History of Railhead

[this post originally appeared over on the RUST LTD. blog]

We recently announced a new game called Railhead. While I am super excited to share this project I wanted to start by talking about its history. Part of what excites me about this project is that it has actually been years in the making. Railhead started its existence years ago as part of my MFA thesis research. It was originally a traditional board game called 1887. In this post I am going to talk about its original inspiration and early development.

I was inspired by seeing a bunch of little wooden house tokens that had spilled onto a chessboard in one of the labs. Something about the mixture of scales spoke to me. For a game designer like myself the chessboard is an intoxicating artifact. The geometry of a chessboard, its 8×8 grid of alternating black and white cells, allows for staggering number of permutations. Rule permutations, movement permutations, board permutations. It is the perfect physical realization of two dimensional cartesian space. In chess the board represents a figurative or literal battlefield, occupied by 32 military units. Something about seeing the house token, dwarfed by the single cell it sat on, forced me to see the scale of the board differently. What if each tile didn’t hold a single person. What if each cell was a plot of land where a family lived. In that moment the board went from a battlefield to a landscape.

A lot of my design research at the time was in thinking about notions of space and control. How do we control space? In Civ and other strategy games you typically construct a building and your sphere of control spills across the board like a overturned bucket of paint. You own that territory. You are the only one who can build there. You are the only one who can move your troops there without starting a war. While it works well enough for these sort of strategy games, this “state boarder” notion of space is pretty alien to most peoples daily existence.

The national border I grew up next to was a friendly one but it happened to be aligned with a river and a bunch of lakes. The first time I encountered an international border crossing that wasn’t on a bridge, I was struck by how simple and plain it seemed. It was just a small checkpoint on a highway.  If I wanted to I could have parked down the road, gotten out of my car, and hiked to Canada. The only problem was actually, that if I was hiking in the woods I would not have been able to tell when I crossed over. There was no multicolored lines on the ground showing where one country ended and the other started. There are some borders where that is that case, where the lines are marked with fences or rivers or “demilitarized zones”. In general it is pretty hard to see these lines out in the world.

Practically, we tend to control space via access. We occupy space and deny others access to space. Me, my family and my guests are allowed to occupy the space I own. In some limited circumstances, police or emergency workers can gain access to it, everyone else is denied. What is it that makes a piece of land part of a nation? Citizens and guests of that nation can go there. Everyone else can bugger off and go someplace else.

1887 is a game about mobility. I had already been experimenting with the notion of a game predicated on manipulation of access to space. An earlier board game I had worked on used the mechanic, but turned out to be a generally boring game. In 1887 the idea crystallized, as you move you leave a trail of settled cells behind you. Cells which can no longer be occupied. The goal is simple: trap your opponent, prevent them from moving, while leaving yourself movement options. The last player to move wins.

Thinking about the image of a little homestead on a big flat landscape made me think of the American West. A couple days of reading lead me to the title “1887” In the late 1800’s Americans were in the process of “settling” the great plains. Importantly this was the decline of the cowboys. Huge parts of the countryside that were historically “open range” meaning anyone could graze cattle there, were being divvied up and settled by homesteaders coming from the east. As the rail lines extended further and further across the continent and brought more and more homesteaders, the “wild west” became increasingly domesticated, and crowded.

At points in the late 1880’s armed conflict actually broke out between private militias over issues of grazing and water rights. 1887 was the height of these “range wars”. This is where the name of the board game came from. The enclosure of the American West changed that landscape in a profound way. As a nod to the cowboys and to the game of chess I used a chess knight as the player piece. Besides looking like a horse, the knight is the chess piece most oriented toward tactical mobility. It can jump other pieces and is the hardest to pin down.

The expending of cells on the board, along with the narrative framing also brought in elements of environmental conservation. The policies of American manifest destiny was not just people moving to new parts of a continent. It was an entire nation waging war on the native populations and ecosystems. America chewed up and digested a continent. Those resources positioned America as a world power, but as we see with the current droughts over a hundred years later, the damage to the landscape has yet to be fully comprehended.

In 1887 both players start with a shared mutual resource, the board. They then have to burn that resource to stop the other player from moving. Positioning and struggling over an ever diminishing amount of space. Often at the end of the game there are only a couple of open spaces left. When a player ‘wins’ it is rarely by much.

In the context of my thesis work, 1887 was well received. I showed and demoed it at a number of events and the feedback was almost entirely positive. Most of the designs I worked on during that period were shelved as I traveled and worked to get RUST off the ground and paying the rent. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that development continued.

In the next section I will talk about bringing 1887 to a digital format and what the initial months of that development taught me. If you want to keep up to date on Railhead news and development you should head over to the Railheadgame.com and sign up for the mailing list.

If you are interested in playing the original version of 1887 you can download the rule sheet here I would love to hear any comments and feedback you have.

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  1. Pingback: History of Railhead pt2 by blog.lukenoonan.com

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