Jun - Aug 2019 (3 months)

Race to Hunts Point

A board game named Race to Hunts Point

Game Design

This summer, three designers/artists/creative technologists created an educational board game about NYC Food Distribution System for high schoolers.

FWRD Fellowship

  • Role: Researcher, Graphic Designer
  • Team: 1 Industrial Designer, 1 Creative Technologist

My key takeaway

I learned to dice a complex system and build a simplified replica through game rules and visual representations. What challenged us the most was to tune the system in a balanced state within three months. This project was an end-to-end design, including researching on a topic, brainstorming, prototyping, testing with users and domain experts, defining art direction and implementing with digital fabrication tools. Yes, we nailed it in three months.

Ta-da, we nailed it in three months!

About the Game

Race to Hunts Point is a strategy game designed for high school students to experience a facet of food distribution process in New York City. In the game, players must use time and money as resources to successfully operate cultivation, shipping, and trading processes in the food supply chain. The winning condition is to make the most profit by trading food at Hunts Point, but it's easier said than done.

Research Topic

The food distribution system in New York City is a complex network that controls the majority of the food source for over 8 million people in the city. Hunts Point Produce Market plays a critical role in the system connecting different parties (from farmers, distributors, runners, truck drivers, and store owners) within the food trade network. What lies behind the network is the global economy which enables New Yorkers to have food all-year-round, regardless of its growing season. We were intrigued by the complexity and impact of such structure and wanted to uncover how it works through a board game.

The Education Value of the Game

The learning goal is the North Star in the project. We went to the Red Hook community farm and talked to youth farmers to understand their relationship with food. We also interviewed 5 middle to high school students to probe their understanding of where their food comes from. The resulting learning goal is defined as follows:

When choosing food, the students (15-16yr) will be able to connect it to the food distribution system with an understanding of time & space and articulate this concept with their social group.

We want the game to encapsulate the process from farm to shelf. Players would go through the entire process. When next time purchasing food at the grocery stores, they could reflect on their dollar voting.

Loads of avocados are on their way to NYC!

Game Concepts & Mechanism

In the learning goal, there are two concepts highlighted, Time and Space
To actualize the concepts, we used a turn-based game mechanism (a turn represents a season) to represent Time. The geographic map embodied the concept of Space. When moving crops along the shipping routes of food, players can get a taste of both time and space.

From a playtest with a group of game designers, we learned that games are great at modeling a process but not as ideal as carrying information. Thus, we tweaked the game mechanism to facilitate more sophisticated yet manageable decision-making that reflected the food supply management in the real world.

Learning from our lessons, we laid down the foundation with 4 game mechanisms:
  • Resource management - using time and money a to operate the food supply chain.
  • Trading - selling produce to the hunts point market to make profits.
  • Seasonality - food can only be cultivated during certain seasons.
  • Productivity Advancement - increase productivity by purchasing more farm for more recurring resources

Game Aesthetics

After a few rounds of initial exploration, we narrowed down to three general concepts that tied back to the learning goal:

  • Layers of Transportation
  • Peak in Farms
  • Land Patches

Layers of Transportation
We introduced the z-index to our board to keep the complex transportation network represented yet readable on the map. Each transportation method stood out with a unique elevation and colors.

A moodboard visualizing Layer of Transportation

Peak in Farms
Fascinated by unique plantation patterns from an aerial view, we wanted to share this awe with players through the game. It connected players with the land, where packages of food nurtured. When in play, players could dialogue around the relationship between the land and the food.

Above: Each plantation had its unique pattern.
Below: To the left, the farms had more organic forms; to the right, they were more geometric.

Land Patches
Looking into the patterns of shipping centers, we found that the colors were more saturated and that the shapes were more structured. This gave us a visual direction for vehicle and technology card design.

An image board of Land Patches

Finally, we converged to a final brief:

Patches of Land, Patches of Food
Crop patterns evolve throughout different stages; color becomes more vibrant when food gets closer to customers.
Patterns morph from farm, shipping center, to market.

Game Design Process

Throughout 6+ playtests, our game mechanism gradually moved away from a roll-and-move game to a strategic resource management game. Playtesting with two high school students helped us identified flaws of our initial game mechanism (we re-arranged the randomness in our game). We also brought our game to a group of game designers every two weeks and gained insightful practical knowledge about board game design. By playing well-designed games, we experienced how game mechanisms work as a system ruling the entire play experience. All these methods helped us iterate our game as quickly as possible given the 3-month time constraint. In case you didn't know, the final version is the 8th version of the game.

Testing the roll-n-move mechanism with high schoolers
Testing color accessibility and playability with adults
Testing the resource managing game mechanism with same group of high schoolers

Map
Map is a crucial component of our game. We started with a global map and then focused on only the Americas as this is where the majority of imported food came from. The shape of the countries are distorted based on the quantity of the food imported from that area. Presenting different shipping routes on the map in an aesthetic and readable way was quite a challenge.

Heavily-distorted South Americas with shipping routes.
Playtesting with game designers
Internal playtest
2nd-time playtesting with game designers

Card
The biggest challenge is to pack tons of information in a 2.5 by 3.5 inches space. We had been through 5 iterations, if not more, before landing to the current version of the design. Accessible color choice is a huge consideration when we were designing the cards. Colors and icons were used consistently throughout the game to reduce players’ cognitive load of memorizing game rules. All in all, we challenged ourselves to best present the information with proper hierarchy and learnability.

Evolutions of cards and game pieces.
Final design - Farm Cards.
Final design - Weather Cards.
Final design - Card backs.

Fabrication Process

CNC Milling
We use Bantam Tools Othermill and the Shapeoko 3 XXL to create elevations in the map board. After discovering the basic operation of these machines, we had rounds of tests to understand the parameters of the milling process including the form, process, scale and materials. The materials we’ve tried were MDF, Ash, Red Oak and Poplar, and we ended up using poplar in our final design because its pattern distracted the least.

Experiments on map (land + routes) elevations, material, and finishing.

Matboard Laser Engrave
Color is an important element for the board since it helps information stands out at the right time when players need it. We found that matboard could be an adequate material for applying colors on the board. After experimenting laser engraving parameters, we managed to fine tune the material settings to achieve the desired look and feel of the pieces.

Experiments on layer cutting setting on matboard material.

Plywood engraving  
This process consisted of a mixed media approach to define the textures. To achieve the game aesthetics aforementioned, I reproduced the plantation patterns with clay. Afterwards, we photographed the clay patterns, converted into data for rastering, and engraved plywood with a laser machine. It turned out to be a unique aesthetics representing the game.

Sketches of farmland textures
Farmland textures made with clay
Layer engraving testing of the textures
Textures on the land
Final design - map with textures

3d Printing
In the early stages of the board design, we used 3d printing as a way of exploring several ways to move the pieces across the board. Afterwards, it was used to reproduce the design of the transportation pieces. We started with a combination of hands-on (modeling with clay) and digital (modeling in Rhinoceros) approaches to develop the forms and explore the right scale of the pieces. We had separate vehicles for different terrains (sea, road and rail) in the game; after a user testing, they were consolidated into a hybrid form.

Evolution of the vehicles.
Final design - hybrid vehicle

Credits

About FWRD Fellowship

FWRD Fellowship is a 3-month Summer fellowship program mentored by Tomorrow Lab and Brooklyn Research. It aims to connect young design talent with hardware companies in New York City and bridge the gap in hardware job market. The program is funded by NYCEDC and is a part of Futureworks shop program. We were very fortunate to be selected among 80+ applicants and collaborated on this project! 

I represented the whole team to share the game with the NY hardware community at Futureworks Showcase. Photo Credit: Kreg Holt
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