into a more finished product. I suppose the best place to start is right at the beginning, so here we go!

Origins

The original idea for a theme park-building board game came to me in the Junior year of my undergraduate degree. I had been playing quite a few board games with my roommates at the time when I realized “Wait a sec! Why isn’t there a board game based on Roller Coaster Tycoon?” That PC game had always been one of my favorites, and after a few semesters interning at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, I had a great interest in the topic of themed entertainment. After a quick Google search… I realized that it already was a thing. Back in 2002, the official Roller Coaster Tycoon board game was released unto the world.

One thing really bothered me about this game, though. The core of Roller Coaster Tycoon is building a theme park for guests to enjoy. This game, however, simply had players owning rides and controlling the flow of guests – there was no building or designing to be found here. Plus, looking at the board, it didn’t at all look like any real theme park I had been to. Where were the distinct lands? Where was the (in my opinion, at least) most iconic hub-and-spoke layout popularized by Disneyland? Why couldn’t you place things where you wanted? All in all, it wasn’t what I was looking for. Even after more research, I wasn’t able to find a game that scratched my theme park-building itch.

First Iteration

The game went through several iterations before reaching the point it’s at now. The very first tested iteration had a very free-form feel. About two years ago, I wrote up a design document for it, which I’ve put here:

Overview

Theme Sparks (working title) is a 2-5 player board game where players work to build the theme park of their dreams.  Working either together or against each other, players will build rides, shows, shops, and restaurants, as well as everything needed to make the park feel complete, such as pathways and themed decorations.

General Gameplay

Resources

In the process of building their themed lands, players will gather several types of resources:

  • Popularity – gained by building attractions and shows.  A higher popularity score will draw more guests into the park, increasing money gained per turn.
  • Spending Opportunities – gained by building shops and restaurants.  A higher spending opportunity score increases money gained each round.
  • Popularity and Spending Opportunity work in a multiplicative fashion.  Having high popularity does no good if there’s no spending opportunity, and having plenty of spending opportunities is pointless if the venues aren’t popular.
  • Theme Sparks (like a Spark of Imagination) – Players start out the game earning very few Theme Sparks.  These are produced by the “Imaginators” (aka Imagineers) and represent new ride or theming ideas. Theme Sparks are spent to either draw from the ride idea deck or create a themed scenery piece to place in the park.
  • Money – Plain ol’ money is used to invest in Imaginators, as well as building attractions and pathways.
  • Imaginators – The Imaginators come up with ideas for your park.  Each player will collect a team of Imaginators represented by cards.  At the beginning of each round, a group of five Imaginator cards is laid out on the table.  Beside spending money to hire them, some Imaginators require your land have a certain number of attractions or features before they’ll join your team.  The Imaginator cards will also tell how many Theme Sparks they generate per turn. Be careful, as some events may cause your Imaginators to leave to work for your opponents

Types of Gameplay

Competitive

Each player takes a different themed land inside the park and can only build for that land.  Each distinctly-themed land has unique attractions, shops, restaurants, shows, and facilities, as well as unique “powers” that give a boost to building or drawing guests in.  At the end of the game, the player building the land with the highest popularity is deemed the winner.

Cooperative (Potential Gameplay)

Each player takes on the role of a distinctive character to help build the park.  Anyone can build for any land, but each player specializes in different things (for example, the landscaper can place paths, trees, and scenery cheaper and easier than others, while the engineer has an advantage when building maintenance bays and attractions).  The players win if they exceed a set popularity for the park as a whole.

Game Pieces

Board Pieces

The following sections explain each of the different types of pieces players will use while building their themed lands.

Paths

Paths are necessary to allow guests to explore your land.  If an attractions or building isn’t next to a path, then guests can’t reach it and it won’t provide any benefits to your land.  There are six pieces of path that can be set down, as seen below. Some of these pieces have strange shapes to ensure maximum flexibility in designing paths around attractions and decorations.

Attractions

Attractions are the most important part of any good theme park.  Attractions add popularity to a land. Most attractions have two sides – a themed side and a working side.  It’s important that guests only see the themed side. You can strategically place themed decorations to hide the working side of your attractions from guests.

Foundations

Any attraction, show, restaurant, shop, or facility needs a foundation.  These hexagonal pieces are set down next to paths to allow guests to access them.  The pieces don’t cost anything, and come free with any attraction bought.

Decorations

Decorations are used to block facilities from guests’ view (we don’t want our guests seeing how everything works!), as well add theming to a land and fill any unused space.

Hub

The hub is the center of the park, with each of the park’s lands extending outwards.  In the hub, a guest can walk through one of several land gates to enter a new land.

Land Gate

The land gate introduces guests to the land they see ahead.  It is themed with the rest of the land, and includes a title so guests know where they’re going.  It connects hub to the rest of the themed land.

Land Tiles & Zones

Each land is built upon 10 land tiles, arranged as shown in the image below.  Players are not allowed to place a path, attraction, or decoration if it’s going to run over the edge of their land.  Each of the nine top-most land tiles will have obstacles, such as trees, rocks, lakes, or other appropriately themed objects.  Players must built around obstacles, but can use obstacles in the same manner as decorations to hide working sides of their attractions.  Also, groups of land tiles are numbered into groups called zones. Zone 1 consists of the three lower land tiles, Zone 2 of the middle three, and Zone 3 of the top three.  Gift shops receive a boost to income opportunity if placed in Zone 1 (guests will want souvenirs on their way in or out). Zone 2 gives a boost to income opportunity and popularity of restaurants and family rides respectively (these will be easily accessible by guests, and therefore used more often).  Large rides (“weenies”) placed in Zone 3 gain a boost to popularity, as they will provide guests with an obvious goal to move towards.

Example

The different types of pieces come together to build a complete land!  Here’s an example of how they might be placed together.

Theme Boards/Character Boards

Each player will have a board with information on their chosen theme (for competitive) or character (for cooperative).  This board will detail any special powers available to them during the game, and will have counters to allow players to keep track of their popularity and spending opportunity.

Types of Buildings

Attractions

  • Flat Ride
    • Usually a simple ride without much theming, but can be either high- or low-thrill
    • Typically cheap and quick to build
    • Depending on thrill level, can be family-friendly or for thrill seekers
  • Dark Ride
    • A ride that takes guests through a highly-themed story
    • Doesn’t necessarily have to be “dark”
    • Typically low-thrill and family-friendly
  • Water Ride
    • Ride that transports guests on water
    • Typically mid- to high-thrill
  • Roller Coaster
    • Several types (wooden, steel, hanging, etc…)
    • Expensive and large, but hugely popular
    • Can range from mid-thrills to high-thrills
    • Typically for thrill seekers, but can also be family-friendly
  • Live Shows
    • Very popular in hotter seasons
    • Can fit many guests at once to free up space in the rest of the park

Restaurants & Shops

  • Full-Service Restaurant
    • Premier restaurant serving sit-down meals
    • Take longer and are more fancy and costly
    • Can be paired with a live show
  • Quick-Service Restaurant
    • Counter-ordered food
    • Quick and cheap
  • Snack Stand
    • Very cheap and easy to build
  • Gift Shop
    • Quick way to make extra money, especially when connected to a popular ride

Themed Lands

Primedievaland

A mixture of medieval and primeval.  In other words, knights and dinosaurs.

The Woodworks

A wooded area where the plants and trees naturally form attractions, rollercoasters, and buildings. You don’t need to collect steel to build anything, but you’d better have a lot of wood on hand.

Boardwalk

Possible Game Mechanics

Clash/Combine

If a player’s paths come in contact with another player’s, the player who placed the offending path has two options: clash or combine.

Clash

The two players will “duel” at the point of meeting.  The player who wins takes the other player’s path and can replace it with their own themed path.  Any attractions belong to whomever has the themed path that connects to that attraction. Theming scores will be decreased though, since the path’s theme won’t match the attraction’s theme.

Combine

If the players agree to combine their paths, they will create a “transition” zone between the two themes, increasing the theming score for both players

Attraction Interactions (Interattractions?)

Placing buildings or attractions near each other or in certain areas of the park can give bonuses.  For example:

A gift shop next to an attraction will boost revenue from the gift shop

A large attraction in the back of the land (a.k.a. a “weenie”) will boost revenue land-wide.  Guests pass lots of gift shops and restaurants on their way to the “weenie”, so their sales will be increased.

As you can probably tell, there are a lot of ideas in play here. I even got to the point where I lasercut out several pieces to playtest with.

Playtests of the game were very insightful. In this version of playtesting, players would take turns picking out “Sparkers” (since the term “Imagineer” is used… elsewhere). These Sparkers would generate different “ideas” that could be put together to create attractions & buildings. Then, all players would take turns placing down paths and whatever attractions they can build.

The gameplay started out much too slowly, with people taking several turns before being able to build anything. After giving players more resources to start out with, the game moved a bit faster, but another problem became noticeable – though it was a multiplayer game, there was very little interaction between players. The lands were so spread out that it became difficult to affect your opponents’ game, and the only real interaction is in the Sparker-picking phase, where you can take away Sparkers from the pool so that others can’t take them. That interaction simply wasn’t enough, though.

Moving Forward

Though the first iteration didn’t feel as satisfying as I intended, there were several aspects that I really liked, and I plan to use them as I move forward.

Interattractions

These real-life interactions between attractions felt really good to me. The idea that placement of rides within a park can influence the popularity of those rides is something that I’ve not seen in any other theme park-related board game.

Building Placement

Being able to build where you want is a big aspect of Roller Coaster Tycoon that’s missing in other board games. I love the idea of being able to place things around the park.

Theming

Having different themes for attractions and buildings is integral to theme parks, but once again, it’s not usually seen in board games. I love the idea that different themes can give attractions different attributes. It also adds a lot of visual variety to the game.

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