Calvin’s Commentaries: The Transcontinental

There is always some new game that attracts a player to venture into areas of gaming they may not normally go.

That is what The Transcontinental is doing for me.

The Transcontinental is a medium-weight Euro boardgame about the development of the Canadian transcontinental railway. It features worker-placement and pickup-and-deliver gameplay.

Now I won’t say worker placement games are my favourite by far, Stone Age being a worker placement offering that was down the list with Monopoly meaning among the worst games ever played.

Thankfully Lords of Waterdeep saved the genre being a much better offering.

But The Transcontinental intrigues because it focuses on Canada. I always like that.

In this case designer, Glen Dresser of Wheelhouse Games hails from Calgary so there is a solid case for basing the game here.

Since Dresser is Canadian I emailed to learn more about this one that has raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter recently.

The first question was what was the idea which led to the game’s creation?

“I had an interesting game mechanic (very different from anything that made it into the final version of this game), that I wanted to test,” said Dresser in response. “It involved moving dice along a linear track and manipulating their values as they moved.

“So I took it out to Sentry Box – one of our local game stores in Calgary – where the local design community would have regular meetups (prior to the pandemic, of course). I played the game with another designer, Paul Saxberg, and we discussed the strengths and weaknesses.

“At the end of the session he said that if I was looking for a theme, it would be a natural fit for a Canadian railway game. I immediately saw the connection as well. Almost everything has changed except for the linear nature of the board and gameplay.”

But, what was it about this theme that interested Dresser?

“I got a love of trains from my mother, whose father was a CPR engineer, and a love of history from my father, so doing something about Canadian rail history really felt like a really good fit,” he said “While the gameplay is most important, I always look to the theme for inspiration. A lot of times when you’re stuck on a gameplay problem, looking at the theme will inspire a solution for the gameplay, and this was just a really rich theme that constantly inspired me with gameplay solutions.”

In terms of gameplay Dresser said he let The Transcontinental evolve without preconceived notions of what it should be as a game.

“Gameplay-wise I don’t know that there was anything specific that I was trying to achieve,” he said.

“I wasn’t designing for a certain type of player at the beginning of the process, but once I found some mechanics that I really liked, building a game that perfectly complimented those elements.

“But thematically, I definitely did have specific goals: I wanted to make sure I was conveying this story in a responsible way, and that meant not ignoring the darker aspects of the railway and western expansion, such as labour conditions or the treatment of Indigenous community.

“But at the same time, I didn’t want players making what felt like morally heavy decisions.

“So what I felt was important was including individuals from often overlooked groups or segments of society on what is called ‘ally cards’ in the game, so that they’re shown not only as stakeholders in this story but equal stakeholders to the more famous politicians or railway executives. Researching historical figures (many of whom I was unaware of) has been a favorite part of this process.”

Of course changing from the initial idea, adding a rail theme, and doing research all meant lengthening the creation process too.

“It’s been about four years of development in total,” said Dresser. “Most of that time was spent with a schedule of going to the playtesting nights with other designers every week, then coming home and making changes.

“It went through a lot of radically different versions over the years.”

But the work was paying off too.

“Last September, it won the Canadian Game Design Award, and at that point, I felt that the gameplay was almost complete, and so most of the last year was spent on the art, the visual design, the rulebooks, as well as the logistics of manufacturing and bringing it to Kickstarter,” said Dresser.

So what was the most difficult aspect of designing the game?

“The closer one gets to finishing the game mechanics, the harder it gets,” offered Dresser. “When you’re in the midst of the game design, it’s okay if a new mechanic you introduce creates new problems because you can fix those problems later.

“But as you get close to the end of the process, you’re looking for solutions to those problems that tie everything else together and don’t create new problems of their own.

“In The Transcontinental, the final problem ended up being the way that new cars get added to the train. It always seemed right (both thematically and mechanically) that the train in the game starts small and increases in capacity, but it wasn’t until around this time last year that I found a solution that I was happy with.

“And, it’s actually a favourite part of the game for me now, and definitely doesn’t feel like a band-aid to fix other problems.”

As the designer, I was curious what Dresser saw as the best element of the game?

“The double-sided worker-placement system is probably the part of the game that people respond to most and so I’m quite proud of it,” he explained.

“Each worker-placement spot is adjacent to two tiles – one on each side of the board. Each of the tiles is two worker-placement spaces wide, and the tiles on each side are offset from one another. So when you place one of your telegrams (which are your workers in this game), you’re selecting a combination of two action spaces. It sounds simple, but once you’re actually playing it, it creates a lot of fascinating choices and flexibility. This system also really boosts replayability: the tiles are randomized each game, and that means that the combos available will be different every game, which vastly alters the play.”

Of course with a new game, you do look for innovative aspects.

“It’s always hard to compare it to existing games,” said Dresser. “But what people are really responding to is the really high level of interaction in all the different elements of the game: everything you do affects other players, creating both challenge and opportunity, often in other parts of the game.

“The game both enables and rewards flexibility in strategic and tactical thinking, and this creates a lot of opportunities for players to feel like they do something really clever, especially when it comes from improvising a new plan when your previous plan falls apart.”

Like most games, these days more could be forthcoming for The Transcontinental.

“Expansions are a possibility down the road, and I have a couple of ideas for what an expansion could involve, but first I want to wait until the game is in people’s hands and hear more from people playing it before I start on that,” said Dresser.

“But I do have a cooperative crime deduction game that I was working on before The Transcontinental which I’m looking forward to returning to.

“I think I’m better-equipped as a designer now to tackle the problems that design had.”

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