Theme Park Game – 1: Focused Experience


Designing a game can be hard. Every decision a designer makes can change the way your players experience a game. Forgetting this is why my first prototype failed.

Ever since I got started playing modern era board games I knew that theme park building would make a perfect theme for an economics-based game. Seeing bland historical era after historical era as a theme for games with incredibly compelling gameplay made me wish someone made a game like that designed around theme parks. After we formed Ironmark Games, I realized that I could make that wish come true.

haveitallI started by figuring out what makes theme parks interesting. If we take The Walt Disney Company as our prime example for theme parks, we find an incredible amount of ideas to make into a game. Walt Disney World, on any given day, handles all the major problems that a metropolitan city might handle. On top of that, Disney is constantly balancing profit and customer satisfaction. Attractions are why people go to the theme parks, but the theme park makes money on the things around the rides; merchandise, food, and hotels. Taking on any one of these portions could be a great game in itself, but I am nothing if not ambitious. I wanted to have it all…

So I had a few things I knew I wanted:

  • Popularity vs earning Income
  • In-depth strategy using worker placement with the consideration of timing and resources
  • Movies that drive the basic theme and popularity of rides in the parks

I’ll break down how I made them work in version 1 and then go over why they completely fell apart when put together.


If You Build It They Will Buy Things

Nearly everyone goes to theme parks to ride the rides. But people also know that rides do not make money. Even admission to the parks typically generates enough to cover the daily park operation. The real money comes from concessions and merchandise. So I wanted to capture the idea that you could make as many rides as you want but you’ll never make money. Conversely, you could fill your park with stores and restaurants but that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will visit.

So I started with this income system. Money would be the driving victory condition of the game. The person with the most money wins. And money gained every round would be based on the lowest of two scales: Popularity & Income. Rides would generate popularity and shops would generate income. This way people had to balance creating rides and shops on an equal level to gain the most money. This mostly worked in practice, but I learned later that most people did not enjoy the experience of just trying to make money.

Attractions are why people go to the theme parks, but the theme park makes money on the things around the rides

Changing Seasons

Operations for even one park takes a fully dedicated team to keep things from falling apart daily. Steam Park is actually a great game that covers this. The primary drive of Steam Park is figuring out what your park needs to support your guests. You’re constantly deciding what you need to fill your park in the best way possible, figuring out what will make guests happy as well as providing for their needs (mainly their need to make as much garbage as possible).

I had toyed around with the idea of making something bigger. I wanted to extend operations to an even more micro level than what Steam Park did. What if we added seasons to the parks?! It may surprise you to learn that Disney’s busiest time of the year is not the summer, but actually the holidays. They draw an incredible amount of people to the parks to see it decorated in tinsel and holiday decor that it surpasses (albeit only slightly) the business they do during the summer. This actually led me to my first interesting mechanic but also pinned me into a very ambitious design: seasonal play.

With play broken up into seasons I could introduce some very detailed ideas into the game. The ebb and flow of popularity also worked very well as the busy seasons (Winter and Summer) are split by the lighter seasons (Spring and Fall). This idea was very striking to me as it meant I could balance play to have a nice pace that ALSO was accurate to the theme of the game. Much like in a real theme park, the strategy would be to build rides in the off seasons so that you can maximize the amount of money you take in during the busy seasons. LUDONARRATIVE HARMONY…. Yummm.  

This mostly worked in practice, but I learned later that most people did not enjoy the experience of just trying to make money.

Then I started adding in other mechanics that could be driven seasonally.  I started with the idea of making workers “seasonal,” meaning that certain workers could only work on certain seasonal activities. So for instance if you wanted to decorate the park for Halloween to increase the amount of visitors you’d have to use an Autumn worker to make that happen. This allowed players to get a sense of the micro level of planning that would have to take place.

Making Movies


The other thing I wanted to add went far beyond operations. What if, on top of operations, we throw in the daily decisions of the chief executives of a theme park company: figure out what intellectual properties will be a hit and then capitalizing on them in the theme parks? This lead me to my other two ideas, theme and time.

Disney prioritizes the theme parks over their movie division. There’s a simple reason for this: money. Let’s take a look at Disney’s Financial Earnings in 2015: Studio Entertainment generated over $7 Billion in revenue, which is a number I’m sure any company would be jealous of. What did Disney Parks & Resorts take in? Over $16 Billion. That’s more than double what Disney’s movies pulled in 2015! Even accounting for operating costs, Parks & Resorts is only behind their television department for generating income. So yeah, Disney picks movies to make theme park rides out of them.

Theme parks need themes and themes are driven by movies. So picking which movie is best had to be a part of this game! A randomized deck of movies represented some of the basic themes you’d find in a modern theme park: Princesses, Super Heroes, Science-Fiction, etc. Movies were simply a random generator for theme cubes. Players would select a movie to make and then roll a set of dice to determine their popularity. The higher they rolled the more money and theme cubes they would get back. The theme cubes represented the demand for a theme and were a required resource for building anything in a theme park.

Time Keeps on Slippin…

All of these things put together really drove to the primary resource of the game and its primary failure: Time. I’m always fascinated by time as a resource. It’s something I continue to struggle to put into games well, since it’s the first thing that gets abstracted out. I wanted this game to have a sense of time. Players had to figure out when to make movies and when to start constructing rides in order to make the most out of the small amount of rounds they had.

So there was a timed structure to creating everything. Due to the seasons mechanic it made sense to make each round a year in game time. So to keep thematically appropriate I had to design limits to creations that mimicked real life. Movies took about a year to be released, rides would take anywhere from a year to three years to be built based on their size and complexity.   

Too Close For Comfort

This is where we get to what went wrong. The micro level of seasons put me in the trickiest predicament. Time was the resource that was defined in the clearest terms. This meant that any deviations from the way I structured time would cause players to be confused. Everything made sense but it did not make it enjoyable.

Players would be left making a movie in round one that would not be finished until round two. That meant at best rides wouldn’t come out until the 3rd round of play, even if they have all the other resources in hand. They needed those theme cubes. This meant that for every ride there was potentially a lag of a turn to creating movies. I played around with balancing timings (and even removed build times from movies), but I realized that I was just prioritizing the realness of time over the core experience that I wanted the players to have: making theme parks.  

So to keep thematically appropriate I had to design limits to creations that mimicked real life.

My other issue was money as victory points. The Walt Disney Company’s primary goal is making money for its investors. That makes sense in the real world but does not really make for fun gameplay. I was able to drive home the ideas that I knew were interesting to me, but by not abstracting those concepts it made company management as boring as it is in real life. I wanted to get so close to a simulation of running a theme park that I lost sight of the parts that make it fun.

Bigger and Better

I’ve made significant changes to the design since that first iteration. Refocusing on what core experiences I wanted my players to have has opened up the design of the game in very exciting ways. My hope is to chronicle the experience here to get a better insight into how we’re designing our games. Next time I’ll discuss what was changed and, with any luck, we’ll be off to a much better designed theme park game!

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