Designer Diary: The Grand Carnival, or From Museums to Midways

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by Rob Cramer

The Grand Carnival has been in some form of design since 2016 and has finally been published. From a sketch in a notebook to a full-fledged board game, The Grand Carnival lurched from stage to stage in fits and spurts, sometimes even going into hibernation at various points. I did have a BGG thread early on about the game, but now I’ll try to detail how this butterfly emerged from its gooey cocoon to become what it is today. It’s messy.

The Beginning

It all started with a game design brainstorming exercise that involved taking settings I found interesting and pitting them against each other in a gut reaction battle royale. Haunted houses, music making, museum curation, and amusement parks all fascinate me in different ways, so I dedicated some journal pages to them and tried to spark a design for each. And I guess it’s clear now, but the idea that won out was…museum curation.

Wait, what? I thought the game was called The Grand Carnival? I’ll get there.

Sometimes I like to try to design the end state of a game visually before getting into any of the mechanisms that make the whole thing run. What is this thing going to look like on the table? What components am I working with? What would catch my eye if I saw this out in the wild? What makes sense visually when making a museum curation game?

What started growing was a central board with players placing tiles on their side of the table, each forming their own wing of the museum. The director was retiring, and the once prestigious museum had seen better days, so the player who could renovate their wing the best would get the director’s job. That’s how promotions work, right?

I love tile-laying games, and this is how I visually wanted to present the museum and all of the exhibits found inside. Mechanically, I wanted the tiles to have walkways and exhibit pieces on them, so players were creating areas of interest as well as building a path to wind through the museum for guests to move on. Since the tiles were divided into 2×2 spaces, it created an interesting puzzle where the overall picture was a higher resolution than the building blocks it was made out of.

Polyominoes make their debut in the design
The first big tipping point came early on with the transition to polyominoes. Originally, the game was all tiles and some pawns, but the tiles were divided into walkway spaces and three exhibit “types”. You would have to place the tiles on matching sides in order to build large exhibits. Space, natural history, and ancient history exhibits could be found in equal measure on tiles, which would need to be arranged when placed into giant blocks for patrons to visit.

But since these tiles were divided into smaller squares, these exhibits ended up looking like polyomino shapes anyways. If I removed the typing from the tiles themselves and had specific exhibits to choose from and place, that made more sense to me than piecing it together slowly, hoping the right type of exhibit showed up. Plus, polyominoes are great! It’s so satisfying to plop down a giant exhibit on top of a bunch of construction sites, making your museum much more colorful and giving your patrons a unique destination to move towards.

The main goal of the game at this point was to move patrons as far as you could into the museum onto giant exhibits that you had built. The larger the exhibit and the farther back it was in the wing, the more points it would be worth. Each category of exhibit also had its own majority scoring attached, but that was way too boring to be a player’s main focus. In fact, many tests ended with players not even bothering with that aspect, instead just building the biggest exhibits they could.

The first playable prototype on our terrible table. Hey, it was free!
But the game was interesting enough that I knew I was headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, I had no real destination, so that led to some aimless wandering for a while.

The Lull

I felt confident enough in the design after tweaking it a bit to submit it into the Korea Boardgames 2017 Design Contest. After all, my previous designs Turbo Drift, Pizza Pronto, and Skyscrappers were all initially designed as entries for contests, so why break the streak? “The Grand Museum” ended up placing second, along with a $500 cash prize. Not bad for a game that wouldn’t end up getting published for another three years!

Why build small exhibits when big ones score the most points? One of many early problems.
With that strong contest showing as well as a finalist placement in the Ion Awards at SaltCon in 2018, I was full of confidence and sent out pitches to publishers, hoping to take the game to the next level. Instead, I felt like I was falling down the stairs. Not that publishers didn’t respond, but the game was still unpolished and nobody wants to deal with a diamond in the rough when there are shiny gemstones already cut out there. The problem was that I didn’t know how to smooth it out. It seemed like any change I tried made it more jagged, more messy. I was a miner, not a jeweler, when it came to game design. I needed help refining the game.

The game was lumpy. Exhibits would pile up near the back of the wing, and small exhibits weren’t an effective use of actions. The collections board where curators moved around to pick up tiles had very little meaningful planning, with only bursts of intrigue in between dull stretches of inaction.

All set up at SaltCon 2018 for the Ion Awards
This game had no pulse a couple times throughout the design process. I tried to make so many changes to how players drafted tiles, the way turn order shifted each round, or scoring methods for each piece in the game that I actually dreaded playing the game again because I had made it so convoluted — so it sat in storage, collecting dust out of sight, out of mind.

The Push

At the beginning of 2019, I tweeted this:

Such a drama king.

After some time away from the design, I decided to pick it up again. It was like finding a sheep in an abandoned barn, its overgrown wool suffocating the creature beneath. It desperately needed a trim.

After polyominoes, the second big revelation came way later into the design. The foundation tiles were the main mechanism for the entire game for a long time. You would draft them from a center board where you and other players were moving curators through the collections of the museum. On your turn, you would pick a tile next to your curator, no matter what. Then you could place this tile OR move a patron the number of walkway spaces on the tile you picked up. You could then build any available exhibit if you wanted.

It felt like a tree that was made up of only branches, without a solid trunk running through the design. Tiles with lots of walkways on them were most valuable for their movement, so they would get discarded at a much higher rate than other tiles. Their purpose was to be disposable, which made them basically pointless as tiles.

I do miss these standees, but they were ultimately all sizzle, no steak
But once I figured out the action number system, it was the perfect foundation the game needed. It was so smooth and simple that I was slapping myself that I didn’t implement it sooner. You simply cover a number 1-5, then lay a tile, move a guest, or build an exhibit. The higher the number, the bigger the action. Now the actions were unique branches feeding off the same system, fighting each other for the highest numbers. Let’s move patrons really far! No, let’s build giant exhibits! That new foundation tile that just came out is perfect, but so expensive! You can’t reuse a number until the next round, so you have to time things out in order to make the most of your actions.

I shaved that sheep down until it could see again. With the new action number system, each section could be tinkered with individually without breaking the whole game. Patrons were simplified, exhibits were super simplified, and foundations became a solid base for the game to rest on. When playing the game at SaltCon that year, I was actually having fun instead of fixating on flaws. Dan Thurot of Space-Biff! played and even awarded it the coveted “Dan Thurot’s Favorite Prototype Award” at SaltCon 2019. This led to him talking to Tim Fowers of Fowers Games, which ended with me scheduling a pitch with him and Jeff Beck and Jeff Krause of Uproarious Games.

The Pitch

Guess what! This was my first in-person pitch ever to a publisher. Turbo Drift and Skyscrappers were both sold on a video pitch where I could control what I said, how I said it, and what I showed down to the frame. Those games were also much simpler card games sold in envelopes and wallets, whereas “The Grand Museum” would come in a full-on box. Lots of pressure with this one.

But live pitches are so different. For example, if you show up to a pitch without any of the player boards, THAT’S BAD. Luckily, they had a printer and were very quick to get us up and playing. Quadruple check everything before your pitch. Not the strongest first impression to make, that’s for sure.

Tim, Jeff, and Jeff played and had great insights into the design. Jeff Krause wanted to break the game as quickly as possible (he did), Jeff Beck sat back and observed, and Tim was open about his thoughts. The game had a solid foundation, so nothing really was begging to be cut — just some extra things to enhance what was already there. We decided to move forward with publishing under Jeff Beck and Uproarious Games, which is kinda-sorta a branch/imprint of Fowers Games. It’s complicated.

The best kind of research
But after signing with Uproarious Games, they felt like the setting could be changed to stand out from some other museum games that came out around that time, like Museum, ArtSee, and Curators.

Of course now in 2020 there’s Meeple Land, Theme Parks, Dice Theme Park, and Wishland — all releasing around this time or slightly later — so that should tell you how tough it can be to stay ahead of the curve in the industry.

But what we did have was Ryan Goldsberry and the Cuphead-inspired illustrations of an old-timey carnival, so the game could stand apart from the crowd with its unique visual style. The attractions range from tiny food stands serving popcorn and funnel cake to gigantic rides like the towering Ferris wheel or an extravagant carousel. The animal mascots of the fairs give each player distinctive markers to use on their action numbers, from a rabbit in a top hat to a bear riding a unicycle. The dusty aesthetics bring these carnivals roaring to life, and the final publication looks so good on the table that I want to eat a caramel apple while playing just to complete the experience. Fair food is always so sticky, so I don’t actually recommend doing that.

A sketch of the House of Mirrors
The Development

With the setting update, there were some mechanisms added on during development to enhance the play experience and instill even more carnival flavor into the game. Instead of having four guests for the entire game, once you moved two inside your fairgrounds, you got two more and gained a carnival barker. These barkers do a whole lot of things. First, they’re worth 3 points. Second, they let you move a guest an extra space for every barker you have. Third, they block pathways and are in limited supply. You could have a swarm of guests running through your fair, drawn in by enthusiastic barkers shouting out their ballyhoo to anyone within earshot.

A super glossy production sample with unfinished attractions
Tickets were invented to let guests interact with the attractions they were passing by. No attraction scores without a ticket on it, so the last thing you want to do is build an attraction that is completely out of reach of eager attendees. This helped solve the lumpiness problem of attractions getting shoved clear in the back of a player’s board. They also added another avenue for scoring if you get enough of them, which replaced the old Knizian system in which you scored only the guest that moved the fewest spaces forward. Your board is going to get swarmed with guests practically running through your fair, which just adds to the frantic feel that would be out of place in its museum origins.

Attraction scoring was revamped, too. Before the pitch, there was a simple triangle scoring system for sets of unique attractions. The problem was that it didn’t really encourage players to build the giant attractions. That’s where the scoring potentials for attractions of the same size came in. You get a giant bonus for building all five sizes of attractions, but you can sneak in some more bonus points if you build at least three of the same size attraction, which tempts you to pack your park while still diversifying a little bit. And since the attraction pool is now limited depending on player count, you have to rush to get the pieces that are right for you.

My prototype that was my constant companion when working on the solo mode
“Tricks of the Trade” were the biggest twist on the formula and took the longest to nail down. These cards are added to every game and give players special powers if they fulfill their conditions. But once someone learns a trick, every other player has one turn to follow suit or that knowledge is lost to them forever. Getting players to actually check what other players were doing was the hardest problem to solve, but these tricks…did the trick.

You can move guests diagonally, rotate foundation tiles, build attractions from a secret reserve, or do a bunch of other things with fourteen different “Tricks of the Trade”. They all combine together to make each game feel different. A good example was a game in which a player could move guests onto construction sites, so they moved a guest up through an unfinished park, then built attractions behind them. That poor soul was completely cut off from the entrance, and they’re probably still stuck at the fair. Good times.

I love these little bunnies
The end of the game used to rely on a set of different triggers, from attraction pools emptying to a player placing the last foundation tile in their park — but these scenarios added too much of a surprise ending, with players getting absolutely wrecked if scoring came too soon. The seven-round week evens the playing field, while still creating a time pressure for players to keep in mind.

Jeff Beck and team ended up being the jewelers I was seeking out all along and helped polish the game to shiny splendor. I’m super grateful for their playtesting and development skills with their work on The Grand Carnival.

A beautiful rainbow of pieces
The Only Game in Town

Solo modes have become extremely popular over the last decade, and I’ll admit that I originally hadn’t seen the appeal. Why play a board game by yourself when you could just play a video game? But what a fool I was, eventually seeing the light that shines on the meditative experience of solo gaming.

So what does The Grand Carnival solo look like? With such a heavy spatial element, it was too unwieldy to try to devise an AI to compete with. I didn’t want to have a bunch of if/then statements to run through just to move their guests or build an attraction for an opponent. I wanted players to play with the system, not maintain a complex set of additional rules.

Creating two entire sets of unique attractions is the main goal for a solo game, and there’s a whole different scoring system that goes along with that, so it’s not a complete copy of the multiplayer experience. The game structure stays the same, but the “Tricks of the Trade” can disappear after certain rounds and the market of foundation tiles refreshes every round, so there’s still some time pressure in addition to the seven total rounds.

A carnival at the end of a solo game
When working on this mode, I would bring a prototype to work and play after eating lunch — although after a certain point lunch would be the one waiting its turn. That’s when I figured I was on to something, but Jeff Beck helped confirm that feeling. It’s a satisfying puzzle that moves quickly, has low maintenance, and closely resembles playing with other people without being a basic copy.

The Publication

That brings us to now! The games have been manufactured and shipped on their way to people around the world. It blows my mind that people in Australia have played my design. Board games make the world smaller in the best ways, from common interests with people all over the globe to intimate gaming experiences with family and friends.

It’s surreal to see my name on the box
Now that The Grand Carnival is out, I’ve been playing it a lot solo and with family members. It may be indulgent and obvious to say about a game I designed, but if the name were stripped from the game and I had stumbled across The Grand Carnival in the wild, I think I would love it just as much as I do now. I wanted to design a game that I wanted to play, and I achieved my goal. My wish is that other people fall in love with it, too. Enjoy the ride!

Rob Cramer

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