I participated in a game jam this month. I was not originally planning to submit, but when the theme of “autumn” was announced, I was inspired to collect some ideas I’ve had sitting around for a long time and do something with them. The result is Pen-Sylvania, a game about cutting wood and building the little town called Sylvania. (It received an honorable mention, which I’m thrilled about.)
Looking for Print and Play files? Scroll to the bottom!
This is the second Roll-and-Write game I’ve designed [Landmarks was the first]. As with that game, I like to go beyond filling in boxes which a number of games in the genre do, giving the player a lot of control over how the game plays out, and adding more thematic elements.
Pen-Sylvania started with an old game idea, where players use cards to build a shifting path through a forest, cutting wood, avoiding wolves, and harvesting mushrooms along the way. I added in a sprinkle of ideas from another half complete game idea about small town life. And yet more of the game took some loose notes from a bigger game I’m working on with design partner Joshua J Mills.
I took all of those ideas and mashed them together to create Pen-Sylvania. It seems almost required that roll and write games have a clever pun in the name. Some people suggested Pencil-vania, but a: most people play roll and writes in pen—not pencil—and b: Sylvania means woods, so I think it’s s stronger pun. And though named after my home state, it’s inspired more by family in Vermont, with some more European elements (like wild boars) thrown in.
In any event, the result of this mashup of ideas was a game that captured most of the experience I wanted, where players were exploring the forest, cutting wood, and using wood based on dice rolls. There are two main regions on the board. The top is a hex grid of spaces representing the forest, surrounded by mountains. The bottom is a square grid representing the town. Around the edges, the various actions are listed, along with boxes to mark down wood and coin supplies.
The active player rolls 3 dice and uses them to perform actions. All other players choose only 2 of the dice to use. Actions are exploring the forest, cutting and hauling wood, selling wood, building the town, and buying upgrades. The dice are used slightly differently for each action. Players earn points through a combination of building and selling lumber, and there are a variety of pathways to victory.
Players can focus on cutting and selling wood. But in true euro-game fashion, there are some tools you can buy to improve your efficiency, and buildings in town that combo to create points in other ways. I included mushrooms as an alternate path that was more profitable but less flexible. I also added sheep as a way to more passively generate points. And finally, the Bonfire at the end of the season and exploration bonus encourage a little bit of direct competition.
The very first version had complicated rules about how to draw the river into the map. It derailed the first playtest for 10 minutes while I tried to figure it out. I eventually said, “Ignore it”, so we could just play the game. But rather than taking it out, I decided to just fix its course though the forest for version 2, eliminating rules without any real loss of play. The third version (which I submitted), added little details like the additional resources on some forest hexes, to encourage players to take explore different parts of the forest.
After the Game Jam, I was inspired to expand beyond Autumn and develop the other seasons into variants. There were other mechanisms and thematic actions I wanted players to experience. I took a lot of inspiration from Harvest Moon when developing the game, changing some of the core mechanics to make the seasons feel distinct.
One of the changes I wish I had implemented sooner was using boars instead of sheep. Boars are much better integrated with the core game because they are tied to clearing spaces, so it creates an interesting trade-off between getting free points and being less efficient early on.
One of my favorite additions with seasons is the addition of seasonal festivals. By adding them as specific rounds, instead of at the end of the game, it gave me options to steer player behaviors even more. And all of those little details, really flesh out gameplay and bring the little town to life. I think with a few changes, it would be really fun to play a year in the life of the town.
[Edited 1-15-19: Removed Print and plays while PenSylvania is undergoing development ahead of publishing later this year.]