Designer Diary: Salton Sea

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Designer Diary: Salton Sea

Designer Diary: Salton Sea

by David Bernal

What is now Salton Sea started after the end of the pandemic lockdown. I imagine that being stuck at home for a few months without much to do makes your head generate disjointed ideas waiting for the spark that joins all the pieces of the puzzle.

At the beginning of 2020, I came up with the main mechanisms of the game: Players would have dual-use cards, and on one side would be the actions of the game, while on the other were resources to be spent. In this way, players would face a dilemma when making decisions.

With that premise, I started looking for themes that would help me with the game’s engine. I looked for 20th-century events that I might find interesting as I like realistic themes as opposed to more fictional or parallel universe themes.

After discarding a few themes, I happened to read about the beginnings of oil exploitation in the United States, which seemed an interesting topic. I thought that practically everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, has a slight idea of how an extraction process of this type works. It seemed that actions could be quite intuitive, and I thought that a game could be there, although at this point, I still didn’t know whether it would go ahead…or stay in the drawer with my other prototypes.

Once I had defined the main mechanisms and chosen the theme, I had to implement the actions to be performed in the game. To do this, it is very helpful to have a theme since that basis establishes what we are going to do during the game. The initial actions were things such as extracting oil, drilling, refining, and selling the final product.

Another important issue that arises for me early in the design process is choosing the components with which I will be working. Only cards? Will I need personal boards? How much wood and die-cut elements will I use? A priori, I find it useful to stick to just a few components. Opening the possibilities and adding more components is easy; what’s complex is reducing a game, so I prefer to start with the minimum possible components, which can be easily expanded in the future if necessary.

Considering all these parameters, the first decisions I took during the planning process were to work mainly with cards, the common and personal playing areas, and some wooden pieces.

I did the first playtesting sessions with my wife. I don’t usually playtest with her, but given the circumstances, it wasn’t the right time to get together with my usual gaming group, and I hadn’t yet assimilated the use of TTS as a gaming platform.

From those first tests, I got an important breakthrough for the game. When players earned money, my first idea was that it wouldn’t go directly to hand, but instead you had to wait until the end of the round to get those benefits — but regardless of how many times I told my wife, she always took the money she earned straight away, so she introduced the first major change. The design would no longer be a deck-management system, but a much more flexible hand management system.

Progressively, TTS was introduced into our lives, and many groups of people appeared willing to exploit this “new” way of playing the game, so the evolution of the game was much faster than I had thought it would be. After many games, you begin to understand the things the game “requires”. These online playtesting sessions helped me understand that the game required personal boards from which to manage actions instead of limiting everything to a hand of cards.

In addition, once I added a board that could be used for many other things, the game began to grow around this board. I added stores, extraction areas, research areas — everything grew around the personal board, but a major change was still missing: the inclusion of worker meeples. Up to that moment, everything was done with cards. There were options to get neutral workers, but everything changed when I incorporated workers that would serve to indicate how many actions you could perform per turn, besides blocking personal spaces.

At this point, the game improved greatly, and I started to expand my playtesting circles. The game worked. The management level was quite demanding, but I noticed that it fell a little short.

Then came another big breakthrough in the game: I implemented a market on a common board, which allowed me to make the game grow in other ways.

A major headache came when I had to make the new elements fit with the existing ones. I had to undo and redo the game many times, tweaking the numbers, combinations, and other construction processes so that everything made sense. There were moments during this phase when I wanted to throw in the towel and leave the game in a drawer.

I must thank once and a thousand times the closest players (Kor, Moon, Heras, Ferran…) for the immense support I received from them, which encouraged me not to quit. They probably had more faith in me than I had in myself.

In March 2022, during the Protos y Tipos gaming event organized by the Ludo Association, I showed the game to different publishers. I had brought three physical prototypes, and all three were taken by different publishers to be evaluated. Throughout the event, I had a good feeling and left convinced that I finally had something good enough.

At the same time, I submitted the game to a prototype contest organized by the podcast Última Ronda. It passed on to the first rounds of the contest…then I had to withdraw the design from the contest when a publisher became interested in it. Unfortunately, eventually the publisher was unable to take charge of the game, so it was free again.

That was when David Esbrí from Devir contacted me to say that he was interested in the game had seen at Protos y Tipos and that he wanted to play it again. Finally, Devir decided to publish the game. At that time, the game was mostly finished, but they suggested a new theme as the oil extraction theme had been used in many games, and they needed something different, a modern-day theme with a more ecological feeling.

Since the mechanisms were already well-defined, it wasn’t easy to look for a theme that would fit all the requirements. Among all the themes we thought about, the one we felt would be the best fit was that of lithium extraction thanks to its use in electric car batteries.

Then by chance, I came across some information about a special case in California, specifically in the Salton Sea. The information I gathered referred to the extraction of hot brine, which allowed the extractors to take advantage of the dissolved lithium and the steam generated by the temperature of the extraction, resulting in the generation of geothermal energy. We understood that this positive aspect, within all the setbacks that the place has suffered, could be a story worth telling, so finally we decided to choose this theme.

And finally, now in 2024, after many hours of testing, modifications, adjustments, and researching for interesting themes, we can say that the game is ready to be enjoyed by all players.

David Bernal

Salton Sea on display at GAMA Expo 2024

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