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Designer Diary: Next Station: Tokyo

by Matthew Dunstan

One of the things I really enjoy about game design are expansions. So much of design is banging your head against a wall, trying to get a new set of mechanisms or interactions to work the way you intend. Once you get over this hurdle and settle down into a game that works well, you feel equal parts frustration and relief. With an expansion, you’ve already gone through all of this, so you can just focus on finding new ways to twist what you already have, finding new ideas and connections.

Once I knew we would be heading to Tokyo for the next game in the Next Station series, I started doing research and quickly settled on what would be the defining feature of this map: the Yamanote Loop line. It is an iconic feature of the Tokyo metro and as such absolutely had to be part of the game.

The tricky thing is that players aren’t allowed to make loops in Next Station. For a while I toyed with the idea of changing this rule for Next Station: Tokyo, but even with this allowance, there was no guarantee that players would actually draw a loop line — and for me, the look of the map at the end of the game is such an important feature. You stand back, discuss with your fellow players, and imagine whether your metro would make sense in real life, and for Tokyo, this metro had to feature this loop.

The key breakthrough was, of course, to simply pre-build this loop into the map, making it a fifth line that players could interact with only through its stations, adding additional obstacles to where their other lines could be drawn from the start of the game. Balancing this added difficulty was the fact that making large intersections of three, four, or even five lines was now easier. (I chose to remove scoring two-line intersections due to how trivial they were to make with the Yamanote line.)

I also changed the geography of the different scoring regions to fit better with this loop, resulting in an alpha map close to the geography of the final product.

After initial playtesting, it became clear that while Tokyo felt interesting and distinct as compared to Next Station: London, the game was simply too hard on players. They felt too restricted by the loop line and lost too many turns by not having any moves to make.

Bryan Lefebvre, the developer of the Next Station series at Blue Orange Games, had a great idea: Why not introduce a way for two lines to run side by side? We had forbidden it in London, but with a pre-drawn line on the map suddenly not only did it seem like this change would solve the problem of the map being too restrictive, but the fact that the loop curves presents new options! Line sections in Next Station usually cannot curve, but if you had a power that let you follow the path of a previously drawn section, suddenly you could replicate the curves of the loop line by following it.

Working further on this idea, we decided to put this power only on the wild cards. We didn’t want players to have to think about this option every turn, and now there’s an additional source of tension in the order that station cards are drawn. Because you always have at least one wild card per round, players can plan the best way to use the power, sometimes choosing to limit the expansion of a line in order to travel further with it by following the loop line. This contrasts with the switch card — a card present in both London and Tokyo that lets you create a branch off your line — as the switch card is not guaranteed to come out every round. We wanted this new feature to be something players always got a chance to experience.

At this point we were missing one final element for the map, something akin to either the river or the tourist sites in London. My research threw up many ideas, such as collecting different types of food from vending machines that are a mainstay of every metro station in Tokyo, but it felt too similar to “collecting” the tourist sites.

Bryan again saved the day, suggesting doing something around stamp collecting, an activity popular with children and families who can collect unique rubber stamps in a book from each station in the network (even including the larger train stations). This suggested a place where riders get off their trains and congregate – something connected to intersections perhaps?

I also wanted to address a slight imbalance in the game with intersections. Due to the Yamanote line, players tended to focus their intersections with this line, and I wanted an incentive to try to plan for intersections in the outer districts. As such, we tried awarding players “stamps” for extra points if they did so and encouraged them to collect different stamps by making these intersections in different regions. Thankfully it worked well!

Blue Orange team at the 2023 SdJ ceremony, left to right:Bryan Lefebvre (developer), Philippe Lamaszewski (international sales),and Cyrielle Mathieu (community manager)

The other part of designing a new Next Station map are the additional modules. We wanted a new set of goal cards, and the new elements in Tokyo allowed for fresh options. For the other module, when I was designing the “pencil powers” for London, I knew I wanted to do it in such a way that the powers would be compatible with future maps —if we released any — and I wanted to ensure the same cross-compatibility with the corresponding Tokyo module.

The “special stations” module adds a new power or opportunity each round that is tied to when one of the four station types is revealed from the deck, and like the pencil powers, this module can be used with either box. The only thing we recommend is that players use only one of the modules at a time as there are a lot of tricky interactions if they are mixed that would have led to an unacceptable increase in rules complexity.

A huge thank you to all the incredible players of Next Station: London! Without your enthusiasm for the game, it would have never been possible to make Tokyo. A special thank you to all who play the game regularly on Board Game Arena (London / Tokyo), some hundreds and hundreds of times. Whenever I hear something like this, it makes this whole game design journey worthwhile — and as for that journey, I wonder where Next Station will head to next…?

Matthew Dunstan


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