Interview with Peter McPherson about his new AEG game, Tiny Towns.
First off, thank you, Peter, for joining us. We are going to jump right in and start talking Tiny Towns. Could you tell our readers a little bit about the goal and how it’s played?
Peter: In Tiny Towns, each player is the mayor of their own tiny town, represented by a 4 by 4 grid. Players will construct buildings by placing resource cubes in specific Tetris-like shapes in their grid. When they arrange their resources to match the layout of one of the 7 available buildings in that particular game, they take the matching wooden building meeple, remove the resource cubes, and place the building in any space where the resources were. Because you can only have one resource cube or one building per space, things get crowded as you work on multiple buildings at once, and then you have room to breathe again as you complete them. Players receive resources by taking turns as the Master Builder, choosing a resource which all players must place on their board. When your board is filled with buildings and resources, your town is complete and you score each building according to its scoring rules. 6 of the 7 available buildings are different each game, and each player has a personal Monument building that only they may build, so there is a decent amount of variability from one game to the next.
Every game has a creation story behind it, what is Tiny Towns?
Peter: I came up with the idea for Tiny Towns when I was at a very dull job proofreading financial newsletters. I remember thinking up the resource and building concept and sketching out some basic building layouts on a notepad. When I went home that day, I made a quick prototype, which I played with my girlfriend. After the first round, we both agreed it felt like a workable game. I got really lucky with some of the early concepts–the 4 by 4 grid, 7 buildings, and 5 resources were all there in that first playtest. Though the buildings have undergone some massive changes, the core mechanics were there from the beginning. After this, there was a lot of playtesting with as many people as I could convince to sit down and play. It helps having a game that is fairly short and easy to teach. Through the development process with Josh Wood and the AEG team, we increased the number of buildings from 14 to 25 and added the 15 Monuments. Tiny Towns is a much bigger game now than it was back when I was pitching it.
I’ve heard people describe it almost like a board game version of the mechanic found in the mobile game, Threes. Did that game inspire you at all in the designing of Tiny Towns? What about any board games?
Peter: It was actually the younger sibling of Threes, 2048, that inspired the “glomming” mechanic in Tiny Towns. When I first played 2048, something in my brain just clicked. It’s such a satisfying mechanic, and I was surprised that I hadn’t seen it in a board game. There was also inspiration from Minecraft’s crafting system, which uses a handful of resources in different arrangements to make hundreds of different items. When it comes to board games, Catan is a somewhat distant inspiration. I think Tiny Towns shares the sense of constructing things out of resources, though its core gameplay is fairly different.
You mentioned a lot of playtesting and its importance on the game. What was some of the best feedback you received from playtesters?
Peter: For its first year and a half of existence, right through pitching to AEG, Tiny Towns had shields that concealed each players’ board. One of the most common pieces of feedback was to remove the shields–even AEG suggested it during my pitch. I had always told people the shields were necessary because they prevented players from spitefully choosing resources and kept players wondering what everyone else was building. When I finally listened to the advice I’d heard again and again, it was immediately clear that the game was more interactive, and a bit simpler, without the shields. I should have tried this the first time it was suggested. I think that any designer needs to know how to filter feedback and understand the “soul” of their game, but when playtesters offer the same feedback over and over, there’s usually a reason for it.
Do you think the idea of finding the “soul” of the game, is the biggest lesson you learned as a designer in designing Tiny Towns? Any other big lessons learned?
Peter: Tiny Towns went through so few major iterations that I didn’t have to worry too much about keeping the soul of the game in mind–the core of careful spatial planning was always there and was never in danger of being lost. I did learn quite a lot about selling a game, however. My first experience with pitching a game was PAX Unplugged 2017, when I pitched the game to AEG and a few other companies. From this, I learned how important it is to know what stands out about your game and what aspect of it players will find engaging. I think this is just as important to keep in mind when pitching as it is when designing. There are just so many new games out there, and for people to take notice of yours, I think it’s important to focus on its unique qualities and why your game offers something new.
Earlier you mentioned AEG added monuments. How do they work and what do they add to the game?
Peter: Monuments were my idea, but I designed them with Josh Wood, the developer of Tiny Towns. After playing dozens of games of Tiny Towns at PAX Unplugged, I was starting to feel that the rounds needed a bit more variation. So I added Monuments, which are personal buildings given to each player that offers a new ability or a new way to score. Each player has one Monument which they keep secret until they build it, which is done just like making any other building. Josh and I started with a list of about 40 Monuments and narrowed it down to the 15 we felt were most solid, based in part on the most popular Monuments built by playtesters. I sort of had to re-pitch the Monuments concept to AEG, but Josh was an early fan, and we had a lot of fun creating the Monuments together.
What three adjectives would you choose to describe Tiny Towns gameplay?
Peter: Spatial, rewarding, punishing
As we wrap this up, do you have any advice to aspiring board game designers you can share?
Peter: I would tell aspiring designers to seek help and input from fellow designers as much as they can, and to offer that help back. As I’ve gotten to know more people in the community, I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity and how quickly people offer ideas and advice, when you ask for it. Most board game designers are truly seeking to help other designers make great games. It’s an incredible community.
Thanks, once again Peter, for taking time out to this interview.
Readers can find Peter on Twitter at @PeterLMcPherson. The link for those that want to check out Tiny Town’s AEG page is: https://www.alderac.com/tiny-towns/. Tiny Towns will be released in Spring 2019.