post mortem of bovine borough: towards a farming game

me and a lot of other hobbyists have been struggling with the question of how can we port something like harvest moon (or stardew valley) to a tabletop experience. to begin with, i think we need to ask why do we want this and why haven't we already received this?

certainly like nostalgia is a part of it, they were cute little games. speaking as someone who was like born after the window of nostalgia, though, they're also just chill and bucolic. i like the repetition of waking up every morning and watering crops, and then finding something else to spend your day doing. wanna fish? go to the mines? get married? it's cozy and nice.

so i think a farming tabletop game is desirable because it's relaxing and chill, and that also serves as a contrast from what we've come to expect from many tabletop games which are pretty antagonistic. what are we gonna do about it?

bovine borough - my attempt

over winter break i made a little printable board game (if even that) called bovine borough (link). it was really just a little thing to put my energy into--play with some layout, make some cute art, roll some dice. what prompted me to make it was playing the proper board game agricola and being overwhelmed by how much it was. like damn i don't wanna hold all these cards, but i like putting little crops and cows on tiles. the cows are cute.

the issue with bovine borough is that it did not really match the pace or scale of (what i would want) from a farming game. like in agricola, crops are basically ready to harvest upon sowing, and you just need to wait for the harvest action to become available. it's not the same repetitive task i want, although i think it was a fair shot.

it also did not have enough variety to keep things consistently interesting. in harvest moon you have to choose between multiple crops, each with different payoffs. in bovine borough you can basically choose grain or veggies, which are distinguished in value and function (grain can feed cows, but veggies can't).

the problem is that introducing more growth states in plants, and more varieties of plants, requires the player to keep track of much more data than basically binary states (crop is grain or veggie, plot is or is not sown, cow is or is not hungry). it can easily become a spreadsheet rather than a game--the difference being that a game is actually fun.

i still think bovine borough is cute and entertaining. would make a good basis for something that focused more on cows--maybe if you added a little adventuring realm like in slime rancher where you go out and wrangle different kinds of cows, with different favorite foods. that would, i think, be a good evolution of where bovine borough stands right now.

possible routes

i absolutely adore backpack & dream (game link, my review) and i can't wait to play a game using it one day when things get better. here's what i like about it, and why i think it would work well as a basis for a farming game:

  1. stats are resources: you're not just keeping track of torches and rations. you are the resource: your body is a resource, your breath is a resource, your brain is a resource. the main stress of harvest moon comes from you having to manage your time alongside your stamina, making sure you eat or bathe to avoid becoming exhaustion.
  2. no interface: the referee is the only one who has numeric information about your character and your resources. on one hand i feel like this is just a plus that i can't wait to see how it works in action (i've only heard good things). however, i don't think a farming game should necessarily be no-interface: instead, we should take this approach to remove extra information from the players' brains and give them more pleasant interfaces, like allowing them to draw maps of their farms etc. all the complicated stuff goes in the referee's brain.

i really like the physicality of it's time to plant the beans (game link, my review), where you stack dice and try to keep them from falling to grow crops (in this case, the crops are cats! the seeds are beans!). it's a fun and fiddly experience, and that element is something i think should be present.

i think wanderhome (link) is a really good basis both for tone and mechanics. in the latter sense, i think tabletop games could afford to relegate more agency to player decision-making rather than rolling the dice. rolling the dice should represent an abstraction of forces not relevant to the decision-making process.

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