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Designer Diary: Autobahn

by Fabio Lopiano

Towards the end of 2019, Nestore Mangone and I attended a playtesting event in Verona, and there we started tinkering with the idea of designing a game together. After the event, Nestore came to visit me in Milano, where we spent a few days brainstorming game ideas.

One of the first ideas that Nestore threw at me was to make a game about building the Autobahn, that is, Germany’s highway system. It would be almost like a train game, but with highways instead of railways.

We also joked about the fact that there are way more games by German designers set in Italy than games by Italian designers set in Germany, so we should try to balance the scales a bit.

We started by setting design goals: We wanted to design a slightly heavier game than our previous ones, with some aspects of hand management and with an unusual scoring system. We didn’t want to make a “point salad” game in which every action rewards you with some amount of victory points; we wanted instead for players to be more deliberate at how they would score points.

One aspect of this theme that interested me was that, unlike in most train games where individual players own parts of the network, the Autobahn is public infrastructure and there would be no player ownership of the roads as they are built. This means that once a piece of road is built, we don’t need to keep track of which player built it.

This gives us the opportunity to use colors in a different way; we could have each highway be its own color, distinct from the player colors. Players would be able to build roads in any color. The game mechanisms should push players to work on different colors simultaneously, making it harder to focus on one highway at a time.

The Map

We looked at a current map of the Autobahn network and how it evolved over time from the end of World War II to the present day. The network was very interesting, with one main road going north-south being the only surviving Autobahn at the end of the war, and several other roads branching out from it and going west or east.

More importantly, the unification of Germany in 1990 would make the map open up halfway through the game, with only the west side of the roads being built during the first half of the game and the east side becoming available in the second half.

Autobahn map and first version of the board

To simplify the map, we kept only the cities that were at the intersection of two or more highways. We also had to merge some shorter routes to keep the number of colors manageable.

Initially, we decided to use eight colors, six of which were available from the start of the game, while the other two would enter play as the game progressed.

At the time, the game was divided into five periods of fifteen years each. Players would gain a purple card (for the connecting highways) at some point between the second and the third period, and they would all gain a brown card (to use in eastern Germany) at the start of the fourth period.

When we signed the design with Alley Cat Games, one of their requirements was to make the game more accessible by simplifying a few things and possibly shortening the length to two hours.

Initially we went for a double-sided board, with an introductory map on one side that would play over three periods, while keeping the “full game” on the other side.

Full game: eight colors, five periods, more roads, some links have three sections, and a few more connections to neighboring countries

Intro game: this map was probably too simple, with only six neighboring countries

Eventually we managed to streamline the game and make a single map that was somewhere between the two. We also moved some things out of the base game and into modular expansions, e.g., “Wine Delivery”, which had been in the original game for a long time.

“Goldilocks” map

The Cards

It took some time and several iterations before nailing down the card play.

Initially we had a card for each city on the map in the color of the roads passing through those cities, and we had mostly a hand management system in which each turn, players would discard a number of different color cards in order to perform actions next to those cities, after which they would draw back an equal number of cards from a pool, with the cards they discarded entering the pool for the next player. This had various problems, but we kept it as a scaffolding until we nailed down a few other aspects of the game.

The type of actions you could do with a card also evolved over time.

Initially we had a more convoluted system in which players had concrete-mixing trucks moving around the map, along with a number of workers on their team that determined how many pieces of road they could build in a given turn.

With a card action, you could take up a road piece of the given color (different color roads cost different amounts of money), lay down a road piece on the map next to your concrete mixer, hire new workers, and move your truck. Soon after we also added service stations as a side gig.

Eventually, we simplified the road-building business by removing the concrete mixer and construction workers. At this point, the actual city on the card didn’t matter. Also, we didn’t have vehicles moving on the roads anymore, so we introduced trucks that would pick up goods in some cities and deliver them to neighboring countries.

Evolution of a card from initial prototype to finished product

Once we had defined the five main action types in the game, we changed the card play to what it is now, where you start with a hand of six different color cards and you play a card on an action slot in order to perform that action in the card color. We then added limits to how many cards you can play in a given slot, we defined how and when you would recall your cards into your hand, and we introduced ways to improve your cards or even gain new cards during the course of play.

Driving on the Autobahn

Early in the design process we decided that as we build the Autobahn, it would be fun if we could also drive on it — which basically meant that we needed some kind of pick-up-and-delivery mechanism.

Germany is a net exporter, so we decided to focus mainly on international shipping. We looked at the major exports from Germany and picked a few that would fit our needs. When we thought of the major brands coming out of Germany, they fell mostly into a few categories: automobiles, chemicals, and appliances.

We then had each neighboring country require a trade route with a source of these goods. Players would use a truck piece, moving it from a depot to a neighboring country in order to establish a trade route. In order to keep the current card play consistent, we decided to place a depot on the intersections of the black road with the colored roads. By playing a card matching either of the two roads intersecting at the depot, you would load the matching goods to your truck.

It took a long time to find the right way to handle the truck movement, though. If we needed to play a card just to move a truck, trucks would move too slowly and also the whole game would slow down because those cards would not be used to build more roads. Moving automatically every turn, on the other hand, would have been not so interesting either.

The really clever idea was to move your truck only after playing a card matching the road where the truck is currently located, so the movement is a side effect, regardless of which action you used that card for. This adds a whole new layer of planning to the game; once you have a truck on the road, you want to play your cards in the optimal sequence in order to reach your destination quickly, and make sure to move your truck so that it always ends its turn on a road whose color card you still hold in your hand.

Another aspect that required quite a few iterations was how to reward a delivery. Initially we just had some bonus tiles to place during set-up on each country, tiles that provided a one-time bonus to the first player to deliver the specified goods to that country.

This created some good tension, and players would race to gain those tiles. The second player, though, would have to find a new destination for their goods, which was often frustrating as maybe no other connected countries wanted their goods at the time.

Moreover, the bonus should somehow be commensurate with the distance driven. For example, delivering some goods from Hamburg to Switzerland should be more rewarding than delivering the same goods to Denmark.

Another problem was that we had different sets of delivery tiles; each set had six tiles, two for each good type, each with a one-time bonus (proportional to the distance from the closest depot of that good). We would randomly place a couple of tokens per country during set-up and add another random tile or two at the end of each period.

This process was extremely fiddly and added a lot of time during set-up as you sorted and placed those tiles. Eventually we turned things around: Each player receives a different delivery table that maps countries to specific goods and rewards (which are commensurate with the distance), with random bonus tiles on the countries so that each player gets the bonus on their personal board when doing a delivery, but the fastest players also get one of the bonus tiles on the map. These bonus tiles are now completely random and don’t need to be specific to goods or countries.

Moreover, the delivery boards now push different players in different directions since they are more interested in connecting the countries that reward them with the better bonuses.

In the earlier iterations, we had a way to also import goods into Germany, e.g., wine from France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Each player, at the start of the game, got a card telling them to deliver wine from one of these countries to one of the cities in East Germany. This provided another incentive for players to connect different eastern cities to the network.

Once we conflated the “intro” and “full” games into a midway point, we moved this out of the game and into the “wine expansion”.


Among the initial design goals, we thought about some non-conventional ways of scoring. We didn’t want to make a “point salad” game, and we also didn’t want to simply have a “most money wins” approach, so we thought of something different. Given the setting, we tried an approach in which as you build a piece of highway, you gain a seat at the administration table for that highway, and over time your employees get promoted to more prestigious tables, climbing their way up the ladder of the organization. At the end of the game, the final score would be determined only by the value of the seats obtained by each player.

Initially, we thought of the players as construction companies that would pick up contracts from the BundesAutobahn to build sections of roads, but after better defining the scoring, we decided to turn things around. Now players are actually managing directors within the BundesAutobahn organization, so they get assigned a certain budget for building the Autobahn, while they try to place their trusted employees in key places of the organization.

Getting the right scoring mechanism, though, was quite difficult. At first we had a layered system of tables in which each table would have a certain number of seats and a fixed victory point value per seat. For example, seats at the bottom table would be worth 1VP each, seats at the table above it would be worth 2VP each, and so on.

Each table would have fewer seats than the table below, and the top table would be the desk of the ministry of transportation, with just one seat. When a player managed to promote one of their employees to that table, the game would end.

When an employee was pushed out of one of the color tables, they would move to the bottom table. If that table were full, then they would push another employee to the table above, and so on, eventually causing a long chain of promotions. This was problematic in various ways, and often the chain of promotions triggered by the building of a road section felt both random and very consequential.

After various iterations, we settled for the current system in which we have a few different administration buildings, each one awarding points for different things you did during the game. We also linked the abilities you unlock in your player board to the rooms so that in order to access a room that rewards points for, say, building service stations, you need to first unlock a corresponding ability linked to service stations.


I built a quick prototype right away, I kept refining it for a few weeks, and in January 2020 I managed to bring it to a nationwide playtesting meeting in Parma where I met again with Nestore and managed to play a few rounds of the game with some other Italian designers. It was still very early and there were lots of problems, but at least the game showed some promise.

I had one more live playtest in Milan in mid-February, then the pandemic hit, and soon enough the whole country was in lockdown.

Shortly after we started working with Tabletop Simulator. It took some time to learn the ins-and-outs, but eventually TTS became our primary platform for playtests. Nestore and I would meet online on an almost daily basis, playtesting and discussing changes.

We participated in a number of virtual playtesting events and we met new players online willing to help us test the game. A lot of people, at the time, were locked at home 24/7 for a few months, and in that period it was pretty easy to find playtesters at every time of the day. It was not unusual to have a playtest with a group in the morning, make some quick changes to the prototype in the afternoon, then playtest again with a different group in the evening that same day.

A digital playtest from July 2020

By the middle of 2020, the game had gone through hundreds of tests and a lot of changes. It was as if a development time of a couple of years was compressed into a mere six months.

We kept testing and tweaking the game for about another year, with some major changes in the first half of 2021 when Covid restrictions began to ease up and we started doing live playtesting again.

Until that time we were playing two cards at a time each turn, but in live playtests that ended up creating too much downtime. The first live playtest of a full game took forever, so we quickly agreed on changing to playing only one card per turn. This was a big improvement and also introduced more tension on what you could do and improved a few dynamics on the game.

A live playtest from August 2021

We also added some limitations on how many bonuses could trigger within a single turn: only one delivery bonus at the start of the turn and one bonus token during the main action. This further reduced the downtime due to long chaining of bonuses. It also meant that any bonus obtained by completing a delivery would not be usable until the following turn.

Alley Cat Games

At some point in June 2020, I got a message from Caezar at Alley Cat, asking about any new games I was working on. I mentioned that I was working with Nestore on this big Eurogame about building the German autobahns, adding that it was probably not a good fit for their line, but he wanted to see it anyway, adding that they were planning on expanding their catalog and were looking for a medium-heavy Eurogame.

The game we had at the time was probably a bit on the heavier side; with a larger map, eight color roads and five periods, it lasted between two and three hours.

Nevertheless, Alley Cat was keen on making the game, and we signed the contract before the end of summer 2020, aiming for a Kickstarter sometime around the end of 2021 / start of 2022, with delivery by SPIEL ’22.

We kept working on the game for over a year, with some major changes in gameplay until summer 2021. Among the main changes, we reduced the number of cards to play per turn from two to one, we finalized the scoring by introducing the four different departments, and we moved some features out of the original game into the three mini-expansions.

In October 2021, I was in Essen for SPIEL with the Alley Cat team where we demoed the prototype to lots of people.

Shortly after Javier González Cava began working on the artwork for the game, illustrating a gorgeous board with a few easter eggs here and there (including the Messe building where the SPIEL takes place in Essen).

After a successful Kickstarter campaign ending in May 2022, Alley Cat Games managed to get the game printed just in time for SPIEL in October, where I was happy to demo the game and sign several hundred copies to backers that had chosen to pick up the game there.

The finished game at SPIEL ’22

With all of the other copies on their way to backers, the game finally hit the shelves in retail in May 2023.

We had a lot of fun working on this game, and I still enjoy every time I play it. We hope you will enjoy it as well!

Fabio Lopiano


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