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Designer Diary: Rolling Heights — Design History and Thoughts

by John Clair

Part 1: Meeple Rolling — Why Not Just Roll Dice?

In these post-hoc designer diaries, I like to divide the history of a game design into what, in my opinion, are the highlights of the game, then opine on the inspiration, development choices, and end result of those elements. While meeple rolling may not be the most crucial strategic element of Rolling Heights, nor in fact was it the primary inspiration for the game, I suspect it may be the most common highlight — and depending on who you ask, critique — of the game. Therefore, I’ll start with meeple rolling.

In brief, how does meeple rolling work in Rolling Heights?

Rolling meeples is part of a push-your-luck, engine-building system that is similar to my 2020 game Cubitos. Without getting into the broader system, when you roll meeples they will either be flat and give you nothing, on their side and give you something, or standing and give you something better. You’ll be rolling them a lot and have many, increasingly risky chances to have them land on their side or feet.

Is meeple rolling a gimmick?

I think the subject of “gimmicks” in games is interesting in its own right. It seems to me that “gimmick”, in the board game context, is generally understood to mean a non-art-based physical device, system, or component of the product that is designed to attract attention but is either non-essential to the gameplay or could easily be replaced by something less flashy but just as functional.

It also seems common, though not universal, that people think of gimmicks as unwanted, distracting, or bad. I don’t think that is fair. There are certainly games with “bad” gimmicks, that prove to be a net negative for more players than they are a positive, but there are many games with a core gimmick that enhances the enjoyment of the game over a would-be version with essentially the same rules but less flash. A game like Gizmos comes to mind; the marbles and marble dispensary, from a gameplay perspective, are serving essentially the same function as a deck of cards with a card river, a là Ticket to Ride. You could argue marbles are actually less functional than cards because they can roll about and can be more easily lost. But for me, and I think for many players, there is novelty in handling marbles instead of cards, an extra bit of satisfaction each time the marble dispensary clacks down a new marble, value in the uniqueness of tossing spent marbles back into a bucket rather than discarding cards to a discard pile, and no need to shuffle at the beginning of the game or when the deck runs out.

As a contrasting example, I would argue that card crafting in a game like Mystic Vale is not a “gimmick”; it is flashy and attention grabbing in a physical device/component type of way, but it is also essential to the gameplay and not easily replaced by another option.

Anyway, off my soap box! The point is, just as I get value from high quality, inventive art and minis, I get joy from a good gimmick that adds a fresh experience to a familiar game system.

With all that said, I think meeple rolling is a “semi-gimmick”. There is something to be said for the tactile novelty of rolling meeples rather than dice. Also, since the meeples represent workers, there is a satisfying thematic through-line from roll to output. But for it to not count as a gimmick, according to my definition, it must be meaningfully different than just rolling dice in its impact on strategic decision making. For the reasons I outline in the following section, I think there is a meaningful difference, if relatively subtle, and therefore, I say meeple rolling is a semi-gimmick. Regardless, even if it were just a gimmick, I think it’s a good gimmick for its novelty and thematic link, and certainly one I enjoy.

One more sidenote here: I have thought about dice for Rolling Heights instead of meeples. Using d6s of the appropriate colors, I would make 1-3 equal flat, 4-5 equal sideways, and 6 equal standing, and otherwise the rules would be unchanged. For some people this would be preferable, but as evidenced by my decision to stick with meeples, it wouldn’t be better for me, nor I think for most people.

So what is the difference between rolling meeples and rolling dice?

There are a couple of aspects of rolling oddly-shaped objects that create a decision space subtly but meaningfully different than rolling dice.

First, the odds of an outcome are not knowable; there is the general understanding that flat is most likely and standing least likely, but you can’t math out the exact odds.

Second, since meeples don’t roll like dice and since players roll into rolling boxes, there are techniques players can discover — or believe they have discovered — that have better results. For example, some players believe rolling the meeples toward the corner of the box rather than dropping straight down yields better results. A player’s “technique” won’t make a huge difference, and it certainly doesn’t turn the game into a dexterity game, but it feels meaningful.

The two factors combined, I find, gives many players a feeling of more agency over the outcome of their rolls. “Pushing” in Rolling Heights is from the gut; “I can do this!” rather than “I hope this % chance works out.” It’s a difference that gives a layer of gameplay novelty beyond the obvious tactile novelty. Had I not liked the gameplay difference, despite liking the “good gimmick” aspect, I would have gone with dice, but I really liked the difference for this particular game, so sticking with meeple rolling was an obvious choice, with the understanding that for some people (hopefully a minority) it may be a turn-off, for others it’ll be a plus, and for some the game would be just as enjoyable with dice or meeples.

Part 2: From Ideas to Game

Kinetic Design and meeple rolling

Kinetic Design* is an approach to inspiration that often works for me. It’s the idea of starting with the physicality of an object and from there seeking inspiration and possible game systems. Card crafting, for example, very much originated from a Kinetic Design approach, beginning with the question “what can a card sleeve physically do” and resulting in the a-ha idea that a sleeve could be used to turn multiple cards into a single card.

Incidentally, I’ve always been a bits-fiddler. I’m that player at the game table who is constantly futzing with the tokens, building little towers, or rolling them around, so it didn’t take many worker placement games in my early gaming life before I’d spotted meeple rolling as a funky game system and a twist to dice rolling. However, it wasn’t an idea I pursued initially and instead filed it away in my brain as an idea for the future.

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge that the idea of meeple rolling is certainly not unique or original to me. Not only are there now other meeple-rolling games already on market, perhaps most notably the 2020 game Quetzal, but also Pass the Pigs is a classic game, if not exactly meeple rolling. Relevant specifically to Rolling Heights, in 2018 a friend and local designer, Dino DiBlasio, brought a prototype of a meeple-rolling game, “Meeple Rapids”, to a design meet-up. I was excited to see the idea in action, and it put the concept back to top-of-mind for me.

To round out Dino’s story, his game was signed and supposed to release way back in 2020, but unfortunately didn’t end up getting released, so if any publisher reading this is looking to get in the meeple-rolling business, Dino’s the man. (But, like actually, let me know and I’ll connect you with him.)

Several months later, I was working on the Space Base: The Emergence of Shy Pluto expansion and putting tiny stickers onto just one side of a whole bunch of cubes in order to make “dice” with five blank sides. After I had like sixteen of these one-sided stickered cubes, I started to roll them, curious to observe the kinds of outcomes they would give. I began setting aside the ones that hit, then re-rolling the blanks, then repeating. It was fun to see how far I could go before I rolled all blanks. And voilà, I’d found a push-your-luck system. Tack on the ability to add and modify the pool of dice you were rolling, and it was now a push-your-luck engine-building system. The next thing I thought of was not a game like Cubitos however; it was meeple rolling, swapping out the dice for meeples, where “misses” were flat and “hits” were not-flat. That idea I then filed in the brain to come back to in the future, which, as it turned out was, like, the next day.

*As far as I know, and I may be wrong, I made up the term “Kinetic Design” in context of tabletop game design, but I think it aptly fits its use, plus it sounds fancy.

Cube towers!

Inspiration, as long as you’re ambiently looking for it, is often incidental.

It was either the next day or couple of days later, the sixteen or so cubes for the Space Base prototype were still on my desk, and sure enough, I started futzing around with them again, stacking them into little skyscrapers with different architecture and heights. It’s oddly satisfying and something a bits-fiddler like me had done with plenty of piles of cubes before, but this time it struck me as a game idea, a city-builder in which you actually build a little 3D diorama of the city out of various designs of stacked cubes. There are, of course, other city-building games with a 3D nature, but the idea here was to give the buildings different architecture and shapes and have the result feel a bit more like a city diorama and less like an abstract board game version of a city.

The idea to combine meeple rolling, engine building, luck pushing, 3D cube stacking, and city building followed immediately, but only finally gelled into an actual game a few days later when I got out of the box of thinking buildings needed to be paid for before adding them to the city. In most classic city-/town-building games, you acquire a building tile, add it to the city/town, then that means it’s built — but since in my game the price to construct a building was the cubes you used to actually construct the 3D building, it worked much better if the physical cube construction of a building was a gradual process and a strategic investment over several turns rather than busywork you needed to do after buying a building.

Shortly thereafter “Meepleopolis” was a prototype in the playtest mix (a name my wife came up with and I think is still a little miffed we moved away from).

Part 3: 3D City Building

What happens if you bump the table?

It’s a bit of my design philosophy that some amount of fiddly is usually worth a chunk of novelty and cool. In my opinion, building a 3D diorama of a city in the midst of a strategy game is super cool and satisfying, and totally worth the extra bit of fiddly.

Buildings can get bumped and knocked over in Rolling Heights, and I was fully expecting to hear that as a concern from some reviewers and gamers. It was certainly a concern I was keeping my eye on when I was playtesting. Ultimately though, while it’s definitely a thing, my concerns did not manifest into a sufficient problem, in my estimation, to overrule the upside of the cool visual city building. In all my many playtests, a game was never ruined by a table bump, and that’s including most playtests in which the buildings were made from just balanced 10mm cubes, whereas in the final version they fit together (more on that below). Generally, the worst that might happen is that one or two bigger buildings need to be reassembled for a minute, or the player at the table with big or shaky hands might have to ask another player to top off their tall building for them.

Most importantly, if anything was going to assuage my concern, playtesters were really liking the game, with the 3D city building commonly cited as a highlight despite the falling-over concern.

The building block design

We ultimately went with loosely-fitting blocks rather than snug-fitting blocks. I think there are good reasons we went the route we did, and we did talk about it quite a bit. It was an unusual and interesting challenge, so I’ll walk through our thinking.

First, snuggly-connected single pip LEGO bricks are actually not more stable to a sudden jolt (i.e., table bump) vs. an equally proportioned stack of unconnected cubes. If you think about real skyscraper architecture in high earthquake cities, they are designed to wiggle and are not totally rigid. Loose-fitting pieces do unfortunately scatter more if they fall over, but they fall over less often. We figured it’s better to spend 30 seconds fixing a fallen building maybe once a game than spend 15 seconds fixing fallen buildings three or four times a game.

Second, snug-fitting pieces need a bit of pressure to fit together, meaning they work great if building something all at once, but they are actually more effort to gradually build out on the board than cubes that easily slide into place on top of each other. The sturdiest option would have been cubes that connect on the top, bottom and sides; it would essentially have a wider base since each level of cubes would all be connected, and if it fell over, it would all be one connected unit, making it super easy to just stand it back up. However, building it would become a chore, requiring you to pick it up and push each new piece into place. The effect on flow of play would not be good and not be worth it.

For most of the game’s development, we played by balancing 10mm cubes, and the game was fun and worked, so getting the cube stacking right was an exercise in polish. The end result was loosely-fitting cubes that keep the towers straight and sturdier than stacked cubes, while keeping the game flow smooth by being easy to gradually build.

Part 4: Things That Changed, and Conclusion

While the core of the game was strong and stayed the same, there were a couple of big changes to the rules during the process. Mainly, I was looking for ways to simplify and really focus the game on its highlights: the engine building and the city construction.

Generalizing Money

Initially, money was a resource in the game. Players started the game with a couple of yellow meeples that generated 1 money on their side and 2 money standing. In order to buy new building tiles, a player needed to generate money, which was use-it-or-lose-it every turn. While money could not be used to place cubes, it could be used for other purchases, including buying cubes from a marketplace. The marketplace got gradually more expensive as the game progressed so that buying cubes with money was inefficient by midgame compared to having the right meeples generating those cubes. Nevertheless, while a player could focus on money to a greater or lesser extent, it was needed basically needed all game long.

The simplification that I ended up going with was to remove money as a separate currency and instead make all cubes count as $1. Now, each cube could be used to build with, as before, or it could be returned to the supply for a dollar to spend this turn. This change let players be more flexible with their engines, switching from buying to building fluidly. Happily, the good parts of the game weren’t all that affected, but the pace of play and game length improved. In the end, a meeple was included in the game that was essentially “money”; the Executive generates “spending cubes” that cannot be built with. This allowed players to add money power to their engine as an optional strategic path, but wasn’t necessary to a functioning engine.

Removing route building

In the original conception of the game, I had included route building as a significant objective-based scoring path. The routes represented generic mass transit that players could build into the city.

Scoring objectives were based on these, having players build routes — thematically they were commuter routes — by connecting cubes from residential buildings to commercial, industrial, or public buildings. For example, an objective might give you 13 VP if you built mass-transit routes connecting residential buildings with 13 or more cubes in them to industrial buildings with 13 or more cubes, with you being able to connect any player’s buildings to fulfill the objective. Players would very much still need to construct buildings because that was how you built your engine, while routes were strictly for VPs, which added an interesting layer of tension around the timing of when to switch to route building to claim the best routes. This system also had a naturally flowing thematic result in which buildings would often cluster by type in areas of the board like a real city, with residential areas, industrial zones, commercial centers, etc.

AEG’s John Zinser

A common playtester comment was that the route building was interesting but felt tacked on. I was resistant to remove it because I really enjoyed it, but eventually did try dropping it and was happy with the result. I found that removing it sacrificed some strategic depth for someone like myself who had played many times, but the result felt, overall, just as enjoyable. Crucially, because this modified design was indeed simpler, faster, and more focused on the highlights of engine building and 3D diorama construction, new players were enjoying it more.

I’ve logged the route idea as a good expansion option as I do think it adds an interesting layer of strategic depth and theme. Having played without it for a long time though, I’d approach it a bit differently, probably integrating it into the engine so that it wasn’t just VP-based. Also, I like the idea of routes giving bonus points to the other players whose buildings contribute to the completion of the route, creating a positive interaction incentive. Anyway, all food for thought along with other expansion ideas.

Wrap-up

To close, I wanted to highlight some of the talented minds that contributed to the development and completion of this game. There are too many to name them all, and I recommend the credits list in the rulebook for a more complete list, but here are three top-line highlights: John Zinser of AEG played many times and always with pointed and actionable comments; the developer Josh Wood knows how to make a good game, and he did some heavy lifting leveling up the gameplay and final product; and, of course, Kwanchai Moriya and his fantastic art making this a game that screams “Play me!”

Thanks for reading! I hope this was an interesting insight into the design decisions for Rolling Heights, and I hope if it piques your interest, you’ll get a chance to play and will enjoy!

John D. Clair

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