For those that don’t remember, I came into contact with Brandon Rollins in 2016 when he was developing and promoting the War Co. Expandable Card Game. At that time, he was a new first time designer and I was really impressed with his vision, work ethic, and the game play in his first game. He went on to run a successful Kickstarter campaign for that game which ultimately was funded. He even wrote a guest post for our blog sharing his Kickstarter experience and lessons learned.
Now he is onto to his sophomoric effort in design with a game that is based on traveling the United States of America in an old beat up car called Highways & Byways. Sounds fun, right? We reached out to Brandon to see if he wanted to share with us his new game and give us some insight into the mechanics used, the gameplay itself and the reasons for his design choices. You can also check out his design blog here to get a little more insight into Brandon: http://brandonthegamedev.com/
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Grant: Brandon, what has now led you to design a family oriented game based on travel in Highways & Byways?
Brandon: After creating War Co., I wanted to take a left turn in my game development career. My first game required time and effort for players to learn, so I wanted to create something with nuance, but also approachability. I wanted to reach out to an entirely different audience, and it was on long road trips that I came up with a way to do that.
Grant: What other games did you use as inspiration for this concept? Is there a history of long cross country trips in your life? What do you particularly enjoy about travel?
Brandon: I’ve done a lot of long, long road trips over the last couple of years because it’s the cheapest, easiest, and one of the most epic ways to travel. I’ve been in 39 states and DC, the vast majority of which I did over the last two years on the same four tires.
Even the most casual glance at the board – a pastel-colored map of the USA with dots and lines – brings Ticket to Ride comparisons. That’s no accident, because I used Ticket to Ride as a reference for displaying complex spatial data in an elegant way. I stripped it down even further and married that aesthetic with old postcards and transit maps
The idea for drafting cards to choose your route came out of the blue, but probably because I absorbed the idea subconsciously from other games. The Vehicle cards function similarly to Pandemic roles. I also used, as backwards as this will sound for a family game, Twilight Struggle as inspiration on hand management mechanics. I love the way Twilight Struggle forces you to play negative cards in a way that minimizes their impact. Highways & Byways does this in a more passive way, though, because it’s your opponent picking – at random – one of your five cards instead of you choosing exactly what to play.
“I also used, as backwards as this will sound for a family game, Twilight Struggle as inspiration on hand management mechanics. I love the way Twilight Struggle forces you to play negative cards in a way that minimizes their impact.”
Grant: What mechanics are used in the design? How do these mechanics help to reinforce the theme in the gameplay?
Brandon: The most important mechanic is point-to-point movement. Highways & Byways is, at its heart, a racing game. Point-to-point movement allows you to have that feeling of constant motion, which is reminiscent of marathon road trips.
Card drafting lets you choose which roads you want to travel on. I’ve watched people treat this like planning a vacation. The sincerity of people’s vacation-like decision-making still makes me smile to this day. This is actually a really gritty, strategic choice but it feels like you’re planning a trip.
Hand management forces you to choose what problems you plan around. Are you going to worry about the weather? How about traffic? Accidents? Repairs? Are you going to try to stop for coffee or is it better to just keep on pushing?
The Vehicles each have different abilities, which is my interpretation of variable player powers. The old Honda knock-off never needs repairs, the old pick-up truck is fast like Dukes of Hazzard, and the Jeep can handle any traffic simply by going off road.
I also have a subtle action point system. It’s framed as “move six spaces or trade in unmoved spaces for the ability to discard a card, one space for one discard.” By default, most people will move six – which is what I want them to generally do. Astute players will quickly realize, though, that it’s often beneficial to move four or five and take a little time making a better hand. It forces you to answer the thematic question of “do I focus on speed or do I focus on comfort?” For anybody who’s ever been on a road trip with someone who wants to drive 12 hours in one day, you can probably relate a little too much to how important that question is.
Last, there’s just the tiniest bit of push-your-luck. This manifests itself in taking risky roads in drafting to screw someone else over, keeping a bad hand to move your full six, or stopping on a highway space for the night. It’s like trying to find a motel without a reservation in the dark mountains of North Carolina at 11:00 at night. Not that this ever happened to me.
Grant: Did you choose the theme before you started the design? How did this help you in the design process?
Brandon: I started with a basic idea – make a board game about road trips. Then I started by making a map of real scenic byways and their real life interstate connections. I tweaked the road shapes for creative license, merging and simplifying as necessary. This took surprisingly little time – the Interstate Highway System may as well have been built for board games.
Once I had a working map, I started adding mechanics. First came Event Cards, then Construction Cards, Vehicle Cards, and then finally the discard mechanic that powers the hand management elements.
Grant: What problems did you have to overcome in your vision with gameplay? Was there a specific problem that you struggled with?
Brandon: The two biggest problems I faced were making the board clear enough to understand and “the determinism problem.”
With so many dots, lines, and colors, keeping the board game map simple was really important. This was doubly true for players outside of the United States. To do this, the artist smoothed out rough lines and shapes, keeping everything spaced out for clarity. We used simple color-coded zones for certain Event Cards. We used no text on the map itself other than the letters A through E for Construction. The end result is a game where you can pick up a card and find a road in about ten seconds.
The board was basically done by version 12. Fixing the determinism problem took me until version 21 of the game. The determinism problem, in short, was that the game was still way too based on luck because of the way Event Cards worked. Initially, at the end of your turn, you chose one of two Event Cards to keep to manage your hand. In the final game, you may trade in unused movement for the ability to discard cards you don’t want in hopes of getting something better. This one tiny rule tweak, discovered only after months of development, dramatically changed the strategy of the game. For me, it finally pushed the game right in the middle of the luck/skill balance, which is exactly where I want the game to be for its tone and audience.
Grant: Tell us a little about the Vehicles that players have to choose from. How are each of these Vehicles different? What was the basis for the names you chose?
Brandon: Every Vehicle has its own unique ability, which changes your strategy for the whole rest of the game. All of these cars are so old that the colorful names you see on these cards are the closest thing you’ll ever see to a title.
The Ancient One is pretty much a stereotype of an 80s Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Some say it had a history as a drag racing car. I don’t really know. All I know is that true to the expectations you would have of a boxy Japanese commuter car, these things never break down. You never have to deal with Repair or Accident Events.
The Cowboy is a Jeep knock-off that can go off-road and handle any terrain. Weather and Traffic Events don’t slow it down. It smells like diesel and there are holes in the floorboard. It’s also really, really loud because the muffler is on the fritz. It’s also great for tailgating smaller cars on Dallas-Fort Worth highways.
Five-O is a copyright-safe homage to the Ford Crown Victoria. This was purchased from the police auction and still has some of the gear in it. It makes everybody do 5 mph under the speed limit around them. These are pretty solid cars, though, so whenever something good happens to you in this game, you get to move an extra space.
Rustbucket used to be blue back in the day. Or maybe it was green? Nobody really knows any more, all the paint has been replaced by time and redox reactions. Every time the Construction deck is shuffled – every five rounds – this gets to move an extra three spaces. Yee-haw!
Soccermobile used to be called Mom’s Minivan, but I changed the name to be more gender-neutral. The excellent interior storage space allows you to take two Event Cards at the end of your turn and choose one to keep. The driver’s side back door has a soccer ball-sized ding in it.
Stationary Wagon is a station wagon from the late 70s that is still somehow on the road. Don’t ask me how! Rumor has it that there’s a hidden layer in the Photoshop file containing an antique auto license plate. This car is great for the whole family because kids can sit on the bench seat and choose to discard two cards for one space instead of one card for one space. You know, normal kid stuff.
Grant: That is one thing that I really loved about War Co. and your designs, is the story details behind the game and its participants. The fact that you take the time to create a backstory to simply add flavor and theme to the game is fantastic. What is the difference between Red Byways and Blue Byways?
Brandon: Red Byways are harder than Blue Byways. This is either due to their inconvenient locations relative to the center of the map (northern Maine, southern Texas, Florida) or their length (Great River Road North & South, Route 66 East & West, California Route 1). Blue Byways are every other road in the game, each being relatively equal in difficulty.
The game forces players to take at least a somewhat inconvenient route with this system since you can only drop one Red Byway or two Blue Byways. It’s very rare (about 5% of games) that a player will get a route that takes less than 12 turns to complete this way.
Grant: Who did the art for the game? I love the choice of colors that seem to pop. What was your thinking in the choice of color?
Brandon: Believe it or not, the same guy who did the art for War Co., James Masino, did everything in this game. He did the board, the box, every single card, and even the rule book.
Our inspiration for the art style included old postcards and travel brochures. Think about the Golden Age of Travel, roughly from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The colors were strong and bright. The angles were sharp. We ran with that nostalgic style and worked it into the game by using an accessible colorblind safe palette to reduce usability problems. In fact, this colorblind palette is what determined the seven regional colors of the board. (There are other stopgaps in place for people who can’t see any color at all, but this color palette solves 99.9% of the problems on its own.)
Grant: James is really, really good! You need to keep him as your artist for all of your games. How do Event Cards affect play? How does a player properly plan their trip using these cards? What are some of the difficulties players must plan for?
Brandon: You hold a hand of five Event Cards. At the beginning of your turn, the person clockwise of you randomly picks one out of your hand. Whatever’s on it happens to you.
You can never perfect your hand – this is on purpose. You can, however, substantially improve your luck through hand management. You can choose to either move six spaces every turn or trade in unused spaces for the ability to discard cards you don’t want and draw new ones. One space, one discard. Even still, you might get caught in bad weather or an accident no matter how well you plan, so your overall strategy must be robust enough to roll with problems and take advantage of lucky breaks.
Event Cards primarily give the game a necessary dose of randomness, but the ability to manage your hand in accordance with the special ability of your Vehicle gives skilled players a marked advantage. How that works is something I cover a bit farther down.
“Event Cards primarily give the game a necessary dose of randomness, but the ability to manage your hand in accordance with the special ability of your Vehicle gives skilled players a marked advantage.”
You also pass your Event Cards clockwise every five rounds. This means you’re always asking yourself “how do I make this hand good, but not too good?” This colors your whole strategy, perhaps even leading you to hold onto cards that are negative, but won’t affect you at the moment.
Grant: Please give a few examples of the Event Cards with pictures and explain them.
Brandon: Some Event Cards are negative, some are positive, and one is neutral.
Let’s start with the bad news first. There are cards like Every 3,000 Miles… and “Gives It Personality” which slow you down substantially. The former is a repair card that slows you down only when you happen to start your turn on a byway space. You can avoid this by stopping only on highways – but that’s really dangerous because of the potential to get caught in Construction!
On the other hand, “Gives it Personality” is an Accident. There is no avoiding that unless you’re immune to Accidents because you’re in the Ancient One Vehicle or you drew The Indestructible earlier in the game. This gives you a choice – either decide to move a reduced amount, or stay put and dramatically change your hand. Most players opt for the reduced movement, but the choice makes this card sometimes not so bad to draw.
There are also lots of positive events. Highways Hypnosis lets you move six spaces, but white highway spaces don’t count toward your six. If you’re in the crowded eastern half of the map, this card might only give you minor benefits. But, if you happen to find yourself on the spacious western half, this card can give you a massive span-half-the-country-in-a-day boost. Some Vehicles benefit even more from this card. Rustbucket can move an extra three spaces every five rounds and Five-O gets to move an extra space every time a positive card (such as Highway Hypnosis) is drawn.
Reroute is a totally different kind of positive event. It’s the only card in the game that appears only once in the deck. It lets you entirely drop a Blue Byway from your route. Many players will actually travel the easier portions of their route first simply because of the possibility of drawing this card at some point in the game.
Change of Plans occurs three times in the deck, it’s the only neutral card, referred to as a Wild Card, and it is my favorite in the game. Everybody passes a card counterclockwise. Normally, this just means giving someone a trash Event Card and receiving, in turn, another trash Event Card. However, in the two rounds right before hands are to be passed clockwise, this card becomes really interesting. You can essentially give your opponent a card in hopes to get it back in a round or two.
Grant: What are Construction Cards and how are they used in the design? Please give a few examples of Construction Cards with pictures and explain them.
Brandon: Construction Cards all contain a letter from A to E. When a Construction Card bearing a certain letter is turned face-up, you cannot travel on highways with that letter on them.
Construction Cards take out roughly 1/15 spaces on the board on any given turn. In practice, they will force you to take an alternate route one to three times in a game. It keeps the game from getting too deterministic.
There is also a smaller push-your-luck element to it. Experienced players know that stopping on white highway spaces is dangerous. It’s often faster to do that, but if you’re on an A space and the A card is drawn, you can’t move. Oops! Players are warned in the rules that this can happen (and I’ll probably add it to the reference cards for clarity before printing this in a big run), so this is a very conscious choice.
On a more superficial note, having only five Construction Cards lets you know exactly when to pass Event Card hands. When you’re out of Construction Cards, pass your hands!
Grant: The board is also very colorful and is broken into regions. What do the different regions represent? How are they different from each other?
Brandon: The seven distinct regions help players quickly identify the location of byways during the drafting stage of the game. They also help simplify the instructions on Weather Event Cards. The seven colors themselves are a modified postcard-esque interpretation of a colorblind-safe palette. The regions are colored purely as a player’s aid, and the striking aesthetic is a bonus.
Grant: Is there any advantage to the different starting spaces? If no, why not?
Brandon: After tracking just over 100 games of the final version in Excel, I’ve found no Start Space has a distinct advantage. This is on purpose – I’ve actually changed their locations to ensure this!
They do have unique strategies, though. Where you start determines which Byway Cards are favorable to you, which Weather and Traffic Event Cards you will want to get rid of, and who you’ll be competing most closely for roads during the drafting stage with. On top of that, you can actually aggressively choose your Start Space to crowd out your opponents earlier in the game. This has little to do with the specific spaces themselves, though, and more to do with where you are relative to your opponents. Be warned, though, acting really aggressive can backfire!
Grant: How do players win the game? What are some basic strategies used?
Brandon: Simple. Travel to your destination and make it back to your start spot first. As I said earlier, it is a race game! There are two really big parts to winning the game: draft a sensible route and manage your hand in a way that makes sense for your Vehicle.
When you’re choosing a route, you don’t want to necessarily cluster roads in regions, but rather create a simple circular pattern that lets you take all the roads and go back. I’ve seen people go from Texas to Maine and back, beating people whose roads were all clustered in the Northwest and Southwest.
I’d say even more important than smart drafting is using a hand management strategy that works with your Vehicle’s unique ability. For example, if you have Cowboy, don’t waste your movement spaces on discarding Traffic or Weather cards – which you’re both immune to. Hold onto them. If they get drawn, that’s essentially a neutral card that won’t hurt you. When you pass them off every 5 turns, you’re practically guaranteed to slow someone else down. Another example would be Stationary Wagon – it can discard cards at half the cost, but isn’t immune to anything. The best way to manage your hand with that Vehicle is to discard everything bad at the start of a five-round Construction Card cycle to improve your luck, then discard everything good at the end of a five-round Construction Cycle to avoid passing your good luck to others.
Grant: How long does a game take to play through? What is replayability like? How can the game change from play to play?
Brandon: The first time you play, it will be about an hour. After that, it’s 30-50 minutes depending on how many players you have. I’ve found myself replaying this even more than my last game, War Co., because changing up Start Spaces, Vehicles, and Byway Cards keeps things fresh. Different games will have you focusing on speed over hand management, or vice versa. Sometimes you’ll try to look out for yourself and sometimes your best bet will be to mess up someone else’s play. One thing that stays pretty consistent, though: it will be somewhere between 12 and 15 rounds for someone to win 90% of the time.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design?
Brandon: I’m most proud of the subtle hand management game. The “spend a movement space to discard a card” dramatically altered the game for the better. Plus it’s so unobtrusive that you can play without once using that mechanic and have a perfectly good time. That’s important to me, since I figure an 8 or 9 year old kid won’t understand that part, but they’ll definitely understand the driving.
“I’m most proud of the subtle hand management game. The “spend a movement space to discard a card” dramatically altered the game for the better. Plus it’s so unobtrusive that you can play without once using that mechanic and have a perfectly good time.”
Grant: What is the schedule for the Kickstarter campaign? What is the Kickstarter price? Will the game be available at retail?
Brandon: The game will be on Kickstarter late this March. The full game will be available for $49 with free shipping in the US and reduced-cost shipping everywhere else. I will sell retail copies after the campaign, but I’m still working out the distribution model.
Grant: When funded, when do you anticipate fulfilling the game?
Brandon: Were the campaign to successfully fund, backers would most likely receive their copies of the game in September.
Grant: What is next for Brandon Rollins and Pangea Games?
Brandon: Depending on how this campaign goes, I’ve got a lot of projects I want to take on. I want to make a third game myself. I’m also toying with the idea of publishing others’ games as well. Considering the warm reception of the Brandon the Game Dev blog, I may work my way into online education or even consulting.
Still, though, the biggest, brightest, most immediate next thing is getting Highways & Byways printed and fulfilled through Kickstarter funding. Wish me luck!
Thank you for reading! If this article has gotten you interested in Highways & Byways, sign up here to get an email (url: http://bywaysgame.com/kickstarter) when it’s live on Kickstarter.
Thanks for your time Brandon and for your great thoughts on the design process and the story behind the game Highways & Byways. I wish you luck in your Kickstarter campaign, although I think you have done a great job and don’t need luck.