by Dani Garcia
If there’s a theme typically associated with a Eurogame, it is building a European city. I’ve always lived in Barcelona, and being a game designer, it was inevitable for me to try to create that game with my city at some point, but I wanted the game to be truly about Barcelona, so I had to find some relevant historical event for it.
Luckily, I could easily find not one, but two important historical events, and they even happened during the same time: the building of L’Eixample and Modernisme.
Plus, L’Eixample is grid shaped, which makes it very easy to be converted into a game mechanism, so thanks for that, Cerdà.
It’s the mid-19th century. For almost 150 years, the city of Barcelona has been considered a strategic stronghold under military control. For that reason, it was not allowed to grow outside its walls, resulting in buildings and factories being cramped within and making it the most densely populated city in all of Europe. Living conditions in old Barcelona were very poor, and disease outbreaks were frequent; the life expectancy of a worker was only 23-24 years.
Shortly after the walls were finally destroyed, Ildefons Cerdà, who is now considered the inventor of urbanism, presented the plan for the creation of the “Eixample”, the expansion that Barcelona so desperately needed. Its construction began in 1860.
The new city design was ahead of its time. He planned extremely wide streets that would provide enough space for pedestrians, carriages, and trams, and that would also ensure sunlight on all the buildings down to the street level. Furthermore, he planned green spaces to provide fresh air and areas for socialization, along with the famous octagonal-shaped blocks to increase visibility at street crossings, creating even more space for pedestrians.
While the plan wasn’t completely followed once the construction started, most of it was respected, which created today’s iconic Barcelona grid.
Modernisme, or Catalan modernism, was an architectural style that flourished during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, with the most famous example being La Sagrada Família. Cerdà’s plan for the city was to make all buildings look similar so that all citizens would live in similar buildings regardless of their wealth. Many Modernista architects disliked the idea, however, because that vision clashed with the exuberant and ornamented façades that architects of the time were designing.
The grid of L’Eixample had to be the center of the game, and I quickly came up with the idea of placing the citizens who wanted to leave old Barcelona on the street intersections in order to activate both the vertical and the horizontal streets (and sometimes also a diagonal street).
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to make a game in which you have to manage more than ten resources: wood, bricks, metal, glass… Each street would give you a resource, so you would be collecting at least two of them each turn by placing citizens on an intersection. You would then spend the resources to build façades next to those citizens, activating the action printed on the block where the façade was built. Also, each street’s reward would change each game by randomizing the resource tiles, so each game would feel different.
Luckily, I always do the first playtests of my designs alone because that first idea was a disaster. Deciding which intersection to place your citizens on is not very interesting if you are going to get two resources in any case, especially if you are not sure which ones you want, or if you just want one of them. The game also felt really slow with not much happening as you would usually spend three turns collecting resources in order to later perform one “proper” action when you could finally build something. Plus, you were building only one façade of each block at a time, which considering their small size, I could see even on Tabletop Simulator how fiddly that would have been.
I tried several versions of that idea, each one going worse than the previous one, and I was about to cancel the project and start working on something new when I decided to make one last try, but this time completely changing the game to almost the opposite of what it was before. Fortunately, that test also was the opposite of the previous ones, and while the game still had a lot of things that needed fixing, I could already see that the core of it was working.
Here’s how I changed it.
Swapping Actions and Resources
If I had more than ten different resources on my first idea, now I would have only two: coins and cloth. Coins were used as “any resource” in my previous version, so I removed most of the other resources and kept only the single “any resource” token. I decided to keep cloth separate as it’s useful from a design point of view to have different resources, but also thematically, cloth was the main product produced in Barcelona and Catalunya at the time.
This also meant I now had eleven streets without any reward — as they previously produced all of those resources! — so I moved all the actions that were previously on the city blocks to the streets. Now, each street allowed you to perform an action, which made the decision of where to place your citizens much more interesting as no pair (or trio) of actions would be the same. I also made some of the actions require resources, while others would provide them, and still others would both require and provide resources, so you would ideally want to find crossings in which you could fully perform all of their actions with your available resources, while recovering enough of them to prepare for your next turns.
Performing 2-3 proper actions per turn — instead of one action every three turns as in the previous version — was unsurprisingly much more rewarding, and the board filled much faster with streets, intersections, trams…
But the main goal of the game is to build city blocks so that also had to be changed.
The first thing I changed was that you would build the whole block instead of just a façade to avoid the issue of having to fit several small façade pieces into a block.
But thematically that was a problem as an important part of L’Eixample’s history is how Cerdà wanted only two façades of each block built, while in reality almost all façades and block interiors were filled with buildings due to the number of people who wanted to relocate, and also because buildings were much more profitable than parks for land owners.
To symbolize this, I made three types of block tiles, with two, three, and four façades built respectively, and I added a rule in which players could overbuild existing tiles with other tiles with more façades. This way, players could decide what type of blocks to build as each one would have different consequences depending on how closely you follow Cerdà’s plan.
The other important change for city blocks was that they now did not provide an action when built. I wanted building blocks to be the main focus of the game as that’s what the city needed at that time, so I had to make them desirable. I also wanted to create tension when deciding where to place citizens: Should I place them on this crossing with two actions I really want to do, or should I place them on this other crossing so that I can build at the end of my turn?
Part of the original design already helped with that. Blocks were built as a free action at the end of your turn, and you would usually want to build a block, if possible, so that you would get its rewards before somebody else did. Also, part of the cost of building was “paid” by removing citizens adjacent to the built block (thematically representing them finding a place to live), and that would force you to place your citizens on certain intersections if you wanted to build, creating tension when deciding where to place workers.
Keeping those elements, I made sure players would want to build blocks in two other ways. First, each block type would have different rewards matching the two historical elements of the game. If you built the way Cerdà planned, you would get benefits that help you with intermediate scorings during the game. If you built opposite to his plan, you would hurt those scorings but improve on your modernist capabilities, gaining powerful immediate rewards at the cost of making Cerdà angry.
The other way I made buildings appealing is probably the easiest trick in the Euro designer book: gaining victory points (VP). Each building rewards VP depending on citizens that have already moved to L’Eixample, so their VP reward increases the closer to the end of the game you are, creating an increasing urge to build as they become more and more valuable.
I achieved this by creating three tracks, one for each citizen type, where you place the citizens that you use to build, which sets the VP reward for building as the lowest uncovered VP value on any of those tracks. In order to make the scoring fit the theme, not only is the number of citizens on the tracks important, but also their type as avoiding one type of citizen would keep the VP rewards low. This was also part of Cerdà’s plan, as he wanted all social classes to move to L’Eixample at the same time rather than letting the rich be the first ones to do it.
Once I saw that the increasing VP mechanism linked to the citizen tracks was working, I thought I could also use it to control the length of the game, which is something I usually don’t decide until the design starts to work, so an ending wasn’t yet defined in my original attempts.
I made the end of the game trigger once one type of citizen reached the end of their track, so each game’s duration would change depending on what and when players were building, but these tracks still had potential to be made more interesting, plus I could link it with another thematic element.
Part of the game’s theme is players deciding whether they want to follow Cerdà’s plan or move closer to Modernisme. Depending on your actions, you will move up and down a Cerdà track, and at three points during the game, you will evaluate a condition and earn VP depending on both how you have accomplished it and where your marker is on Cerdà’s track.
As I had made the citizen tracks control when the game would end, it was almost obvious to also link these intermediate scorings to those tracks, so whenever one type of citizen reached one of these scoring points, all players would evaluate and score their situation, then reset their position on Cerdà’s track to start working on the next scoring opportunity.
The New Game Version
I still had to change many parts of the game and do a lot of balancing and tweaking to make all of the actions work, but with the previous changes I could already see that the base of the game was solid since making just one decision — where to place your citizens — led to a huge number of consequences for both you and other players.
Placing citizens on a certain spot not only decides which actions you can do this turn, blocking them for the next player, but also whether you will or won’t be able to build this turn, and even what type of block you may build. If you build, depending on the citizens around the built block, you may be increasing the building VP for everybody and you may trigger a Cerdà scoring phase. Also, your citizen placements will affect what and where the next player could potentially build next turn, so you may want to consider that when deciding where to place them.
This system creates a lot of indirect interaction between players in which any thing I do may block or may create new options for the next player, which is something I tend to look for when designing, and it was definitely not present in the first iterations of the game.
While I was close to cancelling this project at one point, I’m glad I didn’t and decided to make one last test. This game has a close and special theme for me, and I’m glad I could make it work to help this part of my city’s history be better more known. I hope you will find both the history interesting and the game fun.